Handling harassment incidents swiftly and safely

This article was written by me and originally published on the Ada Initiative’s website. It is republished here according to the terms of its Creative Commons licence.

As anti-harassment policies become more widespread at open technology and culture events, different ways of handling harassment incidents are emerging. We advocate a swift process in which final decisions are made by a small group of empowered decision makers, whose focus is on the safety of the people attending the event.

Open technology and culture communities, which often make decisions in a very public way, can be tempted to also have a very public and very legalistic harassment handling process, a judicial model, but we advocate against this. It prioritises other values, such as transparency and due process, over that of safety. Alternatively, because many members of such communities find ostracism very hurtful and frightening, sometimes they develop a caretaker model, where they give harassers lots of second chances and lots of social coaching, and focus on the potential for a harasser to redeem themselves and re-join the community.

But neither of these models prioritise safety from harassment.

Consider an alternative model: harassment in the workplace. In a well-organised workplace that ensured your freedom from harassment — a situation which we know is also all too rare, but which we can aspire to, especially since our events are workplaces for many of us — an empowered decision maker such as your manager or an HR representative would make a decision based on your report that harassment had occurred and other relevant information as judged by them, and act as required order to keep your workplace safe for you.

A well-organised workplace would not appoint itself your harasser’s anti-harassment coach, have harassment reports heard by a jury of your peers, publish the details of your report widely, have an appeals process several levels deep, or offer fired staff members the opportunity to have their firing reviewed by management after some time has passed.

Like in a well-organised workplace, we advocate a management model of handling harassment complaints to make events safer: reasonably quick and final decisions made by a small group of empowered decision makers, together with communication not aimed at transparency for its own sake, but at giving people the information they need to keep themselves safe.

The management model of harassment handling is that:

  1. you have a public harassment policy that clearly states that harassment is unacceptable, and gives examples of unacceptable behaviour
  2. you have a clear reporting avenue publicised with the policy
  3. you have an empowered decision maker, or a small group of decision makers, who will act on reports
  4. reports of harassment are conveyed to those decision makers when reported
  5. they consider those reports, gather any additional information they need to make a decision — which could include conduct in other venues and other information that a very legalistic model might not allow — and they decide what action would make the event safer
  6. they communicate with people who need to know the outcome (eg, with the harasser if they need to change their behaviour, avoid any people or places, or leave the event; volunteers or security if they need to enforce any boundaries)
  7. they provide enough information to the victim of the harassment, and when needed to other attendees, to let them make well-informed decisions about their own safety

Further reading

Creative Commons License
Handling harassment incidents swiftly and safely
by the Ada Initiative is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://adainitiative.org/2014/07/23/handling-harassment-incidents-swiftly-and-safely/.

Harassment report at your conference: what do you do???

This article was written by me and originally published on the Ada Initiative’s website. It is republished here according to the terms of its Creative Commons licence.

The Ada Initiative’s anti-harassment work and other anti-harassment initiatives have resulted in many conferences adopting anti-harassment policies.

The Ada Initiative are not enforcers of individual conferences’ policies: this is the responsibility of conference staff, and conferences do not usually inform us of reports, nor do we expect them to. Harassment within a community is that community’s responsibility. However, in some cases when Ada Initiative staff have attended a conference, we have been asked to advise conference staff on responses. We’ve learned several useful techniques for making sure that the conference follows through quickly on its commitment to anti-harassment. We’ve drawn our experiences together into a wiki page: Responding to harassment reports.

Our first tip is, of course, to have a policy. Harassment incidents at geek conferences — including open technology and culture conferences — are widespread. If harassment is reported at your conference and you do not have a policy, it is difficult to reach consensus among conference staff that harassment is not welcome, let alone that you should respond to it, or about how you should respond. The result is that people who are worried about harassment, or who have experienced it at your event or other events, will not feel or be safe at your event. Your policy should be in place before your conference. The Ada Initiative and Geek Feminism volunteers have prepared substantial resources on how to put a policy in place.

You should also pre-prepare some emergency contacts, for incidents that you can’t handle. Conference volunteers and staff are rarely able to solely respond to and properly help with physical safety threats, illness or people in crisis. We suggest preparing a handout with contacts for emergency services, venue security, local medical and mental health facilities and crisis hotlines for mental illness, sexual assault, and physical violence. Make this info available in your conference materials so that attendees do not have to come to you, but have copies to hand in case they do.

Having a staff member whose key responsibility is to assist attendees in difficulty (rather than routine conference chores) can assist in a fast response, see the Duty officer wiki page.

Unfortunately, having a policy does not mean harassment won’t occur at your event. Once an incident is reported, you need to respond rapidly to reports. As the wiki page discusses in more detail you should:

  1. get a written report where possible, or have the staff member who received it write down what they were told
  2. have a staff member collate these reports in case of multiple incidents of harassment by one person, so that you can respond to the pattern rather than one instance
  3. have a staff member discuss the incident with the alleged harasser
  4. convene a meeting as soon as reasonably practical to decide on a response
  5. decide on a response and communicate it to the complainant and the harasser as soon as possible
  6. provide the harasser with an avenue of appeal if one is available but insist that they abide by any sanctions in the meantime
  7. communicate the incident and response briefly to the community, either attending the conference or reading your blog etc, to allow them to see that the policy is enforced
  8. remind the attendees and community where the policy is found and invite them to review it

We welcome additional improvements to our detailed guide on how to respond to harassment reports. If you would like to discuss the suggestions, please do so on the wiki’s talk page.

Creative Commons License
Harassment report at your conference: what do you do???
by the Ada Initiative is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://adainitiative.org/2012/10/04/harassment-report-at-your-conference-what-do-you-do/.

Harassing photography and recording; ethics and policies

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

We’re starting to collect some examples of photography/recording harassment experiences (still open , and some of the kinds of problems people mention there and elsewhere are:

  • photography/recording conducted in a way that is designed to hide the fact of the photography/recording from the subject both before and after the shot/recording happens
  • photography/recording that is indifferent to or careless of the subject’s feelings about being photographed/recorded
  • photography/recording that is othering: “wow, women! *click click*” or “hey, babe, smile for the camera!” or later posted with othering, sexist or creepy commentary
  • failing or refusing to stop photographing/recording on an explicit request or appearance of discomfort (eg turning away or frowning or covering one’s face, etc)
  • publishing photographs without the subject’s consent, or after the subject’s explicit refusal of consent
  • use of photographs to implicitly or explicitly endorse an event or community, eg, using pics of smiling participants from the previous year in publicity materials, without consent

Now most of these things are legal in my region (see NSW Photographer’s Rights, which as you will guess from the title is not focussed on subject’s concerns, but which is informative) and in many others. I believe the only exception (in NSW) may be the last, because the use of someone’s image to promote a product requires a model release, that is, consent from the subject. Whether/when using someone’s photo on a website is considered promotion I don’t know but that’s a side point.

For that matter, I’m not even arguing that they should be illegal or actionable (in this piece anyway, perhaps some of them are arguable). I’m sympathetic to many of the uses of non-consensual photography, even (art, journalism, historical documentation). I’m arguing more narrowly that in the context of geek events, which are usually private and which can therefore impose additional restrictions on behaviour as a condition of entry, that restrictions on photography could prevent some harassment. (As a short and possibly sloppy definition for people who haven’t seen many harassment discussions, I would define harassment as “unwelcome interpersonal interactions, which either a reasonable person would know are unwelcome, or which were stated to be unwelcome but continued after that.”)

I’m arguing that this collection of behaviours around photographs makes geek events hostile to some participants, especially women. After all, even though it’s (I think) legal to sneak-photograph a woman’s face, write a little essay about how attractive you find her and try and get it on Flickr Explore even as she emails you to say that she’s upset and repeatedly request that you take it down, that doesn’t mean it’s ethical.

Now, obviously it would be nice not to have to spell ethical behaviour out to people, but the need for anti-harassment policies (and, for that matter, law) makes it clear that geek events do need to do so.

There’s quite a range of possible policies that could be adopted around photography:

  • the status quo, obviously, which at many geek events is that any photography/recording that would be legally allowed in public spaces is allowed there;
  • photography/recording should be treated like other potentially harassing interpersonal interactions at an event, that is, when one person in the interaction says “stop” or “leave me alone” (etc), the interaction must end;
  • photography/recording shouldn’t be done in such a way as to hide from the subject that it’s happening, and upon the subject’s request the photo/footage/etc must be deleted;
  • subjects cannot be photographed/recorded without prior explicit consent; and/or
  • the above combined with some kind of explicit opt-in or opt-out marking so that one doesn’t need to necessarily ask every time if one can see the marking (in various conversations on this I have to say my main concern tends to be the need to peer closely at people’s chests to see their “PHOTOS/VIDEOS OK” or “NO PHOTOS/VIDEOS” marking on their badge, however, Skud says it works well at Wiscon).

There might be certain additional freedoms or restrictions regarding crowd photography/recording and/or photography/recording of organisers, scheduled speakers and people actively highlighted in similar formal events.

What do you think? Whether a photographer/videographer/recorder or subject of same, what do you think appropriate ethics are when photographing/recording at private geek events, and what do you think could/should be codified as policy?

Note to commenters: there are a couple of things that tend to come up a lot in these sorts of discussions, which are:

  1. “but this is perfectly legal [in my jurisdiction]”
  2. some geeks, including geek photographers, are shy and asking strangers for permission to photograph them is a confronting interaction, and thus very hard on shy people

I’m not saying that you need to totally avoid discussion of these points in comments here, but you can safely assume that everyone knows these points and has to some degree taken them into account and go from there. (My own perspective on the last one is that it’s odd at best to pay an enormous amount of heed to the social comfort of photographers at the expense of their subjects. You could, of course, consider both together.) Also if talking about legal aspects, do specify which jurisdiction(s) you are talking about: this is an area where laws vary substantially.

Powerful people: Mark Pesce’s linux.conf.au keynote

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Warning: this entry discusses a sexualised presentation, and links to slides from that presentation. Images linked include stylised sexual violence.

Note to LCA2011 attendees and other members of the technical community: discussion at Geek Feminism is restricted by our comments policy. If you want to make commentary that does not adhere to that policy, you need to do it somewhere else. Discussion of Pesce’s technical content or the importance of his main subject matter is also off-topic for this post and will not be published.

On Friday at linux.conf.au 2011, Mark Pesce gave a morning keynote that resulted in complaints citing their harassment policy. I made one such complaint, here is an excerpt:

Dear lca2011 organisers,

Your anti-harassment policy at http://lca2011.linux.org.au/about/harassment
states that:

Harassment includes sexual images in public space.

This morning’s keynote by Mark Pesce included slides with the following
illustrations among others:

1. a pig and a duck apparently having sex
2. a black and white sexualised strangulation
3. a fetish scene with a woman in a mask spanking a man in a mask

Several of these were accompanied by a verbal metaphor to “being fucked” in
case the visuals weren’t explicit enough.

Continue reading “Powerful people: Mark Pesce’s linux.conf.au keynote”

Noirin’s hell of a time

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Warning: this post discusses sexual assault and links to both a survivor account and to hostile comments.

Noirin Shirley’s post A hell of a time in which she describes her sexual assault at ApacheCon on the 4th November and names her attacker is starting to show up in our Linkspam suggestions and so on.

We’ve seen it.

This post has been widely linked by tech news sites, including (trigger warnings for comments at all of these places) Reddit, Hacker News and Gawker and while some respondents have been sympathetic to or angry for Noirin, there’s a lot of victim blaming in the usual ways: “don’t ruin his life over one mistake”, “don’t go to bars”, “asking for it”.

I think this is hard for us to write about, as several of us (including me) know Noirin either online or in person. We want to acknowledge what happened to her and how she responded (go Noirin!) but the ferociousness of the don’t-speak-out wasn’t-that-bad this-is-how-human-sexuality-works get-over-it this-isn’t-news deserved-it has hit us all hard. It feels like we’ve been working our teaspoons super hard for ages, and someone built another dam and filled it up.

And we are just onlookers.

Noirin: sorry about what happened to you, both the assault and the response.

Surely I don’t really need to say this: comments will be moderated. Leaving anti-speaking-out or compulsory-police-reporting or pro-sexual-assault or I’m-not-necessarily-talking-about-this-situation-but-here’s-a-hypothetical-where-the-alleged-attacker-gets-hurt comment here is a waste of your time.

Update: if you have links to share, please place a warning if that link, or any comments it is allowing, are victim-blaming.

Fantasy linux.conf.au 2010

I won’t be at LCA, but since I wish I was, here’s what I wish I could see most. (Note that I haven’t picked something in every timeslot and so this wouldn’t be my complete talks list. This is just my personal highlights.)

I’ve never seen Mako Hill speak, but you can’t be interested in free software and culture activism without stumbling across his name. Because he’s involved in the FSF. And Debian. And Ubuntu. And Wiki[mp]edia. And OLPC. And autonomo.us. Among others. I actually don’t know what his keynote is about, the webpage is just the speakers’ biographies, but I’m just going to go ahead and assume that whatever it is, I’d enjoy. I’m also sure Gabriella Coleman‘s Tuesday keynote would be interesting.

Build Your Own Contributors, One Part At A Time. I don’t know that the Dreamwidth project has good name recognition in the LCA community: consider this an attempt to rectify that. It’s a blog hosting company on the Livejournal model with a fork of Livejournal’s codebase. It’s also very, almost uniquely, innovative and successful in mentoring new and non-traditional contributors. (Kirrily Robert has some information, mostly focusing on their very unusual developer gender ratio.)

Loyal fans of my writing will remember that I’m generally suspicious of how to run an Open Source project submissions to LCA, because so many members of the audience have either run one or seen one run at close range. But I really wanted to select this one because it’s successful at something very unusual. There’s a lot more talk than action on mentoring and diversity in Open Source development; here’s your action.

Introduction to game programming. Yeah, this clashes with Build Your Own Contributors, but since I’m not going at all, it can still be a Fantasy LCA pick, can’t it? Richard Jones is an import from the OSDC scene, he’s a good speaker, he wrote a good chunk of the tools he’s talking about and he regularly puts them to use and watches others put them to use in the PyWeek challenge.

I’m very curious about how Matthew Garrett’s Making yourself popular: a guide to social success in (and for) the Linux community goes and I’d also like to see Claudine Chionh’s Unlocking the ivory tower: Free and open source software in collaborative humanities research: luckily, again this is Fantasy LCA and I don’t have to choose. I’d also get along to FOSS and Māori Language Computer Initiatives later in the afternoon: it’s not exactly my field, but close enough that I’m interested in language and computer interfaces in general.

I don’t know that I’ve ever actually made it to one of Matthew Wilcox’s talks, but I heard great things last year, so I’d get along to Discarding data for fun and profit for sure.

Gearman: Map/Reduce and Queues for everyone! sounds like something I’d enjoy hearing about and might put to use. Can’t lose.

I was accused of being a fangirl when reviewing Adam Jackson’s The Rebirth of Xinerama, if I recall. I don’t think I qualify without, say, asking for autographs, but I enjoyed his 2009 talk a lot. It was not at all aimed at the Mary demographic (short version: I know nothing about X, long version: I know nothing about X) but was still accessible even while totally ignoring my demographic. I love that kind of technical talk. And the more competent parts of the audience seemed fine with it too.

After seeing Andrew Tridgell’s OSDC keynote in 2008 I am wretched about missing Patent defence for free software. Just as you can find Mako Hill everywhere when it comes to free culture activism, you can find Andrew Tridgell everywhere in building… anything. From chess playing server software to homemade coffee roasters. And on the side he’s spent a long time with the Samba team testifying and advising on aspects of the EU’s antitrust investigations into Microsoft. And because of that and because he’s a great speaker and essentially is LCA, it would be a great talk to get to.

Finally, thank goodness this is Fantasy LCA, so I don’t have to tell you which I’d choose of Rusty Russell’s FOSS Fun With A Wiimote, involving Rusty, who is a marvellous speaker, and babies, who… are babies, and Wiimotes, which are white and blue, or Liz Henry’s Hack Ability: Open Source Assistive Tech about the advantages of hacking up assistive tech and thus adapting it to individuals. What a cruel world that timeslot is.

Conference recordings and harassment

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

The problem

At technical and other geek conferences and events it’s becoming increasingly common to either video talks by default, or in some cases to refuse to allow any speaker to opt out of being recorded while still being allowed to give their talk. I have been told a couple of stories of harassment related to conference videos, as follows (all individuals are women, some have been anonymised, none are me):

S gave a talk at a professional conference and related the following experience in chat:

S: linkedin pm I just got: “wow- you’re alot more younger and attractive than I imagined!.Thanks for showing your picture!”
S: I don’t like photographs and don’t let my likeness out much online. But a professional talk I gave a couple weeks ago was videoed (with my knowledge and consent). This was the result.

C gave a talk at a technical conference and a recorded version was also published with her consent. She subsequently received an anonymous email with a list of time offsets for the video and sexual commentary on her appearance at those time offsets.

Geekfeminism contributors also shared stories:

  • Leigh, in reply to S’s story:

    I got one of those on Facebook a few weeks back, from someone I know in the local Linux community, saying I was “so hot” and asking if I was giving any more talks this summer. This is someone I know only professionally, and not even well at that.

    I replied with a link to Juliet’s ‘and she’s cute too!’ blog post…

  • Skud has received several messages with offensive commentary on her appearance based on videos and photographs of her talks. A couple of events have recorded her without first obtaining her consent; in one case, she spoke to the photographer afterwards and asked for the video not to be published.

See also the Wiscon troll incident.

What to do about it

Based on these stories, there are several concerns about recording conference talks that conference organisers should be thinking about when planning to record talks:

  1. Consent to recordings must be obtained from all speakers, in advance.
  2. Have an optional, opt-in, recording scheme for talks. As these stories demonstrate, people have had harassment experiences, some very creepy and cruel, related to being recorded, or have reason to fear them. People may well decide that they’d prefer not to be recorded for this, or other, reasons. If your conference has a “if you don’t want to be recorded, withdraw your talk” policy, you will exclude those people from speaking.
  3. It’s not feasible to get attendee consent, but in your conference handouts, warn attendees that their questions and possibly other conversation may be recorded during talks.

Possible alternatives to making recordings of speakers include publishing slides only, or making a slidecast of their slides and the audio of the talk. (Note that the latter can also be considerably more useful than visuals of the speaker.)

Separately, some women (in particular) intensely dislike the paparazzi atmosphere that some geek events have, in which everyone can be photographed at any time. In your event’s code of conduct, consider addressing the question of whether photographers should seek consent from individual subjects to either photography or to publication of photographs.

What’s your experience with event recording, especially video and photography? Can you think of any other ways in which recording is problematic, or other guidelines for event organisers to help with these problems?

Note to commenters: the “you should be flattered” discussion will not take place in this post. Thank you.

Why we document

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

A comment over on the Geek Feminism wiki asked whether we aren’t damaging the community by documenting sexism. I don’t want to get too 101 on our fine blog, but I do want to talk about why I consider our pretty long list of sexist incidents in geekdom a success.

My first geek feminist forum, and still the one I participated longest in and therefore in many ways most influential on me, was LinuxChix. Things I learned over there included the reasons why having men dominate conversations can be anti-feminist, via the discussion around the document now available as behaviour in technical forums, which was originally a response by Valerie Aurora to a problem where the LinuxChix techtalk list was seeing fewer and fewer posts by women and was generally perceived as scary and hardcore.

We also had a long-standing problem articulating what it was that led to the extreme gender imbalance in Free Software development and many of its user communities. I can’t speak for the community, but what I remember feeling about those discussions was a major unease. There was sexism in computing and in Free Software… probably? Some women had stories, some women didn’t. There was social, peer and societal pressure on young women considering science and technical careers or even on developing those skills… probably? Again, some women had stories, some didn’t.

Had you asked me in 2003 for troublesome incidents in Free Software””are we doing anything wrong, or is this a problem we’ve inherited from other people who did things wrong, or is this just a thing about women, that they don’t like to be too nerdy in their spare time?””I don’t know that I would have been able to give you examples of anyone doing anything much wrong. A few unfortunate comments about cooking and babies at LUGs, perhaps. Things started to change my awareness slowly. Valerie’s 2002 HOWTO Encourage Women in Linux dug up some incidents at LUGs. In 2005 LinuxChix itself got some attention from (trigger warning) the troll Skud posted about. I was personally present at a sexualised presentation, the Acme::Playmate presentation at the Open Source Developers Conference in 2006. And in 2007, very soon after I had seen Kathy Sierra keynote linux.conf.au 2007, she was scared out of her work writing about technology by (trigger warning) online harrassment and for the first time, I personally saw the Internet explode over the issue of active, virulent sexism against women in technology.

I do not in fact find writing the wiki documentation of incidents in geekdom very satisfying. The comment linked at the beginning of the post compared the descriptions to a rope tying geekdom to the past. Sometimes being known as a wiki editor and pursued around IRC with endless links to yet another anonymous commenter or well-known developer advising women to shut up and take it and write some damned code anyway is like a rope tying me to the bottom of the ocean.

But what makes it worth it for me is that when people are scratching their heads over why women would avoid such a revolutionarily free environment like Free Software development, did maybe something bad actually happen, that women have answers. It’s not the only answer, there’s still all that social, peer and societal pressure, the shorter leisure hours, and so on, after all. And there’s no level of harrassment or cruelty that won’t find someone, plenty of someones, prepared to immediately argue that it’s really no big deal, what are you doing here, giving up? Letting them win? But now if when I’m asked about whether geek women have problems and why there aren’t more of us, I’m not left fumbling to explain it even to myself.

I don’t know what the Mary of 1999 (my watershed geek year wasn’t 1998, in fact) would have done if she’d come across that page in more or less the condition the wiki comment described, “the girl entering the community without any predispositions”, the woman vulnerable to being misled into thinking that geekdom is full of scoundrels (or, we might argue, not entirely misled). Maybe she would have run, I can’t say for sure that she wouldn’t have. But what woman is without baggage? In 1999 as a teenage girl with hair flowing down to my waist (I tell you what, short hair has cut my street harrassment down nearly as much as it cut my grooming routine down) I walked down the street to the steady beat of rape threats from passing vehicles. At least I would have found that geek women were talking about it and had got together and got each other’s back.

“Girl stuff” in Free Software

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

This is an edited repost of a blog entry of mine from February 2009.

In January 2009 I gave a talk at the LinuxChix miniconf held as part of linux.conf.au 2009. It was titled ‘Starting Your Free Software Adventure’ and used women developers and community leaders as examples. The idea was to show people what the first steps look like. I conducted (extremely short) email interviews of several women involved in Free Software or Culture or their communities, including Kristen Carlson Accardi, Brenda Wallace and Terri Oda among others.

One thing stood out and kept coming up all week: Terri mentioning that she had resisted at times working on things perceived as ‘girl stuff’. In Free Software this includes but is not limited to documentation, usability research, community management and (somewhat unusually for wider society) sometimes management in general. The audience immediately hit on it, and it swirled around me all week.

This is a perennial problem for professional women: software development is by no means unique in having developed a hierarchy that goes from high status roles disproportionately occupied by and associated with men to somewhat lower status roles disproportionately occupied by and associated with women. (In the case of software, disproportionately occupied by women still means male dominated of course, at least in the English-speaking world.) It’s difficult to disentangle the extent to which women and/or their mentors and teachers self-select for the lower status roles (and I would hardly argue that the self-selection occurs in a vacuum either) versus the extent to which they are more or less barred from high status roles versus the extent to which the association is actually flipped and professions and jobs within them have become low status because women started doing them. Other well-known examples, are, for example, the concentration of women in biological sciences as opposed to, say, physics, the different specialisation choices of male and female medical doctors and surgeons, and so on. Sometimes, as in the war between sciences, the status of a field is somewhere between a joke and real, to the extent that those can be differentiated, but often it isn’t: there’s a correlation between the male to female ratio of a medical specialty and its pay.

In all of these cases, a woman who is conscious of this problem tends to face a choice. Do the ‘girl stuff’, or not? (Of course, ideally one rejects the dichotomy, but no individual woman is responsible for constructing it.) And some, although I don’t know what proportion, of women feel guilty about their choice, especially if they do choose to do girl stuff. Just go ahead and imagine your own scare quotes from now on, by the way.

It also gets messy in various other ways. There’s the extent to which a woman who doesn’t do girl stuff is invested in maintaining the status of her boy stuff role and also the aforementioned vicious cycle where if women are doing something, it will come to be seen as not particularly hard or noteworthy.

Most concretely, I usually see this tension bubble away underneath outreach programmes promoting computing careers (you know what, I have my own status issues and I still resist calling it IT) to women. There’s the people who want to go for yeah we all know coding is populated by weirdos, and male weirdos at that, luckily you don’t have to be a geek and you don’t have to code, phew! I tend to hear about that one only once my outreach friends have gotten involved and staged a coup, admittedly. There’s the there’s so many opportunities in computing, and yes, coding is one of them and its fulfilling and it’s something you can do, but dammit, coders get all the cred and attention and dammit can we talk about something else? Women who admin/write/test/manage rock! And there’s you know, women coders don’t exactly rule the world yet, and furthermore isn’t all this oh-yes-you-could-code-I-guess-and-that’s-a-fine-thing but look! something for folks with people skills! talk basically a soft version of ew coding that’s for boys, also, last I checked, math is hard?

I observe again that there’s no right answer here in the real world right now. Women doing girl stuff have good reasons to feel dissatisfied that their hard-won skills are underpaid and under-respected, women doing boy stuff (scare quotes! please insert!) want other women to know that there’s fun to be had over here, thank you.

One crucial point in my thoughts about this I stumbled on only after the conversation Brianna Laugher recounts, over Indian food on the Friday night (the location of all major conference breakthroughs worldwide). She said”Š”””Šparaphrased”Š”””Šthat she didn’t feel that she should have a problem or be criticised for doing what she is good at, or what’s so desperately needed in her communities, and have to be just another coder in order to be fully respected. And I said that while this was certainly true, women also need to have the opportunity, to give themselves the opportunity, to be selfish: if we want to code, or do something else we are currently either bad at or not notably good at, or for that matter which we are good at but in which we’d have competitors, we should consider doing that, rather than automatically looking for and filling the space that is most obviously empty. However women are justifiably reluctant to enter places where they aren’t obviously welcomed, and what better way to be welcomed than to do work that needs doing and not become just another person doing the coding free-for-all and delaying external validation for potentially quite a long time?

I have no answers. Just the perennial question of distinguishing what other people want, what other people claim they want, the genuine satisfaction of being of service to someone, and the genuine satisfaction of knowing you’ve done a good job of something hard. Where do you like to stand on that?

Possible structures for a technical talk

Edited version of a private email I sent about linux.conf.au 2010 preparation, but not conference-specific. The email discussion led to me enumerating the kind of talks that I think you can give about technical subjects at a linux-conf.au-style (non-academic developer-oriented) conference.

Recitation of facts; or the architecture diagram talk

In this kind of talk, the speaker walks the audience through, say, the architecture of a project. The talk contents are dictated by the architecture. Five minutes on the input module, five minutes on preprocessing, five minutes on transforming into a new set of matrix bases, five minutes on postprocessing, five minutes on sanity checking, five minutes on rendering.

This is the most obvious structure for a technical talk. It’s also the driest structure. It is useful mostly for audience members who want to work on or with the project code, which is for most talks a small fraction of the audience. It best suits very major projects with years of cruft in their architecture and a wide potential userbase.

Insane hack adventure; or "hacking the Tivo", Andrew Tridgell, linux.conf.au 2001

In this kind of talk, the speaker usually talks about a project he or she personally undertook and structures it as a battle against the odds. So of course Y is the most obvious solution, although not trivial. So I tried Y for a couple of months. And then it turns out that the X protocol absolutely makes Y impossible for these reasons [dramatic pause] and at this point any normal human being would have given up, but I retired to a monastery for six months and returned refreshed and a lotus blossom I saw on my return inspired me to try Q…

This is probably the most effective structure for a technical talk and it’s surprisingly widely applicable (you can frame a lot of things in terms of here’s the current problem, here’s what you think the obvious solution is, here’s what happened when I tried it). The biggest limitation is that it’s very hard to do it about work you didn’t do yourself so it’s not available to all speakers. And you can misjudge it: so of course I tried Y says the speaker uh, Y is obviously dumb, why didn’t you go straight to Q? asks the audience (at some conferences, they might well ask it out loud, repeatedly). It doesn’t work for speakers who don’t have expertise (at least narrowly on this one topic) over that the audience has.

Demonstration of surprising ease

In this talk, the speaker proposes a task which sounds too formidable to complete in the talk slot. (Pretty much any task, for some talk slots.) They then proceed to show how it can be done despite the odds using their tool. Edward Hervey edited a video PiTiVi at linux.conf.au 2008. At OSDC 2008 Thomas Lee added a ‘unless’ keyword to the Python language.

This structure can be fun but it has a lot of pitfalls. Edward was continually battling to type while dealing with a handheld microphone. Speakers should recruit an assistant for these talks. The Python keyword talk was kind of fun, but it was also hard to follow: and now I am going over to this totally other tree and adding several lines to this other file at line 1099 and 1346 and is obviously required: he did not succeed in making me think I could easily edit the Python language. In all cases, it needs a decent amount of rehearsal: even more so than other talks.

Dropping of wisdoms

These talks are generally (at linux.conf.au anyway) talks about the social/community/artful aspects of coding. For example, Jonathan Corbet’s talk about how kernel hacking actually works in terms of the trees and maintainers etc at 2009. (One of Linus Torvalds’s bigger 2009 contributions was being in the audience for that talk and adding occasional commentary on his various prejudices.) Andrew Bennetts has had some good luck with a series of talks that began at OSDC 2008, in which he essentially lists every tool he can think of to help you make your Python programs faster. I didn’t see it but I would guess Paul Fenwick’s talk about awesome things you’ve never heard of in Perl was the linux.conf.au equivalent in 2009.

These are useful talks, the main pitfall is that they require considerable expertise over the bulk of the audience. Otherwise someone is just listing a bunch of stuff you do every day back to you. They also need to be about tasks or tools that a lot of people actually use or want to use. No one wants the hidden tricks to using libnousersexceptme.