Advice for Daughters on Succeeding in the Tech World

Daughter number 3The third of my four daughters was being questioned about her training before the last Olympics, and answered;

My mother was the first American to win the world championships, so I called her for advice, and believe me, Mom is always brimming with advice, whether you want it or not …



In fact, all parents have the experience that their own children occasionally take advice from strangers far better than from them. So, for your daughters or mine, here are three pieces of advice on succeeding in the tech world.

1. Learn Calculus – Ignore every person who tells you that you won’t need it, it’s too hard. Take it in high school and take it again in college.  People often say, “I just can’t do math.” That’s bull shit. You just can’t make the NBA. You can certainly do math. My youngest daughter whines that way sometimes and yet she doesn’t sit and read her Algebra book unless we stand over her and make her do it. Here is why you need to learn calculus:

  • 99% of all math books are written to be so boring that you want to track down the authors and bitch slap them. Learning calculus is good training for life because there WILL be boring things you have to do to get to where you want to be. By ten years old, you should have overcome the idea that everything has to be as intrinsically rewarding as laying on the couch with your puppy.
  • If you do happen to have a  hard time, even better. Don’t skip class. Read the textbook. Get a tutor. Read the book again. Everyone at some point runs into concepts that are difficult. This happened to me twice, in calculus and in my fifth semester of statistics in my doctoral program. Now, in both areas, it is hard for me to understand why it was ever confusing, but I remember at the time reading the book over two or three times and still being a little fuzzy and afraid I wouldn’t ever get it.  I’m married to a real-life rocket scientist, a man who decided to pursue a Ph.D. in particle physics because “nuclear physics was too easy” and even he had a point in school when he ran into concepts he had to read over and over until he understood it. Find a way through. That’s a super-important lesson in  life.
  • If you learn calculus, you WILL use it. I took Calculus I & II my freshman year of college. It came up in a few economics courses my senior year and in my first statistics course, which I took in the math department. I never had any use for calculus for years after I graduated. Then I went on for a Ph.D. and specialized in Applied Statistics.  Calculus was really useful in some of those courses. Now, in my profession, whether reading research, reading documentation or programming, it comes up fairly often. Not every day, but certainly every month.

2. Learn to say “Fuck you” and say it both openly (rarely) and to yourself (often).

My friend has a reputation for a great bedside manner. He uses a code phrase. When a patient says something like:

“I have decided to treat my cancer with grapefruit juice instead of chemotherapy.”

He responds,

“I understand how you can see it that way.”

This is his code for,

“You’re a fucking moron.”

You need a code phrase because people will try to dissuade you, denigrate you and generally provide useless advice (contrary to the wonderful advice I am giving you now). They will tell you that you cannot be an entrepreneur because you want to have a family. They’ll tell you that you are not a real ‘techie’ because you don’t have a degree in engineering. If you do have a degree in engineering it will be because you don’t have a degree in Computer Science. If you do have both degrees and have experience as an engineer and programmer it will be because you don’t know a specific programming language. Some people seem to have a sadistic desire to pull other people down, saying things like,

“You may have a masters degree but it’s not computer science from MIT. You don’t program in Ruby or Java and everyone knows that unless you have years of experience in both of those you are not really marketable.”

Feel free to tell those people, either:

“I understand how you can see it that way, but I’m going to go ahead and apply for the position at the accelerator anyway.”


“Fuck you! I’m going to do it anyway and I don’t care what you think.”

Seriously, there are very few insurmountable obstacles. One of my daughters received a Fulbright scholarship to study in Germany for a few weeks. She almost didn’t apply because she had a young child. I told her that she was being ridiculous, she had a husband, a mother, a mother-in-law and two adult sisters. Between the lot of us, we could take care of one baby.

So what if I let her teethe with Twizzlers during the week  I was there?

I also took her swimming in the hotel pool every day, to the science museum, to the aquarium and taught her to dance in elevators. And when Maria came back from Germany, her daughter was still alive, better than ever, because, hey, she had a couple more teeth.

This is really the most important piece of advice I have. Don’t let anyone discourage you and that includes yourself.

3. Learn a programming language or two.

If you followed my first two pieces of advice, this third one will be easier. The whole trick to learning a language is to not get discouraged and plug away at it. Read a book. Write some code. Read another book. Look at programs other people wrote. Think of some things you want to do with that language. Try them. Fail. Swear. Try again. Don’t get discouraged.

Douglas Kranch gave a good description of how expertise develops,

” Expertise develops in three stages. In the first stage, novices focus on the superficial and knowledge is poorly organized. During the end of the second stage, students mimic the instructor’s mastery of the domain. In the final stage, true experts make the domain their own by reworking their knowledge to meet the personal demands that the domain makes of them. “

This is why those first two bits of advice matter. In learning programming it is easy to get bored or discouraged as you go through those first two stages. It’s easy to start believing it’s too hard, that guy who told you women don’t have the same natural talent for programming was right, it’s too late for you to start now because you didn’t take enough math in college …

“I understand how you can see it that way.”

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One Comment

  1. I need to tweet this, AnnMaria. Lovely family photos and I laughed out loud while reading your post.

    You’ve done a lot to encourage students and daughters. I couldn’t agree more with the advice you share.

    Personal testimony: I took the required calculus class for University of Michigan business school and finished #1 in the class. In my corporate marketing position, I’m not called on to use calculus but I continually draw on the assurance that I can achieve any goal that I tackle with passion.

    My daughter who’s in a pre-nursing program found the same to be true about her toughest classes in college.

    The tech world is everywhere now. We fare better when we’re better equipped.

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