Rita Wondrak
New Jersey


A revealing commentary on our high-tech society though it may be, there exist few nerds of the female persuasion. Elusive creatures, they escape our attention, skulking behind dark glasses, shapeless clothing and body language that could make a hard drive go limp. Quite often these Unix chicks simply pass for tough male nerds with better hygiene. Why are they such a quiet minority?
For this week's feature, we've put a girl geek in the spotlight: Rita W. of New Jersey. Rita is not simply one of few female computer nerds; she claims to be THE Female Computer Nerd. She advertises her status with great pride, donning a sweatshirt with "Female Computer Nerd" printed upon it, as well as running a website with the same title, femalecomputernerd.com

What is life like for this techie of the gentler gender, having established a happy and successful career within an industry that some view as one big male conspiracy? Here's what Rita had to say about gender battles, technology and nerdliness a la femme. 

Rita's nerd life actually evolved under the tutelage of a man. Early in her college days (circa 1968), she began dating a geek prototype named Michael. In a dubious effort either to woo or insult Rita, Michael told her she thought and talked like an IBM 360 (how's that for putting a blush in your cheek?). What Rita didn't know until later was that Michael was simply admiring the way she could "multi-task" like the early generation screamer to which she was compared. Intrigued by Michael's gift for metaphor (and wondering perhaps if it was true love), Rita sought to discover her "multitasking" abilities. 

Although she majored in metallurgical engineering, Rita found that she loved her required computer courses (back then the language du jour was Fortran). Her term project was a modeling of the Instant Insanity Cube (an early generation Rubix Cube), for which there was only one solution. Rita got it, and from then on her future as a computer nerd "was assured". Following college, Rita took started with entry-level job as a programmer for a large New York City bank, then continued to work for twenty years as a senior programmer on Wall Street. She was originally trained to be an assembler programmer. This gave way to her learning COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language) and Databus, a language created for Datapoint computers. As Databus was "heading toward extinction", Rita spent several years converting that language to COBOL. While all of this was going on, Rita also had to implement "whatever was necessary to get my programs up and running. This involved many other skills like JCL, writing parms and exec procedures, creating databases, handling tapes and disks and their special languages, etc." Finally realizing after many years that she really had "the heart of a consultant", Rita decided to leave finance and start her own web design business. 

Rita's first love, other than the inspiring Michael, was an IBM 370. Housed at the Illinois Institute of Technology, this machine was "big and powerful", dwarfing any of today's descendents, no matter how "zoomie fast" they are. Today, Rita dotes on her equipment in the way spinsters do pussycats. Her "old girl", Rose (originally named for the street where Rita lives), is an AMD 486: "sweet, smooth and nothing sounds as fine as her own version of 'defrag jazz'." Her other computer, "Bud", named for its "male" aggression and speed, is a Pentium II, as reliable and no-nonsense as "a workhorse". A local guy built both computers for Rita because she couldn't bring herself to buy something as personal as a personal computer off the rack (the lingerie department may be another story). Rita claims that these different computer personalities make for "a certain cooperative team spirit around the computer room [that's] good for computer morale." 

Rita's programming palette comes mainly from the Internet, where she finds that others of her kind freely give, take and share code. On the subject of real life hacks, Rita cites the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, in which a robot prevents members of the planet earth from wreaking havoc on neighboring universes. Like the movie plot, "the Internet, created by few and imposed on many because it actually works, is shaping up to be the biggest hack in history…but with it comes a discipline that technology imposes on us…" Through such artful avoidance, Rita sidestepped the subject of her own real life hack, commenting, "the best hackers are the ones who never get caught." 

While working for high-profile banks, Rita constantly feared potential disaster that would bring down the system and tamper with the $2 billion in funds that were transferred each day. Although such nightmares were never realized, the pressure drove Rita away from high finance and onto the information superhighway, where she is feeling a lot less stress and having a lot more fun. She's working on developing her "female computer nerds" webring to provide an online coffee klatch for technical girls. What's her concept? "Our fashion segments, for example, could feature what [female nerdy types] actually wear while using our pc's. Our food feature could highlight foods and recipes that are safe to eat around a computer - you know, [food] that won't fall between the keys and that can be eaten while typing with one hand. The need for this material is just not being adequately met on the web at the present time." 

And what about gender battles within this male-dominated industry? "I have just lived, worked, kept breathing and moving along my path. That is enough to do." Rita did describe an upsetting conference with an advisor she met as a new metallurgical engineering student. The venerable prof told Rita that she had very little chance of making it in metallurgy. Not one to be discouraged, Rita decided to go one step at a time and get as far as she could. Other than that defining encounter, obstacles imposed by male peers have not deterred her. "I know it is unpopular to say now, but I have never been stopped from doing things because I am a woman. I have been warned often enough, and at times someone opposes me. Perhaps they would not have opposed a man, but I have always taken it personally. I think that I am being opposed because I am me and not because I am a woman…" 

Today, Rita is her own role model (as her trusty sweatshirt attests). She does, however, admit to a fascination with a rose quartz crystal. The rock sits atop her pc and hums along with the machine, suggesting a harmony between nature and technology that Rita finds inspiring, sublime and "way cool." Aside from the fame she's earned through her website and her sweatshirt, Rita also claims to be the first person to tie herself up in a pretzel knot. She also confesses to a strong penchant for anchovies which she "mutilates and consumes" in a multitude of interesting ways, not the least of which being peanut butter, marshmallow and anchovy sandwiches. 

Regarding her interest in Nerdworld, Rita comments, "[it's] a good and thorough portal site [that] caters to my special interests. No mindless gossip; only meaningful gossip. No ads trying to sell me useless items of no interest to me, only ads trying to sell me useless items of real interest to me. Nerdworld has managed to put together a real collection of links and other things that I really do enjoy - something I would have put together myself (if I had just thought of it first!)" 

Confident in her identity as a female computer nerd, Rita doesn't worry about being remembered. After all, her email is visible to everyone who walks within ten feet of her! She wants to stand out as her true self: smart, strong and official. We welcome Rita's girl power and laud her for pushing forward in an industry that some look at as just another old boy, open source network. Cheers to Rita, our very first Female Nerd of the Week! 

Click here for a picture of the ideal female computer nerd. 

Morgan Michaels
Contributing Editor

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