Our blog will be bringing you stories from women working in STEM as part of our “Role Models” series. We kick things off with our STEM Women team reflecting on how and why they became interested in STEM. First up is Liz Quilty, who shares her personal journey from being a single mother teaching herself to code to becoming a Linux professional.

This is a long story, it may take some time. I would suggest perhaps getting a cup of tea and getting comfortable.

Growing up, I was a tomboy and hung about with my brothers. Days were spent climbing trees, wrestling, and doing ‘boy’ stuff. My mother tried to make me more ‘girly’, but since most of her time was taken up with my disabled sister, I was rather wild. I never did particularly well in school, not learning to read until I was 8 years old, and having issues throughout school (later realizing I have some dyslexia).

In my early teens, we moved from one end of the country to the other, and I had to suddenly go to a girls only school. This was a bit of a culture shock, I had no real way of relating to girls so much. I kind of got along with some, but for the most part I was a loner. After getting fairly sick and taking 6 months off school when I was 16, I ended up dropping out of school. I met a guy not long after that, and left home.

For the next 7 to 8 years I had 4 kids, and changed partner a couple of times. By the time I was 25 I was a high school drop out, single mother of 4 with no real skills at all to speak of. I did not stay in contact with most of my family and was pretty much a train wreck waiting to happen. Living on government handouts life sucked, and I was fairly sick of it and wanting to turn things around. Having no skills at all really was the killer though – who would hire somebody with 4 kids who couldn’t even afford childcare to work?

Learning to Code

My sister had a laptop due to her disability, and she used to connect it to ‘the internet’ with a 14.4k modem and chat to people. She explained it a bit to me, how she used telnet to connect to some server and other gobble-de-gook stuff that I didn’t understand. Since i was stuck at home with 4 kids most nights, I decided it would be cool to be able to chat to people without having to get childcare or leave the house.

By 1997 or 98 I had saved my money and bought an old second hand 486 DX100, borrowed my sister’s old 14.4k modem and worked out how to get on IRC. This for me was a huge life changer for me.

modemIt started with me wanting to have ‘one of those away thingees’ that somebody else in the chat had. Some guy  (thanks Azmodan!) told me I should download some ‘cool script’ which turned out to be a super mammoth mIRC script. I was so lost it wasn’t funny (well ok, it is now looking back on it).

I joined a help channel to figure out how to work this massive fancy chat thing. Within weeks I knew how to set variables, and then moved on to making my own aliases, and eventually within a couple months was making my own IRC scripts. Suddenly I became a somebody, I was the person helping others out. I was getting respect for knowing things, and people on IRC who was smart were the cool kids.

Having people think I was cool was a real revelation, even more so that they thought I was smart! I began to help others with everything from viruses to other computer problems, searching online to find answers. I still spent a lot of time doing code on mIRC in the next few months. I became fairly popular online, and it was a great feeling.

One day, some smart alec guy (Steve, aka theGeek) mentioned that he used Linux. Having never heard of it, I asked him about it, and got very little information other than working out ‘you can code the entire operating system, not just the IRC client’. This appealed to me, I was ready for the next step. What was the next step you ask? Inviting this total stranger over to help me install it!

Linux Love

Nine months from the day I got my first PC, I had Linux installed on my machine as well as windows. I got Redhat, and promptly forgot my root password. I worked out how to get online though, and 3 weeks later a kind friend used an exploit to change it to a rude word for me. I ended up in Linux channels getting help, and eventually within another month reinstalled it myself with Slackware.

Not long after this I met a guy online called Paul who was really helpful, suggesting I use SSH instead of Telnet, and a few other tips. Because Linux was in its early days it was often easier to just use command line versus any windowing system. I learnt a lot using command line, I checked mail via telnet., and numerous other things. I helped others in IRC channels and learnt more myself.

cliI offered my services at a new start up ISP in exchange for experience, and ended up doing this for 3 months before going on to set up another ISP. This was all within less than a year of getting Linux, most of the skills were learnt on the job, and there were no qualifications other than who you knew.

I was off government handouts by now, earning good wages. Being able to work from home or pay for childcare was brilliant. I could now afford things I didn’t have before, and best of all, I had some self respect. I went on to marry Paul  and we have been together a fairly long time now.

Overcoming Challenges

Some of the challenges I have had to deal with have been unique. Even now, years later, I still feel stupid and suffer “Imposter Syndrome.” I regularly have to force myself to get out of my comfort zone to do some things.

I almost broke up with Paul on several occasions due to arguments over hardware and installation CDs. Paul came from a family where stereotypes were drilled into them, and for a long time struggled with the fact that I didn’t want help from him. Sometimes I would be frustrated with working things out, and have a rant, and he had to learn that this didn’t always mean I wanted help, sometimes a person just needs to vent!

Years down the track, he has long since given up caring about stereotypes, and  enjoys me being able to do things myself (e.g. fixing up kids proxy server). We even work at the same work place, doing the similar jobs. It’s excellent being able to bounce ideas of each other or talk about things we both understand. On the downside, there is no non-geek who says “no”, so as a result we have top of the line electronics and a ripped sofa 🙂

My name is Liz, I am a Linux System Administrator. I can fix pretty much anything you want when it comes to Linux, write shell scripts, and program in several languages.  I spend my free time helping organize Linux conferences, teaching robotics, writing bash scripts, and working with local schools to educate the next generation.

lizprofile

Are you a woman in tech? What made you fall in love with coding and/or IT? Did you follow a self-taught path like Liz or did you get some formal training? What can you recommend to girls and women interested in breaking into tech careers?

Liz