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Of Men, Women, SCRUM and Violent Communication

As a feminine, female Software Engineer I’ve become occupied with the question of just why is it that my field is so predominantly male? Since watching the recent kerfuffle around the book “Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer” unfold and the subsequent emergence of the hashtag #feministhackerbarbie, my desire to say something that could be part of a constructive conversation has only grown. So! After much iteration and trimming the backlog of my thoughts on the subject, I decided to write an article about a common process that software engineers do their work in, a process called SCRUM, because the setting it creates serves well for discussion about where communication can easily go to amiss. From there, I do offer a suggestion about making communication better for all.

 

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Photo by Koushik

First some background: The basic idea behind SCRUM is that the waterfall method (where you build something like a website all in one go) doesn’t work. In SCRUM you instead build out small chunks, and keep working and refining it in chunks, until they combine to become what it is you were trying to build in the first place.

When doing development this way the question at hand becomes “How are you going to build out those chunks?” Well, every few weeks there’s a meeting to discuss just that, and this meeting can readily turn into a battle arena. I say that because when I think of the one place where I got to know the frustration and anger that Helen Jane reacts with such violent language to in her Gizmodo interview the most, it’s this estimation meeting.

The reason, I think, that my mind goes to that meeting as a place I readily felt frustrated is Software Engineers are known to be a grumpy lot. Put grumpy people, of differing levels of skill, in an environment where they have to say how much work something will require, and the ground is fertile for conflict. Throw in a work environment where emphasis is placed on self-organizing teams, and now you’ve got some percentage of the team as grumpy people trying to rally the rest of the team behind their point of view, because in the SCRUM process you have to come to a team consensus.

Now, let’s bring in someone who is subject to stereotype threat into that environment which, of course, also exists outside of the meeting.  But in that meeting, I’ve learned I could bet on being talked over by some guys. When I’m talked over I’ve felt that the natural loudness and deep resonance of the male voice was smothering my softer spoken words. I’ve gotten to know the frustration that comes when those interruptions from a given individual become reliable. I know the hunger of wanting to ensure I was heard, because when I have gotten things out my contributions have gone unreferenced. Or I get no feedback during the ensuing conversation,  with the occasional topper of my idea becoming a good idea when some guy in the room says it as though he has brought it up for the first time.

Even on a team that was largely functional, there was one developer who I dreaded would bring his thunder down on me if I slipped up. Thunder not unlike the violent cussing in this edit of the Barbie book. I’ve been told I needed to “have a thick skin” by my managers in the past, and I’m sure others have similar experiences like this. I’m also not going to run away from the reality that in a past life I’ve been responsible for my own contributions of violent language. Being able to say I’ve done it for the last time is a personal goal of mine. 🙂

My point is that I relate to Helen. I understand how and why female software engineer feel unwelcome and unappreciated, and I hope calling it out here helps communicate the difficulty we’ve encountered. I can’t fault any woman, or any man for that matter, for leaving no matter how much they love the job. Only with stereotype threat and the lack of female role models in the field, I think a case can be made that it’s harder for women to overcome the violence.

So why stay? Why should anyone, male or female, get into and stay in this game? I think there is only one answer for anyone: You love it.

I’ve done some nifty things by writing software. I can get the same thrill writing code that I get writing a clever plot twist or character dialogue in my fiction stories.  Code has the bonus of being a more in demand skill set than fiction writing, and programming pays very well.

In fact, looking to start coding? Gotta start somewhere, and codecademy is a good place to do just that. Also, stay in school kids. Online help is great, but a degree still puts you a cut above and will introduce you to the fundamentals and algorithms and data structures in texts like this. These are the skills that you’ll need, and that I’ll be looking for (and a place like Google will be looking for) if you ever find yourself on the other side of the interview table.

Another way you’ll put yourself a cut above is if you have a communication style that lets you get across what you need to in a kind way, because then you’ll be a part of a solution for making the work environment better for everyone. What follows is like a pro-tip to help you do just that!

The reason I’ve chosen to refer to the problem communication I’ve called out in this article as violent here is thanks to the ideas around Non-Violent Communication (NVC) by Marshall Rosenberg. I’ve made a conscious effort to be mindful of NVC while at work, and I’m not the only one. What I want to call out of NVC for this article are the steps:

  • Observe
  • Feel
  • Need
  • Request

As a practicing software engineer, e-mails like this can be expected from your teammates (emphasis in the quote mine):

“So after more than an hour of craziness and making my programs list garbage and being scared and seeing that Microsoft.com is a terrible website I haven’t run Moviemaker and I haven’t got the plus package.” — Bill Gates

As software is something developers create, being told that software they wrote is crazy, it caused garbage, and the website you’re working on is terrible on the whole, are not words designed to make one feel appreciated or motivated. If you, the receiver of this e-mail, harbor worries of stereotype threat or impostor syndrome, would its text hurt or help you want to move on and out of software?

Now, what if Bill had written:

“I’ve been trying to download Moviemaker for more than an hour and I’m feeling frustrated for my effort. I need the user experience to be more intuitive because I don’t think most users will be successful getting Moviemaker onto their computer as the process stands now. Could you get the steps down to three mouse clicks?

The “more than an hour” remark from the original e-mail is a concrete fact about how long it took him, that observation is ok. He feels frustrated, and communicating that frustration is enough.  The extra values-based judgement of  “garbage” in the programs list and the “terrible website” are best left out. He needs this fixed so the software can be used and a concrete request is made to get the problem addressed satisfactorily. How the request is made even gives the reader the opportunity to decide how to fix the problem, indicating trust.

I wrote this article because I wanted to have a useful conversation about making life for all software engineers more tolerable. I also wanted to call out violent communication in conjunction with messaging women receive in their life as perhaps a reason why there are so few female software engineers. Finally, I wanted to offer a possible solution in the form of NVC to the problem of violent communication for discussion.

Other reading on Her Story Arc about seeking fair representation of women you may enjoy is The Long(est) Journey for a Powerful Heroine.

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4 Comments »

  1. This is wonderful, Paige! You’ve been such a great role model and you’ve encouraged me to take that first leap into the CS world (1st class this semester, eep!). It may be daunting, but so long as we provide solid support and competent mentors like yourself, I think the field will finally begin to change^_^

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I think you mean Agile development. SCRUM is a system of managing an agile development process.

    Personally I don’t mind negativity so long as it’s constructive. In your quote Gates is just being a sorry communicator. Expressing frustration is healthy but you’ve got to be able to explain what the problem is and what solution you’re asking for.

    “The user experience is crap” vs. “get installation down to three clicks” – one is readily actionable and verifiable, the other is just noise.

    Like

    • I waffled back and forth if I wanted to say Agile or SCRUM. I went with SCRUM because of planning poker and estimation which was what I wished to highlight for this piece.

      Point taken that the scope of what I’m driving at could be widened out to Agile itself or even life in general. I’ve found NVC very useful in my social interactions after all.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Love it, it makes me mad to think you get interrupted, just getting interrupted at the dinner table is very frustrating, I’m hoping something can be done about this, and if not if the “boss-people” say grow a thick skin, then I would say it’s time to stand up and show them what a thick skin can do. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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