|ada lovelace day: to emma, forever ago
||[Mar. 24th, 2009|10:46 am]
k is for kerouac
it was my first job in the IT industry and it was a small company rapidly growing and changing direction from systems support to software development, so i was given the job of managing our new development team on a project/production management level. the development team were basically my gang of geek guy friends from college, also fresh to the industry and hired as a cheap package deal. emma called our offices a few months in, looking for a job. i was so impressed by her attitude on the phone that i suggested we get her in for an interview. she came and met with myself and the development manager. she was so full of enthusiasm and an infectious positive attitude, but also so down to earth. |
my boss and founder of the company was an old fix-it type, generally quite logical, but he revealed a not-so-lovely side of his personality that day. emma had moved to our city in the first place because her husband was trying to get an apprenticeship in his industry. she had moved from a restaurant manager position back home and was enthusiastic about a new career as a programmer. her husband had supported her through her studies and she planned to now support him through his apprenticeship. i took all of this as an indication of how motivated she was, and was inspired by the equality and loyalty in her relationship. my boss said he was concerned she would take off again to follow her husband, no doubt leaving our company in the lurch. either that, or she would leave to have children, he grumbled. i pushed and pushed and she finally got the job. i just had that gut feeling she would be great at anything she tried.
i wasn't wrong. she didn't just fit in with the dev team, all guys until she came along - she made it so much better than i could imagine. she was always positive and uplifting, but in a completely real way, and she just made the projects fun. she came up with quirky ideas that helped get things done more efficiently and with more fun... like a code standards committee with hilarious titles for each member, and project nicknames from tv shows (we had twin projects xander and willow at one stage). she would refuse to resign to defeat when a project looked tough, and she even convinced some of the guys to live healthier programmer lifestyles. and any task she was asked to do, she approached with enthusiasm, and always completed it the emma way.
at one point, microsoft asked us to nominate one person from our company to go on a promotional day they were running for exceptional local software companies. the nominee would go driving some luxury sportscars and then head off to be wined and dined at a top restaurant. i asked the dev team to decide who from our company deserved the reward and the answer came back pretty quickly: emma. and off she went to drive the cars and have lunch with a bunch of fellow geeks: all guys, again. and entertained us all with hilarious tales the next day.
sadly, the misogynistic and paranoid tendencies of my boss emerged again a few years into her employment there. he was threatened by her, as he was threatened by me and any other woman he perceived to be a little too intelligent and strong-willed for his comfort. unbeknownst to me, he started taking her aside for little 'chats', basically designed to keep her down, to make sure she never felt too good about her achievements, to ensure that she understood how much it was to his credit that she had achieved so much, and to find out as much as possible about her relationship and where it might be headed. emma's response was to start coming into the office a couple of hours before anyone else, on the premise that she liked to leave early, but really to avoid the boss. but he worked this out and would often arrivie early, taking advantage of her early start, using the extra time for more 'chatting'.
emma developed an unexplained digestive problem, and went on an elimination diet to try and work out what was causing her nausea. she looked more stressed all the time, although refusing to take time off work, and lost her spark. as her direct manager, i tried asking her about it a few times, but she said she didn't want to talk about it. i asked her if it was a personal issue and she said it was, so i left it at that.
well, everything came to light when the boss really started breaking down. he got so paranoid about everyone that he stopped coming into the office. he hid information from me and the other managers, and then revealed that the company was in serious financial trouble. after trying to blame the state of the company on me, he took certain actions that forced me to leave.
i went to emma at her home, to say my goodbyes, and to wish her the best for the future. she broke down into tears and told me about the bullying by the boss that had been going on early every morning. she said she'd wanted to keep it under wraps and not disrupt the project team, under constant pressure from ever tighter deadlines as the company's finances failed, but she had felt she was going crazy and it had almost caused her very recent marriage (remember that wonderfully supportive partner?) to break. at that point i shared my story with her; i'd been having a similar experience. she left the company soon after i did.
later again, after that company imploded and that awful boss moved to another part of the country, i contracted emma for a few micro-projects with the software development company i'd founded by then. she was as much fun to work with as ever, but you could tell her heart was no longer in it, and she only worked on a few jobs before retiring from the industry altogether. her mysterious digestive problem, of course caused by stress, had cleared up by the time we met again, and her marriage had recovered and was stronger than ever, but something strong in her got kicked around too much by that whole experience, and she's a lot quieter and less assured these days. we catch up every now and then, but i don't push it, because i feel i'm a reminder of that awful time that she'd really rather leave behind.
she's my first unsung of the IT industry. an amazing woman, and one who in some ways doesn't exist any more. it's a fucking sad story, but i guess also an important lesson... about how badly women in IT are still treated sometimes, and about how we sometimes, to our detriment, try to just shoulder whatever is thrown at us, to prove we're just as capable as our male colleagues, when we might actually be carrying a much heavier burden. it's important to connect with other women, to share experiences so you know what's 'normal'... and we've got to be okay (something i'm still working on) with reaching out to grab a supportive hand that's being held out towards you, often by another woman. i don't know... perhaps if emma and i both had been just a little less determined to be independent in our strength, she might still be working as one of the best programmers with whom i've ever had the pleasure to work.
edit: i pledged to write this post as part of the Ada Lovelace Day blog posting event on March 24, 2009. if there is a woman in technology that you'd like to write about, sign the pledge, and write your post today. oh, and you can read the other posts at ada.pint.org.uk/