Refactoring Computer Engineer Barbie

Jan 30, 2014   //   by Karen Lopez   //   Awesome, Blog, Data, Need Your Help, Snark, WIT, WTF  //  23 Comments

imageIn mid-January I came across a link to a story about a new book by Random House called Barbie I Can Be…A Computer Engineer.  As you know, I travel with a Computer Engineer Barbie (@data_model) and Venus Barbie (@venusbarbie) in my work advocating that girls take more STEM courses.  So let’s say I have a strong interest in making sure my wonder girl Barbie has a great book.

But the story said that the book actually put Barbie in not so great place.  So I bought the book and read it.  And it made me cringe.  I read it a few times and decided it needed to be fixed.  Or in Computer Engineering terms, it need to be refactored.

So that’s what I’ve done.  In this review of Barbie I Can Be…A Computer Engineer, I will point out the parts that set a lousy role model for girls and offer suggestions on how it can be refactored to make it better.  Just like in software refactoring, I’m not going to change the functionality of the book, but I’m going to improve the code words to leave it better.

And to make it easy for you to fix you copy, I’ve included a Refactoring Computer Engineer Barbie PDF. You are welcome.


Barbie is working on a design for a new puppy computer game when her laptop catches a virus.  Luckily, she wears a heart USB drive around her neck and has backups of her files.  So she uses her little sister’s (Skipper) laptop to try to retrieve the files.  Oh, CURSORS! she has infected Skipper’s laptop, too.  She promises to make it all right and rushes off to school to ask her computer teacher (who is a female!) how to fix it. Her teacher gives her some tips and Barbie heads to the library to get get both her data and Skipper’s data back.  She gets two friends to help and they get it done.  Skipper, with her restored data, makes an excellent presentation in her class where she says that Barbie is the person she most admires. Cue tears.  Barbie presents her game in computer class.  She does such a wonderful job, her teacher even gives her extra credit.

The End.

Well that sounds Awesome! Isn’t it?

Sounds like a great story with good female leadership, doesn’t it?  Female teacher, Barbie and friends fix the problem, Skipper and Barbie give great presentations.  We need more great females to speak, right? Well, just like in database design, the Devil is in the details.

Unfortunately, some of the details really make it look like Barbie is more of a Booth Babe than a Computer Engineer.  This is making the IT community cringe. Twitter is blowing up with campaigns to get the book removed from shelves or to get Random House to fix it.  Well, I’m going to save Random-House the effort by fixing refactoring it for them.  It’s one thing to raise the issue, but as a designer-architect-project manager-methodologist-computer engineer, I just want to FIX it.

Let’s start with the first troublesome passage:

Computer Engineer Barbie Laughs and is Needy


"I’m designing a game that shows kids how computers work", explains Barbie. "You can make a robot puppy do cute tricks by matching up a color blocks!"

"Your robot puppy is so sweet," says Skipper. "Can I play your game?"

"I’m only creating the design ideas," Barbie says, laughing. "I’ll need Steven’s and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game."

That last line is a problem. First, saying “I’m only” makes it look like design work is some how lesser than building.  I know there are some techs out there that would agree with that, but it’s still not true.  In fact, in technical professions, the designer / architect is the senior position on the project.  Secondly, she is laughing this line, as if it is hilarious to think that Barbie can build something.  Finally, Steven and Brian are recurring characters throughout the I Can Be… book series.  They are friends and friends help each other.  But this passage seems to reinforce a position that boys build, girls draw.

So I’ve refactored this passage by changing out that line with this one:

"Not yet," explains Barbie. "I need to finish the design then work with Steven and Brian to turn it into a game."

See how that says basically the same thing, but it doesn’t devalue Barbie’s design work? It also reinforces the more realistic situation that teams work together to make a product.  Barbie doesn’t “need help”; she is part of a team to get it done.

Steve and Brian Will Get It Done Faster


After class Barbie meets with Steven and Brian in the library.

"Hi guys!" says Barbie. "I tried to send you my designs but I ended up crashing my laptop and Skipper’s, too. I need to get back to lost files and repair both of our laptops."

"It will go faster if Brian and I help," offers Steven.

This last line could be interpreted that Steven and Brian, not Barbie, can get this done faster.  I realize this is just one interpretation and the intention could be that if everyone works together, we can get it done faster.  We know in software engineering this may or may not be true – in form of the Mythical Man Month.  But in general, three people fixing two laptops might make this all go faster – debugging, troubleshooting, copying files and those sorts of things typically do turn out better with more people at the desk. 

But I’m still concerned about the fact that the less generous interpretation could be that boys can fix things; girls just come to them with their problems. So I’ve refactored this to say:

"We can all work on this together; it will be faster," says Steven.

The work continues with this on the next page:

"I got Skipper’s assignment from the hard drive!" exclaimed Steven.

"Fantastic!" says Barbie. "And her other files as well?"

"I got everything," says Steven. "Now let’s retrieve the files from your hard drive. Both laptops will be good is new in no time!"

It’s here where the dialogue really makes it look like Steven did all the work and Barbie waited anxiously for the results of his work. So I’ve refactored these to show Barbie being more engaged in the process.  Not just the Holder of the Compact Disc.

"We’ve got Skipper’s assignment from the hard drive!" exclaimed Steven.

"Fantastic!" says Barbie. "Let me get her other files as well!"

"Great! Now we’ve got everything," says Steven.

See how Barbie has a more engaged role here? No confusion about her fixing this problem, too.

One More Thing…

One of the key things that an engineer should do when disasters happen is to ensure that it never happens again.  One of the steps missing from this story is making sure Barbie and Skipper’s laptops are safe from future viruses. So I’ve added a new line to a passage:

The next morning Barbie gives her sister a big surprise. Skipper turns on your laptop – and it works!

"My lost assignment! cries Skipper. "You are just too cool, Barbie. You fixed my computer and saved my homework!

"I set up new security software on both laptops to make sure this doesn’t happen again," exclaims Barbie.

Skipper gives Barbie a huge hug.

You can’t just retrieve the files; you have to ensure those pesky viruses don’t come back.

How Do We Fix the Book, Though?


I fixed my copy by refactoring the printed pages.  You can do that, too. I’m sharing the Refactoring Computer Engineer Barbie PDF I created with the refactored dialogue.  Just print it on sticker paper and cut out the revised sections to update your copy of the book.  You might also want to head over to read that open letter to Random House, too.

I love my Technical Barbies and I want girls (and their parents) to have great role models in real life, not just with dolls action figures.  So books like this need the Best Practices in their writing.  I hope you do, too.

I have another post coming about the computer security parts of this story.  But for now, go fix your copy of this book.  Don’t leave it sitting around in production, waiting for someone to read it when it’s wrong.  Love your Data and Love your @Data_Model.


  • I’d love to have you either leave a message on my show’s Voice Mail or better yet if you have time to do a skype Interview for an upcoming taping of my show. (I wrote the open letter you linked above)

    I’ve recently sent a second copy of that letter to RandomHouse’s CEO and several media outlets.

    • I’d be happy to do the Skype thing. I’ve had this draft post going for a couple of weeks now; your post triggered me to finish it and get it posted.

      What I’d love to see happen is for Random House to revise the work if they have future prints planned.

      My Technical Barbies and I have done some fabulous things over the years and we’ve travelled the world together. I was excited to hear that a book had been published. Then let down by a weak storyline.

      Maybe all of this will lead to more press for STEM and girls. My passion.
      Karen Lopez recently posted..10 Tips for the Minimalist DBAMy Profile

  • Wonderful post, but if you were really keen on refactoring you would remove all those strikethroughs…unless you were trying to show how refactoring often forgets to clean up after itself. 🙂
    sqlrockstar recently posted..Observations On a Wife ProjectMy Profile

    • Ah. Refactoring. That technical debt is clearly logged in the backlog of work to get cleaned up. Just as soon as I figure out where the heck Steven and Brian ran off to. I think they are in the library again, trying to find girls to help with their laptops.
      Karen Lopez recently posted..Refactoring Computer Engineer BarbieMy Profile

  • Karen,

    Thanks for posting this. I make every effort to let my daughter know that she can do anything she wants (except stay up all night on her iPod). When I find examples like this book I make an extra effort that she understands that she doesn’t have to have a passive role, in anything.

    When we talk about what she wants to be when she grows up, and she lists out a handful of occupations, I always end with “It doesn’t matter what you do, I just want you to kick ass while doing it.”


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    • That’s wonderful, Tom.

      I’m not sure what guidance I’d give to a daughter. I think I’d say similar things – be great. But I also think I’d sit my kids down and some them some math about how career choices have an impact on other parts of their lives. Work-life balance, availability of jobs, possibility of flexible or remote work, pay scales…well, all that data.

      I don’t believe in steering kids into careers. I do believe in ensuring they have the data they need to make good decisions.
      Karen Lopez recently posted..To Santa with Love, KittyMy Profile

  • Thank you for posting this. It is important that we teach and model that talent is not divided on gender lines — and it is important that this message reaches both young women and young men. It is not only a problem if women are discouraged from studying STEM and pursuing technical careers, but also if men (continue to) assume that women should not be in technical jobs. I realize the Barbie book is marketed to girls, but don’t discount the risk that their brothers will be included in the collateral damage and will grow up with a world view that should have been buried in 1950.

  • Great re-factoring, but I take offense that a children’s book would depict students (of either gender) learning about designing software before they build software.

    Like you said design is a senior role, and I don’t like this current trend of fresh college graduates with a CS, CIS, CompE or EE degree being hired in BA or PM positions.I certainly wouldn’t want my daughter attending a CS program where a design class came before the class where they learned how to actually tell a compiler how to render shapes to a screens. One needs experience as a grunt practitioner before they should be in a design or leadership role.

    I think that’s part of what I see to be a greater problem in America (and the UK, but I can’t speak from experience about Canada).We’re not teaching our kids how the sausage gets made. Everything is abstracted away. Personally I pay someone to change my oil, and wash and fold my clothing. I fully expect my daughter to do so as an adult (assuming we still drive cars and wear cloths). However, before she is 18 I will make her do a load of laundry at a laundromat, jack up up my car and change the oil, and change a tire. She will know how the sausage gets made.
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    • I’m not sure the book shows design learning before coding. Where do you see that?
      Karen Lopez recently posted..Data Will Confess to Anything….My Profile

      • I contend that she’s not learning to be a Computer Engineer at all in this book. She’s a graphics designer or game designer or something. The whole title is completely wrong. It’s not that she learned design before coding.

        Not to mention: what the heck is a “Computer Engineer” anyway? Should be software developer, or some other actual profession (and education path).

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        • There are Computer Engineering university programs, but they are typically hardware-oriented. This career Barbie came about when Mattel did a write-in campaign on social media. From their press release:

          The Vote Is In: Barbie® Unveils Her 125th and 126th Careers
          For the first time ever, Barbie® asked the world to help her select her next career. Over the past few months Barbie® did research around the world and also conducted an online voting campaign, calling upon the world to vote for her doll’s next career – Barbie® has asked her Twitter followers and fans on Facebook to help her with this important career decision.

          But that’s not all! Consumers loudly campaigned for another Barbie® career. The winner of the popular vote is Computer Engineer. Computer Engineer Barbie®, debuting in Winter 2010, inspires a new generation of girls to explore this important high-tech industry, which continues to grow and need future female leaders.

          “All the girls who imagine their futures through Barbie will learn that engineers – like girls – are free to explore infinite possibilities, limited only by their imagination,” says Nora Lin, President, Society of Women Engineers. “As a computer engineer, Barbie will show girls that women can turn their ideas into realities that have a direct and positive impact on people’s everyday lives in this exciting and rewarding career.”

          To create an authentic look, Barbie® designers worked closely with the Society of Women Engineers and the National Academy of Engineering to develop the wardrobe and accessories for Computer Engineer Barbie®. Wearing a binary code patterned tee and equipped with all the latest gadgets including a smart phone, Bluetooth headset, and laptop travel bag, Computer Engineer Barbie® is geek chic.

          Always a trailblazer, Barbie® continues her impressive career path in 2010 and throughout the new decade as she takes on these two new aspirational careers. Both News Anchor Barbie® and Computer Engineer Barbie® are currently available for pre-order exclusively at

          Barbie was nominated by an engineer. So perhaps we should ask the Engineering profession WTH they were thinking when they helped design this action figure :).

          But I would guess that good computer program of study (let’s leave this broadly interpreted for now) would include design, UX, etc. Plus we don’t know that she hasn’t already completed a coding class. I know lots of coding courses that never cover security or anti-malware.

  • Great “refactoring!” I am majoring in Computer Engineering and saw this Barbie and book just the other day. Needless to say, I bought both in happiness that there was a computer engineering Barbie. I agree that the book made it seem like Barbie had to have everyone do everything for her (let’s not start with the fact that she didn’t have antivirus in the first place!). As one of 80 female ECE majors and one of maybe 10 female computer engineering majors, we need this Barbie even better!

    • Katie: Thanks for your comments. I have a follow up post coming where I talk about the security and other issues I see in the story. They probably aren’t relevant to a kid’s book, but any chance to work in @data_model in a post and I’m all over it.

      Karen Lopez recently posted..Refactoring Computer Engineer BarbieMy Profile

  • Hi Karen

    This is a nice refactoring of the dialog.

    I was going to print it out, but there are a couple minor typos or oddly worded passages: “the library’s computer” vs. “a library computer”, and the typo “good is new” vs “good as new” and “Skipper turns on your laptop” vs. “Skipper turns on her laptop”

    I’d even suggest that “Let me get her other files as well!” should be something like “I’ll get her other files as well!” Also, she’s still taking credit for fixing the laptop. I suppose we could take that as a wink, or she could mention she and her friends worked together to do it.


  • Also, we need to stop sticking glasses on people to mark them as “smart”. I see that in most kids’ shows as well. The nerd always has glasses.

    I’ve met plenty of dumb hipsters who were wearing glasses 🙂


    • There’s a whole faux-nerd thing going on (or it was last year) with girls wearing clear glasses to dress as nerds/smart people.

      It’s also one of those Hollywood memes: make a girl ugly, put her hair up and give her glasses. Make her over, let her hair down and fix her eyes. No glasses.
      Karen Lopez recently posted..10 Tips for the Minimalist DBAMy Profile

  • I love what you’ve done with this book. (Found my way here via your comment on
    KarenD recently posted..I’m Fine, Perfectly FineMy Profile

  • Thank you for this. I do really like the simplified way of making this better. I think the only thing I would change is in the last part where Barbie says:

    “Steven and Brian helped as well, and I set up new security software on both laptops to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” exclaims Barbie.

    The reason for this, is because I still feel like Barbie is taking all the credit for something when she did have help. A team environment is essential in IT, and not recognizing the team aspect, in my opinion, is leaving out a very important dynamic. It also shows Barbie is willing to acknowledge her friends’ contributions and appreciates them.

  • […] Refactoring Computer Engineer Barbie (Karen Lopez) […]

  • It’s such a shame that it was written by a woman and even worse that it was approved all the way up the line into production.

    You have given such a wonderful way to turn this POS book into something positive. Thank you Karen Lopez.

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