Roundtable: Women in Development
Jen May Wu, Dr. Ana Nelson, Liz Summerfield, Sandi Metz, Carmelyne Thompson, Cynthia Kaiser, and Desi McAdam discuss the state of women in open source programming.
Interviewed by Geoffrey Grosenbach
Geoffrey: It’s the Ruby on Rails Podcast; I’m Geoffrey Grosenbach. In the last day of RailsConf 2007 in Portland, I had a round-table discussion with Jan May Wu, Dr. Ana Nelson, Liz Summerfield, Sandi Metz, Carmeline Thompson, Cynthia Kaiser, and Daisy McAdam about women, open source computer programming, and Rails. It’s about an hour long. I’m going to run half of it this time, and the rest on the next episode. Enjoy.
Desi McAdam: So one of the guys last night, he came over to me, and he was talking to me at the bar. I have talked to so many people, and there are so many great guys that are like, “Hey, what can I do to help?” I don’t know, but we were just talking in general. One of the first things that came up was the fact that I got a women’s t-shirt from PeepCode. I was like, “Believe it or not, that in and of itself, the fact that they thought about getting women’s t-shirts, that makes a difference”.
And he was like, “Really? Things like that, just that small little thing?” And I was like, “Yeah, actually it does”. Because we feel more comfortable, right? We’re all sitting here joking about it, but…
Sandi: It’s like everything. You can judge everything… If you turn it around, it seems just equally fair. I asked some guys after last years RailsConf. Everywhere I went, there would be the, sort of, assumption of maleness. I would protest it. It’s like, “Look, I’m a good nerd. It’s just, I’m not a guy”. I asked one guy, I said, “What if there were 588 women here, and 12 men.”
Sandi: What if you could only order women’s t-shirts?
Desi McAdam: Yeah, what if you had to wear a Baby-T?
Sandi: See, you laugh, right? You laugh because it seems so inconceivable, when you turn it around. And when it seems inconceivable when you turn it around, we’re not just being silly.
Desi McAdam: Yeah, exactly, I completely agree.
Geoffrey: Yes, it’s a big conference. There are a lot of people, but it’s not… I think there are, 20 or more women here. OK.
Desi McAdam: The ratio still sucks. The ratio still sucks really bad. However, there were enough women here that I did not manage to meet them all.
Desi McAdam: So I think there were probably…
Geoffrey: Last year, there were only four or five women, and you all got together, and did dinner?
Ana: We did dinner together.
Desi McAdam: There were twelve. There was twelve last year. And I think at least half of the women here were at that last year. At RubyConf… were you at RubyConf two years ago, Jeng?
Jeng Mai: I was.
Desi McAdam: Yeah, there were six of us. Or five. Were there five or six?
Jeng Mai: There were not many. There were very few.
Desi McAdam: There were very few.
Jeng Mai: There were not enough to fit around a whole table.
Desi McAdam: No, not at all. That’s sort of how it got started. I was like, “OK, well if I’m going to go to these conferences, and I’m going to be one of five out of two hundred whoever. I’m going to at least know them all.” So that’s how I met Jan.
Geoffrey: I got it wrong the first… I went to a previous conference a few months ago, and actually a few women came up to me. They had no idea what PeepCode was, but they liked the shirt. They said, “I want one of those shirts.” And I only had men’s. So I have to…
Desi McAdam: But this time you didn’t do that, right?
Desi McAdam: Exactly. Do you have any…? You’re out, right?
Geoffrey: I’m out. I mean…
Desi McAdam: There you go. They’re gone.
Woman 2: I can’t believe it.
Geoffrey: Well, there are more in my car, so I’ll have to go get them.
Desi McAdam: You know, Pivotal Labs actually did womens shirts, too. As did…
Woman 3: JoeAnt did…
Woman 2: Yeah, so a lot of the companies. JoeAnt, Rails Machine, Pivotal Labs…
Cynthia: Everyone except O’Reilly got the t-shirts right.
Who would have thought, right?
Ana: They probably do a ton of conferences, and I would imagine they probably do some conferences that aren’t as skewed in ratio.
Desi McAdam: Yeah.
Sandi: So can I ask you a question, since we’re on tape? Why does it matter?
Desi McAdam: About the t-shirts?
Sandi: No, about women.
Desi McAdam: About women?
Sandi: Why should anyone care?
Desi McAdam: Well, do you want it from a woman’s perspective, or do you want it from a community perspective? You know, there’s a whole conversation about diversity of thought, and how we bring a completely different perspective to the community. The classic example was the very first guys who did the artificial hearts. They built them so that they would fit in a man’s chest. You know, a six-foot tall American man’s chest. So they completely…
Ana: Crash test dummies, all sorts of things.
Desi McAdam: Exactly. They completely ignored women. So women couldn’t get an artificial heart. Neither could other ethnic groups such as Asian-American or just Asians.
Ana: It didn’t fit into the hole.
Desi McAdam: It didn’t fit, right? I think we kind of have that going on in software today, I think there’s a very large amount of software that completely ignores 50% of the population.
Ana: Which is a great opportunity.
Desi McAdam: Yes, it’s a great opportunity. Yes, it is. That’s one reason. From a woman’s perspective, as being part of the community. It’s having other women to talk to. It’s being able to look around and say, “OK. I have a question, and I am going to be completely comfortable walking over and talking to this person.”
Whenever you’re in a group of 250 people who are not like you; if you can take a picture and say, “What’s not alike here?” That’s a really intimidating situation to be in. For me, I want more women in the community for personal reasons, so that I’m less intimidated and I feel more comfortable, but also because I mean we really do need to start addressing this whole 50% of the population not being represented. It’s a big deal for me.
Geoffrey: How many of you submitted a talk proposal, got shot down into – well, I was on the panel…
Sandi: I saw you there.
Geoffrey:...there was only one…thank you. I think there was only one…
Sandi: You were excellent. I enjoyed it.
Geoffrey:.... session led by a woman.
Desi McAdam: No, no, no. We actually had two.
Desi McAdam: Amy did hers today, and Andrea is doing one as well.
Geoffrey: You’re right.
Desi McAdam: She’s doing the response to…
Geoffrey: The response, OK.
Desi McAdam:...and I think that Andrea lead a “birds of a feather” last night.
Desi McAdam: We did have a couple of women who were…
Sandi: It was really clear to me, I didn’t do any of the things that you said is necessary to get enough visibility, to get picked to talk.
Desi McAdam: You know what, though…
Sandi: There’s a whole infrastructure, that’s all I’m saying. It’s like…
Geoffrey: You have to have a reputation before they’ll even consider your topic.
Sandi: They’ve got to be able to Google you and find your name, not just knowing you have entertaining rants to groups of people like you, which is sort of what I do.
Sandi: I’m great at the private rant.
Desi McAdam: I was talking to Priva yesterday about this. I guess he’s part of the selection process, and we were asking, what if you had a person, a gentleman, who is presenting and a lady who is going to be presenting, or who were submitting proposals; but you knew the guy.
You knew him because he blogs, he puts himself out there, people know who he is. Which one are you going to pick? And he’s like, “Well, I’d probably pick the person that I know is already out there, the one that’s got more fame.” He’s saying, “Well, you know, it kind of depends, if all things are equal, then I’m probably going to pick the woman, if I know… “
Sandi: With any two people, if he knew one and didn’t know the other.
Desi McAdam: Right, exactly. So how does that happen?
Geoffrey: Is that kind of what DevChix is about, getting exposure and saying, “Hey, here we are, we have good ideas.”
Desi McAdam: Yeah, exactly, it gives us a voice, I don’t know about everyone else, but I know personally whenever I first started thinking about blogging, it scared the crap out of me. I mean everybody knows what happened with Kathy Sierra recently, that sort of thing is kind of scary.
You worry about that sort of thing, right? And so at least whenever you have DevChix, if you are going to be blogging, you can do it in a collective voice and not have to be the sole person that is just out there, so out there. So for me, it’s pretty important.
I love the fact that if I have something I want to post, I can send it to the group or I can ask the other ladies, “Hey! Do you think this is something that’s useful?” And I can get the support and feedback I need on it and not be worried about what I’m putting out.
Geoffrey: It seems like that’s a big thing missed in the social web and all the things people are talking about. Often it’s very isolated. Making a post on the blog isn’t the same as having a conversation over email with someone. So it seems like you really need that – of being able to real time, or at least more of an email conversation; is another step of community.
Desi McAdam: Yeah, absolutely.
Geoffrey: Do you have a mailing list together that – you don’t have to tell where it is. Or do you want to publicize it?
Desi McAdam: We do, if there are any other women who are listening to this after the fact they are welcome to send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Desi McAdam: We’re pretty good at responding, we have a couple of people that are in charge of responding to stuff like that, and they’re pretty good at it.
Geoffrey: Now, individually, maybe we should just say your name, what are you working on?
Jeng Mai: My name is Jeng Mai Woo, I own a consulting company and we do various web applications. I’ve been involved with a lot of woman in computing sorts of things, DevChix, LinuxChix, Sisters and so and so forth. It’s a big problem, and it’s interesting, because unlike other professions, there were more woman in the computer profession…
Jeng Mai:...until sometime in the 90’s.
Jeng Mai: It just went downhill.
Sandi: Actually, I think it started dropping off in the 80’s, but it got really bad in the 90’s.
Geoffrey: Open source specifically is even less than computer science in general, right?
Jeng Mai: Far worse than closed source, yeah.
Sandi: I have a whole theory about that too.
Jeng Mai: There’s many theories about why it’s bad, but we should let people introduce themselves.
Geoffrey: Dr. Ana Nelson.
Ana: Dr. Ana Nelson, thank you very much. I’ve been working with Rails for about two years. I’ve done some applications and at the moment I’m developing internal applications in Financial Services. I had a great time with Rails and it been great to see the community on that.
Geoffrey: What was you dissertation about?
Ana: My dissertation was in economics, and it was in Java. It was agent-based modeling, which was a type of computer simulation, and it applied to economics.
Geoffrey: You put together a while work flow of even publishing this just for yourself?
Ana: One of the difficulties in academic research using programming is that a lot of the academic community isn’t really aware of some of the Agile methodology and some of the other really exciting and interesting things that have been going on in writing software. So, I was very fortunate to have been exposed to those ideas through getting interested in Rails. It was wonderful for me.
I had the benefit of Textmate. I had a lovely work flow in Textmate where I could do my Java development. I could run my Java simulations, I could analyze my output, my data files. I could do those in ‘R’. I could write my documentation up in Laytek. I could use Suite to knit it altogether, I could do Graphis graph files, and I could do all of that in Textmate. I had a very enjoyable work flow where if I discovered a problem or wanted to rerun a simulation I could just rerun the simulation and then re-render my entire thesis with the new information without having to do any of that.
I have to thank the pragmatic programmers for their wonderful starter kit which really got me into that whole automation. It was great for me to get involved with Rails, because I was just exposed to so many great ideas that I was unable to apply in other parts of my work. That was very exciting.
Geoffrey: Are you going to be blogging or writing about that process? Or was it more specific to just what you needed it for?
Ana: I do plan to blog that and write about that a little more, and then hopefully do some outreach into the academic community and give some of these ideas back, and say ‘Hey, there’s this great community.’ I think there’s some fantastic applications of Rails related to the type of research that I was doing. There’s definitely some more general applications of what I had done with that, that I would very much like to give back to the academic community.
Liz: I’m Liz Summerfield, and I was lucky enough to meet all these woman when I came here. I work for Revolution Health.
Geoffrey: Just a few days ago.
Liz: Yeah, I met them all a couple days ago, and even some of them just now. I’m coming from a very large development team at a company devoted to making websites to fix health care. I’m one of two woman on a team of fifty people, and I came to this conference with eight other guys from my place of work, and it was really great to come here and see at least a few other woman, which I don’t get to see very often. It’s been really nice to meet everybody.
Sandi: I’m Sandi Metz, I work for Duke University. I work in a shop that’s almost entirely women.
Sandi: We joke about a few things. Like if we have some Unix administration task, we say, “That’s on the Y chromosome.” [laughter]
So I have a really different… Well, first of all, we’re writing enterprise Rails apps. I’m also doing some stuff on the side like everyone else on the planet. I came to Ruby on Rails from basically a long time SmallTalk background. So I’ve been monkey-patching and hacking and wrecking the base class code since day one.
I live in an XP scrum shop that’s run… My boss is a woman and all my peers are women. And so I have, I think, a dramatically different day to day life than almost every woman in a technical business I know. I mean, it’s a place where all the styles of interaction that women have, work, and so the having to fight for voice or having to do something here – you may have to edit this out – that thing I talked about where I said the boys are peeing on trees.
It’s like they’re all trying – that pecking order thing; like we don’t really do that. So it’s a really different style of interaction and it shapes, I think, my world view. But it also gives me that sense of freedom. I have to go out and say, well, my opinion is as good as anybody’s, right.
Ana: Right, because…
Sandi: Because I’m not living in that world where I have to fight. The assumption is there and so I… I love my job. I love my life and also I’ve been in IT long enough to see that arc of women coming in, women disappearing.
Geoffrey: And you had a theory about that, or several…
Sandi: I had a theory about that, should we, it’s pretty short, should I say it?
Sandi: It’s that whole thing about social interactions and it’s amazing, OK, I’ll tell you, I’ve told everybody else this story. I’ll tell it really briefly. Rails ConFlash here, I was at the front of a room where they’d just taken all the walls down to make a big open conference.
I was looking at a sea of faces looking at me and there were a million guys doing (I don’t know how this translates) they were doing this, right. They were sitting heads down typing on their computers, shoulder to shoulder. This big room, hundreds of twenty-something guys, right, doing this.
Here’s what happened. I’m looking at them. I can see all their faces are sort of reflected in the ghostly screen glow, right, and they all do this at once, they have this brief flash of a smile that goes over like two hundred faces.
Geoffrey: They were all looking at the same thing.
Sandi: They were on the IRC channel. They are sitting side by side. They don’t know each other. They don’t know each other’s… They’re not talking to each other, but they are having this virtual conversation in lieu of human conversation. And there aren’t any women doing it.
I went to dinner with a DevChix that night – what became became DevChix that night – and I said, “Did you guys see that? It was creepy!” [laughter]
And that whole thing about… I hate to say anything that acknowledges there are any sort of biological or any differences between men and women. I mean it’s a touch subject for me. I am a good feminist. Yet it seems like when PCs came out – I did mainframe stuff for years before PCs came out – and when the PCs came out, boys got them and had them in their bedrooms at night and they had virtual lives with them. They did it instead of learning to play guitar.
Sandi: Right and the girls aren’t doing that. The girls are having human conversations where they can touch other people.
Sandi: And then when they arrive – the perfectly competent, technically capable, logically minded, teenage girls arrive back in that space, all the air has gone. They feel stupid, because the boys have been doing it since adolescence.
Ana: There’s such a big gap.
Sandi: And your vision about making a safe place for teenage girls to express that nerdly part of themselves is really compelling to me.
Geoffrey: But in a social way?
Sandi: In a way that works.
Woman 4: Yeah, we have to figure out how to make it work though. I mean, DevChix is sort of a social network but it is virtual too, right? So that’s why I think it’s going to be really important for us to actually go out and talk to the girls in the schools and actually be a face that they can address.
Geoffrey: Well, the first few Ruby conferences were twenty/thirty people. I’m sure there could even be a DevChix conference that… [crosstalk]
Woman 4: Well, actually… I would love to have a DevChix conference, I’m a little leary of saying anything about it just yet, because I’m…
Geoffrey: Oh, did I spoil the surprise?
Woman 4: No, no. I just don’t want to get bombarded with the guys going, “What! I can’t come to your conference. Isn’t that exclusion?”
Sandi: It’s a tough call, like how do you make a place for people who maybe do not feel safe to come and feel safe without feeling like…
Desi McAdam: Yeah, exactly.
Sandi: How do you do it?
Desi McAdam: Without doing the same, without doing the reverse. You are going to have to have some amount of the reverse discrimination that is going to happen in order to equal things out. I mean, Val from the LinuxChix group, the other night, she gave me a really good – she was talking to me and we were talking about the various things that people come back at me with, about, you know, DevChix and why I can’t be a DevChix. And I am like, “Well, you are not chick. You know, like, you are a guy” [laughter]
But one of the things that she told me was, it is like trying to balance a seesaw. When you have a seesaw that is unbalanced, you don’t add to both sides trying to balance it out, you have to add to one side until it is balanced. And then once it is balanced, you can add equally. So it was…
Ana: I think that LinuxChix has done a pretty good job of having some space that really is girls only and other space that is, “Here, guy. You are perfectly welcome but you do have to play by what we consider the right set of rules.”
Desi McAdam: Right, exactly.
Ana: And be kind and be courteous, and we don’t want a lot of the chest beating…
Desi McAdam: No, exactly.
Ana: And put down and, “How could you be so stupid not to know that this is the right way to do something.”
Desi McAdam: Right, exactly. And I am trying to keep that out.
Ana: And there is some really cogent discussion on that group and there is also the, “What! I cannot find the right documentation that sets this up.” Then somebody send somebody a link saying, “Here this is there’s 800 different web pages on how to set this up, but this is the one without the errors.”
Desi McAdam: Right. Exactly. Exactly. And yeah, I think all of the DevChix that I have talked to, and everyone who has been a part of this wants the same thing. I want to write and tell the guys. Tell them that for those of you that are supporting us, we love you guys and thank you so much for the support. And as soon as I figure out how to best incorporate that support, and the other women help me figure that out, we will let you know.
I mean seriously like, we want the help. We just have to figure out what is the best way to utilize the energy that you guys want to give us. I am really glad that I am at Val’s the other night, because it seemed like she had a lot of knowledge that she could pass on to me. So I’m definitely going to be talking to her again.
Carmeline Maria Thompson: Oh, hi. I am Carmeline Maria Thompson and I am from Chicago. I work for a small shop in the suburbs of Chicago. But unfortunately I don’t do Rails full-time there and I am hoping someday that I will do Rails full time. I do Rails when I do freelance work. I think that I am one of the few people that do both design and development. And… [laughter]
Desi McAdam: Yeah, Carmeline is the one who did the logo – her and Victoria..
Carmeline: Yeah, me and Victoria did the logo and I did the website and then sometimes I would have problems in different browsers there and go, “Hey! [laughter] Lets see what’s the problem.”
So yeah, I am like the go-to person for the website. But as I was saying to them in like a few weeks ago. I said, “Well, you know this is our problem, the visibility of women. And if we are not going to do something, or if we are just going to passively wait that it solves itself. It’s not going to happen.”
I was encouraging everybody that we have to do something. Then during the BOF session, for the hackity-hack, I thought one of the speakers brought up that it would be nice to put them in thumb drives. And then be able to – I am not sure if I am allowed to say this during the interview, it was like a BOF session but he brought that up and it gave me an idea that I could give those to the classmates of my daughter. She is eleven and she started doing it, and I told her, “Hey. This is Ruby language, you might be interested in it. I am doing it.” I am trying to start her early. I am not encouraging her… I am encouraging her.
Desi McAdam: To take the opportunity.
Carmeline: Yeah, there is an opportunity for programming.
Desi McAdam: Yeah, making her a little… You are just saying, “Hey, there is a school thing. Maybe you will like it.”
Desi McAdam: So she loved it too? Right?
Carmeline: Yeah, she loved it too. She was so excited doing it. And then I thought that this would be a good thing to give the kids before the school ends. They can do it during the summer. I think that is one way we can go to our own community and like, extend mentoring to other females, to other kids, to other girls, and then start them young. Maybe by the time, in 10 years from now…
Desi McAdam: It’s a long term vision.
Ana: Yes, it’s a long term vision, but you have to start somewhere.
Desi McAdam: Exactly.
Liz: I think on that note, part of what might keep a lot of people out of programming is, like there is a big wall, and you really can’t see what’s on the other side of it. It’s sort of all or nothing. There is no entry-level. “Oh, I’m going to take one programming class and see what it’s about.” And I think one of the nice thinks about Ruby is that it’s such a wonderful language to learn, and I think Hackity-Hack is such a fantastic project, and I’m just so delighted that it came out.
I’d like to see a lot more people, boys and girls, men and women, learning the basics of programming. Not that they need to be able to do it themselves, but it’s a very important way of thinking how to understand technology. When you have done even just a little bit of programming, it’s just the way your brain starts to appreciate what’s happening there. I think having it not be, either you’re just this absolute geek who just loves coding and is totally into that, versus, “You know something. I’ve done a little bit of programming. I’ve done some stuff in Excel. I’ve done some stuff in Ruby. So, I understand the basics.”
I think that would demystify a lot of it, and I think that would be fantastic, for a huge amount of the population, men and women, who might even just benefit from a little knowledge of it.
Geoffrey: Because, people do find that knowledge. To me, I worked in a school for two years and it was fascinating how people were experts at just certain little parts of Excel, or certain little things in Word. A kind of programming where they learned the very minimum of what they needed to do. They were very good at that, but if they had a more general knowledge…
Liz: Visual Basic is the de facto entry-level programming language. Because, you have a large number of people, and the standard thing. You use Excel, and Excel is the gateway to programming for a lot of people. Now, they don’t get farther than that. It is probably not the ideal tool for that, but that is how a lot of people who do a little bit of it.
So, you record a macro in Excel. And then you take a quick look at the Visual Basic code, and you say, “Oh, gosh. That’s kind of neat.”
Desi McAdam: It kind of makes sense.
Liz: “I can maybe start to edit this.” I have learned a huge amount by recording a macro and going to look at the code. You know, that is the de facto, sort of. A lot of people can do a little bit of that. And that’s great. It would be nice to see people take that a little bit farther, or have an alternative entry point. That isn’t happening.
Geoffrey: I would say I am impressed with Carmeline. I think I subscribed to your Twitter feed, and you are always… You’ve got the whole range from design to DNS to compiling kernels, to all this in the middle. I need to learn some of that.
Carmeline: My background was, back in 2000, there was this non-profit organization who hired me, and then they gave me a server. And I was working from home. They gave me a server. He said they wanted this site for their non-profit organization. So they gave me a server and I am a one-man person. I did the administration. I did the DNS. I did setting up the server. It was in IIS, I know, but… [laughs]
Ana: Makes it even harder. [laughter]
Carmeline: So everything was like, I trained myself and everything. My general thing was, I’m not an expert on one thing, but I know about everything. So I don’t know where falls. It’s just like, when I… I would understand, ‘Set up your server. Do the DNS. Do this, do that.’ I needed an SEO, because I am working for a company that does SEO. So like, tell me something about URLs and tell me something on how that relates to URLs. And I would put that in design and you code it. [laughter]
So that’s how that thing worked. I would go like this., ‘Oh, OK. Let’s do that.’
Desi McAdam: And, Cynthia, right?
Cynthia Kaiser: Yeah. So I’m Cynthia Kaiser, and I work for Caltech. And I do programming, system administration, database administration. Where I cut out is- if it’s design: too hard. If it involves Photoshop: I back out.