First, Let’s Define the Problem

So, Women in Tech. It’s become a hot topic in the last year. That’s a good thing in many ways. It also means, as happens with most hot topics, that lots of ideas and statistics get thrown around, increasingly willy-nilly and context-free. This is less good, because it tends to make the conversation more heated without producing anything useful as a result, and because it means that while more people can recite depressing stats and thereby convince themselves they’re enlightened, there isn’t actually any deeper understanding of the problem for most.

Which brings me to my next point: which problem, exactly? The real answer of course, is that there are many, and often they’re linked to one another, but far too many articles on the Women in Tech topic recite a litany of statistics (most of which are from studies about women workers in all industries, or write-ups of polls of college students) that relate to a bunch of different problems and then conclude “Tech Hates Women!”

I take issue with this.

I take issue with the notion that the technology industry is profoundly misogynistic, and more so than most other fields. I take issue with the analytical sloppiness that throws together apples, pears, tomatoes and kiwis, and proclaims that all fruits (but not vegetables) are all equally rotten to the core. I also take issue with the fact that way too many of these articles are written by East Coasters who don’t actually work in tech and clearly have a very superficial knowledge of Silicon Valley culture, who are mostly interested in performing the classic journalistic activity of muckraking the current “it” region/industry for clicks.

Now, do women workers in general face bias? Yes, unquestionably. Is the tech industry worse than others? I personally haven’t seen anything that proves this. Could things be better? Absolutely. That’s why it’s good that we’re having the discussion. So let’s do this in the right way. We’re an industry full of very intelligent, analytical people. We can do this.

Let’s Start By Defining Terms

“Women in Tech”. I’m a woman who works at technology-producing companies. I’m not an engineer. I have a modicum of understanding of the technology and products I work on, but I do not design chips or write code. There are also women who are engineers on the user side of IT—they don’t start companies, design chips or write code, but they design and run networks and databases every day. We all face different types of challenges, but the specifics of those challenges are rarely examined. If you’re going to talk about “Women in Tech” seriously, you need to be clear about which group you’re referring to, and apply relevant stats and analysis appropriately.

Related: if you’re using stats from studies about women workers in general to help male techies understand some of the challenges their female co-workers face, great. Say so. But don’t then claim that a general study proves that the tech industry is uniquely discriminatory. That’s intellectually dishonest.

“Tech”. Let’s be clear, VCs are bankers. When we talk about VCs, we’re talking about the financial industry. Yes, some of the big names in venture capital are former technologists. Many more of the rank and file in the VC industry are MBAs, who may or may not have significant experience as technologists. This is not to in any way malign the “tech cred” of VCs. I point this out because people who go into finance—especially the high-risk, high-stakes type of finance that venture capital represents–tend to have rather different personalities than people who really like to spend their time figuring out complex technical challenges. Consequently, the corporate cultures of actual tech companies (not to mention other more sedate sectors where our products are actually used) are mostly rather different from the stories one reads about the VC industry. The more outrageous shenanigans revealed during the Ellen Pao trial are unsurprisingly similar to the kinds of things that came out in the Wall Street class action suits in the ‘90s. The saddening thing is that they’re still going on 20 years later.

So when we are discussing the “tech industry”, are we strictly talking about the companies that make technology? What about companies whose business model makes heavy use of internet technologies, but are selling non-technical products and services (eg Uber, or any number of social retail sites)? It turns out that the number of people who buy and consume technology (corporate IT departments, that is) is much larger than the number of people building and selling it—but more often than not that swath of people, including the women within it, are ignored in the whole “Women in Tech” discussion. There’s less glitz and filthy lucre to be found in corporate IT, so it’s perhaps not exciting to write about, but if you ignore the largest segment of women who work with technology in some fashion, don’t pretend you’re really serious about helping highlight and resolve their challenges. You’re just trolling for clicks.

So, What’s the Problem?

So many to choose from, really. I may write more at length about the below in later posts, but here’s a small sample of the most popular ones—all of which are really a cluster of separate analyses that happen to fall under common headlines:

  • The pipeline problem. The fact that the ratio of women computer science/technology majors is dropping. Or that middle-school girls mostly say they don’t like STEM. These facts are relevant in in very direct ways if you’re discussing “female engineers working in technology-producing companies”. But there are plenty of jobs in technology-producing companies that are not engineering jobs. And there are plenty of IT jobs that do not presume college degrees. The STEM pipeline problem (which is different from a more general managerial pipeline problem) factors in to those latter two segments in very different ways than it does in the first one.
  • Presumption of incompetence. This works *very* differently for those of us in non-technical roles than it does for engineers on either the producer or user side of tech. It also not unique to tech, as all those general studies of women workers consistently show.
  • Pay inequities. There’s one discussion to be had about the games of funding startups. There’s a different one to be had for rank and file workers of any other kind. (And it’s also not unique to tech.) This is where we get into the purported “confidence gap” and other social-psychology analyses of varying seriousness—I can write long screeds on all of these…
  • The leaky pipeline, or why women don’t get to the top. Reams of general research here (see “confidence gap”, US vs other OECD parental leave practices, etc, etc). Specific claims among women *engineers* about being worn down by incompetence presumptions. Again, it’s a different story for women in non-engineering roles, because the “successful” personas for non-engineering roles match up against expectations about female behavior differently. And again—this whole topic is far from unique to tech.
  • Booth babes. Do I like them? No. I don’t know a woman who does. There are even a number of men who genuinely find them annoying. But, ahem, have you ever been to a car show? Or an event in most any other industry? Frankly, tech outclasses most industries in this category. We can get down to Zero booth babes at events. That would be a good number. But let’s not pretend their continued existence is proof of tech’s unique misogyny. The practice is one we inherited from older industries–most of whom haven’t begun to move on yet.

As you can see, there’s a vast amount of analysis and discussion to be had about any one sliver of these areas. Munging them all together is intellectually ridiculous, and certainly does nothing to help figure out practical solutions. How about if people who seriously want to tackle these issues each pick one? One that interests them, or that they know something about, and start writing, researching, talking to people, thinking pragmatically? I know that with all the smarts and analytical capabilities we have in this industry, we can be as innovative about cultural challenges as technical ones if we put our minds to it.

 

PS. What is unique about the tech industry with regard to this whole topic? It’s the myth of “meritocracy”, which blinds people to the fact that the playing field isn’t perfectly level and causes some to let their egos get very wrapped up in insisting that it is. Let’s be honest. People in tech hire their friends, just like they do in every other industry (perhaps even more so, in the startup world). But if you convince yourself that the converse of hiring smart people you like is that the people you don’t naturally gel with are not smart or worth hiring—that’s a problem. One might even guess that’s THE problem.

Books I Read in 2014

Often when you read interviews with business leaders, they get asked about their favorite book, or what they’re currently reading. Invariably the answer is some business tome, which led me to make this observation one day:

I try to read professional-type books every now and again. Invariably the business ones are an assortment of speeches (often including the sort of one-liners that work in a speech but sound really lame on a page) packaged together by a ghostwriter. There’s maybe a page worth of useful nuggets in 200 pages of text. Technical ones are far more useful, though not the best bedtime reading. Since I only get a chance to spend uninterrupted time with a *book* shortly before bed, I find single-topic blogs I can read in 20 minutes during the day better for personal tech education.

Here’s the one professional *book* I read this year: The Art of Community by Jono Bacon (O’Reilly). And to be honest, I haven’t really read it from front to back. I thumb through and read various sections that catch my eye at the time. Much of it is common sense, as least if you approach social media and community through the lens of dealing with actual people as opposed to marketing metrics. I was also looking for more advice on relevant platforms and tools than the book delivers–it’s really more about the mentality and social process required to build a community. Which made it one of those things I want to force-feed to a number of Corporate Marketing-type people in my life, since I know they would never read it on their own. The author also has a way with words that captures some complex thoughts quite nicely. Recommended.

The Black Count (in my tweet picture) by Tom Reiss (Broadway Books) is the biography of Alexandre Dumas Senior, the father of the novelist, and a soldier-hero of the French Revolution. It’s also a very interesting study of the changing conditions for people of African descent in France and in the French New World colonies before, during and after the Revolution. For me, it built very directly on what I took away from a book I read some years back, Crossing the Continent, by Robert Goodwin. (You can read my Amazon review of that book here.) Recommended for The Black Count.

Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks (Penguin Books). I’ve liked most of Brooks’ books, both fiction and non-fiction, but I think this and Seven Parts of Desire are my two favorites. This one is a fictionalized biography of one of the first native Americans to attend, and graduate from, Harvard, in the late 1600s. One detail that’s lingered with me comes at the very end of the book: a few hundred native Americans started at Harvard in that timeframe, but most died during their stint there, or shortly thereafter. She makes a pretty effective case that a sedentary lifestyle is a thoroughly unhealthy one. Time to get moving in 2015. ;-) Recommended.

Finally, there’s a completely obscure topic of medieval European history that’s captured my attention: the Albigensian Crusade (really crusades) that took place in southern France in the early 1200s. It was the first organized military action against non-Catholics on European soil, the reason the Office of the Inquisition AND the Domincan order were founded, and the event that changed France from a small state around Paris to the nation whose borders we know today. So it’s actually kind of a big deal.

My interest started because whenever the subject cropped up in something else I was reading, I noticed a very curious thing: if the book was in English, the heretics at the center of the Crusade were painted as happy, free-love proto-Protestants. If it was a French source, they were variously anti-social radical loonies, early counter-Reformationists trying to purify the Catholic Church, or Southern nationalists. Untangling the Rashomon effect has had me diving into a number of books in both French and English, most of which are so esoteric I won’t bother recommending them, but I did discover a good website, in English, which provides a good, accurate overview. The Cathar Inquisition section is quite an instructive read in light of the various elements of US surveillance and national security tactics of the last decade which have been in the news in 2014. It’s almost like we’ve been here before.

What are you reading in 2015?

By lcaywood

Deploying Out of Context: Behavioral Findings

I conducted a practical anthropology experiment recently: I wore an 18th century dress with a long train out to a masquerade-themed event, and then to a private party. Some of the things I learned about how unfamiliar things affect behavior were unexpected, and applicable outside the realm of retro fashion. I detail my findings below.

Introduction

You get dressed every day. You’ve been doing it for years. You might give some thought in the morning to the design of how you will be presenting yourself that day, but probably almost none to the mechanics of getting dressed and moving about in your clothes.

You can do that because the clothes you own are designed for the social context AND the physical environment in which you operate. But change any of those things and you quickly find you have to adapt to all of them. Continue reading

If content is created, does it have to make a sound?

Amy Lewis just published a post I like a lot, “Consume and Be Thankful“. The executive summary is “Shut up and listen”. In other words, publishing content should not be the sole focus of being a community member, much less a leader. This is exactly the opposite approach advocated lately by Om Malik, Greg Ferro and others, challenging themselves and others to publish 30 blogs in 30 days. Continue reading

Reflections on Armistice Day

I’m just off the plane from France, where I combined the OpenStack Summit with a family vacation. As we landed, the American flight attendant explained to the plane that it was Veteran’s Day in the U.S., which means that we thank our veterans for their service. I was bitterly amused.

Why?

In Europe November 11th is Armistice Day. It celebrates the day peace was made at the end of the “War To End All Wars”–WWI. When I lived in the Pas de Calais, where most of it was fought, it was still living memory for old folks, a somber day of wearing black and visiting graves, and remembering the horrors of that time, and being thankful for peace. I found it horribly ironic that this woman, who clearly had no notion of the history of this particular date, felt she was positioned to teach half the plane about it. Continue reading

A Simple Definition of “Open”

I wrote this into an internal FAQ today:

Q: What does “open” really mean?

A: “Open” is used in a variety of ways. An “open” API is an interface that uses standard protocols, tools and models and that can be written to by customers and third-party developers. An API is not, by itself, “open source”. Open source describes a development model in which anyone at all is free to download, improve upon and, with the agreement of the developer community, contribute code to a particular project. It is common to use open source components, often from many different projects, as building blocks of a proprietary piece of commercial software. Increasingly, there are open source projects, including OpenStack and OpenDaylight, which seek to deliver a complete and wholly open solution.

I like it, but given how freighted the whole topic is, it seems rather daringly simple and straightforward. So, dear readers, what nuances, caveats and gotchas am I missing?

An Educational SDN Use Case

lcaywood:

I was going to blog about Tom’s comments on the VMunderground Networking panel–which were the highlight of the panel, to me–during the week of VMworld. But I wanted to include the video, which only got posted recently. Fortunately for all, Tom has further elaborated his thoughts AND included the video on his own blog, which I’ve shared below.

Originally posted on The Networking Nerd:

During the VMUnderground Networking Panel, we had a great discussion about software defined networking (SDN) among other topics. Seems that SDN is a big unknown for many out there. One of the reasons for this is the lack of specific applications of the technology. OSPF and SQL are things that solve problems. Can the same be said of SDN? One specific question regarded how to use SDN in small-to-medium enterprise shops. I fired off an answer from my own experience:

Since then, I’ve had a few people using my example with regards to a great use case for SDN. I decided that I needed to develop it a bit more now that I’ve had time to think about it.

Schools are a great example of the kinds of “do more with less” organizations that are becoming more common. They have enterprise-class networks and needs and live off budgets that…

View original 611 more words

By lcaywood

On Success and Happiness

Robin Williams died today. Normally I don’t give much thought to celebrity deaths—what about all the other people who died today? is my usual unvoiced response to the expressions of sadness that promptly pour out on social media. But this one struck me for a few different reasons.

Much of my generation of Americans grew up with Williams in his most goofy and manic role, Mork from Ork. His later roles, even the relatively serious ones, continued to be driven by the manic motormouth compulsion that first brought him fame. They were leavened by an increasing humanity, but it was clear that giving free rein to his frenetic free association was what really energized him. I had the opportunity to see him live twice—he lived in Marin and would occasionally test out new material at a smallish club in San Francisco—and his barely contained energy, which would grow over the evening as he got going, was practically a force of a nature that swept everyone in the room along with him. It’s hard to imagine Williams surviving, yet alone thriving, in any other profession. Watching him live, I became convinced that Mork the alien was the real Williams, and that he spent much of his later years trying to figure out how to be human. His more touching moments on screen typically had to do with realizing and articulating a failure to be what other characters needed his to be. Continue reading

Response: Open Networking: The Whale That Swallowed SDN

Art Fewell, whose views I greatly respect, has written a very good post on Network World entitled “Open Networking: The Whale That Swallowed SDN“. It’s a great historical summary of SDN 2011-present, with some noteworthy areas of concern. I agree with the general thrust of Art’s thesis, yet at many points I found myself thinking “Yeah, but…” I started to write a few comments on the Network World page, but the comments turned into a page, so here we are.

Here’s what I really liked in Art’s piece: Continue reading

The Most Successful Network Startup of 2014

Continue reading

By lcaywood