:: inner circles

"One thing I was told when I started was that I could never be a good developer because I've never watched Star Wars," Marie told me in a conversation about her developer story. Marie is very clever, brutally honest, and loves common sense. Always ready to give her opinions, she can easily make you a bit scared. She knows a lot about programming, and many other things, including the new flavours of ice cream for the current season.

Marie surprised me one day with her opinion about what she called the gatekeepers of programming, the members of an "inner circle" that was hard to access. While she explained this to me, I suddenly remembered a conversation with another programmer. We were in a lift and I was trying to brake an akward silence by asking him about something that I assumed he'd be interested in (i.e. Star Wars) because he was a programmer. I asked if he'd seen the new Star Wars film that had recently come out, but without turning his head to me he said "I'm not really into Star Wars. Please don't tell anyone."


There is a lot of that and there's a lot of that kind of bias also in like job adverts. Like you know: “We have an RPG (Role Playing Group) club after work” and it instantly excludes shit loads of people from applying because they are like "oh, fuck, how boring." So that kind of sucks. It does nothing for diversity. Now I'm going through a book about AR [Augmented Reality], but all the examples are like: there's a mini tank, a mini car, etc. You know, it's also kind of boys-centric in all the examples. For the big boys to be able to relate to the small boy inside them and for the girls to feel excluded. And I don't think any of the guys actually, consciously, try to exclude women from this club, they just don't understand that examples about displaying Arsenal logo or football scores are not actually appealing to everyone as a cool thing to build.

It would take a while to unpack the ramifications of what Marie summed up in those sentences. Take one of them, for instance, the idea that men don't actually try to consciously exclude women. This is the sort of unconsciuos bias that is quite tricky to discuss. What's wrong in building a project that generates footbal logos? - one might say. Well, as it turns out, there is quite a lot wrong. Isn't this woke culture dominating everywhere? Who cares, really, that's not the point. The point is that there is an infinite number of projects that you can build, and by focusing on clearly male ones - the car-train-star wars axis of masculinity - you end up limiting the number of people that could actually enjoy the content of what you are creating. But the problem is, as Marie was saying, that most of this is uncounscious, which is probably why men get so angry when someone suggests that the examples they are using - the Arsenal logo! - are gendered-biased. How could it be biased it there was no conscious decision to make it so?

I talked to a Ruby developer from the United States about some of these issues, and I mentioned how the topic of gender often arose by itself when I talked to women but it almost never came to the fore when talking to men. She said that was pretty obvious, since it's usually people in the position of privilege that can ignore the issues. I mentioned how a senior male colleague had gone out of his way to tell a recently hired female developer that she hadn't been hired because she was a woman but because she was the best person for the job. The person in question was speechless. I mentioned this episode to the Ruby dev, and emphasized that I didn't really understand why he had done that. It felt totally out of the blue - "absolutely no one" meme type of thing. But she said that wasn't the worst bit; the worst part was that he probably though he was doing the right thing.

Which brought us to discuss recent discussions within the ruby community that highlighted the difficult weavings between programming communities and wider social debates. In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, I told her, many places have been changing the references to "blacklisting" and "whitelisting" objects and data within applications. The suggestion was to switch to "blocklist" and "allowlist" as non-racialized ways of dealing with that access to certain data. After some pushback, it was done. She said the pushback was not surprising given that the tech industry's motto of "moving fast and breaking things" works very well except when it comes to addressing sexism and racism.

She said that the problem of gender in programming has to do with the fact that women and non-binary people in the Ruby community produce very little of its technical content. There are exceptions, like Sandi Metz, for instance, but most of the blogs, technical posts, programming guides and books are written by men. And on this, she mentioned something that I'd never heard before, which is how you need to be very careful, as a non-binary or woman in programming, with the style that you use to voice your opinion on things. Several people in the tech world - the Ruby community included - tend to write articles and books which are very forceful: "This is my strong opinion on this." A woman could never write something in that style and survive the backlash, she told me. "Women can't do this." she said, "If I want my writing to be read, I can't go super strong."

As Marie and I talked about these issues, she suddenly had a realization. She realised why there was a connection between the cultural aspects of gatekeeping - the star wars axis - and particular software tools that programmers choose to work with - the "I only do git from the terminal" approach, for instance. Both made her feel excluded, but she coulnd't make out why. Suddenly, as we talked, she realized what the link was.

Don't know how, but I kind of have an impression this ties with this “I only do git from the terminal.” There's something in that. Which kind of… it's maybe deciding who is and who is out. Yes! [Big smile of realization]. It is the inner secret circle thing. It is the people who do it from command line and like Star Wars, you know, and then you're in. And if you don't meet those secret criteria then you're, you're an outsider and you don't fit in and you're not the developer. No proper developer anyway, right? And that's an important one: to become a proper developer.

To be a "proper" or "true developer," what a dream. A developer that not only knows how to display magical abilities through technical trickery but that also despises user-friendly graphical interfaces. True developers use the console, have majestic bashrc files, and only do git from the terminal. If only there was a certificate on LinkedIn Learning.