In 2012, Ellen Lapham, Carol Muller, and Kathy Richardson set out to memorialize the spirit of inspiration that their close friend Anita Borg brought to their lives. The original project, a community blog known as Anita’s Quilt, showcased the array of people whose lives Anita influenced and energized. This year, we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Systers—the online community that Anita Borg founded to support women in tech—by republishing some of our favorite Anita’s Quilt stories..
A version of this post was published on Anita’s Quilt on September 25, 2012.
In 2002, I decided to go back to school to earn my graduate degree. I finished my degree in 2004, but thought I should learn another programming language to keep up with the times. I accepted a job at a Java shop. At the time, that was the hot language, but it didn’t float my boat. I continued to search for programming courses and even asked my grad school if they had any other programming languages were teaching. But it was all still Java.
It seemed like fate when Gloria W. Jacobs, another member of the Systers community, posted that she was starting a GrrlCamp group to teach Python, an open source language, to other Systers. It was perfect!
The first meeting included about ten Systers, scattered across the U.S., in an old-school Internet Relay Channel (IRC). Gloria hosted the project on her own server and introduced us to the technology. She also had us work with other tools: Google Groups for communication and TRAC for project management. We met on a conference call every other week at 10pm to give us real-time interaction.
Gloria was adamant about two things: That the project would remain women-only, and that we would all take part in the entire project: documentation, system administration, coding, testing, and performance tuning. We all were a part of the decision-making, too, which gave us the opportunity to understand how decisions can affect budget, technology, and timeline.
Our goal was to collaborate so that we could learn Python and related skills: object-oriented framework, CherryPy, SQLAlchemy (Python’s SQL toolkit), and the ability to work with remote teams. Three months in, our group had grown from 10 participants to 30–40 women around the globe.We had women in the group from Sudan, New Zealand, Europe, and the U.S., each participating for her own reasons. Gloria added a second call on Saturday morning 10am to accommodate global participants. The group’s programming experience ranged from novice to expert, but the more-experienced members weren’t frustrated with the pace because we became teachers. The group’s flexibility was not always defined, but assumed and exercised. There was no pressure other than the pressure each of us put on ourselves. At times, Gloria stepped back to help us discover our own capabilities.
What I learned in the group, aside from the technical experience, is the amazing amount of support that Systers are willing to give other Systers. Although we never met face to face, everyone pitched in to help others improve and get ahead in a very male-dominated industry. The skills that we learned and the camaraderie we shared gave us enormous strength that we each took with us to challenges in our lives. Whether it was in education, in the workforce, or at home, our approaches to solutions were transformed because of GrrlCamp.
GrrlCamp changed my life. It was my first experience with open source, and I’ve become a strong advocate of that community. I drew strength from seeing women in this group take the opportunity to gain skills and commitment together. It also gave me the amazing opportunity to meet talented women around the globe.
Since my GrrlCamp experience, I’ve taken many assignments with government agencies and in the corporate world, leading eventually to my current position as Systers Program Manager at the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology. It’s incredibly rewarding to work with amazing women around the globe on a daily basis. My job allows me to be very technical, but lets me give back to the organization, the Systers community, and women in general — three goals that have truly defined my path.
As women innovate and contribute new technology through our work, we will pave the way for the next generation. Anita Borg said “This is really, really hard work. But I cannot think of anything I could spend the rest of my life engaged in that would be more exciting and would have more potential to make a tremendous impact.” I am definitely up for her challenge and ready to change the world!
My challenge to the Systers community—and all women in technology—is this: Help another woman in your department, in your town, in your school. Expose her to new ideas and teach her a new skill, or help her improve an existing one. It doesn’t have to be programming. Your story may be the spark for their own life-changing experience.
Do you have a story of persistence that honors Anita’s legacy? Share it with us for a chance to be featured here.