Tuesday 18 August 2009

Responding while Forbidden; Gender and Other Issues in OSS and PHP

This post is what would have been a response to a post on Elizabeth Naramore's blog, which she titled Gender in IT, OSS and PHP, and How it Affects Us *All*. Quite a good post, actually, with a long and often thoughtful (but as often thoughtless) comment thread following. I was hoping to respond to a comment on the post, but that apparently is no longer allowed, even though the "Leave a Reply" form at the bottom of the page is functional. There's also a mysterious "Login/Password" pair on the page, but no indication of which ID one uses, or how to go about getting one.

Following is the content of the reply-that-wasn't: I (perhaps unreasonably) think this has some points worth pondering. Please do read the original post first and then come back here - where the "comment" feature definitely does work.

@A Girl: Great that you're doing AP CompSci next year. As someone who's been in the Craft for 30 years, I have a great sentimental attachment to your idea that "teachers and professors have the chance to shape the mindsets of their students towards women in the industry". If we were a true profession, where essentially all practitioners have a certain common level and content of educational background combined with qualifying experience (e.g., apprenticeship, internship), I'd agree wholeheartedly.

The fact is that many if not most of the people in the industry - both the "coders in the trenches" and the ex-coders who got promoted into management ("because they were such great coders" - thereby removing two qualified people from an organization)... far too many of these people have noformal education in CS (or, often, anything else). And by the time they realize how important that might be, they're old enough that they're facing ageism in the workplace already - they're not confident enough to put the "big hole in the middle of [their] career" and "go back" to school. It doesn't help that schools the world over do such a lousy job of outreach and marketing to those potential students - they're focused on the Executive MBAs and other graduate-level returning students, who can have their pricey programs paid for by their employer. Joe or Jane Schmuck trying to keep head above water in the face of cut-throat competition from planeloads of new arrivals with mimeographed certifications, who've been taught their entire lives to never think out of the box to begin with... things start getting really tough out there. I'm not surprised that enrollment in CS programs is down. I'm amazed beyond words that it's still as high as it is; a less starry-eyed observer might expect the number of CS majors to closely track, say, majors in Phoenician economics.

A lot of the new entrants into CS and IT over the last ten years or so have degrees - they're just not in the "obvious" field. Someone, and I wish I could find the original, wrote an article in one of the industry mags (like C/C++ Users Journal, not IEEE Computer) that, to be good at software in the modern era, one needed to have exposure to "behavioral science, psychology, linguistics, human factors, sociology, philosophy, rhetoric, ethnology, ethnography, information theory, economics, organizational politics, and a dozen other things - and please, please learn to write competently in English!" - I've had that taped above my display for years now. So it's not that we're not educated; the problem - and it is a problem - is that there is no universal common body of knowledge for software "engineering" - which is one of the necessary precursors of any true profession. We're not going to have a CBOK without either a broad consensus within the industry, or imposition of a system from outside (and very narrowly-focused) forces in government or the larger economy. Given the prevailing social and political attitudes of current practitioners ("herding libertarian-poseur cats" is a phrase not infrequently heard), that would seriously disrupt the Craft and, by extension, any industry or field dependent upon software (which by now is pretty much everything).

How to solve the problem - and, in so doing, help redress the pandemic sexism, racism and ageism (in huge parts of the world, recruiting with explicit age limits is perfectly legal, and here in South Asia, you're old for coding at 28)? I've got no idea. When I first started doing this, I thought that within the next thirty years or so (from 1979), we'd be able to turn this informal craftwork that had taken the industry away from the "educated CS types" and turn it into a real profession. Now? I'd say we're 30 to 50 years away from now - unless we have a software equivalent of the New London School explosion and a "solution" gets imposed from outside. We need to grow up, and quickly.

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

Hi Jeff,
Not sure why you were having issues commenting on my post - I do moderate comments, but for spam reasons only. I've posted a link to your post here, and I sincerely appreciate you taking the time to formulate your thoughts in writing.
Sorry about that!