An experiment in attention

I’ve had reoccurring thoughts about attention and who I give mine to. In the last week, I’ve been mentioned in a couple “women in tech” twitter lists. This seems to happen about quarterly and someone will create a list of 50 or so, or maybe 100+ women on a list.

I spent a couple days looking through my 5k followers and assembled a list of the women and women’s groups who are following me. I probably missed a few, and I know I followed a few people who don’t consider themselves women. Sorry! Just let me know and I’ll add/drop as needed.

So, why bother with a list like this?

Before I created this list, I was following about 920 people. Which, in itself is a sort of ridiculous number. How could I possibly pay attention to that many people?

I really don’t, right? I just check into twitter, sample the firehose, and then step away for minutes, hours or days.

When I do sample the tweet stream, whose voices do I listen to? There are certainly a few close friends whose feeds I look at directly, and a few other people I’m interested in who I will catch up on a backlog. Otherwise, it’s whoever is the most vocal.

What I noticed is: most of the voices I hear from when I sample the feed are men. It wasn’t anywhere near balanced. That’s on social activity, technical rants, technical praise and blogging.

I’d like to be skewed toward women’s voices for a while. Particularly on tech issues. So, I just added about 450 women to my feed who were already following me.

My next step may be replacing my primary feed with this list I’ve made. I wrote a tool a while back to extract URLs and RSS feeds from my friend’s twitter profiles and feeds. The code isn’t awesome, just rough and practical. But you could do something similar using it. You need a set of read/write API keys (create an app, then make it read/write), but I did the “hard” work for you:

./ --consumer_key [key here] --consumer_secret [secret here] --access_token [token here] --access_token_secret [token secret here]  --to_follow [file of twitter handles]

I left some crud in there that links the script directly to my account for the list. Sorry! If anyone actually wants to use this, I’ll clean it up. (just ping me on github)

Anyway, doing this kind of attention hacking for yourself isn’t hard. It is drudgery to go through all your followers and guess who is what gender. But it is interesting to spend a few hours contemplating what the people you’re giving your attention to have in common, and how you might hack it a bit to hear from different perspectives from time to time.

I’m turning comments off because I don’t care to hear from anyone who thinks I’m somehow being sexist by changing who I pay attention to. Cheer up, haters! I’m sure plenty of people are already paying attention to you.

What’s changed? Portland as an example of increasing women’s participation.

Code from @christiekoehler's presentation. #cns

At Code-n-Splode last night, we first heard Christie Koehler give a great talk on CodeIgniter, the one PHP web framework endorsed by Rasmus Lerdorf, original author of PHP. She went over the pros/cons, details of how you go about installing and then using CodeIgniter, and then showed a very detailed example from her recent work. I hope she posts the slides soon – they were great. (If you want to see our tweets – per Gabrielle’s suggestion, we’re tagging with #cns now.)

After the talk (nearly 9pm!) we all went over to the Green Dragon for our #afterhours chat. Audrey led off by explaining the recent controversy she’d written about, and the Ruby/Rails community response to her posts.

Some of the things she shared I was shocked by – specifically some very personal attacks in comments that she’d decided to save (in Skitch), but remove from her posts. Her standard was: “is this something that would cause my mom to stop reading.” And, if the comment met that standard, she archived and removed it.

I learned about threads in the local ruby community about the topic of women’s participation, and some very positive comments on Hacker News and Digg, and _why’s posts that seem to be expanding perceptions and opening people’s minds to ways that may ultimately be more inclusive of women and minorities.

All told, we had 15 people at the meeting, 13 of which were women. Our first Code-n-Splode meetings started with about five people. Our largest meeting (thanks to the clever, rocket-building Sarah Sharp) had somewhere around 30 people.

Among the many things that the Code-n-Splode crew discussed last night was “what made portland different”. And I thought I’d let you in on our secret.

We ask women to participate.

When we have code sprints for Calagator, Open Source Bridge or we have the Agile development meetups dedicated to coding – there are always women there. From what I understand, having women show up regularly to code sprints is unusual in other cities.

When I am responsible for these meetups, I contact the people that I want to attend directly – and I ask them to come. This is a mix of women and men (I no longer have to explicitly think about inviting women, because so many are already in the community). But when I was first asking people, I *did* have to contact women who were just dipping a toe into the community — to convince them that yes, joining us would be fun, educational and sometimes good for their careers.

When I first started attending user groups regularly about nine years ago, I often was the only woman. Now, it is extremely rare for me to be the only one. Particularly in groups that span multiple technologies (Web Innovators, Open Source Bridge, Extreme/Agile developers, Functional programming, and BarCampPortland come to mind) or are largely social opportunities for geeks to mix (Lunch 2.0, Beer and Blog). More geeky women (and women that I don’t already know) seem to attend these types of events.

I don’t think there is a single magic formula for transforming your city’s geek scene. But I think it is worth asking questions of the Portland tech community leaders, finding out how our groups work and trying out our techniques in your home town.

Mentor Summit Report for PostgreSQL

mentor summit

Update: Fixed the etherboot wiki link.

I attended the Google Summer of Code Mentor Summit this past weekend on behalf of PostgreSQL. We met at the Google campus in Mountain View.

This event was an unconference and so, none of the sessions were determined in advance.

Some of the highlights were:

  • Leslie Hawthorn and Chris DiBona went into some detail with the whole group about the selection process for GSOC. This session made me feel as though PostgreSQL had relatively good chances for being accepted again next year. Google, however, does not pre-announce projects/products, so there is no sure thing about our (or any other project’s) involvement.
  • I met MusicBrainz guys and was pleased to receive many bars of chocolate they requested to be distributed to SFPUG and PDXPUG members as thanks for making an great database.
  • Attended three sessions concerning recruitment and retention of students. This is a topic that many people were interested in, but that few people feel they have a proper strategy for.

I also led a session on recruitment and retention of students to open source projects. Some of the ideas that came out of that and the related sessions were:

  • Determine what makes you personally need to be part of Postgres (joy of learning, scratching a technical itch, making a tool for your job, fame). Find out which of those things your student also needs or wants and try to give that or help your student achieve that thing.
  • Have a clearly defined method for students to keep journals. Several projects simply used MediaWiki and templates.
  • Use git (or other distributed revision control), and have students commit early and often to a branch that mentors have access to.
  • The Etherboot project has a great system:
  • Hold weekly meetings over IRC. These can be brief, but help get students accustomed to your project’s culture and way of doing things.
  • Ask the student: “are you on track?”, ask the mentor: “do you think the student is on track?” on a weekly basis
  • If you want students to stick around, find incremental responsibilities to assign that are driven by their enthusiasm.
  • Interview on the phone all your students ahead of time, not just the ones you think might be a problem.
  • Require a phone number on the application for the student.
  • Require a secondary contact so that if the student “disappears” there’s a backup person to contact. (and contact that person BEFORE SoC starts)

I made good connections with members of Git, Parrot, WorldForge, Ruby and many other community leaders. I was particularly impressed by the ideas and stories from the current Debian project leader, Steve McIntyre and Gentoo council member Donnie Berkholz. Donnie recommended some books about recruitment that I plan to read and review in the next few weeks.

The issue of mailing list moderation and the number of people required to keep mailing lists functioning properly came up frequently. If you know a moderator for a Postgres mailing list, please consider thanking them for doing a very tedious, extremely important and often thankless job.

I also spent some time discussing with Leslie Hawthorn and Cat Allman how to increase the total number of women mentors and students next year. Leslie and I shared some ideas and I offered to help implement them next year. One thing the crowd asked for was explicit training on how to recruit and manage female students. Realistically, this information will apply to all students, and I hope this training helps us recruit more students overall.

I thought the conference went quite well. I hope PostgreSQL is accepted next year, and that one of our mentors is able to attend this conference. And, if you go, be sure to register for the hotel early, and stay at the Wild Palms.

Women Who Code – where are they?

[ I was working on a blog post about the Women In Open Source roundtable I ran, and then Brenda Wallace tweeted: “it seems reasonably easy 2 get women involved in opensource documentation, ui design, and even management. Why is it hard 2 get women coding?” Here’s my longer response, mostly with ideas I got from the roundtable. ]

I ran a panel discussion about Women in Open Source at the PostgreSQL Conference East (last weekend). I talked about all the conference events that I’d seen in the last 1-2 years specific to women, and a pair of researchers talked about communication patterns among women on the KDE women’s list. Then we had a 2 hour discussion with the 10 people in attendance.

Three issues that stuck with me from the discussion were:

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Women in Open Source: a focus group in March

Thanks to one of Audrey’s RSS feeds, I read Women in Computer Science – An Endangered Species of a New Kind? this afternoon. About the same time, I received email from a professor at UMD who is helping organize PostgreSQL Conference East. She would like to hold a Women in Open Source Focus Group session during the conference, and we’re looking for participants.

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participation in open source, any worse than the rest of the industry?

tech gender gap

One criticism I’ve heard about my article is that I should have addressed the computing industry as a whole, rather than targeting Open Source. That the problem of women participating is much more general.

I chose to write about Open Source because that’s my community. I installed Slackware in 1995 and learned about operating systems from a Linux command prompt, years before I took a class about it. When I worked at Intel, and there were a lot more women in my systems administration group (about 20%) than I saw on the Linux Kernel mailing list, the Cricket developers list or BugTraq. That’s part of where I formed my opinion.

Here’s a little graph showing the number of bachelor’s degrees granted in computer science. We’ve had a 15% drop in degrees granted since 1985. I wonder what we were doing right in the early ’80s.

There are other resources: FLOSSPOLS, salary studies that show gender breakdowns. I’ve also read figures on conference attendance and observed the difference in open source and system administration conferences. I do admit that I have not seen studies that directly compare open source participation to closed source participation.

How about you? Anyone out there have a study they can refer me to?

being singled out – Tatiana Apandi interviewed by MacVoice

I just finished listening to a MacVoices interview with Tatiana Apandi about the Women In Tech series. Great interview, Tatiana!

One great point she made in the intervew was the distinction between being acknowledged or singled out for being different. They were discussing Nelly Yusupova’s article Be a Part of Influencing the Future. From the interview, around 12:30 in the audio file:

MacVoice: Do you think it’s really true that women experience fear in tech world?

Tatiana Apandi: Well.. you don’t take one person’s experience and say that’s all women. For her that was true, and I think that it can be true for a lot of people. When you go into a situation where you have to prove, not just yourself but an entire population… you are representative of something. That can be really a lot of pressure, and some people don’t mind it, but maybe don’t even notice it. But it’s there.

Personally, I do feel the Other a lot, just [from] people asking me questions [like] “So as an Asian what do you think of this…” I know what that’s like, that separation, and sometimes it does get uncomfortable to the point where I don’t want to participate anymore. So, I can relate to that, but I wouldn’t say that’s indicative of what women feel when they enter this field. Because its going to be different for every woman.

MV: That’s a very interesting statement. You take it out of the gender area and make it a bit more cultural. There are times when it is absolutely valid to ask a question from an Asian perspective, from a male perspective, from a female perspective… But there are times I guess [where it’s not.] Maybe a lot of us have never even really about that. Even by coming to you and asking “why now” about a series of articles about women in tech – is that a sexist question? Did I ask a sexist question?

[laughter from both]

TA: I don’t think so. I think it’s an interesting question… I think its more that when you’re in a group that you consider your peers, or you’re considered to be… all the same, and a question [comes up that] forces you realize that you’re not part of this community. [If that question] singles you out [by] saying “what do you think as *this* representative” you’re no longer laughing and joking with that community. Now you’re part of something else and that’s where the uncomfortability comes in for me. Where you’re suddenly [thinking] “oh yeah, I’m not one of you, I’m different somehow.”

There’s more before and after that excerpt about conferences and the discomfort people have when navigating being social (“Do I go out of my way to invite the one woman in the room to lunch with the group? Or will that be misinterpreted”). And Tatiana discusses her motivations and what she’s trying to do with the series.

During the part of the interview I quoted, I thought of a classroom management story my husband told me the other day about being singled out. He’s teaching a unit on borders – focusing on the Mexico/USA border.

An important lesson for the kids is how some borders are arbitrary – in both good and bad ways. Here’s the story he told: A student was asked to stay after class, and some of her peers immediately teased her for being in trouble. When confronted, the student who started the teasing acknowledged that he’d just been “drawing a line” between himself and others, and that the effect was to make the first student feel as though she was on the wrong side of the line. Students should be able to handle a little gentle ribbing, but I thought the confrontation was a good and harmless lesson about how teasing can work to marginalize people in groups.

I really enjoyed working with Tatiana on my essay. Her voice and editing are the glue sticking our work together. She has a great perspective, and I’m happy she’s out there, representing the group.