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GirlGeek of the Week
February 2000

Bonnie Shapbell

Bonnie Shapbell

My parents always encouraged me to get an education and prepare for a career. It was alright if I wanted to raise a family. But if I HAD to work, they wanted me to have the ability to support my family and myself. The only jobs available to women without special skills were hard work for low pay. In an era where girls were to graduate high school, marry, and raise kids, this was radical thinking.

In high school I realized I was good at math. The summers of '67 and '68, I was fortunate to get into a National Science Foundation computer math program at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pa. That is where they built the Eniac. It was a great course touching on set theory, assembly language, FORTRAN, PL1, list processors, automata theory, symbolic logic and much more. I enjoyed the math but I decided I hated computers. But it had laid the groundwork. When I had computer classes in college, I ate them up like tasty snacks.

Armed with a BS in Mathematics from Juniata College, I became a programmer. I have worked on a numerical model of the Penn Central Railroad. This was to identify the profitable lines. I spent thirteen years creating systems to monitor coal-fired power plants and doing some direct digital control of the plants. The computers we used at that time had 64K of core (we now call that memory) and 20 MB of hard disk. We also used paper tape, punched cards, and mag tape. Recompiling a program was a sysgen that was performed overnight on a mainframe. Therefore, we correct errors by writing patches in hexadecimal. We had FUN! Then I went into laboratory automation. Now I am involved in two way paging with Skytel.

When did you first discover your love and/or obsession with computers and technology?

There were three events that shaped my career.

1 - When I was growing up, the jobs in the newspaper were listed as "jobs for men" and "jobs for women." The interesting jobs and the ones that paid any money were in the jobs for men section. So I had to find one where being a female would not be a REAL disadvantage. In high school, I was interested in sports, math, and music. I was not allowed to compete with boys in sports and I knew I could not compete in music. But I excelled in math and science. My sophomore year I took an extra math class. There were 3 junior girls, 15-20 junior guys, and me in the class. That's when I realized that in math I could compete with guys AND WIN.

2 - My senior year in college when I was looking for a job as a mathematician, I realized I worked in math classes and played in my computer classes. I thought "Why not get paid for playing?"

3 - I had pushed very hard to get into management. I had worked my way up to project management. About 75% of my time was devoted to management duties and only 25% was actual technical work. It was an assembly language shop. I was one of the few people with heavy FORTRAN experience in addition to assembly. Twice within a week someone asked me to write a little test program in FORTRAN to test a specific feature (each task was only 5 to 10 minutes). I realized that when I was coding these simple programs I was singing or whistling. I didn't do that when scheduling projects or writing reports. I realized the only reason I wanted to go into management was for my ego. I wanted to be THE woman who made it into management. Programming was fun. If I was going to work for a long time I might as well have fun. I changed my career to stay technical.

How do you earn a living?

For more than a quarter of a century I have been a professional programmer (although I am now called a Senior Software Engineer). When I started, programmers got involved with specifications and requirements, design, implementation, debugging, testing, documentation, customer training, maintenance, and any other task that needed to be done. The term programmer still feels like an old slipper to me.

Do you consider yourself a Geek?

No, I don't for two reasons. First, "Geek" is like most buzz words. Everyone has a slightly different definition. However, most of the time PCs and the Internet are related to the discussion. PCs and the Internet are very small parts of my professional and personal worlds.

Also, I have always been fortunate enough to work in development groups that have been populated by very intelligent, educated, creative, and motivated people. Constantly surrounded by people like this, I feel normal and average.

What is your favorite Web site?

This summer while writing a paper on ATMs for a Network class, I really enjoyed Just before Christmas, GirlGeeks introduced me to where I bought a great book on artificial intelligence. has been helpful for learning Java. I also enjoy browsing

What do you do when you are not working?

For the last 3+ years I have been working on a Masters Degree in Computer Science and have not had much time for anything else. All that is left to do is my project, which is on Artificial Intelligence. I have been interested in this for years and I am having fun with the project. I love logic puzzles and logic games. (Guess what I like about programming).

I also knit. I especially enjoy designing sweaters. I've learned to tie flies for fly-fishing. I want to become as comfortable with fly tying as I am with knitting because I want to use the techniques to make jewelry.

I love playing with my dogs. My husband and I travel as often as we can to state and national parks. We enjoy poking around outdoors and bird watching.


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