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 Friday, November 23, 2012
On Tech, and Football

Today was Thanksgiving in the US, a holiday that is steeped in "tradition" (if you can call a country of less than three hundred years in history to have any traditions, anyway). Americans gather in their homes with friends and family, prepare an absurdly large meal centered around a turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, and "all the trimmings", and eat. Sometimes the guys go outside and play some football before the meal, while the gals drink wine and/or margaritas and prep the food, and the kids escape to video games or nerf gun wars outside, and so on.

One of these traditions commonly associated with this holiday is the National Football League (NFL, to those of you not familiar with American football): there is always a game on, and for whatever reason (tradition!), usually the game (or one of the games, if there's more than one--today there were three) is between the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins. I don't have the statistics handy, but I think those two teams have played on Thanksgiving like every year for the last four decades (or something like that).

This year, the Washington Redskins defeated the Dallas Cowboys 38-31. Apparently, it was quite the blowout in the second quarter, when Washington's rookie quarterback, Robert Griffin III, threw three touchdown passes in one quarter, then one more later in the game to become the first quarterback in Washington franchise history to throw back-to-back four-TD games. ESPN has all the details, if you're interested. What you won't find, however, in that news report, is far more important about what you will find. For all the praise heaped on RGIII (as Mr. Griffin is known in sports circles), you will not hear one very interesting factoid:

RGIII is black.

So, it turns out, is Michael Vick (Philadelphia). So is Byron Leftwich (Pittsburgh's backup QB), as is Charlie Batch (the backup for Pittsburgh now that Leftwich is down for the season with an injury). In fact, despite the fact that no team in the NFL had a starting black quarterback just twenty or thirty years ago, the issue of race is pretty much "done" in the NFL: nobody cares what the race of the players is anymore, unless the player themselves makes an issue of it. After Doug Williams, the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, people just kinda... stopped caring.

What does this have to do with tech?

People have been making a big deal out of the lack of women (and minority, though women get better press) speakers in the software industry. This post, for example, implicitly suggests that somehow, women aren't getting the opportunities that they deserve:

Where are these opportunities? You don't see the opportunities that no one offers you. You don't see the suggestions, requests for collaboration, invitations to the user group, that didn't happen.

Where are these obstacles? Also invisible. They're a lack of inclusion, and of a single role model. They're not having your opinion asked for technical decisions. They're an absence of sponsorship -- of people who say in management meetings "Jason would make a great architect." Jason doesn't even know someone's speaking up for him, so how could Rokshana know she's missing this?

You can't see what isn't there. You can't fight for what you can't see.

I take issue with a couple of these points. Not everyone deserves the opportunity: sometimes an opportunity is not handed to you not because you're a woman, but because you're not willing to go after it. Look, as much as we may want to pretend that everybody is equal, that everybody can make the same results given the same inputs, if you put a football in my hand and ask me to make the throw 85 yards down the field into target area that's about the diameter of your average trash can, I'm not going to generate the same results that RGIII can. He's bigger than me, stronger than me, faster than me, and so on. What's more, even if I put in the same kinds of hours into practicing and training and bodybuilding and so forth, he's still going to get the nod, because he's been aggressive about pursuing the opportunities that gave people the confidence to put the ball in his hands in the fourth quarter. Me? Not so much. It wasn't that I didn't have the opportunities, it's that I chose not to take them when those opportunities arose.

Some people choose to not see opportunities. Some people choose other opportunities--when the choice comes down to staying a few extra hours to get stuff done at work, versus going home to spend time with your family, regardless of which one you choose, that choice will have consequences. The IT worker who chooses to stay will often be rewarded by being given opportunities to pursue additional opportunities at work and/or promotions and/or recognition; the one who chooses to go home will often be rewarded by a deeper connection to their family. The one who stays gets labeled "workaholic"; the one who goes home gets labeled "selfish" or "not committed to the project". Toh-may-toh, toh-mah-toh.

I don't care what gender you are--this choice applies equally to you.

Contrary to what the other blogger seems to imply, there is no secret "Men's IT Success Club", identifying promising members and giving them the necessary secret training to succeed. Nobody ever held a hand out to me and said, "Dude, you're smart. You should get ahead in life--let me help you get there." I had to take risks. I had to put myself out there. I got lucky, in a lot of ways, but don't for a second think that it was all me or it was all luck, it was a combination of the two. When I was sitting in meetings, as just a Programmer I, I had to weigh very carefully the risks of speaking up in the meeting or keeping quiet. Speaking up gets you noticed--and if you're wrong, you get shot down very quickly. Staying quiet lets you fly under the radar and avoids humiliation, but also doesn't get your boss' attention or demonstrate that you have a strong grasp of the situation.

I don't care what gender you are--this choice applies equally to you.

Sure, maybe someone will notice you and offer you that hand up. Someone will recognize your talents and say, "Damn, I think you'd be good at this, are you interested?", and if you say yes, smooth the road for you and mentor you and give you opportunities that would've taken you years otherwise to create for yourself. But notice, at the front of that sentence, I said, "Someone will recognize your talents", and in the middle I said, "if you say yes". Your talents have to be on display, and you have to say yes. Neglecting either of these will remove those opportunities. Not taking the risk to show off your talents takes away the opportunity. Not taking the risk by saying yes takes away the opportunity.

Frankly, I'm appalled that she says we have to:

  1. Create explicit opportunities to make up for the implicit ones minorities aren't getting. Invite women to speak, create minority-specific scholarships, make extra effort to reach out to underrepresented people.
  2. Make conscious effort to think about including everyone on the team in decisions. Don't always go with your gut for whom to invite to the table.
  3. Don't interrupt a woman in a meeting. (I catch myself doing this, now that I know it's a problem.) Listen, and ask questions.
  4. If you are a woman, be the first woman in the room. We are the start of making others feel like they belong.
My thoughts in response, in order:
  1. I call bull. The call for speakers should always be color- and gender-blind. If a woman speaker wants to be take seriously, she has to be taken to speak because she is a good speaker, not because she has boobies. To offer women speakers a lower bar means essentially that she's still not equal, that she's there only because she's a woman and "we need to have a few of those to liven the place up". Yep, that's 1950's sexism talking, and it horrifies me that someone could suggest that with a straight face. Particularly someone who hasn't had to scrabble her way into conferences like other speakers have had to.
  2. I call bull. There are some decisions that are appropriate for the entire team to make, there are some decisions that only the team leads and/or architects should make, and there are some decisions that are best made by someone within the team who has the technical background to make them--for example, asking me about CSS or which client-side Javascript library to use is rather foolish, since I don't really have the background to make a good call. RGIII doesn't ask the offensive linemen where he should throw the ball, and they don't ask him how they should react to the hand slap that the defensive end throws out as he tries to go around them. No one should be deliberately excluded from a conversation they can contribute to, no, but then again, no one should be included in meetings for which they have no expertise. Want to be in on that meeting? Develop the expertise first, then look for the chance to demonstrate it--they're always there, if you look for them.
  3. Don't interrupt a woman in a meeting? How about, don't interrupt ANYONE in a meeting? If interruptions are a sign of disrespect, then those signs should be removed regardless of gender. If interruptions are just a way that teams generate flow (and I believe they are, based on my own experiences), then artificially establishing that rule means that the woman is an artificial barrier to the "form/storm/norm" process.
  4. If you are a woman, then sure, keep an eye out for the other women in the room that may want to be where you are now. But if you're a man, keep an eye out for the other men in the room that seek the same opportunities, and help them. If you're black, keep an eye out for the other blacks, Asian for the other Asians, and... Well, wait, no, come to think of it, women could mentor men, and men could mentor women, and blacks for Asians and Asians for blacks, and... How about you just keep your eyes open for anyone that shows the talent and drive, and reward that with your offer of mentorship and aid?

Within the NFL, a rule was established demanding that teams interview at least one minority for any open coaching position; it was a rule designed to make sure that blacks and other minorities could make it into the very top rungs of coaching. Today, I'm guessing somewhere between a quarter to a third of the NFL teams are led by a minority head coach. But no such rule, to my knowledge, has ever been passed about which players are taken for which positions. Despite the adage a few decades ago that "blacks aren't cerebral enough to play quarterback", I'm guessing that about a quarter to a third of the quarterbacks in the league are black, and several have won a Super Bowl. This, despite absolutely no artificial aids designed to help them.

Women in IT don't need special rules or special favors. They don't need some kind of corporate return to chivalry--they're not some kind of "weaker sex" that need special help. If a woman today wants to become a speaker, the opportunities are there. Maybe it's not a keynote session at a 20,000-person industry-spanning show, but hey, not a lot of men get those opportunities, either. Some opportunities are earned, not just offered. So rather than trying to force organizations to offer opportunities to women, maybe women should look to themselves and ask, "What do I need to do to earn that opportunity?" Instead of insisting that women be given a handout, insist that everyone be given the chance equally well, based on merit, not genital plumbing.

Because then, it's a choice, and one you can make for yourself.