Book Review: Atypical Geek Girl

Today I thought I write down some thoughts on a book I noticed when I was at the Living Computer Museum and Labs (LCM+L) in Seattle last year: ‘Atypical Geek Girl’ by Katherine Hitchcock. In her memoirs, Katherine describe her 30 year tech career in IBM that began in the 1960s.

No, Katherine has not won a Nobel prize, her memoirs are about being ‘just a normal’ geek starting in the very early days of commercial computing. Early on, she mentions the IBM 1401 mainframe that the Computing History Museum in California still has a running one and which is really alien in construction from today’s point of view. This gives you an idea of where the story starts. What fascinated me most about the book was to read how technology evolved, how things have started in the first place and how so many things we take for granted today were not foreseeable at the time. A good example is her description of how writing academic papers worked in the 1970s, i.e. IBM researchers writing articles by hand and then giving the manuscript to (female) typists who struggled with the scientific notation that printers and word processing programs had their difficulties with during that time. Draft versions to be returned to the scientists were printed on IBM Selectric typewriters. Scientific formulas interrupted the printing process so the typists could exchange the type-wheel for one that could produce subscript and superscript letters. Imagine how often the type-wheel needed to have been changed in a text full of formulas. It must have been a hell of a job then. But things got better with the projects she worked on from dot matrix printers to laser printers and word processing programs that could deal with superscript and subscript text, albeit in a very different form as you might imagine. Also, I learned a lot about things that were invented in IBM over the decades such as SQL that we still use more or less like 40 years ago. And I got one very good advice that everyone should take to heart when dealing with management: ‘Tell them about your problems but at the same time offer potential solutions’. Very good advice if you ask me!