2012’s Girl Geek Dinners got off to a fantastic start last night at The Embassy with Linda Carson taking the stage to talk about “Technology at the intersection of everything”, or, to get a bit more metaphoric (as Linda would a number of times), “Technology is the water”. (You can see a further explanation of that in the enclosed slide deck.)
Linda got started musing whether she was geeky enough to be up there presenting, as she’s not a computer scientist per se these days. Then, looking over her slides and realizing how far back her experience goes, she wondered if we were geeky enough to grok her presentation. Fortunately for the crowd, the talk was an excellent mix of technology, history, culture, art, common sense, and exploration.
Linda’s technology education and career started back in the days of punch cards and tape, and she and her cohort back then were working on “legacy” software… except it wasn’t legacy yet. They had no idea back then that the programs would still be running a quarter-century later, and what breadth, depth, and heights of technology they would be expected to support. She compared it to leaving work on a Friday with your desk in whatever condition it happened to be in, and 25 years later whatever you’d worked on was now being used to power flying cars. Yikes. No wonder we had a Y2K problem…
Linda also noted that good programming translates to pretty much everything else. Don’t start building something until you have at least two viable solutions to the problem. Be ready to change — encodings, languages, teams, etc. — when it’s useful to do so. And really, what isn’t debugging? Isn’t that what your doctor does when you arrive at his or her office with some ailment? All of life has challenges to be met and problems to be solved by digging in, breaking down, and making connections.
Particularly being a woman in tech, then as now, you are often “unexpected”, and Linda recommends learning to become comfortable, even happy, in that place or role. And there are advantages to it, as long as you know how to work it. To quote Edsger Dijkstra: “Only do what only you can do.” Pursuing this state leads to all manner of “cool shit”.
Real collaboration requires people of varied (and various levels) of expertise. This is where being unexpected helps — it gets you noticed, and invited to work with cool people on cool shit. The other alternative is plugging away and throwing things over the wall. What happens then? Who knows.
Linda outlined three kinds of expertise: No expertise (so newbies or those with very general experience), Contributory Expertise (specific expertise in an area), and Interactional Expertise (some expertise likely in a variety of areas, but more importantly, the ability to connect all three types of folks to make big things happen).
The Bachelor of Knowledge Integration program at University of Waterloo is a result of that Interactional Expertise. Linda designed the curriculum, and the goal is to develop more people with those passions and abilities. The first cohort from this program will soon graduate, and it will be very interesting to see what they go on to do.
BKI is just one example of “cool shit” that Linda has gotten to do thanks to her background and interests. Her core skills translate widely, and help open doors to amazing opportunities in art, education, and tech. She gets to do cool shit with people who know things she doesn’t, and she is taken seriously by them.
The secret to getting to do cool shit is getting outside of your usual sphere, both in terms of people and expertise. (Or “go outside” as I like to call it.) Befriend people who know things you don’t. Learn their shit and teach them yours. Be so useful that people want to work with you even if they don’t have to.
And technology is the water in which we are all swimming while sharing our cool shit. It enables our communications, our work, our play, our education, our art. Technology is a power tool that helps facilitate the inter-disciplinary learning and activities that are the backbone of cool shit. Linda also noted the importance of beer in facilitating learning and doing cool shit. To quote one of her collaborators: “Want to gain ten years of hardcore experience in a field? It’s easy, and it’s cheap: buy them a beer.” (Or, perhaps in Linda’s case, Diet Coke…)
The really interesting stuff comes when you step back and look around and talk to people. Focusing just on the technology is a form of tunnel vision. Linda shared a story that involved Google Street View — as a tool that unlocked decades of stories about her parents’ early life together. Did the engineers who built Street View think of that? Probably not. But technology can spark amazing human experiences and sharing of knowledge and stories that are not stored on any hard drive or USB key. And it can enable us to record and share in the future as well.
As she finished up her talk, Linda returned to the “women” side of women in tech a bit more, and noted that doing cool shit with other people doesn’t mean you have to sleep with them to be included. (Sometimes this is not as obvious as it may look written down.) And she told a variant of the Goldilocks tale wherein, somewhat deservedly, would-be sexpot Goldilocks meets a messy and untimely end. The moral of that story being: “Sex appeal only appeals to people who try to screw you.” Indeed.
As Linda’s last slide notes, she is a woman who is not afraid to make a scene, and we’re really happy she chose to create one for us last evening.