RubyConf 2010, keynotes, and maihem. Oh my!

It’s now a little over a month after RubyConf 2010, but I still want to finish and publish a blog post that I started right after getting back from RubyConf about some of the keynote talks and some of my experiences and thoughts.

Whenever I go to a tech conference, I’m often in the minority as one of few women at the conference. And inevitably a few people are interested in hearing my thoughts and opinions about being one of few women at the conference, and in IT in general. It’s not one of my favorite topics, but I appreciate people’s interest in talking to me, so I indulge.

After a collection of conversations at RubyConf, and some mini-controversy on Twitter following RubyConf (seriously, can’t Rubyists have a conference without some level of controversial aftershock?) regarding David Heinemeier Hansson’s keynote, I really feel like I’m no longer qualified to give opinions on women in technology, and maybe I never was. I start to feel like a freak among women. I *liked* David’s talk. I even went up to him later that day and told him so. But now I feel like I’m “supposed” to be offended in some way. I just don’t seem to have the same opinions about things as most women. Not only am I a minority at the conferences I attend, I am a minority among the minority. I never did really fit in much of anywhere.

Diversity is a great thing. But I never understand why people make such a big deal about women in technology when I rarely (if ever) hear people talk about small numbers of African American’s in technology, about Jewish people in tech, you name it. (Though to his credit, Dave Thomas did briefly include that topic in his talk. [DT 39:40] More on his talk later.) I just don’t think much about whether I’m one of few women around or not. I guess I just try to see something positive wherever I’m at, and whatever I’m doing; so if being one of few women around is “supposed” to be bad, I just don’t see it that way. If that’s how I’m supposed to feel, then I start to wonder if I’m just not good at being a woman. I don’t feel that way all the time. But sometimes being singled out for being different makes me feel worse.

Dave Thomas started off RubyConf with an inspiring keynote recapping his last 10 years in Ruby, and offering 3 challenges to the audience (inspire someone, diversify, get out of the rut.) Challenge 1 [DT 33:03] started off with a comparison of the percentage of women in the workforce (47%) vs. women in computing/math (25%), vs. women at RubyConf (5.6%), vs. women in open source (1.5%). Then he talked mostly about how the community can inspire women and avoid discriminatory behavior, some of which “you don’t always know you’re doing….” [DT 39:08] On one hand I admire a speaker addressing a topic he feels is an issue. And while I have mixed feelings on the subject, I don’t disagree that there’s an issue. On the other hand, as soon as he brought up the subject of women, I knew that was about all people would want to talk about with me the rest of the day (which I kind of dreaded). And that’s pretty much how my next couple of days went.

“How did you push through?” they asked.

I never really felt like I had to push through much of anything to enter IT. If there was any barrier to entry in any subset of IT, it might have been into the Ruby community. For one, it feels awkward going to a Ruby meeting with a Windows machine. And I don’t think we should make people feel that way. You shouldn’t have to buy a Mac before you attend your first Ruby meeting, nor worry about people telling you to “get a real machine.” I think it’s a bit much to expect people to spend the money on a Mac (about twice as much money as equivalent non-Mac hardware whenever I’ve priced it out) just to do Ruby. Not that I have any problem with Macs either. But I do like my Window 7. By choice. And I’m really scared to say that. On my blog. I shouldn’t be, but I am. At RubyConf, during one of the conversations I had where someone asked me about Women in IT, I mentioned this fear. And in an indirect way, the person basically called me an idiot for that choice. Backpedaling… “ummm,” he says… “it’s just that most of the people I’ve met that ‘choose’ windows are idiots.” Thanks dude. That felt great </sarcasm>.  But I’m trying not to be ashamed of who I am anymore.

David Heinemeier Hansson gave his keynote on the 2nd morning of RubyConf. His talk, titled “Why Ruby?” was about what he loves so much about Ruby, and why he hasn’t felt a need to look at another programming language in many years. He talked about the freedom that Ruby gives you over statically-typed languages such as Java or C#. Within that freedom, some acts are harmless, and others are much worse, but freedom should be used with appropriate moderation. [DHH 49:00] And he dropped 3 F-bombs. And he talked about having one’s balls fondled by the TSA. [DHH 40:30-40:47]

Some people said these things were “distracting” or did not add value to his talk. While I wouldn’t get up in front of a group and talk that way, (I also wouldn’t get up in front of a group and talk) if he wants to get up and talk that way, that’s his choice. At this point in his career, he doesn’t really have to worry whether or not people think he’s unprofessional when he gets up and talks. But was anything in his talk something that you wouldn’t see or hear in an R-rated movie? No. Was it distracting? I don’t think so. 3 F-bombs. And the majority of the ball fondling discussion lasted only 17 seconds, not counting 1 fleeting side remark referencing back to it later on [DHH 41:41], for a total of about 19 seconds. Is 19 seconds, out of an hour-long talk, really a distraction to someone? If anything I thought it was funny. And funny holds my attention a lot longer than most standard talks. When he expressed this disgust at recent TSA practices and as he put it, having one’s balls fondled, I wanted to turn to the person beside me and say “Yeah, I hate when the TSA fondles my balls!” If I’d been less tired, I probably would have said that. But people were fired up against his talk anyway. I guess you can’t really convince people who are fired up over something to settle down. And I’m simply not qualified to say if people are over-reacting or not. I’m not qualified to say whether women (in general) are uncomfortable about this stuff, or offended. I just don’t know. It’s up to individuals to form their own opinions.

I do know it’s up the mature ones who can handle the freedom to lead by example, whatever that means to them. To me, it means not dwelling on little things people say, but rather try to step back see the big picture of what message someone is trying to get across and take it for what it is. I know, that’s really tough sometimes. People get offended at things. It’s hard not to take something too personally sometimes. And I think anyone trying to effectively get their message across needs to be considerate of that. We’re all free to say what we want, and speak to people however we want. But just because you CAN do something, doesn’t mean you SHOULD. (Just like we’re all free to write complex logic in one convoluted line of Ruby code, just to be proud to say you did something in only one line. Clever, but it doesn’t mean you should do that. Can someone else easily understand what it does? I think readability is more important than cleverness. But some people will do that anyway. I can lead by example there too. At the end of the day, I have to figure out what they were trying to do and move on. I digress. 🙂

Dave Thomas, when talking about ways the community may exclude women, he said “The exclusion happens among people who often do not mean to appear, and do not interpret their own actions, as hostile to women.” [DT 36:50] That is probably true. Though I think there’s a lot of actions are hostile in many ways, not to women specifically. For example, unintentional hostility against people with less confidence.

“Why’d you do it THAT way?”

Perhaps they just asked the question because they want to see where the person’s coming from. Maybe they like to question decisions in order to spawn discussion. Maybe they like to challenge and argue and see where it goes. Depending on tone of voice, “Why’d you do it THAT way?” can easily imply “That was a dumb way to do it.” instead. And the person with low confidence takes it further to mean “YOU are dumb.” Are you aware of this? But sometimes people with low confidence have great ideas, too! Are we missing out on those? Are we including them? Or are we pushing THEM away?

Dave Thomas also said “if you do find something offensive… do something about it. If you’re in a talk and it’s offensive, stand up and get out. Or blog about it… tweet the guy into oblivion…. by reacting, you’re saying ‘yeah it happened, but you know what? We’re not going to let it happen again.'” [DT 40:12] Not bad advice! Yet just because you can do these things doesn’t necessarily mean you should. For one thing, you can’t please everyone all the time. Chances are someone will not like something that any speaker has to say. Be careful to use this kind of power of persuasion when it’s really important, not on every little thing. Else it becomes meaningless. It becomes “oh yeah, there go those rubyists again, always someone pissed off at the end of the conference.” May we all have the wisdom to discern the important from the trivial.

But as for the male/female ratio thing, I think it goes deeper than being less “inflammatory” [DT 37:40] in order to not deter women. How do you think it makes a person feel to hear someone who’s trying to have kids say “I hope we don’t have a girl,” or to hear someone say “can you imagine him trying to raise a *girl*? Oh my!” Are girls really that much more trouble? Maybe we are. Maybe it makes us feel like we’re not worth the trouble. It makes me feel like I’m not worth the trouble. I think people (not women, but anyone) with lower self-esteem have a harder time convincing themselves that they can do something that’s “supposed” to be hard, like Math, Science, Computers. What have the experiences in your life taught you about what you can and can’t do? What opinions have the years of your life helped you form? For me, I’ve “learned” (note I put “learned” in quotes):

* that having daughters is a bad thing,

* that most of what women do is annoying and excessive (shopping, talking too much, taking too long to get ready, over-packing for a trip),

* that all wives are good for is nagging and telling their husbands what they can and cannot do. I’m exaggerating mostly (however, I did see someone tweet recently “I don’t have an opinion, I have a wife.” That’s a horrible way to have to feel in life. And if women are to blame for that, then yes, I do feel bad.)

These are thoughts I have to consciously put out of my head when I’m feeling down. It’s really hard sometimes.

So what now? If I’m offended by one little keynote speech, I can leave that talk. I could stop attending community events. I can still code in Ruby and Rails and not be a part of the community at all. But I lose out. I lose out on other people’s passion, their knowledge, their ideas. But I’m not offended by much. I liked Dave Thomas’s talk, AND I liked David Heinemeier Hansson’s talk. I particularly liked his analogy with rope. “People say things like ‘…just enough rope to hang himself’ but does that mean we should outlaw rope? You shouldn’t be allowed to have rope, because what if you hung yourself? Is that the main use case for rope? … you can do a lot of things with rope.” [DHH 37:30]

I don’t have to condone all the individual choices people make [DHH 56:20]; We don’t all have the same sense of humor but we can still get along [DHH 34:00]. Can’t we all just get along? [Rodney King :)]

I don’t know the first thing about why there’s not more women in IT. I don’t have any clue what to do about it. Sometimes I wonder why it’s really a “problem.” If women aren’t interested in it, why force it? There’s lots of opinions on that. But I think the best thing to do is make anyone interested in IT feel welcome; instead of singling out people who represent some statistical group, just treat them like they belong in the group. I really liked Dave Thomas’ challenge to inspire someone, and his suggestion that we need to be talking more to kids and inspiring them about software development. [DT 41:05] (Kids. Not girls, not boys. Kids.) “Fewer and fewer people are entering software as a profession…. Mentoring is a really important part of what we do. [41:16] And that I agree with. I’ve had plenty of mentors over my career, and giving back by mentoring others makes a lot of sense. “Go inspire someone” is something that I can do. Can you?


Video of David Heinemeier Hansson’s RubyConf Keynote (DHH*

Video of Dave Thomas’ RubyConf Keynote (DT*


3 Responses to “RubyConf 2010, keynotes, and maihem. Oh my!”

  1. Neal Lindsay Says:

    Well said.

    It’s an unfortunate truism that anybody who is part of a minority becomes the de-facto representative for their sub-group. I imagine that if you’re always the one black guy that it gets tiring having to speak for all black people when the subject gets raised. When it comes to women in IT, I feel like I’m doing a disservice to the women around if I even bring it up.

    On the other hand, I think we do (as an industry) need to address it. I think that making software is awesome, and the thought that half of the population doesn’t feel welcome joining us makes me pretty sad. So, thanks for talking about it even though it makes you uncomfortable.

    You’re also very right about stigmatizing different technologies. There’s a lot of Java-bashing (just to pick one example out of many) that goes on in the Ruby community. Lots of Ruby people… I just realized that I’m calling people who use Ruby “Ruby people”. :-/ It’s really hard to not invest your self-identity in the technology you use, and to not get offended when others choose different technologies. It’s like the way that people get invested in the Democratic or Republican parties and the actual issues take a back seat. It’s important that we concentrate on the issues. Even when we concentrate on issues though, it can still get too personal. But we have to have a rational discussion about technology issues – otherwise why are we attending tech events?

    Great post – I wish I could be up there mashing codes with you guys.

  2. Michael Letterle Says:

    FWIW, after all the trouble me and my wife went through to get pregnant and have our beautiful, wonderful daughter; we are firmly of the opinion that ANY child is a blessing.

    I’ll come back later with a longer reply when I’m feeling better, but I wanted to get that out there.

    PS: Most of what men do is annoying and excessive too 😉

  3. Gayle Says:

    Shortly after I wrote this, I came across a great blog post with some very similar points, and also some additional perspectives that I thought were great! Good read, this is:

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