September 2014

Volume 29 Number 9

Don't Get Me Started : A Girl’s Road to Geekdom

David Platt | September 2014

David PlattI am 14 years old: a teenager who may one day join your geeky ranks (I’m also Dave’s daughter, but I try not to think about that). But before you dismiss me as a kid, consider this: I am your future. And this is how I see you.

We live in the golden age of geeks. Society would be helpless without you behind the scenes, running programs, slinging code and figuring out ways to make devices and software talk to each other. Without you, people would still be hunting and gathering and using Windows XP. The hours might be terrible, but at least you enjoy the respect of the lay folk

I can assure you that no such respect extends to middle school, where knowledge of who’s dating whom matters more than caring about and understanding the nuts and bolts on which our society and world depend. Schools don’t hang banners for academic achievements, or throw pep rallies for the coding team.

This irritates me. I have always carried an intense desire to know how things work. When I first started reading, the only text editor software I knew of was NotePad. I wondered how the italics in books were done—handwritten in every copy of the book ever printed? When I was exposed to Microsoft Word, my world suddenly expanded. My earliest questions were answered, but more emerged: How were different-shaped and -sized letters and colors made? When I discovered fonts and colors, I had to change the formatting of every paragraph because it was fun. I began to have the makings of a geek.

Geeks care about how things work—the universe, plants, car engines, atomic structure, anything. As author John Green says, “When people call you a [geek], they’re basically saying, ‘You like stuff .... You are too enthusiastic about the miracle of human consciousness!’”

But as a teenage girl, the challenge to be taken seriously as a geek is continual and exhausting. It has some advantages, such as intelligent discussions—three of my friends and I spent an entire study hall theorizing about time travel. It also comes with disadvantages, such as hanging out with guys who smell really bad, think they’re smarter than you when exactly the opposite is true, undermine your ideas because you’re a girl, or all of the above.

I’ve seen the software industry’s efforts to recruit more women in college, and sometimes high school. Let me tell you, that’s way too late. We’re making up our minds now—in seventh grade or even sixth. My teachers have (too often) expounded that during our middle school years we grow more than any other time of our lives outside of infancy. It is the perfect time to present software as a career, at the moment when we are most malleable.

It wouldn’t be hard. Start coding clubs in middle school rather than high school. Have advisers personally reach out to invite girls, and encourage them to bring their friends. Have women from the industry present technical topics that we middle schoolers would find cool. Imagine Parisa Tabriz, Google’s self-described “security princess,” talking about how to keep your accounts safe from prying parents!

That’s why I suggested to Dave at the beginning of the summer that I intern with him to experience what being a full-time geek really entails. He’s having me convert his favorite text-based Star Trek game to a Windows Forms program, and then to tablets and phones. (He’s such an old fart, but I do have to admit that blowing up Klingons is kind of addicting.) By the time you read this, I’ll have some idea if joining the geek ranks is what I want. I suppose a lot will depend on whether either of us is still alive.

Wish me luck, or better yet, wish Dave luck. He’s going to need it.

Annabelle Rose Platt is about to enter eighth grade in Ipswich, Mass. Her world greatly expanded at age 2, when she peeled the tape off her fingers and discovered the numbers 9 and 10. She does not agree with everything her father says.