Burn In 2: Joyce Park

This is the third entry in the O’Reilly Radar series about how alpha geeks got into computers. Today we look at Joyce Park, a PHP programmer, blogger, and famous former employee of Friendster. She is now working on her startup, Renkoo.

Joyce Park’s Story

How did I get into computers? Like Jane Eyre, and countless other women, the
answer is: reader, I married him.

I was in the history PhD program at the University of Chicago when I fell in
love with and married Tim Converse, a doctoral candidate in AI. Up till then,
I’d basically just used computers for writing papers and a little bit of email
— your typical academic Maclab customer. We had early personal computers in
the home, but they belonged to my older brother; and I’d taken a Basic class as
a kid — but perhaps because I was baffled and bored by computer games of all
sorts, no real interest in programming developed. (I suspect there’s a lesson
here about gender differentials in teaching programming, but I can’t say I have
a better idea of how to go about it.)

After our marriage, Tim introduced me to Unix and to the Internet. He taught
me ls, cd, finger, and talk. He taught me to use emacs. He was also the one
who first told me about the Web. I can remember the first time in the mid-90’s
he told me he’d seen this great new thing, Mosaic; and to my eternal shame my
response was: “Who is going to want to see pictures of people’s dogs on the

But the power of the Web could not be denied for long, and by the late 90’s I’d
dropped out of grad school to make computers my life. I largely taught myself
what would later come to be known as LAMP out of books and by hacking around,
and enthusiastically became a citizen of Open Source Nation (province of PHP).
Open Source has always been very very good to me, and I’m sure I would never
have been able to become a programmer if it weren’t for the endless generosity
of the community.

So for me programming has always meant Web programming, which is still rather
looked down upon by other programmers — even Nat Torkington recently said,
“MySpace profile pages? I hope this isn’t the extent of what this decade has
to offer the young hackers.” I don’t think Web programming makes you a great
coder except insofar as it makes it much faster to express your ideas; but I
think what differentiates a Web programmer is a love of interconnectedness.
One page or resource by itself has little value on the Internet — it’s largely
by touching multitudes of resources, pointing to each other, sharing,
suggesting, editing, glossing, and remixing that meanings emerge. Sometimes I
wonder if programmers who came up in the standalone binary world really feel
this truth to the necessary degree, or if secretly they hanker for the greater
sense of control, closure, and completion that a standalone binary app gives

Tim and I came out to Silicon Valley at the very very end of the boom, just
before the stock market hit its peak. I wondered at first if the Valley could
possibly have a place for a female 30-year-old recycled historian among all the
CS grads, but I’ve found there’s always room for someone who genuinely loves
the Internet and wants to contribute. I’ve also been lucky in that the things
I care about the most — building social software apps, and the new
architectures necessary to support the special demands of those apps — are so
new they aren’t much taught in CS departments, so an academically trained
computer scientist doesn’t have much advantage in the field over someone like

I’d very much like to do my bit to encourage other non-CS types who are drawn
to programming. Even though it seems impossibly hard at the beginning, writing
code with your own hands gives you a level of credibility and perspective on
the software development process that are hard to come by through other means.
I get a lot of product ideas just by understanding the techniques, and
increasingly the social science training helps me too. Ultimately coding is a
form of expression, of making your ideas and your unique perspective into
something concrete enough to show the world — and I feel privileged to have
gotten so many opportunities to express myself through computers.