Reading the recent discussion (hic et seq) in the Open Thread about some of the challenges facing women in the open source software community, I’m brought back to an issue that I’ve been wrestling with for just about exactly two years now. It’s not the whole problem, but it’s a piece of it.
I’m a member of my company’s development team, and I’m unique there in three ways:
Now, the first element is, of course, my job. Being the lone tester, though, means that I don’t have a professional peer group to validate my skills, appreciate my subtleties and triumphs, or compare notes with. Although my colleagues often value what I do, they do so as customers and outsiders. Any more knowledgeable validation has to be internal.
But it’s the last two that are the problem for me.
When I took the job, I hadn’t coded much (apart from a little REXX) since my postgraduate computing course a decade earlier. So I’ve had to learn to code.
Now, as Scalzi so bluntly points out in another context, when you start doing something difficult and complicated, you will most likely suck at it. This is of course a necessary step in the learning process; we learn best from failure, not success. I know this. I have the products of the first three years of bookbinding online, with my various screwups photographed in intimate detail and dissected without mercy. It’s one of the most popular parts of that site.
But at the moment, I’m the only one in the team who really sucks at coding. And I’m the only woman. It’s a situation where generalizing is all too easy.
Now, my colleagues are really good guys. They don’t treat me as though my suckitude at coding (and managing version control software1, and wrestling with our IDE2) is the product of my gender. But I feel it. I feel like the fact that I’m not a ninja coder, the Kung Fu Panda of C#, reflects badly on my half of humanity. I’m letting the side down3.
(Ironically, this makes me suck more, because I find it difficult to ask questions or admit when I’m stuck.)
Frankly, if I were doing this for anything other than pay, I’d have long since buggered off with a good book. I certainly wouldn’t do it for the love of the work, because at this point, I don’t just suck, I feel guilty for sucking. There is no love there; every achievement is just a mitigation of the disservice I’m doing womankind. Stopping would be a net improvement. (I’m overstating the matter, but not by all that much. It’s pretty joyless. UPDATE: On reading this, I see it looks like my whole job is joyless. That’s not the case; it’s just the learning to develop that grinds me down and makes me feel small.)
So one thing women in Open Source—or anyone who is a minority in a skills-based group—need is Permission to Suck4. They need the understanding, from themselves and others, that any and all suckitude is to their account alone, just like it is for the majority.
Because everybody sucks sometimes. The trick is moving beyond it.