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 Sunday, October 21, 2012
On JDD2012

There aren't many times that I cancel out of a conference (fortunately), so when I do I often feel a touch of guilt, even if I have to cancel for the best of reasons. (I'd like to think that if I have to cancel my appearance at a conference, it's only for the best of reasons, but obviously there may be others who disagree--I won't get into that.)

The particular case that merits this blog post is my lack of appearance at the JDD 2012 show (JDD standing for "Java Developer Days") in Krakow, Poland. Don't get me wrong, I love that show--Krakow is a fun city, quickly establishing itself as a university town (hellooo night clubs and parties!) as well as something of a Polish Silicon Valley, or so I've been told. (Actually, I think Krakow has a history of being a university town, but the tech angle to it is fairly recent.) My previous trips there have always been wonderful experiences, and when the organizers and I discussed my attendance at this years' show back in the start of the calendar year, I was looking forward to it.

Unfortunately, my current employer took an issue with my European travels, stating something to the effect that "three trips to Europe in five weeks' time is not a great value for us", and when coupled with the fact that there was a US speaker going to the show (that I helped get to the show, ironically) that I didn't particularly want to be around and that I'd be just walking off the plane from London before I'd have to get back on the plane to get to Krakow.... *shrug* It was just a little too much all at once. Regretfully, I emailed Slawomir (the organizer) and told him I was going to have to cancel.

Any one of these, I'd have bulled my way through. Two of them, I probably still would have shown up. But all three.... I just decided that the divine heavens had spoken, and I should just take the message and stay home. And let the message be very clear here, there was no fault or blame about this decision to be laid anywhere but at my feet--if you're at JDD now and you're pissed that I'm not there, then you should blame me, and not the organizers. (But honestly, with Rebecca Wirfs-Brock and Adam Bien there, you're getting some top-notch content, so you probably won't even miss me.)

And yes, assuming I haven't burned a bridge with the organizers (and I think we're all good on that score), I sincerely hope to be back there in 2013; Polish attendees and conference organizers are off the hook when it comes to making a speaker feel welcome.


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Saturday, October 20, 2012 11:12:07 PM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Tuesday, October 16, 2012
On NFJS

As the calendar year comes to a close, it's time (it's well past time, in fact) that I comment publicly on my obvious absence from the No Fluff, Just Stuff tour.

In January, when I emailed Jay Zimmerman, the organizer of the conference, to talk about topics for the coming year, I got no response. This is pretty typical Jay--he is notoriously difficult to reach over email, unless he has something he wants from you. In his defense, that's not an uncommon modus operandi for a lot of people, and it's pretty common to have to email him several times to get his attention. It's something I wish he were a little more professional about, but... *shrug* The point is, when I emailed him and got no response, I didn't think much of it.

However, as soon as the early years' schedule came out, a friend of mine on the tour emailed me to ask why I wasn't scheduled for any of the shows--I responded with a rather shocked "Wat?" and checked for myself--sure enough, nowhere on the tour. I emailed Jay, and... cue the "Sounds of Silence" melody.

Apparently, my participation was no longer desired.

Now, in all fairness, last year I joined Neudesic, LLC as a full-time employee, working as an Architectural Consultant and I mentioned to Jay that I was interested in scaling back my participation from all the shows (25 or so across the year) to maybe 15 or so, but at no point did I ever intend to give him the impression that I wanted to pull off the tour entirely. Granted, the travel schedule is brutal--last year (calendar year 2011) it wasn't uncommon for me to be doing three talks each day (Friday, Saturday and Sunday), and living in Seattle usually meant that I had to use all day Thursday to fly out to wherever the show was being held, and could sometimes return on Sunday night but more often had to fly back on Monday, making for a pretty long weekend. But I enjoyed hanging with my speaker buddies, I enjoyed engaging with the crowds, and I definitely enjoyed the "aha" moments that would fire off inside my head while speaking. (I'm an "external processor", so talking out loud is actually a very effective way for me to think about things.)

Across the year, I got a few emails and Tweets from people asking about my absence, and I always tried to respond to those as fairly and politely as I could without hiding the fact that I wished I was still there. In truth, folks, I have to admit, I enjoy having my weekends back. I miss the tour, but being off of it has made me realize just how much family time I was missing when I was off gallavanting across the country to various hotel conference rooms to talk about JVMs or languages or APIs. I miss hanging with my speaker friends, but friends remain friends regardless of circumstance, and I'm happy to say that holds true here as well. I miss the chance to hone my ideas and talks, but that in of itself isn't enough to justify missing out on my 13-year-old's football games or just enjoying a quiet Saturday with my wife on the back porch.

All in all, though I didn't ask for it, my rather unceremonious "boot" to the backside off the tour has worked out quite well. Yes, I'd love to come back to the tour and talk again, but that's up to Jay, not me. I wouldn't mind coming back, but I don't mind not being there, either. And, quite honestly, I think there's probably more than a few attendees who are a bit relieved that I'm not there, since sitting in on my sessions was always running the risk that they'd be singled out publicly, which I've been told is something of a "character-building experience". *grin*

Long story short, if enough NFJS attendee alumni make the noise to Jay to bring me back, and he offers it, I'd take it. But it's not something I need to do, so if the crowds at NFJS are happy without me, then I'm happy to stay home, sip my Diet Coke, blog a little more, and just bask in the memories of almost a full decade of the NFJS experience. It was a hell of a run, and I'm very content with having been there from almost the very beginning and helping to make that into one of the best conference experiences anyone's ever had.


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Tuesday, October 16, 2012 2:11:31 AM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Friday, October 12, 2012
On Equality

Recently (over the last half-decade, so far as I know) there's been a concern about the numbers of women in the IT industry, and in particular the noticeable absence of women leaders and/or industry icons in the space. All of the popular languages (C, C++, Java, C#, Scala, Groovy, Ruby, you name it) have been invented by or are represented publicly by men. The industry speakers at conferences are nearly all men. The rank-and-file that populate the industry are men. And this strikes many as a bad thing.

Honestly, I used to be a lot more concerned than I am today. While I'm sure that many will see my statements and position that follows as misogynistic and/or discriminatory, let me be the first to suggest quite plainly that I have nothing against any woman who wants to be a programmer, who wants to be an industry speaker, or who wants to create a startup and/or language and/or library and/or framework and/or tool and/or any other role of leadership and authority within the industry. I have always felt that this industry is more merit-based than any other I have ever had direct or indirect contact with. There is no need for physical strength, there is no need for dexterity or mobility, there is no need for any sort of physical stress tolerances (such as the G forces fighter pilots incur during aerial combat which, by the way, women are actually scientifically better at handling than men), there really even is no reason that somebody who is physically challenged couldn't excel here. So long as you can type (or, quite frankly, have some other mechanism by which you can put characters into an IDE), you can program.

And no, I have no illusions that somehow men are biologically wired better to be leaders. In fact, I think that as time progresses, we will find that the stereotypical characteristics that we ascribe to each of the genders (male competitiveness and female nuturing) each serve incredibly useful purposes in the IT world. Cathi Gero, for example, was once referred to by a client in my presence as "the Mom of the IT department"--by which they meant, Cathi would simply not rest until everything was exactly as it should be, a characteristic that they found incredibly comforting and supportive. Exactly the kind of characteristic you would want from a highly-paid consultant: that they will stick with you through all the mess until the problem is solved.

And no, I also have no illusions that somehow I understand what it's been like to be a woman in IT. I've never experienced the kind of "automatic discrimination" that women sometimes describe, being mistaken for recruiters at a technical conference, rather than as a programmer. I won't even begin to try and pretend that I know what that's like.

Unless, of course, I can understand it by analogy, such as when a woman sees me walking down the street, and crosses the street ahead of me so that she won't have to share the sidewalk, for even a second, with a long-haired, goateed six-foot-plus stranger. She has no reason to assume I represent any threat to her other than my physical appearance, but still, her brain makes the association, and she chooses to avoid the potential possibility of threat. Still, that's probably not the same.

What I do think, quite bluntly, is that one of the reasons we don't have more women in IT is because women simply choose not to be here.

Yes, I know, there are dozens of stories of misogynistic behavior at conferences, and dozens more stories of discriminatory behavior. Dozens of stories of "good ol' boys behavior" making women feel isolated, and dozens of stories of women feeling like they had to over-compensate for their gender in order to be heard and respected. But for each conference story where a woman felt offended by a speakers' use of a sexual epithet or joke, there are dozens of conferences where no such story ever emerges.

I'm reminded of a story, perhaps an urban myth, of a speaker at a leadership conference that stood in front of a crowd, took a black marker, made a small circle in the middle of a flip board, and asked a person in the first row what they saw. "A black spot", they replied. A second person said the same thing, and a third. Finally, after about a half-dozen responses of "a block spot", the speaker said, "All of you said you saw the same thing: a black spot. I'm curious as to why none of you saw the white background behind it".

It's easy for us to focus on the outlier and give that attention. It's even easier when we see several of them, and if they come in a cluster, we call it a "dangerous trend" and "something that must be addressed". But how easy it is, then, to miss the rest of the field, in the name of focusing on the outlier.

My ex-apprentice wants us to proactively hire women instead of men in order to address this lack:

Bring women to the forefront of the field. If you're selecting a leader and the best woman you can find is not as qualified as the best man you can find, (1) check your numbers to make sure unintentional bias isn't working against her, and (2) hire her anyway. She is smart and she will rise to the occasion. She is not as experienced because women haven't been given these opportunities in the past. So give it to her. Next round, she will be the most qualified. Am I advocating affirmative action in hiring? No, I'm advocating blind hiring as much as is feasible. This has worked for conferences that do blind session selection and seek out submissions from women. However, I am advocating deliberate bias in favor of a woman in promotions, committee selection, writing and speaking solicitation, all technical leadership positions. The small biases have multiplied until there are almost no women in the highest technical levels of the field.
But you can't claim that you're advocating "blind hiring" while you're saying "hire her anyway" if she "is not as qualified as the best man you can find". This is, by definition, affirmative action, and while it does put women into those positions, it doesn't address the underlying problem--that she isn't as qualified. There is no reason that she shouldn't be as qualified as the man, so why are we giving her a pass? Why is it this company's responsibility to fix the industry at a cost to themselves? (I'm assuming, of course, that there is a lost productivity or lost innovation or some other cost to not hiring the best candidate they can find; if such a loss doesn't exist, then there's no basis for assuming that she isn't equally qualified as the man.)

Did women routinely get "railroaded" out of technical directions (math and science) and into more "soft areas" (English and fine arts) in schools back when I was a kid? Yep. Studies prove that. My wife herself tells me that she was "strongly encouraged" to take more English classes than math or science back in Junior high and high school, even when her grades in math and science were better than those in English. That bias happened. But does it happen with girls today? Studies I'm reading about third-hand suggest not appreciably. And even if you were discriminated against back then, what stops you now? If you're reading this, you have a computer, so what stops you now from pursuing that career path? Programming today is not about math and science--it's about picking up a book, downloading a free SDK and/or IDE, and diving in. My background was in International Relations--I was never formally trained, either. Has it held me back? You betcha--there are a few places that refused to hire me because I didn't have the formal CS background to be able to select the right algorithm or do big-O analysis. Didn't seem to stop me--I just went and interviewed someplace else.

Equality means equality. If a woman wants to be given the same respect as a man, then she has to earn it the same way he does, by being equally qualified and equally professional. It is this "we should strengthen the weak" mentality that leads to soccer games with no score kept, because "we're all winners". That in turn leads to children that then can't handle it when they actually do lose at something, which they must, eventually, because life is not fair. It never will be. Pretending otherwise just does a disservice to the women who have put in the blood, sweat, and tears to achieve the positions of prominence and respect that they earned.

Am I saying this because I worry that preferential treatment to women speakers at conferences and in writing will somehow mean there are fewer opportunities for me, a man? Some will accuse me of such, but those who do probably don't realize that I turn down more conferences than I accept these days, and more writing opportunities as well. In fact, regardless of your gender, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of online portals and magazines that are desperate for authors to write quality work--if you're at all stumped trying to write for somebody, then you're not trying very hard. And every week user groups across the country are canceled for a lack of a speaker--if you're trying to speak and you're not, then you're either setting your bar too high ("If I don't get into TechEd, having never spoken before in my life, it must be because I'm a woman, not that I'm not a qualified speaker!") or you're really not trying ("Why aren't the conferences calling me about speaking there?").

If you're a woman, and you're thinking about a career in IT, more power to you. This industry offers more opportunity and room for growth than any other I've yet come across. There are dozens of meetings and meetups and conferences that are springing into place to encourage you and help you earn that distinction. Yes, as you go you will want and/or need help. So did I. You need people that will help you sharpen your skills and improve your abilities, yes. But a specific and concrete bias in your favor? No. You don't need somebody's charity.

Because if you do, then it means that you're admitting that you can't do it on your own, and you aren't really equal. And that, I think, would be the biggest tragedy of the whole issue.

Flame away.


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Friday, October 12, 2012 1:17:22 AM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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Blogging Again

Readers of this blog will not be surprised when I say that I've neglected it recently--partly because I've been busy, partly because I've got other opportunities to give volume to my voice through the back-cover editorial in CoDe Magazine. But I feel a little guilty about it, and yes, I've noticed that my readership numbers have gone down, which, I must admit, bothers me. Fortunately, there is an easy remedy--blog more.

And, it sort of goes without saying, if anybody out there is still listening and has particular subjects they'd like to see me address, take a shot and let me know, email or comments. After all, sometimes even the most experienced authors can use a little inspiration.




Thursday, October 11, 2012 11:39:52 PM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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