my #c4l13 lightning talk: five conversations about coding

I gave this lightning talk at Code4Lib 2013, February 13 in Chicago.

I’m Andromeda Yelton, and I’m going to take you on a quick waltz through five conversations about coding. I don’t have time in five minutes to draw the arrow that connects them all, so I leave that for you.

Conversation 1: computer science majors, 1995.

I went to an engineering school in the dotcom boom, so many of my friends were computer science majors. And we got along great…as long as they weren’t talking about computers. Because the mode of discourse there was all about showing off mastery over fine details, the more obscure the better. And the social function of that discourse was to prove who had the most status by who had the most detail mastery. And to make a yardstick: you must be this cool to play.

I’ve never had the kind of mind that can win at conversations like that. I don’t have the database in my head of details, I can’t call them to mind in realtime, I don’t make comparisons like that. In that discourse, I was never going to be cool. So I packed up my toys and left.

Conversation 2: Boston Python Workshop, last fall.

The Boston Python Workshop runs this newbie-friendly, women-and-their-friends bootcamp introduction to Python as part of its outreach. I TAed it last fall. This was a tech event that was 90 percent women, of all ages and races and many linguistic backgrounds. It was mindblowing. I’ve never seen anything like it.

But the thing that really stuck with me was how nonjudgmental we were. Everyone on the instructional staff modeled fallibility. And some of the instructors are professional software engineers, Python package maintainers — hardcore. But every one of us had a time we said, you know, I’m not an expert on that, let me call over so-and-so, they know better. Or, you know, I can never remember the details of that, I always just ask Dr. Google.

And every time, the students were so relieved they didn’t have to be perfect to play. And I hadn’t realized how much time and energy I spent in tech waiting to be judged and found wanting, tensed against the strike, until I knew it wasn’t going to happen.

Conversation 3: Chad Nelson, Monday night. We were talking about how we didn’t get into code and then we did, and we agreed the most important thing is not being afraid.

Conversation 4: Bess Sadler, yesterday morning. She asked the keynote speaker a question which included the words, “we have a problem with insecurity.”

Now, it’s important to be modest. Admitting ignorance is the beginning of knowledge. And sometimes this stuff is hard because it’s hard — there are things that require genuine experience and mastery and deep magic. We all have limits to our knowledge.

But we go beyond that. We’re so concerned with situating ourselves as less than something. I think we feel the cognitive dissonance — we have the yardstick in our heads, from our own version of that conversation with computer science majors in 1995, and we know we don’t measure up. But we also know we’re here, and we’re playing.

Conversation 5.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever written any code, and yes, modifying something someone else has written to serve your purposes counts.

Raise your hand if you call yourself a coder.

Conversation 5 is us, and it’s now.

I find it hard to imagine this wasn’t obvious from the outside, though I’m told it wasn’t, but — I was terrified giving this talk. I haven’t been this scared on stage for years. It’s not the public speaking — I’ve got a handle on that now — but the fact that I was saying something raw and personal, something about identity and belonging, and I didn’t know how it would be received. I’ve been so amazed and relieved and humbled at how, then, it was received, with enthusiasm and understanding and resonance and open hearts. Dear Code4Lib, you modeled fallibility all week; fallibility and sharing and kindness and humanity. You brought your code to your life, and your life to your code, and I’m stronger for it, and I hope you are stronger with me. My six-year-old daughter is distressed that I didn’t go to a Valentine’s party yesterday, but really, I think I did.

7 thoughts on “my #c4l13 lightning talk: five conversations about coding

  1. Hi, this is a cool post.
    I’ve been working on web development teams for years but always doing the abstract stuff: user experience, information architecture, etc. I did gain a rudimentary understanding of scripting and can alter people’s code but i’m still not able to built something on my own. I wanna be part of the conversation so bad that sometimes I think I’m trying to hard. Maybe I should just focus on what I do best and forget about the coding skill set. I don’t think so. Right now I attend the weekly Javascript meeting @ Sudo Room Oakland, still trying to learn. Thanks again for you thoughtful, heartfelt words.


    1. Learning is the best!

      FYI I’m part of a team that will be running an introduction to Python programming as a preconference at ALA Annual. So we could teach you some stuff if you’ll be in Chicago 🙂

      You’re welcome.


  2. //The Boston Python Workshop runs this newbie-friendly, women-and-their-friends bootcamp introduction to Python as part of its outreach//

    Thanks for mentioning this. I should really go to the next one.


  3. Yeah, I remember Conversation 1 in that environment, although I guess for me it was technically 1996. I wasn’t one of the kids (boys) who’d been doing it forever, and while I got fascinated by computers, I never felt comfortable asking for help on the parts I didn’t get. Some days I really wonder how the environment at HMC is different these days since they’ve restructured the CS curriculum.

    Thank you for doing what you do. As someone who after a long time has finally come to identify as one of the more technical folks, it’s really important for me to remember that “not self-identified coder” doesn’t necessarily mean “ignorant of coding”, and also, as always, that “ignorant” doesn’t mean “stupid”. You’d think I’d be better at that.


    1. I am SO curious about everything about the new CS curriculum. (And pretty jealous.)

      As for that last paragraph: yes. You would think I would be better at that, too. Or that all of us would. :/


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s