373: Empathy, Community and Gender Bias in Tech with Andrea Goulet
Episode 373 · February 28th, 2023 · 42 mins 21 secs
About this Episode
Stephanie is joined today by a very special guest, Andrea Goulet. Andrea founded Empathy In Tech as part of writing her book Empathy-Driven Software Development. She's also the founder of the community Legacy Code Rocks and the Chief Vision Officer of two companies: Corgibytes and Heartware (which provides financial support to keep Empathy In Tech running).
Stephanie has strong opinions about the concept of "Makers and Menders" that the Corgibytes folks have written/spoken about, especially around those personas and gender stereotypes. Andrea joins Steph to evolve the conversation and add nuance to the discussion about legacy code/maintenance in our community.
This episode is brought to you by Airbrake. Visit Frictionless error monitoring and performance insight for your app stack.
- Makers and Menders from Corgibytes
- Empathy in Tech
- Legacy Code Rocks
- Forget Technical Debt — Here's How to Build Technical Wealth
- Equal Partners by Kate Mangino
- Sustainable Web Development Episode
thoughtbot is thrilled to announce our own incubator launching this year. If you are a non-technical founding team with a business idea that involves a web or mobile app, we encourage you to apply for our eight-week program.
We'll help you move forward with confidence in your team, your product vision, and a roadmap for getting you there. Learn more and apply at tbot.io/incubator.
STEPHANIE: Hello and welcome to another episode of The Bike Shed, a weekly podcast from your friends at thoughtbot about developing great software. I'm Stephanie Minn., And today I'm joined by a very special guest, Andrea Goulet. Hi, Andrea.
ANDREA: Hello, thanks for having me.
STEPHANIE: So here on The Bike Shed, we like to start by sharing something new in our world. Could you tell us a bit about yourself and anything new going on for you?
ANDREA: Yeah, so I have a background in strategic communications, and then kind of made a windy journey over to software. And so, for the past 13 years, I've been focused on modernizing legacy systems. And legacy is kind of a loose term; something you write today can be legacy. But essentially, we kind of help modernize any kind of software, any language, any platform, any framework.
And so, over the course of doing that, in the work that I did before I came to software, I had a very technical understanding of empathy and communications and had just done a lot of that. And I just noticed how much that mattered in creating healthy and sustainable codebases. So now I'm kind of taking that experience, and I've got a book contract called "Empathy-Driven Software Development." So I've been working on just diving into a lot of the really deep research. So that's been kind of my focus for the past two years.
And it's been really surprising because there were things that were positioned as truths, and then it's like, wait a second, neuroscience is completely upending everything. So it's been a fun learning journey. And I'm excited to share some of the things that I've learned over the years, especially [laughs] in the past two years with this book. So that is the new thing with me. And it's...I was telling you before it just feels like a constant new thing. Anybody who's written a book...it's the hardest thing I've ever done, so... [laughs]
STEPHANIE: Yeah, that sounds tough but also kind of exciting because you're learning so many new things that then kind of shape how you view the world, it sounds like.
ANDREA: Yeah. Yeah, it really does. And I think I really like diving into the details. And I think what started this was...my business partner, Scott, at the time, really embodied the stereotypical 2010 software developer down to the scruffy beard and dark-rimmed glasses. And what I found incredibly interesting was he had this belief of I'm good with machines, but I'm bad with people. And he just had this really deeply ingrained. On the flip side, I had this belief of, oh, I'm good with people, but I'm bad with machines. I'll never learn how to code.
And I found that really interesting. And personally, I had to go through a journey because we went on...it was the first time either of us had ever been on a podcast. So this was about ten years ago. And at the end of the podcast, Scott was the only one on there. And he said, you know, the person asked about his origin story and about our company Corgibytes. And he was like, "Yeah, you know, Andrea is amazing. She's our non-technical founder."
And by that time, I had been coding next to him for like three years. And I was like, why the heck would you call me non-technical? And I just felt this...what is it that I have to do to prove it to you? Do I have to actually go get a CS degree? I know I'm self-taught, but does that mean that I'm not good enough? What certificates do I need? Do I need to sit down next to you? Do I need to change my lifestyle? Do I need to look like you? So I was really upset [laughing] and just thinking through, how dare you? How dare you label me as non-technical?
And Scott is very quiet and patient, great with people, I think. [laughs] And he listened and said, "I use the words that you use to describe yourself. When we were in a sales meeting right before that phone call, I paid attention to how you introduced yourself, and I pretty much used the same words. So when you call yourself technical, I will too." That shattered my world. It shattered my identity because then it put the responsibility of belonging on me. I couldn't blame other people for my not feeling like I didn't belong.
That journey has just been so profound. This is what I see a lot of times with empathy is that we have these kinds of self-identities, but then we're afraid to open up and share. And we make these assumptions of other people, but, at the same time, there's real-world evidence. And so, how do we interpret that? In addition to this, Scott...like, part of the reason I called myself non-technical was because all of the people I saw who were like me or had my background, that's the word that was used to describe someone like me.
And when I would go to a conference, you know, I have a feminine presentation. And this was ten years ago. My very first conference was 300 software developers, and there were probably about 295 men. And I was one of five women in the room. And because I looked so different and because I stood out, the first question that anybody would ask me, and this was about 30% to 40% of introductions, was, "Are you technical or non-technical?" And I had to choose between this binary.
And I was like; I don't know. Am I technical? Like, is it a CEO that can code? I don't know. But then I have this background. And so I would just default to, "No, I guess I'm non-technical," because that's what felt safe because that's what they assumed. And I just didn't know, and I didn't realize that I was then building in this identity.
And so then, as part of trying to create a warm and inclusive organization, we did one of the unconscious bias surveys from Harvard. And what astonished me when I did that myself was that I didn't have a whole lot of bias, like, there was some. But the most profound bias was against women in the workplace, and it stood out a big one. I was like, how is it that I can be someone who's a fierce advocate, but then that's my own bias against people like me? What the heck is going on? So really exploring all of this.
And I think Scott and I have had so many different conversations over the years. We actually ended up getting married. And so we have a personal reason to figure a lot of this stuff out too. And when we start to have those conversations about who am I and what's important to me, then all of a sudden, we can start creating better code. We can start working together better as a team. We can start advocating for our needs. Other people know what we need ahead of time. And we're not operating out of defensiveness; we're operating out of collaboration and creativity.
So the book and kind of everything is inspired by my background and my lived experience but then also seeing Scott and his struggles, too, because he had been told like, "You're a geek. Stay in the computers. Stay in the code. You're not allowed to talk to customers because you're bad at it," and flat out was told that.
So how do we overcome these labels that people have put on us, and then we've made part of our own identity? And which ones are useful, and then which ones are not? Because sometimes labels can create a sense of community and affinity and so how do we know? And it's complicated, but the same thing, software is complicated. We can take skills like empathy and communication. We can look at them schematically and operationalize them when we look at them in kind of detail. So that's what I enjoy doing is looking under the hood and figuring out how does all this stuff work? So... [laughs]
STEPHANIE: I did want to respond to a few things that I heard you say when you're talking about going to a conference and feeling very much in the minority. I went to my first RailsConf in 2022, my first RailsConf in person, and I was shocked at the gender imbalance. And I feel like every time I used the women's restroom; I was looking around and trying to make a connection with someone and have a bit of a kinship and be like, oh yes, you are here with me in this space. And then we would have a conversation and walk out together, and that felt very meaningful because the rest of the space, you know, I wasn't finding my people. And so I feel that very hard.
I think this is also a good time to transition into the idea of makers and menders, especially because we have been talking about labels. So you all talked about this distinction between the different types of work in software development. So we have greenfield work, and that is writing code from scratch, making all the decisions about how to set up an application, exploring a whole new domain that hasn't been codified yet. And that is one type of work.
But there's also mender-type work, which is working in existing applications, legacy code, refactoring, and dealing with the complexity of something that has stood the test of time but may or may not have gotten a lot of investment or care and bringing that codebase back to life if you will. And when I first heard about that distinction, I was like, yes, I'm a mender. This is what I like to do. But the more I thought about it, I started to also feel conflicted because I felt pain doing that work as well.
ANDREA: Oh, interesting, yeah.
STEPHANIE: Especially in the context of teams that I've been on when that work was not valued. And I was doing maintenance work and fixing bugs and either specifically being assigned to do that work or just doing it because I knew it needed to be done and no one else was doing it. And that had caused me a lot of frustration before because I would look around and be on a team with mostly White men and be like, why aren't they picking up any of this work as well?
And so I was thinking about how I both felt very seen by the acknowledgment that this is work, and this is valid work, and it's important work, but also a little bit confused because I'm like, how did I get here? Did I pigeonhole myself into doing this work? Because the more I did it, the better I got at it, the more comfortable and, to whatever degree, enjoyed it. But at the same time, I'm not totally sure I was given the opportunity to do greenfield work earlier in my career. That could have changed where my interests lie.
ANDREA: Yeah, it is. And it's funny that you mentioned this because I actually I'm a maker. But yeah, I created this community, and I'm known for this thing. And I had a very similar experience to how do I exist as someone who's different in this kind of community? And I think part of it is, you know, there's a great quote by George Box, who is a statistician, and he says, "All models are wrong; some are useful."
And I think that's kind of the whole idea with the maker-mender is that it is a signal to be like, hey, if you like fixing stuff...because there is so much shame, like, that's what we were responding to. And Scott had the opposite problem of what you have experienced, where he was only allowed to work on greenfield work. They were like, "No, you're a good developer. So we want you working on features. We won't let you fix the bugs. We won't let you do the work that you like doing." And so that's why he wanted to create Corgibytes because he's like, "This work needs to be done." I am so personally passionate about this.
And when we were having these conversations 13 years ago, I was talking to him about product/market fit and stuff like that. And I was like, "You like fixing software, and there's a lot of software out there to be fixed." I just was very, very confused as to why this kind of existed. And we had been told flat out, "You're never going to find anybody else like Scott. You're never going to be able to build a company around people who find a lot of joy in doing this work."
And I think that this comes down to identity and kind of the way that Legacy Code Rocks was built too. A lot of the signaling that we put out there and the messaging and stuff really came from Scott's feeling of, like, I want to find more people like me. So being in the women's bathroom and like, how do I find more menders? Or how do I find people...because we were walking through a Barnes & Noble, and it was like a maker fest, maker everything. And he's like, "I don't have a community. There's nowhere for me to go to create these meaningful connections," exactly like you were saying. "I have maybe two people in my network."
And then we were at a conference in 2015. We were at the large agile conference. And it was one of the first ones that I've been to that had a software craft track. And we met like 20 people who were really, like, I just saw Scott light up in a way that I hadn't seen him light up because he could geek out on this level that I hadn't seen him do before. And so when I asked, like, "How do you guys stay in touch afterwards?" And they're like, "Oh no, we don't. We don't know how to build a community." And it's like, well, okay, well, we can get that started.
To your response of like, how do you operate when it is presented as a binary? And it's like, am I this, or am I this? This kind of gets down to the idea of identity-wise, is it a binary, or is it a spectrum? I tend to think of it kind of like an introvert-extrovert spectrum where it's like there is no wrong or right, and you can move in different places.
And I think being able to explain the nuances of the modeling around how we came up with this messaging can get lost a lot of times. But I'm with you, like, how...and that's kind of something now where it's like, okay, maybe my role was to just start this conversation, but then everybody's having these ideas. But there are people who genuinely feel seen, you know.
STEPHANIE: Yeah, that's really interesting because what I'm hearing is that when there's this dominant narrative of what a developer should be, and should be good at, and what they should do, it's kind of like what you were saying earlier about how hard it was for you to claim that identity yourself. People who feel differently aren't seen, and that's, I think, the problem.
And I'm very, very interested in the gender aspect of it because one thing that I've noticed is that a lot of my female developer friends do do more of that mending work. So when you talk about feeling like there was no community out there, it just wasn't represented at the time, you know, a decade ago for sure. And still, even now, I think we're just starting to elevate those voices and that work.
I wanted to share that at thoughtbot; we have different teams for different business verticals. And so we do have a rapid validation prototyping team. We do have a greenfield like MVP, V1 product team. And then we also have a team, Boost, the team that I'm on. That is more team augmentation, working with legacy code and existing systems. And it was not lost on me that Boost has the most women. [laughs]
ANDREA: Yeah, because you have the concept of cognitive load and mental load.
ANDREA: Women at home end up taking a lot more of this invisible labor that's behind the scenes. Like, you're picking the kids up from school, or you're doing the laundry, or all these things that are just behind the scenes. And this was actually something...so when Scott and I also got married, that's when I first became aware of this, and it was very similar. And it was, okay, how do I...because Scott and I, both in our business and in our personal partnership, we wanted it to be based on equity. And then also, like, how do I show up?
And for me, the hardest thing with that was letting go of control where it's like, it has to be a certain way. It's hard for me to comment on the broader enterprise level because what I see at Corgibytes is we have gender parity. That's been pretty balanced over the course of our..., and we're a small boutique company, so it's different. But then, in the larger community of Legacy Code Rocks, it tends to be more male. There are actually fewer women in there.
And I think, too, like there's this idea of testers and QA, like, I think that falls in there as well, and that's heavily dominant. And I think sometimes it's like, oh...and I think this kind of comes to the problem of it, like, it's the way that we think about the work in general. And this might be useful just to think about kind of the way that it came about was, you know, makers and menders was we were putting together [laughs] actually this talk for this conference that we went to.
And my background in marketing, I was trying to wrap my brain around when is it appropriate for mending? And I had my marketing degree. It's like, oh, the product lifecycle. And Scott's retort was, "It needs to be a circle. We're agile, so it needs to be a circle." And I was like, this doesn't make any sense. Because look, if you have maturity and then you have it...oh my gosh, it'll link back to innovation, and then you can do new stuff.
And so yeah, I think when we describe makers and menders, and this is true with any label, the idea in the broader model is that makers and menders aren't necessarily distinct, and your team should 1,000%...everyone should be contributing. And if you only have one person who's doing this work, you're at a detriment. That's not healthy for your codebase like; this should be baked in. And the mender is more of like, this is where I get my joy. It's more of an opt-in. But I think that your observation about the invisible labor and how that gets translated to maintenance work is accurate.
A lot of times, like when Scott was describing his thing, it's like, there's the movie "Office Space." I might be dating myself. But there's this guy, Milton, and it's like, "Just go to the basement." He was told maintenance is where good software careers go to die. [laughs] And so over the years, it's like, how do we celebrate this and make it more part of the maker work?
And it's similar to how introverts and extroverts...it's like, we all work together, and you need all of it. But there is an extrovert bias. And extroverts are seen more as, oh, they have leadership traits and stuff. But increasingly, we're starting to see, no, actually, that's not the only way that you can be effective. So I think it's hard. And I think it does come down to belonging. And I think that there are also different cultural impacts there. And it comes down to just a lot of different lived experiences.
And I so appreciate you sharing your point of view. And I'm curious, what would help you feel more like you belong? Is it the work and the environment that you're in that's kind of contributing to this feeling? Or is it other things in general or?
STEPHANIE: Okay, so I did want to address real quick what you were saying about mental load and household labor because I think I really only started thinking about this after I read a book called "Equal Partners" by Kate Mangino, where she talks about how to improve gender equality at home, and I loved that book so much. And I suddenly started to see it everywhere in life and obviously at work too. And that's kind of what really drove my thinking around this conversation, maintenance work being considered less skilled labor or things that get offloaded to someone else. I think that really frustrates me because I just don't believe that's true.
And to get back to what you were asking about what would make me feel more seen or valued, I think it's systemic. But I also think that organizations can make change within their cultures around incentives especially. When you are only promoted if you do greenfield work and write thousands of lines of code, [laughs] that's what people will want to do. [laughs] And not even just promotions, but who gets a kudos in Slack? Or when do you get positive encouragement?
As a consultant, I've worked on different client teams that had different values, and that was when I really struggled to be in those environments. I have a really strong memory of working on a greenfield project, but there was another male developer who was just cranking out features and doing all of this work and then demoing it to stakeholders. But then there was one feature that he had implemented but had faked the data. So he hadn't finished the backend part of it but just used fake data to demo the user interface to stakeholders. And then he moved on to something else.
And I was like, wait; this isn't done. [laughs] But at that point, stakeholders thought it was done. They thought that it was complete. They gave him positive feedback for finishing it. And then I had to come in and be like, "This isn't done. Someone needs to work on this." And that person ended up being me. And that was really frustrating because I was doing that behind-the-scenes work, the under-the-hood work for something that had already been attributed to someone else. And yeah, I think about that a lot and what systems or what the environment was that led to that particular dynamic.
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STEPHANIE: Do you have any advice for leaders who want to make sure there's more equity for people who like to do mending and legacy code work?
ANDREA: Yeah, absolutely. I am so grateful for your questions and your perspective because this is not something that's talked about a lot, and it is so important. I wrote an article for First Round Review. This was in 2016 or 2017. And it was called "Forget Technical Debt — Here's How to Build Technical Wealth," and so if you want to link to it in the show notes. It's a really long article and that goes into some of the specifics around it, but it's meant for CEOs. It really is meant for CEOs.
And I do think that you're right; some of it is that we have lionized this culture of making and the work that is more visible. And it's like, oh, okay, great, here's all the visual design stuff. That's fantastic, but then recognizing there's a lot of stuff that's behind the scenes too. So in terms of leaders, I think some of it is you have to think about long-term thinking instead of just the short-term. Don't just chase the new shiny.
Also, you need to be really aware of what your return on investment is. Because the developers that are working on maintaining and making sure that your mission-critical systems don't fail those are the ones that have the highest value in your organization because if that system goes down, your company makes money. Greenfield work, yes, it's very...and I'm not downplaying greenfield work for sure. I'm definitely, [laughs] like, I love doing that stuff. I love doing the generating phase.
And at the same time, if we only look towards kind of more the future bias...there's a great book that we were featured in called "The Innovation Delusion" that talks about this more in general. But if we only look at the visible work that's coming, then we forget what's important now. And so for leaders, if you're running a software company, know where your mission-critical systems are and recognize the importance of maintaining them. That's the very first step.
The second step is to recognize the complexities of a situation, like, to think about things in terms of complex systems instead of complicated systems. And I'll describe the difference. So when I came to software, I had been working in the creative field, like in advertising, and branding, and copywriting, and all that. And we got inputs. We kind of ran it through this process, and then we delivered. And we did a demo and all of that stuff.
It was when is the timeline? When is it done? Big air quotes. And we were pretty predictably able to deliver on our delivery day. Sometimes things would go wrong, but we kind of had a sense because we had done the same pattern over and over again. You don't get that in legacy code because the variables are so immense that you cannot predict in the same way. You have to adopt a new strategy for how do you measure effectiveness.
And the idea of measuring software productivity in terms of new features or lines of code, like, that's something that goes all the way back to Dykstra [laughs] in the 1970s around, is that the right way? Well, a lot of people who code are like, "No, that's not." This is a debate that goes back to the earliest days of computing. But I think that the companies that are able to build resilient systems have a competitive advantage.
If a leader wants to look at their systems, whether that is a social system and the people in their organization or whether or not it's their software if you look at it from a systems thinking, like, there are interactions that I need to pay attention to not just process, that is super key as well. And then the last one is to recognize, like, one of our core values is communication is just as important as code.
I would be remiss to neglect empathy and communication in part of this, but that really is so important. Because when we position things in terms of...and I don't know as much about thoughtbot and kind of the overall strategy, but kind of an anti-pattern I have seen just in general in organizational behavior is that when you structure teams functionally and silo them, you're not getting that diversity of thought.
So the way that we approach it is, like, put a mender on a maker team because they're going to have a different perspective. And then, you can work together to get things out the door faster and value each other's perspectives and recognize strengths and shadows. So, for me, as a maker, I'm like, I've got a huge optimism bias, and we can go through all this stuff. And for Scott, it's like he struggles to know when he's done. Like, for me, I'm like, cool, we're 80% done. I got it. We're good to go. And for Scott, he'll work on something, and then it's like, I have to stop him.
So recognizing that we help each other, that kind of thought diversity and experience diversity goes across so many different vectors, not just makers and menders. But I think, to me, it's about reframing value so that you're not just thinking about what it is right now in this moment. And I think a lot of this comes down to investor strategy too. Because if you've got an investor that you're trying to appease and they're just trying to make short-term monetary gains, it's much harder to think in terms of long term.
And I think it's developers understanding business, business understanding the struggles of developers and how they need lots of focus time, and how estimating is really freaking hard, and why if you demand something, it's going to be probably not right. And then coming up with frameworks together where...how can I describe this in a way? So to me, it really is about empathy and communication at the end of the day when we're talking about interactions and how do we operationalize it.
STEPHANIE: I like what you said about reframing value because I do believe that it starts from the top. When you value sustainability...my co-host, Joël, had an episode about sustainability as a value in software development. But then that changes, like I mentioned before, the incentive structures and who gets rewarded for what type of work. And I also think that it's not only diverse types of people who like doing different types of work, but there is value in doing both.
And I know we talked about it being a spectrum earlier, but I strongly believe that doing the legacy code work and experiencing what it's like to try to change a system that you are like, I have no idea why this decision was made or like, why is the code like this? That will help inform you. If you do do greenfield work, those are really important skills, I think, to bring to that other type of work as well. Because then you're thinking about, okay, how can I make decisions that will help the developers down the line when I'm no longer on this project?
ANDREA: Exactly, which is a form of empathy. [laughs]
STEPHANIE: Yeah, it is a form of empathy, exactly. And the reverse is also true too. I was thinking about, okay, how can working in greenfield code help inform working with legacy code? And I was like, oh, you have so much energy when the world is completely open to you, and you can make whatever decisions to deliver value. And I've really struggled working in legacy code, feeling like I don't have any options and that I have to repeat a pattern that's already been set or that I'm just kind of stuck with what I've been given. But I think that there is some value in injecting more of that agency into working with legacy code as well.
ANDREA: Well, and I think, too, I think you hit it on the head because, like I said, with the mental load at home, it was like, I had to be okay with things failing where it's like, it wasn't exactly the way I would do it, and I had to be okay with that. Like, oh, the dishes aren't put in the dishwasher exactly the same way I would do it. I'm not going behind it. And like, okay, it's not perfect. That's...whoo, it's going to be okay.
And I think that's kind of what we experience, too, is this idea of we have to figure out how we work together in a way that is sustainable. And I think that, similar to my experience with the technical, non-technical piece, there is an onus. Now, granted, I want to be very careful here to not...there is trauma, and there is absolutely horrific discrimination and abuse. And that is not what I'm talking about here in terms of power dynamics.
I am talking more about self-identity and self-expression. And I think that if you are in a community like makers and menders, yeah, we're less represented. There is a little bit of an onus, the technical, non-technical, like the onus of understanding what non-technical means and where I can push back is really important work for me to do. Because what I was surprised with was everyone there, like, when I started asking...so my response ended up being, "Help me understand, why did you ask that question?" And I took ownership of the narrative.
And it was like, oh, well, what I found was that most of the people were like, if you're a recruiter, I don't want to waste your time with a bunch of stuff that you don't want to talk about. And then being able to say, "Oh, okay, I can see that, and you assumed that I was a recruiter because of the way I looked. And I understand the intention here. Next time, if I'm at a software conference, assume that I know how to code and assume that I'm here for a reason."
And a great opening question is, "What brought you here?" I'm like, oh, okay, when we ask a close-ended question, we position things as a binary, like, are you technical or non-technical? That creates a lot of cognitive dissonance, and it's hard. But if I open it up and say, "What brought you here?" Then I can create my own narrative. There is an aspect of setting boundaries and pushing back a little bit like you said, agency. And that can be really hard because it gets at the core of who you are, and then you have to really explore it.
And what I found, at least, is in the majority, there have been exceptions, but in the majority of the male-dominated groups that I've been in in my career in software, the majority are very welcoming and want me to be there. But I feel inadequate, and it's more impostor syndrome than I think it is people being discriminatory. Learning about the differences between that and where is my responsibility and where's your responsibility in this that's a tough tension to play.
STEPHANIE: Absolutely. And I think that's why it's really important that we're having a conversation like this. I think what you're getting at is just the harm of the default assumption that is chronic, [laughs] at least for me sometimes. And you mentioned earlier the history of computing a little bit. And I was really excited about that because I did a little bit of digging and learned about women's history in computing and how after World War II, programming, you know, there were so many women.
In fact, I think by 1960, more than one in four programmers were women, and they were working on mission-critical work like for NASA for, you know, during World War II for code-breaking. And I read that at the time, that work was deemed boring and tedious, and that's why men didn't want to do it. They wanted to work on hardware, which was what was the cool, creative, interesting work. And the computing work was just second class. That's changed, but in some ways, I'm thinking about, okay, where are we now? And to what degree are we kind of continuing this legacy? And how can we evolve or move beyond it?
ANDREA: Yeah, you're absolutely right. And in some of the research for the book, one of the things I learned is a lot of people know the name, John von Neumann. He created the von Neumann architecture, that is the foundation of all the hardware that most of us use today. And the very first kind of general purpose digital computer, ENIAC, all...I think it was eight of the people who were programmers for that were women. That team was led by John von Neumann's wife, Klára, and you never hear about Klára. You have to go digging for that.
And The Smithsonian actually just about 8, 10 years ago did a big anniversary and then realized none of those women were invited to the press conferences. They were not invited. And so there is kind of this...similar to generational wealth, it's the thing that gets passed down. Like, if you're in the rooms in the early days...there was a quote by John Backus, who created FORTRAN and the Backus–Naur principle, where he talked about programming in the 1950s.
He has an essay, and he was like, yeah, I mean, an idea was anybody who claims it, and we never cited our sources. And so it was whoever had the biggest ego was the one who got credit. And everyone's like, great; you're a hero. And so I think that's kind of the beginning of it. And so if you weren't invited into the room, because in the 1950s, in addition to gender, there was legislation that prevented...we weren't even allowed to use the same bathrooms. You had White bathrooms and Black bathrooms.
So you had very serious barriers for many different people getting into that room, and I think that gets to the idea of intersectionality as well. So the more barriers that you had, the harder it was going to be. And so then you get the stereotypes, and then you get the media who promotes the stereotypes. And so that is what happened to me. So I grew up in the '80s and '90s, and just every movie I watched, every TV show portrayed somebody who was, quote, "good" with computers in a very specific way. I didn't see myself in it. So I was like, oh, I'm not there.
But then, when I talk to Scott, he's like, "Oh, I never saw that. I never saw the discrimination. I just saw this stuff." That's part of it is that if you were in that position where discrimination, or difficulties, or stereotypes had been invisible to you, the onus is on you to learn and to listen. If you are in a situation where you feel like you have been in the minority, the onus is on you to find ways to become more empowered.
And a lot of times, that is setting boundaries. It's advocating for yourself. It's recognizing your self-worth. And those are all things that are really hard. And saying, hey, if we want to be sustainable, everyone needs to contribute. I'm happy to train everyone, but this is not going to work. And being able to frame it, too, in terms of value, like, why? Why is it a benefit for everyone building that empathy?
And you're right, I mean, there are absolutely cultures where...who was it? I think it was Edward Deming. And he said, "A single person is powerless in the face of a bad system." And so if you're in a system that isn't going to work, recognizing that and can you move into a different system? Or can you change it from within? And those are all different questions that you've got to ask based on your own fortitude, your own interests, your own resources, your own situation. There is no easy question. But it's always work. And no matter who you are, it's always work. [laughs]
STEPHANIE: Yeah, yeah. I joined as co-host of this podcast just a few months ago. And I had to do a lot of reflecting on what I wanted to get out of it and what my goals were. And that's why I'm really excited to have you on here and to be using this platform to talk about things that are important to me and things that I think more people should know about or think about. So before we wrap up, Andrea, do you have anything else you want to say?
ANDREA: I want to reinforce that if you feel joy from mending, it's awesome. And there are communities like legacycode.rocks. We have MenderCon, and it's a celebration of software maintenance. So it can be really great. We have a virtual meetup every Wednesday. And there's a kind of a core group of people who come, and they're like, it's like therapy because there are a lot of people who are in your situation where it's like, I'm the only person on my team who cares about automated tests, and I have no idea like...and just having people who kind of share in that struggle can be really helpful, so finding your community.
And then I think software maintenance is really, really critical and really important, and I think we see it. Like, we're seeing in the news every day in terms of these larger systems going down. Just recently, Southwest Airlines and all of these flights got canceled. The maintenance work is so, so valuable. If you feel like a mender and you feel like that fits your identity, just know that there is a lot of worth in the work that you are doing, an immense amount of worth in the work that you are doing, and to continue to advocate for that.
If you are a maker, yes, there is absolutely worth in the work you're doing, but learn about menders. Learn how to work together. And if you are a leader of an organization, recognize that all of these different perspectives can work together. And, again, reframe the value.
So I am so grateful that you framed the conversation this way. It's so important. I'm very, very grateful to hear from you and your point of view. And I hope that you continue to push the narrative like this because it's really important.
STEPHANIE: Aww, thanks. And thank you so much for being on the podcast.
ANDREA: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having me.
STEPHANIE: Show notes for this episode can be found at bikeshed.fm.
JOËL: This show has been produced and edited by Mandy Moore.
STEPHANIE: If you enjoyed listening, one really easy way to support the show is to leave us a quick rating or even a review in iTunes. It really helps other folks find the show.
JOËL: If you have any feedback for this or any of our other episodes, you can reach us @_bikeshed, or you can reach me @joelquen on Twitter.
STEPHANIE: Or reach both of us at email@example.com via email.
JOËL: Thanks so much for listening to The Bike Shed, and we'll see you next week.
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