Author Archives: gfimportuser

Guest post: My Nerd Story: Class, queerness and the transformative nature of technology and open source.

This is a guest post from Beth ‘pidge’ Flanagan. Beth is a Senior Software Engineer for Intel’s Open Source Technologies Center and spends most of her time working on OpenEmbedded Core and the Yocto Project, mainly as the release engineer and maintainer of the yocto-autobuilder. She is also a geek, a queer trans woman, a motorcyclist, and a practitioner of random bits of general purpose geekery. She has been working in IT/software engineering now for the past 23 years. She blogs at http://hacklikeagirl.wordpress.com.

I was born and raised right outside of Newark, NJ. My family was working class and I grew up in a working class neighborhood full of first and second generation immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, Brazil, Italy, Puerto Rico, Central America, etc. Basically, a neighborhood that most people wouldn’t think of as a fertile bed for nerds. I tell people to basically imagine some of the more gritty scenes from The Sopranos and they’d get an accurate idea of where I grew up.

The Sopranos - Satriale's Pork Store

I realized at a very young age that I was a trans woman and that without a well thought out plan, I wouldn’t be able survive the conservative confines of that world. This concept of needing to escape was further compounded by the fact that I was on the bottom of the social ladder at school. I was bookish, had a serious lisp and a severe femoral torsion which caused me to walk pigeon toed (hence the nickname I carry to this day). I also had a classroom full of boys and some of the girls who marked me as “different” from my first day at school and did not let up in their abuse for the entirety of my elementary school career.

When I was 9 or so, I had a pretty good idea that all the praying in the world wouldn’t make me not trans and that I should probably spend some time figuring out what to do about it. So, I petitioned my father for an adult library card (remember a time when ‘looking stuff up’ included a trip to an actual library?). I remember asking him if he would sign the papers for my library card and he handed me the largest book on the bookshelf he could find,’The Crusades’ by Zoe Oldenbourg. He told me “Read this and do a book report and I’ll sign the permission slip”. I read it in about a month or so and that signed permission slip opened up a world I could never have dreamt of.

That library was my salvation. In its stacks I learned, in carefully hidden books, that I could do something about being trans. For the first time I could remember, the serious depression I had been in since age 6 when I figured out that I wouldn’t grow up to be a woman, not at least without a little bit of help, abated somewhat. The library became my second home. It was where I spent my days, hiding from the world. I went into full on reading mode, devouring anything I could get my hands on, but always ending up back in the science row with it’s miniscule amount of books on computer science. But, they did have an entire set of “The Art of Computer Programming”. I flipped through it somewhere around age 10 and didn’t understand one bit of it! Somehow though, I was strangely enamored with the idea that language could be turned into something that made machines do work.

I mentioned before that people generally don’t think of working class people as a hotbed of nerdism. If anything, I think that the reality is the exact opposite. When you grow up without a lot of money you end up learning how to make things last and fix things that need repair. My family was no different. My father was a fairly decent carpenter who tried, bless him, to teach me with absolutely no success. His mechanical skills were impressive, something I ended up being able to learn much later in life. My grandmother however taught me how to crochet. In crocheting I saw math and patterns and it taught me how patterns could create beauty.

When you’re the kind of strange effeminate kid in a working class world that I was, you end up spending a lot of time alone and learn to quickly entertain yourself. One summer I spent a full week alone in my backyard with a roll of tin foil, a magnifying glass and a thermometer seeing what the highest temperature I could achieve was. That was also the year I built a boobytrapped for the backdoor to the house. (I was afraid of burglars). I forgot to unset it and it almost knocked my mother out when she opened it and a few of my brothers baseball bats came flying out, full speed, towards her face.

1982 came around and something happened that would change my life forever. It all started with two lines.

10 PRINT "I HATE SCHOOL!!!"
20 GOTO 10

I still remember those first two lines of code I ever wrote. It was a 10 year old kid’s ‘Hello World’. The Catholic school I attended had invited this computer education company in to do an optional computer class. I begged my parents to let me take it. I remember the first day I stepped into that class. About a dozen or so Commodore PETs, with the ever so high tech audio cassette storage devices.

Pet4016

After the first few classes, you just stopped trying to load your prior work from tape at the start of class as it took forever to load. You got really good at remembering what you did the week before and learned to type quicker than the audio tape could load. I ended up falling asleep at night listening to those tapes (SkreeeetchWoooooSkreeeeeeetch!); in love with the idea that you could store STUFF on tape other than music!

So, here I was, this kid who was absolutely on the bottom of the social ladder. I was despised by the kids at school and my ability to have control over my life was greatly impacted by overly protective parents, my age and obvious gendered behavior difference, but… for those 45 minutes a week in 1982, I had, for the first time in my life, actual agency. I could sit there and tell a machine to do whatever I wanted it to and the results were up to me. It wouldn’t beat me up. It wouldn’t make fun of me for the way I walked, or held my books. It wouldn’t call me awful things. It would just do what I told it to do. (This generally entailed new and more complex ways of spitting out how much I hated school, to be perfectly honest.)

Those little two lines of code turned into a much larger program that year and my parents ended up trying to nurture the one thing I had shown an actual interest in. I’m still unsure of how my father afforded it, but one day he came home with a Timex Sinclair 1000, literally the cheapest computer there was. I actually recall using it quite a bit, but, as the concept of needing to store things was a bit beyond my dad, who was a truck driver, he had neglected to buy the audio tape drive. I would have to leave it on for weeks with a note on it, telling people not to shut it off or I’d lose my program.

Zx81-timex-manipulated

But, no matter how much computers could act as an escape for me, there was still this huge thing I had to deal with and as I got older and the effects of puberty started to hit, my depression worsened. I stopped writing code in my Junior year of high school and just focused on trying to make it through the day. By the time I hit university I was an absolute wreck from trying to deal with being trans. So, after the first year, I made the best decision ever. I quit and moved to Washington DC and was able to have space to figure out what my plan was.

I moved back home after about a year because I had gotten fairly sick. By this time, my mother had gone from being a secretary to getting a degree in accounting to being a VP at a small software company. Behind my mothers back, I finagled a job there. I will always remember the engineering manager who risked her wrath to give her weird, green mohawk having kid a job. So, my lucky break came in 1991, at age 19, writing insurance software in MagicPC for 5 dollars an hour.

Eventually, I left to take a job at the local university. Here is where I encountered the second thing to change my life. Windows 95.

It was 1994 and we were previewing the beta of Windows 95 for a migration from Windows 3.11. I absolutely loathed it. There was no integrated TCP/IP stack. I was use to the Solaris command line by that point and this was still the clunky DOS shell. It was nothing I wanted and while it was an improvement over 3.11, I wanted something more, so I went searching for a better solution and found it in Slackware.

I don’t remember the exact version of Slackware I finally got to install, but I know the kernel was around 0.99 (before loadable modules and ELF binaries!). It was like a dream and a nightmare rolled into one. When you got it working it went like clockwork, but it was an absolute TERROR to set up. Package management? Nope, tar.gz and make were your friends. I got really good at debugging makefiles.

But, I was hardly bored. I spent way too much time getting kernels recompiled, fighting with X11 settings on my Diamond video card, wondering why the NE2000 card would blue screen all the Windows 95 boxes on the token ring. Bored? I was too busy tearing apart this amazing thing that people had put together, in part, just for something cool to do.

It was magic. Here was this thing that didn’t work out of the box! I had to actually sit there and figure it all out. That year and a half I spent learning the operating system inside and out gave me a sense of accomplishment, a sense of pride and a sense that if I could survive a Slackware install and make it out on the other end, a gender transition should be a piece of cake, right?

I had finally figured out the logistics of my transition and set a date. To put it mildly, the concept was sound, but the execution went poorly. I lost my job, my family and the entire situation created a rift in my family that will probably never, unfortunately heal. So, here I was, age 24, with a brand new gender presentation, a high school diploma, a job history I couldn’t use because it was under a different name. I had moved to Philadelphia and was living on a friends couch because I was kicked out of home. Things were not looking very positive.

But, there were a few things I did have.

I knew how to write code.

I knew Unix and Linux.

I was too damn stubborn to take “No”.

And I was left with no other choice.

I’m not sure how I got hired, I’m sure in part it was a bit of desperation on their part, but within the month, I ended up getting hired as a sysadmin, administering 250 AT&T BSD boxes that ran a computer based testing suite. I ended up working on porting the program over to Linux which got me hired into writing the next generation of that software.

From there it was on to trying my hand at UI design with stops in animation, power grid, control systems. And then, eventually, to my current home in the embedded world.

I look over the past 30 years since I first sat down at that old Commodore PET and am thankful. I had a mother who, despite our differences, firmly instilled in me the idea that women, even women like me, could do anything. I had a work ethic that instilled in me that as long as I could do the job, nothing else mattered. I had the stubbornness to not believe the people who were telling me “NO!”. I had the curiosity and the drive to figure it out for myself because I knew that no one was going to tell me how to do it.

My nerdcred doesn’t come to me from a piece of paper, but by sheer force of will. I know a lot of my colleagues came to where they’re at by the “traditional” route, university, internships, etc. I’m glad for them but I do not envy them a bit. While my route was the hard, tough slog, I would never trade it for the world.

I firmly believe that my past gives me a perspective in geekdom that is relatively unique. It has made me a better engineer than I think I would have been had I gone that traditional route. It has defined who I am and has made me a better person because of it. I can look at people from non-traditional nerd backgrounds and see their inner engineer. I’ve learned that sometimes, you find the most brilliant of people in the least likely of places. I approach new experiences, be they personal or technological without one iota of fear.

And lastly I always know that the first program I write whenever I learn a new language is going to be my own, special, personal version of the first two line program I ever wrote.

A closeup photograph of an open lipstick, with a blurry laptop in the background (by Aih)

Re-post: The Ladycoders Project, Interviewing and Career Advice

During December and January, Geek Feminism is republishing some of our 2012 posts for the benefit of new and existing readers. This post originally appeared on August 15, 2012.

This post originally appeared on Addie’s blog. LadyCoders responded to criticism of their (now completed) Kickstarter campaign and resulting program on August 17: Responses to the Kickstarter Campaign: Men Aren’t The Enemy.

Last fall, I attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) and had a transformative experience. Over those two days of sessions and networking, I felt like I reconnected with every aspect of myself that has existed throughout my 12 years writing code, and this had a way of healing some old career wounds in a way nothing else really has. GHC is interesting because it brings together women from all stages of the computing pipeline – academics, industry veterans and novices alike, and students – so many students.

Many of the conference’s sessions focused on career development, and rightly so. Many of the students in attendance were on the cusp of starting their careers in industry, and the conference provided some crucial guidance. Some sessions were tuned to issues female developers tend to grapple with more than male developers – Impostor Syndrome and other crises of low confidence, for instance. In one of the most personally powerful moments of the conference, the woman who was my only female teammate on a team of 30+ men in my first job out of college sat down next to me during a “Confidence Building Tricks” session. This woman has been my role model both personally and professionally in the six years since I met her, and this was the first time I’d seen her since leaving that job. At the behest of the workshop organizers, she turned to me and bragged, “I run the Internet” (and she does!) in her best Schwarzenegger voice, and I felt elated.

The final session I attended at GHC involved an informal, rotating panel of women in industry giving career advice to women just about to launch their careers. Everybody had different stories, and the hour of discussion that followed was really eye-opening. I learned that I hadn’t been the only person who’d cried during my first job interview. I learned that I wasn’t the only person to find my college’s career center training to be mostly insufficient when it came to technical interviewing, because technical interviews often reduce a person to their skills and can feel very dehumanizing when you’ve been trained to expect something entirely different. I heard about a variety of industry experiences very different from my own, and reconnected with the nervousness that is standing on the cusp of the unknown as a college graduate-to-be.

After the session, one of the college-age women pulled me aside and said she wanted more advice about interviewing, specifically technical interviews. I reiterated that she should take traditional interview training with a grain of salt, because technical interviews rely so heavily on problem-solving and proving technical skill. I recommended that she investigate the wide array of websites that post sample technical interview questions and problems to solve, and to practice working through the solutions to those problems not only on her own but out loud and with others – to get comfortable “working on the whiteboard”. I told her that the technical content in interviews varies substantially depending on the company – and even the interviewer!, and that she should expect to occasionally deal with problems that are intentionally difficult and not easy to solve. I wrapped up by telling her that it’s easy to feel discouraged and frustrated with oneself after dealing with the rigor of some technical interviews, but that’s a normal response and to not think she wasn’t cut out for this if she has a bad interview or practice session. Once you get the hang of it, I said, technical interviews can actually be a lot of fun.

One of the most difficult aspects of the Grace Hopper conference was interacting with women who approached the “gender in tech” issue from a different angle than me. Many of the goodies in the Expo Hall celebrated being a coder in the same breath as stereotypical girliness in a way that I find quite problematic. But I also saw college women who loved the problematic swag and was reminded that, a decade ago, seizing upon my girliness as part of my identity as developer was an act of rebellion.

I squirmed when women – especially industry women, and especially those on stage, in panels – made gender essentialist claims (implying that women were superior in certain skilled areas). I wished these women wouldn’t make such claims in front of a room full of students who looked to them as authorities, but I also remembered the times in my past where cheap gender essentialism helped me feel a lot better during times of low confidence.

When I explored the discomfort that surfaced while witnessing others coping with the women-in-tech issue in ways I found problematic, I saw so much of my younger, less experienced self. I empathized strongly with the coping mechanisms we all employ to make the difficult journey as a female or other minority developer. Like all coping mechanisms, some work better than others. One of the big questions I grappled with in light of this, and still grapple with, is this: being well-versed in women-in-tech issues is something that requires education and lived experience just like any other specialty. As we’re learning, we’re going to accidentally hurt people along the way. How do we correct problematic behavior when we see it, without alienating? How do we learn, and encourage participation, along all steps of our journey, and cope with the inevitable cases where someone says something that isn’t quite clueful and steps on some toes?

I’m reminded of all of this thanks to a discussion popping up in several of my social circles lately regarding the Ladycoders Project, a (now fully-funded) Kickstarter campaign and upcoming career-development seminar for women in technical careers. After learning about this project, most of the women in tech that I know were initially jazzed: we all love the idea of empowering women to succeed in an industry that doesn’t make it easy. Every female developer has a thing or two she’s learned the hard way that she would have preferred to see in a seminar like this one. Most of the initial discussion I saw was overwhelmingly enthusiastic.

It didn’t take long, though, before some folks started investigating the Ladycoders site and found some content that disturbed them. That “good” and “bad” mock interview in the Kickstarter video didn’t sit right. The seminar opens with a session called “Skin Deep”, which focuses specifically on appearance. The outline to the “Certifications and Skills” session includes a bullet point on “why you have to be qualitatively better” (presumably, than your male peers). There’s language in the Kickstarter’s FAQ which has made LGBTQ individuals – who face many of the same issues (and more!) in industry as cisgendered women – uneasy. But the session that sticks out the most (and the worst) is “Men Aren’t the Enemy”, which posits:

Men don’t deliberately keep us out; it’s our job (for now) to be easily integrated into an all-male team, nonthreatening, and hyperskilled

This statement has (rightly) made many women in industry quite angry, myself included. Geek Feminism’s Timeline of Incidents catalogs an ever-growing list of sexist events across communities. People have (and will continue to) say that these exclusionary practices aren’t a “deliberate” attempt to keep women out, but anybody who has experienced the isolating chill of exclusionary behavior understands that it is harmful, whether or not it is deliberate, and it does keep women out. (Further reading: Intent is Not Magic.) The rest of the sentence suggests a path of least resistance that relies heavily on performing stereotypical gendered behavior; I’m not the only person who detects a strong whiff of victim blaming in all of it.

Many of us who have been discussing this project feel incredibly torn here: we have serious problems with some of the content on the Ladycoders site, but we also think the project has an excellent goal. There’s a lot of good advice in the session outlines as well – in particular, I liked seeing bits about “the myth of the one-page resume” and building up a public code repository on a site like GitHub. There’s also emphasis on practicing whiteboard exercises and mock technical interviews. Since this project is just getting off the ground – the seminar hasn’t happened yet – we don’t know how the problematic stuff in the session outlines will translate to in-person education; the only information we can go from is what’s provided by the website and the Kickstarter. The problematic content inspires far more questions than answers.

Some of us are also torn because of a discussion a few weeks ago following a post called “The Dark Side of Geek Feminism”; Skud’s post summarizes the scope of the discussion quite well. We’re still grappling with some difficult questions: if our feminism really isn’t about setting rules or hoops to jump through, how do we skillfully engage with problematic content? How do we take a stance on something when we all come from different perspectives, opinions, and backgrounds? How do we call out ignorant or hurtful statements while still showing compassion? While Ladycoders doesn’t explicitly state that it’s a feminist project, its goals (to increase the participation and representation of women in industry) match those of [geek] feminists. As individuals, we all draw our lines in different places when it comes to problematic content and behavior.

I can only speak for myself here. I think the problematic content in the Ladycoders outline has the potential to do tremendous harm, and ultimately drive women away from industry by delivering misleading information. That’s my beef with it.

Circling back to Grace Hopper here for a moment, I had the same feeling when I came out of Sheryl Sandberg’s keynote address. As I’ve said before, I really have trouble with Sandberg’s “inspiring” speeches to women because she places so much emphasis on women’s ambition and hard work, as if every obstacle constructed by institutional sexism can be overcome just by working a little harder or shedding a bit more blood. As a young person it is enormously empowering to feel like what’s possible is solely within the realm of one’s imagination and willpower. And there is some truth to that. But there are also so many systems at play, and when it comes to being a minority in any field, those systems can work very strongly against us.

The problem with not acknowledging the oppressive influence of the system in one’s approach is that it can be utterly heartbreaking once the system gets in the way. If I’ve been taught that my success in industry just comes down to my agreeability, my ambition, my skillfulness in not threatening my male peers – what happens when the problems that such behavior meant to solve arise anyhow? How do I cope in that situation – do I blame myself? Do I decide I’m just not cut out for this, and quit? What information could I have received about these inevitable obstacles that could have fostered resilience?

This is what I’m worried about when I hear Sandberg speak, or read about Ladycoders encouraging me to do all the work to integrate with my all-male team. It just doesn’t match up with the reality that I’ve lived. In fact, it would require an inhuman amount of energy and the emotional fortitude of a robot. One approach does not fit all situations.

I’d like to pivot back to the advice I gave that college student back at GHC, and some general sentiments about my own experience with interviewing and otherwise getting by in industry. There’s a lot we can do as developers to better ourselves – to make ourselves better candidates for a job, and outstanding employees once we’re on the job. But the onus shouldn’t just be on us. The tech industry is very young, and there are a lot of things it’s not doing well either. I have major criticisms about the general trend of software companies hiring for a very specific set of skills and experience rather than aptitude, and being unwilling to invest significant resources in training: I firmly believe this is damaging for all parties, and allows for the continued glorification of the stereotypical hacker type who spends all of their time on code, disadvantaging developers who prefer more balance. Peter Cappelli has been writing some great pieces about the skills gap myth that tie into his book “Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It“. It encourages me to see a voice putting pressure on institutions instead of individuals for once. Needless to say, I have the same opinions about organizations with gender diversity issues: it is the organization’s job to proactively make themselves appealing to people of all identities; if the responsibility has been placed on the token person in that diverse group to point out what you’re doing wrong, you’re not doing it right. We absolutely need to work on improving ourselves as candidates and employees, but the pressure on systems and institutions to fix themselves up could be so much stronger, and that’s where my passion lies.

Personally, I love talking about interviews and general career advice. There’s a lot of things I’ve gotten right and many more I’ve gotten wrong. I’m an excellent interviewer, and getting a job has never been difficult for me. I’ve still had some interviews that I would have conducted differently if given the chance to do them again. On the job, things have been a bit more challenging for me – I’ve spent more time as a “new employee” than not, and one of the things I’ve learned is that I’m not very good at being “new”. I’m not very good at asking lots of questions in lieu of reading documentation, motivating myself to jump into a foreign code base, or warming up to a new development team. I’d like to be a more focused and organized worker, and I’d like to spend more time on skill development than I currently do. So I have plenty that I’m still working on.

I asked some other female developers about their experiences interviewing women, and learned some interesting things. I want to wrap this up by passing on some advice I think is useful and trends women-or-minority-specific, but a bit more constructive than the problematic bits in the Ladycoders outline.

  • Learn about terms like Impostor Syndrome, Stereotype Threat, and microaggressions as soon as possible. It’s normal to encounter one, if not all, of these at some point. Being able to put a name to that uncomfortable feeling will help you feel less alone in your experience, and will help you communicate your needs more precisely.
  • The most important component of a technical interview is being able to problem-solve on your feet. Try doing this with both easy and hard problems; examine the way you react when you don’t know how to solve a problem, and consider more constructive ways to engage with it. Asking for clarification or additional information is totally okay. Give as much information as possible while you’re thinking through an answer; it’s okay to say “I know this isn’t the optimal solution, but here’s the first thing that comes to mind.” Technical interviews can actually be a whole lot of fun once you get the hang of these things.
  • One of the benefits of switching jobs regularly is more frequent interview experience. If you’re looking for a new job after a few years away from interviewing, realize that you’ll probably be a bit less polished. Take some time to review potential interview questions and practice with a friend. I know some people that regularly interview between jobs even if they aren’t actually looking; this doesn’t work for everybody, but it does help the practice stay fresh.
  • Appearance and personality mean so much less during a technical interview than they do any other interview, and this can be disorienting for people who have been trained on non-technical interviews. I typically interview in jeans and a sweater (and also a nose ring and candy-colored hair – YMMV, but this hasn’t been a problem for me), and I incorporate things like my motivations and values into my narrative about my career history, technologies I’ve worked on, etc. With time, you’ll find ways to make responses to questions about past experience both informative and personally insightful.
  • Yes, women tend to express less confidence and more doubt in their abilities. I am absolutely one of those folks. At the same time, I’ve found most interviewers find it refreshing that I’m admitting what I don’t know instead of pretending that I have everything figured out, since so many other interviews can feel like trying to smoke out the candidates who are faking their expertise (an unfortunate side effect of this industry’s stereotypically hyper-masculine culture: braggadocio). I try to reframe my deficits in a positive way: “I haven’t worked with that – but I’d like to learn it,” or “That’s not in my skillset, but given my experience with x, I’m sure I’ll pick it up in no time.” There is a way to be honest about one’s limitations while avoiding self-deprecation.
  • Being personable in a technical interview is really about showing excitement and passion for a particular technical topic or field of study; figure out what you’re enthusiastic about ahead of time and feeling engaged with your interviewer will be a lot easier. When you’re researching the company you’re interviewing, what aspects of their work seem the most interesting to you?
  • Interviews are a two-way street. You are always interviewing the company, too. If they do something that doesn’t impress you, that’s important data and shouldn’t be ignored. Don’t be so fixated on your own performance that you miss warning signs. Think about what you’ve liked and didn’t like about past jobs you’ve worked, and questions you could have asked to get information about those components of the job in the interview. Sometimes your mind will go blank when an interviewer asks if you have any questions – if you know this happens to you, come with a list!
  • Curate your online presence. If you have a unique-to-the-Internet full name like me, this is a lesson you learned a long time ago – we of the unique names are really easy to find on Google (right down to the Tamagotchi haiku I wrote as a 13-year-old that wasn’t really a haiku). Make sure you have a web presence that conveys an accurate picture of who you are both as a developer and an individual. Personally, it’s important to me that my web presence is authentic and not sterile – think of how you want to present yourself to someone doing a web search on your name in a variety of career contexts (future employer, future coworker, collaborator on an open source project, peer in your local tech community, etc.), and decide what you can do to get yourself to that point. (This was a big topic at GHC and I think it’s going to become increasingly important. You can use your presence on the Internet to your advantage!)
  • Talking about past negative experiences is a tricky road, but if you avoid the issue altogether in interviews, don’t be surprised if those issues re-emerge after you get the job. This is the one I’m doing the most work with right now. I’ve been harassed and bullied on the job, so now I ask about company harassment policies in interviews; I’ve had neglectful managers and a void of performance feedback, so I ask about the frequency of performance reviews, one-on-one meetings, and the organization’s managerial philosophy. The big one that I’ve just started doing – and it scares me a lot – is being public about my priorities as a geek feminist and my interest in improving experiences for minorities in tech while I’m in an interview. I’ve realized that I’m no longer willing to work for companies that haven’t even done the most basic research on the issues facing women in tech, so if they react poorly to my disclosure, that’s important data. Yes, this has terrified me, but so far it’s led to positive results.  I’m still figuring out the right questions to ask in that department, and I’m learning as I go.

Want to read more on this topic? Here are some links that have emerged while my peers have been discussing Ladycoders and constructive career advice for tech minorities.

A salt and pepper shaker set with arms embracing each other

Re-post: When Geeks Have Empathy Problems

During December and January, Geek Feminism is republishing some of our 2012 posts for the benefit of new and existing readers. This post originally appeared on March 11, 2012.

This post originally appeared on Addie’s blog.

Over the past few days, I’ve been tipped off to an incident on the Planet Mozilla blog, an aggregator of the personal blogs of Mozilla community members. Mozillans can choose which entries make the feed and which don’t, but non-work-related content is part of the point, to reveal an insight into the actual people driving the process. This makes sense in theory, but I get that it’s a situation waiting for a bit of a “turd in the punchbowl” moment.

And so it goes. The Mozillans that I know are LGBTQ-identified. And I agree with them that a post in this aggregator, voicing opposition to the rights of LGBTQ folk to marry, is hate speech, even if that’s a more severe term than we’re used to hearing in a media climate that insists on giving airtime to “both sides of the argument” under the guise of impartiality, even if one side’s view is odious. In a couple of decades the majority of the population is going to look back on the gay marriage discussion and see opposition to it as unequivocal hate speech, not unlike the majority of us do for those who oppose interracial marriage these days. In the future I have no doubt that people who are defending the folks who are making these statements are going to feel sorry for doing so. But in the meantime they’re making fools of themselves.

I’ve seen enough of these discussions play out on the Internet, given that some guy does something wildly inappropriate at a technical conference (post sexualized content, talk in terms that make female attendees feel marginalized and invisible, sexually assault a fellow attendee, etc.) about once a month. I feel like Geek Feminism doesn’t even keep a comprehensive list of all these “incidents” anymore because they’ve become so common. The nice thing is that a lot of guys are noticing this trend too and getting equally sick of it; regardless, in almost every incident, the predictable surge of geeky individuals steps up and defends the offender in what they think are extremely logical, clever and original terms.

A clear pattern has emerged, and I feel compelled to summarize it briefly instead of ranting about it loudly to my housemate (a form of preaching to the choir that she’s kind of sick of at this point, too.)

Here goes: geeks, technical people, programmers, engineers, etc. – are highly logical individuals, and it’s totally normal to start thinking about ourselves in terms of logical systems, because the way we interact with the world on a daily basis is distinctly different from the rest of the population. I, too, often encounter communities or aspects of pop culture that are totally foreign to me as a result of my logical orientation, although I think this is an experience that isn’t unique to geeky folks; everybody runs into individuals that they just don’t “get”. But here’s the thing a lot of geeky people seem to forget as they bond more and more tightly to their identity as logical individuals: geeks are still, first and foremost, human, and as a result, will still experience human emotions on a regular basis, even if they’re interpreted through a logical filter. In my experience, geeky folks have just as many emotional responses as a non-geeky individual in any given circumstance, but the geeky folks are a lot more likely to be totally clueless about the fact that it’s actually a human emotion that’s driving what seems to them like a highly logical argument.

If someone posts something odious to a news aggregator – that makes people in marginalized groups feel hurt, unsafe, threatened, etc. (note that I omit the word “offense” – it’s abused too often to retain any useful meaning in these discussions) – and you have never been in a marginalized group, or cared deeply for someone in a marginalized group, or felt unsafe at work – then I totally understand why you’re more likely to want to defend the person saying the odious stuff. It’s called empathy. And what you’re doing when you’re defending that person is actually an act of empathy: you realize you’re far more likely to accidentally say something hurtful on a news aggregator (or other public forum) than you are to be the target of that sort of language, and if you were ever to do that, you’d want guys like yourself to be able to understand your perspective. You know what? That’s a totally reasonable, and utterly human, response, and nobody’s going to judge you for that. But it’s also completely inappropriate to share in a larger space and frame as a logical argument. It’s not. It’s empathy polluting a comment feed and for people who are used to seeing this play out over and over, that “original” argument is tired and frankly embarrassing.

Geeks who make these empathic arguments and think they’re contributing something new to the discussion look really, really foolish to those of us who get it. I’d feel sorry for them if they weren’t making me so angry by actively hurting people I care about (and often me, as a female programmer – in the case of “incidents” at tech conferences.)

Let me give an example from my own life. Over the past year I have done some really silly things that have revealed my socioeconomic, white, straight, and cissexual privilege. I have even said some things that have revealed my privilege as a person who has not suffered from domestic abuse. Since certain things aren’t in my range of experiences, it’s totally reasonable for me to be ignorant and occasionally make mistakes. But I do see it as my responsibility to learn from those mistakes when they’re pointed out, and do my best not to make them again. I have no doubt that I’m probably still doing stuff like that all the time, but that the people who I’m accidentally hurting by saying those things just don’t feel comfortable pointing it out. I know this because I can empathize with parallel situations where people have done this to me, in parts of my life where I am not so privileged.

If I did one of these things in a public forum – like on a blog, or at a conference – and it became a subject for public discussion – I, too, would have the impulse that a lot of people in these situations do, which is to defend my inherent goodness as a person. Because my emotional response when being told that I’ve messed up – by, or in front of, individuals that I’d like to think highly of me – is to try to convince them to keep thinking highly of me. Denial and defensiveness is a pretty instinctive first response. But I really try to move past that, and swallow the discomfort and shame I’m feeling, and do the right thing, which is to acknowledge the hurt I’ve caused. And honestly? A sincere acknowledgement – and taking the simple steps to amend the wrong – kills the controversy almost immediately. Unfortunately, when that happens, it doesn’t cause nearly as much attention as the trainwreck that occurs when people give in to their impulses instead and dig in their heels. Then people flock to the trainwreck, respond with empathy, don’t realize they’re responding with empathy, and the disaster grows. It’s a headache, but like most individuals sucked into these situations, I nonetheless can’t look away.

Honestly, it’s encouraging to see that geeky individuals feel such strong amounts of empathy and compassion. What saddens me is how many of them have no clue that they feel such emotions – all the time! What a great capacity for positive change and collaboration we’re completely misusing. Emotions can be incredibly powerful in tandem with logical thinking, when used mindfully.

That said, as a person who has felt some degree of threat (i.e. stereotype threat) at the workplace as a default status, but has also felt legitimately unsafe in rare contexts, it’s completely unacceptable to defend an individual who is making members of a community feel unsafe and unwelcome in that community. This is my empathy speaking up here: as a person who has felt unsafe in the workplace and in communities, I am well aware of the intense pain that these defenses are causing. It is so much worse, and so much more debilitating, than the discomfort of brief embarrassment or shame from making a mistake. Please, stop. This sort of pain keeps brilliant, capable people from doing their jobs. And if you really care about the strength of a community on its technical merits, you’ll want everybody to feel safe and welcome above all else, even if it means coping with the discomfort of feeling chagrined once in awhile.

Screenshot from Mike Hoye's gender-hacked version of Windwaker

Daughter wins with Geek Dad who hacks video game gender pronouns

Michael Chabon, in “Manhood for Amateurs”, writes an essay telling the story of being at the supermarket with his child, feeling quite run-down and barely hanging on, with his toddler in tow on a Sunday morning so as to give his wife a chance to sleep in. As he’s in line to pay, a woman in line with him says something along the lines of “You’re a good dad, I can tell just by looking”. At that moment he has this epiphany that to be a ‘good dad’ in our society one must merely not be in the process of killing a child in public whereas a women can rarely achieve the status of ‘good mother’ in the public’s ever-shaming eye. If they ever do briefly get told that, it is all too quick to fade with the barrage of societal and internalized messaging women get telling them they are never good enough.

Michael Chabon’s take was this:

“The handy thing about being a father is that the historic standard is so pitifully low.”

As someone who did not have a dad, I have nothing in my upbringing about what it’s like to  be a young female with a grown male caring for you, teaching you, or taking an interest in your life’s outcome. Chabon does sum up for me the conclusions I came to, quite young, about these creatures called ‘fathers’. Growing up with my lesbian, feminist mother my understanding of the odds was that netting a ‘good dad’ seemed so low and I was convinced I was lucky for not having to participate in that particular life lottery.

To folks who did have ‘good dads’, this story might seem familiar to you, but to many it may come as quite a pleasant surprise. Someone I am proud to consider a friend had their blog post picked up by ArsTechnica today and, yes, the title of this article is very unfortunate but the amplification of what Mike Hoye did for his daughter is such a ‘good dad’ moment that I hope there will be ripples of this for months as well as more hacking of games to do even just that simple binary flip that helps a young girl see something more like herself as the hero of the stories the games people play are centered around. Imagine for a moment if we could take this kind of hacking to children’s television and movies. Those are immutable objects for now, but video games?  Well, Mike has proven that a bit of hacking can go a long way.

Because I am fortunate enough to know Mike through my time at Seneca College where he was a regular mentor to our zealous open source program, I asked him if I could interview him for a Geek Feminism post and he said yes so we hopped into an etherpad and had a talk.

LB: Hi Mike!

First let’s be clear, you didn’t give a fictional character who exists only as pixels in a video game a ‘sex change’ but you certainly upset the dominant males-as-heroes pattern in video games by simply flipping the gendered forms of address in the text of the game where the Hero does in fact have quite a gender-neutral appearance. Does it feel radical to you to do this kind of hack?

MH: It certainly felt… transgressive. I’m an inveterate gamer and Legend Of Zelda fan, and the Zelda series revolves around some pretty well-used tropes. You know you’re going to be the hero, that there’s going to be the Master Sword, a bow, the boomerang, the hookshot… Changing something, especially something as basic as the nature of the characters, feels like it should be a pretty big deal.

But at the same time, it seems like I’m just solving a problem that’s stubbornly refused to solve itself. That option should always have been there.

LB: You gloss over a bit in your post, will you put up more details (maybe another blog post) of  step-by-step instructions to help people who have less technical depth than you try to do this at home with their kids? Alternately, is there a way to package up what you did and distribute it without getting yourself put in jail (or heavily fined)?

MH: The way I packaged it up – by making it clear that you’ll have to find the original material on your own, but here is the tool you’ll need to apply the following changes – is the best I could come up with.  As for the step-by-step instructions… I found the game’s disk image, opened it up in a hex editor – I used http://ridiculousfish.com/hexfiend/  for that, because it works really well with extremely large files – but once you’ve done that, you just need to make a copy of the disk image, and work on that one; just page around the file until you find the dialog, and then start editing it. The important thing, at least as far as the approach I took, was that you need to be extremely careful to use phrases that are exactly, letter-for-letter the same length as the phrases you’re replacing and make sure you can see the difference between a space (one kind of whitespace) and a linebreak, that look the same in the text but have different numerical values.

It helped me to use a very basic text editor with a fixed-with font, so that I could copy the phrases I was replacing out and work on them for a while without committing anything back until I was reasonably happy with them.

LB: I wonder if you handed this hack back to the game developers/publishers, would they be receptive to putting out the alternate version, considering how simple the hack really is?

MH: It’s unlikely that my approach is well-suited for that – I’m not building in an option that a player would be able to toggle. You either change the whole game or nothing.

LB: That’s a good point. Advocating for more options in the game defaults seems like a great tactic here over asking for entirely different releases of games.

Any plans for other games that you play with your daughter where you might want to make this similar adaptation?

MH: I don’t know – it depends on what she’d like to play next. We haven’t started The Ocarina Of Time yet, so that’s a candidate. But so much of this depends on whatever holds Maya’s interests that it’s impossible for me to say.

LB: It will be interesting when she grows up and talks to others about playing the game, perhaps slipping in a female pronoun.  The looks of confusion from other players will hopefully make her laugh and perhaps feel bad for them that their dads didn’t take these matters into their own hands. My mom did a similar thing for me with pronouns in Dr. Seuss stories on characters that were too gender-stereotyped with no bad side effects so far, to my knowledge.

MH: God, I can only hope.

LB: Obviously you’re an accomplished hacker, what is your approach to hacking with your child(ren) in terms of meeting kids where their skills are at?

MH: I don’t have fully-formed thoughts about this yet. I’d like to start by asking Maya what she’d like to create – not necessarily out of code, but starting with carpentry or paint, and then helping her work stuff through. The only overarching principle I want her to understand is that she can, if she puts her mind to it, make and change things.

LB: Have you had to deal with any sentiments from your daughter that suggest she might get messages telling her that computers are ‘for boys’ or that doing anything hacky or tech-related isn’t ‘for girls’?

MH: Yeah, that shit is pervasive. It’s not so much computers – there aren’t a lot of those in school yet – but “boys do this”, “girls do that”, that starts awfully early.

I quiz her on it, when it comes up – Why do you think that? And the answer is always, always that one of the other kids, usually boys, in her class told her. It’s… disheartening, but you push back when you can.

LB: That’s interesting that your anecdotal evidence is that the boys seem to be doing more of the gender policing.  In my experience it was more the girls who seemed invested in protecting ladydom.

MH: My sample may not be representative (interviewer acknowledges that hers wasn’t either) (also, it’s certainly possible that I’m not getting a reliable story from Maya, who has in the last two weeks claimed to be a girl, a boy, a crab, a moose and, earlier, a pentagon. So she may not be the most reliable narrator.

LB: Starting kindergarten can be a time when the gender binary really hits home for kids and the positive messages a kid gets at home start to become overwritten by the massive mainstream’s – are you having to up the ante in un-learning?

MH: She is in preschool, not quite kindergarden yet – and I don’t really have a clear sense of how things get addressed there – I suspect well, but I don’t know. Having said that, I think the old lead-by-example tropes are important. Mom and Dad treat each other with respect, even when we disagree, and insist that Maya does so as well. When she uses some other kid’s misbehavior as a justification for her own, we don’t accept that as an excuse, and occasionally admit our own mistakes as well.

photo of a child with a backpack ready to head out the door to school

Mostly, though, we just try to avoid television and Disney movies, and try to avoid books where the women are either helpless NPCs or props or both. It’s not always a perfect approach, because frankly there’s not a lot of those books out there, but it’s an uphill battle.  But so is all parenting, so hey.

LB: Should we talk about the “P” word?  Are there inklings of wanting to be a princess?  Even if it was Princess Leia (who is now owned by Disney) would this fly with you and your particular approach?

MH: I don’t really know. We’re not there yet. She’s expressed as much interest in being a princess as she has in being a moose at this point, so I’m not super-concerned about it.

We’ll go through that phase at some point, I’m sure, but I just don’t want it to be the only phase she goes through.

LB: Love the moose stuff – where is that coming from?

MH: She has a shirt where the moose has antlers, so she holds up her hands to her head like antlers and says “MOOSE” and charges. It’s pretty great, unless you’re afraid of moose.

LB: Have you broken the news to her that moose are really big and stinky?  Also a menace on country roads in Canada? :)

MH: For polite situations, she’ll hold up only one hand, and be a half-moose.

LB: You’re doing a great job here :)

Are you aware of projects such as: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/16029337/goldieblox-the-engineering-toy-for-girls ?

MH: Yeah, I gave them some money on general principles.

LB: Can you speak to what works/doesn’t for you in terms of making technology feel accessible to your daughter and what seems to entice her or dissuade her from the things we technologists might be taking for granted?

MH: It’s too early to say. Right now, she’s surrounded by the tech Mom and Dad use in our day to day lives, watching us work with it. She understands very quickly how to use it herself. So far, to be quite blunt, “Accessible” means “stuff I can manipulate without needing to know how to read”, which basically means touchscreens with icons or hardware with big buttons, where interactions don’t generally have hard consequences.

LB: That brings up a good question – what does Mom do with regards to hacking or owning/customizing things in a way that teaches curiosity and exploration of creativity?  Are you a one-man show, or is a love of technology, gaming, hacking something the whole family participates in to varying levels?

MH: Mom has almost no interest in technology per se. It’s not her thing, but her hobbies – more artistic, craftier in general – are complimentary, and also something Maya’s taken to.

LB: So your daughter gets balance then, between those many areas. I think it’s great that you take such responsibility for transferring your knowledge and sharing your passions with your kids.

MH: I’m not sure how they learn any other way.

LB: Final question:
What would you list as starting point for useful tools/skills a geek or geek-leaning parent might want to have at their disposal tohelp them alter the tech realities around us in this way and other ways that upset the defaults?

MH: I don’t think there’s one answer to that question, certainly not one that’s less than book length or applies to everyone. The thing that you ultimately need to do is to believe that not only can you look behind the curtain, but that if you’re a little bit smart and a little bit careful, you’ll be able to step up and operate the machinery there yourself. That’s what I’m hoping Maya takes from this – there may be an infinite number of things in the world you don’t understand, but there’s nothing that you can’t understand, and a little patience, a little courage  and enough small steps. will get you there.

LB: Thanks for sharing your approach here, Mike, I think you’re an inspiration for open source geek parenting and I hope we’ll see more of these sorts of hacks in the years to come until they are no longer even “hacks” but in fact, defaults or built-in options.

MH:There’s a lot of work left to do, but we’ll get there.

A closeup photograph of an open lipstick, with a blurry laptop in the background (by Aih)

The Ladycoders Project, Interviewing and Career Advice

This is a guest post by Addie. Addie is a software engineer specializing in web applications in the Portland, OR area. She’s actively involved in the Portland tech community, including the local women-in-tech group Code N Splode.

This post originally appeared on her blog.

Last fall, I attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) and had a transformative experience. Over those two days of sessions and networking, I felt like I reconnected with every aspect of myself that has existed throughout my 12 years writing code, and this had a way of healing some old career wounds in a way nothing else really has. GHC is interesting because it brings together women from all stages of the computing pipeline – academics, industry veterans and novices alike, and students – so many students.

Many of the conference’s sessions focused on career development, and rightly so. Many of the students in attendance were on the cusp of starting their careers in industry, and the conference provided some crucial guidance. Some sessions were tuned to issues female developers tend to grapple with more than male developers – Impostor Syndrome and other crises of low confidence, for instance. In one of the most personally powerful moments of the conference, the woman who was my only female teammate on a team of 30+ men in my first job out of college sat down next to me during a “Confidence Building Tricks” session. This woman has been my role model both personally and professionally in the six years since I met her, and this was the first time I’d seen her since leaving that job. At the behest of the workshop organizers, she turned to me and bragged, “I run the Internet” (and she does!) in her best Schwarzenegger voice, and I felt elated.

The final session I attended at GHC involved an informal, rotating panel of women in industry giving career advice to women just about to launch their careers. Everybody had different stories, and the hour of discussion that followed was really eye-opening. I learned that I hadn’t been the only person who’d cried during my first job interview. I learned that I wasn’t the only person to find my college’s career center training to be mostly insufficient when it came to technical interviewing, because technical interviews often reduce a person to their skills and can feel very dehumanizing when you’ve been trained to expect something entirely different. I heard about a variety of industry experiences very different from my own, and reconnected with the nervousness that is standing on the cusp of the unknown as a college graduate-to-be.

After the session, one of the college-age women pulled me aside and said she wanted more advice about interviewing, specifically technical interviews. I reiterated that she should take traditional interview training with a grain of salt, because technical interviews rely so heavily on problem-solving and proving technical skill. I recommended that she investigate the wide array of websites that post sample technical interview questions and problems to solve, and to practice working through the solutions to those problems not only on her own but out loud and with others – to get comfortable “working on the whiteboard”. I told her that the technical content in interviews varies substantially depending on the company – and even the interviewer!, and that she should expect to occasionally deal with problems that are intentionally difficult and not easy to solve. I wrapped up by telling her that it’s easy to feel discouraged and frustrated with oneself after dealing with the rigor of some technical interviews, but that’s a normal response and to not think she wasn’t cut out for this if she has a bad interview or practice session. Once you get the hang of it, I said, technical interviews can actually be a lot of fun.

One of the most difficult aspects of the Grace Hopper conference was interacting with women who approached the “gender in tech” issue from a different angle than me. Many of the goodies in the Expo Hall celebrated being a coder in the same breath as stereotypical girliness in a way that I find quite problematic. But I also saw college women who loved the problematic swag and was reminded that, a decade ago, seizing upon my girliness as part of my identity as developer was an act of rebellion.

I squirmed when women – especially industry women, and especially those on stage, in panels – made gender essentialist claims (implying that women were superior in certain skilled areas). I wished these women wouldn’t make such claims in front of a room full of students who looked to them as authorities, but I also remembered the times in my past where cheap gender essentialism helped me feel a lot better during times of low confidence.

When I explored the discomfort that surfaced while witnessing others coping with the women-in-tech issue in ways I found problematic, I saw so much of my younger, less experienced self. I empathized strongly with the coping mechanisms we all employ to make the difficult journey as a female or other minority developer. Like all coping mechanisms, some work better than others. One of the big questions I grappled with in light of this, and still grapple with, is this: being well-versed in women-in-tech issues is something that requires education and lived experience just like any other specialty. As we’re learning, we’re going to accidentally hurt people along the way. How do we correct problematic behavior when we see it, without alienating? How do we learn, and encourage participation, along all steps of our journey, and cope with the inevitable cases where someone says something that isn’t quite clueful and steps on some toes?

I’m reminded of all of this thanks to a discussion popping up in several of my social circles lately regarding the Ladycoders Project, a (now fully-funded) Kickstarter campaign and upcoming career-development seminar for women in technical careers. After learning about this project, most of the women in tech that I know were initially jazzed: we all love the idea of empowering women to succeed in an industry that doesn’t make it easy. Every female developer has a thing or two she’s learned the hard way that she would have preferred to see in a seminar like this one. Most of the initial discussion I saw was overwhelmingly enthusiastic.

It didn’t take long, though, before some folks started investigating the Ladycoders site and found some content that disturbed them. That “good” and “bad” mock interview in the Kickstarter video didn’t sit right. The seminar opens with a session called “Skin Deep”, which focuses specifically on appearance. The outline to the “Certifications and Skills” session includes a bullet point on “why you have to be qualitatively better” (presumably, than your male peers). There’s language in the Kickstarter’s FAQ which has made LGBTQ individuals – who face many of the same issues (and more!) in industry as cisgendered women – uneasy. But the session that sticks out the most (and the worst) is “Men Aren’t the Enemy”, which posits:

Men don’t deliberately keep us out; it’s our job (for now) to be easily integrated into an all-male team, nonthreatening, and hyperskilled

This statement has (rightly) made many women in industry quite angry, myself included. Geek Feminism’s Timeline of Incidents catalogs an ever-growing list of sexist events across communities. People have (and will continue to) say that these exclusionary practices aren’t a “deliberate” attempt to keep women out, but anybody who has experienced the isolating chill of exclusionary behavior understands that it is harmful, whether or not it is deliberate, and it does keep women out. (Further reading: Intent is Not Magic.) The rest of the sentence suggests a path of least resistance that relies heavily on performing stereotypical gendered behavior; I’m not the only person who detects a strong whiff of victim blaming in all of it.

Many of us who have been discussing this project feel incredibly torn here: we have serious problems with some of the content on the Ladycoders site, but we also think the project has an excellent goal. There’s a lot of good advice in the session outlines as well – in particular, I liked seeing bits about “the myth of the one-page resume” and building up a public code repository on a site like GitHub. There’s also emphasis on practicing whiteboard exercises and mock technical interviews. Since this project is just getting off the ground – the seminar hasn’t happened yet – we don’t know how the problematic stuff in the session outlines will translate to in-person education; the only information we can go from is what’s provided by the website and the Kickstarter. The problematic content inspires far more questions than answers.

Some of us are also torn because of a discussion a few weeks ago following a post called “The Dark Side of Geek Feminism”; Skud’s post summarizes the scope of the discussion quite well. We’re still grappling with some difficult questions: if our feminism really isn’t about setting rules or hoops to jump through, how do we skillfully engage with problematic content? How do we take a stance on something when we all come from different perspectives, opinions, and backgrounds? How do we call out ignorant or hurtful statements while still showing compassion? While Ladycoders doesn’t explicitly state that it’s a feminist project, its goals (to increase the participation and representation of women in industry) match those of [geek] feminists. As individuals, we all draw our lines in different places when it comes to problematic content and behavior.

I can only speak for myself here. I think the problematic content in the Ladycoders outline has the potential to do tremendous harm, and ultimately drive women away from industry by delivering misleading information. That’s my beef with it.

Circling back to Grace Hopper here for a moment, I had the same feeling when I came out of Sheryl Sandberg’s keynote address. As I’ve said before, I really have trouble with Sandberg’s “inspiring” speeches to women because she places so much emphasis on women’s ambition and hard work, as if every obstacle constructed by institutional sexism can be overcome just by working a little harder or shedding a bit more blood. As a young person it is enormously empowering to feel like what’s possible is solely within the realm of one’s imagination and willpower. And there is some truth to that. But there are also so many systems at play, and when it comes to being a minority in any field, those systems can work very strongly against us.

The problem with not acknowledging the oppressive influence of the system in one’s approach is that it can be utterly heartbreaking once the system gets in the way. If I’ve been taught that my success in industry just comes down to my agreeability, my ambition, my skillfulness in not threatening my male peers – what happens when the problems that such behavior meant to solve arise anyhow? How do I cope in that situation – do I blame myself? Do I decide I’m just not cut out for this, and quit? What information could I have received about these inevitable obstacles that could have fostered resilience?

This is what I’m worried about when I hear Sandberg speak, or read about Ladycoders encouraging me to do all the work to integrate with my all-male team. It just doesn’t match up with the reality that I’ve lived. In fact, it would require an inhuman amount of energy and the emotional fortitude of a robot. One approach does not fit all situations.

I’d like to pivot back to the advice I gave that college student back at GHC, and some general sentiments about my own experience with interviewing and otherwise getting by in industry. There’s a lot we can do as developers to better ourselves – to make ourselves better candidates for a job, and outstanding employees once we’re on the job. But the onus shouldn’t just be on us. The tech industry is very young, and there are a lot of things it’s not doing well either. I have major criticisms about the general trend of software companies hiring for a very specific set of skills and experience rather than aptitude, and being unwilling to invest significant resources in training: I firmly believe this is damaging for all parties, and allows for the continued glorification of the stereotypical hacker type who spends all of their time on code, disadvantaging developers who prefer more balance. Peter Cappelli has been writing some great pieces about the skills gap myth that tie into his book “Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It“. It encourages me to see a voice putting pressure on institutions instead of individuals for once. Needless to say, I have the same opinions about organizations with gender diversity issues: it is the organization’s job to proactively make themselves appealing to people of all identities; if the responsibility has been placed on the token person in that diverse group to point out what you’re doing wrong, you’re not doing it right. We absolutely need to work on improving ourselves as candidates and employees, but the pressure on systems and institutions to fix themselves up could be so much stronger, and that’s where my passion lies.

Personally, I love talking about interviews and general career advice. There’s a lot of things I’ve gotten right and many more I’ve gotten wrong. I’m an excellent interviewer, and getting a job has never been difficult for me. I’ve still had some interviews that I would have conducted differently if given the chance to do them again. On the job, things have been a bit more challenging for me – I’ve spent more time as a “new employee” than not, and one of the things I’ve learned is that I’m not very good at being “new”. I’m not very good at asking lots of questions in lieu of reading documentation, motivating myself to jump into a foreign code base, or warming up to a new development team. I’d like to be a more focused and organized worker, and I’d like to spend more time on skill development than I currently do. So I have plenty that I’m still working on.

I asked some other female developers about their experiences interviewing women, and learned some interesting things. I want to wrap this up by passing on some advice I think is useful and trends women-or-minority-specific, but a bit more constructive than the problematic bits in the Ladycoders outline.

  • Learn about terms like Impostor Syndrome, Stereotype Threat, and microaggressions as soon as possible. It’s normal to encounter one, if not all, of these at some point. Being able to put a name to that uncomfortable feeling will help you feel less alone in your experience, and will help you communicate your needs more precisely.
  • The most important component of a technical interview is being able to problem-solve on your feet. Try doing this with both easy and hard problems; examine the way you react when you don’t know how to solve a problem, and consider more constructive ways to engage with it. Asking for clarification or additional information is totally okay. Give as much information as possible while you’re thinking through an answer; it’s okay to say “I know this isn’t the optimal solution, but here’s the first thing that comes to mind.” Technical interviews can actually be a whole lot of fun once you get the hang of these things.
  • One of the benefits of switching jobs regularly is more frequent interview experience. If you’re looking for a new job after a few years away from interviewing, realize that you’ll probably be a bit less polished. Take some time to review potential interview questions and practice with a friend. I know some people that regularly interview between jobs even if they aren’t actually looking; this doesn’t work for everybody, but it does help the practice stay fresh.
  • Appearance and personality mean so much less during a technical interview than they do any other interview, and this can be disorienting for people who have been trained on non-technical interviews. I typically interview in jeans and a sweater (and also a nose ring and candy-colored hair – YMMV, but this hasn’t been a problem for me), and I incorporate things like my motivations and values into my narrative about my career history, technologies I’ve worked on, etc. With time, you’ll find ways to make responses to questions about past experience both informative and personally insightful.
  • Yes, women tend to express less confidence and more doubt in their abilities. I am absolutely one of those folks. At the same time, I’ve found most interviewers find it refreshing that I’m admitting what I don’t know instead of pretending that I have everything figured out, since so many other interviews can feel like trying to smoke out the candidates who are faking their expertise (an unfortunate side effect of this industry’s stereotypically hyper-masculine culture: braggadocio). I try to reframe my deficits in a positive way: “I haven’t worked with that – but I’d like to learn it,” or “That’s not in my skillset, but given my experience with x, I’m sure I’ll pick it up in no time.” There is a way to be honest about one’s limitations while avoiding self-deprecation.
  • Being personable in a technical interview is really about showing excitement and passion for a particular technical topic or field of study; figure out what you’re enthusiastic about ahead of time and feeling engaged with your interviewer will be a lot easier. When you’re researching the company you’re interviewing, what aspects of their work seem the most interesting to you?
  • Interviews are a two-way street. You are always interviewing the company, too. If they do something that doesn’t impress you, that’s important data and shouldn’t be ignored. Don’t be so fixated on your own performance that you miss warning signs. Think about what you’ve liked and didn’t like about past jobs you’ve worked, and questions you could have asked to get information about those components of the job in the interview. Sometimes your mind will go blank when an interviewer asks if you have any questions – if you know this happens to you, come with a list!
  • Curate your online presence. If you have a unique-to-the-Internet full name like me, this is a lesson you learned a long time ago – we of the unique names are really easy to find on Google (right down to the Tamagotchi haiku I wrote as a 13-year-old that wasn’t really a haiku). Make sure you have a web presence that conveys an accurate picture of who you are both as a developer and an individual. Personally, it’s important to me that my web presence is authentic and not sterile – think of how you want to present yourself to someone doing a web search on your name in a variety of career contexts (future employer, future coworker, collaborator on an open source project, peer in your local tech community, etc.), and decide what you can do to get yourself to that point. (This was a big topic at GHC and I think it’s going to become increasingly important. You can use your presence on the Internet to your advantage!)
  • Talking about past negative experiences is a tricky road, but if you avoid the issue altogether in interviews, don’t be surprised if those issues re-emerge after you get the job. This is the one I’m doing the most work with right now. I’ve been harassed and bullied on the job, so now I ask about company harassment policies in interviews; I’ve had neglectful managers and a void of performance feedback, so I ask about the frequency of performance reviews, one-on-one meetings, and the organization’s managerial philosophy. The big one that I’ve just started doing – and it scares me a lot – is being public about my priorities as a geek feminist and my interest in improving experiences for minorities in tech while I’m in an interview. I’ve realized that I’m no longer willing to work for companies that haven’t even done the most basic research on the issues facing women in tech, so if they react poorly to my disclosure, that’s important data. Yes, this has terrified me, but so far it’s led to positive results.  I’m still figuring out the right questions to ask in that department, and I’m learning as I go.

Want to read more on this topic? Here are some links that have emerged while my peers have been discussing Ladycoders and constructive career advice for tech minorities.

A salt and pepper shaker set with arms embracing each other

When Geeks Have Empathy Problems

This is a guest post by Addie. Addie is a software engineer specializing in web applications in the Portland, OR area. She’s actively involved in the Portland tech community, including the local women-in-tech group Code N Splode.

This post originally appeared on her blog.

Over the past few days, I’ve been tipped off to an incident on the Planet Mozilla blog, an aggregator of the personal blogs of Mozilla community members. Mozillans can choose which entries make the feed and which don’t, but non-work-related content is part of the point, to reveal an insight into the actual people driving the process. This makes sense in theory, but I get that it’s a situation waiting for a bit of a “turd in the punchbowl” moment.

And so it goes. The Mozillans that I know are LGBTQ-identified. And I agree with them that a post in this aggregator, voicing opposition to the rights of LGBTQ folk to marry, is hate speech, even if that’s a more severe term than we’re used to hearing in a media climate that insists on giving airtime to “both sides of the argument” under the guise of impartiality, even if one side’s view is odious. In a couple of decades the majority of the population is going to look back on the gay marriage discussion and see opposition to it as unequivocal hate speech, not unlike the majority of us do for those who oppose interracial marriage these days. In the future I have no doubt that people who are defending the folks who are making these statements are going to feel sorry for doing so. But in the meantime they’re making fools of themselves.

I’ve seen enough of these discussions play out on the Internet, given that some guy does something wildly inappropriate at a technical conference (post sexualized content, talk in terms that make female attendees feel marginalized and invisible, sexually assault a fellow attendee, etc.) about once a month. I feel like Geek Feminism doesn’t even keep a comprehensive list of all these “incidents” anymore because they’ve become so common. The nice thing is that a lot of guys are noticing this trend too and getting equally sick of it; regardless, in almost every incident, the predictable surge of geeky individuals steps up and defends the offender in what they think are extremely logical, clever and original terms.

A clear pattern has emerged, and I feel compelled to summarize it briefly instead of ranting about it loudly to my housemate (a form of preaching to the choir that she’s kind of sick of at this point, too.)

Here goes: geeks, technical people, programmers, engineers, etc. – are highly logical individuals, and it’s totally normal to start thinking about ourselves in terms of logical systems, because the way we interact with the world on a daily basis is distinctly different from the rest of the population. I, too, often encounter communities or aspects of pop culture that are totally foreign to me as a result of my logical orientation, although I think this is an experience that isn’t unique to geeky folks; everybody runs into individuals that they just don’t “get”. But here’s the thing a lot of geeky people seem to forget as they bond more and more tightly to their identity as logical individuals: geeks are still, first and foremost, human, and as a result, will still experience human emotions on a regular basis, even if they’re interpreted through a logical filter. In my experience, geeky folks have just as many emotional responses as a non-geeky individual in any given circumstance, but the geeky folks are a lot more likely to be totally clueless about the fact that it’s actually a human emotion that’s driving what seems to them like a highly logical argument.

If someone posts something odious to a news aggregator – that makes people in marginalized groups feel hurt, unsafe, threatened, etc. (note that I omit the word “offense” – it’s abused too often to retain any useful meaning in these discussions) – and you have never been in a marginalized group, or cared deeply for someone in a marginalized group, or felt unsafe at work – then I totally understand why you’re more likely to want to defend the person saying the odious stuff. It’s called empathy. And what you’re doing when you’re defending that person is actually an act of empathy: you realize you’re far more likely to accidentally say something hurtful on a news aggregator (or other public forum) than you are to be the target of that sort of language, and if you were ever to do that, you’d want guys like yourself to be able to understand your perspective. You know what? That’s a totally reasonable, and utterly human, response, and nobody’s going to judge you for that. But it’s also completely inappropriate to share in a larger space and frame as a logical argument. It’s not. It’s empathy polluting a comment feed and for people who are used to seeing this play out over and over, that “original” argument is tired and frankly embarrassing.

Geeks who make these empathic arguments and think they’re contributing something new to the discussion look really, really foolish to those of us who get it. I’d feel sorry for them if they weren’t making me so angry by actively hurting people I care about (and often me, as a female programmer – in the case of “incidents” at tech conferences.)

Let me give an example from my own life. Over the past year I have done some really silly things that have revealed my socioeconomic, white, straight, and cissexual privilege. I have even said some things that have revealed my privilege as a person who has not suffered from domestic abuse. Since certain things aren’t in my range of experiences, it’s totally reasonable for me to be ignorant and occasionally make mistakes. But I do see it as my responsibility to learn from those mistakes when they’re pointed out, and do my best not to make them again. I have no doubt that I’m probably still doing stuff like that all the time, but that the people who I’m accidentally hurting by saying those things just don’t feel comfortable pointing it out. I know this because I can empathize with parallel situations where people have done this to me, in parts of my life where I am not so privileged.

If I did one of these things in a public forum – like on a blog, or at a conference – and it became a subject for public discussion – I, too, would have the impulse that a lot of people in these situations do, which is to defend my inherent goodness as a person. Because my emotional response when being told that I’ve messed up – by, or in front of, individuals that I’d like to think highly of me – is to try to convince them to keep thinking highly of me. Denial and defensiveness is a pretty instinctive first response. But I really try to move past that, and swallow the discomfort and shame I’m feeling, and do the right thing, which is to acknowledge the hurt I’ve caused. And honestly? A sincere acknowledgement – and taking the simple steps to amend the wrong – kills the controversy almost immediately. Unfortunately, when that happens, it doesn’t cause nearly as much attention as the trainwreck that occurs when people give in to their impulses instead and dig in their heels. Then people flock to the trainwreck, respond with empathy, don’t realize they’re responding with empathy, and the disaster grows. It’s a headache, but like most individuals sucked into these situations, I nonetheless can’t look away.

Honestly, it’s encouraging to see that geeky individuals feel such strong amounts of empathy and compassion. What saddens me is how many of them have no clue that they feel such emotions – all the time! What a great capacity for positive change and collaboration we’re completely misusing. Emotions can be incredibly powerful in tandem with logical thinking, when used mindfully.

That said, as a person who has felt some degree of threat (i.e. stereotype threat) at the workplace as a default status, but has also felt legitimately unsafe in rare contexts, it’s completely unacceptable to defend an individual who is making members of a community feel unsafe and unwelcome in that community. This is my empathy speaking up here: as a person who has felt unsafe in the workplace and in communities, I am well aware of the intense pain that these defenses are causing. It is so much worse, and so much more debilitating, than the discomfort of brief embarrassment or shame from making a mistake. Please, stop. This sort of pain keeps brilliant, capable people from doing their jobs. And if you really care about the strength of a community on its technical merits, you’ll want everybody to feel safe and welcome above all else, even if it means coping with the discomfort of feeling chagrined once in awhile.

Head and shoulders photo of Margaret Dayhoff

Wednesday Geek Woman: Margaret Dayhoff, quantum chemist and bioinfomaticist

This post appeared on my blog for Ada Lovelace Day 2011.

Head and shoulders photo of Margaret Dayhoff

It’s become kind of a cliché for me to claim that the reason I’m happy working on ACPI and UEFI and similarly arcane pieces of convoluted functionality is that no matter how bad things are there’s at least some form of documentation and there’s a well-understood language at the heart of them. My PhD was in biology, working on fruitflies. They’re a poorly documented set of layering violations which only work because of side-effects at the quantum level, and they tend to die at inconvenient times. They’re made up of 165 million bases of a byte code language that’s almost impossible to bootstrap[1] and which passes through an intermediate representations before it does anything useful[2]. It’s an awful field to try to do rigorous work in because your attempts to impose any kind of meaningful order on what you’re looking at are pretty much guaranteed to be sufficiently naive that your results bear a resemblance to reality more by accident than design.

The field of bioinformatics is a fairly young one, and because of that it’s very easy to be ignorant of its history. Crick and Watson (and those other people) determined the structure of DNA. Sanger worked out how to sequence proteins and nucleic acids. Some other people made all of these things faster and better and now we have huge sequence databases that mean we can get hold of an intractable quantity of data faster than we could ever plausibly need to, and what else is there to know?

Margaret Dayhoff graduated with a PhD in quantum chemistry from Columbia, where she’d performed computational analysis of various molecules to calculate their resonance energies[3]. The next few years involved plenty of worthwhile research that aren’t relevant to the story, so we’ll (entirely unfairly) skip forward to the early 60s and the problem of turning a set of sequence fragments into a single sequence. Dayhoff worked on a suite of applications called “Comprotein”. The original paper can be downloaded here, and it’s a charming look back at a rigorous analysis of a problem that anyone in the field would take for granted these days. Modern fragment assembly involves taking millions of DNA sequence reads and assembling them into an entire genome. In 1960, we were still at the point where it was only just getting impractical to do everything by hand.

This single piece of software was arguably the birth of modern bioinformatics, the creation of a computational method for taking sequence data and turning it into something more useful. But Dayhoff didn’t stop there. The 60s brought a growing realisation that small sequence differences between the same protein in related species could give insight into their evolutionary past. In 1965 Dayhoff released the first edition of the Atlas of Protein Sequence and Structure, containing all 65 protein sequences that had been determined by then. Around the same time she developed computational methods for analysing the evolutionary relationship of these sequences, helping produce the first computationally generated phylogenetic tree. Her single-letter representation of amino acids was born of necessity[4] but remains the standard for protein sequences. And the atlas of 65 protein sequences developed into the Protein Information Resource, a dial-up database that allowed researchers to download the sequences they were interested in. It’s now part of UniProt, the world’s largest protein database.

Her contributions to the field were immense. Every aspect of her work on bioinformatics is present in the modern day — larger, faster and more capable, but still very much tied to the techniques and concepts she pioneered. And so it still puzzles me that I only heard of her for the first time when I went back to write the introduction to my thesis. She’s remembered today in the form of the Margaret Oakley Dayhoff award for women showing high promise in biophysics, having died of a heart attack at only 57.

I don’t work on fruitflies any more, and to be honest I’m not terribly upset by that. But it’s still somewhat disconcerting that I spent almost 10 years working in a field so defined by one person that I knew so little about. So my contribution to Ada Lovelace Day is to highlight a pivotal woman in science who heavily influenced my life without me even knowing.

[1] You think it’s difficult bringing up a compiler on a new architecture? Try bringing up a fruitfly from scratch.
[2] Except for the cases where the low-level language itself is functionally significant, and the cases where the intermediate representation is functionally significant.
[3] Something that seems to have involved a lot of putting punch cards through a set of machines, getting new cards out, and repeating. I’m glad I live in the future.
[4] The three-letter representation took up too much space on punch cards

Creative Commons License
This post is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Want to highlight a geek woman? Submissions are currently open for Wednesday Geek Woman posts.

Women in science: contrary to popular belief, some of us are actually alive!

This is a guest post by Lindsey Kuper. Lindsey Kuper does math and code and music and splatters it unceremoniously all over the Internet.

This post originally appeared at her blog and was linked from Restructure!’s comments.

I’m happy to see that the xkcd about “Zombie Marie Curie” has been making the rounds, because the “I make a sorry role model if girls just see me over and over as the one token lady scientist” bit gives voice to my long-held frustration about the predictable and repetitive trotting-out of the same handful of historical women as the go-to examples of women in science.

Those women were amazing and groundbreaking, but to always focus the discussion around them to the exclusion of actual, living, breathing female scientists is to make actual, living, breathing female scientists feel even more invisible than we already sometimes do.

Here’s an example of what I mean: the first page of Flickr search results for “women scientists” is top-heavy with results from the Smithsonian’s “Women in Science” photo set, which consists entirely of black-and-white photos of women, most of whom died in the middle of the twentieth century sometime. Why not call that photo set “Pioneering Women in Science” — or, uh, maybe just “Women Scientists from the Age of Black-and-White Film Photography”, since there were women in science before that, too? To not show any contemporary scientists under the heading “Women in Science” is to pathologize and exoticize the idea of simultaneously being a woman and being a scientist, and that’s about the last thing scientists need.

I like Photos of Mathematicians. It’s exactly what it says on the tin — one person’s collection of photos of living, working mathematicians, many of whom are actual regular human beings who you might run into on the street. Some of the photos are of women. I wish that, instead of seeing Marie Curie and Ada Lovelace over and over, we saw them sometimes, or their counterparts in physics or CS. A color photo of a living person1 feels more immediately relevant than a painting or a black-and-white photo of an (un)dead person, even if the (un)dead person has more Nobel Prizes.


  1. There’s nothing special about the four photos I chose, aside from the fact that they are, as far as I can tell, of women. I hesitated about picking particular photos to link to, but I decided that sharing some photos of modern women mathematicians who are probably actually alive is important enough to me that I’m willing to risk being wrong about someone’s gender identification in the attempt.

The compiler doesn’t care what you’re wearing

When not making music and splattering it unceremoniously across the Internet, Lindsey Kuper braindumps on her blog about life as a computer science Ph.D. student and human being. It took her fully half an hour to write this two-sentence bio, but it would have taken longer without Emacs.

This post originally appeared at her blog.

I’ve talked to a few women who’ve said that they fear they won’t be taken seriously as computer professionals if they dress in a “girly” way. I used to think that I was immune to that fear. But two weeks after my job started at GrammaTech, I looked at my closet and pushed everything I’d worn in the last two weeks to the left and everything I hadn’t worn to the right. On the left were jeans and t-shirts and gray and black and brown. On the right were dresses and bright green and bright blue and pink and floral prints. I was very surprised. I took a picture of what it looked like so that I wouldn’t forget.

I realized that what I thought my clothes looked like, based on what was hanging in my closet, was completely different from what my clothes looked like to other people in practice. I clearly liked the dresses and the floral prints and the bright colors, or I wouldn’t have had them in my closet — but I wasn’t wearing them, because on any given day, they seemed like the wrong thing to wear. I realized that I feared not being taken seriously by my co-workers if I wore floral dresses to work. I decided to call bullshit on that. After all, as Kathy Sierra points out, the compiler doesn’t care what you’re wearing.

Of course, there are a lot of women programmers who choose not to wear girly clothes because they don’t want to wear girly clothes, not because they’re afraid to do it. And a lot of the time, that’s me. In 2008, when I was living in Portland, someone I knew was hesitant to wear her preferred everyday outfit, a skirt, to OSCON out of concern about not being taken seriously by people there. Eventually, she did wear the skirt, and a friend of hers congratulated her on being brave enough to wear the clothes she liked to wear. I remember standing there listening to their conversation and feeling rather irked. I, too, was at OSCON and wearing the clothes I liked to wear, but because my clothes happened to be a t-shirt and thrift-store sneakers and jeans, nobody seemed to be congratulating me. It made me wonder, briefly, if I was less brave than the woman in the skirt — or if anyone at OSCON was concluding from my clothes that I was less brave. In retrospect, I don’t think anyone was. Bravery is extremely personal. One person’s brave act could be a neutral or cowardly act for someone else. And certainly the idea that one’s bravery can be determined from one’s appearance is completely senseless.

Fashion and The Female Geek – First Steps

This is part of “Ask a Geek Feminist” series! Questions are still being taken at the Ask A Geek Feminist post – so ask away!

I’ve got some general questions regarding dress code…

I’ve never been terribly observant regarding fashion matters, but it seems to me that male geeks can get away with a much sloppier wardrobe than female geeks. Is that just my impression or have others noticed anything similar?

What’s considered a suitable professional wardrobe for front-line geek feminists trying to be taken seriously?

“…I suggest that manners and etiquette, like language and fashion, are fundamental means of communication and self-expression. And, as with language and fashion, manners and etiquette adapt effortlessly to social change.” John Morgan, introduction to Debrett’s New Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners, 2001.

On the heels (no pun intended) of my post about girls, stereotyping and the colour pink (‘Does It Mean A Thing If It ‘Ain’t Got Pink Bling? Gender Differences, Toys And The Psychology Of Color‘) – apparently Barbie’s now an engineer? Sign Of The Times: Barbie’s A Tech Geek:

Mattel put the selection of Barbie’s 125th career in the hands of online voters for the first time… To create an authentic look for techie Barbie, designers worked with the Society of Women Engineers and the National Academy of Engineering to develop the wardrobe and accessories for the doll. She wears a binary code patterned T-shirt and is equipped with the latest gadgets including a smart phone, Bluetooth headset and laptop travel bag.

It’s interesting that they have the endorsement of the Society of Women Engineers and National Academy of Engineering in the creation (as I look at the doll, I notice that the article forgot to also mention the vibrant pink high-heels, laptop-logo and glasses – what, no contact lenses?).

I guess I’m in favor of changes to a doll which has traditionally perpetuated a rather narrow-portrayal of women – and yet it’s still limited by its portrayal of ‘geek-chic’. The blog post title says ‘Barbie as Tech-Geek’ – why not Barbie as educated or technical-savvy? Why is one of the most popular dolls on the planet (arguably, the most popular) – still posed on her toes and biologically impossible?

And what on earth does it mean to be ‘geek-chic’ anyway? Apart from sounding rather nifty when you say it aloud?

I’m going to see if, by responding to this question by a reader, I can address not only how to be taken seriously as a ‘front-line geek feminist’ – but also how to maintain a standard of comfort that is (quite frankly) essential to a woman who has plenty of ‘geeky’ passions that occupy her time and keep her on her biologically-accurate toes.

Despite the adage ‘never judge a book by its cover’ – we do. Some companies do have a written dress code, some rules are unwritten and we follow the lead of senior management when considering building our wardrobe.

We’re not dolls. But we’re can’t ignore that there are eyes upon us that ponder ‘Maybe I can be like her one day – and doesn’t it look fine to be her?’

Continue reading