Andromeda Yelton

Across Divided Networks

my first hackathon; or, gender, status, code, and sitting at the table

April 6th, 2012 · 50 Comments · Uncategorized

Today I can’t stop watching this TED talk by Sheryl Sandberg on women and leadership:

It’s the first piece of advice that keeps jackhammering my brain: sit at the table.

Yesterday I went to my first hackathon. And I was giddy about this from the second I got the invitation because it was hosted by a rock star and…and because I count. I’m cool enough to be invited to a hackathon? I know enough? It’s so easy to look at the world of code and see all these things you don’t know how to do (oh but I’ve only dabbled in a handful of languages, I don’t know Haskell or Ruby or C or or or…oh but I don’t know anything about scalability or performance optimization or deployment or testing…oh but I don’t know that tool that other person is using…) and not to see the things you can (it may be dabbling but I’ve coded in a half-dozen languages…I sped up a key page on our site by 42%…I’ve deployed our code to our site…I’ve debugged our tests…I’ve built real projects people use and my code is running on my company’s flagship) Part of my brain says, there’s lots of stuff I don’t know because code is big. And part of my brain says, oh, but you’re just a web developer.

So I got invited to a hackathon and that was a pretty big deal for me. And everyone was unfailingly nice and welcoming. And as the twenty-five or so of us filled the room every one of the five women, except me, found a seat against the wall. I was the only one at the table.

Code culture, it measures you by how much you know about code. Status equals intellect and mastery and this was a big part of why, despite frankly excelling at (and liking) the required intro programming class in college, I had not one second’s interest in being a CS major: the cost of that was sleeping all day and staying up all night in a windowless basement room, mainlining Doritos and Mountain Dew while battling to prove your status by showing off your mastery of fine details of memory allocation in C, or what-have-you. And not only could I simply not play that game — not having spent my adolescence memorizing those details and not having the kind of brain that does fine detail recall anyway — I couldn’t see why I’d want to (all-nighters and Mountain Dew? really?!).

As I said, the people in that room were unfailingly nice and welcoming. Adult men are way more mature than 19-year-olds and there was not so much as a whisper of that sort of dick-measuring. Instead, we shut ourselves down. Every single other woman, sitting against the wall, said something that came across as, “oh, I’m not a developer. I’m not a participant. I don’t really count.” Women, mind you, who are doing crucial non-code things for the project! And as the introductions wound their way around the table — with some of the men apologizing for their perceived lack of code mastery, too — I wrote and rewrote mine in my head, fighting the temptation to say, oh, but I’m not really a developer either. I fight the temptation to say that right now, simply because I know that women tend to underrate their competency, and because the first step is owning that word. It doesn’t fit. I squirm putting it on myself. But I’m going to own it.

Because here’s the thing I’ve realized thinking about that room — wondering if I’m exhausted because I’m overcommitted and fighting off a cold and I’m a mom and a startup employee, or if I’m exhausted because I was implicitly carrying the entire weight of Women In Tech on my shoulders for a day — the bar for being a woman in tech is the ability to say “Fuck you.”

And I squirm writing that, too! I don’t swear. Not much. I’m too nice. I’m a librarian! Librarians are nice. We help people. We don’t tell them “fuck you”. (Squirm. Again.)

But we’ve got to be willing to look at whole cultures that are telling us — both from the troglodyte-misogynist and the feminist sides — that it’s uncomfortable being here, that we’re likely to feel some sort of stereotype threat or impostor syndrome that honestly I don’t recall ever feeling at 17 but have apparently picked up now in, and only in, relationship to open source development — and say to those whole cultures, “fuck you”.

And to ourselves, too. At those feelings. At our own — maybe very honest, maybe terribly lowball — assessments of our own skill levels. At our own impulse to softpedal the introduction, to sit against the wall, away from the table. Fuck you, self. You’re better than that.

It doesn’t come naturally. It did when I was 17 and oblivious and in a school which was 25% female — which is, by the way, worlds different from being the only female developer in the room.

But here I am, with a constant background obsession, now, of how to get more librarians involved (and involved more deeply) in tech, how to foster collaboration on library technology projects, which is inseparable from the problem of how to get more women involved more deeply and collaboratively in technology. So I can’t not look at that room and see how the status lines fracture, along code mastery but coincidentally also gender, written in the physical geography of the room, where I’m the only one sitting at the table. I can’t not wonder, how can I create spaces which redraw those lines.

I know a little bit. I know that we can be more explicit and celebratory of the non-coding skills that are equally necessary for successful technology projects — design, usability, documentation, testing, metadata, advocacy. I know we can look for ways to put people with all of those skills together doing shared work on shared projects — yes, at the same table. I know we can be intentional about valuing people, not for what they can show off, but what they can contribute — something the library world has done very well, in my experience. (The hackathon, too.) I know we can look for partners who are solving these same problems. But it’s all whispers, not enough yet.

I want to hear what you know about this problem, too.

Because here’s another thing I know: I have unusual self-confidence. I am more comfortable than most women being in a male-dominated environment, and attacking technology, and believing in my skills. And right now that is the minimum for being a woman in tech. And it’s a minimum that cuts against things we know about women — that they tend to underrate their skills, to be less confident than men even when more capable. And if that’s the minimum, we are excluding a hell of a lot of people who have more than enough aptitude to do amazing things.

The minimum shouldn’t be, well, balls — it should be interest, aptitude (not even skill!), drive to contribute. Not the ability to say — even, if necessary, to yourself — and always to multiple cultures — and even when people are being as pleasant and welcoming as possible — “fuck you”.

So I coded some stuff. I mashed up the Knight Foundation’s beautiful timeline and DPLA API results to create a multimedia view of keyword searches over time. Rough around the edges and not deployed in a place you can see it in action, but you’re welcome to deploy (and fork, and improve) it yourself; the code’s on github.

In fact, please do. Please. Sit at the table.

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50 Comments so far ↓

  • Miriam Posner

    This is terrific, Andromeda. You’ve so beautifully captured the experience of being one of the only women in the room, and done such a great job describing the millions of little ways this situation shuts people down.

    What I especially like is what you’ve said about your own ability to say, “Fuck you.” The fact is, as you say, being a female coder should not require this particular exceptional ability. It should require the ability to code.

    If we accept that: (1) some general social good would be accomplished by getting more women to code, and (2) women are not biologically ill-disposed toward coding, then we should see that the widespread problem of gender disparity in coding arises not from the myriad “good” or “bad” decisions that individual women make. It arises from the incentives or disincentives that influence these decisions on a large scale.

    So that is an incredibly roundabout way of getting to the question you asked me on Twitter, about what a structural solution to this problem might be. I’ve been getting increasingly involved (and I know you have, too) with women’s development groups, which are wonderful things that we should support with all the energy we can muster. So that’s one thing. Some other things:
    • Every hackathon, development group, what-have-you should make an effort to reach out to underrepresented people.
    • We should talk openly about disparities in the room (just as you have), with the understanding that it makes no one a bad person. It’s just a problem to be noted.
    • We should begin each meeting of this kind with an invitation to everyone in the room to tell us what would make this a more welcoming environment.

    If it seems unlikely to you (as it frankly does to me) that most development groups would be amenable to accommodations of this kind, then this is just an indicator of how far we have to come, and how important it is that we support each other as we work toward these changes. And it indicates, to me at least, that not all of the onus for change should be on us.

  • Sam

    Total drive-by here, because I’ve got 20 other things I have to do, but just focusing on one pull-quote: ‘the ability to say “Fuck you.”’

    Brief: Living in West Dorm does marvels for your ability to say “Fuck you.” And although it may come across as belligerent machismo, but the intent and the in-dorm effect is to diffuse anger, break the ice, and establish connection.

    • admin

      And you will note I was too intimidated by West as a naive undergrad to spend much time there, and only later realized how much I had missed out on…

      • Sam

        That’s why we had the fire! It was an awesome excuse for people to walk up and seek connection. You never needed a “real” reason to be in the courtyard; “because there’s a fire” was good enough.

        Bastard administrators and their fire codes. :-)

        • Andromeda

          Oh and I DO like fire :) But a fire surrounded by beer remains intimidating for non-drinkers (which I was for most of college, and only a light drinker thereafter).

        • Andromeda

          A secret you successfully kept from me for *checks calendar* 17 years ;)

        • Andromeda

          That said I had a fantastic time partying at West my last reunion, and am looking forward to doing so again at my next one.

  • fran

    Great post. Thank you. I have often felt the same. Take a deep breath, smile, and stake your claim – because you’re worth it! :-)

    I was told by a teacher at school that it was more important for a girl to learn how to harness a horse than to program a computer. Now, obviously I know what a horse is, and I even rode a donkey on holiday once, but I have never encountered one in my professional life!

  • David Weinberger

    Andromeda, thank you for being there. Thank you for sitting at the table. Thank you for writing this.

    • admin

      Thanks for being generous and welcoming :) And letting me off the hook for demoing for a while when I was feeling nervous, but also for insisting I not be off the hook forever.

      And perhaps next time, invite more of us…?

  • Martin

    Thank you again for coming and being an incredible participant to the hack. And in case anyone doubed Andromeda was at the table, here’s the picture:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/travelinglibrarian/7048603797/in/photostream

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  • Rachel

    Great post – Overall I completely support the ideas you express here. And it was great to see a female presence at the hack!
    But I think you misunderstood why a few of us sat on the fringes. Some of us were invited, not *to participate* as part of the code team, but as “observers”. (rules of engagement)
    As such, we felt it was good form, as there were limited seats, to offer them to those who were there to code, to those we invited, to sit at the table.(Maybe I am overly Southern?)
    We actually left the rooms to work at another table on non-code items.
    Just because we were not sitting at *your* table – does not mean we shirking our leadership responsibilities, or being demure, or bowing out due to gender influence. We were simply following protocol as observers. Period.
    When I am called to a meeting as a contributor, I most definitely sit at the table, no matter what.
    As you get to know me better, for I am sure I will see you at other events (Code4Lib?), you will come to understand, and my friends will back me up on this, I NEVER say that “I don’t count”. Ever.

    • Andromeda

      It wasn’t clear to me that there were rules of engagement in play; I just heard things that I remembered as “I’m not a coder so I’m not at the table”. Which surprised me to hear, because I was at least a little familiar with all of you and your work, and I know that you’re all high-powered people, with important leadership roles, and absolutely deserving of status in any kind of room.

      I would have loved to hear more about the work you were doing, too! I kept thinking throughout the day about metadata standards and policies, and use cases, and how they informed what I could and couldn’t do with the API (and what can and can’t be done with the DPLA as a whole) — like I said, any successful tech project is about a lot of skills, not just code, and we need to explicitly value all of them. So for me, in the room, it would have helped it it had been made clear that you were invited in an observer capacity (and not just putting yourself in a low-status role because you weren’t writing code), and if it had been made clear what sorts of work all of you *were* doing. I trust that you can and do, but from where I sat all I could see was, I was the only woman at the table, and I was the only woman participating in the work that was being acknowledged.

      I’m absolutely in favor of not being demure. I’m even more in favor of our not being demure, together.

  • Rachel

    Touche! We should have been a bit more clear – I am chalking it up to a long week of travel, and not enough sleep. Great to have met you!

  • Chris

    Andromeda, I love this post. I, too, feel a strong need to represent because I was (and often am) the only gay dude at the table (even though I was there via Skype), and there aren’t many of us in tech leadership. Let us always strive to make our projects inclusive. Kudos for the reminder & message.

    • Andromeda

      Thanks for representing! See, I had no idea. Less obvious than gender.

      I cochair an ALA interest group for librarians who want to learn to code & apply code, and the wheels are definitely spinning on how I can reach out to Spectrum, REFORMA, BCALA, and thanks for the reminder about GLBTRT… Because really. If I don’t like being the only one at the table and I DON’T reach out to those other groups…? How lame is that?

      • Chris

        Yes, the Bruce Weber calendars are on the *other* wall of my kitchen, so how would you know? Now that I’m just old and boring, the rainbow flag stickers that littered my fabulous 20′s with a visual identifier have all peeled away. In fact, how the heck do I know I was the only gay guy at the table? Don’t, just going by past experience. But, like you are encouraging, I take every opportunity to sit at the table and contribute when I can. Will definitely consider all these points when planning future events.

  • vingtdeux

    Thank you. This is so timely. I was just invited to my first hackathon as well, and though I have other obligations that weekend, I have been overwhelmed with a mix of wanting to participate and not feeling like my skills are adequate. I’m not sure that this is a gender thing so much as that the geek boys I call friends are so… geniusy (also I started in on this stuff way after they did), but I appreciate the reminder that writing code isn’t all I come to the table with… there is so much more.

    • Andromeda

      You’re welcome! And yes, I felt the same mix when I got invited too. *You should go*. If it helps, bring a friend :) .

    • Homa Sapiens

      Vingtdeux, trust me when I tell you that, unless someone in your group is a cyber Einstein, your geek boy friends are no more genius-y than you are– they are just better at shining the light on their competency and hiding their incompetencies– even from themselves.

      It’s hard to believe, I know. And they won’t believe it either. But it’s true and as you lose your own personal case of “imposter syndrome” the fact will become more and more visible to you.

  • jambina

    i often notice that i’m the only woman in a room (and no, not cuz i stumbled into the lad’s loo), and for a while that really made me question my legitimacy. which drove me nuts.
    in a previous life, i worked almost exclusively in a male-dominated milieu, in the newsroom of a major metropolitan daily. i was an elite rugby player, first female president, and first president under 25, of my mostly male rugby club (one women’s side, 3 men’s sides).
    and yet here i was, in a career where i learn from some of the most fantastic female leaders (Amber Lannon, Louise O’Neill, Jenica Rogers, Amanda Etches) yet questioning my own legitimacy to be in the room.
    sheryl’s talk, as well as a number of other highly-redonkulous ad/blog posts (http://jambina.com/blog/leaders-women-and-why-its-okay-to-be-awesome/) got me thinking about why i was questioning myself. at that moment i vowed two things:
    1. no more will i let myself question my legitimacy when it comes to gender. (dangly bits don’t make you better at anything, except writing your name in the snow, and even then… there are stencils for that.)
    2. there are many others who are probably second-guessing themselves as well, so i would frequently, loudly, and publicly, remind them they should be at the table.

    andromeda, you deserve a seat at the table like few i have met before, and i am confident you will rock the house.

    have fun. make it better.

    • Andromeda

      <3

      (Also: rugby! Hell yeah! (No I never played. But it's singularly badass.))

  • Liz

    Have you read “Unlocking the Clubhouse”? It deals with why women don’t major in CS at the undergrad level, but I think much of it applies to this sort of situation as well.

    Liz (who didn’t major in CS, partially for reasons explained in the book)

    • Andromeda

      Nope. But I’ve now requested it from the library. Thanks!

    • ARC

      Yep, that book rang true for me too.

      Andromeda, I love your description of why you chose not to major in CS – that described me to a T as well, and now I wish I had done it anyway, since I ended up in tech as a Project Manager. I miss writing code but now I feel like it’s way too late to get started again.

      • Andromeda

        I don’t think it’s ever too late :) . Am rather surprised to be writing so much these days myself. But thank you!

  • Bobbi

    Andromeda thank you for writing this. I read it yesterday and came back to read it again today. I know you are specificially talking about tech in your post but I can’t help but feel that so much of it applies to librarianship in general. In a profession dominated by women men still dominate at the table (and in salaries).

  • Kim dulin

    Andromeda, thanks so much for coming to the hackathon. Sorry I was not there to see you in action. Hope to see you at future dpla hacks!!

  • Alison

    Great post! I went to my first hackfest at Code4Lib North last May and I felt very out of place at first. The people in the room were very welcoming and I had been assured that they wanted non-coders to join in, but my own head played games with me. However, I forced myself to be involved by signing up for a couple of lightning talks. And this year I’ve even suggested a hackfest idea and I’m going to make the coders learn a little bit about RDA in one of the 20 min. talks! Now to continue battling that little voice in my head…

  • Elizabeth Eadie

    Hi there! Your post was added to the Baltimore Tech Facebook group and I’m so glad I took the time to read it. Thank you for mentioning design as a fundamental element in the process. I constantly struggle with having the courage to sit at the table with developers because I’ve repeatedly felt the implication that my skills are less valued in my community. Having the female tendencies you mentioned are not exactly helpful in these endeavors. You describe our struggles poignantly. Many thanks.

  • Asaf Bartov

    Thanks for a fantastic essay. It resonated with what I have observed. You may be interested to read this paper: http://littlegreenriver.com/stuffs/Outreach-Diversity-FOSS.html

    I found it interesting, and it got me thinking about some unconscious assumptions I had.

    • Andromeda

      Thanks for the link! I am definitely wanting to learn lots and lots about how to make that divide easier to bridge.

  • Gayle

    Hi Andromeda! :) Asaf pointed me at this and I so appreciated reading it. First, so lovely to sort of cross paths with you again in this virtual way. Second, wonderful post. I too have been watching the Sheryl Sandberg video, in context about being a woman and a leader in a tech company. I really enjoyed your post, found it thoughtful and thought-provoking, and am glad to have found you in this space.

    Warm regards,
    Gayle

    • Andromeda

      Hi Gayle! I had just recently noticed you were at Asaf’s place of work these days. There’s this ever-growing list of people I know who’ve met him in person even though I haven’t (something we have been trying to fix for years!)

      Thanks for the kind words. And yeah, I can see how that video would be very relevant to you, too.

  • Bronwen

    I just wanted to say a big thank you for this post, for making an explicit and helpful commentary of how gender affects how we are functioning and communicating as professionals. I can definitely remember times I didn’t sit down at the table, I didn’t even enter the room! So thanks. I am a librarian/book historian/LIS instructor who has gotten the “bug” to learn more about web design/usability/digital humanities tools, and as a female introvert, I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s the best way for me to learn, and for my students to learn, and for me to put myself “out there.” That’s why I’m so happy that I can have conversations online, on my blog and in other places. I do like Miriam’s suggestions above about being more explicitly welcoming and verbalizing these challenges. I’ve never been to a hackathon, but friends of mine organized the Open Data Ottawa hackathons , which were organized according to small groups, containing coders, information professionals and community members with no coding experience, just great ideas, in each group. Seems like explicitly balancing participants in this manner, and using smaller groups, might be helpful for the shy and/or less experienced, no matter the source of their reticence.

    • Andromeda

      You’re welcome! Thanks for the hackathon-organizing idea; I’m trying to collect all the good ideas I can for making tech a more friendly space for nontraditional coders and non-coders.

      I also cochair an ALA interest group for librarians who want to learn to code & apply code (http://connect.ala.org/node/167971) — if you’re an ALA member we’d love to have you (and even if you’re not you can set up a Connect account and participate in the discussion). So yes, I’d love to hear any more thoughts you have on what helps you & your students learn!

  • Diane Hillmann

    Wonderful post, Andromeda, but in reading it (and the comments) I started thinking about how similar, yet how different, the ‘only-woman-at-the-table’ feels as someone from an earlier generation. I’ve been in rooms (many times) when I was not just the only woman, but the oldest person there. I suspect that will continue to happen, since I’m not getting any younger :-) I was also particularly happy to see you emphasizing the need for broad participation, not just for women, but for people who don’t code — but have important skills to offer. In some ways, that’s a divide that has serious implications for the future we’re working towards. BTW, I think the best article about woman and technology is still Karen Coyle’s article “How Hard Can It Be?” (http://kcoyle.net/howhard.html) published over 15 years ago but resonating powerfully still (particularly for women of my generation).

    • Andromeda

      Thanks for the link! Always interested in reading more angles on the problem. And also in the reminder that age is a kind of diversity I should be paying attention to. (I’m often assumed — not necessarily correctly — to be the youngest in the room; opposite end of the same pointy stick.)

      I am indeed very concerned about that divide. I feel on the one hand it’s important to bridge it by getting more people coding — at least enough to understand the issues better and communicate better with developers — but on the other hand, yes, by having teams with diverse skillsets and by insisting on valuing all of those skills. Contradictory impulses, I guess. Which I plan to be working on for a while :)

  • Jan Ainali

    Thanks for sharing, you are not only a developer who sits at the table, you are also a great writer!

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  • Erin

    Saw this in the midst of the link spam on the Geek Feminism Blog and said, “Hey, I think I used to sing with her.” And it turns out, I used to sing with you — HRC, until I moved out to San Francisco to join a start-up. Glad to see you’re sitting at the table. It’s way more fun than hanging out by the wall.

    • Andromeda

      Oh hey! I did sing with you! Nice to see you here. How’s SF? And you’re right; it may be tiring but it is TOTALLY more fun.

  • GemmaM

    Currently I’m struggling with the fact that what one needs is not just the ability to say “Fuck you”, but the ability to keep saying it for years and years on end, through ups and downs and uncertainties, in the knowledge that mostly what you get in return for this is the opportunity to keep having to say “Fuck you” for the rest of your life.

    I don’t know where that struggle will take me, right now.

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