Roundtable: Women in Development II
Part II of a discussion with and about women in development.
Interviewed by Geoffrey Grosenbach
Geoffrey Grosenbach: It’s the Ruby on Rails Podcast. I’m Geoffrey Grosenbach. This is part two of a round table discussion about Women in Development from RailsConf in Portland.
Woman 1: Cynthia, right?
Cynthia Kaiser: Yeah. So I’m Cynthia Kaiser and I work with Caltech. I do programming, systems administration, database administration. Where I cut out is, if it’s design, too hard.
If it involves Photoshop, I back off.
But I think it’s interesting to hear you say that people need a little introduction to programming and it’s going to need a way around that slippery slope. It’s the opposite of my experience, which was, in high school I took a two week programming course, and it was entertaining. It was fun; it was pretty easy. I think I was the only woman, but it didn’t bother me one way or the other.
But it was like, what do I do from here? It wasn’t obvious what I did from here so I put it away. I came back to it in college, thinking that was entertaining but I spent way too much time validating user input, which was really tedious. When the web came along and there were things to say, it was all of a sudden much more obvious to me what you do with this.
Woman 1: Right.
Woman 2: So it’s a tool. It came to you because it’s a tool.
Cynthia: Yes, but I am a craftsman so I like tools for their own sake but not sufficiently that I was willing to do it in a complete vacuum.
And so when I found a group of people, I basically found a company that had a really compelling blog, way before anybody called it a blog. There was this one guy with a really clear voice and, “this is what we should do with the web. This is why the web matters.”
And, by the way, we’re hiring. I went to a 2-week boot camp, picked up as much programming as I could along with a bunch of guys who had been doing a ton of programming. I’m still trying to work through all the pieces. I know roughly that this is going to happen. But, it took me a couple months to get up to speed, and then I was fine. It was because I finally had something that was clearly, obviously, this is what we can do with it. Programming is the way to get there. You can do a lot of things on the web with HTML which you can drive yourself mad that way. You have to do a lot of things programmatically in order to be able to really get to that. OK, this is really interesting and it is easy enough that we will actually do it.
Woman 2: I came to Rails and I had a Microsoft access database, so I am a closet visual basic developer.
Geoff: No longer.
Woman 2: I was waiting for an opportunity to convert this access database into something that would be web-enabled both for my own convenience and to expand its capability. I looked at web objects; I looked at PHP as much as I could. Basically, every time I did this, I just stopped short. I’m not going to commit the next six months of my life to learning this either complicated or expensive or unpleasant-looking language. Rails came along, and it was; this is what I’ve been waiting for, this is fantastic, this is what I’m going to do.
But I think one of the things that I’ve always found, and I’ve come to IT not directly, it’s only recently that I’ve admitted to myself, I am a programmer. That’s really what I enjoy doing, I love coding. I came to it because I needed to solve problems. There is this absolutely huge opportunity in IT, where people within IT who know what the technology is capable of doing; and people outside of IT who have needs and who have problems that want to be solved. They still do not talk to each other.
I have consulted with companies and it’s ironic, because I know they have someone sitting in the IT department two floors up who’s perfectly capable of doing the work that I’m doing. But they don’t know what the needs of the other people in the company are. The people in the company that don’t have an IT background don’t know what’s capable of being done. They would have no problems sitting down with the person, but they just don’t know that it’s possible. That’s when consultants come in and make an awful lot of money, which is fine.
At the end of the day, we talk a lot about feature-driven development versus user-driven technology or driven development versus solving people’s problems. That still has not been solved. There are still huge amounts of people who are interested in the application of technology versus the technology itself. It’s not a right or wrong, but people that are interested in applications really have a fantastic opportunity with the knowledge of what’s possible.
The people who are maybe not professional programmers but are working in various industries, for non-profits, who can actually say “Hey, you know what, I am interested in Rails, I do it on the side and I can use it to solve this problem.” That still has not been solved. There is so much work out there that can be done and there are fantastic opportunities out there. Just because people won’t sit down and talk about it. They don’t even know that a solution exists to their problem. If they did, they’d go get it. There’s a huge pool out there waiting to be tapped into.
Woman 3: I absolutely agree.
Woman 4: It’s really interesting for me to hear the two of you talk about IT as a means to an end. Mostly what I do is high-level architecture, big problem-solving, making groups of people work together. I walked into my first programming class 30 years ago and I wrote that first Fortran program and I haven’t been done since. The physical act of writing code is a pleasure in the synapses of my brain. I feel there’s something obsessive about it. Everyone who loves writing code knows that feeling. It seems like it got captured somehow in the male domain.
Desi McAdam: I don’t think that’s necessarily true.
Geoff: Introduce yourself, kid.
Desi: Right, sorry. I’m Desi.
Woman 5: Everybody knows Desi.
Desi: I’m Desi. I work for ThoughtWorks. I also started DevChix and I’m just happy as well to be listening to all the other women talk.
Geoff: I think there needs to be a DevChix podcast, that’s what I hope comes out of this.
Desi: A DevChix Podcast. Yeah. Actually, that’s a pretty good idea.
Geoff: I’ll help set you up.
Desi: All right. Cool.
So, just in response to that, for myself, I’m very much like Ana and Cynthia. In college, I went into… Actually, my dad admired engineers, and so this was something that kind of pushed me towards engineering, but when I got to engineering, I realized I didn’t really like engineering.
So, I ended up in computer science, and as it turns out I actually really liked it. I went through a lot of stuff in college and I ended up not doing it coming out of college. So, I wasn’t a developer straight out of college.
It wasn’t until I started doing Agile development, where I started learning about Agile, and started realizing that there was a different way to participate in development. I could actually have a situation where I could have a…
Woman 2: A collaboration.
Desi:...communication and a collaboration.
I found that once I realized that there were things that I could do that would make people’s lives better because I could code, that’s when I really said, “OK, this is definitely for me. I can do something that will make someone’s life easier. This will make their life better.” Once I see that in a piece of software that I’m going to build, I want nothing more than to build that software. That’s what really drives me; just knowing that what I’m doing is really going to help someone. I take a pride in it, and I really… it just… that’s what gets me.
The coding? I love coding too, but that’s not what fires off for me.
Woman 2: It’s clear. It’s really interesting for me to hear that.
Woman 1: I’m actually OK with the collaboration on code versus the collaboration on the problem. It’s just that I’m in an environment where that’s where I can get my collaboration. I came from molecular biology. I have a PhD in molecular biology and walked away from it because I was tired of doing everything so solo.
Desi: By yourself.
Woman 1: I think that if I had been in another field of science, I would probably still be in science. If I were an astronomer, because of the scale on which they work and the fact that it costs millions to build a telescope, and then millions to run it for the next year; they have to collaborate in ways that molecular biologists didn’t at the time I was taking my degree.
If I had a programmer to collaborate with…
Desi: Maybe you’d be…
Woman 1: I’d be like this. But what I have is users who are like this, and we worked over the last five years so they’ve gotten to the point that they do ask me, “Could the computer do that?” I’ve found people doing terrifying things by hand. They take an export of something from the database and format it by hand.
I’m like, “You spend how many hours every week doing that before you send it out? Why didn’t you tell me?
Desi: Yes, please! Exactly!
Woman 1: I could do that. It took me less time to change the output format than it took her to do one week’s worth. But she never asked because IT isn’t something that she thought she could bend to her will.
Woman 2: I had a case years ago where they were printing out this 20 pages of paper, and you could see them circling these numbers and adding them up on a calculator. I just looked at this and said, “You know, this is a limited text file, so we’re waiting to be parsed.”
It’s back to that thing. She didn’t know that it was possible for that problem to be solved. I suppose that’s…
Desi: And I wonder how many people would turn on to the programming if they started to see the world that way. Maybe that’s the interesting thing. It seems that there are actually some programmers…
Woman 1: Actually it is.
Desi:...sort of hiding out in strange admin jobs. If they started to see that as a text to limited file that was waiting to be parsed, they’d be like, “Whoo, let’s do that!”
Woman 1: I.. be…
Desi: Go ahead, go.
Woman 1: I don’t know when we have to… when the next session starts, but I just want to bring it back to women in computing for a moment, because it’s great to hear all these women talk about all this computer stuff. It would be great if these conversations could always happen, but the thing is, it’s like what Desi said.
A lot of people go, and they look at something like DevChix, or UNIX Chicks or sisters, and they think reverse discrimination, and the truth is, I want to address that because I don’t think it’s reverse discrimination. It’s like this never happens. This is what male programmers have every single day.
Woman 2: It’s called normal.
Woman 1: Yeah. This is normal. So, what’s normal.. I mean this is probably a little unusual for you, being in a circle where you’re the only guy.
Woman 3: When was the last time this happened?
Woman 1: Yeah. When was the last time that happened? That’s a little weird. That’s what we’re in, and because of the way society is, it’s sometimes intimidating if you’re the only woman and you’re sitting at a table with a bunch of guys, even if they’re trying to be friendly.
Geoff: I feel intimidated right now.
Woman 1: And we’re not a foot taller than you and a hundred pounds heavier.
Desi: You can see if we all stand up.
Woman 1: And that’s part of it. But it’s also, even when guys are trying to be friendly, I think a lot of guys in Ruby or…
Woman 4: They don’t actually have the best social skills.
Woman 1: They don’t have the best social skills. Even when they have the best of intentions, we end up with something like RubyChix, and I know Desi didn’t want me to talk about this, but I can’t not talk about this.
These guys, they wanted… I think, I’m not really sure, but I think they wanted to increase the visibility of women.
Desi: They did. That was their intention. That actually was their intention.
Woman 1: And what they did was they created this website called RubyChix. They went up to women, and they said, “Can I take your picture?” And they would take their picture.
Woman 1: They wouldn’t always explain exactly what they.
Desi: Therein lies the first problem, is the picture.
Woman 1: They wouldn’t always say what they were going to use it for. And then… As men they take pictures anonymously. And then they create this website where there was this button that said, “Upload a Chick.”
Woman 3: Oh no.
Woman 4: They were thinking, you would just take a picture, just like here, and post it on RubyChix all together.
Woman 1: But the problem is, it’s kind of intimidating. You go to a conference and you see that there’s a website where you can just upload any picture of any woman, and that’s…
Woman 2: Turn it around. Does it work? It’s insane.
Desi: The other thing, too was that there was no content. There was no context around the situation. A lot of people found that somewhat creepy.
Woman 5: It is creepy.
Desi: I tried… I have this really… I don’t know, whatever. I have a… I worry that… Worry’s not the right word. I try to look at every situation as a good intention. And so, since it was a good intention, I wanted to try… I was trying to find the guy…
Woman 2: Positively.
Woman 3: Be open about it.
Woman 1: And since it was a good intention, I was trying to find the guys, because I wanted to be like, “Um, this is not going to come off quite like I think you guys expected, so let’s try to…”
And they were very great about it whenever I found them. They were like, “You know what? We weren’t trying to do anything like that. We weren’t trying to be creepy. And you know what? Here, you guys take over the domain. You guys take it over, and make it something good if you can make something good out of it.” And they were really gracious about it. But…
Woman 1: Like Jen was saying, they didn’t necessarily understand how that was going to make us feel. They said, “Hey, can we take your picture?” And I’m like, “Yeah, sure, take my picture.” And then I asked, “Well, what is it for?” He’s like, “RubyChix.” And I’m like, “OK. Well, who started RubyChix?” And he’s like, “I did.”
Woman 3: [laughs]
Woman 2: Some guy.
Woman 3: [laughs]
Woman 1: And I’m like, “Wait a minute, isn’t that kind of weird?”
Woman 3: Yeah.
Woman 2: It seems a little weird…
Woman 1: And I was like, “You’ve got to find me and you’ve got to talk to me about this tomorrow.” And I was out drinking.
Woman 1: Of course, I didn’t want to do this while I’m drinking. The thing is I didn’t realize the context in which it was going to be displayed. I didn’t realize that it was just going to be my picture. There’s nothing about me. He didn’t know my name. He didn’t know any of our names. As they started finding out…
Woman 2: Am I on the site?
Woman 3: It’s the prototype!
Woman 1: Yeah, I know, but that’s what they said. They were like, “Ah, we haven’t got there yet.”
Woman 2: If I can get an Internet connection, I would see if I was…
Woman 4: But the point is, and I see Desi’s point, these guys are trying to do the right thing—maybe.
Woman 1: [laughs]
Woman 2: The most generous are with you[?]...
Woman 4: I have a few doubts. But these are the guys who are trying to be nice…
Woman 3: Yeah, exactly.
Woman 4: Now just imagine the guys who are not trying to be nice.
Woman 1: Not trying to be nice.
Woman 2: Yeah.
Woman 4: Or the guys who are being hostile, and then you see what kind of thing we’re up against. So when people say it’s reverse discrimination to start a group of women developers to be able to talk together…
Woman 2: They’re clueless.
Woman 4: It’s not reverse discrimination. It’s just that we want normal.
Woman 4: We want what is normal for any other developer.
Geoff: And you’re the ones who know what you need, and what you need as…
Woman 2: We would like to define that.
Geoff: Yeah, define the community.
Woman 4: Exactly. We want to be the ones defining it.
Woman 5: It’s a very different thing when women promote women versus when men promote women, as some sort…
Woman 2: Promote…
Woman 5: Basically an object for them to stare at on a website.
Woman 1: This is the thing that was happening last night, that when the guy came up to me and was like, “You know, I really want to help. I want to do something. I want to be a part of this.” And I’m like, “That’s great! Please keep that enthusiasm, but let us figure out how to best engage you…”
Woman 2: Yeah, what to do.
Woman 1: “Because I don’t necessarily know that if you just go out and do it, you’re going to understand, because you’re not a woman; you don’t see the world from my perspective, or from every other woman’s perspective.” I don’t see the world from everybody else’s perspective either, but I at least have the connections to talk to people and find out, “OK, what does everyone feel? What do you guys think?” beforehand. So it’s difficult, right?
And I think you made a really great point, which I didn’t see coming…
Woman 2: [laughs]
Woman 1: In that, when the guys who are trying to be nice can cause upset, it’s hard for other people to imagine what it’s like for us to have to deal with the ones that don’t want to be nice.
Woman 3: Yeah.
Woman 4: It’s very hard.
Woman 2: I went home from RailsConf last year and went to the local Ruby users group, and I was the only woman there.
Woman 1: Right.
Woman 2: And I had a little rant with all the boys. It was a small enough group so that I felt like I could do a rant. I asked them, “Do you like what you do?” And they were like, “Oh, yeah! We love it! We’re such nerds! We love it! It’s like this is a place where we are experts. This is a place where—like, I was a nerd in high school, right? I was not cool. And now I am cool.”
Woman 1: [laughs]
Woman 2: I’m smart and I’m bright and I feel valued. And I said, “Don’t you want your daughters to have that?”
Woman 3: Yeah.
Woman 2: “Don’t you want a world where your daughters can have that feeling?” And they were stunned. It was like the first time they’d ever thought… They’re not having a conflict with me. The world is big enough so that there’s space enough for them and me right now as adults, but they need to change the world for their children.
Woman 1: Yeah.
Woman 2: And it’s a point of view that I think many of them are young enough so that they don’t have yet, but it was clear they were startled by that idea.
Woman 1: Yeah.
Woman 2: Like, they didn’t have an obligation to me, but boy, you could see them all getting fierce all of a sudden, when they thought about, “I want my daughter to have this cool thing that I have.”
Woman 4: And that’s a great point, too, because it kind of brings them to this idea. They can go to this space, like RubyConf or the Raleigh Ruby Brigade or whatever…
Woman 6: If you guys don’t mind, I’ll take some pictures.
Woman 4: Yeah, go ahead. And they can feel like they’re part of a group. They can feel that they’re part of a group that understands them, talks about Ruby.
Woman 2: Values them.
Woman 4: But what would they feel like if there were only five of them, and there were a hundred Java developers or COBOL developers that say, “But you guys are discriminating against us!”
Woman 4: “We want to be part of it, too!”
Woman 5: “How dare you band together?”
Woman 3: [laughs]
Woman 1: Yeah, exactly.
Woman 4: Or even better, non-computer people, right? They say, “You’re discriminating against us. We want to hang out here.” It kind of changes the atmosphere a lot. You’re not talking about the stuff that you want to talk about, you’re not talking about the stuff that you’re passionate about, because you have to share it with all these other opinions that may disagree with you. And that’s kind of why it’s important to have things like DevChix or Linux Chicks or sisters.
Woman 6: Or encourage more women to go into programming, things like that.
Woman 3: Yeah, right.
Woman 4: We’d have to start somewhere.
Woman 2: My basic point of view is it’s good for everybody. And if you don’t understand it… I mean, told them, “OK, so you weren’t cool in high school…”
Woman 2: “But now, think about how cool it would be if there were a lot of women here! You could get dates!”
Woman 2: “Who are you going out with? Each other?”
Woman 2: “I mean, that’s all right with me, but I don’t think most of you want that. And I feel like one of the things we can bring you is open up, crack your brain open a little bit, and see a wider world.”
Woman 1: Yeah.
Woman 2: “It’s better for everyone. I’m not asking for something for me. I want you to look at what’s real and think about how it benefits you, and it’s OK with me if you evaluate it in those terms.”
Woman 1: Yeah, me too. Absolutely.
Woman 2: Right? “What’s in it for you?”
Woman 1: Absolutely.
Woman 2: I mean, we all do that, right? I’m sitting in here saying, “What’s in this for me? I’m going to change it for me.” But what I would say is it’s not a zero sum game, right? Everyone benefits.
Geoff: Everybody benefits.
Woman 1: Yeah, yeah.
Woman 2: And it’s important to really understand that. And I think if they really understood how much everyone could benefit, everyone would think, “Wow! We should have more diversity here. It’s a good thing.”
Geoff: Well, I’ve benefited from this. I think I’m going to wrap it up. It looks like people are coming in. But I hope this conversation keeps going. [laughs] Thanks to all of you.
Woman 1: Yeah, we’re pretty good at keeping conversations always going.
Woman 1: We do, yeah.
Woman 2: Let me just say that I appreciate here having a forum to listen to each other.
Woman 1: Yeah. Thanks, Geoff, for doing this with us.
Woman 6: Geoffrey, thanks a lot for the t-shirts.
Woman 2: Where’s my t-shirt?
Woman 6: [laughs]
Woman 3: T-shirts?
Geoff: I’ll go get some more.
Geoff: Stay right here.
Woman 2: Women’s medium.
Geoff: This has been the Ruby on Rails Podcast, sponsored, as always, by PeepCode Screencasts.