Jeanne Stelzer

Jeanne Stelzer was a programmer, a software engineer, a project manager, and the Senior Program Manager for a vice president executive of IBM. While she may not build games, she does play them avidly, and she wrote code for a living for 32 years at a tech company that was ushering in a new era of computing circa the 1980s. 

Retired, Senior Software Engineer – Senior Program Manager


North Dakota State University (1974) – Bachelor of Science, 
Computer Science + Minor, Mathematics 
George Washington University – Masters in Project Management

When did you get into gaming?

I graduated from North Dakota State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science. The degree had only been available for a couple years; when I first started, it was all Mathematics. Most of the companies like IBM were hiring Math grads because there weren’t a lot of schools that had computer Science degrees at the time. But we had one, and I graduated, & IBM hired me. I guess the first time I thought of computers was in high school; I did a report on computers. It was basically talking about binary systems and things like that. So everybody just assumed that, “Oh, well, she’s going to go in to computers!” So I did. *laughs*

“Gender should be a non-issue. I grew up in an environment where a female, in my family, could do whatever she wanted to do. […] If you put your mind to it, you can do it! And there shouldn’t be anything holding you back.”

Were there any other ‘computer people’ in your family at the time?

My brother, a year older than me, had always talked about computers. So I guess that’s what inspired me. He went to college, but didn’t finish, so, I was the first one to graduate from college. He just went off and did other stuff and I actually stuck with the computer field. I lived in North Dakota in a farming community, and nobody really knew anything about computers, or thought anything about them. When I was a senior in high school, my brother had just started college, so he had actually seen computers there and had started on them, and that’s what got me interested. Otherwise I wouldn’t have known anything about them.

What was your job?

Our team at IBM developed the compiler that the System 38 Operating System was written in, so it was a basic coding-type job. The language was called PLMI. After 5 years I became a manager. IBM liked to send their managers out to do recruiting, and chose me to help since I was female, and they wanted to help recruit females. I liked interviewing people, so they wanted to assign me to occasionally go out to a university – they gave me Michigan State because I had family in Michigan – and I would just go out there and talk to them. I was interviewing everybody, but I was also trying to encourage women, too.

So it was already starting to be a male-dominated field?

It was! And it was interesting because I was NOT the only female in my computer science classes in North Dakota. When I started with IBM, though, there weren’t that many females. But IBM actually had a push to hire females. So there were maybe about five of us that got hired at about the same time. I was able to encourage those girls still in university anyway by showing them PC stuff. When the PC first came out, I brought a PC with me to the university and set it up there. I was fortunate; nobody else in my area at work had one. We had terminal rooms, and if you were lucky you had a terminal in your office. We called them MTMTs – Multiple Terminal Monitor Task– but it was all just text. But when IBM came out with the PC, since I had this recruiting deal worked out with the university, I said to IBM, “Look, I’m not going to show it to those students if I don’t even know how to turn the thing on. That’s not going to look good.” So they actually brought a PC to me and I had it in my office and I got to play with it. And I think that was how I really got into playing with PCs. Then I would demo it in a classroom, a Computer Science and Engineering class, and there would be maybe… three females in that entire class. Out of about forty students. That was in the early eighties, ’83 or ’84.

How many girls do you think you successfully got through to?

I know of one for sure who accepted the job offered her at IBM. There were about 4 others who interviewed later at IBM, but I don’t know if they were offered jobs. They definitely stayed in the computer field though. I wish I could say it was hundreds! But there wasn’t much opportunity to follow through. The one that I know had looked me up later and specifically told me that she was there because of me. That was nice.

“I may not be exactly like Lara Croft, but we all want to be strong. We want to show that we can be strong, and smart, and do the right things.”

Do you remember any hesitations the girls had about joining the computer world?

Everybody thought that IBM was pretty strict – and IBM actually was pretty uptight at the time. It was mostly male-dominated, and you just had to be more like “one of the guys,” basically. It wasn’t like you had to worry about being harassed; there were never any overt things against you from the guys. I never had anybody harass me. IBM didn’t stand for it, so that just didn’t happen. A lot of it was trying to convince women that, you CAN do this, you don’t HAVE to worry about harassment. I don’t know if they got that in school, or what, but it wasn’t anything that you had to worry about in a good corporate environment. You’re not going to have those problems.­­

Tell me about some of your favorite games, and on what consoles they were available.

The first game I remember playing at home was the original Pong, in the year ’78. We hooked it up and played it right on the TV. The Apple II and the Commodore 64 had some little games on them. Before then, of course, were the bar games… Asteroids, Pac Man, etc. But the first game that I would call a REAL computer game that I enjoyed playing was called Ultima. It was published by Origin, and Richard Garriott, the creator, was actually living here in Austin, Texas.

Richard  Garriott of "Ultima" fame depicted saving Anna Lergaard from Jason Fox's axe blade.

Richard Garriott of Ultima  fame depicted saving Anna Lergaard from Jason Fox’s axe blade during PAX.

You had a world, and you had your little avatar in there that went around and did different things and fought creatures, so it was your basic hack-and-slash type game. But it was fun because you had to figure out where you wanted to go; it wasn’t like the original Sierra™ ones. King’s Quest, do you remember those games? I played all of those.

Ultima I: First Age of Darkness

Ultima I: First Age of Darkness

As a gamer, what is the one most important aspect of a game that you feel elevates the good games above the rest?

I personally love the graphics. I love good, crisp graphics. That’s why I’m not a big fan of Minecraft; the graphics feel like a step backwards. And so I don’t even find it interesting; I’m not quite that nostalgic. And I do love the first-person games, I guess.
“Usually they’re referred to as First Person Shooters.”
*wince* Okay, yeah, I played Doom, the one where you go through the dungeon in the first person… I don’t care for those kinds of games because I get too stressed. I play games to relax. My job was stressful enough; I didn’t need to get all tense during a game. So the games that I preferred were the ones where you’re acting on your own timeline. You weren’t forced to do things in a certain timeframe. Also, I like where you play against the engine and not necessarily against other players. And I’ve played multiplayer online games. I’ve played Evony, which is one of these “Clash of Clan”-type games, where other people are actually fighting against you.

Evony screenshot.

Evony screenshot.

It just gets a little too personal. So I prefer the non-personal games. I’ll go attack a city if it’s a computer-engine city. But I don’t feel right attacking a city that another player, another real person, has taken so much time to build up. That’s just me.
“So you get emotionally invested?”
To an extent… Not so much “emotionally invested” as that, I’m just a nice person! *laughs* And I don’t care to destroy something that someone else has created.

What sort of games do you think there are not enough of? What direction to you want to see the industry take?

The industry kind of went off into all of the GameBoys® and all of the console systems, as opposed to what you could play on your computer… Like I said, I used to buy PC games and play them on the computer, and I never really had a game console until you talked me into the Wii. Now, that game on the Wii you introduced me to – Okami – I loved that game. I thought it was great! And that’s interesting because the graphics weren’t exceptional on that game, they really weren’t… but they were pretty.



“So you didn’t really do consoles much?”
No, it was all just what I do on my computer. So, games like Myst were wonderful. I LOVED Myst. That was a great game. I think by the time they got to the fourth one, though, you couldn’t play it without a cheat-sheet. You needed a walkthrough. It just got a little too… out-there, a little too weird, how some of the mysteries were solved. And then some portions of them were timed, which would be difficult for me, since my fingers don’t work real well now with arthritis and everything. I cannot move the mouse properly – I physically cannot DO it – as fast as the time frame says I need to do it. They need a way to get the boundaries fixed for people like me who just can’t physically do it.

Myst screenshot.

Myst screenshot.

“Are you talking about a sort of handicap?”
It’s almost like an accessibility thing, yeah. But there’s a lot of people like me, and there will be in the future, as gamers get older who grew up with these games. We like playing them, and we still like some of the shoot-em-up games. I still like to go in and smash a bunch of goblins, you know. *chuckle* But you need to be able to do it on your own terms.

How would you involve women with the gaming community, who otherwise might not become involved on their own? 

“You can’t keep kids away from it, they’re gonna know how to do these things. So pretty soon, my grandkids were taking my Kindle out of my hands, and then they were playing it.”


Clash of Clans

I think that a lot of these Facebook-type games are a step towards doing that. If they’re in an environment where they may just see a game, I think they’re more likely to pick it up. A lot of games I’ve played because they were recommended to me by somebody in the online community. It’s like recommending a movie to somebody – it’s a form of entertainment, so it’s that same sort of thing. It’s like losing yourself in a good book. I like to lose myself in a game. And then, by doing that game, you may see others like it that you might go ahead and give a shot. But then again, you also have family, like how you talked me into­ Okami, and your brother talked me into Clash of Clans.

Do you have any recommendations of what a big company like Microsoft could do to bring more women into gaming?

Microsoft had a lot of really good PC games! I don’t know if they wrote them themselves or just bought them, but I played them when your father was working at Microsoft from the Company Store. There were quite a few games that I got through the Microsoft Store that were the type of game that I’ve been talking about – that I liked doing – where you get involved and the game tells a whole story. It’s like a book, only you’re doing things, not just reading. (Age of Empires; Neverwinter Nights; Dungeon Siege; Sid Meyer’s Civilization)


Age of Empires: The Rise of Rome

The thing about getting women involved in those is maybe when they go for testing – I would have loved to have been a game tester. I don’t know how they go about getting volunteers for testing games, but … *laughs* but I find that maybe, you know, they would get a little more valuable input. Really, not all women are just, “Give me a cooking game! Give me a sewing game!” You know, that’s not the way it is. My typical avatar is this Amazonian woman with a long ponytail. I may not be exactly like Lara Croft, but we all want to be strong. We want to show that we can be strong, and smart, and do the right things. [Gender] should be a non-issue. I grew up in an environment where a female, in my family, could do whatever she wanted to do. And hopefully you were in that same environment in your family! If you put your mind to it, and you want to do it, you can do it! And there shouldn’t be anything holding you back.

You’re saying your gender should not make a difference in what you do for a living in the technology industry?

It should not make a difference, and it’s unfortunate that it sounds like it still is.

How do you think people with diverse backgrounds impact the development community?

Just basically the different ideas. Different ways of looking at things. I don’t know if by “diverse backgrounds” you mean other cultures too, because that’s all a part of it also. I would love to own a game that came from a different culture! It may give me some insight into how they lived and worked. I find all that interesting. The older you get, the more interested you are in other people and places like that. Younger kids don’t seem to be.
“There’s a game I think you’d like called Never Alone that delves into the traditional lore of a tribe of Alaskan Native people.”
You know, that’s the sneaky way to teach kids things, too! *laughs* But yeah, you could teach a lot of things through games. You can be sneaky, but you can learn a lot of stuff too. Interesting thing: In February, we went to Hawaii to visit with the grandkids. They grew up in Alaska, and their mother’s not one much for letting them play computer games & things like that. So, I had my Kindle along. And, I brought up Angry Birds and Candy Crush, you know, those little games. And they were standing behind me, and they knew immediately. You can’t keep kids away from it, they’re gonna know how to do these things. So pretty soon, they were taking it out of my hands, and then they were playing it. So, it’s just with kids, they just kind of grow up knowing these things now.

Never Alone cover image

Never Alone cover image

Did you ever feel like you wanted to make your own game? Was there ever any idea you had that made you go, “Man, I wish I could build a game that had this.”

I can’t say that there was. Thinking about it, I know parts of games that I liked, and the things that I enjoyed doing, but to actually come up with the idea? It’s like writing a book. I love Science Fiction books. I love stories where I get lost in the world that science fiction writers have created. It’s the same thing with games; you have to have a good world and a good story that you’ve created that the player can get lost in. And I’ve never quite had that creative bent to be able to come up with those worlds. I know a good one when I see it. And I know a good book when I read it, I know a good world when I play in it. I don’t think I could create it.

Thank you, Jeanne, for such an engaging look into the games industry of the past!