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March 01 2012

Permission to be horrible and other ways to generate creativity

I met Denise R. Jacobs (@denisejacobs) the old fashioned way, not through Twitter or LinkedIn: a mutual acquaintance introduced us. We corresponded via email and actually got together in person a few months later at Web 2.0 Expo, where Denise was speaking. I was impressed both by her passion for giving people the knowledge, tools and resources to feel more empowered in their work as well as the breadth of her experience. Denise wrote "The CSS Detective Guide" and co-authored "InterAct with Web Standards." She also develops curricula for the Web Standards Project Education Task Force and was nominated for .Net Magazine's 2010 Best of the Web "Standards Champion" award.

I spoke with Denise recently about her experiences writing her book, how that led her to new ways of thinking, how she got started the web design, and other projects.

You're known for your web design work. What motivated you to explore the more non-technical topics of creative inspiration?

Denise JacobsDenise R. Jacobs: During the writing process "The CSS Detective Guide" I had a huge epiphany about myself and my ideas of creativity. I had to do battle on a daily basis with my inner critic and figure out ways to silence it, so that I could just get the work done.

In an industry where people are constantly producing wonderful things, it's really hard not to compare yourself to others. In terms of the creativity and the inspiration, it's easy to have panicky moments when you feel as though you can't come up with another idea, a new design, more content. I wanted to formulate ways to access creativity and channel that amazing feeling that you can take on the world, both for myself to help other people. So I wrote an article as a way to solidify my own techniques and to help anybody else who may need to silence a mean voice in their head as well.

Creativity isn't always associated with the technical community. Why is that?

Denise R. Jacobs: It's because there's such a limited definition of creativity in our culture. People treat artists as if they're off in their own world or put them on a pedestal. But it's a misconception that technical people aren't creative. Developers and coders and database architects are extremely creative, just as scientists are. They have to come up with solutions and code that have never been written before. If that's not creativity, I don't know what is.

I'm reading "A Whole New Mind" by Daniel H. Pink, which explores how right-brain is the new wave. We're entering a new conceptual, high-touch era whereas before we were in a very analytical era. Our industry, the technical industry, is actually a perfect in-between point of left brain and right brain. You have to have both, a whole-brain approach, to be successful in our industry.

What steps can people take to bring creativity into their professional and personal lives?

Denise R. Jacobs: One of my favorite techniques for being creative, and productive in general, is to give yourself permission to be as horrible at something as you possibly can, to even mess it up. That permission actually lowers inhibition filters and allows you to take chances that you would normally not take. Often that ends up making it good because you're not as invested in it and therefore not as self-conscious about the process.

Another important technique is to set aside time where your brain is resting, where you're not actually trying to produce something. Give it space to be able to make connections that it wouldn't necessarily have made before. Insights come when you're taking a walk, sitting on the beach or the park bench, playing with your dog. Because your brain is relaxing, it can go places that it doesn't usually go when you're concentrating or you're thinking hard.

In this industry, there's a subculture that is always on — on the computer, on social networks, connecting with people. There is never a time to not be on. When you're at dinner with a friend, you're checking in on Foursquare. You're tweeting. You're taking a picture to upload to your Facebook profile. Texting friends. To just be off is huge and can make all of the difference in the world.

With social media and other tools for people to come together, both in real life and virtually, what do you think about the state of communities today?

Denise R. Jacobs: I could be biased, but one thing I do see is that despite all of our virtual connections, in real life, it's kind of awkward. People are so used to communicating with each other digitally, texting for instance, that they're starting to lose the capacity to have genuine in-person connections to some degree. People aren't engaging with each other. Yet they try to depict it as such to keep themselves entertained.

A trend I'd like to see is for communities and people who make connections virtually to solidify that with an in-person connection. And if you make an in-person connection, then further solidify that with a virtual connection. Let there be a constant ebb and flow, a circuit going back and forth between both real life and virtual connections so that you can't really rely completely on either one. That's why we have these tools — we crave connection. We don't really have enough of it, but we can't depend solely on tools to create all of the connection that we need and vice versa.

What trends and people are you following?

Denise R. Jacobs: Location and self-publishing are trends I watch popping up all over the place. There are so many things going on that it's kind of overwhelming. I rely on serendipity and I focus more on concepts, ideas, and people because they are what underlie the trends. I am inspired by unapologetic creativity and unapologetic cleverness. I admire the younger people coming into the industry who are developing and innovating like crazy.

I admire the work Jane McGonigal is doing, her "Reality Is Broken" book and her whole gaming productivity movement. She takes ownership for being a woman in an industry where that's not typical and doesn't tone herself down at all. She's very feminine and a badass, has a PhD and awesome ideas and that's just the way it is with her.

I also admire Kathy Sierra because she's been around for a while and she's also an incredibly intelligent and clever person, a great speaker, and also someone with a lot of really wonderful ideas.

Tell us about your Rawk the Web project.

Denise R. Jacobs: There are a lot of diverse experts in the tech industry, women and people of color, but they're not very visible in terms of speaking at conferences or writing articles or books or whatever. It's not that conferences or publishers don't want a more diverse lineup, but often they just don't know who to get or how to go about it.

I was at a conference last year and the organizer asked me to fill in for a speaker who had to cancel. Afterwards, I ended up talking to a woman who really wanted to become a speaker but didn't know where to start. This was a perfect example of what people are probably saying to themselves. "I don't know enough. How do I get started? It seems really imposing. There's no room for anybody new."

I started Rawk the Web to give people actual information and have experts share their story about how they got started so that other people can see that they can do it, too. I also want to provide resources to people who may be inclined to give women and people of color more visibility, a network of people they can talk to and get inspiration from to take that first step. This is a really good time for it because people see me at conferences and notice I'm often the only brown person there — they're very conscious of it and glad to see me on stage. I'm hoping to launch it in June and that there will eventually be a Rawk the Web Conference. I know I'm not the only person working on this issue, but I'd like it to be more of a concentrated effort.

How did you get started with CSS and what do you see in its near future?

Denise R. Jacobs: Back in late 1996, nobody was updating the website at the place I was working so I volunteered to take care of it. During that process, I taught myself HTML — it was actually before CSS had really been widely embraced. Over the course of the next few years, I worked in localization for a Microsoft product, then I was a web group product manager at another software company, then later an instructor at Seattle Central Community College in their web design and development programs. Around 2002, web standards started becoming more popular. It was so much better and so much easier. One file to control the whole website — brilliant! It was an amazing, exciting time, to see the changing of the guard, what the web was moving from and what it was moving toward.

I couldn't call myself a web design instructor in good conscience without knowing CSS and I couldn't send students out into the world with outdated and inefficient skills. So I keep up with the trends, particularly by reading articles on A List Apart, and blogs by Dave Shea, Andy Budd and Doug Bowman.

As for the future of CSS, there's going to be a lot more reliance and trust of browsers. Browser vendors know what an important role they play and that browser wars don't do much good. More browser companies are working together with the W3C to establish and embrace standards.

Because of that, changes are happening faster. There's a big push for people to get up to speed with current best practices and develop new ones. For things like page layouts and CSS3, there are some really neat properties that are going to change the way people think about their approach to web layouts and the craft of building websites. It's going to be interesting to see how long those properties take to be adopted and what people come up with for them.

This interview was edited and condensed.


December 15 2011

Four short links: 15 December 2011

  1. Donate to the Ada Initiative -- they're fundraising for their 2012 activities which include events, activities, and resources for women in open technology and culture. They've got my money.
  2. The Anosognosic's Dilemma -- first part of a series on how the worst kind of ignorance is about your own failings. Even if you are just the most honest, impartial person that you could be, you would still have a problem—namely, when your knowledge or expertise is imperfect, you really don't know it. Left to your own devices, you just don't know it. We're not very good at knowing what we don't know.
  3. Values are Features (Clay Johnson) -- Google is actively investing in social and philanthropic causes, from combating human trafficking to open government. Yet it stands head and shoulders above other technology companies, and the biggest (Apple) is last in line. I just don't see most people buying a crapper product without egregiously broken values; unless Apple is conducting human sacrifices at the Cupertino campus and it ends up on 20/20, most everyone will be happy to keep buying their iStuff.
  4. Apps Are Too Much Like 1990s CDROMs and Not Enough Like The Web (Scott Hanselman) -- as a user, more and more, I want to Go Somewhere and get functionality as opposed to Bring Something To Me to get functionality. Managing apps, updates and storage is as pointless as my managing my [tamagotchi].

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December 12 2011

An angel who bets on women-led companies

Blogger, mother, foodie, and hardcore New Yorker Joanne Wilson (@TheGothamGal) is one of a few female angel investors. Her approach to investing is unabashedly women-centric. And as she explains in the following interview, she's a believer in the power of the startup ecosystem to influence the economies of New York and beyond.

What inspired you to move into the venture capital (VC) space?

Joanne Wilson: I call myself an angel rather than a VC because I'm doing this by myself. And I am a woman doing this by myself in this space, which I know is not the norm.

I've been involved in startup businesses throughout my whole life, and I had gotten off the train for a while. Being home with my kids, I started blogging in order to stay connected to the Internet industry and not lose my credibility. That was eight years ago.

I was closely watching all of the new companies in the space we began to call Web 2.0. One of them was Curbed, and I heard they were looking for funding. I was at a point in my life where I realized I was ready to do something, and I felt like I could add value there. So, I called Curbed founder Lockhart Steele and said I'd be very interested in funding his company. After that, the cat was out of the bag. Everyone came running in the door.

In the beginning, I was thinking of funding one, maybe two startups. But, as my husband [VC Fred Wilson] says, "Your problem is that you wouldn't want one lemonade stand; you'd want 1,000 of them."

What's the difference between an angel and a venture capitalist?

Joanne Wilson: There are three rounds as a company begins. The first is seed, where you have a wonderful idea and need to get things rolling. For that, you go to your family and friends. Then, as the idea gains traction — you build a website, a community, and realize you could really grow it — that's when angels like me come in. I invest in the round after seed, helping it get to the third round.

VCs are in the business of growing businesses. They bring in seasoned players with a different kind of skill set. A VC will be with a company through many iterations of investments. Angels, on the other hand, usually leave the space once the VCs get in. Angels become more of a friend and a consiglieri to the entrepreneur at that point.

Is an angel someone who gives as much advice as money?

Joanne Wilson: No. I'm not normal in that respect. I get really involved in these businesses. It's not like I call them, but if they want to call me every day, I am happy to answer any questions. If I don't know the answer, I'll find it out for them. I open up my Rolodex and think about the big picture. I'm pretty accessible, and I want them to reach out to me.

You called yourself a "chick magnet" at Web 2.0 Expo. Do you think your accessibility is one of the main reasons why women founders seek you out? How do you get "found"?

Joanne Wilson at Web 2.0 Expo 2011
Joanne Wilson (left) judging the Startup Showcase at Web 2.0 Expo NY 2011.

Joanne Wilson: One of the topics that I always come back to in my blog has to do with being a woman and how you can do it all, just not all at the same time, and the frustrations of balancing life and family. I think that topic resonates with a lot of women out there. I also have put the majority of my investments into women-led companies. I'm a big believer, but this whole nonsensical thing of not enough women in tech, not enough women CEOs, not enough women on the board — guess what? If we invest in women entrepreneurs, we'd change the game because they're all CEOs. It's pretty easy to do.

I also put on a conference called the Women's Entrepreneur Festival with Nancy Hechinger, a professor at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program. Ten businesses were started at that conference, and many connections were made. This year, we'll have about six panels, five people on each panel and a moderator for each panel, highlighting "the makers" — community makers, taste makers, art makers. What's fascinating is that only one man has signed up to come.

Do you have any advice for angels or VCs looking to invest in women-driven startups?

Joanne Wilson: It's no different than the advice I give to kids who graduate and want to work in a startup or be an entrepreneur. There are meetups all over the city every single night. Eventually, you meet people and hear what's going on. It's a very open, embracing industry. There's a lot out there and there are a lot of bloggers writing about what's going on and about new businesses. If you can't find women-led businesses, then you're not reading the right things and you're not looking in the right spots.

I would love to see more people who have created wealth for themselves and their families take a chunk of their change and invest in women-led companies. It would be better for the economy. And, again, better for women. By the way, it's not always about women — companies should be mixed. Women bring something to the table and so do men. It's about the best ideas.

Any advice for new founders?

Joanne Wilson: For first-time entrepreneurs moving forward and going up for more money, remember to use the people you have. Engage them in your business.

Second, consider how big you want to be. You don't have to be a $1 billion business. For instance, Dave McClure is doing a really cool thing: funding 500 new startups. He's giving a lot of people an opportunity to be entrepreneurs, but they won't all be $1 billion market cap companies. You could have a nice $4-million-a-year lifestyle business in the local community, something you love to do every day. That is an amazing thing. You're making enough money to live your life and do good at the same time. Create economies, hire people, and maybe have a family. That's okay. You've got to think big picture, and you've got to think reality.

What are some of the notable companies you're involved with?

Joanne Wilson: There's a void in the market for businesses in the $50-$60 million range, where investors exit at the second round. These are not niche businesses — $50 million is significant. But, they're not $1 billion market caps. Many of the businesses that I'm involved in, women-led businesses, are at that level and going out for their VC round, which indicates that they're successful.

One of the biggest successes is Daily Worth, Amanda Steinberg's company. She has created tremendous traction and sells advertising at lightning speed, to the point that we don't have any inventory. She's done an amazing job. If she pivoted in one direction, she could be a huge, huge business.

I'm also in Catchafire. Founder Rachael Chong is about to launch a product that I think is going to change her business. That could be a massive business, surpassing $100 million.

I also just invested in littleBits. We have yet to see where that goes, but Ayah Bdeir has created a really interesting product. She was just acknowledged as a TED2012 Fellow.

Have social media or other technologies changed the way you make investment decisions?

Joanne Wilson: No. I invest in the entrepreneur, and then the business. I have to love what they're doing. Think about it like a house: when you buy a house, you can renovate it, but you can never change the location.

What do you think of some of the recent studies pointing to women-led startups tending to be more successful?

Joanne Wilson: Women say "we." Men say "I." That's both a positive and a hindrance. Women say, "What's my role here? How is this going to work for all of us? Am I doing as well as I think I should be doing?" Men don't think that way. If you ask five men and five women to be mentors, men say "Yeah, sure." Women say, "What's expected of me? How many hours do I have to put into it? Does this make sense for me?" It's different. Women run families.

Do you think the different vocabulary and thought process is part of what's hindering women founders from getting investments from mostly or all-male angels and VCs?

Joanne Wilson: No, I don't. I'm sure people would smack me for this, but going to back to the void in the marketplace for $50-$60 million businesses, I think that many VCs invest only in businesses that they hope are life changing — the $1 billion market cap.

If you look at many women-led businesses, they tend to invest in things that fill needs in their lives. The women who started ZipCar probably figured it would be great to walk outside and have a car waiting. The Apgar test and Scotchgard — these were invented by women. Fire escapes, Liquid Paper, windshield wipers, life rafts, cleaning tools for the home — all created by women. They create what they need, which, incidentally, adds up to a much bigger economy.

I would rather invest in 100 startups that will become $50 million companies and will change economies, that will change communities, that will change families. The long-tail of the Internet revolution is that there are no longer companies with one president, seven vice presidents, and then all of these different levels of people underneath them. It's over.

Is the economy changing investment trends?

Joanne Wilson: The greatest thing about our country is that the people see what's happening before the government. There's a wave of entrepreneurialism, of returning to our communities — whether it's the local grocery store or butcher, customers are having conversations with their local shopkeepers. There's something really powerful about that. It was something we had right a long time ago, and there's nothing wrong with going back to that model.

Who inspires you?

Joanne Wilson: Hillary Clinton rocks. What she has done, from being the wife of the president to where she sits now — I think she's an amazing, incredibly inspirational human being. My husband inspires me. He's fantastic at what he does. We've been partners since we were 19 years old, and we've created everything together.

In general, I'm pretty inspired by the entrepreneurs that I meet every single day. I feel incredibly lucky that I get to meet people whose synapses are going so fast I can barely keep up, who think about ways to change the way we live and to change the economy that we're in now, who think about the world at large and are figuring out how to make money, and who want to get things done quickly and efficiently. To have those conversations every day is pretty damn inspiring.

This interview was edited and condensed. Photo by Pinar Ozger.


March 24 2011

Would I attend my own conference?

When you’re deciding whether to attend a conference, and you’re checking out the website, what do you consider? Most likely, you’ll look at the program, searching for names you know and session titles that describe compelling topics.

If you’re like me—some of you are and some of you aren’t—you’ll also look for diversity among the speakers. If every speaker is a man, or if everyone is white, or both, I know this isn’t an event for me. I don’t need to hear more of the same prominent voices, and I don’t get much value out of an environment that takes a narrow, old-school view on who’s worth listening to.

Because some of you aren’t like me in your choices, there are profitable conferences with speaker rosters that look like roll call for the signers of the Constitution. But conferences that want to be taken seriously by people who take other kinds of people seriously need more diversity among the speakers to thrive. And conference organizers, whose goals often include highlighting new ideas, cannot simply recycle the same short list of well-known speakers from show to show.

Which is a funny thing for me to say. Because I’m co-chair, along with Brady Forrest, for Web 2.0 Expo, a large, semi-annual tech conference that starts on Monday and is among the shows co-produced by O'Reilly and UBMTechWeb that have been pilloried in the past for our speaker line-ups—particularly for not having enough women. While the last outcry came before I had this job, these sorts of discussions are cyclical, and the shows I’ve organized could reasonably be targets of such criticism.

What gives? And what can we do about it?

First, let's put some data behind the idea that men are overrepresented as conference speakers. For the three Web 2.0 Expos I’ve organized, our speaker rosters have comprised 25 to 30 percent women. That’s a near-triumph, considering that only 10 percent of the people who apply to speak are women, and the vast, vast majority of well-known businesspeople in tech—the ones a lot of you look for when considering a conference pass—are men (more on that in a minute). But it’s far short of, say, a 50/50 split.

Further, I’m dismayed to report that when it comes to the percentage of women speakers, our not-stellar numbers are among the best in tech conferences. TechCrunch Disrupt’s NY 2010 show had fewer than 10% women speakers. Our sister show, Web 2.0 Summit—which is programmed by people other than Brady and me--had just around 10% women speakers in 2010. Twitter’s 2010 Chirp conference had one woman speaker listed on their site; Facebook’s F8 conference managed two or so. Future of Web Apps October 2010 show clocked in with 14% women speakers. The Bloomberg Empowered Entrepreneur Summit, which focuses on tech and takes place next month, has zero women entrepreneurs on the roster. Of course, conferences that focus on women, like BlogHer, have close to 100% female slates. But as a rule, general tech conferences don’t get near half.

In a way, this isn’t a big surprise. It’s well-documented that women are underrepresented in the tech sector (if you're not already up to speed, start with "Out of the Loop in Silicon Valley" by Claire Cain Miller, and do not miss "The Men and No Women of Web 2.0 Boards" by Kara Swisher). And it’s also well-documented that across sectors, women are underrepresented in senior roles—i.e., the sorts of positions that are likely to have stories to share at conferences. So, yeah, the population of female speakers we can draw on is smaller than the population of male speakers. But Expo generally has just 150 - 250 speakers total per show (and most conferences have fewer). Why can’t we find 75 - 125 women speakers?

There are two primary ways that conferences get speakers, and we use both methods. 1) You put out a pubic call for speakers (sometimes known as a call for proposals, or a call for papers, or whatever); you get a slew of applicants; you accept some of them. 2) You brainstorm a list of people you’d like to have speak; you reach out to many of them; some of them accept.

Here’s where these methods go wrong: 1) About 10 percent of the public applicants will be women, even if you ask women to apply. 2) The brainstorming, which requires that you know of the speakers already, produces even worse results: 5 percent on a good day. (Another conference organizer has described the second process like this: “Who should we have this year?” A long list of well-known people gets suggested. Somebody notices there aren’t any women on the list. “Ok, what women should we ask?” “We had Caterina Fake last year, but Carol Bartz and Sheryl Sandberg might be free.” “Right, who else?” Longish pause. “I wonder if Ev Williams or Biz Stone is available.”)

This is where we have a chance to change things.

In a recent post, “Designers, Women and Hostility in Open Source", Gina Trapani argues that to boost the participation of women in open source projects, the projects need to organize differently than they often do. Her recommendations, based on her own experiences as an organizer, include things like welcoming and mentoring new participants, recognizing valuable contributions that aren’t just code, and, indeed, valuing things other than the code. Note that she does not recommend that women participants behave differently in order to gain status.

We have a similar opportunity to rethink conference rosters. Let’s take the call for proposals method of finding speakers. When people call out a show for having a paltry percentage of women in the lineup, the traditional response is to explain (or complain) that very few women applied and to then call on more women to enter in the proposal system. Colleagues of mine, people I respect deeply, have gone this route.

But it doesn’t work. While, obviously, some women will apply to speak, the overwhelming evidence is that most will not. In a post last year, Clay Shirky, lamented that his female students were far less likely to sing their own praises and ask for things that would benefit them, like recommendations, than were his male students. His suggestion? That the women act more like the men. While I generally enjoy agreeing deeply with Clay, he—like the conference organizers calling on more women to apply—has missed a key point. If your system of finding worthy students or speakers to promote is to have them come to you and ask, but a solid body of research shows that women won’t do so, you’ve institutionalized a gap.

Better instead, as Gina recommends, to change your system. For conference organizers, that means not just opening up a public call for proposals and asking Women 2.0 and Girls in Tech to tell their friends, but also seeking out and inviting individual women. That may sound inefficient, and it is time-consuming. But if your supposedly efficient public-call system isn’t yielding the desired results, then it’s simply failing efficiently.

We’ve gotten fairly good results at Expo reaching out to individual women. Key to this success is that we aren’t looking to put women on stage because they’re women, we’re seeking out great speakers whom we may have overlooked because they’re women. So it’s not uncommon that I’ll hear about a woman who might have a good presentation to give, but when I talk with her, it’s clear she’s not a fit for our show. I don’t shoehorn in those women, I move on and find others who are right for us.

To improve our efficiency, I enlist help reaching individuals. For instance, at Expo, we generally prefer single speakers or co-presenters to panels. But when somebody proposes an intriguing panel to us, I ask the organizer to include at least one woman with appropriate expertise. I’ve had dozens of these conversations. Almost always, the organizer’s response is, “Oh, right, hadn’t thought of that, good idea. A would be great, or we could ask B if she’s free.” Only once has the response been, “I won’t be able to find anybody.”

In addition to panel organizers, I plant the seed with founders, CEOs and other senior businesspeople. When I meet them (male or female), and we get to chatting about conferences, I ask them to consider actively supporting their female employees as speakers. For the CEOs, that might mean brainstorming with the employees on conferences they could reach out to and topics they could propose, giving them time to write the proposals and travel to shows, and maybe offering really good speaker training. While I can’t yet track results for this mini-initiative, I’ve been surprised to find that when I make these suggestions, businesspeople most often look like the light bulb has gone off, “Right, yes. I can do that stuff—and I want to.”

So you can supplement the call-for-proposals method with a raft of invitations (and bolster that with help from CEOs). But where do you find the women to invite? And what do you do about the brainstorming-notable-people method? In both cases, the hurdle is that accomplished women are, more often than not, less prominent (because, y’know, they don’t speak at conferences as frequently).

If I were to ask you: Who are the ten biggest names among web CEOs? Feel free to include hardware and software companies. And also: Who are the ten biggest names among web entrepreneurs? Feel free to include people from your first list. Your lists, like mine, would include few or no women. So now, even if I change the question to ask you: Who’s doing interesting work we might want to highlight? Well, now your brain is primed to remember the men you came up with a minute ago. And you’re all set to overlook a slew of compelling speakers.

This is where lists are really key. I simply keep lists of C-level women in tech, women entrepreneurs, women VCs, women tech journalists, women consultants and so on. And I find women to add by keeping a close eye on everyone else’s lists, conferences, books, blog comments and tweets—and then, often, seeking out video of these women to get a sense of whether they’re good speakers. (Incidentally, I am, for various reasons, skeptical of those “Top Women in Tech” and “Female Entrepreneurs to Watch” lists. But I have to admit that when they prompt your team to remember specific women in the brainstorming process, or when they help you find those interesting women you wouldn’t otherwise have known about, they’re useful.) No question, when we’re trying to move the needle on our percentage of women speakers, being able to consult these lists give us a fighting chance.

Maintaining these lists takes work. But y’know what? That’s part of our jobs. And it leads to a world in which I might just be interested in attending my own conference.

Among the things I haven’t tackled in this post: Why are women less likely to propose themselves as speakers (and what can we do about that)? Does an increase in great female speakers affect attendee satisfaction or measurably improve the bottom line? Are there ways that matter in which women speakers are different to work with than men? If there’s interest, I’ll consider a follow-up piece.

Also in this post, I’ve focused on female speakers. But tech conferences—including my shows—could benefit from efforts to increase the diversity of speaker rosters along other vectors, including race, age, physical ability and other factors that influence experience, perception and understanding. What else can we do to improve our line-ups? Thoughtful, constructive ideas welcome.

December 28 2010

Four short links: 28 December 2010

  1. Amazon Sold 158 Items/Second on Cyber Monday (TechCrunch) -- I remember when 20 hits/s on a Sun web server was considered pretty friggin' amazing. Just pause a moment and ponder the infrastructure Amazon has marshaled to be able to do this: data centers, replication, load balancers, payment processing, fulfillment, elastic cloud computing, storage servers, cheap power, bandwidth beyond comprehension.
  2. Quick Thoughts on Pinboard (Matt Haughey) -- thoughtful comments, and an immediate and just as thoughtful response. (I am a happy pinboard user who is also looking forward to the social networking features to come)
  3. Female Founders -- impressively long list of female startup founders. (via Hacker News)
  4. Less Framework -- cross-device css grid system based on using inline media queries. (via Pinboard)

October 06 2010

Women helping women get into tech

Past efforts at getting women involved in the computer industry have generally focused on high school and college students, but Sara Chipps (@SaraJChipps) is taking a different approach. Girl Develop IT, an educational effort she helped start, is introducing women of all ages to programming. Chipps recently spoke with me about the project and the pressures women face in the computer and open source communities.

How did you get involved with computers?

Sara Chipps: I've been doing development for about 10 years now and web development for about five years. I fell in love with it when I was in high school. I took a C++ class taught by a great woman my senior year, and then I went to Penn State and majored in computer science. When I was done with school, I started out as a DBA. I got a great chance to work with a group of guys who mentored me in web development, and that's where I am today.

Do women in tech feel pressure to either be "one of the guys" or to go to an opposite "Barbie" extreme?

SC: I think it's a dynamic that's evolving, and I'm hoping that we can reach a middle ground. The reason for the whole Barbie push is that to be accepted in this field a lot of women feel the pressure to kind of, for lack of a better term, become a little more masculine. Or they feel the need to separate themselves from who they are as a gender in order to get respect from other people in the field. As a response to that, there's been a push in the other direction; that's what you've seen recently. It has a lot to do with getting the message out there that being a nerd on the inside doesn't mean you have to be a nerd on the outside.

Are women encouraged to take on non-development roles at tech companies?

SC: Sometimes I get feedback from women that they've been encouraged not to go into development, or they've been told they'd be a better fit in management. That's all arbitrary data because it's only based on things I hear.

I'm hesitant to say, definitively, that women are being discouraged from development. In my career as a developer, I've gotten support from people who want to see more women in the field. These people have gone out of their way to make sure I succeed.

Why has traditional computer science education failed women? Why is Girl Develop IT different?

Girl Develop ITSC: I can only relate to what my own experience has been and what I've heard from women I've spoken to. But it was really scary for me asking questions in a room of 50 guys. I felt like I was representing my whole gender.

All the guys I've worked with or ever learned with have been really great. Sometimes insecurities -- or being in the minority -- makes you feel if you call attention to yourself, you might do something embarrassing.

With Girl Develop IT, we wanted to create an environment where women weren't afraid to ask stupid questions. We also wanted to make programming a lot more accessible for them. And now, we actually have two guys in our classes. We think this is a great industry, and we want as many people to get educated about it as possible. We're just more geared toward women.

How did Girl Develop IT come together?

SC: A whole bunch of us met about six months ago, all seeing the same problem and wanting to be part of the solution. There are a lot of groups that get around a table and talk for a while. What we wanted was for people to actually teach women to ship software.

We treat classes like a lab. Women bring their laptops and by the end of the class they've produced something they can take home and view online. We want to give them something concrete that they've made.

We offer four series, and we're adding a fifth: the first one is HTML/CSS; the second is JavaScript and jQuery; the third is data structures and databases with MongoDB; the fourth is Ruby on Rails; and the fifth class will be advanced Google Analytics for predictive analysis on your web space.

We limit the classes to 30 people. We've had a lot of pressure to grow this, but we're focusing on getting it done right and being able to mentor other groups that want to do the same thing. However, we did recently expand to Australia with Pamela Fox, who is on the Google Wave team. There are now Girl Develop IT classes being sponsored by Google over there.

Is there misogyny in the open source community?

SC: It isn't misogyny as much as it's an alpha male environment. That sounds like a synonym, but I don't believe it is. In open source, there's a lot of people who believe very passionately about what they do. Those people have passionate debates.

It's not a delicate environment for delicate individuals, either male or female. I think the reason why many women have been steered away from this environment is because of things being so spirited and people being so passionate. It can be a scary place for anyone, regardless of gender.

What I had to do was get to the point where I realized not everyone in that space knows what they're talking about. They're wrong sometimes, just like I'm wrong sometimes. I had to get the confidence to argue with them and when I felt like I had a good point I had stick to it and get in there.

It's like looking into a coliseum with a bunch of men yelling at each other and knowing that you have to walk in the middle and yell back. It's a scary prospect. But once you have confidence in your knowledge and understand that they may be acting like they know it all, but they probably don't, it becomes not a friendlier place but a more comfortable place.

This interview was edited and condensed.


July 28 2010

Four short links: 28 July 2010

  1. The end of the road for the Nexus One (LWN) -- The pessimistic among us can be forgiven for concluding that the battle for open handsets is being lost. The carriers determine which devices will be successful in the market, and they have absolutely no interest in openness. Customers are irresistibly drawn to heavily advertised, shiny devices with low up-front costs; they just do not see any reason to insist on more open devices or, even, freedom from carrier lock-in. Attempts to create a market in open handsets - Nexus One, OpenMoko - seem to go down in flames. By this reasoning, we may well all be using Linux-based handsets in the future, but the freedom that attracted many of us to Linux will have been lost. (via Hacker News)
  2. Women in Technology -- says almost everything I learned from helping women into O'Reilly conferences. Amen!
  3. Teenagers and Social Participation (Nina Simone) -- [M]any older visitors enjoy the vibrancy of social events and are more than willing to share stories with other visitors in the context of a museum experience as long as it isn't overly technology mediated. There is another, surprising group that is much less likely to participate in dialogue with strangers: teenagers.
  4. Three New Features for Reddit Gold -- I've been watching this with interest. They asked supports to sign up to subscription program before they said what they'd offer in return. Now they're developing premium features to see what sticks. They're offering the ability to turn off ads, no surprise there, but also some features (such as resortable lists) that are computationally expensive. I like the idea of offering subscribers the expensive-to-compute services above and beyond freemium.

March 26 2010


Tags: Ada Lovelace - the Ada Lovelace Day, 24th of March - survey on articles via in 2009 & 2010

Pointer - Wegweiser ---------------------------------------------------

In occasion of the Ada Lovelace Day, 24th of March (a day to remember and encourage women in IT technologies, female engagement in all kinds of cyber-activism & blogging) I tagged all the articles I could find on my soup in 2009 und 2010 on Ada Lovelace (just click on the name and the postings will appear)

There are a lot of informations about engagements in politics interconnected with the fields of technological developement, human rights, privacy - btw, also about Franziska Heine from CCC - and even comics.

[oanth - muc -20100325]
Reposted bySigalon02 Sigalon02

March 24 2010

At the Forefront of the Next Industrial Revolution

I chose Limor Fried, founder and chief engineer of Adafruit Industries, as the subject of my post for Ada Lovelace Day for four reasons:

  1. Limor is a hardware engineer - one of those bastions of tech in which it's most important for young girls considering future careers to understand that women can excel. Here's Limor, making adjustments to the pick and place machine that she uses to manufacture circuit boards for her creative hardware designs.

  2. pick and place sany2691

  3. Limor is a "complete" entrepreneur, doing whatever it takes to get her business off the ground, from writing software to manage the company's operations, to hiring and management, to marketing and PR, accounting and finance. When I went to visit her recently in her New York headquarters (a live-work space close to Wall Street), there was so much that reminded me of my own early days at O'Reilly, when I was not just a writer and editor, but also janitor and system administrator, software developer and bookkeeper, marketer, head of sales, and business manager.

  4. My visit filled me with nostalgia - and conviction that I was watching a founder who has everything it takes to take a business from zero to success without any venture financing, relying instead on hard work, a sure sense of an open market niche, and a can-do mindset that would rather just do it than hire someone who's done it before.

    I launched my business in a barn that I had renovated myself. Employees had to tiptoe past my sleeping infant to use the bathroom in the house. Limor too lives onsite, with kitchen and sleeping quarters curtained off from the large room that is at once R&D lab, manufacturing floor, and shipping dock. I wrote the accounting system that my company used to keep track of our finances; Limor has written a system that interfaces a scale with online postage services to minimize shipping costs and maximize delivery time for her customers. I saw early on that the best marketing was evangelization of ideas that matter; Limor too doesn't sell products so much as she sells a mindset.

  5. Limor is at the forefront of what Wired identifies as the next industrial revolution, a revolution driven by what I like to call "smart stuff, and dumb stuff made with smart tools."

  6. Over our years watching the alpha geeks, we've concluded that many big technology revolutions don't start with entrepreneurs, but with hobbyists having fun. Think the Wright Brothers and others who enabled the age of flight, the Homebrew Computer Club that helped birth the personal computer industry, the early web sites that were built with no expectation of financial return, the open source developers who wrote code, as Linus Torvalds admitted "just for fun."

    We noticed an upsurge of "hardware hacking" five or six years ago. O'Reilly publishing co-founder Dale Dougherty realized that it was the beginning of something big and launched Make: Magazine in 2005 to celebrate the movement. The magazine took off, and so Dale launched West Coast Computer Faire. Last year's Maker Faire in San Mateo drew nearly 70,000 people.

    At first, the Maker revolution looked simply like a wacky world of invention for the sake of it, for recreation and for learning, or as Dale put it in the tagline for the magazine, "technology on your own time." But as in prior technology revolutions, there was a larger business opportunity hiding in plain sight. Right on schedule, we're seeing the next generation of companies emerge from what at first appeared to be just a bunch of hobbyists having fun. Adafruit is in good company, one of a series of new "Maker Pro" businesses.

    And they are not just small businesses any more. Open source hardware projects like Android are now in the mainstream of consumer electronics. Every smartphone has dozens of sensors; skills learned in Maker projects are now applicable to mainstream applications.

  7. Limor has the open source mindset, working constantly to spread knowledge and enable others. In the video below, Limor explains why she shares her designs (as well as showing off a couple of them.)

  8. Limor has worked to document all the tools she uses, to help other would-be Maker businesses to get a head start. This Makezine article provides a good overview; there's more detail on her LadyAda Wiki. She's also doing outreach via weekly live video show, Ask An Engineer

The purpose of Ada Lovelace Day is to celebrate women in technology in hope of encouraging more young women to realize what a great, creative field it is, rife with opportunity for self-expression, for community, and for financial success. Limor Fried is showing them how it's done.

July 09 2009

Four short links: 10 July 2009

  1. Ceph -- open source distributed filesystem from UCSC. Ceph is built from the ground up to seamlessly and gracefully scale from gigabytes to petabytes and beyond. Scalability is considered in terms of workload as well as total storage. Ceph is designed to handle workloads in which tens thousands of clients or more simultaneously access the same file, or write to the same directory-usage scenarios that bring typical enterprise storage systems to their knees. (via joshua on delicious)
  2. Daily Internet Activities, 2000-2009 -- Pew Charitable Trust's Internet usage survey. We've finally broken 50% of Americans using the Internet daily. Twitter is almost a rounding error. (via dhowell on Twitter)
  3. The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage -- fantastic comic, with end-notes that explain how Babbage and Lovelace's lives and works are reflected in the action of the comic. (via suw on Twitter)
  4. Search User Interfaces -- full text of this book about the different (successful and un-) interfaces to search. (via sebchan on Twitter)

March 24 2009

Ada Lovelace Day ABC

Ada Lovelace Day helps to "make sure that whenever the question Who are the leading women in tech? is asked, that we all have a list of candidates on the tips of our tongues". I was tempted to talk about Mitchell Baker (Chief Lizard Wrangler at Mozilla) but the Ada Day specifically requested "unsung heroes", so I'm going to give you the ABC of great women you probably don't already know:

The first, actually, you probably do: Allison Randal. She sometimes blogs on O'Reilly Radar, but not as often as we like. Allison succeeded me in four projects, and made me look bad every time! She ran the Perl Foundation better than I did, she ran Perl 6 better than I did, she was a better editor than I was, and you don't need a math degree to figure out how smoothly OSCON ran without me last year .... I admire the way Allison is a humane manager who succeeds in getting forward progress, even out of the most difficult to manage people, yet she'd much rather be coding. She's a linguist, a compiler writer of mad skills, has been the driving force behind Parrot (congrats on 1.0!), and is a deeply sane person in an industry too-often burdened by ego, vanity, and fantasy.

The second is Brenda Wallace. She's also a rock-solid developer, but has taken on much of the social organising of geek events in Wellington, New Zealand. Software folks are great at spotting gaps in code coverage, but they often have a blind spot for gaps in social coverage. Brenda's run geek girl events, SuperHappyDevHouse, Open Days, Hack Days, and more. She's always finding ways to get developers meeting developers. She rallied many troops for New Zealand's fight against bad copyright law. And, as if that wasn't enough, she has more gadgets than anyone else I've met in NZ!

The third is Courtney Johnston. She works for the National Library of New Zealand. I especially appreciate liminal people, those who live at the intersection of worlds. Courtney bridges three: art, libraries, and the web. She can bring the world view, the values, the techniques, and knowledge from one community to the others, enriching them all. She's passionate about the potential for galleries, libraries, archives, and museums to not just survive but thrive in the digital world. And, like Allison and Brenda, Courtney is an amplifier: she is working to share knowledge and build networks that make other people more effective and powerful in what they do.

Lady Ada would be proud.

Tomorrow is Ada Lovelace Day, Celebrating The World's First Computer Programmer

AdaLovelacePic.jpgAda Lovelace, a 19th century British writer who is considered the world's first computer programmer, will be honored by bloggers all over the world tomorrow. In the spirit of providing young women with role models, more than 1500 bloggers participating in the first annual Ada Lovelace Day have pledged to write about a woman or women they admire working in technology on March 24th. You can read about Lovelace on Wikipedia.


The event was organized by UK social software consultant Suw Charman-Anderson using the service Pledgebank. If you'd like to participate as well, or just in case you're interested - we've created a Custom Search Engine of technology blogs written by women to help with this and any other research.

We'll be participating with a post highlighting an inspiring woman in tech tomorrow, but we thought this would also be a good opportunity to share the search engine below, titled Blogs By Women in Tech. It was created using the super simple and very powerful Google Custom Search tool and lets users search just the archives of more than 200 tech blogs written by women. It was seeded by the archived blogroll at and has since grown with more people submitting their blogs. I have a link to it saved on my toolbar and use it whenever I can, as a way to make sure to include womens' voices in our news coverage.

Feel free to save and use the search engine yourself. I you'd like to suggest your blog or someone else's for inclusion you can either email links to or volunteer to be a contributor through a link on the site.

So go sign up to participate in Ada Lovelace Day and let's make sure that the next generation of young women know that there is an important place for them in technology.



Reposted fromjrobelen jrobelen

January 27 2009

Four short links: 26 Jan 2009

Pledges, phone, fake brains, and real brains. All here on your Monday dose of four short links:

  1. Ada Lovelace Day - Suw Charman has kicked off a day of blogging about women in technology in honour of one of the greatest, Ada Lovelace. Of course, you should also feel free to blog about women in technology on days that aren't 24 March.
  2. Get Multitouch Support on Your T-Mobile G1 Today - developer Luke Hutchison added multitouch support to his phone's operating system. It doesn't suddenly make the phone's apps work like an iPhone's but it's a hell of a testament to the utility of an open source operating system.
  3. OCR and Neural Nets in Javascript - jQuery creator, John Resig, analyzes the Greasemonkey script that uses a neural network to solve one site's captchas. As John points out, the site's captchas aren't distorted, but it's nonetheless a sexy hack.
  4. WSJ Recommends Four Books on Irrational Decision Making - the four books are Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Judgement Under Uncertainty, How We Know What Isn't So, and Predictably Irrational. (via Mind Hacks blog)
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