On being selfish

28 January 2009, 00:04

So the very first talk I went to at LCA was Mary Gardiner’s Starting Your Free Software Adventure. It’s interesting that the first talk I attended is the one I am still thinking about the most come the end of the conference.

In her talk, she recapped some interviews she had done with women in the free software world. One of the interviewees apparently commented that she was amused she had ended up doing “girl stuff” (documentation and usability work) in her community, because when she started out she had tried to avoid it.

I guess my first reaction was surprise to hear non-coding activities so explicitly devalued to be labelled “girl stuff”. Gosh, I thought, here I was doing all this “girl stuff” and having no idea my presence was merely being tolerated as a non-harmful side activity.

Well — that’s not strictly true. I don’t think it’s possible to work in a software project without being aware that status is directly proportional to coding skills. I just thought most geeks would be enlightened enough by now to realise and acknowledge that non-coding activities are also essential to the success of any software, Free or otherwise.

So is there really a perception of “girl stuff” or is it perhaps women’s paranoia about pigeon-holed into lower status activities, and wanting to prove oneself on the same terms as men? I dunno the answer to that one.

Later I thought, if other project leaders and developers aren’t enlightened enough to realise the importance of documentation, usability, design, organisation, community management, whatever other non-code things you can think of, well, that’s their problem. Eventually they will realise their shortsightedness and fix their priorities. …Probably.
And if you are good at something, and you want to do it, you should do it. Duh. You shouldn’t feel obliged to play at the highest status role if it’s not one that particularly suits you. For any given project I could spend an hour trying to code a feature for it, or an hour fixing up its documentation, and I can tell you for sure which activity is going to have a better bang-for-buck.

But… later I talked about it a bit with Mary and some others, and she mentioned that you need to “be selfish” to deliberately choose to devote the time to something like mastering a software codebase in order to be able to contribute to it.

And that’s true too. Actually my favourite thing about writing software is building virtual shit. I understand why they call it software engineering. It is constructing. It is making something from nothing, or from an idea. It is powerful and empowering and gives you an awesome feeling of accomplishment. IMO this is where geek kin comes from, knowing we have both experienced this. It’s that obsessiveness geeks are renowned for.

And everyone who wants to, should be able to feel confident enough, to be selfish enough, to take however much time it takes and write however much really crappy code it takes, to be better at it, because that is the only way to get there. Yes. This is a time when women should be selfish. And gosh, that taught-instinct to be helpful, and consider others’ needs, is so insidious that I didn’t even notice it there until Mary said the magic word, “selfish”.

I’m still going to do all that non-code stuff, of course… but maybe I will carefully choose to be selfish a little more often this year.

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  1. I have certainly had (a few) conversations with men along the lines of “oh of course, you do documentation, women do have many valuable contributions in that area…” so the perception that women are clustered in/good at documentation is out there. Whether men documenters are thereby hurt by this perception I don’t know much about.

    I am going to write about this too fairly soon, probably on the weekend.

    Mary · Jan 28, 02:03 PM · #

  2. Documentation not being valued is one of the reason Linux can be a pain in the butt. It’s not just that not enough of it is done, but there is a lack of thinking about how to do it properly.

    If you want to be a coder, go for it – I don’t have the patience, and would actually rather do documentation. If someone doesn’t value that, that’s their problem.

    Chriswaterguy · Feb 5, 06:59 AM · #

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