How I got into computing

April 24, 2009 - Women in Computing

Inspired by Wendy Tan White’s post about how she got into tech, this is my story:

At school I was keen on maths and science, and had a great maths teacher (Miss Lolley – truly inspirational). I was (and still am) also a big reader – both my parents have been English teachers at some point in their careers and they transmitted their love of literature early on and it’s stuck. William Gibson’s Neuromancer introduced me to the idea of artificial intelligence and I knew pretty much straight away that building clever systems was what I wanted to do.

And so when it came to university applications I went for courses in AI or cognitive science. At the interview days for AI courses I was the only woman, but at the interview for cognitive science (AI, psychology and philosophy) there were a few of us. I’d not done any computing at school other than word processing in my typing classes, I’d only ever programmed on the spectrum for fun, and the lads at these open days claimed they knew an awful lot. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit it now but they did put me off. I also rather liked the idea of keeping up the psychology from my A-levels and studying a bit of philosophy: if you’re going to try and build artificial intelligence there’s a good argument that understanding natural intelligence can help. So I went for the cognitive science course.

After the BSc, I did a masters in philosophy concentrating on the philosophy of AI, and then some years later managed to land myself a PhD place doing computer vision. I think building programs that can see and interpret images and video is one of most interesting sub-fields of AI, and that’s what I do now. It’s not just programming and inventing (although that’s the core of it), you also have to write up your work & publish, and do talks, so there is a fair bit of variety.

Good things about my job:

  • I do interesting work – if it’s not new it’s not research!
  • I sometimes get to play with cool toys (cameras and stuff)
  • I work with a whole bunch of nice clever people.
  • I get to do a lot of travel (going to conferences, giving talks).
  • It’s truly international (in my lab there are about 35 people and more than 15 nationalities, and hey, I’m about to move to France myself).
  • It’s flexible – working from home is easy, hours are up to you within reason.

I’d like to be a lecturer, eventually, as I really enjoy teaching. And I’d like a permanent contract (working on 3 year postdoc contracts is OK but it’d be nice not to be always looking for the next one). But these things should both be within reach after the next postdoc, so it’s all good.

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