Ada Lovelace Day (#ALD14): Garann Means

Was it on css-discuss? A List Apart? I’m not really sure; that seems so long ago. I remember, though, being impressed by these detailed, well-written discussions of various aspects of front-end web development. The author was Garann Means.

She kept a useful blog that I relied on, and I always looked forward to the slide decks she posted from her conference talks. She wrote a practical book, Node for Front-End Developers. And, then, around 2010-2012, Garann Means really found her stride, and what she wrote and posted was more relevant to me than how to create ellipsis dots in CSS.

Her subject became women working in technology. She examined how women enter the field, how we struggle to remain in it, how we could improve it. And, to my regret, this summer she discussed how we leave it.

I read that post on a foggy Bay Area morning, and couldn’t stop thinking about it for the next couple of weeks. I’m also at that mid-career point where many women drop out of the tech industry. What happens when someone as accomplished as Garann Means “leaves” the tech industry?

(I’m keeping the verb in quotation marks until I find this out: did she jump, or was she pushed?)

It’s time to stop asking, “Why?” Somebody must benefit when Garann Means and other women leave tech–why else would such horrendous attrition rates be tolerated?

I think the task now is to inform women at the beginning of tech industry careers that we have only a decade or so to work them. We are like football players or fashion models: we have tiny windows–more like pet doors–of opportunity. We should be planning our inevitable exits all along, saving up our money for that dread day when nobody will hire us, nobody will promote us, or…we just flat-out can’t take the bullshit anymore.

What I’m reading into Garann Means’s account is that she left her tech career on a high note. I really hope that is the case. She and I have never met; now I’m not sure how our paths would cross. Were we to meet, I’d thank her again for her freely given advice, guidance, and opinions. Start to finish, hers is an example I will always find inspiring.

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

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 Continue reading Ada Lovelace Day: Estelle Weyl

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.

Why there’s always a waiting list for the RailsBridge outreach workshops

Seemingly moments after the announcement on Meetup–maybe it’s really as long as three hours–about the latest RailsBridge outreach workshop, there’s a waiting list of women really, really interested in attending, but just a hair too late in registering. Why are these workshops such hot tickets? After all, they’re just a few austere hours spent hunched over laptops learning the rudiments of programming with Rails–the instructors are volunteers from the local Ruby community, the venue is a generous sponsor’s office, and the participants don’t even pay tuition. What’s the draw?

  • Women want to get behind keyboards. There are many women-only tech industry events. However, most of these are mixer/networking occasions, not hands-on programming fiestas. They’re great for meeting people in potentially useful categories–ever notice how many recruiters are female?–but less beneficial if the question you’re mulling is better answered pair-programming with a Terminal window open.

The RailsBridge workshops offer women events that are “less talk, more rock”: each attendee uses her own laptop to create her own Rails application. People do bond over the several, often frustrating, moments of the workshop’s evening-and-a-day, so the networking component is present as well.

RailsBridge at Pivotal Labs. Photo by railsbridge

  • Attendees know they won’t get bullied, no matter their level of expertise. Each workshop announcement notes that total newcomers to the Rails framework–and to programming in general–are welcome. The tone of the workshop’s announcement makes it clear that attendees may ask questions, or even admit to confusion, without being shamed or mocked or otherwise treated as low-status.

Sudo make me a sandwich
photo by king-edward

One benefit of the all- or nearly all-woman format is avoiding that chest-beating, alpha geek braggadocio some men feel strangely compelled to perform at technical gatherings. It’s a behavior that bewilders women–is this true aggression, or bluffing?–and usually serves to shut us out while we try to figure out an appropriate response. The RailsBridge workshops are delightfully free of this nonsense.

  • The event’s time commitments are obvious and reasonable. Here in the Bay Area we have many opportunities for group programming–there’s a Hack Night, a Hack Day, a Hackathon, a CodeFest, always, somewhere. But some of these events don’t seem to have set hours, or if they do, they’re demanding a big chunk of a weekday night. Since most women, even the childfree, work a “second shift” maintaining our households, we’re not really free after our paying jobs to go to events with ambiguous starting and ending times. And if we’re trying to rise early the next day to get kids to school and/or ourselves to a morning workout, weeknights are out of the question. The RailsBridge workshops always have the format of a Friday evening devoted to installing the required software, followed by Saturday’s workshop. Though participants may forsake some weekend revelry, it’s less burdensome to the average woman’s schedule.

  • The event has a defined agenda. It’s nice to see programming events promoted as “newbie-friendly,” or “all levels welcome”–but they’re still intimidating to attend when you’re a novice, don’t consider yourself a “hacker,” and you have no personal project to “show off” as “disruptive” or whatever adolescent adjective is being overused this month. The RailsBridge attendees feel encouraged because they know in advance how the workshop proceeds and what everybody will be doing. They don’t have to arrive with anything besides their laptops.

The next San Francisco RailsBridge Outreach Workshop for Women is October 21-22, 2011. And, yes, there is a waiting list.

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.

Ada Lovelace Day: the women of keypunch

Once upon a time, it was the year 1980.  Computers were regarded, vaguely, as something one should know more about, kind of like biotech at the present:  a guarantee of stable, well-paid employment to the person who was skilled with them.  What we considered computers seemed much more various than now—the devices included the Pong gaming console my dad bought at Sears, the mainframes down at the community college, the Commodore PETs in my junior high’s computer lab, and whatever it was that my friend Wendy’s mom had worked on using punched cards.

Back then, there was this joke about being “folded, spindled, or mutilated;” it was usually a metaphor for being mistreated by dour, inflexible bureaucrats. Most of us got the joke, both because we were all subject to bureaucracy, and because all of us had seen punched cards, pieces of tagboard also vulnerable to maiming by unfeeling entities.  Think of most large- or medium-scale processes, like assembling all the grades of the freshman class, or billing the customers of the gigantic Bell System: punched cards, and keypunch operators, were behind them.

Keypunch machine. Photo by inky

The keypunch operators were typically women.  The work was considered clerical, and paid less than technical work assumed by men.  The keypunch operators were nevertheless proud of their occupations, which held more status than being a secretary or nurse.  A smaller number of women were accepted as programmers, the ones who submitted the punched cards to the all-mighty computer.  Both roles required a greater degree of double-checking and focus than I think our jobs demand of us now:  there was no Command-Z to reverse a mistake.  They also seemed to pose a lot more physical discomfort:  noisier machines, nearly Arctic temperatures, and no Aeron chairs.

Yet the women I’ve met who were employed as operators or programmers during this era of computing still have positive memories of the experience.  They enjoyed having such esoteric skills.  They liked going to the customers’ sites and solving the customers’ problems.  They never considered their work incompatible with being feminine, or having lives outside work.  They don’t know why most of their own daughters and granddaughters didn’t jump into careers or degrees in computing.

I know why, at least in my case.  In 1980 my friend Wendy’s mom was explaining how to use a punched card program to one of my eighth-grade classmates—a boy.  And my junior high computer lab was filled with students from the Gifted program huddled around the keyboards and monitors—all of the students, boys.  The program director encouraged us girls to while away the hour in the band practice room instead.  We acquiesced; computers had acquired the stigma of being uncool, despite how diverting Pong could be.  Computers didn’t seem to do anything we found interesting, but we really didn’t get the time to investigate them too thoroughly: the boys in the lab made us feel too unwelcome.

What a tantalizing alternative history this would be, had we persisted.  Had the legacy of the keypunch operators become that of subsequent eras in technology —a tradition of female participation sustained, even considered commonplace.  Had computers become what they are today—ordinary appliances for use by all—but twenty or thirty years sooner.  What we be doing now?