Tag Archives: women in tech

A breakout group at the Boston Python Workshop work at laptops around a table

– the anxiety of learning and how I am beating it

Beating learn-to-program anxiety with good gamification and courses

I have anxiety about learning technical skills. I wrote about this a little while back. But now I know more about how I learn, and, in bits and snatches, I am gaining proficiency and confidence. Here’s a summary of my journey over the last several months with learning more programming skills (in this case, mostly in Python), with links to some resources in case you’re like me.

I get anxious when learning skills that I think I should already know; I feel behind and guilty. Structure, little rewards, friendly sociability, and encouragement from other women help tremendously. Tedra Osell writes about this in the context of writer’s block, and FlyLady and Cheryl Mendelson’s Home Comforts speak to that problem in learning to keep a comfortable home; the people and resources I mention (CodeLesson, OpenHatch’s Boston Python Workshop for women and their friends, CodingBat, and the Python Challenge) provide many of the stimuli I need. Also, my anxiety spikes if I think I am supposed to compare my speed or quality of work with others (hence my post’s title), but cools down if I see evidence that someone else wants to patiently help me. These resources helped me learn without pushing my “argh everyone’s better than me” buttons.

So, first: CodeLesson. The vintage and handmade store Etsy ran a free four-week online course in HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and the Etsy API. Hundreds of people signed up; I got on the waitlist, and eventually did three of the weeks in September and October. (I then had a big crunch week at work and didn’t finish, but I intend to finish that last week’s work anyway, to learn animation and pagination in jQuery.) It was exactly what I wanted — well-written tutorials and exercises to get me over the initial hump. I now know a little CSS, JavaScript, and jQuery, which is infinity percent more than I knew before. I had lots of fist-pump “Yay, I made it work!” moments. And the instructor’s praise of my work helped; I’m a social animal, and recognition and praise from instructors helps reassure me that I’m on the right track.

Thanks to Etsy for the free class. And I liked the CodeLesson interface and infrastructure enough that I may pay for additional CodeLesson classes, or get my organization to follow Etsy’s lead and offer classes through them to increase our users’ skills.

A couple months later, I had a chance to attend OpenHatch’s intro-to-Python workshop specifically meant for women and their friends. I’d read about these before, on GeekFeminism and elsewhere, and it sounded like it would fit how I learn as well as help me plan to hold similar events in my community. So, on a Friday in December, I took the bus from New York City to Boston.

An instructor looks at a student's laptop at the Boston Python Workshop

An instructor looks at a student's laptop at the Boston Python Workshop

It’s a good thing that the Friday night prep part was three hours and that I already knew a bunch of stuff that other people were new to (familiarity with the command line & the Python prompt, etc.) since I was an hour late! It was good to fix the syntax-y bits in my mind. The CodingBat exercises were great practice and I got a big triumphant fist-raised feeling when all those unit tests passed.

In between sessions, I chatted with some of the people who run the program. It sounds like each individual run of it costs about $300 for lunch for everyone and that’s practically it, since they use volunteers and the venue time is donated (and then like $10 total for pens/sticky nametags/laser-printed “here’s the workshop” signs/etc.). That’s practically out-of-pocket for a tech community, and they get grants. So it’s totally replicable. I’ve been reminded that it’s important to treat these kinds of workshops more like a community introduction than as standalone events; local user groups and communities should be the teachers, and email blasts and encouragement should integrate participants into their local hobbyist groups.

Saturday morning’s lecture included some review of stuff I knew, but it went fast enough that I was still learning most of the time — like, how to ask for the nth character in a string, or how for-loops quite work, some subtleties of scope, etc.

Then the project bits — the teachers and their presentations weren’t quite as polished as Jessica McKellar, who had led the earlier parts of the workshop. But I still learned a lot and got to make cool things happen using, say, the Twitter API, and that was very neat. As designed, the workshop led me through small, basic exercises first (the equivalent of finger exercises in piano), then showed off visually satisfying things we could do with Python and its ecosystem.

Aside from tiny minor delays, the workshop basically ran like a Swiss watch the whole time. I was impressed. It takes a lot of preparation, skill, and practice to make an event like that go so smoothly and teach so many people; congrats to the workshop volunteers! And I’m glad I went, learned and remembered Python, and got more confidence to attempt projects.  On a community management level, I’m also massively grateful that I’ve seen firsthand an example of how we can construct and maintain these parts of the pipeline, to help more girls and women get into STEM.

The workshop so excited me that I then did all the Python exercises on CodingBat, and started Python Challenge (I’m at step 4 or 5 right now). They’re complementary. They both gamify learning, and you don’t have to look at how other people are doing, and they both have somewhat granular ways of kindly telling you when you’ve done something slightly wrong. With CodingBat it’s the unit tests, which go from red to green when you cover another edge case. In Python Challenge, for example, at one point I went to a URL where I had transformed the filename from the previous URL per a transformation hinted at in the challenge. The URL had ended in .html, and after the decryption, it ended in the extension (making this up to avoid spoilers) “.ywnb”. At that address was a text file that the server signalled you should download. I downloaded and opened it and it just said, “have you ever heard of .ywnb files?!” or something like that, implying basically that I shouldn’t have transformed the file extension, just the filename. So, it didn’t just fail, it gave me a nicely furnished dead end, signalling kindly but playfully that I had done something understandably wrong.

Screenshot of two progress graphs from CodingBat

Progress graphs from CodingBat, showing my attempts to solve two problems; the green portions are unit tests that passed, and the red and pink portions are unit tests failing. The exercise "String-2 end_other" took me a while, but I got it.

There’s probably some game design term for this kind of compassionate railroading, but it makes me think of the caring side of the caring-to-combative community spectrum. And in both cases I got that feeling of being nurtured by someone who cared, even if that someone else is Nick Parlante (CodingBat’s author), years ago and a continent away.

Also, CodingBat is pretty clear about how you solve any given problem (declaring that this set of problems is about lists and only 1 layer of for-loops, or what have you), whereas in the Python Challenge you have a puzzle that you know you can solve with Python but that you can hit a bunch of different ways. If you want an experience with arguably more realistic exercises, the author of CodingBat also made the Google intro to Python, which includes exercises along the lines of “munge the semistructured data in this file with these guidelines.” I intend on doing that this year.

Python Challenge logo

Python Challenge is mysterious, yet friendly.

It was good to have my spouse Leonard nearby to help me when I was working on the Python Challenge, to (for example) help see that I had called a variable inconsistently, to notice that I couldn’t import a file as a module because I’d named it “1” instead of something starting with a letter, to remind me how to learn of (“dir(filename)”) and then use (“filename.function”) the functions within it, to tell me about string.replace, and to tell me how to use the interactive prompt properly to investigate how you call a method on an object of whatever type. But I did nearly all the work myself. And as of today I feel a lot more comfortable using for-loops, knowing what data structures to use for a problem (I decided to use a dictionary datatype the other day! And it worked! So exciting!), getting stuff in and out of dictionaries, and generally thinking “I can learn this!” Data structures and algorithms had felt mystifying to me. Now data structures no longer do. I remember the moment in Python challenge when I thought, “I’ll use a dictionary!” and I was right! It’s great.

CodeLesson, CodingBat, the Python Challenge, Leonard available for occasional consultation, and the Boston workshop are the dance partners I needed.

I’ve just begun CodeAcademy and stalled (as with all the rest of my learning-to-code endeavors) due to lack of time, as my job is pretty absorbing right now. (Worth a skim: Scott Gray’s thoughts on CodeAcademy.) I also haven’t tried Philip Guo’s online Python tutor which may suit me better since I’m more interested in Python than JavaScript right now. But I thought it might help others to talk about my journey so far.

Google Summer of Code 2012

My goal: inform women’s colleges about Google Summer of Code

Google Summer of Code 2012

Google Summer of Code 2012 - help me publicize this to college women!

If you have contacts at women’s colleges, let’s work to get a GSoC presentation there before March 20th. I’ll help.

Google’s open source team has now announced that Google Summer of Code 2012 will happen. Undergraduate and grad students at accredited colleges/universities around the world can get paid USD 5000 to work on open source projects as a full-time three-month internship.

Upcoming deadlines: 9 March, mentoring organizations need to submit their applications to participate. 6 April, student application deadline.

Open source software development is a rewarding and educational way for students to learn real-world software engineering skills, build portfolios, and network with industry and academe. Women coders especially find GSoC a good entry point because they can work from home with flexible hours, they get guaranteed personal mentorship, and the stipend lets them focus on their project for three solid months.

The best way to get in good applications is for organizers and students to start early, like, now. Students who download source code, learn how to hang out in IRC and submit patches in early March, and apply in late March are way more likely to get in (and to have a good experience) than those who start on April 2nd. So I want students to hear about GSoC (and hopefully about MediaWiki, my project) now. I’m willing to work to publicize GSoC this year and even if my project doesn’t get accepted, the other projects will benefit.

I successfully got multiple good proposals from women for my project last year, and this year I’d like to double that number. To that aim, I want to ensure that every women’s college in North America that has a CS department or a computer club gets informed about GSoC between now and March 20th, preferably with an in-person presentation. I started this effort in February and have already gotten some momentum; I spoke at Wellesley last week to much interest, and Scripps College held an info session today. But I need your help.

If your college isn’t on the list I set up, add it. If you can find contact information for one college listed on the wiki page, send them a note, and update the wiki page, that would be a huge help.

If you want goodies to hand out at a meetup, you can contact Google’s team. Let them know when you decide on a date, time, and location for a meetup so they can put it on the calendar. People have already prepared resources you can use: flyers, sample presentations, an email template, a list of projects that already have mentors listed, and more.

And of course, if you’re interested in applying, feel free to ask questions in the comments!

P.S. I’m only concentrating on North America because I figure that’s a limited and achievable goal; there are only about 50 women’s colleges with STEM curricula.  But GSoC caters to students worldwide. If you know of accredited women’s colleges outside North America that have CS curricula or programming clubs, please inform them and add them to the page. Thanks!

Máirín Duffy giving a presentation

Wednesday Geek Women: Joanmarie Diggs, Máirín Duffy, Jessica McKellar and Stormy Peters, open source contributors

This is a guest post by Marina Zhurakhinskaya. Marina is a software engineer at Red Hat working on the GNOME desktop and organizing the Outreach Program for Women in GNOME. This post originally appeared on her blog for Ada Lovelace Day 2011.

I’d like to tell you about four women who have inspired me to no end with their work, insight, and community outreach. Every interaction with them has motivated me in my work. Essentially, by being as dedicated as they are, they bring out the best in other people. I’m lucky to have met all of them and to have worked with them on community outreach efforts.

Joanmarie Diggs has worked for the Carroll Center for the Blind for the last 14 years, helping visually impaired people learn to use assistive technology. She decided to teach herself programming in order to contribute to Orca, GNOME’s screen reader. She eventually became the maintainer of Orca. Exactly a month ago, she was hired to work on GNOME accessibility at Igalia within 4 hours of posting on Twitter that her grant-funded position at the Carroll Center had been cut.

Joanie’s tweets are always infused with a great deal of humor. She says “Random thought: I wonder if I’ll ever shovel snow again….†in the wake of her move from New Hemisphere to Spain. Joanie has been a very caring mentor for one of the participants in the recent round of the GNOME Outreach Program for Women. She is the best role model I know for any woman getting involved in GNOME development.

Máirín Duffy giving a presentation

Máirín Duffy, by Ramakrishna Reddy y, CC BY-SA

Máirí­n Duffy is an interaction designer at Red Hat. She has a strong commitment to graphic design with free software. She has been using 100% free software to create her designs for many years now and has created many resources and opportunities for others to learn free software graphic design tools.

Máirín created the Fedora Design Bounty project to provide people interested in contributing to Fedora design with well-defined tasks suitable for beginners. She created some great flyers and art work to promote the Fedora Design Suite spin at SXSW. She ran Gimp and Inkscape classes for local middle school students and for Girl Scouts, creating great resources for both. Helping Máirín with the Girl Scout classes and going over these resources was actually how I learned do useful things in Gimp and Inkscape.

Máirín has showcased 17 open fonts in an “Unpackaged Font of the Week” series in her blog. There is always some fun and inviting project she talks about in her blog, accompanied by great pictures, designs, and educational resources.

Jessica McKellar is a recent MIT graduate who works at Ksplice. She organizes Boston Python Workshops for women and their friends. These workshops assume no prior knowledge of programming and walk the attendees through the installation steps, basic Python constructs, interactive programming exercises, and small projects during a 1.5 day event. Jessica explains programming in an engaging way and she and other volunteers help the attendees with any stumbling blocks throughout the event. These workshops get filled up within days of being announced and, in response, have grown in the number of attendees they accommodate. Being able to learn how to program in a supportive environment where any setback is resolved within minutes is tremendously empowering to the attendees. Jessica has found a great approach for helping more women feel confident about learning to program and the detailed materials she has created are now used for similar workshops in other cities.

Jessica is one of the maintainers of OpenHatch, a community website that provides the information and teaches the necessary skills for getting involved in free software. Open Source Workshop is another event Jessica recently organized together with Asheesh Laroia, who is the creator of OpenHatch. This workshop walked the attendees through the basics of free software contributing and gave them hands-on experience with using IRC, working with patches, and triaging bugs. Participating in such events gives the attendees the necessary confidence to make their next steps in the free software world. The first step is often the hardest and the community events Jessica puts together help many people make it.

Stormy Peters photo

Stormy Peters by Ross Burton, CC BY-SA

Stormy Peters is the Head of Developer Engagement at Mozilla. Before that she was the Executive Director of the GNOME Foundation. After leaving that position, she ran for the 7 person GNOME board as soon as she had a chance, coming in first with the largest number of top votes. Stormy is also the founder and president of Kids on Computers, a nonprofit organization setting up computer labs in schools where kids have no other access to technology. Her leadership and ability to connect people is a great gift for all the organizations she is involved with.

Stormy has been my go-to person for the last two years in which we have been working on the GNOME Outreach Program for Women. She championed the need to revive the women outreach initiative in GNOME and has helped with everything from getting sponsorship to answering applicant inquiries. It’s a great luxury to know that I can get sound and helpful advice from her about anything related to the program. When not bouncing ideas off of Stormy, I like reading her blog posts. They are just as insightful, both on matters related to free software and on other things in life.

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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.

Booth Grandmas passing out cookies at Good Old Games PAX Prime 2011 booth

Re-post: The advantage of being me

During the December/January slowdown, Geek Feminism is re-publishing some of our highlights from earlier in the year. This post originally appeared on February 28, 2011.

From The Advantage Of Dual-Identities (A Case Study of Nabokov), I bring you this quote:

It’s also important to note that the advantage of having a “dual-identity” – being both a novelist and a scientist, for instance – isn’t limited to Nabokov. According to a study led by Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, people who describe themselves as both Asian and American, or see themselves as a female engineer (and not just an engineer), consistently display higher levels of creativity.

So as a female, half-asian all-canadian researcher, I’m clearly better at creativity than all those boring white dude researchers?

Angela Montenegro from Bones… I don’t even know exactly where to begin on this. So I’m going talk about Bones for a minute. I’ve been watching it with my sister lately while we do other things (crochet, do mending, wander around looking for things in an mmo, eat dinner, etc.) and the other day she pointed out that she loves how the show deals with Angela, or really, how it doesn’t. See, Angela Montenegro is the team’s artist: she does sketches of the victims. But she doesn’t stop there: she also coaxes data off broken camcorders and swallowed flash drives doing digital forensic work. She’s an adept computer programmer who writes software that helps visualize and model what happened during a crime. What’s cool about Bones is that it’s totally taken for granted that she can be an artist and a coder. (And really, pretty much whatever else she wants to be.)

So I guess while I fundamentally agree that having multiple “identities” is a huge asset to my work and creative abilities, I sort of feel like… why are they making such a big deal about this, as if it’s some hugely abnormal thing. Why can’t they just accept that Angela can draw and code? Why do people insist on compartmentalizing people into single skill sets? I can drive a car and code and no one thinks that’s weird, but plenty of people have commented with surprise that I can edit a magazine (yes, I used to do this) and write code. Hello, world?

The article just makes me a little uncomfortable. This worst part is the paragraph about how the US will be overrun by mixed-race folk like me with superior creative skills — awkward racial superiority with a different spin — but even the study methodology doesn’t quite sit right with me at a first reading. But maybe the article is simply a journalistic reflection of research into of a real logical fallacy that people often employ: the assumption that one must specialize in only one skill to be the best person one can be. That’s one of those things that might be true for programs, but I really haven’t seen much evidence of it being true for people.

Despite my issues with the article, I think it’s got a nice take-away message: it’s a-ok, normal, and maybe even superior to have and use your multiple identities. And don’t let incredulous folk tell you otherwise.

This was originally posted on my personal blog.

Old Lego advertisement featuring a little girl and her lego creation

Pandering to horny teenage linkspam

  • Angela Zhang of Cupertino won a $100,000 scholarship for her cancer fighting research. In her project, Zhang aimed to design a targeted gold and iron oxide-based nanoparticle with the potential to eradicate cancer stem cells through a controlled delivery of the drug salinomycin to the site of the tumor. (…) The 17-year-old roughly estimates that the essence of her research could be available for use by cancer patients in 15 to 20 years.
  • Anti-pattern theater: how to get women to quit

    How do you piss off a technical woman so she will leave your team? It’s easy. Just go and lob a few complaints about her behavior that would never apply to a guy. The easiest one of these is to say “you’re being too emotional”. Who’s going to argue against that? All you have to do is find places where she emphasizes things instead of remaining in a flat monotone and you hit paydirt.

  • BusinessWeek asserts, Lego Is for Girls:
    Focusing on boys saved the toymaker in 2005. Now the company is launching Lego Friends for “the other 50 percent of the world’s children.” Will girls buy in?

  • I’m starting to think Lego is evil – Some musings on how lego has changed over the years, including the new “targeted at girls” line. This article’s from a dad, and I’d like to see some responses from women too, so if you’ve seen a good one (or written one!) please post in the comments. Mostly, though, you need to see this old ad he dug up:
    Old Lego advertisement featuring a little girl and her lego creation

    Old Lego advertisement featuring a little girl and her lego creation

  • @mnemosynekurai: Surprising no one, @Kotaku defends its pandering to horny teenage boys yfrog.com/mnv83p
  • 11 To-Do’s for Women In Tech – Written after a panel at LISA, this is a very nice, short, clear list of advice for those trying to improve the numbers of women in tech. This probably won’t be new advice to many readers here, but it’s a good version to keep handy for those who want a short primer.
  • Greg Wilson is starting up a course on How to Teach Webcraft and Programming to Free-Range Students: Right now, people all over the world are learning how to write programs and create web sites, but or every one who is doing it in a classroom there are a dozen free-range learners. This group will focus on how we, as mentors, can best help them. This may be of interest to those hoping to mentor fellow women in technology!

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Three women in Dalek costumes attacking an inflatable Tardis

Re-post: On competence, confidence, pernicious socialization, recursion, and tricking yourself

During the December/January slowdown, Geek Feminism is re-publishing some of our highlights from earlier in the year. This post originally appeared on January 20, 2011.

The other night I went to a hacking meetup for the first time in months. It’s usually an informal Python learnfest, and as I’m refreshing my Python basics, I went with the assumption that I’d be the least technically skilled person there. Like, of course, right?

The hacking meetup that night was, as it turns out, an installfest, so I ended up generally poking around at the software being demonstrated, and conversing with strangers. One in particular caught my attention with a fairly ill-formed question: what meetups should he visit to learn how to make websites?

Over the next hour, as I answered his questions, it became clear that he just didn’t know much, compared to me, about software engineering, or about the wider world of technology or the web. He’s in the second year of a computer information systems bachelor’s degree, and knows his way around a little Java (of which I am wholly illiterate). He didn’t know about the LAMP stack, or about Drupal or Rails or Django (or why one might choose PHP versus Ruby versus Python versus Java versus pick-your-web-friendly-language). He didn’t know that these tools exist, or why one would use a framework or pre-existing CMS rather than coding “everything” oneself. He has never heard of bug trackers, or source control, or diff. He said he did not know what a wiki was (I scarcely believed this, and told him that Wikipedia is a wiki).

As a side note: I gathered that his entire career trajectory and curriculum comes not even from conventional wisdom, but from “I once heard someone say.” Examples: “Why are you doing CIS instead of CS?” “Someone told me that CS majors get outsourced.” Or, more boggling: “Someone told me Python is useless.”

From one perspective, this guy has more technical merit than I do. He has taken an algorithms class. He can probably do a job interview coding question better than I can (reverse the characters in this string, etc.). But I have a fair amount of wisdom he lacks, full stop.

Then there was the guy who was interviewing me to work at his startup. As we walked, he offhandedly mentioned his current project at his day job: a PHP web app needed to be able to turn user markup into HTML. “And you’ve already checked whether MediaWiki has something you can grab, right?” I asked. He stopped in his tracks. No, he had not thought of that.

I need to stop assuming that everyone else knows more about the tech than I do.

We’ve talked a fair amount here at Geek Feminism about impostor syndrome and sexism (my past post). I’m just going to start with a few postulates:

  • In sexist societies, women get especially socialized to think we’re not as intellectually capable as we are, and to act self-deprecating about our abilities
  • In technical spaces where women are the minority, sexists dismiss our successes and concentrate on our missteps

Regarding the latter, I recently reread Abi Sutherland’s “Permission to Suck”, which included a moment of a familiar self-flagellation:

…every achievement is just a mitigation of the disservice I’m doing womankind.

It’s as though my goalposts came on casters to make them easier to move

But of course that is an error in judgment. Our sense of our own merit gets calibrated by feedback from the outside world, but sexism and impostor syndrome get in the way of that calibration. All the tentacles of this issue — the prejudice, the tokenization, the distorted self-perception, the discounting of one’s achievements and comparative lionization of others’ — bother me because they mess with proper judgment.

On an emotional level, I especially hate that anything is interfering with my data-collection and judgment. I am the kind of person who delayed drinking alcohol and took notes the first time she drank, to record any degradation in perceptions and prudence. I delayed getting a credit card till I’d supported myself for more than a year, partially to ensure that I had the correct attitude to judging purchases & debt. And here is this thing, clogging and fogging my mind, which I know is a lie, but which does not go away even when I speak its true name and snap three times.

Recursion Dinosaur


And a poisonous effect of the socialization is that it turns women’s conversations about the problem into yet another self-deprecation exercise.

“I hate myself for hating myself so much”

“oh god you’re awesome, I have worse impostor syndrome than you”

“No way, your self-confidence is admirable”

“I’m meta-shit”


So I seek lessons and tactics on how to become a less irritating person to my friends, and a more useful and capable person going forward. Some assorted thoughts and ideas:

Five ways you can feel as competent as you really are

  1. Everything in Terri’s earlier advice, especially a shield of arrogance.

    I’m not saying you need a thick skin. That’s maybe true, but it won’t help your confidence nearly as much as the ability to say, “screw you; I’m awesome.” Shield of arrogance it is.

    If you are worried about being confidently wrong sometimes, note that a small increase in confident wrong assertions is a small price to pay for a big increase in capability, correct assertions, momentum, and achievement.

  2. Know that sometimes thoughts come from feelings, not the other way around. The “I suck” feeling does not necessarily have a basis, just as good weather and ephemeral physiology can put you on top of the world. Instead of looking for reasons that you feel mildly down or incapable, consider disregarding them, acting, and seeing if your feelings dissipate.
  3. If you feel compelled to go from success to success, you may not be risking enough. As these entrepreneurs do, try assuming that you will fail the first time you try something.
  4. Every endeavor that anyone has ever done is therefore in some sense No Big Deal, that is, doable. Some people make the hard look easy, but experience and effort make for far greater variation than does innate ability — or, at least, isn’t it more useful to assume so? Watch other people succeed, and watch other people fail. Mere life experience helped me out here, but so did Project Runway, where I saw good people trying and failing every single week. And so did seeing these guys, at the meetup, at the job interview, being dumber than me. I just had to keep my eyes open and it happened, because I am smarter than the average bear.
  5. Notice the things you know. A friend of mine recently mentioned to me that she worries that people perceive her as incompetent if she asks more than two questions about a hard problem via her company’s internal IRC channel. I asked her to compare how many questions she asks and answers on IRC each day. She hadn’t even been considering that ratio, because she’d unthinkingly assumed that what she knew must be basic, and blabbing about the stuff she already knows is easy and natural and unremarkable. But upon consideration, she’s a good peer in that informational ecology, seeding more than she leeches.

This is all corollary to my earlier injunction to make irrationality work for you. We are all monkeys, seizing on narratives and any status signals we can find. Don’t keep the default sexist irrational assumptions get in the way of your confidence-competence virtuous circle. Make your own recursion dinosaur of win.


Leslie Harpold

She was a great humanizing influence upon the early Web and one of its ultra-connected nodes. She was a very good designer and a better writer, but her greatest contribution was to embody the fact that if the Web is not about people, it is not about anything. I have not the heart to retell the stories of her many sorrows and unbearably early death, five years ago today.


Leslie is, in any case, the sort of discovery you should make for yourself. Her domains haven’t been maintained but there are precious copies. You might start with her proto-blog Hoopla, archived at the Library of Congress:

So when i talk about my day, my latest artistic obsession, launch into my five minutes on retinol vs. fruit acids, or pause trying to think up the next topic for our conversation, I am really saying the same thing over and over again: I love you, I love you, I love you.

There’s more in the Wayback Machine, although it’s not in great shape.

Of one of her best-loved projects, almost nothing remains. Every year Leslie built an online advent calendar, full of reader-contributed stories, links and Easter eggs. As chance would have it, she published a story of mine on December 5, 2006, and a story by a mutual friend of ours on December 6. We simultaneously realized we had a significant number of BFFs in common and exchanged thrilled emails. I remember walking to work one sunny December morning full of happiness and the prospect of getting to know a whole new person.

Leslie never updated the calendar again. She is much missed.


Head and shoulders photo of Audrey Tang (self portrait)

Wednesday Geek Woman: Audrey Tang ( 唐鳳), Perl hacker

This is a guest post by Rick Scott, a Canadian philosopher-geek who’s interested in how we can collaborate to make technology work better for everyone. This post appeared on his blog for Ada Lovelace Day 2011.

Head and shoulders photo of Audrey Tang (self portrait)Audrey Tang is far and away the most awesome hacker I’ve ever had the privilege to have worked with. She’s best known for creating Pugs, a perl6 implementation in Haskell. Though it’s now semi-retired in favour of the newer implementations that it had a role in inspiring, it represented a huge leap forward and a quantum shift in Perl6 development at a time when enthusiasm around Perl6 was sorely flagging. She was the first CPAN contributor to have uploaded 100 modules. She’s the key figure behind Perl 5’s internationalization, as well as the i18n of many, many other individual pieces of software. She was part of the committee that designed the Haskell 2010 standard, and has made innumerable other contributions to the open source community.

I never got seriously involved with Pugs, but many of the things Audrey did with it shaped my thinking around open source, community, and how we should collaborate. First was the idea that a project should be optimized for fun (-Ofun1), not for control, or strict adherence to the founder’s vision, or anything else. Second, whereas many open source projects keep a very tight rein on who has commit access and make getting a commit bit an arduous process, Audrey aggressively gave out commit bits to anybody who happened to wander by in the general vicinity of Pugs. Got a great idea? Here’s a commit bit, go implement it. Notice something missing in the docs? Here’s a commit bit; go add it. Ranting in IRC that something’s not working? Here’s a commit bit; go fix it. Extending this trust makes people feel welcome and want to contribute. It fosters an air of community instead of making prospective new participants feel as though they are looking at climbing (or worse, building) a pyramid.

Audrey would likely demur at my calling her brilliant, but it’s a fitting descriptor for her. She has a unique and penetrating insight into code and an uncanny knack for encouraging the people who write it. I count myself as fortunate to have been able to work with her and to be part of a few of the communities she’s had such a profound impact on.

1 -Ofun: -O is the compiler option that tells it how you want your code optimized. Audrey’s presentation on -Ofun [pdf] talks more about how to maximize the amount of fun in your software project.

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Wednesday Geek Woman submission thread: December

This is a submissions thread for Wednesday Geek Woman series of profiles. Submit your profile of a geek woman in (hidden) comments here and selected ones will be posted (perhaps lightly edited). Here’s what to include:

  1. Optional: a quick one sentence bio paragraph about yourself, with any links you want. For example: Mary is a humble geek blogger and you can find her at <a href=”http://geekfeminism.org/”>geekfeminism.org</a&gt;Notes:
    • if this bio line is missing, you will be assumed to want to be anonymous. This applies even if you put a name and URL in the comment field.
    • don’t feel pressured into revealing things about yourself you don’t want to. A pseudonymous, mysterious, vague or simple bio is fine.
  2. Compulsory: two or more parapraphs describing your geek woman, ideally including why you admire her in particular.
  3. Optional: links to her biography, her Wikipedia page, and so on.
  4. Optional: agreement that your post can be used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (posts that have this can be used in the Geek Feminism wiki).

See previous posts for examples.

Here’s a form you could copy and paste into comments:

My bio (one sentence only, optional):

Name or pseudonym of the geek woman I am submitting:

A few words summarising the woman’s geek accomplishments (for example “AI researcher” or “discoverer of supernova” or “engine mechanic”):

My post about this woman (two or more paragraphs):

Links to this woman elsewhere (optional):

[Please delete this line if you don’t agree!] I agree to licence my post under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

Criteria. Continue reading

Detail of circuit board

Wednesday Geek Woman: Sandra K. Johnson: parallel processing expert

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

Dr. Sandra K. Johnson (also known as Sandra Johnson Baylor) got interested in electrical engineering through an invitation to go to a high school summer camp program at Southern University, a historically black university in Baton Rouge. At the time, she thought engineering was all about “driving a train” but she decided she’d go anyway and get out of town for the summer. She loved engineering camp and went back to Southern to get her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, and ultimately went on to become the first African-American woman to get a PhD in electrical engineering in the United States.

While working as a researcher at IBM’s T. J. Watson Research Lab, Dr. Johnson worked on the prototype of the SP2 processor for IBM’s “Deep Blue” chess machine, as well as a variety of topics in the extraordinarily difficult field of highly parallel computing, including memory and IO behavior of parallel programs, cache coherence protocols, scalable shared-memory systems, and the Vesta Parallel File System. (If you’re looking for her publications, many of her papers are published under the name S. J. Baylor.) She held a number of high-ranking positions at IBM, including Linux Performance Architect, and managing the Linux Performance team.

Ironically, Dr. Johnson is currently working as an IBM business development executive in the United Arab Emirates, a relatively progressive country next door to Saudi Arabia, where she is not allowed to drive, among other highly discriminatory laws against women.Often when people claim we have already achieved legal gender equality (in their own country, of course), they forget that science, technology, and business are global activities, and career advancement often depends on working in several different countries. [Correction: The original said women weren’t allowed to drive in UAE, which was me confusing Saudi Arabia with UAE.]

Sandra Johnson’s books are representative of her career: She was editor in chief of Linux Performance Tuning, author of Inspirational Nuggets, which encourages people to reach their full potential, as well as co-author with her brother of Gregory: Life of a Lupus Warrior, about her brother’s fight with lupus (Sandra was subsequently diagnosed with a non-life threatening form of lupus). Dr. Johnson is a combination of intellectual powerhouse and kind mentor. She’s on her way to the top, and she wants to bring other women (and especially women of color) along with her.

I was lucky enough to meet Dr. Johnson at the Grace Hopper women in computing conference in 2010, and I was deeply impressed. She was not only intelligent and competent, but incredibly supportive of other women. Dr. Johnson on how to become an IEEE fellow (or get any other award): It’s not magic, you have to tell your friends and mentors, “I want to be an IEEE fellow,” and then get someone to take responsibility for bugging your friends to write letters to nominate you. Don’t feel bad about asking for recognition, that’s just how it works.

Sandra Johnson is also a public speaker, with booking information on her web site. I highly recommend her as a speaker. She’s clear, informative, and inspirational in a practical and realistic way. If you get a chance to see her speak, jump at it! Personally, I hope I get to meet Dr. Johnson again.

So, next time someone says there aren’t any women in electrical engineering or processor design, you can pipe up with, “Oh, I can’t believe you haven’t heard of Dr. Sandra Johnson! She did all kinds of work on parallel processors and cache coherency for highly parallel systems and, oh yeah, the Vespa parallel file system too. She even worked on the prototype for IBM’s Deep Blue! Did you know she was also the first African-American woman to get a PhD in electrical engineering in the U.S.? Right now she’s working in the Middle East, can you believe that irony? If you ever get the chance to see her speak, take it!”

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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.