Posts that are sugar-ish

On the diversity-readiness of STEM environments: “It’s almost as if I could only enter the makerspace as a janitor.”

My thoughts from an online discussion with other female Olin engineers on this NYT article on “how to attract female enginers,”, edited for context. In particular, we brought up the (well-worn) claim that women don’t want to “just focus on the tech stuff” and want to “do sociotechnical/humanitarian work that makes a difference in the world.”

I’ve built my career as a “technical community person” who “thinks beyond the technology,” and as a teacher and researcher of learning environments — so this may come as a surprise to people who know and have worked with me. But if my teenage self had had her way, I would have VASTLY preferred to “just focus on the tech stuff.”

As a kid, I wanted to choose the privilege of being oblivious and keeping my head down and immersing myself into the beauty — the sheer beauty! — and joy of STEM for STEM’s sake. I didn’t become an ECE to work on educational computers or hearing aids or anything like that. As my friend (and former roommate) Kristen Dorsey said, “I just geek out about nerdy stuff, OK?”

But I couldn’t “just geek out about nerdy stuff.” The environments where I was trying to “learn about nerdy stuff” were sociotechnically broken in a way that made it hard for me (as a disabled minority woman, among other things) to join in. If I wanted to even start being part of the technical community, I had to start by fixing the technical community — patching the roof and fixing the plumbing, so to speak — before I could even walk inside and start to live there. And when I patched the leaking roof, I patched the roof for everyone, and other people who needed non-leaky roofs to be in the community could now… be in the community as well!

For instance, I got really, really good at facilitating meetings because it was the only way I had to make meetings accessible to me — when other people facilitated meetings, they’d often forget I need to lipread, so… I just quietly started leading them myself, and ended up making meetings work better for everyone. And I found that when I drifted towards “humanitarian” projects, the people there were much more conscious of sociotechnical things and more likely to have already-healthy environments, so I would have less leaky roofs to patch, and less resistance when I tried to patch the roofs — and people actually recognized and valued roof-patching labor instead of looking down on me for not writing code full-time.

After a while of patching roofs and unclogging toilets and plastering the rotten drywall, I got a reputation in industry for being really, really good at open-source software/hardware (technical) community facilitation. It’s almost as if I could only enter the makerspace as a janitor. And part of me resented that, but never said so. But, I told myself, at least I was in the building. And I saw that my “janitorial” work made it possible for other people to enter the building and do the things they wanted to do — which were often the things I wanted to do, too! — and so I thought: okay. That’s okay. At least somebody gets to do it. I can see my gift to the community doing so much good, that I will give up my desire to learn and do the technical things — so I let my own STEM learning slide. I am good at “community work,” and I did come to genuinely love it, over time.

But if I had the choice, I would have never gone into “community work.” I would have chosen — if I had the choice — to focus on “shiny tech stuff” that… didn’t save the world at all. If my teenage self had had her way, I would not do community-facilitation-anything, I would not be thoughtful about women or minorities or disabilities or any underprivileged group in engineering… I would be oblivious to all my privilege. I’d be a kernel hacker, or an embedded geek, or something “hardcore technical,” Because I could be.

But I didn’t have the wherewithal (or the desire) to shovel all the stuff out of the way that I would have to do in order to do that. If you think of “caring/environmental labor” as a sort of tax some people have to pay in order to get to “learning/doing technical things,” my tax rate has always just been too frickin’ high.

So I have been “the full-time community person who is ridiculously good at tech stuff that she no longer gets to do,” instead of “the technical person who understands and listens to and cares about inclusion and community.” Because I cannot not patch a leaky roof. But I have always wondered what I might have grown up into, if I had learned STEM in an environment that was ready for me — without me having to fix it first.

Unlock challenge: raise $1024 for The Ada Initiative, support women in open tech/culture, and unlock more open-licensed “programming learning styles” material!

Last year, I wrote a post asking people to donate to the Ada Initiative and support women in open technology and culture. I said:

We change the world with millions of tiny patches… our world of open technology and culture is built one patch, one line, one edit at a time — and that’s precisely why it’s powerful. It brings billions of tiny, ordinary moments together to transform the world. If we teach it for our code, we can preach it for our giving. If you’d buy me a drink, or treat an open source newcomer to dinner, send that $3-$20 to the Ada Initiative tonight. –August 30, 2013

Why do we need to do this? Well, being a woman in open technology and culture is like riding a bike on a street made for cars, where rain and dirt get kicked into your face, and you are constantly, painfully aware that if you have any sort of collision with a car… the car will win. Yes, this is happening in our world, to our friends and to our colleagues; it’s happened to me personally more times than I care to remember. The farther you are from the straight white male difficulty setting, the rougher the terrain becomes.

And quite honestly, we’re busy. I’m busy. You’re busy. This isn’t our job — we have so many other things to do. I mean, we’re all:

  • remixing music
  • playing with code
  • writing science fiction
  • co-authoring open content articles
  • redesigning user interfaces
  • <insert your favorite open technology and culture activity here>

And guess what? There are so many people who want to join us. So many people who want to help us do all this work, but don’t, because they know that work — the good work — is likely to come with a lot of really, really awful stuff, like this sampling of incidents since last year (trigger warning: EVERYTHING).

The less time women spend dealing with that stuff, the more time they have to help us with our work. And the more people will want to help us with our work. I mean, would you want to accept a job description that included the item “must put up with demeaning harassment and sexual jokes at any time, with no warning, up to 40+ hours per week”?

Making our world a good environment for all sorts of people is, in fact, our job — or at least part of it. The folks at the Ada Initiative have made supporting women in open tech/culture their entire job — supporting it, supporting people who support it, and basically being the equivalent of code maintainers… except instead of code, the patches they’re watching and pushing and nudging are about diversity, inclusion, hospitality, and just plain ol’ recognition of the dignity of human beings.

They want to support you. With better conference environments, training workshops and materials, and really awesome stickers, among many other things. (Did you know that the Ada Initiative was one of the first woman-focused tech organizations to actually say the word “feminism”?)

So please, donate and support them, so they can support you — and me, and all of us — in supporting women in open tech/culture.

Now, my own contribution is a bit… sparse, financially. I’m a grad student earning less than $800 a month, and I’m waiting for my paycheck to come in so I can contribute just a few dollars — but every little bit helps. And there’s another way I can help out: I can bribe you, dear readers, to donate.

Remember that “active vs reflective” learning styles post I wrote in August? Well, there are 3 more: sensing/intuitive, visual/verbal, and global/sequential. I’ve got them all transcribed here and ready to go. And if we reach $1024 in donations to the Ada Initiative under the Learning Styles campaign within the next week, I will release them under a creative-commons license.

What’s more: the first 3 people who donate $128 or more to this campaign and email me their receipt will get a free 1-hour Skype call with me to discuss their personal programming learning styles, and will be featured as case studies on one of those three posts (I’ll link to your website and everything).

Donate to the “learning styles” campaign for The Ada Initiative now!

If a broke grad student can do it, you can too: donate to @adainitiative and patch the open world to be better for EVERYONE.

TL;DR – if my work in open source has helped you in some way, please donate to the Ada Initiative, which supports women in open technology and culture. Not convinced yet? Here’s why I donated.

There’s a world out there to patch. I love the universe of open technology and culture where I’ve built much of my career and friendships. It’s a wonderful world that can be wide and welcoming — but it also has horrific bug reports of sexual abuse and gender discrimination, along with many more that haven’t been reported out of fear and shame. I’ve lived a few not-so-good stories myself; some I’ve told, some I haven’t. What saddens me most, though, isn’t the bad stories that have happened; it’s the good ones that never will — stories of women and men working together to hack the universe in marvelous ways. If we want to see these stories happen, we’ve got to make a world where they can happen, a world where it’s safe for them to happen. Don’t WONTFIX that ticket; do something. When you care about something, you want to make it better.

We change the world with millions of tiny patches. I’m a grad student; money is tight, and my $64 contribution represents half a month of groceries. I was initially ashamed of my “tiny” contribution, even if it’s a nontrivial one for me. Then I remembered: our world of open technology and culture is built one patch, one line, one edit at a time — and that’s precisely why it’s powerful. It brings billions of tiny, ordinary moments together to transform the world. If we teach it for our code, we can preach it for our giving. If you’d buy me a drink, or treat an open source newcomer to dinner, send that $3-$20 to the Ada Initiative tonight.

Someone’s got to integrate these patches into a whole… and it’d be nice if they didn’t burn out in the process. Honestly? I support the Ada Initiative because it does this work so I don’t have to. I’m young and energetic, but I’m often wiped out just being a woman in open technology and culture. It’s not just physical and mental exhaustion; it’s emotional and psychological, which is worse. And being an activist is harder still. Do I agree with everything the Ada Initiative says or does? Nope. But it’s a job I want done, and I don’t want the job. This is why we hire maintainers for Free Software; we give them the gift of bandwidth so they can help us contribute more for a project with less effort by supporting and connecting our patches with the bigger picture. Val and Mary are good maintainers for feminism in our open universe — and I’d like more. After all, it’s a big world out there that we’ve got to work on.

The last day of their fund drive is tomorrow. (I’m coming late to the game; summer travel + school year start + RSI = no internet for Mel.) But it wasn’t too late for me to throw in my $64 patch this morning — and it’s not too late for you to contribute your patch today. If my work in open technology and culture has touched, helped, or inspired you in some way, please help me pay it forward and create a supportive, welcoming environment for everyone in the open world.

EduPsych for Python Hackers 2.0: revised, expanded, updated

EduPsych for Python Hackers 2.0 is about to go live in Toronto in 45 minutes, which means it’s time to upload slides! Questions, comments, etc. welcome as usual. This is an expanded, revised version of the previous EduPsych-For-Hackers talks I’ve given, so if you’ve seen both, I’m curious what you think of the changes.

Also: my parents will be in the audience for the first time (since I started speaking over half a decade ago), so they get a special call-out on slide 29.

Ok, off to hyperventilate!

PyCon Toronto 2013: EduPsych Theory for Python Hackers 2.0 from Mel Chua

Video (subtitled!) and transcript for 2013 PyCon talk, “EduPsych Theory for Python Hackers”

The video for my 2013 PyCon talk, “EduPsych Theory for Python Hackers,” is up. It’s 27 minutes and 56 seconds long, and you can view the subtitled version

(Disclaimer: I’m transcribing my own talk about a week after having given it, but I am deaf, so I’m typing this out through a combination of residual hearing, remembering what I said last Thursday, lipreading myself in the video, and reading slide content. It’s probably 98% accurate; patches welcome on Universal Subtitles.)

Announcing the Indy Python Workshop – please spread the word

Shameless plug time. Catherine Devlin, myself, IndyPy, the Boston Python Workshop folks, Indiana LinuxFest, and a few others are getting together next month to host the Indianapolis Python Workshop for women and their friends: A hands-on, genuine beginners’ introduction to computer programming.

It’s from April 13-14 and is a no-cost event. Go to for the full details and to RSVP.

Catherine said it best:

Our goal is to widen and diversify the computer programming community with outreach events that overcome the technical and social barriers that hold too many people back from learning to program. Basic programming skills are so empowering and useful that we think everyone should have them, whether those skills lead to a career, a new hobby, an occasional handy trick, or just a deeper understanding of the computers that surround us. We’ll borrow the curriculum – and some of the teachers! – from the famously successful Boston Python Workshop, which has already brought programming skills to dozens of women and their friends.

Some people have asked what “women and their friends” means. It’s simple; all women are welcome, and men are welcome as guests of women who are attending (you can calculate the gender ratio; see this talk by Jessica and Asheesh for the rationale). If you already know Python, we’d love to have you come and help teach; we’re located right in the middle of Indiana LinuxFest in downtown Indianapolis

I believe past workshops have included librarians, teachers, and non-engineering members of software and technical companies who wondered what their co-workers were doing all day; we’re also hoping some local high school students will join us. Please spread the word to people in the area you think would like to know about this event; we’d particularly love to reach groups of women who might be curious about programming but may not have had opportunities to play with it in the past. It should be a blast!

Tracking fellow FOSS-to-academia migrants

First: I’m working on a list of FOSS hackers who’ve gone back to school to study FOSS in some way; do you know of any? Please let me know in the comments. They needn’t be coders; designers, documenters, etc. are also totally welcome, as are contributors to open content and hardware projects — for instance, a very active Wikipedian who goes to graduate school to study the collaboration practices of Wikipedia.)

Now then.

Seb Benthall’s post about academic vs open culture reminded me that I’d like to track my fellow FOSS-to-academia migrants somewhere. Seb and myself are members of a fairly short tradition that includes folks like Martin Krafft (Debian developer to CS/Sociology PhD) and Mako Hill (Debian developer and Ubuntu hacker to interdisciplinary PhD student and Berkman Center researcher).

If you think about it, there’s no way the tradition can be anything like short. Undergraduate degrees tend to focus on “study to be able to do” for a broad area rather than a more focused “study of” a particular topic, so I’m mainly looking at grad students and those who’ve gotten their graduate degrees. To enter graduate school, you typically need an undergraduate degree — which means you’re likely at least in your early twenties. That’s how old the Free Software and Open Source movements are themselves.

It’s not that we’re the first generation of grad students to grow up in FOSS culture — that distinction belongs to people now in their mid-thirties to early forties, who were college-aged in the mid-90′s when the FOSS world was ramping up for the firs time. But we’re the first ones to enter grad school at a time when FOSS culture was widespread enough to be considered a legitimate topic of study by open-minded advisors; in a prior day, we might have studied CS, math, education, or any number of things with “proper” topics as our primary research focus, with open source remaining a devoted side hobby mostly separate from our “real academic work.”

It’s a good time and place in history to be. Plenty of opportunities to find and make — and we’re hackers, so we’re used to finding and making our own way through a chaotic world. Perfect.

Getting the radical realtime transparency ball rolling

Getting radical realtime transparency in a project can be slow and frustrating, especially in the beginning. Most folks don’t know this, but in order to have public conversations, leaders need to send out a ridiculous number of private messages to get things rolling. In fact, looking at my own inbox history for the past half-decade, I’ve sent anywhere between 2-20 private messages – on average  (not maximum, average) – to get a single public message during the early stages of a project’s “open” life.

You really need to keep poking people in private asking them to put their messages public. It’s thankless and invisible work. It takes a while to build a new cultural habit, and for a while it’s going to seem like you’ll be doing this forever… but trust me, it will come. It’s going to take longer than you want it to, it’s going to take an unexpected route, but keep the faith – it will come.

There are three strategies it’s useful to have up your sleeve for times like this.

Start the conversation in private, then say something like “hey, this is really good, could you resend it to the public list and I’ll reply there?” This is good for starters if folks are new to the “default to open” concept and are reacting with great nervousness. This nervousness stems from wariness that they may not want to go public with some hypothetical future thing – in effect, worrying about a problem that hasn’t happened yet. Going this route allows beginners in radical transparency to look at something they’ve already written and assess the risk for only that specific situation – no unknowns here, no future commitments. After a few times of going “oh, I guess that retroactive transparency was okay!” it’s much easier to ask people to give “open by default” a chance.

Publicly announce that you’ll only respond to things sent to the public list. Reply to private emails with a reminder of this. This only works only if the people you’re trying to persuade are unable to route around you. It’s also a bit of a strongarm tactic, not appropriate for all situations and best used in moderation if at all. But if you’re a project manager, or an instructor, or a senior engineer, or something of the sort, you might be able to get away with it – and boy, folks learn fast this way.

Get others to help you with the nudges-to-public. Those 20 private emails to get a single public email? No reason why you’ve got to be the only one doing it. Train others to become Agents of Transparency as soon as you can, especially if they were once on the other side of the conversation. To begin with, ask them to work specific mailing lists, specific people, or specific conversation threads into the public eye – coach them from behind if needed. After a little while, they’ll be able to do it on their own – then just ask them to keep an eye out in general, and hey presto!

The key thing to keep in mind is that this is an investment. You’re putting resources into something that may not see returns for a little while. But the returns will come, and they’ll be worth it – when a project tips over into living, breathing, and practicing true realtime transparency, the results of the culture shift can be stunningly refreshing.

Keep going.

1st draft of lit review on the open source way and education: please rip to shreds.

I finished my first lit review today. Or rather, I should say “I finished the first dot release of the pre-alpha version of my first lit review today,” because I look at this and know that it’s nowhere near where I want it. Then again, “where I want it to be” is at the start of my dissertation about… oh, 3-5 years from now. All things considered, it’s not bad for someone’s first real attempt at independently scouting out scholarly sources.

From the introduction:

This is a preliminary and extremely incomplete literature review surveying the current academic scholarship on open source and education. It can be summarized in three words: there’s not much. I’ll begin… by discussing what I am not looking at… I am not looking at the use of open source software in educational contexts… open source as an IT solution. Nor am I looking at open source with a focus on content licensing… open source as an information access solution.

Instead, I am concerned with an analysis of what sorts of practices and processes for learning are exhibited in open source communities themselves and how these practices might be made transferable back to the classroom. In other words, I see open source as a way of operating learning communities: radically cross-functional, collaboratively constructed realtime transparency.

Aaaaand here’s the whole dang thing, below. Why push now? Well, after a certain point, I decided to stop agonizing over it and release early and often because hey, maybe what I need are some other eyeballs to kick me out of the mental ruts I’ve gotten into. Also, I finished writing it and turned it in 20 minutes ago (which may explain why the quality of the writing degrades considerably in the last 3 paragraphs). It’s been a rough week. Month. Semester, really.

Literature review: the open source way and education (alpha)

Essentially, I spent my entire first semester of grad school finding that nobody’s really done research on my topic of choice (engineering education happening in open source communities) before – which is both awesome (because that means I get to do it) and depressing (because WHY AM I ALL BY MYSELF OUT HERE I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M DOING). And now I’m standing here unsure of what to do next; I want to read some of these more deeply, talk about them with people, have folks tell me where I’m wrong and why, get into debates over a bunch of these ideas, throw them off the wall, bounce them off other people’s heads…

And so I fling this out to you, my friends. Thoughts? I apologize that this is not in comic book form – it was a little harder to get away with that for a lit review… but I’ll keep trying.

Is there a lazyweb fix for the paradox of localization?

Via Sumana, a post by Amir Elisha Aharoni on the paradox of localization:

who don’t know English strongly prefer to use software in a language
they know… People who do know
English often prefer to use software in English even if it is available
in their native language. The two most frequent explanations for that
is that the translation is bad and that people who want to use computers
should learn English anyway. The problem is that for various reasons
lots of people will never learn English even if it would be mandatory in
schools and useful for business. They will have to suffer the bad
translations and will have no way to fix it.

So this is the paradox – to fix localization bugs, someone must
notice them, and to notice them, more people who know English must use
localized software, but people who know English rarely use localized
software… Even people
who know English well should use software in their language… especially
if it’s translated badly, because they are the only ones who can report
bugs in the translation or fix the bugs themselves…

I am glad to say that i convinced most people to whom i spoke about
it at Wikimania to at least try to use Firefox in their native language
and taught them where to report bugs about it. I also challenged them to
write at least one article in the Wikipedia in their own language, such
as Hindi, Telugu or Kannada – as useful as the English Wikipedia is to
the world, Telugu Wikipedia is much more useful who speak Telugu, but no

My comment,
summarized: can the software be hacked to make this easy for
multilingual users to contribute to? Imagine being asked to opt-in for occasionally
having the application start up in (or switch into) another language
you know — for instance, “every 25th time you log into this website,
you’ll see it in Hindi” — with a reminder shown during those
language-switching times thanking you for aiding with translation
quality and giving you a direct link to report translation problems?

Because sometimes the problem is just a little too much friction;
switching the language of an application takes 5 too many mouse-clicks
to be thoughtlessly easy, and the vast majority of users don’t wake up
in the morning and think “you know, I could contribute to the localization of the software on my computer!” The lazier people can be and still help you, the more likely they’ll be to do it.

Which applications, or which types of applications, would be easiest to do this with?