A random entry from Cogito, Ergo Sumana

(3) : Recent Reading Responses: Data & Society (which I persist in thinking of as "that New York City think tank that danah boyd is in" in case you want a glimpse of the social graph inside my head) has just published a few papers. I picked up "Understanding Fair Labor Practices in a Networked Age" which summarized many things well. A point that struck me, in its discussion of Uber and of relational labor:

The importance of selling oneself is a key aspect of this kind of piecemeal or contract work, particular because of the large power differential between management and workers and because of the perceived disposability of workers. In order to be considered for future jobs, workers must maintain their high ratings and receive generally positive reviews or they may be booted from the system.

In this description I recognize dynamics that play out, though less compactly, among knowledge workers in my corner of tech.

This pressure to perform relational labor, plus the sexist expectation that women always be "friendly" and never "abrasive" (including online), further silences women's ability to publicly organize around grievances. Those expectations additionally put us in an authenticity bind, since these circumstances demand a public persona that never speaks critically -- inherently inauthentic. Since genuine warmth, and therefore influence, largely derive from authenticity, this impairs our growth as leaders. And here's another pathway that gets blocked off: since since criticizing other people/institutions raises the status of the speaker, these expectations also remove a means for us to gain status.

Speaking of softening abrasive messages, I kept nodding as I read Jocelyn Goldfein's guide to asking for a raise if you're a knowledge worker (especially an engineer) at a company big enough to have compensation bands and levels. I especially liked how she articulated the dilemma of seeking more money -- and perhaps more power -- in a place where ambition is a dirty word (personally I do not consider ambition a dirty word; thank you Dr. Anna Fels), and the same scripts she offers for softening your manager's emotional reaction to bargaining.

I also kept nodding as I read "Rules for Radicals and Developer Marketing" by Rachel Chalmers. Of course she says a number of things that sound like really good advice and that I should take, and she made me want to go read Alinsky and spend more time with Beautiful Trouble, but she also mentions an attitude I share (mutatis mutandis, namely, I've only been working in tech since ~1998):

I've been in the industry 20 years. Companies come and go, relationships endure. The people who are in the Valley, a lot of us are lifers and the configurations of the groups that we're allied to shift over time. This is a big part of why I'm really into not lying and being generous: because I want to continue working with awesome, smart people, and I don't want to burn them just because they happen to be working for a competitor right now. In 10 years' time, who knows?

Relationships, both within the Valley and with your customer, are impossible to fake, and is really the only social capital you have left when you die.

No segue here! Feel the disruption! (Your incumbent Big Media types are all about smooth experience but with the infernokrusher approach I EXPLODE those old tropes so you can Make Your Own Meaning!)

Mark Guzdial, who thinks constantly about computer science education, mentions, in discussing legitimate peripheral participation:

Newcomers have to be able to participate in a way that's meaningful while working at the edge of the community of practice. Asking the noobs in an open-source project to write the docs or to do user testing is not a form of legitimate peripheral participation because most open source projects don’t care about either of those. The activity is not valued.
This point hit me right between the eyes. I have absolutely been that optimist cheerfully encouraging a newbie to write documentation or write up a user testing report. After reading Guzdial's legitimate critique, I wonder: maybe there are pre-qualifying steps we can take to check whether particular open source projects do genuinely value user testing and/or docs, to see whether we should suggest them to newbies.

Speaking of open source: I frequently recommend Dreaming in Code by Scott Rosenberg. It tells the story of the Chandler open source project as a case study, and uses examples from Chandler's process to explain the software engineering process to readers.

When I read Dreaming in Code several years ago, as the story of Chandler progressed, I noticed how many women popped up as engineers, designers, and managers. Rosenberg addressed my surprise late in the book:

Something very unusual had happened to the Chandler team over time. Not by design but maybe not entirely coincidentally, it had become an open source project largely managed by women. [Mitch] Kapor [a man] was still the 'benevolent dictator for life'... But with Katie Parlante and Lisa Dusseault running the engineering groups, Sheila Mooney in charge of product management, and Mimi Yin as the lead designer, Chandler had what was, in the world of software development, an impressive depth of female leadership.....

...No one at OSAF [Open Source Applications Foundation] whom I asked had ever before worked on a software team with so many women in charge, and nearly everyone felt that this rare situation might have something to do with the overwhelming civility around the office -- the relative rarity of nasty turf wars and rude insult and aggressive ego display. There was conflict, yes, but it was carefully muted. Had Kapor set a different tone for the project that removed common barriers to women advancing? Or had the talented women risen to the top and then created a congenial environment?

Such chicken-egg questions are probably unanswerable....


-Scott Rosenberg, Dreaming in Code: Two Dozen Programmers, Three Years, 4,732 Bugs, and One Quest For Transcendent Software, 2007, Crown. pp. 322-323.

I have a bunch of anecdotal evidence that projects whose discussions stay civil attract and retain women more, but I'd love real statistics on that. And in the seven years since Dreaming in Code I think we haven't amassed enough data points in open source specifically to see whether women-led projects generally feel more civil, which means of course that means here's where I exhort the women reading this to found and lead projects!

(Parenthetically: Women have been noticing sexism in free and open source software for as long as FOSS has existed, and fighting it in organized groups for 15 or more years. Valerie Aurora first published "HOWTO Encourage Women in Linux" in 2002. And we need everyone's help, and you, whatever your gender, have the power to genuinely help. A man cofounded GNOME's Outreach Program for Women, for instance. And I'm grateful to everyone of every gender who gave to the Ada Initiative this year! With your help, we can -- among other things -- amass data to answer Scott Rosenberg's rhetorical questions. ;-) )

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