Tag Archives: feminism

Brogrammers in the wild

There’s been some fuss recently about “brogrammers”: the phenomenon of software organisations proudly displaying a hyper-masculine culture full of casual sexism. I was going to write a post about how this didn’t align with my experience at all. In my time in the software industry I’ve never heard anyone voice the idea that women might make worse engineers (nor seen any indication that anyone believes it). That many of my working environments have been numerically dominated by men can’t be denied, but it’s almost never degenerated into a “blokey” atmosphere. Generally, engineers seem to be far more reticent to discuss sexual matters than almost any other all-male group I’ve been in.

On the other hand, I’ve worked with salesmen from time to time (and in this context I really am restricting my comments to men) and it’s a whole different story. By no means are all salesmen more sexist, but the prevailing culture (which is hard for any one individual to overcome) seems to be one of unreconstructed sexism. It’s not that engineering has no cultural problems at all, but I don’t feel we should be concerned that we are lagging behind the curve.

But then I saw this job advert from Precog. While it’s obviously fair to point out that there’s no reason to suppose the Precog culture is explicitly sexist, or that they practice discrimination in hiring (their team page shows they have a proportion of female engineers that seems roughly average for the industry), I think most people would draw the conclusion that their culture is overtly “masculine”. From the competitive, “most people aren’t good enough” stance on the recruitment page to the “About Us” page listing team members’ favourite free weights exercises, they clearly aren’t going out of their way to make everybody feel welcome.

I’m left undecided about whether this is a bad thing, though. While I unreservedly condemn anyone who discriminates on the basis of a candiate’s biological traits, it feels like hiring on the basis of personality and cultural fit is justifiable. Making software involves more than just turning up, it involves passion and drive and teamwork, and all these things come out better when we can let our authentic selves come out at work. A side-effect of this is that not all team cultures will be identical. And while diversity within organisations can be good for the organisation, it seems like diversity between organisations is equally good for society. As long as nobody is forced into cultures they don’t like due to lack of choice, I think we’re doing OK.

Is requiring open-source experience sexist?

A post at GeekFeminism caught my eye: Is requiring open-source experience sexist? The post concerns the idea that requiring (or just preferring) previous experience in open source projects when considering hiring someone, and whether that causes a gender bias:

Open Source is very male-dominated, is known for being unpleasantly sexist, and is also a subculture whose norms (even where neutral as regards sexism) don’t fit everyone.

If you insist on a lot of experience in a particular male-dominated sub-culture as a prerequisite for a job, that reads as “we prefer [a subset of] men, basically, or at least people willing to work hard to minimise all the ways in which they aren’t [part of the subset of] men” even if you didn’t intend it to and even if you didn’t want it to.

I’m not going to weigh in on whether open source really is as male-dominated as the author here makes out, not least because I don’t feel well-qualified to judge that: I’ve only ever been involved in small open source projects, and only tangentially. More significantly, as a man I may be blind to some serious bias in the open source culture. However, I would contend that the open source world is not homogeneous, and caution against judging the entire community on the basis of the most high-profile failures.

I’m also going to avoid tackling the obvious idea that open source experience is at least fairly objective, and that it might act to counter some of the other gender biases in hiring. This seems like a promising line of investigation, but it’s a fairly sticky wicket as it’s essentially an argument of the lesser of two evils.

What is apparent from my experience of hiring over the last decade, and seems to have been passed over here, is the very low bar that is in place when considering a candidate’s open source experience. The vast majority of candidates don’t offer any experience at all. Small amounts of experience are a huge plus point. Furthermore, in many tech companies the rate of hiring is limited only by the lack of quality candidates, so it’s not the case that someone else’s OSS experience will edge you out of a job: if you’re both equally good but in different ways, I’ll hire you both.

It’s not necessary to have tangled with the alpha geeks in the sort of high-profile projects that get buzz on Hacker News in order to impress me. Fix a bug, even a tiny one, that nobody else seems to care about. Optimise some code. Write unit tests. Code up a Firefox or Chrome plugin for something you find useful but doesn’t appeal to anyone else. Any of these things will immediately make you stand out from the crowd, and they can all be done on small quiet projects where people will be glad of your input, and can be done without needing to be deeply embedded in the community. If you simply can’t find a project whose team you get on with, there are plenty of abandoned projects you can pick up and give some care and attention to.

If the amount of experience I’m looking for is so minimal, why is it useful? For a start, it shows attitude and interest. It also shows you can get things done. Perhaps most importantly, it gives a sample of your work that I can look at, which previous employers generally wouldn’t allow. Toy problems we work through in the interview will never compare to the benefit of seeing real code.