NISO Forum 2009: Annette Bailey, and women in CS

I was at the NISO forum with my Library Automation class yesterday. Couple of interesting talks, particularly Annette Bailey‘s, and my notes have all these “blog this!” memos, none of which I’m blogging about right now because it turns out what I’ve been thinking about overnight is how her presentation reminded me of a chat I had with Jon Herzog once about women (or, more particularly, the lack of them) in CS.

One of the things that struck me about Bailey’s talk is that she’s made geniunely interesting and useful widgets, but she characterized her programming knowledge in very modest terms — not much above what I would use to characterize mine. And it was eye-opening to me that you can actually do something worthwhile without being some kind of a ninja.

Because my experience of programming in high school and college was that you could learn a little bit of code, and then make something that didn’t do anything useful, assuming it even worked, which, if it was one of those BASIC things out of a magazine, it usually didn’t. (“Hello, World” is charming, but not fulfilling.) And all the people who were actually doing interesting things with code knew multiple programming languages, and OSes, and had knock-down drag-out arguments about which commands were better in which situations and why. And, indeed, the ability to have those sorts of arguments seemed like the marker for membership in the club. And I didn’t want to be in the club, because arguments like that don’t play to my strengths, and anyway it seemed a bunch of obnoxious posturing. And if the bar for being in the club was that high, I was so far behind I might as well give up and do something else. So I did.

(Oddly enough, this hasn’t been my experience of post-collegiate code. I taught myself enough perl one summer to limp along making something partway functional. And I was able to do something actually useful and comprehensive for my databases class with shockingly little SQL and PHP. But mentally, I’m still in the “not a coder” camp.)

“Make it easy,” Bailey said. She can figure out enough stuff to do what she wants to do in a world without standards or APIs or any kind of handholding. She’s not dumb. But she just wants to make a damn widget to extend user experience in the midst of a busy job that doesn’t pay her to be a full-time programmer. She doesn’t, it seems, want to have to be in the club to make something meaningful.

And neither do I. And I don’t think I realized before last night that being in the club, and being able to do something worthwhile with electrons, aren’t the same thing.