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Ada Lovelace Day: Ms. Nilsen

Today I work with dozens of amazing women in open source communities, but for Ada Lovelace Day this year I decided to reach back to the beginning of my experience with computers to talk about a woman I knew back in high school.

In my high school there was a “Mac Lab” and a “PC Lab” where our limited computer classes took place. The PC lab was run by Ms. Nilsen.

I’m going to be honest, I don’t know the extent or nature of Ms. Nilsen’s core interests in computing (did she live and breathe computing? was it just a day job? I don’t know!). She is, however, a long-time faculty member at one of the highest achieving public schools in the state of Maine and while I was there she was charge of the PC lab and all the classes therein. I also know is that in every class I took there she was patient, encouraging and there was never a time in her class where I felt even remotely out of place for being female.

During this introduction to computing, before I had ever logged online, my world had a woman in the role of head of the PC lab.

In the years following high school I frequently felt out of place as a woman interested in computer science. Role models were few, I eventually realized that having a female computer lab teacher in the 90s was a bit of an anomaly. But anomaly or not that first impression stuck with me. Her example showed me that regular women could and did succeed in computing. Aside from occasional self-doubt, I never felt the full brunt of they “maybe I, as a women, shouldn’t be in this field after all” feeling that others have expressed.

Since then I’ve found a number of female role models, at first primarily through LinuxChix but later through prominent women the greater open source community. These days I’m constantly working with other women in all areas of the open source world.

Female peers and role models made all the difference for me. This is part of why I work hard to brush off the shyness and volunteer to speak at conferences and events. This is part of why I spent so much of my time on LinuxChix and now on Ubuntu Women. Just by existing and letting others know we exist and are successful we can be the role models for others, blowing away stereotypes about computing and giving other young women inspiration to succeed as well.

Thank you Ms. Nilsen for a wonderful first impression that helped carry me through some of the tough times as I struggled to find my way in computer science and for inspiring me to continue to be a role model for others.


  • Emmanuel

    I had a female computer teacher who was a woman back in elementary school. She was (and still is) an avid Mac woman. She definately got me interested in computers.

    But, I never had a computer teacher who wasn’t a woman… I never questioned it.

    In fact, my high school is a vocational school, and I’m in the computer technology shop. One of the two teachers is a woman, and she is extremely knowledgeable.

    I got accepted into college, and the person who supervises the technology department is also a woman.

    I never really thought anything about that, I just noticed that. It may be an uncommon thing, I guess. But, I have a few women to thank for getting me interested in technology.

  • Emmanuel

    A fix to my comment. All females are women! I can’t believe I wrote that in my first sentence. :-)