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

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.