[This is the ninth in a series of posts exploring the personal stories of real women in technology. Every woman in tech overcame, at the very least, statistical odds to be here; this blog series aims to find out why, and what they found along the way. This time around we chatted with Abby Fichtner (t|ln), better known as Hacker Chick for her devoted work with Boston startups. Recently named Founding Executive Director of hack/reduce, a non-profit big data hacker space, Abby is in constant search of shaking up conventional wisdom and finding out what lies beyond. If reading her story inspires you to share yours, please feel free to email me.]
Hi! I’m Abby Fichtner – although more people probably know me as Hacker Chick. I write The Hacker Chick Blog on how we can push the edge on what’s possible, and I’m about to launch a non-profit hacker space for big data called hack/reduce.
Prior to this, I was Microsoft’s Evangelist for Startups where I had the most incredible experience of working with hundreds of startups. I’ve been alternately called the cheerleader and the guardian angel for Boston startups. I love this community and am super excited to launch hack/reduce to help Boston continue solving the really hard problems and keep our title as the most innovative city in the world.
1. Can you take us back to your “eureka!” moment—a particular instance or event that got you interested in technology?
I like to joke that programming is in my blood. My Dad has been programming since the 1960’s and my brother followed him into Computer Science. So when we were kids, my parents told us that whoever made the honor roll first would get an Atari. This was 1980 and so Atari game machines were The Thing to have.
Sufficiently motivated, I made the honor roll and my Dad came through – with an Atari 800, the PC! Pretty much nobody had PCs in 1980, so this was pretty elite. For games, we got these Atari magazines that had pages and pages of source code in them and our father-daughter bonding experiences were typing in the machine language to build our own games. Talk about hard core, right?!
2. Growing up, did you have any preconceived perceptions of the tech world and the kinds of people who lived in it?
Growing up I did not want to be a programmer! I thought that was something my Dad and my brother did. I was an independent woman and going to follow my own path. I heard that if you’re really good, they make you a manager. So my goal was to be on the business side of things.
Fortunately, my first job out of school tricked me by putting me to work programming. The first time they had me do something that I’d been told was “impossible” (and I figured out how to do anyway), I was hooked! There is nothing I find more exciting than doing things that nobody has ever been able to do before. Except, perhaps, helping others to experience that same awesomeness.
3. hack/reduce is an exciting hacker space launching in Boston. Can you tell us a little bit about hack/reduce and your involvement with it?
hack/reduce will be Boston’s Big Data hacker space. Imagine a place where people come together to create. To take vast amounts of information and turn it into knowledge that we can use for making smarter decisions, for finding better ways to conserve energy, smarter ways to improve our economy, for identifying cures for diseases. The applications become endless as we learn to process the vast amounts of information that are now being created.
hack/reduce is a non-profit whose mission is to help Boston create the talent and the technologies that will shape our future. I can’t possibly think of anything I’d rather be working on.
I just started 2 weeks ago as the Founding Executive Director, so this is all very exciting and new to me. I love coming in at the very beginning when everything is still chaos but there are endless possibilities for what you can shape it into.
4. Did you experience any personal or systemic setbacks at any point of your academic or professional career?
My first job out of school was incredibly disheartening. I had worked so hard to get top grades and held part time jobs throughout high school and college – all to land that “perfect” job out of college.
And I landed it.
And I HATED it.
I felt like the biggest failure because I’d worked so hard my entire life to land this job and here I was completely miserable. I don’t think I understood that there were options. I thought I’d taken the wrong path and now I was stuck with it. For the rest of my life. I can’t even explain how horrible that feeling was. Thank God I was wrong. And thank God the feeling was mutual so they fired me after only 10 months, forcing me to find something else. I promptly found a startup and from that moment on have been completely addicted to the wonder of startups.
5. Whom do you look to as mentors and/or sources of inspiration?
Wow, where to start?
Kathy Sierra was probably my biggest influence in starting The Hacker Chick Blog. I’d be hard pressed to think of anyone more passionate than her and I love that she gets out there and just says what she believes without worrying what others will think. She’s incredibly smart and edgy; it’s a thrill to read and listen to her. I love that.
Lisa Crispin, for reasons I’ll never fully understand, took an interest in me before anyone knew who I was and used her substantial influence to become my biggest cheerleader. And not just me, but countless others as well. She was a huge inspiration for me in becoming an Evangelist. I thought if I can gain influence, I can follow her lead and use it to help promote others that are doing wonderful things.
Leslie Sturgeon who runs the fabulous Women Inspiring Women taught me that it’s okay to be yourself. That while people might judge you for not being perfect, there is little more endearing than true authenticity.
6. Do you have any advice for women interested in computers and computer science?
There is SO crazy much that can be done with computers and computer science. Never be limited by what you “think” your job has to look like. The most exciting innovations happen when someone brings a new perspective to the table. And with so few women in computer science, that gives us a huge opening to bring our own spin to things and craft new opportunities that build on what we love and are passionate about.
And that is how we not only make our mark but how we change the world!
*For a behind-the-scenes look at the new space for hack/reduce view the video below: