Thrills! Chills! It’s InstallFest!

Last weekend brought the latest RailsBridge workshop to San Francisco (man, these workshops are really gaining momentum–there’s yet another one already scheduled for December 3-4. And, yup, it’s waitlisted). This time I ventured beyond my usual semi-skilled volunteer roles by offering to help workshop participants install the software required for the workshop. At last I felt comfortable enough with the process of getting Rails up and running that I wanted to assist novice programmers with the heinous chore fascinating challenge. Never thought I could do this–and it was thrilling when I did.

“InstallFest” is the happy-face designation we give the Friday night slog before each Rails for Women workshop. All participants must attend so it can be verified they have the appropriate dev environment set up on their laptops for Saturday’s curriculum. I attended InstallFest myself at the very first workshop over two years ago, and I still remember how frustrating it was for me: what are all these commands? Why do I keep getting error messages? And how come we can’t just install Locomotive or InstantRails and get it over with?

"Railsbridge installfest," by Romy Ilano

I’ll take the last question. Workshop attendees, here’s one reason why we don’t want you just pointing and clicking into a working Rails setup: we’re selfish.

Yeah, you might’ve thought all these volunteers watching over your shoulder as you type a lot of gibberish into a console window were selfless angels propelled by righteous sentiment to help you gain entry to the exclusive community of Rails developers. Well, sure, we are, but fundamentally, we’re…

Rails problem vampires.

Didn’t you notice how exciting we found the error messages in your terminal window? How about when we hopped up and down, shouting about malformed Gemfiles? And when two or more of us elbowed each other to peer at that mystifying line of code on your laptop screen–rake aborted (is that legal?), maybe you suspected.

“Hmmm,” you thought. “These people really want to expose me to all the gears, widgets, and thingamajigs that make up Rails, even if those don’t always work.”

My gosh, you saw through it, didn’t you? Your intuition is valid–at InstallFest you were surrounded by people who wanted to know where the installation process breaks down. You couldn’t even see all of us problem vampires–some were watching from afar, via discussion lists. We yearned to see where the instructions confused you and which of those d*mned Ruby gems didn’t load. We can’t make the installation a point-and-click process: there are technical constraints, for one thing, but more importantly, it would deny us that rich diet of error messages we crave and require.

You won’t need to bring a necklace of garlic or a wooden stake to attend InstallFest again. No, perhaps instead you will volunteer, twice, many times. Gradually, painlessly, unnoticeably…you, too, might also become a Rails problem vampire.

The Point of the Rails Outreach for Women Workshops

The past week has seen some discussion on the mailing list for a local Ruby Meetup about this weekend’s Rails Outreach for Women workshop. One message from the workshop organizer, requesting a wireless hotspot accessible to Windows users, prompted a strange but revealing departure from the subject when people responded. Those of us lurking on the list didn’t find out who provided the hotspot, but we did find out what other subscribers think is the point of this workshop.

The point of the Rails Outreach for Women workshops

…is not, despite apparently common belief otherwise:

  • to give participants incredibly detailed information about the Ruby programming language
  • to give participants deep instruction in computer science topics
  • to convince participants of the superiority of open source software
  • to shame users for their reliance on GUI clients
  • to berate the people Sarah Mei wryly terms “operating system minorities” for using something the rest of us find inconvenient.

The point of the Rails for Women workshop is to make a cultural exchange.

It’s like going to a country where you don’t speak the language. You prepare by learning basic phrases which will help you ask directions to the train station, order food from a restaurant menu, and be polite in that country’s etiquette. You don’t start with the pluperfect tense, historical study of that language’s divergence into regional dialects, or intensive scrutiny of the country’s avant-garde poets. Your goal is to enjoy your trip to that country, and, if you do, you might return and gain more facility in its language.

The stated goal of the Rails for Women workshop to increase gender diversity in the Ruby community by helping women learn Rails. By the end of the workshop, however, what’s happened is a lot more positive and enduring than fifty or sixty people inspecting http://localhost:3000 on their laptops.

image © okhiroyuki

Instead, there’s an exciting, contagious mood of self-confidence in the participants and volunteers. People might not remember how to generate a scaffold the next day, but they will remember that they did it once before–so it can’t be that hard, can it?

Anybody who believes the tech industry is egalitarian should spend time working in it as a non-programmer. Only a few moments on the job as an admin, HR person, marketing person, or designer will quickly reveal how the people in these roles are consigned to the lowest castes in tech companies, while programmers are encouraged to swagger like feudal lords.

Many of the participants in the Rails for Women workshops identify themselves as this sort of tech-but-not-techie, in that they’ve been around the artifacts of programming culture, but not able to make sense of them. Once in the workshop, they handle things like–the command line! Version control! Databases! Maybe at the end of the day they don’t have every concept mastered, but they do have a greater self-regard that is moving to observe. They might go on to volunteer at the next workshop, or even attend a Ruby Meetup. They feel entitled to learn more.

The cultural exchange isn’t one way. As the participants work through the workshop curriculum, they discover where the Rails Way isn’t clear. Install Night is especially revealing: every volunteer helping gets exposed to at least one error message he or she’s never seen before, at least one bewildering installation problem for which no amount of Googling can provide solutions, and at least one nonsensical incompatibility nobody bothered documenting.

The Rails community gains from these frustrations. It gains when a workshop participant points out the inadequacy of a tutorial, README, or wiki page. It gains when installing an upgrade or gem becomes simple. Consider how friendly Rails could be for a programming novice: there’s so little futzing and configuration to do (once past the install hurdle) before you get to see something display in the browser. Why not make the Rails community as accessible?

The San Francisco Rails Outreach for Women Workshops are organized through the SF Ruby Meetup.

Ada Lovelace Day: The Sarahs

There’s a bumper sticker you’ll see a lot around northern California: “Be the change that you want to see.” I’m not usually persuaded by the greeting-card pithiness of bumper sticker slogans, but this one, for some reason, sticks with me. I’m alert to opportunities to be the change that I want to see–my impulse has elements of rebellion left over from my punk rock past–and I admire people who have also chosen to do things differently, to be the change.

In April 2009 two programmers attended the Golden Gate Ruby conference. While there, they learned many things about Ruby programming they sought to, and, regrettably, some they didn’t. For this was the conference which included Matt Aimonetti’s infamously tasteless CouchDB + Ruby: Perform Like a Pr0n Star presentation. While attending this and other presentations, the two programmers looked around and started counting all the attendees who were women. This was an easy task–including themselves, only seven women attended this conference.

Were it me, or many of us, I would’ve left the conference disappointed by that ratio–and then done nothing else. But these two programmers were the super Sarahs: Sarah Allen and Sarah Mei, and the matter didn’t rest there. No, not with their experience in both the tech industry and community development. Want to see more female Ruby programmers? Well, then, make some!

And so on June 13, 2009 a mob of us would-be Rubyists were seated in the very nice conference rooms of Orange Labs, fumbling through developing a basic application in RoR, pushing it to Github, and admiring our handiwork on Heroku. Assisting us were the most solicitous, patient, and caring volunteers ever, nearly all of them men.

The one-day introductory course had enrolled its maximum. Even before this day had finished the Sarahs and the volunteers had to plan another. Not only had they identified a common need, but they had met it so graciously that many of us aspired to be one of those cool volunteers ourselves some day.

And so, one year later, the local Ruby Meetups have more women attending every time, some even as presenters.  One year from now I hope we won’t even have to do this kind of census.   But to get there we have to be the change we want to see–and it’s great the Sarahs have shown us how to do that.