Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Working towards DevPulseCon 2018 - April 20 & 21 @ Computer History Museum

Well..... this is the fourth year for DevPulseCon with our safe-space panels and open source technical workshop tracks - I never thought it would come so far and grow so fast.  I'm pretty stunned, frankly.  Which is both a good thing and a bad thing.

Once again, I'm working weeknights and weekends trying to bring together all the threads to make this year's DevPulseCon another huge success like it was last year.   And searching for new open source technology/software/hardware etc. to teach.  And then find someone to teach it per our guidelines.

Each year I think it's going to get easier and each year, I have to work more and harder to get the same things done.

Sponsorships, board meetings, being the board chair and pushing things/people, recruiting, interviewing recruits, looking for volunteers, budgeting, streamlining the payment/account management process with my treasurer, coming up with which technical topics I want to target and what safe space panel topics would be most relevant at this time, finding speakers, instructors, coordination, logistics (food, venue, layout, A/V blah blah), blasting out emails, setting up eventbrite, website updates once we nail down the speakers/instructors/topics etc. 

And the list goes on.

And it doesn't get any easier to try to find a conference chairperson with my limited budget.  And to find volunteers - dedicated, no-nonsense, non-flaky volunteers who understand the mission and are passionate about technology.

My board has helped me find some sources this year (YAY!) since I have had NO time in my new group at work to dedicate time towards CodeChix work in the last 6 months.

I'm still looking for sponsorships from companies across the bay area - I have 2 committed sponsors so far and need at least 5 or 6 more.  Fingers crossed I will get them soon so that we can have the growth I need - another 50% growth in number of attendees.   A whopping 300 women engineers - lick finger stick in the air.  I'm hopeful.

Last year, we had 220 women engineers attend for the 2 days of the conference.  I had no idea there were that many women engineers in the bay area.  When I started CodeChix nine years ago, I barely managed to find one other person - that too for a very short time since her schedule was as crazy as mine.

How did I manage to get to this point?  By the great help and blessings of so many people around the world and open source friendly foundations and groups.  I could never have done it without the fantastic women engineers I've met and learned from.  I could never have done it if I hadn't seen so many women engineers suffering silently and being bullied and intimidated into submission for whatever reason.  Like me at various points in my career.  Brilliant, dedicated, sincere and committed engineers who truly want to be engineers (as opposed to many who just care about money/title/status and not about building unique, great and useful products).

I hope DevPulseCon gives them all hope that there is one place that they can come to where they will be able to talk about all the horrific things they have encountered and together we can find possible solutions (maybe build something) to mitigate these persistent and insidious cultural issues.

And be reminded that the real reason they are doing what they are doing is because technology can free us all and that, since we're all engineers (not code monkeys), we have the power to truly make a difference.  As they say, God helps those that help themselves.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--

I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

- Robert Frost (The Road Not Taken)

Saturday, January 27, 2018

A new year, new beginnings and new challenges (from Jan. 2017)

This post, for some reason, didn't get published in January 2017.  So, a year later, here goes.  A lot has changed and a lot has not.

After a rather brutal 5 month release at work with long hours and pressure, I just returned from a much-too-short holiday season trip to Patagonia, Argentina (didn't have time to get to Chile) getting my fill of glacial climbs (Perito Moreno), icebergs of Upsala and Spegazzini and snow-capped peaks of Chaltén and, my favorite, the Gentoo and Magellanic penguins in Tierra Del Fuego.  Hence, the iceberg and glacial references throughout this post.  Hopefully, one day, I will have a chance to go back for a longer stay at one of the most beautiful and unique places on this planet.

Gentoo Penguins, Perito Moreno Climb, Lago Argentino

As the new year gets underway and we gear up for unprecedented upheaval and turmoil and prepare ourselves to deal with unforseen challenges, I thought it would be good to understand the lay of the land from the perspective of the women engineers in the industry who have been working long and hard and kept under the radar.

We are not the ones that give feel-good talks at so-called "technical" conferences where the "technical" aspect of the talk starts and ends with the title of the talk.  In fact, most of us don't give talks, in general (unless, we're either pressured into it or feel like we have something reasonably worthwhile to talk about and we have high standards).  We are too busy building things and making them work and doing so in a hostile and, often, insidiously toxic environments, designed and encouraged to intimidate, rule-by-fear and bestow racial and/or gender superiority and privilege.

And yet, we are here, quietly (or, in some cases, not very quietly) being engineers and programmers and leaders and role models.  But, only to those who are in the unenviable position of running into the serious hurdles that we run into when we have garnered the chops, brushed off the overt, superficial obstacles and have encountered the iceberg below the water.  Well below.  And it's enormity is overwhelming.

The well-heeled (financially and socially) male dominated tech industry (glacier) is, finally, getting some scrutiny by a media that seems all too eager to look the other way.  Some media headway has been made in this scrutiny over the last few years (some glacial melt ensued), but, I am expecting that headway to reverse course in the coming years.  Perhaps, with a fierce backlash via an undercurrent.  We shall see.  This glacier might grow deeper and heavier as the climate shifts.  And the icebergs will be bigger and, undoubtedly, deeper.

So, let us prepare for stronger opposition to our being in this industry by finding ways to persist, contribute technically (possibly, non-technically as well, if it's needed) and be the resilient women that we are.  Chalking a perilous route on the glacier to grab a nebulous foothold (you should have seen my 1-inch crampons - they were serious), isn't going to be easy.  But, as I tell my good friend, Nithya Ruff, nothing that is worthwhile is easy.  If it was easy, it would already have been done.  And unlike my glacial climb, finding competent, dedicated guides who wish us well and protect and harbor us is going to be difficult, but, let's find them.  They exist and are quiet as well - they too put themselves on perilous paths when they choose to be guides.  And build that route and bring more women like us on to it.  It takes a certain personality and character to do such things and it's not for everyone.  Let us keep that in mind as well and not wallow in judgmental superiority or be portrayed as such because of who and what we are, for standing our ground and keeping it real.

Like the desert annuals, it might be that we bury ourselves to survive and wait for climactic shifts to grow again.  That is what trailblazers do.  Let's leave the "burn out in a blaze of glory and martyr ourselves" drama to the Hollywood movies.

Of engineers and code monkeys

This is a post that has been delayed for months while I mustered up the energy/time to write it.

When I started my career as a software engineer in the mid-90's, I was indoctrinated (by the times) to learn about engineering (not just software even though my degree is in CS) and learn how to think about a problem, identify a possible path to a solution, think that through and, only then, consider anything close to coding/implementing a solution.  And then test the heck out of it before thinking of a release - primarily because I was made very aware that any bugs that showed up in the field had enormous financial consequences to the company (think $1 million/day penalties).   One never wanted to be on the infamous hit-list of major bug producers - trust me.  So, much thought, consideration and vetting was done prior to any software/hardware release mostly in a waterfall-ish model.  These are the people I grew up calling and identifying as "engineers" and up until a few years ago, I thought that most software engineers "grew up" in some similar work environments/circumstances.

Well, I stand in the "delusional" category at this time with regards to my understanding of what "engineers" (particularly software) do and identify as.

Over the last decade or so, there has been an alarming (to me) trend in the industry towards replacing "engineers" with what is generally known as "code monkeys" under the loud, drumbeats of "coding is great, everyone should/can code". 

So, what is a "code monkey"?  Urban dictionary has several definitions, none of which, IMO, really convey what I mean by a "code monkey".

To me, a "code monkey" is someone, who may or may not have college degrees in EE/CS or some other engineering discipline and is solely motivated by producing reams and reams of code in their language of choice without serious, dedicated thought about the problem at hand, root cause analysis, design or testing.  S/he just wants to write some "code" - in the most thoughtless, error-prone, nightmarishly-insecure, unmaintainable fashion with the express purpose of proving that they can produce voluminous amounts of "code" which may or may not actually solve a problem.  For a market that will pay money for it and use it and expect it to function reasonably well.

Perhaps, I am being harsh. 

But, I have run into a number of people in this category who regale me with how many LOC they could write in the shortest amount of time.  And that they were great engineers because they could do that.  Any questions that I might have regarding, well, things like debugging where they would stumble with their answers (or outright lie), led to the assumption that I was "old school" and "out-of-date" and whatever I was asking was irrelevant to what their main goal was (producing reams of code).  And work for a startup with "pedigree", make a "killing" and "retire".  Or worse, start another similar endeavor.  Which, frankly, boggled my mind.

These are the people that I'm relying on to build the next-big-thing in ML and Health apps and mission-critical systems?  And fix security issues in other people's code?  And, , run future companies (not startups) and be part of senior management?  I'm terrified.  In fact, I'm beyond terrified - I don't know what to do/think.  Talking to them to try to provide a different viewpoint did not yield satisfactory results.

So, I am, currently, pondering what I can do to try to address this big hurdle that I see - the principle source of which is the failure of universities and schools to teach/train young, brilliant minds to think critically and holistically.  And for publicly traded companies to fail to instill basic training to indoctrinate good engineering practices, thought and decision-making in their new hires.  Seems to me most companies have new hire on-boarding which is pretty much a marketing fluff show and games with some current process stuff thrown in.  Oh yeah, and a "hackathon" to prove how technically savvy and cool a company is - really?

I never thought I got an exemplary education when I was going through school/college - needless to say, I stand woefully corrected and wondering what happened in the last couple of decades to trigger such a great deviation in the mindset and training of school/college graduates.

Or, maybe, I *am* totally out-of-it and my view of engineers vs code monkeys is something no one else cares about or wants to address.  That makes me sad.

And, no, I don't think "engineers" can be replaced by robots.  I definitely think "code monkeys" can.