My Subversive Thing


I’m slow on the uptake because I usually have my head in the clouds or I’m glaring at some project and not thinking about anything else. But hanging out at pharyngula back in the scienceblogs days helped clue me in to the gender imbalance in tech. (It required a few privilege-checks and beatings)

It’s embarrassing, really. Being one of the privileged white guys with graying facial hair that dominate the industry, I didn’t see it. When I started my company in 1997 I hired mostly friends, which helped perpetuate the problem, but I will say I moved quickly to recruit for diversity – with some (but not outstanding) success. The deep-seated sexism in tech started to grate on my nerves more and more; once you start seeing it, you see it everywhere, and it’s really shitty. And it’s embarrassing. I started doing a few things, including a statement that I wouldn’t speak at conferences that don’t have an anti-harassment policy. I tried to loop a few other computer security bigshots into making a joint statement, but – surprisingly to me – I got pushback on “freeze peach” even from some of the old school types that I expected would be more progressive. Well, they weren’t good friends, anyway; I went it alone. [ranum.com] I had already been disappointed by my industry when I complained aloud about “booth babes” at conferences another issue that many bigshot security practitioners poo-poo’d [roth] while others noted [schw] – when my then-boss asked if I’d go to our booth at RSA I said I’d do it if he didn’t mind me wearing a miniskirt and stripper heels. Nobody has sent me to RSA since then, so the last time I did a talk there I had to pay my own way.

I’ve been doing a column for SearchSecurity since 2003 [search] originally as a “debate” column with Bruce Schneier (we mostly agree) but then it morphed into an interview column. For the last year, I’ve been interviewing almost entirely women. Nobody has caught on, yet. And, of course, they’re awesome – their trajectory into computing and security often mirrors mine: interested as  kid, then got involved in administration or operation, and from there into security. I’ve found it really interesting, because, as PZ asks in his recent piece “What differentiates a good engineer from a clueless ignoramus?” [pharyngula] Experience. That’s it. Passion helps but mostly it’s a matter of experience, which is a matter of opportunity. Passion is also a matter of opportunity: after all, you can’t get excited about something until you realize it’s something that’s an option for you. You can’t get experience with something until you get the opportunity to do it – unless you’ve got wealthy parents who can drop opportunity at your feet.

From my interview with Diana Kelly (who is a top-tier consultant at IBM and, at IBM, walks on water): [full interview]

How did you wind up in security? What were you like as a kid?

Diana Kelley: [laughs] I was actually a typical nerdy — but book nerdy — kid. I had a big penchant for Gilbert and Sullivan plays and learned many of them by heart. One day, my dad came home with a Texas Instruments programmable calculator. I was about 9 years old — it was early 1970s at this point — and I absolutely fell in love with it. You could program this thing to do stuff. I made it calculate out Hello. Later, when my dad decided he was going to build his own Heathkit computer, I was the kid that got really, really excited about this whole ‘computer’ thing and wanted to work on it with him.

My dad was a research professor at MIT Lincoln Labs, and he had accounts on the PDP computer at Tech Square, and I got a kid account so I could dial in. It was actually a rotary-dial phone with an acoustic coupler — you wait for the beeps and the boops. I was in the middle of this incredible revolution on the ARPANET: you could send email to people or have chats, and there were games — I think it was called ‘Adventure.’

Yeah, I played that one, too. ‘There is a little dwarf here.’

Kelley: I was talking to people who were working on research with mice and IT, and I was just completely floored. It was the coolest thing that it all worked. I actually ‘hacked’ without knowing what I was doing: Nowadays, no 12-year-old would have plausible deniability, but in 1978 or ’79, I would say I did.

All I knew was that I couldn’t get to the manual pages of the system I was on, and I was talking to someone who said, ‘Well, you just don’t have enough access.’ I was a kid; how could I get access?

Well, the mucky-mucks had access, so I figured out eventually that there was a bug in the login and people couldn’t see what they were typing their password into, but you could set the terminal up to ghost their keystrokes and get their password after they entered it. I got an admiral’s account, I believe, and I was on one of the .MIL systems in D.C. I was able to read everything I wanted about how the system worked, and the next day there was a phone call to my father.

That one really hit me; I was a huge Gilbert and Sullivan fan, too. And I was just lucky that I worked at a school where they had a computer. It was one of the first schools on the east coast that had a computer.

From my interview with my old friend E. Kelly Fitzsimmons: [full interview]

Kelly, let’s jump right into ithow did you start off as an entrepreneur?

E. Kelly Fitzsimmons: I started around age 7. I lived in the Florida Evergladesmy mom is an artist, and she decided to leave my father and live down there. So I moved from Milwaukee to Florida when I was 6 years old, and it became very clear to me, early on, that my mother’s plans to make it as an artist were not going to work out and some money was desperately needed. I started selling coconuts and driftwood to tourists.

(Laughing) How did you get into higher technology after coconuts and driftwood? Your work has always been focused on tech to some degree, so I assume it’s your background.

Fitzsimmons: Always, always. I started programming in Pascal when I was 11 years old. I was a weird kid: I had dyslexia and pretty severe ADHD. I remember, as a kid, getting a present of a 2-XL Robot that would quiz you on trivia, and it ran off an 8-track tape. And I thought it was fascinating and took up programmingit was so exciting to be able to create something from scratch. That was how I got started. When I moved back to Milwaukee, my career really didn’t take off until I was in my twenties.

Usually, these interviews are a learning experience for me. I know I’m an old-school coder, but I didn’t realize Kelly started the same year I did, but she’s (ahem!) younger. Diana started coding a couple years before I did. Opportunity. These ‘engineer’ twinks at Google (most of whom I would consider ‘noobs’) may have been belly-bumps when Kelly was coding in Pascal.

Dyann Bradbury and I’ve known each other for about 20 years now, I guess. But I never knew her origin story. It turns out: Opportunity [full interview]

Was there anything you’d identify in your childhood that set you on a course for your professional career? How did you wind up where you are now?

Dyann Bradbury: Where I was raised, you grew up, went to high school, got married, had a job — only you were a farmer’s wife — and that’s it. Or you were a secretary or taught school. I happened to get a job at a bank when I was in high school, so I could go there and work in the morning for a couple of hours. I think it was 1979, and I graduated from high school in 1980 and was scheduled to be married in 1981.

I went in to the senior vice president of the bank and said, ‘I want to take some [college] classes; what do you suggest?’ And he said, ‘Why not learn about computers because everyone is going to have one on their desk in 10 years.’ I took ‘Intro to Computers and Data Processing’ and got so interested in it that I decided I needed to know everything there is to know about computers — everything from how the current comes in to the power supply, to how the software works. What sparked my passion was how the computer read the information — yes/no, on/off. I thought, this is incredible!

By then, I was working full time, I was married, and I was taking night classes. I took electronics classes — transistors and base-level stuff, [including] computer repair. They would give us a motherboard and [computer] case, a drive [and say,] ‘make it work.’ I took classes in networking from beginning to advanced.

I broke out of my streak last winter, and interviewed a venture capitalist. I thought it would be interesting to hear about that field; why venture capitalists are so busy looking for the next Mark Zuckerberg and ignoring all the Dianas, Dyanns, and Kellys – and she said some profoundly interesting things that made me lose what little shreds of respect I still had for venture capitalists: they see their job as sticking with what they know works, and hacky sack playing white ivy league boys are “what works.” In other words, she wants to perpetuate the system out of fear of failure and lack of vision. Meanwhile, venture capitalists tell everyone that they make their money taking risks. Ha! It was an interesting interview but the next day her P.R. agency called me to say we couldn’t print it. Oh, how did she become a venture capitalist? Opportunity.

Bill Gates was a lawyer’s kid, who went to a private preparatory school (like I did) that had a computer (like mine) when he fell in love with programming and started obsessively playing with the computer, his teachers excused him out of other classes. He’s not a dumb guy, by any means, but if he’d been poor, or black, or female, he wouldn’t have had that opportunity.

I you want to read about some awesome computing people, my columns are here: [Searchsecurity]

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Baltimore, where I grew up, had effectively segregated schools. They used the full panoply of tricks: tying school funding to tax-base and reducing school bus vouchers. I was totally unaware of any of that, at the time, but later I wondered if my parents switched me to a private school because of Baltimore’s sad attempts to desegregate. Apparently I was “getting too good at playing poker and not good enough at history” and was “a bit of a trouble-maker.” Pfff!

Comments

  1. Dunc says

    Yeah, exactly… My dad was a physics teacher and electronics enthusiast – my first experience with a computer was with a Texas Instruments TM990/189 that he brought home one day from his school, and we learned to program it together. Had one of the microprocessors with the case off, that we looked at under the microscope… He ended up designing and building (from scratch – drew the PCB masks by hand and everything) his own modular 1-bit computer on the dining room table. He said it was for teaching, but I reckon it was mostly for fun… Really cool idea actually, there were all these separate boards that could do things individually (flip-flops, registers, displays, etc), and that you could plug together in different configurations, and if you assembled the whole lot you got a programmable computer with a tiny bit of memory that could do stuff like run traffic lights or do simple arithmetic. My first “real” computer was a ZX81 that he built from a kit on the same dining room table. (He’d built the dining room table from scratch too, actually…)

    It wasn’t until something like 20 years later that it occurred to me that I could do stuff with computers for money.

  2. kestrel says

    And you know, if you happen to be female, you get told stuff, over and over: that you are bad at math but don’t worry, all girls are bad at math. That you’re bad at science, but don’t worry, all girls are bad at science. Etc. These things were said to me at public schools.

    It makes me appreciate just how difficult it can be to overcome those obstacles. These women are awesome, thanks for doing the interviews, I will definitely check those out.

  3. Sunday Afternoon says

    The female engineer (yes, singular) in my team earlier in the year had the opportunity to go to the Professional BusinessWomen of California’s annual conference: http://time.com/4716072/hillary-clinton-san-francisco-speech-donald-trump/

    I had some of the male engineers in my team questioning the need for the women’s conference. WTF?? Just look around yourself EVERY DAY at work with a tiny bit of self-awareness. For a couple of years I worked at our HQ building – the gender balance was better as HQ is typically finance and legal folks, pointing out the lack of balance in the engineering side.

  4. anat says

    kestrel, I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to be ‘good at math/science’ until sometime deep into middle school, by which time I already knew I was good at them and wanted to study biology. When my kid was in elementary school I coached a majority-girl Math Olympiad team, presumably populated by more girls who missed that memo. There is hope.

  5. says

    To anat @#4
    I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to be ‘good at math/science’ until sometime deep into middle school, by which time I already knew I was good at them

    The exact same thing happened with me. By the time I was 12 years old I was already competing in country level mathematical olympiads. I could effortlessly win school and district level competitions, it was only country level where competition started getting really tough for me. And then when I was already over 16 I finally got the memo that girls are supposed to be bad at maths. Good thing they forgot to tell me this earlier.

    But I can certainly attest that being told that you are supposed to be bad at something really hurts performance. When I developed interest in some masculine hobbies (martial arts, woodworking), people around kept telling me that I should drop those activities, because girls are bad at those things. It became so annoying that I actually ended up practicing in secret just to avoid all the annoying comments and attempts to convince me to pick other more feminine interests instead.

  6. says

    Dunc@#1:
    If I’m not getting too personal, do you have any siblings?

    One of the best all-around IT guys I know has 2 sons and a daughter. He is endlessly amused that his sons don’t give a rat’s buttock for computers (they are something that games run on!) but his daughter’s already coding. He made no effort to influence his kids; they just picked what they wanted. One of them is doing robotics (which, at this point, is more ‘system integration’ and ‘command/control’ than ‘programming’) but the other wants to make movies.

    You sound like you had a great fun time with early computers! And I had a similar experience. I graduated with a useless degree in psychology and was applying for jobs as a water at a couple restaurants, and one of my friends said “are you crazy!? you’re one of the best systems administrators any of us have ever seen, and your C is beautiful.” Uh, really? So I changed strategies and started applying for computer jobs. There weren’t many listings in those days, so it never occurred to me there was a job called “system analyst” until I was one.

  7. says

    kestrel@#2:
    These things were said to me at public schools.

    I hate that so much. Picture me with tears of blood running down my cheeks and pink steam squirting from my ears; that’s how much I hate it. I hate it so much I even thought about quitting IT and running for some kind of county school administrator position, so I could make some changes, but I realized I’d kill myself or someone else if I did.

  8. says

    Sunday Afternoon@#3:
    I had some of the male engineers in my team questioning the need for the women’s conference. WTF?? Just look around yourself EVERY DAY at work with a tiny bit of self-awareness.

    It’s the old “every time we talk about feminism, its need becomes apparent” thing. I am a bit heartened though – computing is going to come around; they’re already working on it. Some of my friends are doing really good stuff, like Dug’s company:
    http://www.secondwavemedia.com/concentrate/features/duosecurityworkculture0276.aspx

    The startup I was trying to launch (didn’t get funding soon enough, CEO wasn’t on the ball) in the winter was being structured for diversity; we had an internal mandate for demographic balance in hiring. Half our exec team was women.. You do what you can.

  9. says

    Ieva Skrebele@#5:
    But I can certainly attest that being told that you are supposed to be bad at something really hurts performance. When I developed interest in some masculine hobbies (martial arts, woodworking), people around kept telling me that I should drop those activities, because girls are bad at those things. It became so annoying that I actually ended up practicing in secret just to avoid all the annoying comments and attempts to convince me to pick other more feminine interests instead.

    Arrrgh, I hate that. Woodworking is a great craft for anyone. One of my artist friends’ wife runs a traditional Norwegian woodworking business, and he does illustrations and sketching. I’m not sure if the Scandinavian countries are more progressive than the US, but they seemed to me to be.

    Any guy who says women shouldn’t do martial arts hasn’t heard of Rosi Sexton, and deserves to meet her in a dark alley. Math, physics, and MMA and no apologies at all.

  10. jrkrideau says

    A long time ago when I was an undergrad I don’t believe there one woman undergrad in the enginering faculty. I was an Artsie (Psych) but a couple of my best friends were plumbers so I’d probably have met some if they had existed. And, such was the culture that I never noticed —but I am not the most observant person.

    In my department undergrads and grads were about 50—50 female & male. I only remember 2 female professors but given how long ago it was, I am not surprised since it would have been extremely unlikely there were enough female Ph.Ds available to raise the ratio though I am sure there would have been prejudice too.

    I was reading in the Alumni magazine lasts that the engineering faculty is slowly approaching 50–50. I think the ratio is something like 43–57 female—male. Apparently having a female Dean of the faculty helps.

    I’m a bit envious of you people having computers at home. We could not take the University’s only computer home. It was an IBM 360/50 and occupied custom–built room about 25m X 25m. The disc drives would have been about the size of a small microwave and one programmed with punch cards.

  11. Raucous Indignation says

    Marcus, did you write this post because someone twigged to what you’re up to or did you out yourself here as a test to see how long it is until someone says something?

  12. says

    Raucous Indignation@#11:
    Marcus, did you write this post because someone twigged to what you’re up to or did you out yourself here as a test to see how long it is until someone says something?

    I’ve been working that angle for almost 2 years now, and nobody has commented on it. So I thought it’d be interesting to see if anyone notices now.

    I generally am completely open about everything I do; my memory’s not what it used to be and keeping secrets gets harder all the time.

  13. Dunc says

    Marcus @6: I have a brother, but he’s 9 years older and had quite a different experience growing up. He’s a marine biologist specialising in commercial aquaculture.

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