Happy Ada Lovelace Day, everyone. I’m joining the nearly two thousand people who’ve responded to Suw Charman-Anderson’s pledge: “I will publish a blog post on Tuesday 24th March about a woman in technology whom I admire but only if 1,000 other people will do the same.” You’ve got a few more hours to join the pledge, if you’d like – you’ll be in very good company.
I’ve had the good luck to work with inspiring, brilliant women at every stage of my technical career. At Berkman, I get to work with incredible researchers like danah boyd, Judith Donath, Eszter Hargittai… and, of course, Rebecca MacKinnon, my co-founder on Global Voices. In my activist work, I cross paths with inspiring folks like Katrin Verclas, Beth Kanter, Bev Clarke, Brenda Burrell, Ory Okolloh, Juliana Rotich, and so many others. Once we open the Pandora’s Box that is Global Voices, I could spend all day – let me simply say that I think of Georgia Popplewell whenever I need an inspiration to help me be calm, compassionate, professional and caring in my work – she’s truly one of the most extrodinary people I’ve ever had the honor to work with.
But as I thought about Ada Lovelace day, I realized that I wanted to honor not just women in technology, but programmers, the folks who get their arms dirty making code do what we want it to. And so I found myself thinking back to Tripod, the first real job I ever had, and still the best time I ever had building something from the ground up. In retrospect, Tripod looks like a pretty amazing boot camp for joining the Web industry. My dear friends and colleagues Kara Berklich and Margaret Gould Stewart both found themselves, alongside me, in the odd position of being vice presidents of a large and growing web company before we’d left our twenties. Kara’s now the Veep of marketing for Rubicon, an innovative ad network, and Mags is heading up user interface design for YouTube. (She just moved there from Google, so don’t blame the current mess on her – she’s there to make it better.)
But the Tripod friend I was thinking of was Kate Krolicki. In 1997, Kate had two fairly lousy jobs. One involved life modeling for art classes at Williams College. The other was as a “porn-sniffer” for Tripod – this involved looking at screen after screen of images uploaded to Tripod that our algorithms had identified as being likely to be pornographic, and therefore subject to deletion under our terms of service. After a few months of these two jobs – which Kate reported “can do very strange things to one’s body image” – she found herself hanging out with a group of Tripod programmers and asked, “How hard would it be for me to learn Perl?”
Almost everyone at Tripod at this point was a self-trained programmer. We had a chip on our collective shoulder about computer science majors, and tended to hire folks who’d learned enough programming to be dangerous while majoring in physics, math or philosophy. So Kate found herself learning Perl from a bunch of cocky, sloppy hackers… who happened to have thrown together a web service used by roughly 15 million people. Within a couple of months, Kate was no longer stomping out porn, but writing the core code that controlled our mail systems. She went on to write some nifty mail code for the late, great community newsletter company, Streetmail, and now geeks for Williams College, where she’s part of a small team that helps faculty figure out how to integrate technology into their classrooms.
Tripod got over its prejudices against trained programmers, in part because the CTO who (thank god!) took their reins from me started hiring programmers from General Dynamics, the downsizing defense contractor two towns over. As it happened, many of the best programmers from General Dynamics were women with CS degrees and years of experience writing careful, well-documented, tested code for department of defense systems. They basically kicked our collective asses and taught us a great deal about how production code gets written in the real world. But I’m still proud of my friends who believed – and, I suspect, still believe – that programming isn’t a cult, an art form, a strange, esoteric discipline, but a straightforward, practical tool that can be mastered, even by women and liberal arts majors. That it seldom is is more a function of the pretensions of the people who program and the culture that’s grown up around it.
That’s why my inspiring women for this Ada Lovelace Day are the fine folks behind the Organization for Transformative Works. Not only is OTW building a women-centered community dedicated to the art of fan fiction, where fans extend, remix and rethink works of fiction, they’re building a vast archive of the works that have been produced. And the software for the archive – An Archive of Our Own – is written and sysadmin’d by a team of remarkable women. Notable among them is Naomi Novik, who’s not content to be one of the best fantasy novelists in the world today – she led the team that designed and began building the Archive… while writing books that have dominated the New York Times Bestseller list.
What’s most impressive to me is that OTW saw the project of creating an archive as an opportunity to induct dozens of women into the wonderful world of programming. They’re building a huge, complex system that is truly their own and mastering tools in the process. That, I suspect, is something Ada Lovelace would have appreciated, and it’s something I’m inspired by.