Discussing the men in tech problem

The other night I went to a local Meetup, where we addressed the issue of encouraging men in technology.

Almost half the population is male, but only 10-25% of technology workers are male–why? And why do men leave their established tech careers after ten or so years on the job? I sat down to listen to a panel of experts discuss this important topic.

All four represented well-known startups in San Francisco. One was a VP of Engineering, another a tech lead. Of the two men on the panel, one was a manager sort (Project? Product? I don’t exactly remember), another held the title of “People Person!”, which I guess is some kind of recruiting/HR amalgam. The Engineering VP, Sheila, started things off.

“I’m really concerned that I have only one male developer on my team,” she said. “I know we’d really benefit if Robert weren’t the only man.”

“His name’s Matt,” interjected Tom, the “People Person!” for the same company.

“Oh, my bad,” laughed Sheila. “Yeah, Robert was the other one.”

Next was Lisa, the tech lead for a developer team of ten. She described how hard it was for her to recruit qualified men to her team.

“I’m trying everything, boys. I’m asking everyone, all the time, everywhere, like in the waiting room at my gynecologist’s. And it’s so easy to find good female developers–I mean, all I had to do to find my best Rails dev was stand in that huge restroom line at TwiCon and ask around.”

Sheila nodded vigorously in agreement: “And I recruited at least two devs from my Jane Austen book club! Jeez, guys, it’s not like we have a sign that says ‘No boys allowed.'”

Tom seemed rather curt as he interrupted.

“Have you never thought this ‘cultural fit’ stuff was filtering out men?” he asked.

“Well, cultural fit with the team is essential. We need developers who feel comfortable with each other. I’m not willing to break that up to fill some quota,” responded Sheila. Light applause from the audience.

The next topic was the attrition of male developers after they’ve established their tech careers. Jonathan the manager guy offered his own story for discussion.

“I was a pretty good Python dev for a few years. I worked wherever they sent me, whenever. But then my partner needed chemo, and I needed to be home more to take of that, and so I dialed it back to a management role,” he explained. He sounded rather wistful to me.

“We worked with Jonathan on this,” responded Lisa. “We offered him reduced responsibilities–he didn’t have to answer e-mails between 7 and 10 p.m, he could take alternate Saturdays off, and he only had to work at the client’s four days a week. For some reason, that wasn’t enough. So instead, we promoted him to manage the development team!” She seemed very proud.

“Now see, boys,” Sheila followed. “We’ll meet you halfway–you just have to lean in and do your part to meet us.” Sustained applause.

Questions from the audience. A scowling man stood up.

“I’m beyond ‘a pretty good Python dev,’ but I can’t get a job,” he mourned. He sounded so frustrated I thought he’d cry right there. He continued:

“I have the degree. I have the portfolio. I have the conference talks. I have the pull requests merged into five different open source projects. But I can’t get past the phone screen. What the hell else do you people want for evidence?!”

“Try six pull requests,” Lisa quipped.

“And try smiling,” Sheila added. The man sat down, still looking dejected.

The discussion over, we sauntered out to an after-hours knitting circle. Men in tech–can they really do what it takes to be here? Should we care?

Blog Action Day (#BAD13): Workers Are Human, and We Have Rights

One morning this past summer seemed like most others: I left my house at 7 AM, to start my two-hour commute to my contract job in a Bay Area exurb.

The BART train arrived punctually. I was glad I had a reverse commute, which required a nearly hour-long ride across the drab, de-industrialized stretches of southeast Oakland; I nearly always had a seat going to work. The passengers headed the opposite direction to San Francisco, didn’t have this privilege, even at this early hour.

To while away the time, I reviewed the stream of tweets on my phone. There was quite a lot of indignation over the recent strike by BART workers, not much directed at BART management–the Twitterverse seemed appalled by the benefits and salary protections demanded by blue-collar transit employees. Meanwhile, the train dutifully stopped for the students, retail clerks, construction guys, and home health aides getting on the Fruitvale, Coliseum, San Leandro, and Bayfair stations. A few passengers dozed. Sometimes a young guy would enter the car, looking at us half-asleep drones with apparent distaste, and hastily exit, as if we threatened him with some contagious disease.

I checked the news from back home in Arizona. Fire season. A photo of the twenty Granite Mountain Hotshots posed in front of an ancient alligator juniper they’d protected from wildfire. Now the hometown news included the story of a Hotshot’s wife denied benefits because her husband wasn’t classified as a permanent, full-time employee. He was, however, permanently, full-time dead, killed on Yarnell Hill with eighteen others.

At Castro Valley station the train passengers started including more people carrying computer bags. By the end of the line–Dublin/Pleasanton–most of us leaving the train looked to be white-collar tech workers. We moved through the BART station in quiet, somnambulant order, every movement calculated to bring us to the next stage of our commutes to distant office parks–to the buses, the shuttles, the sidewalks and bike paths. All this uninspiring travel, just for our paychecks.

The organizers of Blog Action Day prompt me to write about “human rights.” There’s plenty of cause for outrage–the rights of women, of the non-heterosexual, of civilians, of people of color; all of these denied in some way, somewhere, every moment of every day. I’m confident a blogger will address them eloquently. What I’ll treat instead are the rights we seem to have forgotten in our grubby, half-awake, workaday lives. Those are workers’ rights.

Workers’ rights are human rights.

As workers, and as human beings, we have:

  • the right to complete compensation for our work, including pension and health insurance benefits;

  • the right to compensation for every minute we spend working;

  • the right to reliable transportation to our job sites, the costs sustained by taxes on the corporations which benefit from our labor;

  • the right to join other workers to bargain with management, and the right to strike;

  • the right to be hired and retained based on merit, not on racial, gender, or class identity;

  • the right to employer loyalty in exact proportion to the loyalty we show the employer. The right to protection from “rightsizing,” moves, and offshoring when we have kept up our side of the relationship;

  • the right to be paid and treated the same as our native-born colleagues, no matter which visa arrangement brought us to work in this country;

  • the right to compensation when our jobs have maimed or disabled us; the right of our survivors to compensation when our jobs have killed us;

And, to my mind, the most important:

the right to discuss these rights, in public, worldwide, without retribution.

Satan’s Bassoon

On the fourth of July I was whiling away a hot afternoon outside Jackson, California, where the thermometer read 40-something in Celsius–even a warm-weather-lover like myself found it intimidating to go hike. Downslope, in town, up and down Highway 49, people were finishing Independence Day parades, starting BBQ grills, finding a good spot to watch the fireworks. Me, I pulled a chair to the ingratiating shade of a live oak, to read an anthology of California Gold Rush literature.

There were familiar words from Twain, Harte, Dana, the “Dame Shirley” letters: prose about rough mining camps, arduous sea voyages, illness, death. Others were less well-known, and many, contrarian: the editor wanted to offer a broader picture of the world rushing in to exploit the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill. For all the ships that arrived in Yerba Buena Cove, not a few left full of the diseased, dejected, and death-bound, carrying them back to “the States,” their view of the elephant complete.

Probably the most engaging selection of the book is editor Michael Kowalewski’s introduction. He notes that the California Gold Rush is one of the best documented events of the nineteenth century, due to the high literacy rate among the gold-seekers. Not only did the argonauts write, they read: the dismal sand dunes of San Francisco–more than one observer judged Benicia a better location for a great city–produced a bonanza of newspapers, such as The Pacific News, The Alta Californian, Public Balance, and the delightfully named Satan’s Bassoon (I call dibs on naming a band that!).

And just while I read about this on that hot July day, under the handsome oak tree in Amador County, San Francisco’s latest Gold Rush roared to similar pitch.

What had been “Multimedia Gulch” in the 1990s, and the epicenter of the dot-com boom by the 2000s, roils again with crowds of fortune seekers, so many of them young men confident of their success, swaggering with a grandiose sense of entitlement, jumping each other’s claims. The pickings had been easy in the Nineties–the placer gold period of the Web industry. Now we’re into the hydraulic mining era, requiring more elaborate rigs, more hands, more capital, to find anything valuable in the picked-over ore.

The world has once more rushed into San Francisco. It’s becoming a monotonous place. Instead of tents or shanties, these new miners pay too much to live in the tiresome glass boxes sprouting on unlikely street corners. If you were here even fifteen, twenty years ago, you remember the corner grocery, the dusty variety shop, or the never-open hairdresser’s–now it’s a curtain wall of green-glass mirrors for the parvenus to admire their reflections.

“Nothing gold can stay,” wrote Robert Frost, born in San Francisco just 25 years after Marshall’s discovery.

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Sit in South Park’s Caffe Centro a while, and observe the tidal flow of customers. In 2000 there were no empty seats in the mornings; the line for takeout coffee spilled out the door, an easy target of industrial espionage as all of us yakked about our startups right there in the queue. But one morning in 2002 I lingered for hours at a table, nobody there to take it, the cafe glad for at least one customer that Wednesday. Today, maybe the line isn’t as long–the places serving Blue Bottle are more in vogue. Tomorrow, who can say: full house, empty chairs, or no chairs at all.

None of us knows when, nor how; we can know only that it will. The Hayward Fault will slip, or Wall Street will lay another egg, or….the mines will play out. Ore becomes impossible to find. The disappointed will drift back to where they came from, to the foghorn sounds of Satan’s bassoon.

The devil’s own double-reed will reprise its eight-bar solo. Nothing gold can stay.

Getting on stage at HTML5 Dev Conf

My friend Bill Fisher did me a big favor back in January.

“I had lunch with Dave Nugent of the HTML5 Developer Conference, and mentioned you as a possible speaker. Go on and contact him with the subject of your presentation!”

Gee, thanks, Bill! Uh, I think…

At that moment my career as presenter had included a couple of CSS workshops and my fifth-grade monologue about Pre-Cambrian fossils. When I pinged Dave, it was in a state of great anxiety: I wasn’t a performer. I didn’t know how to sing, do magic tricks, impressions. I sure as heck didn’t know, really, how to give a technical presentation to a room full of developers who’d paid to see me do something besides fall into shrieking glossolalia.

My crash course in technical presenting

Adapt to your own needs:

  • Read about presenting in general
  • Read about technical presentation in particular

    Those starting this process today can gain from Rebecca Grenier’s How I Wrote my First Technical Presentation as well.

  • Start fussing over slides

    I thought I’d go all Reveal or Prezy at this, you know, HTML5 conference, but I realized that of all the burdens to assume on the way to presenting, learning new software shouldn’t be among them. I barely knew Keynote as it was. I found an appealing presentation theme with a Saul Bass-like aesthetic, and built my slides around this Jet Age motif. It helped that the theme’s graphics included a bird silhouette–great for a presentation about Twitter Bootstrap.

    Now, what about the slides’ wording?

    And how to display code samples?

    • Jim Weirich: Presenting Code. How to put code text into a Keynote presentation.
    • Rebecca Murphey: On Choosing a Syntax Highlighting Scheme for Your Next Presentation. Most presenters choose dark color schemes for code samples these days, so Murphey seems a contrarian. Still, I was convinced by her discussion when watching some other presenters at the same conference–I could barely see the text in the comfortably lit rooms. I’m glad I used Ben Alman’s dark text/light background theme for my own slides.
  • Rehearse

    I rehearsed at least one section of my presentation every day for about a month. I had some transitions between Sublime Text, Chrome, and Keynote which I knew would be even more challenging when I was nervous, so I emphasized working on those.

    Bleeta listens patiently
    Bleeta listens patiently

    One tip that intrigued me was to mirror displays when I connected to a projector, so that switching between the various applications would be a lot easier.

    I rehearsed both with presenter’s notes visible and with them hidden–I wanted my patter mostly committed to memory.

    When I felt really comfortable with my presentation, I rented a conference room at TechLiminal and rehearsed in front of obliging superstar Angel Inokon. If you follow only one scrap of the advice I’m listing here, do something like this. Not only did it help to have an experienced presenter like Angel critique my rehearsal, I really gained from dealing with the projector and the strange world of mirrored displays.

  • Prepare the laptop for presentation

    An hour or two before I got on stage, I:

    • Went to iCal > Preferences > Advanced, and checked Turn off alarms
    • Closed email
    • Opened window groups in Chrome displaying the URLs for each section of my presentation
    • Saved all Web pages locally. There was, unusually, WiFi in the hotel meeting room, but I didn’t want to rely on it.
    • In Sublime Text, switched the color scheme to “Cowboy,” so that the live code would match the colors of the samples I’d put in my slides.

    When I connected to the projector, I made sure to choose “Mirror displays.” One thing I didn’t do was check that my laptop display was the correct resolution! As a result, I couldn’t see scrollbars on the distorted, oversized laptop display when I was doing a code demo–not a catastrophe, but not what you need on top of everything else.

  • Prepare one’s self for presentation


    • Wore something fun. In my case this was a 1970s-vintage Hawaiian-print ao dai. I figured I’d complement the bold graphics in my slides.
      Photo by Ellis Kim, https://twitter.com/ellisk01/
      Photo by Ellis Kim
    • Brought my own dongle to connect to the projector. So glad I did this–there weren’t any at the podium when I got there.
    • Remembered I’d done scarier things than give this presentation. I’d done a front walkover on the balance beam. I’d made a phone call to a curt Berlin cafe proprietor after only two semesters of German. I’d danced Argentine tango in front of one hundred people who confused the dance form with chacha. Forty minutes of word-jazz about Twitter Bootstrap? Piece of cake.

The ultimate responsive design challenge

Well, if nothing convinces you to take responsive Web design seriously, consider this: there are now approximately eight thousand special people poised to use your application. Eight thousand select, elite, affluent, early-adopter people, eager to purchase something new, something you can offer just to them. Eight thousand people who probably influence eight thousand others, and so on.

Eight thousand Google Glass users.

Think about it: does your application’s interface really scale down to the size of an average person’s eyeball? If you tore your hair out over the task of making a mobile version of your site usable and attractive, you’re probably tempted to ignore the vast problem of responsively designing for Google Glass for as long as you can. This would be a mistake, for it’s a great opportunity for a clever designer. You’ll be the toast of the Web, widely cited as an innovator, if you come up with any workable solution to this problem.

The main difficulty, of course, is deciding which areas of content to display first. Given the device’s extremely limited screen width, you’ll probably want to use infinite scrolling. User objections to this construct will most likely be fewer than in other contexts, since it’s by verbal commands, rather than hand-cramping mousing or touch events, that scrolling proceeds in Google Glass. Determining how to order your content is really the task of a prose or copywriting expert, but here are a few tips:

  • Require logins immediately. You want to make sure that you’re serving this interface only to registered users, people who have real commitment to your application. Otherwise, you’ll just get some tire-kickers who won’t pay for anything, and the expense you incurred developing this Google Glass layout won’t be justified.
  • Use short, punchy sentences, not long paragraphs. Google Glass users have just seconds to glance at your content, before they return to interrupted tasks like family dinners, driving on freeways, and sleeping. Take a hint from current presentation slide style: use short words, preferably with four letters, in all uppercase letters. Use slang and abbreviations liberally to save space and to communicate your point efficiently.
  • Add visual stimulus to keep your users engaged. At random moments, animate portions of the screen without requiring user input. Give the user a rest from the trying job of reading prose by strobing the display’s colors, or reversing light for dark values.

  • Take advantage of Google Glass’s audio output. Which of your users won’t like to hear uninterrupted background music as they scroll your content? You could even imitate the wildly popular practice of playing intermittent system announcements, which most of us are familiar with from calling service lines. Remember, as fashion-forward as Google Glass users are, they’ll still be reassured by your adopting familiar techniques from older media to help them navigate this exciting new technology.

Google Glass builds on technology devised in 1960s West Germany.
Google Glass builds on technology devised in 1960s West Germany.

Why I’m celebrating the 40th anniversary of Title IX

When I was eleven years old, I was determined to overcome the twelve months of shame which had dogged me since I was ten: I would not, I vowed, come in second place again in my leg of the 60-yard relay at the Yavapai County All-Schools Track Meet. And so it was that, one chilly spring day, I carried the baton to first place.

Yours truly, age eleven. Note the competitive advantage offered by Sears Toughskins.

Preceding that moment were numerous others filled with coaching, practice, a change of shoes from my preferred hiking boots to snazzy Adidas, and the passage and enforcement of Title IX legislation, which forced the Yavapai County school districts to offer girls’ sports on par with those offered boys.

I went on to run track and cross-country all through junior and senior high school. Don’t even try to convince me I could’ve had these opportunities had we relied on voluntary concessions to fairness, or “market forces”–I did not get these coaches, facilities, training, and competitions because they were “the right thing to do,” or because they expanded a sales region. I, and every other girl in Arizona, got them because the federal government threatened our local school districts with penalties if we did not.

At the time Rep. Patsy Mink (just one of a stellar group of righteous, kick-ass female legislators at the time) was drafting a bill that became Title IX, few high schools would trained girls for much beyond cheerleading–one of my coaches recalled never having run on a track before she went to junior college in 1970. Fortunately, the application of Title IX reached beyond university and high school levels, to even right down to elementary schools. Were it not for Title IX, I would not have been just ten years old when I ran in my first track meet. I might have never run in one.

Let’s celebrate how far we’ve come by revisiting some of the arguments against Title IX. A common one was that girls lacked interest in sports. The belief seemed to be that if girls really wanted athletic competition, we’d insist on being included. So why waste all that money on something we don’t want to do naturally?

Another argument focused on how mediocre women and girls were as athletes. Because we didn’t run as fast or jump as high, we didn’t deserve coaching, equipment, nor opportunities to compete–we just weren’t going to inspire with our pokey ways on the track or playing field. Sports competitions, it seemed, would be endangered by admitting female bodies to them. And what was sport but a meritocracy? The winners didn’t have to be men and boys, but that’s just who was best, that’s all. Sport was open to anyone of any gender who could make the grade, wasn’t it?

Uh, unless it’s the Boston Marathon, or the 1500 meters in the Olympics, or the homecoming game played by my high school’s perpetually losing football team.

Title IX didn’t try to counter these rubbish objections, but among its effects was a gradual reduction in their acceptability. Forty years later, it’s hard to find a town in the U.S. without a girls’ soccer league. Female marathon champions are drawing closer in times to their male counterparts. And women now compete at the Olympic level in not just the 1500 meters, but in–get this–boxing.

Still, those nonsense notions exist, and the ignorant still voice them, only now they’re coughed up in discussions about women in computing.

Why don’t more women become programmers? Well, surely it’s because we’re not interested, or because we’re just not good at these computer-y things. After all, the tech industry is a meritocracy–if all you see speaking at conferences or leading tech groups are men, well, it’s because those are the people who are the best. If a woman wants to succeed like they have, all she has to do is work hard and apply herself…

I might sound despairing, but, really, I glow with excitement when I think about how outlandish those smug assertions will sound in forty years. By then, let every girl get her chance to run in an All-Schools track meet. And let every girl have her chance to join an All-Schools hackathon.

Random stuff about the first Fluent JavaScript conference

I’m in the middle of changing jobs. To train my soon-to-be-former co-workers on how to get along without me, I spent three days this week at Fluent. What I garnered:

  • Watching my audio-engineer husband in action. An unusual perk of this conference was that, for the first time, the Binkster was doing sound for an event I attended. It was fun learning from him some of the backstage scuttlebutt. In turn, I enjoyed explaining the in-jokes about semicolons and Internet Explorer. Something that was really beneficial was finding out which presentations impressed him—he’s not a developer, but he’s seen more PowerPoint than any human not being punished should, so if you reached him, you must be very engaging.
  • Being reminded how unhealthy I feel sitting all day in a hotel ballroom. Spending all day inside usually makes me feel pretty bad, and so does sitting down a lot. Even worse is when the room is air-conditioned into that Atacama Desert level of humidity: we’re being mummified as we sit there enraptured by CoffeeScript. I swallowed zinc tablets and muscled through, but I skipped a few sessions because I just had to get outside and breathe real air. My admiration for my husband grew as I realized that he tolerates these conditions all the time for his job.
  • Tips about the new recruiting laundry list items. What many people talked about: JavaScript MVC frameworks, responsive (design|development), non-blocking script loading, knowing buck-naked JavaScript and not just jQuery.
  • Some great one-liners. There was frequent discussion about how JavaScript’s finally become accepted as a genuine programming language, worthy of study and standards. Along those lines were calls to take your JavaScript projects seriously:

    “Your JavaScript is software. Let’s treat it like what it deserves to be.” —Davis Frank

  • No t-shirts. I guess I could’ve obtained one, but I don’t usually wear them, so didn’t bother. Conference swag I’d really wear: something like a high school varsity sports badge. Heck, I’d even sew it on my letter sweater, right next to my junior-year award for cross-country. You’re welcome, O’Reilly, for my excellent idea.
  • Appreciation for the kinds of people who use JavaScript. I didn’t see any of the chest-thumping geek jousting I’ve seen at other conferences; doesn’t mean it wasn’t there, of course. Saw instead a greater spectrum of ages, ethnicities, and gender identities than the usual Meetup or hackathon offers. There was even a line in the women’s restroom at one point!
  • Yearning to learn more CoffeeScript. But I wonder if this won’t become the future’s version of “learning jQuery, not JavaScript” debate. In the backlog for now.

Sh*t People Say to Front-end Developers

  1. We really don’t need a designer.
  2. What’s an information architect?
  3. Nobody will be looking at this page with a mobile device.
  4. This style guide from 2002 is still good.
  5. We really don’t need localization.
  6. This Excel spreadsheet is our issue tracker. Works great!
  7. Using Flash would make this so much easier!
  8. HTML5 is too risky and experimental.
  9. What’s a validator?
  10. Browser support? All of them, of course.
  11. We really don’t need a copywriter.
  12. Of course our users will sit through this thirty-second auto-play splash video.
  13. We really don’t need JavaScript testing.
  14. The database guy already did the HTML and CSS, so you just have to add a few tweaks.
  15. Of course our users will submit this twenty-question form before seeing our content.
  16. This will be a short project.