Women Who Hack

I took advantage of last Sunday afternoon to squeeze in my monthly quota of socializing at Women Who Hack. It’s laid back and comfortable enough that it’s probably the one event each month I actually make sure not to miss, and I’ve gotten to a place where I can often bookend the time there with friends if I try.

I’ve been thinking about why this particular tech get-together appeals to me. It’s hard to say. I like the informality, I think. There isn’t even the whole “hackathon” pretense going on. You show up with a computer, and you’re golden. I don’t think I’ve ever written a line of code at any of these things. I’d get too distracted, anyway.

What’s the value-add, then? Probably the people I’ve met. I’m pretty lousy at meeting new people, and the framework of this kind of thing gives just enough meaning to the interaction to make it work. There isn’t just the tech grab-bag of people one usually sees, but women who dig tech in some form or another, so there’s a consistent set of narratives we can share and issues we address. It’s sort of wild, the number of conversations I’ve been able to take part in or people I can chat with when I see them out in the world doing their thing.

Are you around in Portland? Come hang out with us sometime. The rest of you, why not start up something like this? Make sure to leave room for talking and get everyone to introduce themselves! And free snacks never hurt.

Work Retrospectives

Screenshot of my first weekly work retrospective
First retrospective of many

I decided I didn’t want to get caught next year trying to write my review without any idea of what I had done the year before, so I’ve decided to start tracking what I get done from week to week. I’m going to try to write a weekly retro every week of 2014.

I have time blocked off at the same time every Friday morning to spend about half an hour referencing salient tasks, time spent, people I’ve worked with, and projects I had involvement with so that I can scan through in 2015 and catch a bird’s eye view of the landscape of my year.

Incidentally, for the moment, I’ve decided to try using Day One for tracking all this, if only because it has great support for searching and viewing past entries over dates, and it syncs between all my devices. I could probably throw Markdown on a server or use a private WordPress, but scanning is so much faster this way.

Zen Not Zen

On my day off, I was browsing the Internet and came across yet another nonsensical use of the word “Zen” to adorn a programming project. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this in the wild. A quick search of GitHub shows an undeniable pattern. Even GitHub itself is complicit.

A quick glance at some of the (sometimes ingratiating) descriptions and documentation for these projects reveals the use of “Zen” to connote simplicity, ease, and minimalism. Especially minimalism.

(Searching the Internet some more, I came across a wonderful term, a “dharma-burger”, to describe this combination of Buddhism and pop culture via marketing.)

I am not a Zen teacher, practitioner, or student. However, I have to try to imagine what sort of dialogue I might engage in, were I on a team of engineers who were all white and raised in the West.

Listen, everyone, I don’t think naming this product “Zen” is a good idea. I know that we’re all white here, and when we hear the word “Zen,” we think of a certain minimalistic, natural aesthetic. We definitely want that sort of aesthetic, too. We want our product to feel good and be second-nature to learn.

I don’t think we can use “Zen” as a shorthand to refer to that aesthetic or philosophy, though, because there are a lot of people who have very different associations with the word. The bottom line is that we need to make a decision, now, before we ship, whether we want those people to be among our users or even among our team in the future.

In short, to my mind, it’s needless and offputting baggage. In other words, “Zen arts without Zen study is just cultural junk.”

Caprice

I want to talk a little about caprice. I want to talk about its invisibility; its influence; its implications on privilege; and its implications on me.

What is caprice? They’re the things that we can’t control. It’s the agent of luck, acts of God. It’s unfairness. We’re all subject to caprice to some extent, and it’s treated some of us very well, and in other cases, it’s treated us pretty badly. Or maybe it’s been a mixed bag for you. Either way, we have no idea what it has in store for us.

I have the fortunate quality of seeing caprice’s role in my life because I haven’t always had a safety net. I’ve spent a little time in jail. I’ve spent a little time being homeless. I’ve spent a lot of time being broke. I’ve let health issues impact me for years out of lack of options.

I realize that caprice is a bit harder to see when it’s always helped you along, silently privileging you and your accomplishments. This is due to a pretty well understood cognitive bias, and we’re all subject to it. We can begin to internalize “good” caprice. Now, as I write, I’m at a shiny conference full of rich people, watching them socialize in a big room full of expensive computers and robots, and I wonder how many people in this room recognize the role of caprice—of privilege—in putting them there.

I think my favorite talk so far of Open Source Bridge has been Cameron Adamez’s talk about labor, ethics, and computing. She did this really awesome thing that led to these thoughts and underscored the contrast I’ve seen in my adult life so far. First, she played a clip of a documentary about San Jose’s tent city. Of course, she followed this right away with a small clip from Chris Anderson talking to an audience of “makers” leading startups.

What does this have to say? The juxtaposition spoke volumes: about elitism, about exploitation, about class, and most especially about how caprice unites all these factors.

Disadvantaged and marginalized people know caprice much better than those whom caprice has treated well. We know the world is unfair. This plays into our impostor syndrome, unfortunately. For those whom caprice has mishandled, we’ve internalized, at some point, the idea that only some people deserve to be where they are. In other words, we are subject to a different cognitive bias, a kind of survivorship bias, which blinds us somewhat to role of caprice in others’ success or to valuing our own accomplishments later on when they’re recognized and rewarded.

How we react to this situation interests me. Some people seem to look at their marginalized peers, see themselves and their accomplishments, and conclude they do not deserve their own success.

I’ve had a little time to observe the situation and think about it, and I am much more tempted to conclude, on the other hand, that others do not deserve their success anymore than I. I look around at my peers and wonder, why aren’t you guys as awesome as I am? And it has little to do with me. There’s not necessarily anything special about me (though I do need to own my accomplishments). By and large there’s an element of stupid, uncaring, meandering luck.

I keep wondering, how can I spread this professional success, my tech accomplishments, to my friends who may be struggling, who are equally talented but in another place in life?

I’m suffering less, maybe, from an impostor problem and more of a survivor guilt. Or maybe a success guilt. Maybe impostor syndrome is just a way of turning this success guilt inwards on ourselves rather than acknowledging the fundamental unfairness of the world around us.

Self-evaluation

Since reviewing my self-evaluation with my immediate manager the other day, I’ve gone through a lot of thoughts and feelings over it that I would not have expected.

It went really well! That’s the first surprise. This is my first job in the tech field, and so I haven’t been programming for a living very long. I’ve had my current job for perhaps a year and a half, so this was my first full evaluation.

This began as a 360 review that I filled out for myself, and I put down “meets expectations” in every aspect of my a career as a middle- of-the-road response. I genuinely did not think I could justify anything more, and I felt sure I was doing well, so I didn’t feel like I needed particular improvement in any area, either.

My manager put that I “exceeded expectations” in most of the fields and talked with me about it. I fought hard to hold back the urge to disagree with him, but internally, I did keep thinking that somehow he was a bit biased or skewed in favoring me. I wasn’t sure where he got that impression, but I was sure that my evaluation was going to lead to disappointment (either during or after).

The second surprise, however, was how much he won me over to his point of view instead of the other way around. I had had the idea that I was one of the least productive people on the team, but not only did he point out how productive I was, he had pulled the figures to support his view directly from our issue-tracking system. He compared me not only to the rest of his team but to all the engineers in my department, showing me the average time I spent on a task (about half the overall average) and the sheer number of tasks I had turned over in the last year.

I definitely told him how useful it was to see that; otherwise, I just plainly would not have believed him.

Thirdly, the language he used to describe my role in the team surprised me. This is the first time I heard myself described plainly as a “lead” for the rest of the team. I knew that I had had taken some leadership-like roles on (especially training), but it’s only starting to sink in for the first time to what extent that’s happened and how my manager has nurtured that. He’s sought out my opinion on almost every single member of my immediate team to the point where I’ve practically been able to handpick all of them (at the very least, I’ve had veto power, but that isn’t too unusual in tech environments). I’ve been doing a lot of training, pairing, and guiding on tasks our team handles, to the point where sometimes I feel stretched thin.

Of course, I knew about all these things, but I hadn’t internalized myself as anything resembling a leader, and that led to his only negative (but oh, so constructive) feedback for me. I’ve always been a really candid person about my feelings, and he pointed out the extent to which those feelings are influential to the rest of the team when I vent about something negatively.

I suppose I just assume people will disagree with me or that I’ll hold a minority opinion (and often, I do), but the idea that as a leader (whether de facto or de jure) I hold some influence over the opinions of others on my team is a novel one to me.

I’ve always had trouble being professional in past jobs I’ve had, and it’s becoming clearer to me why that’s held me back, and I’ve begun to examine what I say and how I say it in that light.

It’s been a huge shift in how I think about myself, and this review process has generally given me a huge step in internalizing a different idea of myself and my career. I also have to give huge props to my boss, who is maybe right about more things than I gave him credit for in the past.