Girl Geeks & Opinions

Just back from the first Girl Geek Dinner Sydney for 2009, kindly hosted by Google at their funky new offices down near the water in Pyrmont. Damana – the force of nature who organises these great events – had asked me to do a lightning talk at the event.

Sometimes it is hard to think of a topic for these things, but Damana had shared an article recently that sparked an idea. The article was by Toni Bowers titled Sure she’s a good tech blogger, but what does she look like? This article reminded me of how much the opinions others have about girl geeks can be a barrier we need to overcome.

It made me think about some of the stuff I’ve learned over the years as a women in the business of information technology.

1920px-Bristol.zoo.western.lowland.gorilla.arpThe Problem: The first thing to note is the gorillas in our midst – these are people (and not always men) who have fixed ideas about women, our capabilities, and our place in the world.

Fact: People will have pre-conceptions about us & what we like or want to do. These pre-conceptions can be based on gender, looks, where we come from, or even that we remind them of someone else they dislike. Often these ideas about what we are like or what we could possibly do have no connection with how we really are.

Solutions: It is important to get it clear in your mind what you:

  • Like to do
  • Want to do
  • Can do

This is all about defining your personal values and capabilties so you can:

Get a plan: Find people who are willing help – Work out who is not willing to help – Define action steps

Learn to ignore people who demonstrate that they are part of the problem & not part of the solution.

You can also generalise information to help clarify your thinking. For example, Gilmore’s Law is your friend:

“The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” – John Gilmore

If you adopt this approach – when you have considered the options, taken advice from trusted parties and there are still obstacles to your goals then you can just route around them.

When you can’t solve a problem by confrontation simply route around it!

But, it is also important to choose your battles wisely, it is always better to win the war than just winning an individual battle.

Desire to be Liked: Another issue that I see a lot is the desire to be liked by everyone. No matter how much we strive not everyone will like us. This is not to say that we should not be friendly or build alliances. However, we do need to be ok if other people don’t like us. This means that we need to be free from the need to be liked by everyone.

Not everyone has to agree with or like you all the time for you to win or be successful.

Here is a support network I prepared earlier (Source: @trib)

Support Networks: It is important to build your support networks (–>here’s one I prepared earlier)

A support network is a group of people who listen, understand, sympathise & have ideas to help – but above all they need to be people who care about you and what happens to you. Support networks can formal, like mentoring programs, or informal like the picture here.

Above all: If you are a woman in IT a lot of people will have opinions about you, and those opinions may or may not be true. I heard it said somewhere:

Other people’s opinions of you are none of your business!

It’s true – one third of the people that read this post will probably think it’s rubbish, the other one third will probably think it’s great, and the remaining third will not care either way. Each valid opinions. But if you lean on the opinions of other people all the time it is like being buffeted by waves on the open sea. To use a canoeing metaphor, it is important to pick a course and then paddle as hard as possible to make it through successfully.

Slides from the talk are over at SlideShare

Key enablers for Enterprise 2.0

– some more thoughts following on from the Enterprise 2.0 Executive Forum.

Here is my list of the top 10 enablers for Enterprise 2.0 – this is not an exhaustive list merely my notes based on sessions at the forum and various conversations with participants.

One thing that is important to note is that many of these are not technical.  These enablers are about process, decision making, and governance.  The more technical enablers are things like agile methods and virtual sandpit environments.

I count these as enablers because we need to develop new mindsets about technical environments for innovation.  I have worked with clients who have no production environments that can be used for innovation.  In many places all production systems go through a 6 week change cycle and deploy onto expensive tier-1 environments.  This kind of thing just stifles innovation and makes it almost impossible to experiment at a reasonable cost.  We need to move away from that using virtualization and lite processes to support innovation.

This does not mean putting core business systems at risk, and that is why another key enabler is stage containment. Protecting business assets on a risk assessment basis is an important capability.  But we need to balance that with the need to prototype, fail fast and at low cost, and to adopt perpetual beta type practices to assist innovation.

  1. Agile methods
  2. Clear goals & responsibilities
  3. Content
  4. Flexible governance
  5. Information architecture
  6. Internal evangelists
  7. Stage containment
  8. Start small, no big-bang
  9. Tiger teams
  10. Virtualized sandpit environments

Out and about – Robyn Henderson & Gordon Bell

In recent days I have been going out to various ICT industry functions in Sydney. Two of the speakers stood out from the rest. The first was Robyn Henderson who spoke at the FITT networking session, and the second was Gordon Bell who spoke at the AVCAL breakfast.

Each of these speakers is an expert in their field:

Robyn is a networking specialist, who has authored 9 books on networking and business building, self esteem and confidence building. Robyn has spoken in 10 countries, presents over 150 times each year and has never advertised – all of her work comes from networking and referrals and her website.

Gordon is a luminary in the ICT industry who was responsible for, amongst many other things, the PDP6 and VAX, and who is currently working at Microsoft as a researcher and indulging in the occasional angel investment.

Yet, what marked out these people for me was their passion and humility. Both are recognized as leaders in their field and yet each is willing to talk openly with people who share their passion. Each shares their learnings freely, and seeks to generate interest and growth in their area of passion. Most refreshing of all is their enthusiasm for both their area of expertise and for life in general. Perhaps Robyn summed it up best when she advised “Avoid keeping tabs on what you do for others: Give Without Expectations”.

F.Y.I. the host organizations for these events were:

Females in Information Technology and Telecommunications (FITT) is a network of women who have come together to encourage and support women and girls who want to reach their full potential in the information technology and telecommunications (IT&T) industry.

The Australian Venture Capital Association Limited (AVCAL) is the national association that represents the venture capital industry’s participants, promotes the industry and encourages investment in growing business enterprises.

IWD: International Women’s Day & the IT industry

What a surprise- another year of women complaining that there are not enough women in the IT industry! We get the token female CEO or CIO to talk at our IWD lunches & we all shake our heads in horror that there are not more women in the industry.

Why aren’t there more women in the IT industry?

Perhaps because to get a start you have to do an IT or computer science degree with a bunch of pointy headed male nerds? (Now that I’ve spent a significant number of years at work with nerds I’m glad I spent my undergrad days with a bunch of male philosophers instead.)

Perhaps because most entry level IT jobs have terrible hours and a lot of weekend work? When was the last time we did a code drop or network upgrade during daylight hours on a weekday?

Perhaps because men still do not think women can do hands on techie stuff or use tools? And this in spite of many of having our own power tools these days (I’ve got a really good set of powered and non powered tools & my male partner is not allowed near them).

Perhaps because women still do not think that they are capable of doing technical things? Come on Moms, when did you last encourage your daughter to pull her computer apart?

Perhaps because in many ways it is a grungy job? How many girls want to crawl around and play with hardware when they could dress up nicely and wear high heels. Let’s face it, after 12+ years of school clothes most girls want a nice dress, some makeup & a nice pair of shoes to wear to work – not jeans and a screwdriver.

I don’t know why there are so few women in IT. But here are a few reasons I am still working in IT:

  1. I am not very sensitive, tend to ignore other people and just do what I want – so even when people tried to deflect me from working in IT I just ignored them.
  2. I know how men think and act because 4 out of 5 children in my family had penises (this helps if you have to work with men – which many of us do).
  3. I like playing with technology and am not afraid of either software or hardware. My personal observation in the workplace is that many men will give things a go while women hang back waiting for an invitation. Not many women were building web pages for the heck of it like the guys in the IT department when the web came in.
  4. I take a lot of initiative and make myself useful – it is harder for people to get rid of good performers of any gender.

Some researchers attribute the low rates of female participation in IT to women unfriendly workplaces. Face up to it, workplaces are not just women unfriendly they are PEOPLE unfriendly. If women do not want to participate in the work then they cannot change the workplaces from outside. More women have to want to work in IT, if women do not want to do this work then they will vote with their feet. Just like they are doing now. I’m just not sure how we can change this.

Stages in the Learning Journey

Speaking with friends who are educators of the young one, thing has become apparent. The idea that learning is achieved by building foundations or layers of knowledge is passe. The MTV generation want their learning pre-packaged and easily digested. No more learning the basics and practising them to become expert and then moving on to the next stage. The idea that one commences by becoming an apprentice and then progressing to journeyman and on to a master is no longer in favour.

In fact, our educational institutions are loathe to say that some people are cleverer or more highly skilled than others. Heaven forbid we should damage a fragile ego by telling a person the truth about their capabilities! Students are no longer assessed objectively against their peers. Instead, all students are held to be equal, in spite of manifest differences in outcomes and abilities. This reduction of all to the level of mediocrity means that it is harder than ever to find people who excel in technical areas.

One friend who teaches computer science in high school noted recently that students think that just because they know how to build a web page or load some photos on a web site that they know a lot about technology. But he argues, they do not know how a computer works, they do not know how to write programs, they do not understand the fundamentals of computing. In effect, they are users of a utility in the same way I am when I turn on a light. I do not know how it happens, the light just works when I flick the switch. Now this is not a bad thing. Not everyone in the world needs to know about how the utility of electrical lighting is made and delivered. It is just important that one understands the limits of one’s own knowledge and capabilities.

To attain mastery in technical domains requires many years of learning the craft, not just book knowledge but also hands on experience. As noted recently in a computer magazine:

“Here is the message to all aspiring security experts out there: You must first master the craft in the area that inspires you, whether that’s networks, operating systems, databases, languages, whatever. Do your apprenticeship, get to journeyman level, and be excellent. This may take a few years. Along the way, read the security books, grasp the concepts. But there are no shortcuts if you want the credibility that is so necessary to make a positive difference in this world.”

(Peter H. Gregory, Computerworld 22 Sep 2004)

This advice is not only appropriate for security practitioners, but for all technologists. You need to live and breathe the technology for quite a while to attain the kind of tacit knowledge required to become expert.

In my experience, during times of crisis the gut feeling of of an ‘expert’ is worth 100-times the book learning of the less experienced. We need to respect the wisdom and knowledge of those technologists who have invested the effort (not just time served) to master their knowledge domain.

The coming integration of IT and biotechnology …

I just saw Susan Greenfield – a.k.a. Baroness Professor Susan Greenfield – on a television chat show. She is a pioneering scientist, entrepreneur, communicator of science, policy adviser, and an extremely interesting presenter of complex ideas. She seems to be intelligent, vivacious and wears makeup and nice clothes. All of this must really annoy many of her peers amongst the male scientists in the UK (especially the grumpy older ones).

Her most recent book is Tomorrow’s People (ISBN: 0713996315 ), and in it she warns that the coming integration of IT and biotechnology will have such a profound effect on the way we think and live that “we are standing on the brink of a mind makeover more cataclysmic that anything in our history.”

This is an area that will confront each of us in the near future. The technology to integrate bio-technology into human beings already exists and is near to commercialisation. We are already microchipping our pets, how long until someone says we should do it for children? It will seem like a good idea at the time. But it really is the thin end of the wedge. Prof. Greenfield is right, we do need to give serious consideration to how we want to use this technology. Otherwise it will change our lives profoundly in ways we may not like.

Gmail – progress to date

Gmail is a fabulous idea. But I cannot wait until it gets out of beta. Current performance issues have been a little frustrating, as has the problem in receiving emails from hotmail. It feels like it is not on a production level server as there are lots of time-outs.

The recent improvements to gmail – e.g. the import contacts – are also good. If they keep on at this rate this will blitz competitors.

It is amusing that space has increased on yahoo & hotmail in recent days too!

Being an early adopter is good too – you get the name you want.

Professionalism & IT (or not as the case may be)

It is an unending source of amazement to me that our society will not let a hairdresser cut your hair or a mechanic fix your car unless they’ve done a multi-year apprenticeship BUT they will let any half-wit who thinks they have a clue play with mission critical computers.

Since computers are now a central part of modern life this course of action seems at best imprudent and at worst plain stupid and dangerous! In recent times I’ve seen some configurations that are criminally stupid and risky, and these could only have been implemented by people without any idea of what the were doing.

An equivalent disaster to the big blackout in the east USA could happen at any time because there are complete clowns being allowed to ‘play’ with essential computer systems and infrastructure. If only people realized how scary the world of technology really is!

The case of a defined body of knowledge that practitioners must master before being let loose on our systems is a most pressing issue. How can we have homeland defense when there are people who don’t know how to patch their systems against worms, trojans, and viruses. Heaps of the recent attacks had patches out months earlier.

Again, a lack of professionalism in the IT industry.

Whirlpool News – Telstra to stop rolling out pair gain (2002-Oct-2)

This from 2002: Whirlpool News – Telstra to stop rolling out pair gain

Many people (including me) are still suffering from this stupidity and cupidity of Telstra!

They knew pair gain was a cheap but ineffective way to roll out phone lines but they did it anyway. I think this bolsters arguments not to privatise them.

If this is how Telstra behaves when they are under government regulation what will they be like when they are free to do anything they want!