Saturday, July 26, 2014

On the invention of Social Networking Sites

According the archive, it was October 2001 that I was introduced by a friend up the curve from me to a site called Livejournal. Now, as then, it is somewhat obscure. A niche site for enthusiasts of open source, creative work, privacy and anti-corporatism. But its combination of creative posting, forum-type commentary, friend-lists, communities of interest and solid, tag-enabled archiving hinted at a thing my oversocialised brain had been waiting for. Long before Dunbar's number entered popsci vernacular I could feel the creaks and cracks emerging in my social group as we found all-consuming projects, demanding jobs, started families. "Join this," I remember saying, "This is how we'll organise our parties now. This is how we'll make holidays and fun stuff happen. Get an account. Here's an invite code. You don't need an invite code now. Do you still not have an account? Join. You don't have to blog. You don't even have to comment. You can just watch. Didn't you know? I put it on LJ. Get an account."

At the same time I was looking at how other people were using it, the strange rag-bag of needs it fulfilled. It wasn't all about socialising and talking. There were private posts, secret messages, communities for two or one or none. Something prickled a memory, a short story I'd read years ago, when I was a lonely teenager, far from friends and fun, caught in the alternating fixed boxes of the determined life of the child; green walls for rural smallfarming, gold for the clever scholarship child. I couldn't remember who wrote it, I couldn't remember what it was called. All I could remember was an angry father, a lonely yellow farm, vistas suddenly opening, not of land but of information; and a red cloak, whirling in the night.

Years later, I described these fragmentary memories to a friend who is something of an expert on fantasy stories,  and she selected a scuffed book from her shelves. "I think it's a series of stories," she said, giving me a copy of Get off the Unicorn by Anne McCaffrey. "The hero is called Nora."

Nora Fenn, born on a farm, catapulted into life in university town, dressed in rags and living on brainpower alone. No wonder the stories (Daughter, 1971, and Dull Drums, 1973) had appealed. And there, on page 98, the revolution described in a single phrase: "Every citizen had the right to Bank-storage:" by which she meant free individual use of computer access. Private storage, locked behind a privacy seal; a searchable, extendible space to keep the attenuated self that the future demanded. In a utopian moment McCaffrey imagines how this unassailable self, this core of protected privacy, this reflective space that has to listen, that can only remember, accurately, perfectly and completely, might lead to happier, saner people, reduce substance misuse and paradoxically increase community activity and promote community feeling. She even puts a date on it; "From 1990," she says. The year I made my first web page.

In the story, Nora and her classmates are in charge of decommissioning obsolete records, sifting the private storage of the dead for sociological gold, advising recommendations about limits of bank storage for citizens. In real life, Facebook followed Livejournal and Twitter followed Facebook and communication has perhaps triumphed over reflection within the social networking environment, but at least our bank storage and programming time has an aspect of functional infinity our predecs could only dream of.

It's not set very far into the future, McCaffrey's oddly gentle fable of programming and social advancement, but it teasingly reveals a very heartful vision of our post-millennial future. In the flutter of ambitions and necessity, in the whirl of a crimson cloak you couldn't really afford in a courtyard you got to via a strange ladder of ambitions and declarations. And you spin, spin, caught in the promise of a future where everyone is held and no-one is left behind.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Women in Engineering Day Talk - 2014

(Delivered to a local technical college for a lunchtime talk on Women in Engineering Day 2014.)

In preparation for giving this talk I did a short piece of research among my friends who were engineers and those working in associated fields like ICT, technical project management, system administration and programming. This research took the form of; one blind survey (delivered online) where participants did not get to see what each other were saying, in order to promote full honesty; one online discussion where people could see and comment on each others' opinion; and several discussions, including a detailed discussion with a male engineer.

Gathering and organising data, capturing the useful and most helpful information, and re-presenting it to decision makers, such as yourselves, is often my mode of working. One of my duties is the specification, construction and testing of new tools which enable online access to services. I get to make things myself sometimes, but far more often I am assembling information and explaining it to different interested groups in language they understand.

Or, as one of my interviewees put it, "I speak Geek, and I translate".

This talk includes five points, five questions, and lots of opportunities for you to join in!

1. Engineering is not ICT is not Technical Management is not Civil Engineering is not Software Engineering 

Among the women I spoke to, about half of those working in ICT had not studied technical subjects at school at school and college. They had instead found conversion opportunities in their workplaces, and done study either funded by or provided by their place of work or self-financed to upskill themselves. The other half had studied maths or computing or Computer Sciences or something along those lines.

> Can I ask you quickly to introduce yourselves and say what you are studying/hope to study? 

> Thanks!

The engineers had all studied sciences, in particular physics and maths, and were qualified to degree level or beyond. There were a few PhDs in the group, too. However this probably reflects bias in my group. The engineers were aware of certain professions within civil and mechanical engineering which had a vocational route, and those in ICT discussed (or had taken) on-the-job routes.

Some had been strongly motivated to enter their area, others had just wandered into it as something useful to do while they were figuring out what to do with their lives. But they all spoke of having a knack or a feel or an aptitude for where they ended up.

They had ended up in lots of different jobs that were very unlike each other.  It's a very diverse field.

2. Know someone who does it already, or get to know them or the subject area

The usefulness of already being known cannot be overstated. Engineers (and employers in general) like reliable measures, known quantities and understood capabilities. They also like experience, and this is reflected in salary. The younger workers (and several of the people I spoke to said being young was a bigger issue than being female) is at a disadvantage.  But there are ways round this:

  • Go for established companies, where there is a regular process for getting to know new staff members like graduate or school leaver programmes or apprenticeships
  • Go for new/start-up companies where everyone is a stranger
  • Get to know a company through holiday working, contracting or similar 

Several of the women spoke of a family background which encouraged their engaging with technical topics. Parents who teach them to program and not to be afraid of computers or mechanical tasks were listed as important. It made them think about their own capability and not underestimate it.

> Can I ask which of you have family members working in technical fields?

> Thank you.

Pretty much all had got jobs, work experience and crucial career breaks from the people around them. This went from getting jobs at places where course mates or college friends were working, to getting a holiday job making a small busines website for a father's friend. Her comment on this? "Outright nepotism - but I did a good job, and that was on my own merit - don't feel guilty about nepotism."

3. Don't let other people's expectations (or your own) limit you 

The women and men I spoke to thought it would be useful if there were more women in the field, but that to be an engineer you have be a certain sort of person. I thought that was a bit vague, so I asked - what sort of person? They said:

  • Prepared to get stuck in, get their hands dirty, and fix or make stuff
  • Able to stick to their opinions, be persistent, and persuade people to do the thing that will work
  • You need to have people skills in situations where there are problems or conflict 

There was also a tendency to describe themselves as "not typical women", but what did they mean by that? Let me hand over to S, an engineer working on farm machinery:

"The difficult bit is breaking through the expectations to let yourself even try to get into the field in the first place. Girls pick up the message from media/family/peers/people-who-don't-do-engineering that it isn't something for them, and it's sometimes hard to keep going against that message even if you're certain you like what you're doing."

And often the easiest response to that is to say, "I'm not a typical woman" and carry on doing the thing that you love. But it can still come back, at the strangest moments:

"It's also hard to keep the message out of your own brain. I was discussing this with a female colleague the other week who knew she wanted to have a go at welding and learnt how to do it but still felt that sense of 'can I do this, as a girl?' at first - knowing at a conscious level that it was a ridiculous thing to think, but still having it pop up from her subconscious anyway."

The female colleague went ahead and did the welding anyway, but for teenagers, the pressure can be much more insidious and hard to resist:

"I saw so many girls drop A level physics as soon as they had difficulties with it, because that undermining 'oh, well, I'm a girl, maybe this isn't for me after all' let them drop out rather than put the work in to get through it."

> Can I ask you all to say something you're good at, or something you are not  good at, if that's easier!

> Thanks.

Welding comes up a lot. Some people are good at it - they have a knack. Others don't! This includes a male engineer I know. But he would never interpret his lousy welding as meaning that men can't weld or that he's in the wrong job. Instead he got himself good enough to do a passable job, and leaves anything skilled to colleagues who are better at that part of the job.

4. Sexism isn't a constant problem, but you will need some strategies

Pretty much everyone I spoke to said their workmates weren't sexist, but that they had all worker in or knew of environments/people/situations that were. So, you are likely to come across problems, and you will need to solve them. But you won't always be fighting.

> Can I ask you what problems you are worried about?

> Thank you. I'll respond to these, in order:

People will think I don't have the strength to do the job. Let me hand over to J for this one: "Take yourself seriously, buy tools that are the right size for your hands, and use tools that are the right ones for the job. Above all, never go into a situation you feel uneasy about. Just walk away."

I won't get given the good work, the opportunities, or the breaks. Concentrate on the work that's yours. Other people's work pretty much always looks better, because you don't see problems from a distance. Also, remember that as a long as the work is necessary, it is good - if you're doing work that seems to serve no purpose, or is boring, you need to challenge or ask; it could be you have misunderstood something, or there could be a problem. Remember; the difficult and nasty jobs are a sign of respect.

Going to college will be difficult because there won't be other girls. The women I spoke to said that was not a problem (bar the occasional off-colour joke from academics). Some had positively enjoyed it.  But blokish environments were discussed by everyone, and there were lots of different strategies. Being thick skinned or not particularly caring what other people thought of them helped to an extent, as did standing up for yourself and making it clear what is and isn't acceptable. Calling people out on nasty banter helped make working environments a nicer place. But so did being friendly, effective and reliable, or as one person put it, "so good no-one can say you shouldn't be there."

Male colleagues will get more respect or pay than me for doing the same things/will claim my work as theirs.  The main comfort I had to offer here is that often these things will happen (and from a senior female worker saying, dryly, "In practice we are strongly discouraged from comparing salaries" to an academic talking about how, the higher you get, the less likely you are to see someone who isn't a straight white male, it clearly did happen) was that these things also happen because you are young and inexperienced, and these will both improve over time.

There was also a question I prepared, but didn't use -- about having children (pick a company with established processes/procedures, continue some work or study during your maternity break(s), make sure that you're in a well-run workplace) but none of the girls were interested in that!

There was also a question I was asked and hadn't prepared for: I am worried people will refuse to work with me because of their religious or cultural background.

Hmmm. Tricky one.

5. Not much queuing for the loos and more money than I could contemplate

My anonymous poll allowed me to ask about salaries. Starting salaries wandered from £15-25K (although with some notable outliers like my less-than-impressive £7.5K) but current salaries were much more exciting, topping out in the £90K+ zone and averaging around the high £40K zone.

Interestingly there was not a clear relationship between salary and level of qualification. My investigation suggested that technical specialisation into a particularly desirable fields may have been the single biggest factor in raising salary after simply being good at what you do - but predicting what will be crucial infrastructure and what will be just useful transferable skills may not be possible!

They also spoke about other benefits of being part of a cherished and valued minority (and mild annoyances, like being asked to pose for photos for company brochures a lot) after all, most of the workplaces knew that they should have more than just a couple of women in the workplace. Those individuals and organisations that didn't (and I had some hairy stories, not just from small tech and games companies, but from a worker at what one would expect to be a very ethical workplace) were often coming from individuals or workplaces with wider problems, the sort you needed to either solve or leave (and the women I spoke to had done a mixture of both). But they were, on the whole, very positive about their work.

> Can I ask you what you are really looking  forward to in your careers?

> Thank you

The women and men I spoke to all enjoyed the culture in their workplace ("being surrounded by people like me is more important than if they are men or women") and the satisfaction of doing the work they loved. Being surrounded by other people who really care about getting things right, making things work and getting all the details done, properly is really satisfying. Let me hand over again to S, for one last word:

"Most of the people I work with are your stereotypical quiet, thoughtful types who care about getting the thing itself right, not about status or approval, so they really don't care about *who* came up with the right answer, they just care about the answer. So I'd like to see more women in engineering (I'm one of about fifteen women in a department of three hundred) but not to fix something about where I work directly. I'd like to see more women in engineering so that non-engineers stop making girls rule themselves out of it before they even get a chance to try."

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Women in Engineering Talk 2014 by Jeremy Day is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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