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My Life in Tech: Moving Sideways Into Technology

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Jennifer Kyrnin shares her story of her indirect route to the world of web design and development, and how a desperate need for English reading material in Uzbekistan led her to her career in tech.

Over the last two decades, I have created a wonderful and fulfilling career in web design and development. But I didn’t start there.  My journey has taken me from Animal Science to Linguistics to teaching English as a Foreign Language in Uzbekistan, which is where, in desperation, I stumbled upon a magazine that would change the course of my career.  In this article, I share my story of how I became a web development expert – and how any woman who wants to can get into tech.

Growing up I lived in a very tech-centric family. My father was an electrical engineer, and my mother was a nurse. We often saw the newest gadgets well before any of the other kids. My brother and I shared a computer--a TRS-80--when we were nine and ten respectively, and we learned to program in BASIC and Pilot on that computer. It was always assumed that I would be somehow involved in technology.

I loved math. I loved the precision of numbers and how you could describe the world and everything in it using numbers and formulas. When I got the computer, programming seemed a natural progression.

But somehow, like most girls, that love got sidetracked until, while I was still taking high-level STEM classes in high school, I found I was more comfortable reading Science Fiction.

When I got to college, I went into Animal Science because it seemed interesting. But unlike most of my classmates, when asked if I was going to go into vet school after graduation, I said, “No, I'm going to open a bookstore.” This always got me funny looks and sometimes a laugh. But the honest answer was that I had no idea what I was going to do when I graduated.

When I moved into college level math classes, I found that the style for teaching a group of 200 people calculus seemed a deliberate attempt to bore 199 of them, thus weeding out all but that one pure math geek. I stopped taking calculus after two quarters. I was getting decent grades, and it wasn't required for my major.

Mid-way through college, I had something of a crisis of faith. I didn't know what to do with myself. All my friends were starting to get jobs and internships. I was working as a monkey cage cleaner, a parking services officer, and a cat wrangler. I knew that none of these jobs were long term, so I took a year off to “find myself.”

During that year, I realized that one of my required general ed courses, Linguistics 1, was the one class that I found most interesting. Linguistics was the class where I read every word in the textbook. I can't say that I stayed awake in the 3 pm to 4:30 pm afternoon lecture, but it was the one afternoon class where I diligently tried to stay awake.

After my year off from school I switched my major to Linguistics. It was one of the best choices I ever made. When people would ask me what I was going to do with a Linguistics degree, I would answer, “The same thing I was going to do with an Animal Science degree. Open a bookstore.”

The Bookstore Could Wait—First Peace Corps

The other thing I had realized in my year off was that I should probably come up with some type of plan for post-graduation. I'd dreamed of seeing the world. I'd been an exchange student to Australia in High School, and the Peace Corps seemed to be the logical next step. I started learning what I'd need to do to get accepted.

You have to have a bachelor's degree to get into the Peace Corps, but approximately nine billion BA recipients graduate and realize that they have no job waiting for them, and decide to volunteer. In order to get in with a BA in Linguistics I'd have to prove I had mad skills at something they wanted, or be incredibly lucky.

Luckily for me, in 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed., and the State Department offered aid to the new Commonwealth of Independent States in the form of nearly 200 Peace Corps volunteers.

I had just graduated and was working in retail, living with my parents and hoping to hear from the Peace Corps (but not holding my breath). At the end of the summer I got a call. Would I be interested in going to Uzbekistan? “Yes, yes I would!” I answered breathlessly while thinking, “where the heck is Uzbekistan?” One of the languages I studied for my Linguistics major was Russian,  and that put me on the short list for volunteers. Three days after my twenty-fourth birthday I was in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, blearily looking around at the exotic city I would be living in, teaching English, for the next two years.

Did You Say Teaching English? I Thought You Were a Techie

By the time I had gotten to Tashkent, I had my Linguistics degree, loved learning languages, and enjoyed teaching American slang to impressionable Uzbek and Russian teenagers. For entertainment I would read anything in English that I could find. It was in the Peace Corps that I read all of Danielle Steel and all of the available Stephen King novels. I was desperate for books in English.

So when I found this strange looking magazine with a garish, neon cover, called Wired, I snapped it up and took it home to my apartment overlooking Mukimi square. There I sat with my cat and read all about this fascinating new development called hypertext.

With hypertext you could write books, articles, stories, and more and then put placeholders in to point people to other related books, articles, and stories.

In 1991, this was a huge deal. Everything we read at the time was self-contained. If you enjoyed a book, you had to hope that the library or the bookstore had more by the same author, or that the sales person could recommend a similar one. The idea of having links to more to read inside a document was revolutionary to me.

At that time I was reading as many as seven novels a week. So links to more to read were a lifeline for me. And I thought, sitting in my Tashkent apartment, “Wow! I wish I could be doing something really interesting like that!”

Web Technology Doesn't Have to be Just for the Techies

When I returned from the Peace Corps, I got a job as a technical support representative at the then-largest nationwide ISP—NETCOM. I may not have known anything whatsoever about the Internet, but I could read--and I did. Often when I was answering the phones, I was frantically looking things up on the nascent World Wide Web just so that I would have a decent answer for my customers. I wasn't always successful.

From there I applied to join the email technical support team and was quickly promoted to the tech writer for the entire Tech Support department. I wrote the answers that support reps then passed on to the customers.

Our web team was just ramping up then., They had built an online knowledgebase of information about the NETCOM products and services, and the webmaster asked me to join his team as their writer. Of course, for that I had to know HTML, but I'd been teaching myself in my spare time.

When I’d been working in the web team at NETCOM for about six months, my boss suggested I look at a content provider we were partnering with. “They don’t have an HTML expert. You should apply,” she said. So I submitted a writing sample about automated link checkers for websites to an unknown company called The Mining Company. I went live in October 1997 as their HTML Guide. In 1999 they changed their name to About.com, and I’ve been writing for them about web design and development ever since.

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

You don't have to be a techie person to like technology. And in fact, I suspect most of my friends would laugh at the thought that I was ever not a techie. I was the only one of my friends to have a laptop computer in college, and I had to make it myself. So, okay, maybe I have always been a techie. But you don't have to have a degree in a technology field in order to learn and do web design.

In fact, I feel bad for the companies that list that as a requirement on their web design jobs. After all, they are losing out on the amazing self-taught, artistic liberal arts majors who also happen to know their way around a computer.

Any woman who wants to can get into tech. If you like building web pages, then build web pages. Don't let your lack of a technology degree stop you; use that to make the most amazing comparative literature pages you can make. Artists have a place in web design just as much as linguistics majors or computer science majors. If you love building the web, then there is a place for you here. And deciding once and for all what you’re going to be isn’t all that important either.

I’m not sure what I’m going to be when I grow up. But it will probably be related to the web. Besides, I think the journey is more fun.

I’ll let you know my answer when I get there. I still want to open a bookstore. Only I suspect it’ll be ebooks.

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