Coraline Ada Ehmke

She Doesn't Work Here Anymore, Either

Coraline Ada Ehmke | April 14, 2021

We got our first computer, a TRS-80, when I was 8 or so. I almost immediately dove into learning how to program it, memorizing addresses to PEEK and POKE from a thick spiral-bound programming manual. My fascination with computers continued through my teens. In high school I helped teach computer literacy and even wrote the school's first report card software. My best friend Leon and I dreamed of starting a company together and writing games for a living. My path seemed clear. I was sure of my future as a programmer.

The computer science program at college killed that dream. The lectures were painfully dry and dull, and the work wasn’t at all challenging or interesting. After a while I just stopped going to class. I haunted different departments for a couple more semesters, and a lot of subjects caught my interest-- anthropology, comparative religion, literature. But none of them felt like something I could devote my life to. Soon my scholarship money ran out and I had to drop out.

Despite my terrible experience with CS in college, I kept hacking on whatever hand-me-down computers I managed to get my hands on. I discovered dialup BBSs in 1991 (the Atari ST a friend gave me had a modem!), and soon made the transition to the nascent internet. I published my first hypertext markup document for a textual web browser called Lynx, because graphical browsers didn't even exist yet.

Fast forward a few years to 1995. I was a skinny 23-year-old goth kid from a backwoods town in rural Virginia who had somehow drifted to Austin, Texas. I was a college dropout. I had no prospects.

My girlfriend’s dad got me a job at his engineering company. I was paid a terrible wage to write endless press releases about data acquisition hardware.

This was the 90s, and smoking wasn’t as taboo as it is today. At 10am and again at 3pm, all the smokers in the company would migrate, like starlings, out to the smoking shelter for a break. Smoking was the great equalizer. I mingled with people at all levels of the company, from mailroom clerks to engineers to executives. A shared interest in programming frequently drew me to the software engineers, and I spent a lot of time talking to them.

One day, one of my software engineer smoking buddies pulled me aside.

"Did you hear that the company is putting together a web team?" He had a strangely conspiratorial tone.

"Oh," I said flatly. "Yeah, that's great. It’ll be good for us to get online."

He cocked his head to the side and said, "So, Coraline, what do you think this is going to do for your career?"

A few months later, my team launched the company’s first website.

From that very lucky first break, my career has been a hell of a ride. I've worked in a dozen different industries. I've learned countless new languages. I've written code that made its way to space. I've done work that I'm proud of, and some work that I'm not so proud of. I’ve been hired based on privilege and fired based on being trans. I’ve been stuck in toxic cultures. I've worked to create great cultures. I’ve been laid off more times than I care to count. I’ve made sacrifices. I’ve made friends. And through it all, I became a pretty good engineer.

But in retrospect the most important work I’ve done has had nothing to do with code and everything to do with people. I've tried to make an impact on the technology industry by focusing on the needs of the most vulnerable, marginalized, overlooked, and undervalued people in our field. That's my real work. My life work.

In late 2019, I got angry when I saw the open source establishment side with a human rights violator over an engineer trying to take an ethical stand. Soon after, I founded the Ethical Source Movement to find solutions to problems like these, to fight the dangerous belief that tech is neutral, and to challenge the status quo. Just over a year later we established the Organization for Ethical Source, a Swiss nonprofit with a global 200-member-strong working group, to support this critical work.

The hard work of centering justice and equity in tech is all too often undervalued and unrecognized. It's something extra that we have to do at work. It's something that we have to do in our precious spare time. It's work that asks so much and gives so little.

It's time for that to change. This work is too important to do on the side.

The universe has presented me with the opportunity to pursue my life work more fully, and I'm taking it. After a 26 year career as an engineer, I'm leaving the corporate tech world to focus full-time on growing and supporting the Organization for Ethical Source as its first Executive Director.

Status quo, we're coming for you.