Sunday, March 24, 2013

Communication as an antidote to fear

Since I last wrote, I've changed jobs and moved from New York City to the Bay Area. During that time I had to do those HR computer tutorials that inform new hires of the company's code of conduct, et cetera. I'd been wanting to comment on their effectiveness (or not) in fostering positive a positive professional culture, and then I was walloped by a bunch of deadlines. Then the whole Adria Richards thing happened and it made the post that had been simmering in my brain a lot more relevant.

One of the videos I had to complete was on workplace harassment. It was so over the top that I was baffled anyone would think it might connect with an actual employee. What really struck me about it was how broadly the video described workplace harassment. Rather than encouraging people to ask a colleague about what kind of humor they do or don't like, or possibly speaking to a team member and inviting them to respectfully give any advice as to what they can do to make their team a more comfortable place, the given rule of thumb was "if you have any inkling that this might make someone slightly uncomfortable, don't say it."

Maybe instead of trying to ambiguously appeal to everyone, a more effective way of keeping people comfortable might be to encourage people not to be afraid to talk about things that bother them with each other, instead of being quietly unsure of what someone will or won't be offended by. I admit that's a difficult thing to do. A personal example: at one point I was on a project with a male project manager who was a genuinely, good, supportive PM. Occasionally he'd make harsh criticism of female clients in a specifically gendered way, though I never brought this up because I didn't want my PM to become defensive or read this as if I was calling him a sexist. Because he wasn't, he was a good person who happened to have a bad habit. But I (and other women I've spoken to) have had experiences where they are met with hostile or defensive resistance when pointing out less than considerate behavior, and it does create fear in talking about what does or doesn't make a comfortable environment for the people who happen to be in it.

So while I am not defending anyone's actions (Ms. Richards', the developers, or otherwise), I can see how it might be less scary to post criticism online than to explain to someone face-to-face how their comments are making you feel. Too bad the takeaway from the incident will almost certainly not be "next time let's just politely explain what we feel to be appropriate."

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Digital Social Contract and Social Media

Have you ever read Facebook's End User License Agreement? If not, you should definitely do that. It's refreshingly accessible as EULAs and other legal documents go, largely in response to criticisms that their privacy settings are too byzantine to be fair to the average person.

Aww, still don't feel like going through it? Allow me to highlight two important points:

From Section 2., "Privacy": "You own all of the content and information you post on Facebook, and you can control how it is shared through your privacy and application settings."

From Section 14., "Termination": "If you violate the letter or spirit of this Statement, or otherwise create risk or possible legal exposure for us, we can stop providing all or part of Facebook to you."

So. Theoretically, I am the sole owner of my data, but access to my data can be cut off at any time if it is believed that I've violated "the spirit" of the agreement. But Delicious' Terms of Use are even better: "Delicious reserves the right to terminate your license to use Delicious at any time and for any reason..." Okay, fine. That looks obnoxious, but honestly, if they went around cancelling accounts for no good reason, they would have a bloody hard time getting people to sign on and give them more of their super valuable info. That's sort of a natural logic of any contract.

Now, my friend Greg linked me to this Harvard Business Review blog update on the rumors that Yahoo is planing on pulling the plug on Delicious.

Ms. Samuel is right on the mark. She writes about the transaction between Delicious and its users, referring to the relationship between two people using information stored on Delicious to communicate, saying that,
We've placed those relationships in trust, along with the information about which websites we find useful enough to store, and which keywords we use to describe them. We contribute the content and relationships; Yahoo! contributes the software and servers. (Emphasis mine)

Interestingly, she uses some bank terms here. Which makes sense. For the purpose of web 2.0 services, information is currency. It's an apt parallel; We place funds in trust with a bank, and they use those funds to generate more capital. We also place our information in trust with the fine folks of Google, Facebook and Yahoo so that they can generate value in the form of "free" web applications.

As trustees of that informational currency, there is a certain obligation to maintain the value of what's been entrusted to Delicious (or Facebook, or any other online service that is paid for with informational currency). Because we have the right to close a Delicious or Facebook account at any time, I can accept the idea that they may want to stop offering the service, but a way of preserving the value which has already been generated by the information entrusted to them is highly important. Like any social or legal contract, if you prove unreliable, one one's going to want to contract with you again. So remarking that cancelling a service indicates poor customer service, it's not "personal" as Ms. Samuel suggested her comments may have been construed as-it's a poor way of doing business. Data can be backed up and access to that data can be maintained without continuing to offer the service; Yahoo should do so if these rumors turn out to have any truth to them.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Empathy, Gender and the Workplace

An interesting take from philosophy professor Hugo Schwyzer on gender and empathy.

He makes a good point. And I note with interest that he touches mainly on personal relationships rather than professional links. I can't help but apply this mode of thinking to the IT world as well.

A good deal of my discussions with men on the subjects of getting more women into computing could be summarized with the statement, "we would love to, but don't know how." I think a big part of the answer to that question lies in this line of research - guys are less empathetic. That's not to say they're jerks, but as this research points out, men don't have the same cultural perception of empathy as women.

Sara Chipps at Girl Developer made a good point at her Girl Geek Dinner talk about a year ago that people can be passionate about software. Don't get into the discussion unless you are comfortable with that kind of intensity. And she's totally right. But I like the idea that it can, and should, work both ways. Of course you need thick skin in the professional world. But as with all things in life, a moderate balance is needed. The trick is finding the right balance between empathetic understanding and forthright directness.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Back, now with audio!

Hi all!

So I have been fairly MIA since the spring, mainly because my arty side projects were in high gear and I was doing a bit of casual job hunting. Which gave way to being hired at Vibrant Media in May, and I have been happily and busily learning my way around the new place since then. I promise details on that later, but the long and short of it for now is: more fun, and way more challenging.

Another fun project I've been up to more recently is the Immodest Proposals discussion group, put together by my friend Lee. Our most recent topic of discussion was how computers affect our attention, focus, and tendencies to procrastinate. And, he recorded the discussion! So, I give you Immodest Proposals VI: Procrastination, the Internet and the Future.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Quick hit: CyberSource, Visa and online commerce

Just got this: CyberSource
bought out by Visa for $2B

Ordinarily a market comprised of a couple monolithic competitors really annoys me, but I do think this will ultimately be a boon to merchants. (Yet I am fascinated by Google, I know. [shrug])

One of the nice things about Amex is that everything is all handled by them. Amex holds the line of credit, administers the card, and processes the transactions. Yet it's more expensive for merchants to accept. If Visa is acquiring its own processor, this could potentially make transactions a lot easier to deal with for the merchant but at a much lower cost to them. Good move, Visa (assuming of course that CyberSource share holders will go for it).

How to address a systemic mental hangup?

Last week there was a really solid piece in the Sunday Times on female technological entrepreneurs. I was pleased with the quality of the research, and can personally relate to a lot of the comments from women interviewed. For example:

"It just never dawned on me to do it [enter engineering]," she says. "You're just sitting there pecking away. I need more human interaction."

I've actually heard this firsthand from a former DB programmer somewhat recently. And this seems a little odd to me because the biggest reason I opted for a career in QA was the collaborative aspect. When I was handling customer accounts the human connection is very superficial, limited to a few moments at a time with someone you rarely speak with. Building websites also means building professional relationships with your team members. You're working towards a common goal, which is infinitely more satisfying to me then solving dozens of smaller scale problems for people I speak to very infrequently.

However it does speak for the educational disadvantage than many women have in the computer sciences. Math is not a very collaborative field, and women generally tend to opt for other fields of study as a result. This is a problem for technical innovation.

One of my favorite characteristics of humanity is a person's ability, by dint of human self awareness and habit of self reflection, to evolve and change with enough will and discipline. That's going to be a pretty key quality if this is a problem that the IT industry wants to solve. Ms. Miller hits the nail right on the head here when in a couple places she mentions women's lower confidence as a suspected reason for hesitance in making an entrepreneurial leap without every detail worked out (see the case of Ms. Karen Watts in the Times piece), and the fact that we're discouraged from a young age from committing to math and the sciences. When I was in high school, a close male relative of mine once commented that "it's too bad you're not as good at math because you have a good grasp of physics." Owch. And I heard a lot of that growing up, not to intentionally discourage, but to shield from academic discouragement by saying that girls aren't supposed to be good at math anyway. We're not bad at math per se, we just like working in groups instead of sawing away at a single problem all alone.

But as has been successfully argued from numerous corners of industry,* fewer women in the math and sciences is still bad for innovation. So how do we encourage more women to go into them if they're "naturally" inclined in other areas? (Disclaimer: I personally think leaning too heavily on what comes "naturally" is a cop-out. See previous comments regarding self discipline and personal change.) First we need to stop telling kids that girls aren't supposed to be good at math. Not only does it encourage a feeling of helplessness and discourage the development of self-discipline, it's bloody untrue. While women obviously do tend towards activities entailing interpersonal relationships and more verbal communication, math can still be taught in a way that would be engaging to those personality types. Almost all of Paul Erdős' work was completely collaborative; he embraced the idea of "crowd sourcing" before we even had a world wide web. Especially now that so much more is understood about different cognitive and learning styles in children, taking a more cooperative and collaborative approach to teaching math in the hope of reducing the gender disparity in math heavy professions would certainly be worth investigating.


*Quoted from the link above: "Venture-backed start-ups run by women use, on average, 40 percent less capital than start-ups run by men and are increasingly involved in successful initial public offerings of stock, according to a recent white paper by Cindy Padnos, a venture capitalist who compiled data from 100 studies on gender and tech entrepreneurship."


Monday, March 22, 2010

Quick note: QA as UX

"In reality, the [tester's] expectations don't have to be valid, they just have to be in alignment with the customer's overall expectations."

Found this when skimming around Borland's website. It's bringing a smile to this web app tester's face.

This is a very Agile idea, and one that I think would translate very well to companies that either haven't yet or don't have the resources to commit to a more Agile development practice. If there's one Agile principle you embrace, this is one of the better ones.