The Benefits of Being Blonde: A Journey to Information Technology

Life seems easier with an optimistic attitude. I’ve never actually considered myself an optimist as my internal state of being is in a constant state of worry and panic – being in a security operations role within the information technology industry. But recent pondering has led me to the conclusion that I am an inadvertent and unwitting optimist. I’m optimistic in action, not because I mean to think that way, but because, more often than not, I simply miss the social cues that tell people “IT’S A TRAP” or “I JUST GOT INSULTED”.

It’s only recently I’ve realized this… quality? fault? in myself. It’s the lack of ability to discern when people are putting me down. The closest visual I can think of is TV’s “The Unstoppable Kimmy Schmidt”. The perpetual optimism in her character isn’t something I possess (not that I wouldn’t love to be that way, it’s just not there), but her inability to recognize or be offended by negativity is a very strong characteristic of mine. A superpower, if you will. This attribute makes it extremely difficult to recognize insults and sarcasm.

I started my life off with a few mistakes. A single mom at 14, I started working at Walmart at 16 to help offset the costs of raising my son. Looking back, this is the first time I could remember people actively putting me down and me not realizing what was going on. “I want to go to college and be an accountant” was my mantra at the time. People would laugh, people would roll their eyes, I got an occasional “Good luck with that,” and I would laugh with them. It’s not that I thought I was aiming too high, and (luckily) I didn’t know that as a single teenage mom I was statistically much less likely to make it through college. I honestly thought they were teasing me because I was blonde. As in “how many blondes does it take to get a degree… that depends on what they’re cooking.”

I was homeschooled through high school, so it’s possible I missed some of the worst teasing. Maybe that is why I have such trouble recognizing it for what it is. The up-side to being homeschooled is that I was allowed and actively encouraged to pursue my passions in place of normal extra-curricular classes. For me, that was computers. They were and are my obsession. I just needed to find a job that paid me to tinker with computers…

College added fuel to the fire, and I was hooked. My accounting aspirations were another story, as they proved to be short lived and only lasted through my first class.  The final nail in the coffin was an assignment that involved a 12-page paper balance sheet in which on page 11, I realized I had made a mistake on page 2. I won’t lie, there was screaming involved, tears gushed. I threw my accounting book across the room in defiance, as it had betrayed me. And just that quick, I was done with accounting. I floated around trying new majors for a couple semesters, but none seemed to stick. A single Java class later, fond memories of early childhood programming returned. I remember watching in wonder as a young child as my words turned into games on my parent’s PC. I was back, decisively focused on Information Technology.

During my community college experience, I ran across many helpful people. There were also some that weren’t helpful or even nice, mostly other students. Lucky for me, in the moment I really couldn’t tell the difference. I recall tearing up once, upset that I had failed a test needed for a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) certification. It was my fourth test, the first three I had passed relatively easily so failure was unexpected. The test was adaptive, and once it uncovered something I was weak on, it hammered me. My teacher was wholly supportive, and I thought the other students were as well. “Big surprise” said one classmate as she laughed. I laughed through my tears. “How many blondes does it take to take a test? That depends on where they need to take it to.”

While I was getting my associates degree, I started contracting on the side. I would do almost anything computer related. I loved getting paid to work on computers, and I wasn’t too proud to take on small jobs. I fixed personal and work computers, made personal and professional websites, installed home and professional networks, and more – with each project serving as a new learning experience. I recall an early sub-contract, where I was hired to install a new network segment and configure a couple network applications. One off-the-cuff remark from the company manager about sending “a little girl” to do such complicated work flew right over my head. I laughed, and admittedly got confused when the secretary fumed, wondering if I had somehow upset her. “How many blondes does it take to make a network… that depends on what the net needs to catch.”

I ran across this several times in my professional career as I moved around, from networking to web design, from forensics and incident response to certification and accreditation, from security operations to security oversight. Through it all, the inability to recognize the sarcasm and blatant put-downs persisted. I was once at Black Hat luncheon with a group of security professionals, and a “helpless girl” joke was told. I laughed. I had not a clue in the world until much, much later that I perhaps should have been offended.

You see, I think a large part of where I am stems largely from my inability to recognize put-downs and sarcasm, thus my mind never really registers this doubt from others. It wasn’t until very recently that I started looking back on many of my earlier experiences with a critical eye, reviewing my past thoroughly. I’ve been made fun of a LOT, I’ve been put down a LOT, I’ve been told I “can’t” do something a LOT, but my response to those experiences were almost exclusively positive.

During my period of self-analysis, I did briefly wonder if I should be more cautious – if I should watch for, try to recognize, and more appropriately respond to the negativity. My conclusion? Absolutely not. Who knows if I would have gotten this far or done so many things in my life if I allowed others to have that much power in my life. My wish for any “little girl” trying to break into a male-dominated industry, any young geek trying to make it through college, any shy teenager who doesn’t fit in and is just trying to get through high school, would be that they could experience what it’s like to be blonde. That all the negativity and disparagement could roll right off their backs, so they could power forward and reach their dreams.

Mae Jemison once said, “Kids live up, or down, to expectations.” Here’s to hoping for plenty of lofty expectations, eternal optimism and a little bit of blondeness.

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