My Nerd Story – Of Fathers and Butterflies

One of the main reasons I’m sitting here right now, writing *this* story, is that my father is a programmer.

I remember drawing with crayons on punchout cards and this funny endless paper with the lightgreen lines (this must have been the early 80s or so [as an aside: I'm actually a '77 model, a fact many of my friends can't wrap their heads around :-) ] ).
Due to my father’s job, we always had a computer in the household. At first they were so expensive he had to sell the old one after buying a new one. Once they got cheaper, my brothers and I always got the old one.

We played Zak McKracken on the C64, and King’s Quest on the Atari. It did wonders for our English :)

I’ve always been interested in programming.
Let’s face it: the 80s and early 90s were an awesome time to grow up as a nerd :-D
After all, the Enterprise and the seaQuest were *built* for a crew of nerds to swan about and explore space / the sea.
And MacGuyver.
And Angelina Jolie in Hackers. Damn, the very idea that nerds could actually be beautiful women that took shit from no one!

But for some reason, I didn’t become a *programmer* until much later.

Several times I asked my father to teach me to program, but for some reason that never took off. One year, he gave me a disk with “Programming Class” written on the label for my birthday.
I was ecstatic.
The disk contained – as far as I recall – a set of beautifully crafted programming excercises I could do.
I was crushed, because apparently my father didn’t intend to sit down with me and teach me programming.

Only recently, literally decades later, I understood what he tried to do. Today I know that programmers don’t learn by having knowledge spoonfed to them, but by tackling a problem.
I wish I had kept the “Programming Class” disk…

I took programming classes where ever I could.
BASIC in fifth grade. TurboPascal in eleventh grade.
Once I signed up for a computer class during the summer holidays (if *that* doesn’t get me nerd cred, I don’t know what will :-D ). The teachers had no clue, so we mostly played games. But I found a training program for the Macs(?), and I “played” that instead.

Looking back, I *was* a programmer in my larvae stage at that point.
I remember the TurboPascal class in 11th grade. The teacher would give us a task, and the wander around and have us show him the solution.
Only, whenever he was standing behind me, I usually couldn’t show him a working solution of the given task. I usually solved the problem quickly, and then thought “yeah, but what happens if I do *this*?”
So, by the time the teacher checked up on me, I was usually several iterations further and had pieces of code spread out all over the place.

During my last years of high-school I knew I wanted to do something “with languages”. I applied to the German Foreign Office and was crushed when I washed out after the first round of testing.

I decided to go to university, because one could apply again for a higher career at the Foreign Office with a university degree. So I considered several language-related majors like Translation/Interpreting. And then I found an article about Computational Linguistics and decided to do that.

At Potsdam University, four women signed up for Diplom-Computerlinguistik in the Wintersemester 96/97.
That was it.
Not four women and $number of men.
Four women.
So, for most of my university time I had something close to private tuition :-)

Surprisingly enough studying Computational Linguistics involved more grammar and maths than I expected m)
But I enjoyed it, even though I was still not a *real* programmer. I was still doing small programming exercises and I simply couldn’t imagine how this should be a skill that someone would pay me for.

The first time I started to feel like a real programmer was shortly after I started my thesis.
I wrote about “The Causal Connectors of German and Their Representation in an XML-based Lexicon”. In those days, the IE was the only browser that could process XSLT. For a while I spent my time writing my thesis in LaTeX under Linux and doing the actual coding on Windows, because IE :-/
It sucked.
It sucked bad.

So I wrote an XML editor / XSLT processor in Java.
I had a problem, and I damn well solved, and I learned more about programming in those few months than ever before.

I broke out of my chrysalis and spread my wings.


Yes, there will be sequels.

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