I’m in Michigan for my annual summer trip home to visit my parents. I enjoy the visits, not just because it means I get a break from “momming” but because I get to hear stories from when my parents were my age. I’ve wanted to write my mom’s career story for the longest time. It’s similar to my own in so many ways.
Still, it’s a bit hard for me to imagine my mom, now a bubbling, laughing grandma, wearing business dresses and heels to the office.
“I just wanted to make them know for sure it was a women who was beating their asses at work,” she tells me as we sit around the dining room table.
As a grad student, my mom got a job as an editor for an academic journal. They had a typesetter that she learned how to use. That led her to teach the secretaries how to use word processing on personal computers.
“Teaching others is how I learned how to critique programs because I saw what was easy to teach and easy for people to grasp.”
My mom was one of the first people at her university to write a dissertation on a personal computer and print it out. It was at a time before the secretaries even knew how to check the computer printed papers for acceptable margins and fonts.
“I had to follow the typewriter rules with my computer. It was messed up.”
My mom was the first woman to get a PhD in Near Eastern studies at her university and was tied as the youngest person to get a PhD in that department. She graduated with hopes of getting a faculty position teaching.
“I thought doing the computer thing would be a good interim thing to pay the rent while I waited for a position to open up. When I saw that I was making a lot more money in computers I thought I should stay in computers.”
At the time, my mom’s recruiter suggested she apply for a computer job. The role was for a Human Factors Engineer. The requirements were a “college degree” and “ability to demonstrate computer interaction”. My dad (her interviewer) fondly recalls my mom’s asymmetrical haircut.
He tells me, “she had the craziest haircut I ever saw. It was short on one side of her head, long and curly on the other.”
“It was the 80’s.” My mom says with a smile.
My mom was hired as what we call today as a systems analyst at a defense contractor company. Her first project was to document the code for the digital controls for the M1A2 Main Battle Tank. Talk about a badass.
She nods, “the tanks were being computerized when I came on. They didn’t have documentation for the government to review. The company bought really expensive software to track and review code but the programmers didn’t use it in a way the government accepted.”
“All the specs from the programmers came to me. I turned it into documentation the government accepted. I sent it back saying this process has no output. What’s it doing?”
“I had three or four people. We checked all the code going into the system. I went to the meetings with the government. If they had questions I answered them.”
“We had the first video conferences.” It was the early 90’s. “We had to be in a secure room to video with the government. I had to go up to the whiteboard to draw flowcharts.”
Without my mom, the contract for the tank would have been cancelled.
“I did something unheard of and my manager backed me up. I had a timeline.”
She told the programmers if they needed something, she needed five days to process it.
“If they didn’t get it to me five days before they needed the report, I told them I couldn’t do it.” My mom was doing all the reports for the whole system. She had her team working maximum overtime already.
“Guess what,” my mom says, “they got me their code five days before.” Software projects have a reputation for running late because of bugs and last minute changes. At the time it was believed that you couldn’t put that kind of schedule on programmers.
“Their attitude was that their jobs were the most important because without their code there would be no program. My attitude was if the government doesn’t approve the software specs, there is no project and you’re all fired!”
“It could be done if you stand your ground.”
She says, “It could be done if you stand your ground.”
My mom stayed a linguist at heart. “The techniques and principles are similar to deconstructing grammar. Linguistic analysis is similar to systems analysis because software is a language.”
My mom grins saying, “my performance review for that year said, she walks on water and glows in the dark.”
Featured Photo by Soledad Lorieto on Unsplash.