November 25, 2013
Not too long ago, I was given a copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers at the end of the ARL’s Leadership Symposium, as part of participating in their Initiative to Recruit a Diverse Workforce. The year I received they were especially looking for people with a STEM background. If memory serves, I was one of the very few people recipients that year without this background.
I mention all of this simply because when I got home from San Diego, I think I read about half of the book? Enough, anyway, to recall his point that success requires around 10,000 hours of practise or something like this. My memory also tells me that he used at least one tech example (um… maybe Bill Gates or the guy who first wrote Java? I can’t remember). I do remember him talking about the vagaries of history and how certain things had to fall into place so that these men could become who they are today. Part of the story was being raised by rich white parents and attending rich schools where he had access to computers that not many in the country did1.
I think of all these other successful, (mostly) white men who currently hold the most power, wealth, and influence in the tech world and I think about the 10,000 hours it (allegedly) requires to become truly great at something and I think about growing up poor in a single parent immigrant home.
The first computer my family got was when I was in junior high. Maybe… grade 9? So I was likely 13 or 14, somewhere around then. It took a while for us to get a proper dial up modem. But I was lucky since, after some campaigning, I managed to convince my dad that the computer should live in my room. I loved the internet from the first time I met it. I had one of those incredibly shitty geocities websites that I hand coded the html with frames and, shit, I think even a image/flash based menu from a Daria picture. It was shitty. But I spent hours learning how to do html and stuff and playing around with everything. It was great.
I spend enough time doing this that my dad was encouraged and I think in the summer before high school started, I actually went to computer camp. Like, I did two coding for kids things. One in pascal and the other in C++. Of course… C++ and OO programming was, like, so far beyond my ability to understand. I don’t remember my dad taking it any further to actually, you know, acquire additional resources for me to keep at it. No programs so I could actually write code, no books, nothing.
This was also the summer I got my first job, working at Dairy Queen. I haven’t stopped working since. It also meant that I had a lot less time. But fortunately had ‘disposable’ income for the first time in my life2.
High school started and my home life went to shit. For the next three years I would have unstable housing (until finally being forced to live on my own and support myself in the last year of high school) and pretty much inconsistent access to computers and the internet. I sort of didn’t have time or access to continue nurturing my love of tech and coding. Certainly wasn’t able to get that 10,000 hours of practise at any point.
By the time I got to university, I had pretty much left all that stuff in the past. I still enjoyed tech and all that. Which is why I bought a laptop as soon as I was able to save enough money (an unbelievably shitty Dell for way too much fucking money). But I couldn’t afford to pay for internet at home and, at that point at university, it wasn’t strictly necessary.
And now I’m 30 and have rediscovered a love for tech and coding. That, amusingly enough, I’m still too poor to be able to nurture3.
I have a job in library tech that I still feel damn lucky to have, given my lack of any formal education in tech. Since working with my first open source project (Islandora! Yay!), I’ve gone from never having touched a terminal, to having one constantly opened on my desktop because I use it all the time now.
This is all background, for me to put a sort of human face when talking about the systemic barriers #girlslikeus of colour face when trying to get into tech. To show how a nexus of individual identity and social/environmental context work together to create barriers that go beyond just interpersonal interactions4.
It is also why, when I talk about this stuff, it is always with the biggest picture I can hold in my brain. Because, as I’ve said before, stuff like classism, racism, sexim, ableism (and so on) aren’t unique to the tech community. They are broad, social and cultural problems that necessarily require the tech community to stop being so insular and to start paying attention to the realities of the world they live in and help create.
This is also why there isn’t any time for respectability politics and the kind of tone policing that only seems to apply to the marginalized of the community (white men are always allowed to be as angry, aggressive, threatening, and generally awful as they wish to be). No one gives a fuck if you don’t ‘feel’ like you are racist/sexist/oppressive. It isn’t about my feelings and it isn’t about yours.
It is about creating the infrastructure and resources that would’ve allowed the child I was to actually pursue her interest in tech and coding. And for all other children in similar (or even wildly different) circumstances to have access and support to pursue their love of tech in a safe environment5. This won’t happen without widespread and big changes. And it likely won’t be solved by some new and novel technology. This, unfortunately, is a human problem.