My Grandma’s Punch Line: An Interview


It took us a long time to decide on our first article on the WICCA blog. I had ambitions to make it educational, fun, entertaining, relevant. I quickly discovered that it was hard to have a blog be all of these things at once. And so, I went to France to visit my mother and grandmother and think about other things.

My grandmother was born in Blida, Algeria, in 1940, back when Algeria was still a French colony. She never really talked about her childhood with me, and when I sat on the couch with her last Friday before going back to Paris, I asked her how Blida was for the very first time. The conversation quickly became this back and forth exchange and evolved into an actual interview about her life and mostly, her career. I had a pen and paper in my hands, and as I asked Mamie about Algeria, about her studies, her move to France, her first job as a technician, women in the 60s to 90s workplace, and her time spent punching cards, I finally knew what the first post of the WICCA blog was going to be. 

It would be about Marie-Thérèse’s life and her journey through the rise of computers.  

Marie-Thérèse, “A very long time ago.”

Mamie, how did it all start? 

At school, I was very gifted at mathematics. Teachers always praised my automatism for understanding concepts everyone else had trouble with. I could just see formulas and understand them immediately. I knew that maths was my true calling. After high school, I went to Alger to study MPC (maths, physics, and chemistry). I never really had a thing for chemistry, but it was part of the package. 

I guess this was back in the late 50s early 60s. Were there a lot of women with you in the classroom? 

There were some women, but I had a very interesting view of the situation. My grandmother was the eldest of thirteen children, and life was quite harsh. She helped her mother take care of the entire household and carried all of this weight on her shoulder. She always told me women only needed to know three things: how to read, write, and count. That was all that was needed to tend to your household. But my mother—she had a different opinion. She never wanted to upset her mother, but she always took me to the side and told me in secret: “Women need to study. Women need to work.” She wanted me to become independent and have my own career. I was too young to understand why both had such opposing views, but I followed my mother’s words. 

What was your first job like?

I started as a mere pen-pusher for a company called SN REPAL. My job was to process experiment results and find places to dig for oil. At some point, they came to me and offered me a different position, something more interesting. It was the same work, more extensive, but automated. And that’s the first time I heard of punched cards. I was so nervous that I couldn’t do it, but my boss was convinced I could. 

Punched Card Introductions, Computer History Museum

And, was your boss right?

Of course! I think the same thing happened as with mathematics. I was so fascinated by this new technology, how I could directly talk to a machine. This was a fantastic discovery for me. At some point, we followed a course in programming with punched cards and magnetic tape storage at Bull. I had the best results in the class and made others very jealous! This was in Paris—I moved there after the Algerian War. Then I met your grandpa and was pregnant with your mother. I left my job then for my maternity leave. 

So my mother was born, and you could work again. What did you do then?

Your grandpa saw a job posting from Bull in the newspaper. He convinced me to apply, so I sent in my application. They called me in for an interview, and since they still had my training results, they hired me. My job was no longer processing research results or automating stuff. I tested new technologies, and I loved it. My managers always praised me for being adaptable. New things interested me, and I didn’t want to get bored. I tested stuff people never wanted. Punched cards were revolutionary, and when we got the first computer screens—that was wonderful! I ended my career at Bull in 1995 being the first and only employee implementing and using dynamic SQL. 

How many women were in your office? And what was it like for women in the workplace?

A fourth of my colleagues were women, but we didn’t see it as a problem. Actually, we didn’t ask ourselves whether this was a problem. We were hired because we were good at maths, and we were happy to have jobs. At Bull, the pay gap wasn’t even that bad. At the end of my career, I made nearly as much as my husband in the same company working less hours. I didn’t have many bad interactions at work like you hear on TV. I once heard a man say he didn’t want a woman as manager because he didn’t want to depend on a woman. My colleague once got told that she had to wear a skirt in the office. It was so cold that she answered that she didn’t want her ass to freeze! 

Were you good at negotiating your salary?

Not at all. I never negotiated. We didn’t really have many places to go back then, and employers knew that. IT wasn’t a thing, and we were just technicians in a niche field. I was offered a higher position at some point, but that implied working extra hours and more responsibilities. Back then, I was dating [her late husband], and your mother was in her teens, so I refused. 

Marie-Thérèse, Hautes-Alpes, France, February 25, 2022

What about cyber security?

Ha! That didn’t exist. 


What is my grandmother doing now?

Well, she turned 80 in 2020, so no more SQL for her! But she has an Android phone, and she likes to connect it to her car. She’s very proud when that happens. This conversation with her gave me a glimpse into the past, into the history of my career. It’s just crazy how, only sixteen years after my grandma retired, I started my studies in Computer Science and Engineering.

And it’s even crazier that, nearly thirty years later, I have never once seen a punched card, while those babies were like tiny miracles to Marie-Thérèse. 

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