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.

“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 bugs me about third-party recruiters

Here at last, the summer doldrums. I’m in between vacations–back from the U.K., planning to go to Arizona–and just completed a project. I need work! Yet I’ve turned off InMail on LinkedIn, haven’t tweeted about looking for a new gig, and don’t have my résumé or telephone number on my Web site. Why? Because I hate dealing with third-party recruiters.

Barce really hit a nerve with his post on the SF Ruby Meetup mailing list yesterday summarizing his recent job search experience. He’d uploaded his profile to Dice, Monster, and CareerBuilder, sites notorious for generating spam from bots or unscrupulous jerks posing as staffing professionals. As expected, he received a great deal of unwanted attention from desperate salespeople rather than authentic employers. On the mailing list, our responses to Barce’s amusing account have ranged from “+1” to pondering how to teach recruiters better pattern matching. Clearly, many of us consider recruiters, especially third-party ones, bothersome. Here are my reasons:

What bugs me about third -party recruiters

  • They don’t bother to find out anything about me before they pitch something.
    I have this Web site, my LinkedIn profile, my Meetup profiles, my Quora profile, my Twitter account, my GitHub account, and more about me quickly retrieved in a Google search. Like many tech professionals, I make it pretty easy to find out what I do for a living, how I do it, where I do it, how long I’ve done it, and who pays me to do it. So it doesn’t just bug me, but enrages me when some huckster cold calls about some completely inappropriate “opportunity.”

My response: 1) block that person’s telephone number from calling me again; and 2) block that person’s e-mail as spam. I don’t waste my time with a personal response anymore, since I’ve learned that only results in more annoying cold calls.

The ultimate in recruiting!
photo by johanohrling
  • They don’t represent projects I want to join.
    I’m a freelancer, so I’m only looking for contracts–that makes me disinterested in about 93% of the positions both legitimate and fake recruiters are seeking to fill. So stop sending me e-mails about “full time opportunities” already!

More profoundly, I admit to holding a bias against projects which can’t be staffed without third-party recruiting. I can understand how a startup or corporate unit would retain a recruiter to find and vet suitable candidates, but can’t fathom why a tech business worth joining can’t broadcast its need for developers through mailing lists, meetups, or Twitter.

One of the more irritating constants of third-party recruiter spam is a lengthy description of a job which doesn’t actually exist. Searching on some of the phrases in the “job description” usually results in an archived view of a months-old posting on Craigslist.

Not getting a response to your cold calls? Stop cutting and pasting. We know about that one.

  • And my biggest complaint: They do massive harm to the good recruiters.
    There are staffing professionals–emphasis on “professional”–out there who I would never block from calling or e-mailing me. I will always give them my attention. I might not be able to help them myself, but I will always try to think of someone who can. I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about annoying recruiter behaviors for ages, but hesitated when I recalled how well these good recruiters have treated me. I didn’t want them to think I was unmindful of that.

Mention recruiters on the typical developer forum, and you’ll get a round of caustic, negative, exasperated responses–and at least one person piping up with something to the effect of, “But So-and-so is a good recruiter!” This is the result of So-and-so working competently and ethically. So-and-so ingratiated him- or herself with the development community by participating in it, asked what job seekers were looking for–then listened–and didn’t antagonize employers by sending a blizzard of unsuitable resumes. So-and-so acted more like a talent agent than a shill.

Meanwhile, there’s this mass of clowns ruining it for everyone else. Company job postings end with the stern warning “NO RECRUITERS!” and job seekers refuse to deal with recruiters, bad or good.

My proposal: let’s keep this unregulated term “recruiter.” But let’s apply it only to the sleazy spammers. For the rest, anyone acting like a professional, someone who does the more difficult job of caring? Some other term–matchmaker. Agent. Mensch.

5 Things I’m Doing Nowadays Instead of Working

So, you might’ve been spending the last year or so snoozing under a stalactite in Mammoth Cave, and completely missed the near-hourly utterance of the word “recession,” and now you’re a trite confused that so many millions of Americans with good educations, impressive experience, and opposable thumbs are unemployed. In fact, you could’ve surfaced a few months ago and been confronted with the same puzzler, even the same zombie battalion of former job holders. But not all of us are weathering the economic downturn with Red Vines and Snuggies. Some of us are keeping busy; almost too busy to work.

5 Things I’m Doing Nowadays Instead of Working

  1. Getting my command of JavaScript from 30 to 60. I can write state-of-the-art scripts—for 1998. Rather than continuing to embarrass myself with inline onclick handlers and overdependence on alert() for debugging, I’m devoting extra time to reading everything and anything written by Chris Heilmann and Peter-Paul Koch.
  2. Playing with all those advanced techniques customers never request. To date none of my clients have paid me to use any of the goodies from GitHub or Google Code or the multitude of promising APIs; instead, my workdays are devoted to treating float drops in IE 6 and the like. Now, with only myself to please, I can spend time on more challenging tasks at the keyboard.
  3. Thinking of going back to school. I spend much of my time reading about the built environment, and all of my time using it. I’ve been interested in architecture for many years, yet have no training in it; haven’t worked in the field at all. So what better time to seek retraining than the unbillable present?
  4. Avoiding the news. I stopped my hourly visits to the Web sites for the New York Times and the San Francisco papers because I suspected I was getting too distressed by the dismal stories I read there. I was right —my mood brightened once removed from the daily downbeat. I’m still informed of the things really important to me, and free from concern about those which aren’t.
  5. Going outside. One of the biggest stressors for me when I’m fully employed is that I’m not able to go outside very much during the daytime. Now, with no hypertensive project managers or overdemanding clients to rebuke me, I’m spending a lot of mid-days running, bicycling, or hiking. It’s a pity that work (unless you’re a bike messenger or park ranger) is so often structured to be incompatible with these activities, which are probably the easiest way to regain your enthusiasm for life.

What are you doing instead of working?