Encouraging Women to Code

Into my email came yet another note from a woman asking about the call for a women’s coding workshop I had forwarded to a listserv. I didn’t know much about the workshop, but posting it meant I got emails asking if it was ok for them to attend even though they had “rusty coding skills” or were a beginner or  had only taken part of a class online or they had only learned a different programming language.


I tried to respond brightly:  I’m not great at Python myself. The workshop says it’s just for beginners, so let’s try. I’m a beginner too. A few weeks later four of us had a great time learning how to create and run a simple loop in Python.


Oh, and that listserv I sent the email to? The one where all of the responses included some sort of derogatory comment about how little they knew about the topic, and how basic their level was?

Every one of those women who responded had a Ph.D. Most of them in a STEM field. 


These women had published academic articles, were working in high pressure jobs and had gotten onto that list serve by making it through a rigorous multi-stage interview process for a fellowship. But every single woman who emailed asked me if she was good enough.


We talk about having a pipeline problem in technology, that it’s not great for the tech industry not to employ women, that women do have the skills – as long as we don’t know they’re women.


Maybe one part of our problem is convincing smart women, minorities and anyone else that’s not represented enough in the tech field that it’s worthwhile, fun and even just plain ok to learn computational skills.

Asking For Help

A few months ago, a blind man boarded my bus and the driver explained to him which seat was open. The man thanked him, sat down and told the driver where he was getting off. The driver indicated when we were approaching the stop. After the man got off, he asked which direction he needed to go to get to a particular building. The bus driver seemed stumped. Another passenger who had gotten off noticed, returned to the bus and offered to walk the man to his final destination.

My first reaction was to be moved by one person helping another. Simple story right?

But it started me thinking.

A few months ago, I had some medical procedures and was in a lot of pain. My doctor relented to my request to go to a wedding out of state after the surgery, but said there was a condition. I was not allowed to lift anything. “And that includes lifting things into the overhead bin on the airplane” she told me.

I agreed quickly (before she could change her mind) but was surprised to find how nervous I was about asking someone to help me, a seemingly able bodied woman to lift a relatively light suitcase and put it in the overhead bin.

I imagined that people would think of me as helpless, or just wanting attention or being a wussy girl. I have spent most of my life doing things on my own and I didn’t want to ask a complete stranger to help me. I tried to calm myself by saying that it was the job of airline attendants to do that kind of thing and that for some people it wouldn’t be a very big deal at all. But it bothered me that I would have no way to get it up there if someone didn’t help me. It bothered me to be dependent on others.

I nervously dreamt about it the night before I left on my trip. When I got to the airport, I asked the gate attendant how to ask for help. He seemed puzzled by my question.

“Oh just ask and someone will help you.”

When I asked, it didn’t seem to be a big deal to the person who helped me. I’m sure I too have helped someone put a bag in the overhead bin and I’m pretty sure it didn’t register on a list of things that I thought about a second time. I could do it, so I just helped.

It made me think of a video of a conversation that Judith Butler had with Sunaura Taylor as they took a walk. It’s worth watching:

They discuss an anecdote where Taylor goes to a coffee shop and buys a cup of coffee. She is in a wheelchair and needs either to ask for help in getting her coffee to her table, or to move it with her mouth. She talks about how using a part of one’s body for such a task can be difficult for able bodied people to watch.

She says, “In a way it’s a political protest for me go in and to order a coffee and to demand help. Simply because, in my opinion, help is something we all need. And it is looked down upon.”

In their discussion, Butler responds with “Indeed, when you ask for some assistance with the coffee, you’re basically posing the question ‘Do we or do we not live in a world where we assist each other?’ ‘Do we or do we not help each other with, with… with basic needs?’ And are basic needs there to be decided on as a social issue and not just my personal individual or your personal individual issue? So there is a challenge to individualism that happens at the moment you ask for some assistance with the coffee cup. And hopefully people will take it up and say ‘yes I too live in that world in which I understand that we need each other to address our basic needs.’” (Emphasis mine).

What Butler and Taylor are saying is that it is an illusion that we are independent from one another. We believe that we are independent, that we do not need one another. People with disabilities remind us, through their dependence, that we too are dependent.

But here’s the thing, it is uncomfortable to be dependent, it’s vulnerable. But the core question that we’re asking when we ask for help is what Butler describes and I think it’s a really core question to ask:

“Do we or do we not live in a world where we assist each other?” 

Do we or do we not live in a world where we will accept help and offer help?


I Want a New Story

This morning when President Obama addressed the nation because of the mass shooting in Orlando, I daydreamed that in the middle of his speech he would stop and say:

“You know what: F*%# THIS. I am tired of giving these speeches. I am sick to death of pretending this is a “tragedy” when we all know we could do any number of things to make guns harder to get. Come on. How many times do I have to console family members whose loved ones were innocent bystanders and whose killer legally got a semi-automatic weapon that indiscriminately slaughtered their child/partner/friend/loved one? WTF.”

But he didn’t. Obama was presidential. Which is his job I guess. Addressing a nation who woke up on a Sunday morning to hear that fifty people were gunned down in a club because someone wanted to cause terror. He told us it was a tragedy. He said the FBI is working on it. He told us that this was a terrorist act and the pundits then spent a bunch of time talking about what those words mean. Terrorism vs. Hate crime.

What he said seemed like déjà vu.

Why? Because we all know how this story goes.

Obama will end up comforting the victims and families of those who were slain talking to them about their child/father/mother/friend/partner. Maybe there will be a photo op including a fist bump with someone who is recovering the surgery that removed bullets from their thigh/back/arm/chest.

Later he will try to get people interested in creating new legislation. They won’t be interested enough to stand up to the NRA.

We all know how this story goes.

In the days to come, we will hear stories of people whose lives were cut short by senseless violence/were in the wrong place at the wrong time/were going out for an evening with friends. We will hear that they were just about to get married/send their children to college/go on a trip around the world. We will learn about their quirks: they made everyone around them laugh/loved eating Indian food/couldn’t wait to watch the next season of The Great British Bake Off/were a horrible singer but loved karaoke anyway.

And then we will investigate our own life and shake our head and say that it’s a shame/we wish we could do something/we wish this hadn’t happened/someone should really do something about that.

We all know how this story goes.

Later in the day, I listened to the radio. A woman was interviewing someone who had been inside the club and escaped out without injury. The interviewer asked “Did you hear anything said out loud?”. The guy hadn’t heard anything said out loud. We all know why she asked this question. We know that sometimes in a mass shooting, a shooter/bystander/victim will say something memorable. We know that those last words are horrific but fascinating. We can talk about those words later when we talk to friends about how awful this was.

We all know how this story goes.

I check into Facebook and people have posted broken hearts/candles/rainbow flags. My friends who were so celebratory just yesterday attending Pride are now posting somber comments.

Some post that Onion article that says “‘No Way to Prevent This’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens”

Some write angry posts that blame semi-automatic weapons/violence in the media/Trump/the NRA.

Some write that they will hug their loved ones closer.

Some change their profile pictures to reflect a meme.

We all know how this story goes.

My friends, we are far too knowledgeable about how to react to a mass shooting.

We all know how this story goes.

This time, I can’t bring myself to change my profile picture/post that Fred Rogers quote where he talks about the helpers/pretend that I’m not utterly wrecked by the fact that my country keeps making weapons available so that more innocent people are shot.

Let’s change this story. Let’s rewrite it. Let’s do something different this time. Please?

Let’s write emails/letters/make calls to Congress/The President/Local Newspapers/Neighbors/Friends saying something simple like:

“Hey guys, we have got to do everything we can to not have another San Bernardino/Sandy Hook/Charleston/Navy Yard/Aurora/Virginia Tech/Columbine”


“Let’s create legislation that will create background checks/mental health checks/a federal database to track guns/semi-automatic weapon bans/a ban on assault weapons/a ban on online sales/a ban on high capacity clips/closing loopholes/increase funding for mental health”


“Let’s talk honestly about what might prevent these massacres and change this narrative. As a community/family/school/town/country we have to work together.”


Something else that I haven’t thought of? Just SOMETHING? Because I’d like to stop knowing how this story goes.

I want a new story.




Measuring What Matters

These days, organizations have a lot of information coming at them and it can be hard to see clearly through the spreadsheets, dashboards and data visualizations. It gets difficult to measure what is important. Why?

Because sometimes the things that are easy to measure aren’t that important and sometimes the things that are hard to measure are very important.

In an information deluge world, when a measurement already exists it can become important by default. Even if it doesn’t quite get at what we want it to, it’s better than nothing… right?

Before we know it, we’re using these measurements to make clever charts and pretty diagrams, looking at those numbers over time and making decisions based on the ups and downs. It makes us feel productive, we have something to point to, we can give ourselves targets and meet goals.

The problem is that just because we have data doesn’t mean we are measuring what is important or answering the questions that matter.

To measure what matters we need to know what matters. We have to start by saying “What do we care about? What do we value?” It sounds easy, but I’ll tell you – most of the time what an organization values isn’t found in a spreadsheet.

I recently did some work for the excellent Software Carpentry Foundation where we asked the hundreds of volunteer instructors what they got out of their time teaching technical seminars for scientists. From the short survey, we learned that instructors enjoyed networking with the diverse international community, learning to be better teachers and teaching the content.

Luckily, Software Carpentry has some pretty good metrics for most of this. You could argue that they might need more creative ways to measure networking and community. But still, you can point to how many teachers there are, how many workshops were offered, how many people were engaged.

What was surprising was that SWC instructors also consistently valued the online materials they use to teach their classes which are freely available to everyone. These materials are lessons about topics for scientists who want to learn R or Python for instance. Instructors told us is that they liked sending the information to colleagues or students who couldn’t make it to a workshop or wanted to learn material on their own.

Software Carpentry Foundation had always created their lessons in an open source manner, but knowing that people value this material and that members of their community pass along the materials changes the landscape. Now they can look at the lessons as something that offers an impact instead of just the workshops. It gives them more outcomes to measure their impact.

We have incredible opportunities when we get to play with data, but we need analysis that has a targeted inquiry about what matters, to whom and why. Without knowing what we care about, how can we measure what matters?


Energy Efficiency for Five-Year-Olds


On a hot day in August, my seriously adorable five year-old nephew Ezra tried to turn on the television. His slightly more serious but equally adorable seven year-old brother Micah said with gravity, “No Ezra, don’t turn that on. Today is the day that we are saving electricity.”

It’s an interesting quirk of our electrical system that during the hottest days of the summer, even if you run the air conditioning at full blast and manage to turn on all of your energy hogging electronics between the hours of midnight and noon (a full twelve hours), you are doing less harm to the environment than if you were to run even some of those electronics between 2pm and 7pm.

Wait, what?

It’s surprising isn’t it? Our electrical system is designed to accommodate everyone who wants to turn on a switch exactly when they want to turn on that light on. Think of our electrical grid as being run by invisible house elves from the Harry Potter world. In the same way that the students at Hogwarts don’t think about the work that goes into the food that magically shows up on their dinner table, we don’t think about how much work goes the utility company’s ability to anticipate when you want to plug in your iPhone, run your dishwasher or turn up your AC.

The challenge is that on the really hot days when everyone is turning on their AC, they tend do it at about the same time. People get home from work, finds out that their house is really hot and almost in unison everyone dials up their AC and the demand for electricity goes up.

You haven’t ever had to worry about this because electrical companies have gotten very good at anticipating your needs. What you might not know is that that having that much of a demand for electricity so quickly is a really big stress on the electrical system. It means that utilities turn to what are called peaker plants and spinning reserves.

And this is where we can see the environmental impact.

These plants only run during the hottest (and sometimes the coldest) days of the year. They are typically coal and gas-fired plants that have been built for the sole purpose of running during the times when there is a peak demand (or a lot of need) for electricity. Utilities can call on them at the last minute so that when you and your neighbors arrive home on that hot August evening and you all turn on the AC at exactly the same time, the system won’t overload.

These plants are the most expensive to run, they tend to be the least energy efficient and they often have the most environmental issues. It’s partially because they have to be “spinning” in the background, meaning that they’re producing electricity even if you don’t use it (waste much?). That makes the price of electricity they provide higher.

Which brings us back to my older nephew Micah gravely telling his younger brother on the hot August day that they need to save electricity. Where did he get that idea?

Micah and Ezra’s parents had signed the household up for a pilot Demand Response program through their utility. During up to 12 really hot days in the summer months, they agreed to reduce their usage during peak times – in this case between the hours of 2pm and 7pm. In return, they got a programmable thermostat and a better electricity rate during off peak times.

While these programs are still experimental, utilities have found that these programs called “Demand Response” are effective and efficient ways to reduce peak electrical need. Utilities can cut back on the expensive and environmentally damaging peak electricity and most consumers find that with a little bit of forethought and some thermostat programming it’s not that big of a deal even on the hottest days.

These programs are cost effective, beneficial for our environment and so simple that a five-year-old can understand it.





Learning How to Learn

Why should you spend this one wild and precious life doing coursework? What will that offer you? Why study? Why take classes? Why get a degree? Is it because you were supposed to? All too often, students don’t question if it’s the right thing to go to college or to get a degree, they just assume they’re supposed to. When the going gets rough and people want a more advanced job, the assumption is that another degree will do it.

Parents don’t question this assumption. Getting through college is seen as the epitome of successful parenting. Professors don’t question it either. Faculty get complacent with the idea that what we say is going to prepare you for the world “out there”. If we question why students are there, we question our very work.

Let’s question it anyway.

Why take classes? Why learn? And why learn by sitting in a classroom? Why not in another way such as through an apprenticeship or watching grasshoppers or talking to people? Why college? Why not other ways? Does college have to look the way it has always looked? And if you do think college is right for you, why are you there? Are you there to get a degree? To get good grades? To prepare for a career? To meet cute potential partners?

May I suggest that there’s a another reason to take college classes:

To learn how to learn.

College should teach you things that are more challenging to learn without having someone alongside you helping you figure it out. It’s not that you couldn’t learn these things without school. It’s just easier alongside someone who really knows, who gives you feedback on what you’re doing and sees further directions you could go and gives you practical advice. It helps to have a community of people who are all there with you learning and trying to bounce ideas off of one another. College can be a great place to learn.

The thing is, learning is not just for the content. The content is a side benefit, the real reason you should learn something new is to know how you learn.

“That’s ridiculous” you say to me. I take classes to learn stuff. You should teach me stuff.

Fair enough, if you want to learn stuff, you can, classes have that, there are books to read, skills to learn, frogs to dissect. But I maintain, the content is the booby prize. Your core reason for being in school is to learn how you learn.  Particularly the really hard things.

Here’s why: College cannot prepare anyone for the jobs that will exist in ten years, because we have no idea what those jobs will be. Think about ten years ago. How could we have known that being a social media expert could get you a job? We didn’t know that learning how to make “apps” would be a thing. I’m not sure anyone predicted that the Kardashians would be a thing. There is no crystal ball.

Yes, if you want to be an engineer or an accountant or a professor, there is a certain amount of knowledge you need to learn.  No doubt. Go get that knowledge. But even an accountant may have to learn a new computing system, an engineer needs to understand the properties of a new material, a professor has to figure out how to teach online. You will always be learning.

The bonus is that if you stumble onto content you love, you get really helpful clues about the future. I know someone who works in entertainment who was very well served by a childhood of reading comics and watching television. Or a professor friend who writes mysteries on the side and learned how to keep people’s attention through comedy. Or a colleague who is a fantastic meeting planner because she loves throwing parties.

So if you are taking classes in college, use those classes to figure out how you learn. That’s the skill that will pay off in the long run.