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October 27, 2003

The Accidental Techie

I didn’t mean to misbehave. It was an accident. Really.

Okay, my cats might have said that, but it’s true of me too. I’m only technical at all because, well… it just happened.

When Liz asked me to join in all this misbehavior (and she can verify this), my reaction was, “Um. Are you sure?” Because I don’t have any CS degrees, any formal training. I don’t get a bye as an academic; I’m not one. For the year and a half before I started grad school, I was doing data entry, not exactly the world’s most glamorous occupation. (I still do, actually, just half-time. Which my poor abused hands much appreciate.)

I became a markup geek when an insightful boss at a typesetting company thought I was worth taking a risk on. She hired me into the electronic-publishing department to learn SGML, sink or swim. I swam, and discovered I actually quite liked the water. Parsers, regular expressions, text editors, Python, what’s not to like?

It was quite a shock, a year and a half or so later, to hear a working group bristling with Ph.Ds say that in their eyes I’d earned the title “engineer.” Wha’? Who, me? I just wrangle text, that’s all.

Well, okay, and Access databases. Sort of. Picked that one up by accident too. The project I was doing data entry for gave me an excuse one day to look at the VB code. So I did. The report I produced convinced the overloaded database admin that I could fix the database, and rework it as needed for new projects.

Um, I said. (Yes, that’s something I say a lot. We women and our stellar verbal skills, yup yup.) You guys know I don’t have any database or VB experience, right?

Sure, Dorothea. We know. Here’s the bug list. Have at it.

I don’t know, but I would lay pretty substantial odds that half or more of today’s techie women got there the same way I did. No teenage hackfests, no college CS major, no certifications, no 80-hour coding death marches. Just something needing doing, and a woman willing to cuss the computer until she figures out how to make it do what she wants.

Some accidental techies are indeed male; I know one or two. I do wonder about the distribution, though. The accidental techies I know typically came from pink-collar occupations, and how many men does one find in those?

I wonder about some other things, too. Do accidental techies get paid what their jobs are worth? (I have no cause for complaint there, I am glad to say.) How many of them feel as much an impostor as I do? What do the intentional techies think of them? Do they ever learn all the in-jokes? Or the acronyms? Would they advise others to sneak in the back door the way they did? Is it even possible to plan to do that, or does it always “just happen?”

Do they ever get to say that it wasn’t an accident?

Posted by Dorothea Salo at 06:31 PM in General | Permalink


How interesting, I was an accidential techie too, originating from the most stereotypical of jobs - a secretary. My boss needed a website, I was on the lowest rung of the totem poll, so it fell to me and a copy of Dreamweaver to get the task done. Since then my successive bosses seem to love doing the exact same thing - throwing me into tech projects I have no clue how to complete, and seeing how i turn out. My current undertaking is building a discussion board with an argument visualization element, so people can actually see their deliberations unfold. Do i know how i'm going to do that? Not really... not yet anyway.
I know exactly what you mean about feeling like an imposter - so much that I am doing an MSc just to finally get some "formal" training and feel a little more legit. So far, my "accidental" creds have really paid off in my courses, so i think we're pretty safe!

Posted by: ghani at Oct 27, 2003 6:50:49 PM


I'm Elouise.
And I am an accidental techie.

It's an interesting notion, that many of us are in technology as an offshoot of other meanderings. I come from a fine arts background. Etchings begat bookmaking which begat animation which begat computer animation then digital image slinging and web work. The underlying motivations, among the accidental techies is this - that the drive is not the lure of machines and shiny things and speed and processing, but the tangentials that the tech affords.

It isn't the technology. It's where it takes us.

Keep coming back - it works.

Posted by: weez at Oct 27, 2003 7:50:10 PM

Another field that produces a great number of accidental techies is Biology. A researcher is plugging away, doing his work, and suddenly realizes that a computer could analyze the data much faster, or that the current program isn't up to par. So, sure enough, they dive right in and whip up a script or two that generates the type of data modeling that they need.

Posted by: Chris at Oct 27, 2003 8:11:11 PM

most of the best techies i know have no formal qualifications but lots of experience; don't forget that application/scripting wrangler as a job description hasn't existed until the past 25-30 years and hadn't exploded until the last 10 really.
--random noises

Posted by: anonymous at Oct 27, 2003 10:35:26 PM

What are all you accidental techies who came from fine arts backgrounds doing?

I was working as a network administrator until August. When I was laid off I decided it was time to go back to school to finish my painting degree. I'm willing to accept being a starving artist since I haven't been able to figure out how to be happy, challenged, and advancing carreer-wise (and paid enough!) doing IT work. I've bounced around a lot but haven't found what I want to be doing in IT, so I figure I have to move on. My old boss would have been the perfect mentor had I met her when I got into the field. Instead I wavered back and forth and never found a niche. So is it time to move on?

Here's what I love about the work I"ve done as an accidental techie:

*finding answers
*training without making the users feel dumb
*explaining things to clients so they know what I'm doing to their servers
*web site redesign (only did this once officially, but I loved the results and would do more of this if I could)
*new tasks every week
*getting stumped by Microsoft weirdness (for example) and figuring it out
*helping enhance others' productivity with software they have already been using for a while

Anyone else? If you're from a fine arts background, do you do art on the side, too? Or do you figure out a way to incorporate art in your work? Or have you let work take over and you're not doing art (that was me until recently)?

Posted by: christina at Oct 27, 2003 11:48:45 PM

working at a small nonprofit requires many of us to take on foreign tasks. i knew nothing about databases, Access and VB 3 years ago. Now i'm the only one left in the company who worked on the project and am considered the 'expert'. i like that people think me proficient with computers, but databases and the like aren't really my thing. makes the job so frustrating at times.

Posted by: patricia at Oct 27, 2003 11:50:33 PM

I might be one of those male accidental techies. Or I may not. I'm not sure. I played with computers for fun before my teens, more than 20 years ago, but could never get into that programming stuff.

A computer was both a hobby and tool through my biology degree and career as a musician, then as a writer and editor. I started building websites for fun, then it became a job. Then I stayed at home with the kids for five years, and now I'm easing back into the workforce, and I seem to be a technical writer all of a sudden. Or not all of a sudden.

I'm not sure why I got here, but there it is. Accident, or intention? Hard to say.

Posted by: Derek K. Miller at Oct 28, 2003 12:36:43 AM

Another accidental techie here. In the 80's I was a Labor Market Analyst/Research Analyst when we all suddenly lost our jobs. I found a Programmer II position within two weeks and started climbing a different ladder.

Our experts come in every flavor - male, female, Asian, African American, Hispanic, Deaf, Greek, Gay, and more if I move outside of my direct cubicle area. After reading about gender references at some blogs recently I have started thinking about the gender differences, which seem to be focused on Technology students. Actually, most of the folks in the highest-level specialist positions in our department come from other majors. Surely some of the folks have Computer Science degrees but I personally can't think of any except for our student assistants.

As government workers we are not highly paid, but I don't work with any females that make under $70,000. Thinking today about my female coworkers...
CC started in the Computer Room a gazillion years ago (makes much more $$ than I do).
MM was a teacher, then Database guru, and now a networking technoweenie.
AP - not sure where she started.
CL - manages a large group of Networking guys. She started in Networking installations.
And, the mind keeps going and looking for the perceived gender concerns. We've lost a lot of our workers to higher-paying private industry jobs, but again not more males than females.

At least half of all my coworkers at the last agency were pretty much female. Occupational titles would be Staff Programmer Analyst, Senior Programmer Analyst, Software Specialist I, II, or III. There isn't a wide range of occupational titles. We do have more males in the Networking positions but the hours suck and they don't make more money.

All of the discussions have made me take a close look around, and now I want to ask coworkers if they perceive any gender differences in the workplace. It's a curiosity now so I'll keep reading...

Posted by: meg at Oct 28, 2003 12:46:02 AM

My friend Maf, who is one of the most gifted programmers I know, would qualify. He was a professional photographer who discovered HyperCard by accident, and showed his work to the chap in charge of software at the BBC Radiophonic workshop one day. He got hired as a programmer too, and I met him a year later as he was learning Pascal & C.

Posted by: Kevin Marks at Oct 28, 2003 3:46:42 AM

Dorothea, et al ... you have hit on a really important topic, especially if we want more and more women to read Misbehaving.Net and get the message that they are welcome in the tech world and none of us got here by being an expert. As many people as I know in technology, I still get this idea that they are all so brilliant and have 5 degrees in Computer Science or Math and I don't. You're definately setting me straight on that. Someone above mentioned a very salient point -- these fields, especially the Net are SO NEW, it only makes sense that we all come from different backgrounds, pick up the tools of technology as we needed them in our different fields and then found ourselves to be proficient (not experts necessarily) in one aspect or another of technical knowledge. I hope people reading this will know they can join the party too, just for this reason.

Posted by: Halley at Oct 28, 2003 6:31:20 AM

Interesting post. In my experience, this is the exception rather then the rule, with regards to gender. Most of those I have come by that are techies by accident are male. It seems to me that it is far more important for women to have formal credentials than it is for men.

Posted by: helga at Oct 28, 2003 8:32:31 AM

I too am an accidental techie. I was in the Air Force up until 1993 working as an Instructional Systems Designer. They had just begun using computers in 1988 there and really had problems. I stepped in, sat down and never stopped. When they began closing Air Force bases I was chosen as part of a closure team to train others on the computer based Inventory program we had written. When the base closed they tried to send me to other closing bases, I chose to leave the Air Force and stay in Austin. I got offered a job as a PC technician making a whopping $13 an hour. First female they had ever hired here. I have since moved up and am now called a "Technical Specialist" whatever that means...Don't ask the IT boss- he won't know what I do...just that I now have nowhere else to go in this company and neither do the 2 technicians below me, one of which is female as well. We are stagnant in this company. I never had any formal training, gained all my Certifications by taking "boot camp" courses and accelrated testing. This is a really important subject - The female technician has been here 3 years in May and was making less than a male tech they hired in August of that year. He had only one certification she has 2...How fair is that?? She has had to scream and yell to get raises and to be promoted to a tech II.. FINALLY. But they are still both way below the pay scales for what they do as technicians. Go figure IT bosses or we'll be moving on...

Posted by: Cathey at Oct 28, 2003 9:04:57 AM

Another accidental techie, here.

I always feel I came late to technology, but in truth, I've owned and used some kind of computer for 20 years. First it was just this fabulous tool for letting me write and revise to my heart's content. Then the advent of affordable desktop tools for messing around with images let me begin to play... I got back to working with photography and video, which I'd set aside after college. Having a mind for troubleshooting and liking to make things up has let me imagine new ways to use the technology.

It's been a zigzag career path... My Ph.D. is in Cultural and Critical Theory, my M.F.A. is in fiction writing, and my current job title is Technology Integration Specialist at a small all-girls school. I teach a little, and I work with faculty one-on-one to help them use technology in interesting and useful ways in the classroom. Some days it all comes together and makes sense - from Flash to a Bronze Age shipwreck. Other days... the printer... one of the servers... a bad crash... well, we've all had times like that, I'm sure. But in general I feel extraordinarily lucky to have been able to make up a job which never existed before I held it, and which seems to grow and change in interesting ways as the technology develops.

Posted by: Elizabeth Perry at Oct 28, 2003 11:24:44 AM

Raises hand - accidental techie:

Started as office manager at ComputerLand, wound up doing everything including teaching. After ~10 years of bluffing, went back to school and got a Masters in computer science.

I'm in aerospace now, and very few of my co-workers are female, partly, I think, because my company is really a hardware house, and most of the software people were educated as mechanical, electrical, aerospace engineers.

Posted by: Katja at Oct 28, 2003 12:41:41 PM

In August I wrote two entries for my weblog, about 30,000 words total, addressing how I, too, was an accidental tech, encouraging others to make the most of the circumstances which permit one easy entry into the field, and offering a few pointers. Although only a very few respondents had the XX chromosome pair, I got a huge number of emails from people who said, "Hey! I got into it from the side, too!" It was a bit staggering, really; the kinds of "techie" jobs described were so varied that the only common denominators are a) they involved computers and b) the main condition of entry was interest in on the part of the employee. I'm still trying to tease out what this means for our current method of education, hiring, and training...

Posted by: Grant Barrett at Oct 28, 2003 2:33:30 PM

Me too an accidental techie,

I took Business Administration in College majoring in MicroComputers. Almost two years ago I answered an ad for an office manager for an Internet Service Provider. Now I find myself helping people on the phone with technical problems. I never thought this would happen, because the first time I got near a computer I thought it was the most obnoxious thing ever invented. When I started in Business Administration a while later I fell in love with computers and now could not live without one. When I run across a problem either with my own computer or my work computer I become obsessed with finding and fixing the problem. I have since started my own blog and website and learned things mostly thru trial and error, mainly because I don't want to stop long enough to ask for help.

Posted by: Colleen at Oct 28, 2003 2:45:32 PM

I'm another accidental techie.

I was Political Science major, who after graduating, found an administrative job managing a database. I never, ever thought I would work with technology. When I was in school, I got hooked using my little unix shell account to do things like email and bbs, but in the early 90's most colleges only had pure CS programs and so I wasn't able to take formal classes.

During the admin job, I did very well and I soon became the go-to person for all things technical. Because of this, I managed to get an official promotion to the IT department and worked there for a while. I then became pregnant and found an adjunct instructor position. After my daughter was born, I took a few years off and later returned working as a part time instructor and consultant since 2000. Since instructors are relatively scarce, I had the opportunity to create a part time schedule and still be at home with my daughter. Also, the pay isn't that bad. Now since my daughter has started school, I'm looking at other opportunities.

Posted by: joy at Oct 28, 2003 2:49:58 PM

I'm confused as to whether I'm an accidental techie or not. When I was in middle school and high school, I did the programming thing. God, do I miss Pascal. My original intention was to go on to college and become a programmer.

Unfortunately, the school I chose to attend had no offerings in that, so I ended up a Communication Arts/English major--much to my high school English teacher's pleasure, I might add. So, after graduation, I just took whatever work I could get, as an assistant teacher for TV broadcasting, video store clerk (free movies are good, getting along with others was not--at least for me), security guard, lab assistant. I've done a little bit of everything.

It was luck that got me my current job--that, and having a few D&D sessions with the boss whilst in college. So, now I'm an e-mail administrator, and on-line course administrator. Okay pay, for a minimum of effort. I do on occasion wish it were more of an exorbitant pay, minimum effort sort of thing, but c'est la vie.

I'm so glad I got here via Megnut.

Posted by: Mike at Oct 28, 2003 2:52:42 PM

Wow, am I the only intentional techie around here? (-;

I sometimes feel that my computer science degree was nothing but a training course in how to establish a decent standing in the geek pecking order... I call it 'the bithead challenge'. It reminds me of rutting elk, to be honest. In some ways, though, I find it to be helpful - in my consulting career, being almost always the only female out of the techies, it is an efficient way to be able to quickly establish that I know what I'm talking about, in order to move on to more interesting topics of conversation.

So I am no stranger to techie snobbery. It's there, but it only matters to a few narrow-minded people. The bottom line is, if you can earn my respect technically, it is earned. Most of us can see through the secret geek-speak anyways, thank god. Trust me, you're not missing anything...

Personally, I think of people not as 'accidental' or 'intentional' techies - I think of them as 'pure' vs 'applied' techies. An applied techie brings different skills to the table - often a much more grounded real-world understanding of why they need to do what they do.

Consider yourself encouraged, valued, and otherwise happily accepted into my geek-family, anyways...



Posted by: SillyPixie at Oct 28, 2003 3:45:16 PM

I wonder whether there is a timing/generational issue here.
As previous posters have noted, this is still a pretty young field. I blundered into being an accidental techie in the late 80s - there was a pc which nobody had any idea what to do with (including me - I remember spending what felt like for ever trying to work out how to exit from Lotus 123), but which had a deceptively powerful database programme. I started playing, and over a period of months, with a sympathetic manager willling to ignoring my disappearances from my desk, realised that I had completely automated large parts of what had been a completely clerical process.
That sounds like a way in typical of many who have posted here. My career went in other directions after that, so I am at best a former accidental techie. But in the organisations I have worked in since then (mostly medium to large, probably different in smaller ones), it has felt as though it would have been much more difficult to drift into that kind of role. Systems are more locked down, roles are more defined, the frontier has been settled.
So is the era of the accidental techie destined to be relatively short - or are they a permanent part of the eco-system?

Posted by: marek at Oct 28, 2003 6:31:25 PM

Yes, the "applied" vs. "pure" techie question makes more sense to me. I'm a straddler of the intentional/accidental fence anyways - I went to college for physics, slid into engineering physics, and minored in CS because I like to play games. Then I got a Masters in it because it was the dotcom boom and I was a little greedy. :-) I realized I liked the immediacy of problem solving with computers -- you can find out very quickly if you're on the right track and can have solutions in such short periods of time! Not at all like hardware or pure research. I've known alot of guys who are in the "pure" camp -- they respect encyclopediac knowledge of technical concepts and like to solve abstract problems, but don't have much patience for practical matters. I'm the opposite -- I love to tackle real-life problems and actually improve the end user's situation. Plus, I'm a generalist, so I know a little about a lot. Funny how you don't get respect for that from the pure guys. :-P

As a woman, I've often felt like an imposter, even though I do have the degrees to back me up. I'm surrounded by alot of guys who are in the "pure" camp, and even one woman who is... she's currently killing herself trying to get a proper Bachelors degree while working full time. I have learned that most people don't see me as an imposter, or if they do, they never say it out loud. A confident demeanor will still encourage people to listen to your arguments. However, I have been having trouble making my way up the ranks -- I get the good reviews, but the higher level managers want to promote people who are highly visible. I've been puzzling over that for a while -- my company's atmosphere is traditionally very aggressive, whereas I've been a team player who actually follows the rules and doesn't code up a project over a weekend to show how cool I am. Official pronouncements aside, I'm beginning to think that cowboys are still cooler than more efficient workers...

Posted by: sprat at Oct 28, 2003 6:35:15 PM

I too am an accidental techie. In college the manager of the university computer store decided to piss off all the CS students by only hiring art majors to sell and upgrade hardware and software. With a week, I was doing regular chip upgrades, all the while I was studying painting and drawing major. Here I am 13 years later, a web designer and "found script sculptor". And I love it.

Funny thing is that every time I apply for a web development job, I get told that I don't have enough "hard" skills. Self taught art major vs. CS degree.

smiles, jen ;op

Posted by: Ms. Jen at Oct 28, 2003 7:56:09 PM

Yes, another Accidental Techie here. I was always the saddo sitting in the computer room before school, who (power!!) had access to the staff computer, and was allowed pretty much free rein in exchange for IT-help. Being at a girls' school we didn't get options to do CS, so a geography degree led to a GIS (Geographical INformation Systems) Masters, which led to web work, which led (somehow?!) to online learning development.

Whilst I've come across most of the issues I've read in previous comments (especially lack of "paperwork" to certify competence, geek-snobbery, deep-deep-end starts, sexual minority, etc) - I've found that I actually far more enjoy the mainly-male company I get to keep (don't hit me here, but I've found girl-geeks to be MORE snobby than boy-geeks!). I enjoy the toys, and the fact that not all people consider me a 'real' geek (though my boss did actually call me that the other day, and he's the IT manager!).

I also get to talk to 'both sides' - one of the reasons I am in my job now is because I can talk techie-talk with the 'hardcore' techies, then translate it into 'normal speak' for the IT-challenged Academics I work for - and vice versa. I currently *should* be writing a techspec for some academics who can't express themselves to the developers who are building their system. It makes me popular in meetings where geek-speak tends to shadow the real issues of 'will that software actually work for us'. Having delved into deep-techiness, I enjoy sitting on the fence now, enjoying the best of both worlds.

Posted by: jen at Oct 29, 2003 8:33:44 AM

Count me in on the accidental techie list, also having arrived via the pink-collar route.

My college degree is in Communications with a 'concentration' in radio and televsion. My first real job was as an administrative assistant in the Internet division of a company that published medical journals. In between answering phones and typing letters, I was put to work maintaining the various journals' web sites -- with no formal training. Soon that became 90% of my job. When one of the web editor positions finally opened up, my boss told me he would not consider me for the job. Why? Because I was much more valuable to him in my current role. I'm sure I was...I was doing the web editor job and still paid the $21K annual salary of an admin. assistant! We butted heads daily after that, and parted ways not long after.

Five years later I'm an online content producer for a regional newspaper. I'm by no means an expert -- I'm still trying to master Perl and MySQL -- but I am definately a woman who works in tech and I love my job!

I am one of two content producers in the online department -- my coworker, my boss, and most of the IT department are male. None of them treat me differently because I'm female. Those behaviors come from people who are not in the tech areas. Like the readers who call my direct number and ask if I'm the secretary. ("Can you please give a message to the guy who does the website...") Or people in other departments who wait for my coworker to come back from lunch so they can ask him questions about our site -- questions I'm fully capable of answering. ("When so-and-so comes in, can you tell him I have a question about hits?") I find those behaviors more amusing than irritating, and will always politely affirm that I'm able to answer those questions.

Found this site via megnut...and am very glad I did!

Posted by: kimberly at Oct 29, 2003 11:11:26 AM

I am a PR person and an accidental techie. I own and run small "virtual" agency (my business partner is in California and I split my time between the US and France), and am I am our tech support, web developer, blogger, etc. I learned HTML because I needed to understand what web developers were saying. Then I learned about content managers. Now I am learning PHP so I can develop my own content manger designed for communications purposes.

I did some BASIC programming in high school and nothing technical at all in college. I worked for a high-tech PR agency in NYC and Silicon Valley, and didn't do much technical there either (although I became the PPT expert). It was when I went solo that technical issues came to the fore, and I found out I had a knack for figuring stuff out. The results aren't always pretty, but I love the power it gives me. I don't feel locked out of a whole industry anymore, if industry is the right word. Because I can talk the talk and walk the walk, I immediately get greater respect (especially from the male engineering types that form the majority of my client base).

I use my techie knowledge (and actively seek to get more) as a tool to help me do my job better. I will never be an engineer, but hell, I don't need to be. To me technology = tools. And the more tools you have in your toolbox, the better.

Posted by: Elizabeth at Oct 30, 2003 4:33:41 AM