Andromeda Yelton

Across Divided Networks

how the meeting went

July 10th, 2014 · Uncategorized

Last post, I said I wouldn’t be voting to approve the LITA budget. And then I left you all hanging as I went off to Vegas, and recovered from Vegas, and started my to-do list recovering from Vegas…

So, how’d it go?

Short version

Cindi Trainor Blyberg (now LITA past president) is a quiet meeting-running ninja. We have delayed the vote. I’m cautiously optimistic about how things went. We’ll see.

Longer version

We had a remarkably good meeting Saturday of Annual. A solid majority of the Board expressed views frankly and without hard feelings. We didn’t always agree, which I think is a good thing.

We’ve asked the Financial Advisory Committee to do a bit more work before our vote. The fiscal year begins September 1, so there’s a bit of a window for that work, though it’s definitely a time crunch. We’ve also asked them to do work toward a better process for FY2016 and beyond. The ALA budget calendar says boards voting at Annual but divisional budgets are put forward for review in late winter, which means your options are pretty much “rubber stamp”, “last minute panic”, or “go beyond the calendar to ensure a consultative process by Midwinter”, and really only one of these options is any good, so I think we’ll be working toward it.

I’m glad we delayed the vote to allow time for some issues to be addressed and I hope that, when we do meet next (time TBD), we’ll have something I can feel comfortable voting for.

Obviously there’s a lot of loose ends here. What exactly can we get done in time? How fluidly can ALA roll with late-breaking changes? I’ve asked a lot of people, gotten a lot of answers, and won’t know which ones are right until at least September — that’s the caution in my optimism.

Feeling fairly confident about FY2016, though. And really hoping that as I face FY2017, the last budget I’ll face in my Board term, that I’ll be saying what’s past is prologue, and the budget is a fluid and strategic tool we’re using to advance our goals and yours, howsoever they change. And be super excited to vote for it.

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Why I won’t be voting to approve the LITA budget

June 24th, 2014 · Uncategorized

Not every board member can be a financial wizard. Every board member, however, needs to be a financial inquisitor.

101 Board Basics: Fiduciary Responsibilities, BoardSource

I ran for LITA Board on a platform of inclusivity, transparency, and financial stewardship. That means I consider it my sacred trust to you, the members, to understand LITA’s financial status and sustainability; to advocate for directions that support its ability to serve you for years to come; and to communicate with you about the decisions I make in representing you.

The fiscal year 2015 budget [PDF] has been presented to the Board and I will not be voting to approve it this weekend. Here’s why.

Unanswered questions

First, the budget presents too many unanswered questions.

It does not attribute revenues and expenses to program lines, which makes it prohibitively difficult to tell whether our allocations support our strategic vision, and to monitor the status of our programs.

It quotes fiscal year 2013’s actual dues revenue as our expected dues revenue for fiscal year 2015, but this is not supportable in light of our decreasing membership trend; this dues revenue projection is overstated by approximately $20,000.

Its revenue for registration fees (a new line in this year’s budget) appears to be based on our fiscal year 2014 estimated dues revenue for the sum of Forum, web courses, webinars, preconferences, midwinter workshops, and regional institutes. However, we have not run regional institutes since 2007 and have no immediate plans to do so, and budget estimates for online education have consistently exceeded actual revenue by tens of thousands of dollars. This line is given as $234,200, but actual realized revenue for fiscal years 2011 through (projecting from year-to-date) 2014 has been between $180,000 and $190,000. Therefore this line overstates revenue by roughly $50,000.

The expenses are reported in a new format, with categories that cross-cut previous categories; therefore I cannot confidently judge whether they are accurate. (Over the past four years our expense lines have also been overestimates, usually working out to net operating deficits in the $20K range, but with large year-to-year variance.) I also cannot tell how much support we intend to give to our programs, and if that is in line with what we require.

I asked some of these questions about a previous draft of the budget at Midwinter. (And more; my unanswered-questions list is far too long to fit in either a blog post or a Board meeting.) I have not found that either Midwinter, or this new draft, have answered those questions.

The bottom line: this budget overstates our revenue by around $70,000 and makes the accuracy and relevance of our expenses impossible to analyze.

What budgets are for

Second, this budget is not an instrument for communicating or enacting LITA’s strategic goals.

Because it neither disaggregates revenues nor attributes expenses to program lines, we cannot communicate clearly with our committees and interest groups how their work fits into the big picture, what LITA needs of them, and how we will support them.

Because it does not change — it reflects programs we no longer run and revenues we no longer realize, and does not reallocate money or staff time to new programs — we cannot change. We know that — particularly as a technology association — we operate in a competitive landscape that is radically different than it was ten, even five, years ago. We know, from our membership declines (shared by ALA and many associations) and the thoughtful reporting of our Financial Strategies Task Force, that we must do a better job of articulating our vision and providing value.

We have no shortage of vision, but all our strategic planning is meaningless if we cannot operationalize it.

The budget is a prologue to the real story, which is how we serve you. Let’s set the scene correctly.

Where I stand

I am persuaded that, if I were to approve this budget, I would be failing in my duty of care toward the association, and (more importantly) my duty as a representative of the membership: elected by you, holding the trust of three thousand members carefully in my hands.

Duty of care is an obligation I submitted myself to when I accepted the nomination, but your trust? That doesn’t feel like obligation; that feels like reverence.

We can and must do better by you.

I will not be voting to approve this budget. I ask the rest of the Board to join me.


Update, 10 July 2014: how the meeting went.

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where I’m at with Codes of Conduct these days

May 18th, 2014 · Uncategorized

What I keep thinking about Codes of Conduct is they’re wonderful, but they lack ambition.

Because at heart, what are we saying here?

You really ought not to egregiously insult or threaten people, especially if they’re part of a vulnerable or minority group, and double-especially if your insults or threats are grounded in their membership in that group. In fact you should try to think about how your words might affect people before you say them. And maybe while you’re at it, learn enough about people from a variety of backgrounds that you can think usefully about how your words might affect them, even if it isn’t how those same words would affect you.

As the metaphor goes, what? For that you want a cookie?

I keep thinking, codes of conduct are a first step (and an important one, and sometimes a shockingly hard one), but what I really want from my conferences is xenia.

This is old, right? Lots of cultures have had their hospitality myth. But the form I know is ancient Greek. “Guest-friendship”. The ritual and kindness and hospitality shown a stranger, the connections that bind people across political and generational chasms in an age before strong communications technology.

The knowledge that the stranger whom you welcome may be a god in disguise.

I’m not good at hospitality. And I’m getting worse as I become better-known in my particular conference circuit; the number of people I absolutely must spend time with at any given conference now well exceeds the time I have to spend, and somewhere in there, amid the blur of social obligations and old friends I see only a handful of times a year, I need to make time for the stranger? Now that I have some power in a space I need to use it to hold doors open, to hold spaces themselves open, to make sure new people and ideas and experiences can constantly come in and make it their space, too, shaped around themselves as well as me? Now that I have my subgroup I have to keep looking for ways to connect to other subgroups, to be about crosslinking instead of calcification? And all of it while I actually am the introvert who needs some space to hide each day, who goes home and crashes out for twelve straight hours because the way I do conferences is already overwhelming?

Well…yes.

That’s what I find myself taking away from the code of conduct idea more and more, now. That if I test a new space I want an obvious indication that it will be hospitable to me; that if a space is in some sense mine I have an obligation to make it hospitable to others. That the gods walk among us in more guises than we instinctively recognize, and part of our obligation as co-creators of spaces for humans is to suspend disbelief and learn to recognize.

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#litabd strategic analysis for fun and profit

May 13th, 2014 · Uncategorized

I’ve had the pleasure over the last few weeks of having in-depth chats with several women who are top-notch strategic thinkers and have leadership roles in business and nonprofit organizations. Total contact high.

And this has been dovetailing with my LITA Board almost-a-year retrospective thoughts. Because you know I can’t find something interesting without totally obsessing over it until I understand it frontwards backwards and sideways, right?

And in the meantime I’ve checked out a book on nonprofit financial sustainability, which turned out to have a sticker in it saying it had been placed there by an ALA program on financial literacy, which is surely a sign. The book’s giving me a specific technique for analyzing nonprofit budgets, so I’m testing it out on LITA’s.

The tool is a matrix map – basically, put all your budget lines on a chart of impact vs profitability and see what happens. This gives you four quadrants:

  • High impact, profitable (winning)
  • High impact liabilities (labors of love: worth doing if you can subsidize them)
  • Low impact, high profit (the things you do to subsidize your labors of love)
  • Low impact liabilities (why are you doing these?)

Then you represent all those activities with circles scaled to their expense.

The book also gives 7 criteria you can use for determining impact that it claims to have tested (not clear how, but I’m also not done reading) with real-world organizations. It says using more than 4 tends to be unhelpful, so pick the up-to-four that make most sense for your organization; assign each activity a 1-4 score on each criterion; and total them up for your impact estimate. (You can weight them if you like, but that’s a whole other level of complexity I didn’t get into.) I picked the 4 I think are most relevant to LITA and did a back-of-the-envelope impact analysis:

  • Mission alignment (I can compare with the mission statement)
  • Effectiveness of execution (I think this is really important but I have no way of evaluating it)
  • Scale of impact (I assigned a 4 for thousands of people reached per year, a 3 for hundreds, and so forth)
  • Community building (I totally just made this number up on instinct)

(The other criteria it suggested are depth of impact on participants; leverage (how much does it increase the impact of your other activities); and filling an important gap in your competitive space. I found these both less interesting and harder to gauge – I think they’d need a lot more data to do right. Your mileage may vary!)

Results

I made graphs! (Impact and profitability normalized so they run -1 to 1, obvs.) These are based on FY2013 year-end data (aka “the most recent completed fiscal year”) – actual as-realized expenses and revenues. Sorry about the overflow on the legend – couldn’t figure out how to fix that.

Here’s what we do:

Here’s another version without Forum (which is so much bigger of an expense than everything else that it makes them hard to see; and apparently I normalized them to different axes, whoops):

Well now, that’s interesting.

Discussion

I’d love to have some people argue with me – did I pick the wrong criteria from that set? Estimate their values wrongly? Is this entirely the wrong analytical frame? Go for it. Tell me why :)

I also think there’s a hugely important caveat with this entire analysis, which is that our budget docs report staff expenses as a single line item, rather than breaking them out by time spent on each activities. This is important because it means every profitability estimate is an overestimate; not one of those lines accounts for the staff time it takes to make those things happen. This is especially relevant for Forum, which looks like a net profit, but clearly takes a great deal of staff effort (it’s a huge undertaking!) and may therefore be a net loss. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing – it reaches hundreds of attendees, who by all reports I’ve heard think well of it, and it’s a great opportunity for us to showcase our members’ accomplishments and help them advance their career goals. But not accounting for staff time does cloud the strategic analysis.

What do you think?

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WasteLab! (Children’s party edition)

April 27th, 2014 · Uncategorized

A little while back I was at this fun presentation by Danish librarians at Harvard, about work they’re doing to envision and implement their public libraries’ futures. Part of it is the People’s Lab – basically, a pilot space that they’re giving to different local groups or library staff members on a rotating basis, so that people can share their skills with the community and try out awesome stuff, as part of a broader Danish focus on innovation.

The People’s Lab has hosted Guitar Lab (courtesy of a library staff member who knows how to make and fix guitars (!)), Dream City (a popup makerspace at a local arts festival), TechLab (the local hackerspace moved in and among other things helped this kid Valdemar build a hovercraft) – lots of fun stuff.

And then, WasteLab. Where they tossed all their trash out on a table – there’s lots of it! – and invited the community to come in and make whatever they wanted with it. (Embrace the chaos, the Danes told us. Don’t try to keep it organized.)

Well well well. I am just about the least maker-y person I know, but my kid never met a craft project she didn’t like. So I explained the concept to her and asked if she wanted to invite some friends over to build stuff out of trash and she was like, YES.

She spent the few weeks noticing absolutely everything that might be interesting to keep around, and putting it in her WasteLab box. Ikea instructions? A broken inhaler? A tiny orange tile she found on the sidewalk? Done.

Day of the thing, I covered the dining room table with butcher paper, and put out her box of trash, and some glue and markers and scissors and stuff. Her friends brought some trash too. At some point I think I handed them snack. And then I stayed out of their way. Easiest setup ever.

And they built stuff.

They were super focused on it for a long time, too. There were sparkly butterflies, and weird Christmas ornaments, and a brand-new watch, and Elsa’s four-poster bed when someone realized you could take the waste 3D. (Paintbrushes can be structural elements! Sort of.)

And then cleanup is really easy because you salvage the things you feel like salvaging until the WasteLab box is full, and then you just untape the butcher paper in the table and wrap everything up in it because it was trash anyway.

Except it turned out to be a lot of other things too. The kid’s already bugging me for when we do it again.

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My LITA Board service: an almost-a-year retrospective

April 24th, 2014 · Uncategorized

ALA elections close tomorrow (eligible and haven’t voted? Go vote! The LITA slate is amazing). So it’s been about a year since I was elected, nine months on the Board, which is making me think retrospective-y thoughts.

(Like everyone, I’ve meant to blog more about my experience on the Board. Like everyone, I’ve found that so much of it is contact highs and crazy plans in bars, little nudges over IM, conversations that aren’t mine to share – both hard to summarize, and sometimes confidential. But for someone who was inspired to run for Board in part because of a fascination with its wrestling over the role of transparency these last few years, that’s not really good enough, is it?)

So let me look at my campaign platform and mull over how I’ve been doing. And you tell me what you want from LITA, how I can do better.

Technology is for everybody.

LITA’s made some baby steps in this direction – not all things I can claim credit for. Forum 2013 (a committee I was on) had more public library speakers than usual, and some youth services presentations, though it didn’t do as well as hoped on diversity counts. I hear Forum 2014 actually did blind review of submissions, and I’m looking forward to seeing the results of that.

A few folks have joined LITA, or rejoined after a long time away, that I’m super excited to have.

The Education committee (to which I liaise) has some children’s technology webinars in the pipeline in addition to our traditional academic-library-oriented content, and is working on broadening its topic coverage and reaching out to new speakers. You can help! Teach for LITA (I’m happy to answer questions). If you can speak to an important libtech topic we haven’t covered much, and if you’re not one of the usual suspects who’s spoken for LITA a bunch of times already, we’re especially interested in hearing from you.

Education is where I have been spending a great deal of my time – working with its leadership and LITA staff to get processes better documented, to put a better feedback loop in place so committee members can see the impact of their work, to communicate Board expectations more thoroughly to the committee, et cetera. And also personally, to understand the liaison role – I don’t want to run the committee or do its work (that’s for our awesome chairs and members); I do want to remove obstacles, and make sure they get information from other parts of LITA/ALA that they need to be fully effective. Lots of progress here; lots yet to be done.

Communication equals engagement.

Baby steps forward.

The Board’s taken on responsibility for @ALA_LITA, so it’s livelier and has a few hundred new followers; yay!

A lot of you showed up at the last online Board meeting – that was awesome! Hope it was interesting seeing how the sausage is made. Please join us in Vegas if you can!

I try to be conscientious about posting my LITA Board Connect content publicly whenever it is consistent with the open meeting policy to do so. (ALA Connect defaults to private, but can easily be set to public. You can get email notifications of, and comment on, public content, FYI.)

Been talking a lot with VP Rachel Vacek about more comprehensive steps we can take toward inclusive, vibrant communication.

Lots more to do here, though. The rest of our social media needs people to own it and make it vibrant. The Board needs to do better at regular communication to the membership – someone needs to own that, too. And that’s a thing that we need to model and set expectations for so it trickles down. The committee and interest group chairs are the first point of contact for many (actual and prospective) members, and we need to have a culture of communication that runs all the way down. We need a culture of understanding that communication isn’t just a thing you do in January and June, with people who show up physically to conferences.

I can see processes that would help here, but I don’t have the throughput to own them all.

Stewardship matters.

And this is where I’ve been spending the bulk of my time.

I’m a numbers person, right? I was a math major. And when things don’t make sense to me, I obsess about them until they do. LITA’s budget does not make sense to me.

This may well be because I don’t have experience with budgeting (and I’d love to have conversations with those of you who do). What I know is, I’ve collected every spreadsheet I can find back through FY2011 – drafts, actuals, high-level, line-item. And I’ve put them all in a master spreadsheet so I can compare them, year-on-year, category-to-category, draft-to-actual. And I’ve stared at the line items and tried to tie them to the high level stuff, and I’ve stared at the actual year-end revenue and expenses and tried to compare it to our projections for future fiscal years, pretty much until my eyes bleed. And I’ve asked an awful lot of questions of fellow Board members and the Executive Director and the Financial Strategies Task Force (its report [PDF] is illuminating). And I am just not smart enough to make these numbers make sense.

As a Board member I have a duty of care toward the association, and I believe the single most important element of that is ensuring the financial health of the association, so that it can continue to serve its thousands of members for many years to come. But I see financial year closes that show us running deficits most years, and I’m a startup girl: I know that everyone has a burn rate and a runway, and if your runway isn’t growing at least as fast as your burn rate is eating it (and ours is not), there comes a time when you are not aloft, when your wings are wreckage on the ground.

I’m a Board member and I love you, our members, all. I am not allowed to let there be wreckage.

I don’t know, yet, how to change the burn rate or runway. I’m mulling that over but I’m not a big enough picture thinker yet. What I do believe is that prior to that, the budget has to be an effective instrument for operationalizing our strategic priorities, and the Board has to be more effective at using it thus.

(Disclosure: I voted against sponsoring Emerging Leaders at the last meeting. I think this sponsorship is one of the best things we do, but I simply don’t know if we have the money to do it, and I cannot in good conscience appropriate money I am not confident we have. I chant “duty of care” to myself a lot some days.)

We on the Board, we’re not elected for our budget experience. Some of us have it, some of us don’t; some of us are numbers people, some of us aren’t. And we’re librarians; we’re not into conflict. We’re not into telling hard truths. And so over many years we’ve ended up with a culture of shirking our oversight responsibilities, of telling ourselves this runway looks good. And it shows.

We have begun to charge a Financial Advisory Committee, and we’ve found some really good people to serve on it, and I’m very optimistic about the work they’ll do. We need people specifically selected for financial expertise to help the Board perform its oversight role effectively, and to help us weigh the tradeoffs in implementing the Financial Strategies Task Force’s recommendations, or in other ideas that will from time to time arise. I think they’ll be a great help once they become a regular thing.

In the meantime, though, I have to keep on trucking with my own understanding of duty of care, my own drive to make the numbers make sense to me, to be able to look at the budget and see answers to my questions about whether our hopes can be implemented. Whether we will or won’t, in the end, have had the money to sponsor our Emerging Leaders in FY2015. Little things that make up big ones.

I myself, I wasn’t elected for budget expertise, and I’m happier with hugs and innovation and kittens than I am with hard truths. But I believe that when you elected me, part of the deal was that my own feelings and inadequacies became secondary to the good of the association. When I think of leadership I think of how I can be the person that you, that circumstances, need me to be. How can I rise to the level of the task you’ve entrusted me with.

How can I serve you better?

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ITAL: A Diversity of Voices?

April 23rd, 2014 · Uncategorized

The latest Code4Lib journal had an editorial addressing the gender balance of c4lj authors. That sounded like fun, so I have replicated the analysis on LITA’s journal, Information Technology and Libraries. (With thanks to the LITAns who made it open access as of volume 31, issue 1 – that made this much easier!)

I did author counts back through 2007, thus covering approximately the same period as c4lj’s graphs. Over this period there were 239 (nondistinct) authors of 133 articles, communications, and tutorials. (There were also editorials, presidents’ messages, and book reviews, which I excluded.) I have not replicated c4lj’s editorial board counts.

As with all counting-based exercises, I am nervous about the exclusion or erasure of non-counted types of diversity (which are important, but not always doable with the available data) and the possibility of error in gender guessing, particularly given that the graphs impose a binary that doesn’t actually represent gender reality. (Again, a data set of author names doesn’t allow for better accuracy.) So please apply lots of grains of salt and take this as an approximation.

So…what does this mean?

It’s consistent with my subjective impression that LITA is 50/50 ish …but I don’t entirely trust that subjective impression, because I know that people tend to overestimate the percentage of women once they have any visibility at all. I don’t have data on the gender breakdown of LITA membership (do you?).

And I still don’t know how I feel about 50/50, even if true. Is it good, because it represents the culture at large? Is it bad, because librarianship is 80% female? Is it good, because it’s less male-dominated than Code4Lib or the broader technology industry? Should I be creeped out by that, on the theory that LITA is less male-dominated because it has more of a mix of hard and soft skills, and the gender ratio tracks with that ratio? (It’s not like it isn’t obvious that the more I do code and leadership and public speaking — technical things, things that put me on a stage, things that pay well — the fewer women I see around me.) Does 50/50 mean we’re doing something right, something that points toward a possible future, or does it mean we’re tangled between poles of wrong?

And while I’m asking questions, does anyone who knows statistics want to take a stab at the shift in author gender ratios over time? Circa 2009 issues went from being generally male-dominated to generally female-dominated, but I have no idea if that’s statistically meaningful.

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thoughts from Toronto on teaching code to librarians

January 15th, 2014 · Uncategorized

I’m writing this on a plane back from Toronto, where I spent a few days teaching librarians to code as part of the Mozilla Foundation’s Software Carpentry program (which was basically the funnest thing ever, and Mozillans are smart and nice, and Toronto makes a spectacular case for itself, and Canadian librarians are 100% high-grade awesome).

Teaching this clarified for me some of the difficulties I had with my online Python course (where by “clarified” I meant “I sat bolt upright at 3am wondering why I hadn’t realized this before and had to spend the next hour writing it all down and trying to figure out how to get back to sleep”). So let me try to put that into words — but first I need to back up and explain an important paradigm I have for understanding the programming learning curve.

I believe, from personal experience and talking to people at different places on the programming learning curve, that the kinds of problems you are engaged with fundamentally change with every order of magnitude of the size of program you write. (Yes, lines-of-code is a bad metric, but it’s a good ballpark, so let’s roll with it.) They’re all important, complex, meaningful problems (though it can be hard to remember that you ever needed to solve them when you get too many orders of magnitude past them). They go roughly thus:

  • 0 → 1 line. “What the heck is this?!” What is a programming language; if applicable, how does it differ from other related things you may be familiar with, like markup languages or Excel formulae; what do “function” and “control flow” mean and why do you care.
  • 1 → 10 lines. “How can I do something useful with a programming language?” And by “something”, I mean one atomic task, but one that runs from beginning to end with correct syntax and employs those fundamental conceptual building blocks.
  • 10 → 100 lines. “How do I break a task down into subtasks?” Modularity, reuse, DRYness, planning.

I’m not going to articulate the next few orders of magnitude, both because they are not relevant to beginner or intermediate programmers, and because I’m climbing the 1K → 10K transition myself, so I’m not able to articulate it well. But they have to do with elegance, abstraction, performance, scalability, collaboration, best practices, code as craft.

The 3am realization is that many, many “introduction” to programming materials start at the 1 → 10 transition. But learners start at the 0 → 1 transition — and a 10-line program has the approachability of Everest at that point.

This is why the CodingBat exercises that Boston Python Workshop developed are such a big deal. From this side of the 0 → 1 transition they look meaningless — they’re functions, with the def function_name() part already written, that require you to write, in many cases, one line of code to accomplish the goal. One. Line. And they’re not meaningless at all. They’re where students discover what they did and didn’t understand from readings and lectures and messing around with the shell. They’re where students discover that they may have vocabulary and syntax, but they don’t yet have a conceptual model of what a function is. And in practicing writing one-line functions, they develop that conceptual model. It’s absolutely critical.

And this is going to be the next big thing I struggle with in teaching this better. Because the fact is, you want to be teaching examples that are grounded in real-world tasks. They’re motivational; they’re more comprehensible than abstract examples; they make it easier for students to connect course material to their actual work, meaning they’re more likely to be able to keep using it, to climb more of the learning curve on their own — to get to a place they can actually use this stuff, which is not a place you can get people in a day or two.

But I don’t know how to do a real-world task as a one-line function. I know how to write a ten-line function that does something real-world-useful, and how to walk students through discussing it and modifying it. And that is great for the students who have already climbed the 0 → 1 learning curve. But it’s baffling for the ones who haven’t.

I think I can do this, with thoughtfully chosen examples. I think I can come up with one-line things that can be wound into ten-line things, so students leave a course with a working program that does a thing they can imagine using (or, at least, a working program that’s a close enough cousin to something useful that it suggests where to go next and gives them a head start in getting there). But this is going to be hard. This is totally, “I apologize for the length of this letter; I did not have time to make it shorter” territory. Simplicity is brutal. And one-day intensives, or four-week onlines, do not have time for unnecessary things.

At any rate. I came out of the last two days with this to mull over, plus a stack of books and articles of research on code pedagogy, plus a bunch of good memories and tasty food experiences and new people to follow on Twitter and face-to-face encounters with people previously followed, so it’s just made of win. But I welcome your thoughts.

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#libtechgender: conference codes of conduct as seen from your world and mine

January 3rd, 2014 · Uncategorized

In discussing ALA’s Statement of Appropriate Conduct with ever-wider audiences, I get the growing feeling that we stand at different starting lines, and it affects our understandings of the words in the statement.

So if you looked at the Statement and your first reaction was “but…free speech?” or “nanny state” or “political correctness”, this is for you. Let me attempt to explain some starting points. (Trigger warning: graphic violence, rape, rampant misogyny.)

Proponents of these codes are not concerned that people might disagree with them (even disagree passionately). We aren’t concerned that people might not be nice. We aren’t wanting to run to some hammer of authority every time someone says a group we’re in might be other than pure unicorns and roses.

Here is the world I live in:

I live in a world where famed game developer and technical writer Kathy Sierra disappeared entirely from the internet for years after she received a series of death threats, including publishing of her home address, social security number, and false allegations that she had abused her children.

I live in a world where Anita Sarkeesian ran a Kickstarter to support a project on sexism in video games, and as a result someone created and distributed a video game consisting solely of clicking on her face until you had beaten it to a bloody pulp.

I live in a world where merely having a female-gendered nickname on IRC (a chat network important in the technology world) makes you 25 times more likely to receive unsolicited malicious private messages, even if you never say a word.

I live in a world where I have zero interest in going to CES because I don’t want to have to deal with the naked booth babes (and am therefore cutting myself off from the biggest trade show relevant to my interests). Where a friend of mine takes for granted there will probably be naked women on conference slides in her field. Where people complaining that a joke about being “raped by dickwolves” in a comic about gaming isn’t funny leads to its creators selling dickwolves t-shirts and large numbers of people to this day defending this as a reasonable position to hold. Where a hackathon sponsored by a major tech news web site gives time on stage to an app intended solely for sharing photos of women’s cleavage, with a nine-year-old-girl in the audience. Where a major tech news discussion site is so prone to misogyny many women never bother to spend time there, at the same time as it is suspected of repeatedly quashing discussion critical of misogyny.

I live in a world where I treat it as great and inexplicable good luck that no one has yet threatened to rape or kill me just because I blog and speak publicly about technology and sexism under an obviously female name, and I have the backup plan in my head of how to moderate comments and log IPs if it’s ever needed, and the list of which friends have my back enough that I’d ask them to wade through that kind of cesspit for me. I live in a world where using my own name on github and IRC was a specific conscious choice that required actual bravery from me, because I know that I am statistically exposing myself to retribution for doing so.

Let’s say that again: I live in a world where being myself in public, talking about things I care about under my own name in public, is a specific choice which requires both courage and a backup plan.

In this world some people choose not to be themselves in public. They choose not to speak, or to speak only under disguises – ones they can’t wear at conferences, face-to-face.

That is my concern about free speech. That right there.

That is the aim of conference codes of conduct. To clarify the threats — not to eliminate them, because you can’t ever do that, but to state that this is a place where silencing people through graphic threats of sexual violence or open and regular degradation is treated as unacceptable, that if it happens to you there’s a place to go, and to (crucially) say that the bystanders care too. That you’re not in a place where a lot of people are decent but indifferent and someone somewhere might attack you and it’s all on you to cope, but you’re in a place where a lot of people are decent and affirmatively have your back.

And by clarifying the threats, by publicly affirming the decency of the bystanders, we create a world where you don’t have to be quite so brave to speak up. A world where the uncertain, the new, the outsiders have a voice too. A world where maybe the barrier for being a woman in tech — or an outsider coming in — is not the ability to say “fuck you”, but merely the interest in saying something, anything.

If you have been reading the statement of acceptable conduct from the frame of mind that you haven’t encountered problems and things seem fine and the only speech you can imagine it chilling is the edgier end of the perfectly fine, please go back and reread it from my world. It reads differently.

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The ALA Statement of Appropriate Conduct: a FAQ

January 2nd, 2014 · Uncategorized

If you’re here from Library Journal, welcome!

For regular readers, I have an article in today’s Library Journal about ALA’s new statement of appropriate conduct for conferences. It covers the history and context behind this sort of statement as well as why it’s valuable. Go have a read.

Now that you’re back: I get a lot of questions about the statement. I’d like to answer some of them here, and invite you to ask other questions you might have in the comments. A disclaimer first, though — here are some things I am not:

  • ALA’s lawyer
  • a lawyer at all
  • an ALA staffer
  • an HR expert
  • possessed of the sole or definitive interpretation of the statement

Just so we’re clear on that. I was involved with drafting the statement and I am somewhat familiar with other conferences’ policies and some of the incidents that have motivated or been addressed by them, but I am not the final word on this, and I encourage you to do your own research and analysis. I think the statement is most valuable when it serves as a beginning – a point of departure for us to have conversations about who does and doesn’t feel included in ALA and why and what we can do about that, how our backgrounds and experiences differ and what we can learn from that. How to, in the statement’s words, exercise our “shared responsibility to create and hold [the conference] environment” we want to have. So let’s talk.

And now, some questions!

What happened to impel people to adopt this statement?

The statement was not prompted by any incident of harassment at an ALA conference.

There have been a lot of incidents of harassment in the worlds of technology, science fiction, open culture, gaming, etc., and in response to those, conferences in those worlds have increasingly been adopting statements of this type (usually called codes of conduct or anti-harassment policies). Quite a few librarians who are also involved in those worlds have asked me and others over the past year whether ALA has such a policy; the statement is in response to this interest, and in advance of future need (though of course I hope it will never be needed!).

This does not mean that there has never been harassment at ALA or other library conferences. I had heard of some incidents of sexual harassment in the past (although Sarah Houghton is the only person I know of who has blogged about them). (Edit: I’m wrong; Lisa Rabey has blogged about this, too. Which I knew and should have remembered; I apologize for the oversight.) In the course of drafting this policy, I have heard about more incidents, rooted in race and gender identity/expression as well as sex. (Please note that the language of the statement, following existing ALA language on anti-discrimination, is not just about sexual harassment but specifically names a variety of groups which might be targets of hate speech or discrimination.) Some of these incidents were addressed quietly by conference services; some of these were unaddressed and unreported.

This, to me, is one of the most important aspects of the statement. If people are being harassed, let’s make sure they know they have recourse. And let’s talk about it. Let’s not quietly assume that conferences are good places for everyone when they’re not.

Isn’t this an attack on free speech?

I have lots of feelings on this, but the short version is, “no; the opposite, actually”.

One: I do think there are valid intellectual freedom concerns, particularly since it’s impossible for a statement of this type to delineate permitted and forbidden conduct with absolute clarity. (I invite you to try sometime; it’s hard! We argued a lot about this in the drafting. Any bright-line rule you state will have situations where it is unambiguously wrong, and any attempt to be comprehensive will fail. A policy can do no more than state principles and provide guidance. That said, I do wish the statement had clearer language on the process of investigation and resolution, how far the discretion of conference services goes; I think due process safeguards are especially important when you can’t state absolute rules.)

Two: The statement is fundamentally about being a socially competent human being. There are lots of things that you and I think but don’t say, all the time, because we recognize that they would be inappropriate for the context we’re in. This isn’t an imposition on free speech; it’s a recognition that we live in contexts with other people, that our words affect them, and that it’s incumbent upon us to speak in ways that treat others with dignity and promote the kind of world we’d like to live in.

Three: I believe a statement of this type, on balance, promotes free speech.

Yes, it may discourage some people from saying some things of particular types.

But it also articulates, to everyone who might have felt marginalized or disenfranchised in this context, that their perspectives are welcome. It encourages whole classes of people to attend and to participate.

I had been active in code4lib for perhaps a year before they adopted their anti-harassment policy. And I did not realize until that point that I had spent the whole time looking over my shoulder waiting for the attack to come. Being a woman in tech is sufficiently dangerous that mere consistent decent behavior by the overwhelming majority of my colleagues was not enough to dispel the feelings of threat; I needed to actually see these values articulated and see prominent members of the community (including men) rise in defense of them. Now I feel like I’m not just someone who hangs out in code4lib – I’m a code4libber, and my voice matters as much as anyone’s.

I’ve never feel threatened at ALA, but I know that not all my colleagues feel comfortable there. And I am guessing there are many more people whose voices we never even hear. They matter to me, and I’d like to hear them.

Four: If you’ve never had a problem at a conference and you’ve never heard of people having a problem, I imagine this feels like it makes things worse: everything was fine, and now there are limits that there weren’t formerly.

But that is a big if. If you’ve previously experienced conferences as unsafe or unwelcoming — if your starting point is not “everything’s okay” — then an explicit statement that you are welcome and that you have recourse if threatened makes things better.

If you are feeling like the only implications of this are negative, I encourage you to seek out people who feel differently, and to listen generously to their experiences.

Does this mean ALA is now a nanny state?

No.

ALA has neither the staffing nor the inclination to run around policing everything you say.

Does the statement allow for [action]?

Remember, I am not the definitive interpreter of ALA policy. I think if you’re wondering if [action] is legitimate, you should talk to the actual audience for that action. How do they react? Are they laughing at your funny joke, or laughing in that nervous way that people do when they don’t want to admit they’re uncomfortable? Do they say go for it, or call you out for proposing something dumb or tone-deaf? Do they seem okay with it except then you realize over time your audience has become more and more homogeneous because everyone unlike you is drifting away? Do they say, ohmygosh that rad, or, you know, I’m not okay with this because…

Me personally, I’ve rolled with it as a Battledecks speaker when an underwear slide came up (and I was damn funny, too). And I’ve been at a dinner with remarkably copious bourbon flights where one of my companions had to leave early to go to a burlesque show featuring bedazzled junk. And while I’m at it I can’t make social plans locally in late August because all my friends are at Burning Man. So me, personally? I am probably okay with anything you want to do, as long as the people with you are okay with it too.

So talk to them. Ask. And if you’re in public space and just anyone might wander by and so you can’t ask? Well. Think.

The statement has [problem].

It may well! I don’t think it’s perfect, and I doubt anyone involved in drafting or adopting it does, either.

I’m a startup technologist. I believe in getting the minimum viable product out there quickly. You can spend all the time you want adding and polishing bells and whistles, but fundamentally you don’t know what’s going to work until you put it out there in front of people and see how they react. So you make your MVP. And you see how it goes, and you iterate.

Here you go. That’s the google doc that was used to draft this thing; you can see the entire process. Anyone with the link (that means you!) can comment.

There are also traditional venues available to you, like ALA Council, or its executive board or conference services committee. (Remember, all ALA meetings are open.) So talk! (And don’t forget that ALA staff have to be able to actually implement the policy.)

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