Posts Tagged ‘San Francisco’

Ada Lovelace Day (#ALD13): Anca Mosoiu

Erika and I entered the wrong door at first, learning only by the flash displayed on the walls that we were in the tattoo parlor, not the conference room where we’d meet our client. Once within the appealing 1920s store front adjacent, we met a serenely smiling young woman welcoming us to Tech Liminal, Oakland’s first co-working spot. The space was so newly opened a fan blasted on “High” to disperse paint fumes. The décor was a mix of sleek tech and East Bay thrift; we felt right at home. Met the client, concluded our business, finished the project–and I kept returning to Tech Liminal.

I came to evenings about jQuery, Python, and WordPress. I watched a fascinating presentation about the Internet as used in Iran and Estonia. During the Occupy Oakland hurly-burly just a few blocks away, I went to a Meet-up all the same, even if a police helicopter felt obliged to follow me as I rode up Alice Street on my bicycle. When the Indiegogo campaign for Tech Liminal’s move to swanky downtown digs started, I didn’t hesitate to contribute.

Heck, yeah. Anything to help Anca Mosoiu.

Let me tell you a little about Oakland, California. We’re just across a bay from San Francisco, we’re about a third its size, and about half its population. News stories about Oaklanders tend to paint us as fearful crime victims picking through the rubble of a de-industrialized wasteland, California’s Detroit. In the last three or four years, though, Oakland’s received some positive attention for its lively restaurant scene and its (relatively) less overpriced real estate. The hipsters have conspicuously moved in. Oakland! San Francisco’s Brooklyn!

Those of us who’d been living here all along already knew this, of course. I wasn’t the only one who’d given SF life a good try, but came to Oakland to stay. We knew Oakland had wonderful qualities–redwood forests in the hills, reusable factory buildings on the waterfront, and inventive people all over town.

But what matters is what we did, which, for most of us, was pretty much nothing.

Anca had the courage, vision, and stamina to stand apart. She didn’t want to recreate the self-absorbed SF tech scene. She studied who works in tech in Oakland, and found a group distinct from the lookalike bros blathering about this month’s trendy JavaScript framework in South Park: people who work for small businesses. People who maintain blogs for their churches or non-profit agencies. People concerned about maintaining content in multiple character sets. People who are performers or artists, and need a higher level of digital literacy to promote their work. Oakland people.

I’ll never know how discouraged Anca felt as she struggled to establish a tech business not just in Oakland, but in the depths of the Great Recession. I’ll never know if she ever doubted her vision of Tech Liminal as community center, as more than rental space. One of Anca’s most admirable qualities is her steady, reassuring unflappability. Around someone like that you feel sure the future’s going to be fine. Maybe it won’t be slick, maybe it won’t rain VC money, maybe it’ll be next door to a tattoo parlor. But it’ll bring in other people, their energy and ideas, and soon enough the whole thing has greater momentum than a skateboard flying down Keller Avenue.

Thank you, Anca.

Ada Lovelace Day: Estelle Weyl

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By late afternoon that day in September 2002, I was getting pretty grumpy. The sandwich at lunch had dissipated into low blood sugar; the files I’d placed on the server just moments before had disappeared (and we had neither backups nor version control); the room was stuffy on an uncharacteristically hot day in San Francisco. And here comes this woman from one of the rival teams in the hackathon, introducing herself, trying to make friends, or at least, acquaintances.

I don’t remember being very effusive. The day had been grueling–I was on a team of four, working feverishly to develop an an accessible, yet visually appealing, Web site in just a few hours here in the Mission High School computer lab. But we shook hands. I recognized this woman’s name from the discussion list for SFWoW, at the time indispensable for finding out about tech events like this one. I hadn’t known how to pronounce it.

“Estelle Weyl. Like ‘while,'” she said. Within moments we all learned how excited she was about CSS, a technique new to many people at the hackathon, which was just one day of the Accessible Internet Rally. At another gathering we’d learned about various accessibility techniques, such as supplying text alternatives to images, offering keyboard shortcuts, and using CSS for presentation. The last had been my M.O. for three years already–I was puzzled how slow acceptance of it was.

I’d recently left a job at a software company which assembled a bunch of open source superstars, both actual and self-proclaimed, and then hired some front-end types like me to rework the clumsy, visually unappealing interface for the superstars’ application into something more usable. The low status of front-end work became obvious to me upon my introduction to one of the engineers.

“Oh, one of the pixel people,” he sneered, then lumbered off, leaving me to read the absurd style guide the UI lead had delivered. CSS was too “unsupported,” the guide admonished. Use <FONT> and <CENTER> to render the design atrocities we build in the browser. I didn’t stay long at this pointless gig.

So Estelle’s bouncy enthusiasm for CSS didn’t seem infectious to me, but instead, rather nai (more…)

Random stuff about the first Fluent JavaScript conference

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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.

“Gazelles” eat hay, not grass

On Good.is the popular posts today include “15 Percent of Americans Are Now on Food Stamps”. I’ve visited the site twice this Monday, once just after the New York Stock Exchange started trading this morning, and now after the market close, as the story of our dismal economy’s enduring lifelessness makes headlines everywhere. In today’s more optimistic forenoon, I read Tim Fernholz’s “Hunting Gazelles: Figuring Out What Makes Companies—and Jobs—Grow”. Some of the points in that article bugged me then. They really irritate me now.

The post is an interview with scholar Tim Kane, who proposes that new jobs in the U.S. economy come from “gazelles,” quick-moving, fast-growing, young businesses. I don’t quibble with this entirely; I’ve seen how many Bay Area tech businesses seem desperate to hire enough people to support their rapid expansion (though–ahem–not desperate enough to modernize their hiring practices). Yet just after sharing convincing data about the remarkable contribution “gazelles” make to the employment rate, Kane veers into territory more familiar to subscribers to Reason than to Good.is:

Photo by Swamibu

There are real structural impediments to starting a firm…Labor regulations can make it difficult for entrepreneurs to even leave, and difficult for firms to hire more people.

The [Sarbanes-Oxley accounting law] is particularly galling because it seems like its[sic] killing off our IPO industry. Without an IPO or the promise of an IPO on the horizon, why start a tech company?

Alright, where to begin?

Let’s start here: one man’s regulation is another’s unemployment insurance, worker’s compensation, and minimum wage law. Your “structural impediment” is my workplace safety standard, whistleblower protection, and equal opportunity legislation. Think Sarbanes-Oxley is galling? Try having your retirement savings wiped out overnight by corporate fraud.

There’s a stubborn belief in the startup world that it’s 100% self-made, boot-strapped, that the “gazelles” broke away from the encumbrances of the herd and now thrive on the nourishing wild grasses of the entrepreneurial savannah. If this were so, why are there so few, if any, gazelles in places with fewer regulations? Why do tech bubbles form again and again here in the Bay Area?

You could re-read Richard Florida, or you could remember this:

“Gazelles” eat hay, not grass.

Meaning: “gazelles” rely on the infrastructure all of us provide. This isn’t just WiFi, Blue Bottle Coffee, and a spot on the CalTrain bike car. It’s also those “structural impediments” like environmental regulation (can you drink the water out of the tap?), public health initiatives (when’s the last time you worried about polio?), and anti-corruption laws (do you have to bribe someone to launch your product?).

Yes, it’s admirable to watch gazelles leap gracefully to such heights. But let’s not forget the haystacks we shore up to feed them.

What the Web industry could learn from my Tower Records jobs

Minimum wage. A good chance you’d have to work until after midnight on New Year’s Eve, and then at 8:30 AM on New Year’s Day (happened to me). Boring, unglamorous duties. Dealing with clueless, irritating, or just plain drunk customers. So what was it about working at Tower that makes us former employees so nostalgic about it?

There’s a lively group on Facebook just for veterans of the San Francisco store at Bay and Columbus. The wall refreshes almost daily with someone’s anecdote, relevant link, or “whatever happened to…?” query. I don’t remember my stints working at Tower stores as nonstop fun, but I share these people’s eagerness to talk about it, decades after the experience. What was so magical, then?

  • People really shine when they’re allowed to specialize. Russ Solomon’s most impressive innovation with Tower Records was to stock a few copies of many titles, in many music genres, rather than stock a lot of copies of a few titles in only, say, rock ‘n’ roll. Customers came to believe that a recording didn’t exist if it wasn’t in stock at Tower. The huge inventories meant that Tower stores ballooned into multi-story, multi-department shrines to music retailing, staffed by people with deep knowledge of particular genres.

At the Tower store in Washington D.C. we had the king of the soul music department upstairs, a nebbishy white guy with years of data on singers, musicians, and producers committed to memory. Downstairs in Imports we had Neal, who pored over record company newsletters to sift out which nearly unobtainable European releases he could order for the store. Both of these guys had a number of fans among the customers, who would seek them out as kind of personal shoppers. Nobody ever suggested moving these guys to other departments, so they could get more acquainted with other kinds of music.

In the Web industry we’ve come to dismiss specialties for creating “silos.” We demand that people “cross-train,” “take responsibility for the full stack,” as if specializing creates some kind of weakness. But whose customers seek out the generalists on the team?

  • Money isn’t everything… Wages at Tower were lousy. You started at minimum wage, and obtained tiny raises at infrequent intervals. There wasn’t much room for negotiation: if you didn’t like the arrangement, tough–there was a waiting list of people eager to take your place. So what was the draw?

On the job at Tower D.C. Photo by Madeleine Morrissey.

At Tower we felt we could be ourselves. We could wear pretty much anything, style our hair any way, talk passionately about the music, books, or movies we really cared about–we didn’t have to pull back to fit in with someone’s idea of the workplace’s culture.

  • …But it is something. As grateful as we were to Tower for providing us such a cool, accepting workplace, none of us would’ve worked there “for equity.” For one thing, a lot of us were deep into other non-paying pursuits like playing in obscure bands or writing terrible poetry, and to pull our attention away from these tasks Russ Solomon et al. had to pay cash. For another, working at Tower involved–work. Employees were still required to do things we thought boring, stupid, uncool, and beneath our adolescent dignity. Compensation was a motivator.

  • Working part-time is okay. Many of us at Tower were still university students. May through August, hey, pile on the hours…and come September, not so much. Rather than deal with massive attrition every fall, Tower managers adjusted schedules to fit employees’ lives (not vice versa). There were sufficient full-time employees to staff the less desirable weekday shifts. Nobody was accused of lacking “passion” or “commitment” for requesting a part-time schedule, nor demoted when it was obtained.

  • Company culture must reflect the people currently working there. When first opened in 1967, the Tower San Francisco store at Columbus and Bay had groovy, Summer of Lovin’ employees who probably said things like “Deep!” and “Far out!” without irony. Twenty years later, it was staffed by edgy kids in leather and Mohawks who slapped a video of Woodstock in the store VCR to watch for laughs. Had Tower insisted on keeping its original flavor of tie-dyed mellow, it would’ve repelled prospective hires with fresher ideas about music.

It’s common in Web companies to whine of “growing pains,” which usually turn out to be resistance from earlier employees to requests for working space, documentation, and professionalism from newer ones. By this point, the company is radically different from what it was at its founding, so why retain that atmosphere?

  • Even companies that do these things can still fail… Tower dwindled into bankruptcy by 2006, undone by online music sales. It did scramble to build a Web presence, but there was little to deter customers from buying instead at Amazon or iTunes–after all, where was the personal touch of people like Neal?

  • …but this is no reason to avoid trying them out.

Where is San Francisco?

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The mailing list for a local tech Meetup sometimes includes posts from recruiters. Here’s a typical one, received this Monday:

Subject: Looking for a rockstar Ruby Developer in Brisbane
Message: Our client is looking for a ROR developer for a contract opportunity in San Francisco for shopping cart features.

Well, following that was the customary dogpile about the word “rockstar.” Tuesday’s digest was full of amusing responses, and it was almost worth getting such a carelessly worded near-spam to generate that discussion. But something else really bothered me about this recruiter’s post–and, well, about a whole bunch of tech recruiters’ posts:

Where is San Francisco?

Here’s where I think San Francisco, California is:

San Francisco

And here’s where I think Brisbane, California is:

Brisbane by way of Oakland

I have to get directions to Brisbane since I don’t go there much–notice how heinous it is to get there from Oakland on transit? Google suggests I take three trains and one taxi to arrive on a weekday by 9AM. Like, as if.

A lot of recruiters seem afflicted by the ignorance of geography demonstrated in the quote above. A few years back one assured me that I had an interview at the “San Francisco office” for her client–and then directed me to downtown Mountain View. Whoa, whoa–not so fast!

Mountain View is not San Francisco. Nor is Palo Alto. Nor are Sans Bruno, Mateo, Carlos, José. Not even South San Francisco is San Francisco. And Brisbane sure as heck isn’t San Francisco.

Like resorting to the “rockstar/guru/ninja/pirate/cowboy” clichés in a job posting, assuring candidates that the job site is in “San Francisco” when it really isn’t only makes a recruiter look incompetent and/or untrustworthy. Please re-read that last sentence. Got it? Good. Don’t make me post about this again.

Here’s a quick tip on how to assess whether a job site is in the real San Francisco or in recruiters’ “San Francisco”: if there is a landline for your client’s job site, what is the area code?

The area code for the city of San Francisco, as well as for Marin County, is 415.

Yes, there is a danger of Sausalito or San Rafael masquerading as “San Francisco,” but tech hasn’t been exactly a white-hot industry up there, so the volume of misdirected cold-calls and near-spam is tolerably low. If the area code formula above isn’t something you can memorize, I’ve prepared this table you can print out and carry with you:

Is this job really located in San Francisco?
Area code for the job site’s landline Is in San Francisco
650 NO
408 NO
707 NO
510 NO
925 NO
916 NO

What’s the furthest “San Francisco” from San Francisco you’ve seen in a job posting?