I was walking to Chipotle with my girlfriend yesterday when she mentioned that one of the questions on her final exam wanted her to model a map in a video game. As I’ve been playing Red Dead Redemption 2 for the last month this didn’t sound like a difficult question to grasp, however as a non-gamer Jessica said it took her more time trying to understand the concept than actually answering the question. The professor used Risk and Settlers Of Catan as examples, both of which are games she has never played. Ultimately Jessica answered the question using Sims as an example since you are able to move around the neighborhoods in a way similar to a map.
Ever since Jessica declared her major in Computer Science I’ve been more focused on the different privileges that currently exist in the software industry. While some companies are able to attract a very diverse engineering staff, there just aren’t enough candidates graduating with engineering degrees to afford all companies that same privilege. I’d like to take a look at seemingly harmless things in today’s world which could be partly to blame.
Silicon Valley — The Show
Jessica and I love watching this show together. We are eagerly awaiting for the sixth season to see how the series comes to an end. One issue with this show comes in the form of the cast which accurately depicts the norm in the software industry and continues to perpetuate that norm. The main software engineers are all males, two are white while one is Pakistani. The majority of the main cast are males with the exception of Monica Hall and Laurie Bream with the former being the only female to appear in every episode. If you are a white male then this show is great, there are plenty of people in the show that look like you. If you aren’t then it likely makes you feel that the startup world isn’t for you, even though they never explicitly say that and I doubt that was even the intent.
I’d like to quote the Houston Chronicle’s article, Why ‘Black Panther’ means so much to the black community where they talk about the important of racial and ethnic socialization (RES).
Many have wondered why “Black Panther” means so much to the black community and why schools, churches and organizations have come to the theaters with so much excitement. The answer is that the movie brings a moment of positivity to a group of people often not the centerpiece of Hollywood movies. Plus, what we know from the research on RES is that it helps to strengthen identity and helps reduce the likelihood on internalizing negative stereotypes about one’s ethnic group.
Silicon Valley doesn’t have a single black character in a major role. They don’t have a female engineer in a main role. If you are a kid or even adult watching this show which is credited to being like the real thing, chances are it probably doesn’t make you excited to get into the tech industry.
Mr. Robot, while not perfect seems to be heading in the right direction through giving major roles to females and males. Ignoring Rami Malek who plays Elliot Alderson, the series main character, you have Darlene. Darlene works closely with Elliot throughout the series to help him see his plans through. There is also Angela Moss who starts out as a fairly weak character but seems to gain more and more strength as the series goes on (I’m only half way through season 2 so I may be completely wrong too). Again though, this series fails to cast a black actor for any of the major roles, on IMDB’s main page for the series it’s split between mostly white males and white females. Hollywood still has a long way to go.
Major Technologists Are Misogynists
I guess it worked out that those words rhymed, but it’s also fairly disgusting as well. It’s especially troubling because this misogyny usually isn’t apparent unless you are looking for it as I hope to highlight in some of my examples. I’ll start with an example that brought me the most pain when I realized it. Uncle Bob, the guy that championed clean architecture is a fairly tone deaf individual. In his article there are ladies present, where he thought he was writing to help women in technology he wrote this lovely paragraph.
What if the roles were reversed? What if women had dominated the software industry for years, and we men were the ones who were struggling to break into the industry? Men, can you imagine how hard it would be if all the women were constantly, and openly, talking about tampons, cramps, yeast infections, cheating, being cheated on, Trichomoniasis, faking-it, etc? I don’t know about you, but It would make me feel out of place. And there’d be no place to escape it, because the women would be everywhere. I’d want them to save that kind of talk for the ladies room. I’d want them to remember that men were present.
I wish I could say that he has come around since 2013 but in a tweet from December 9th of this year he tried to completely downplay the word privilege.
This man holds a lot of authority today in the software industry. In my attempt to mentor engineers I often point them to clean code and clean architecture as good starting points. While I don’t like the idea of withholding information from those I’m mentoring, I also hate that this is the de-facto software design person. I am encouraged that vocal programmers like Sandi Metz exist though, and I’ve been enjoying watching the talks she has given.
It’s not just the software industry though. When I was growing up I idolized Leo Laporte, he seemed like such a cool guy that knew so much about technology. He now runs a podcasting network which I would regularly watch from 2014 through 2016. After a while though I was starting to pick-up on some subtleties that he wasn’t the kind of person I wanted to support. It started off with some mild sexist comments, and has continued to devolve overtime. TotalDrama which is a website that covers his slip-ups (though their posts are fairly tasteless at times) caught him making a comment about how there was a white person side and a black person side of his flagship show, This Week in Tech. The disgusting thing is that this guy is still supported by fairly normal people, that just help to perpetuate this.
It unfortunately doesn’t stop at the older generation though. There is Linus Tech Tips that I think is fairly passable most days all the way to Bitwit which I actively avoid now because of his childish jokes which usually belittle women. Why does this industry seemingly perpetuate this kind of thinking?
The People That Made It Are Still Making It
I believe part of the problem is that the people that made this industry are still making it. Interview processes are inherently flawed to cater towards the biases of the person creating that process. It has been called out at the company I work for that having a female engineer interview with all males is probably intimidating. The same is true if you place an engineer of color with the same group of interviewers.
This problem isn’t an easy one to solve. We are trying to take a non-diverse workforce and expect to fix it overnight. I don’t think that’s the right approach, nor do I think it’s even realistic. Part of the solution comes from realizing and accepting the issues that currently exist today. It means being aware that not everyone in the room feels comfortable to speak up without being prompted. Some of your co-workers may not get the references you are making about that video game or TV show. You need to reflect on your own actions and answer is this beneficial or detrimental to bringing diversity into this industry. It’s fine if the answer is no, while I’m enthused every-time I answer yes, it’s just as important to answer no and try to avoid making that mistake in the future.
The Path Forward
The path forward is not an easy one, however I do think it’s an achievable one. It starts out by accepting that there is a problem and holding yourself accountable for your actions. There are some other steps we can all take as well.
Be aware of the actions of others, especially influencers you give a lot of power to. I stopped consuming anything from Leo Laporte’s podcasts. I’ve unsubscribed from YouTuber’s that seemingly abuse their power through snide underhand remarks. I look for alternatives to the teachings of Uncle Bob whenever I get the chance, I even hope to rewrite some of his teachings using my own voice so I can stop building him up to others.
Understand the biases in your own processes and find a way around them. My girlfriend was able to bypass many coding interviews because of her GPA. This also prevented stressful and ineffective interviews while hopefully helping those companies bring it more diverse talent. The downside is Jessica seemed to struggle with imposter syndrome during this time because she didn’t feel like she was doing as much as others. This is to the contrary though as the companies just realized they had a flaw in their process and came up with a solution around it. She still has to maintain a competitive GPA for the offer to stand.
If you are coming from a place of privilege then help lift others up that aren’t. While I’ve worked hard to get to where I am, I also have to accept that coming from the majority made that easier. I try to go out of my way these days to support others that aren’t as privileged, whether that means showing up for talks or offering my time to help out with writing or speaking. This week I am also kickstarting an event called Quick Take Tuesdays which lowers the barrier to public speaking by allowing employees from across the company to speak about a topic for 1–10 minutes over lunch. While this is currently open to just engineers and product I hope to open it up to the entire company should it become successful. I also hope this will help boost the confidence of my peers and encourage them to do more long-form presentations in the future.