Entire societies have come to talk about innovation as if it were an inherently desirable value, like love, fraternity, courage, beauty, dignity, or responsibility. Innovation-speak worships at the altar of change, but it rarely asks who benefits, to what end? A focus on maintenance provides opportunities to ask questions about what we really want out of technologies. What do we really care about? What kind of society do we want to live in? Will this help get us there?
It’s no secret that English dominates the tech sector. From communicating with coworkers to launching software, English usually comes first. Even the most well-meaning companies can struggle to reach non-English-speaking users and provide a localized experience in their native language. And no surprise there, either — it’s really tough to do well.
As a small part of my job, I do what I can to help make WordPress.com better for users around the world. (And I’m certainly not alone. There are a lot of rockstar translators contributing to WordPress.com, along with a well-established group of polyglots working on the open-source WordPress project.)
I’m not a developer, so much of what I do is connecting people with resources. I help volunteer translators get oriented so they can help translate WordPress.com into their own language. I teach our internationalization team about the tools and methods used by professional translators. I find or report bugs that cause translation issues so the code can be improved. And I help educate all of my colleagues about how translation works. For a lot of people, just thinking about using WordPress.com in another language is … well, entirely foreign to them.
But every time someone stops to think about how a product works in another language, it makes a difference for users around the world. That’s why I was so impressed when I saw that Mark Zuckerberg held a Q&A session entirely in Chinese:
Sure, it wasn’t flawless Chinese, and I wouldn’t bet on Facebook’s developers switching from English to Chinese any time soon — but this Q&A session is a gesture. It’s recognition of a user base outside of the English-speaking world, a clear message from the CEO of a major tech company that he cares about speakers of other languages.
As a linguaphile I find it incredibly heartening to see what Zuckerberg did in this session, although I don’t expect every CEO to start speaking other languages. It takes a lot of time and dedication to learn a new language, and Zuckerberg has personal motivation — his wife’s family speaks Chinese. (I understand that motivation!)
What matters are the resources, attention, and energy that are invested in making the web a better place — for everyone.
When I think of computers and the year 1984, this commercial is the first thing that comes to mind:
But in the latest episode of Planet Money, they discuss how the year 1984 marked a change in gender balance in the coding world. Up to that point, the percentage of women in computer science had been growing at the same pace as other fields like medicine, law, and the physical sciences. After that, the percentage of women leveled off and then dropped within computer science, while continuing to grow in those other fields.
According to Planet Money, this change is correlated with the introduction of personal computers and marketing their use to boys and men. As men became more and more familiar with computers at home, more of them pursued and excelled in computer science programs — which discouraged students who didn’t have that prior familiarity — and those men went on to make up more of the workforce.
The result, then, was a sharp rise in the percentage of men working in computer science, and a sense of coding as a club for geeky boys — a perspective that continues to impact education and work environments to this day. This also fits the recent statistics I found about men and women in computer science:
According to NSF surveys of employment in science in engineering from 2003 to 2011, the percentage of women working as mathematical or computer scientists dropped from 28.8% to 25%. However, the total number of women working in that role stayed the same. The change came from a significant increase in the total number of men in mathematical and computer science.
Whether that rise was truly caused by men being targeted by marketers and developing an interest in coding at a young age or by interested women being discouraged or forced out when they’re older is harder to say. And it’s likely a combination of those and other factors. (There’s a lot of speculation in the podcast, but they didn’t spend much time discussing research that explores those claims. If you’re interested in thinking about what could contribute to women feeling unwelcome in the tech industry, I’d recommend a coworker’s post on Ways Men In Tech Are Unintentionally Sexist.)
That said, the discussion makes me appreciate everything my parents did to prepare me for computing and coding in my life. My brother and I had equal access to our PCjr (a personal computer by IBM that came out in 1984). We both played games, learned to navigate DOS, and got online at an early age. I did get bored by the myriad games that came out targeted to my brother’s interests, but I happily built websites and was thrilled by puzzle games like Midnight Rescue, The 7th Guest, and Myst. I also clearly remember loving the movie Hackers (despite the cheesy portrayal of hacking), with Angelina Jolie as the formidable hacker Acid Burn.
Although I wasn’t persuaded by those experiences or my computer science professor’s encouragement to continue studying it in college, I am grateful for all the opportunities and support I have had as a “geek girl.” I wonder sometimes if subtle gender biases led me to degrees in foreign languages and anthropology instead of math and computer science. Thankfully, though, I have had the freedom and the luck to come back to the tech world later on.
Here’s to more women feeling that draw and having the support to explore coding and tech in their professional lives.
Listen to the full Planet Money episode at NPR.org:
I am a huge fan of the RSA Animate series, which combines audio from RSA events with animation by Cognitive Media to produce stunning videos that share big ideas. This video is from a talk by Dave Coplin, Chief Envisioning Officer at Microsoft. What stood out to me was this description of his talk:
Dave Coplin, Chief Envisioning Officer at Microsoft, imagines what might be possible if more organisations embraced the full, empowering potential of technology and encouraged a truly open, collaborative and flexible working culture.
What’s interesting to me about that description is this: As I watched the video, I kept thinking to myself that it was describing my everyday life. It didn’t feel like a talk about possibilities — it felt like a talk about my reality.
Open communication and sharing about what we’re working on? Thinking creatively and innovating? Working from the best places and at the best times for us to accomplish our goals? That’s what it’s like to work at Automattic.
It isn’t easy, of course. We’re trusted to do the best work we possibly can, and we’re responsible for what comes of that. We push ourselves to continually learn and improve ourselves. We search for the ways, throughout the company, that we can make the best use of our skills and interests. It takes a bit more gumption than a 9-to-5 where you can skate along with whatever your manager directs you to do — and that’s probably what makes me love it.
Does that sound like the kind of place you’d like to work? We’re hiring.