Monday 22 March 2010

Here come the girls (Ada Lovelace with thanks)

The 24th March has been designated as Ada Lovelace day. A day for blogging about women in tech and science in memory of one womans contribution to Babbage's analytical engine. She was, it would seem, one of the worlds first programmers, and she was a woman. I dislike commenting publicly on gender politics, but this is something which hit a chord with me, because I am a geek, and I am a girl, and those two things do not go together quite as often as one might think they do. Ask any male geek how difficult it is/was to find a girlfriend/wife who understood geeking, nevermind is/was one and you will understand. The world looks differently, I hope, from the generation below, but this is my experience.

So I thought I would write about a woman in tech or science who has inspired me. Who has caught my imagination and taught me to understand that being a geek is not unusual, a role model and mentor who I can go to and bounce ideas off, without needing to dumb down the technical terminology because they wont understand.

The problem with that, of course, is there is no one. Not one single person, that I can think of, who is female and codes, sysadmins, network configures or security defends and is out and proud about it enough to inspire or act as a role model.

So I thought I'd write about Lucy (not her real name, I'm not going to embarrass her, she works with me). The reason I want to write about her despite not being a geek, is the way in which she deals with things which she doesn't understand the mechanics of intimately. Most people are aware of ICT. They understand the meaning of the initials. They understand who they are calling when they have a problem and need the helpdesk. Most people don't understand much further than that and make no effort to.

Lucy makes an effort. A really big one. She is not a geek, but she analyses. She is not a geek, but she puts the jigsaw pieces together and quickly. She is not a geek, but she can see the overview faster than most, and sees how everything intertwines, understanding where ICT must fit into that puzzle. She is not a geek, but she problem solves in a way which gets straight to the point, fixes the cause and lets the rest take care of itself. So in some ways she is a geek, but not in the way it matters when understanding the intricacies of system resource management, network speeds and their impact on responsiveness or the nightmares of security. So she asks. Something so many other people fail to do. She doesn't go away and quietly Google it for fear of losing face, she just asks the question, and asks you to qualify and simplify anything she doesn't understand. She goes away with a proper understanding of something in the context it's relevant to and makes decisions and writes proposals based on the correct information.

For me, watching someone unashamedly admit to not knowing something but using the resource around her to gain the information and understand she needs has been exactly what I needed. Lucy gets straight to the point and doesn't get distracted, perhaps because of the sheer amount of information she is taking on board. And in this she is inspirational, because she has taught me the value of owning up to something, that you do not lose respect for admitting to not knowing something, that choosing the parameters within which you will operate in the business world is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength.

It is odd, perhaps, but the person I have found to be most inspirational, helpful and who has provided the most mentoring to me as a geek, is not a fellow geek but someone who is teaching a geek how to operate in the world with no apologies for not knowing something. As much as I am Lucy's translator and interpreter for geek things - software, hardware, connections, requirements etc - she is my translator and interpreter for how to operate in the world outside geekery, where etiquette, social interaction and getting beyond my shyness and expressing myself and my opinion are things which were challenging but are becoming less so because of her.

Our working relationship may look odd from the outside, I have no idea. But from where I'm standing it is a perfect balance and perhaps demonstrates the massive value of surrounding yourself with non geeks as well as geeks.

So ultimately, this post isn't about women in tech and science at all. Except, actually, it is. It's about me. It's about learning from other people and sharing with other people, and us geeks need to do it more often. So, today, I celebrate the women who mentor us and who are our role models despite not being geeks. In the absence of any one else, they're all I have, and I am thankful for them.


  1. Some fair points in that post I think. One of the things we always did at technical interviews was to ask questions which were beyond the expected knowledge for the role to see how the candidates handled them. With these questions, I wasn't looking to understand what they knew, but what they didn't know. I wanted to be sure that when under pressure, they would feel that they could safely admit that they did not know the answer, or parts of the answer, or would disclaim their answers as unsure. As the saying goes, "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing".

    Playing devil's advocate for a moment, this is possibly one area where the Interwebs have edged things towards harmful.

    In days of old, ask a question, and you may well have got an explanation. These days, you get told to JFGI. A lot of people have become too lazy to explain things for themselves, and in a way, this is a bit of a shame.

    The Internet is not a substitute for being helpful, even though the information on the Internet can often be helpful in itself.

  2. JFGI. 4 letters which make me want to reach through the screen and hit someone with a cluestick. You're absolutely right, if I go to the internet to do some research, I am only getting the perhaps biased view and skew of the people who have felt strongly enough about a subject to write about it. This means that balance is lost, because the people who are perhaps more restrained in their views are not represented on the WWW.

    We can teach ourselves many things through You Tube videos and reading blogs etc. What we cannot do is replace the value of someone taking the time to answer questions in real time, the comfort that that engenders to ask the difficult questions because a relationship has been built, the mentoring which happens as a result, the modelling which happens.

    I am very glad people are understanding where this post has come from. The web can give me everything I ever needed to know and more - except a female geek role model who I can interact with, be that face to face, or through written communication.

  3. Great post - really enjoyed reading it and it made me think about my own behaviour (I can, on occasion, be very defensive about not knowing 'everything')

  4. @Cathy - Other non geeks attitudes don't help with that though - I'm a software/theoretical geek. People ask me about hardware and I'm lost and I tell them, sorry, no, I don't know about motherboards and they walk off muttering about my job title being wrong. Well, yes, my job title _is_ wrong, but I didn't pick it and I simply cannot know everything there is to know under the ICT umbrella.

    As a result, I am jack of all trades and master of none but Google fu. Meeting 'Lucy' has made me far more comfortable telling people straight what I do and do not know and why :O)

  5. JFGI - I think perhaps that there's a difference between asking questions of the Internet Massive because you're too idle to research an issue yourself, and because you're soliciting personal recommendations and opinion. People too often assume you're asking the former, whereas usually when I go down that road it's not because I can't find "an answer" but because I'm looking for people to share their experiences. The Internet is a powerful resource but sometimes lacks that personal touch. These days I try to word my questions a little more carefully (-: