Sunday, 19 May 2013

How important is visualisation?

I attended the OpenTech 2013 conference today, and was mightly impressed. I'd been a bit flat-out the last few weeks so I'd not had time to study the programme, but on arrival there was a wealth of interesting parallel sessions, so much so that I had trouble deciding which to attend.

One of the sessions that I found particularly interesting was the one about diversity. As a female sysadmin, I am conscious of the fact that I am somewhat in the minority; in fact, so far I have not met another female sysadmin in person. But it's a subject that I struggle with hugely, primarily because I don't want it to be an issue. I don't want my gender to be important in the workplace. And for a while I was hoping that by ignoring the issue completely it might go away. Because that always works as a strategy, right? But I just can't quite leave it alone, and thus I sat down to hear three presentations, from The Stemettes, Fossbox, and Meri Williams.

The subject matter they covered was fairly broad in itself, and I will leave you to read up on the details from their various blogs, but an hour of listening and mulling (followed by a beer and chatting) brought together some thoughts in my mind. One question I always come back to around the matter of diversity is WHY aren't there more women in technology. And it's one I feel particularly unqualified to answer, because I'm here and I love it. So where is everyone else?

So here's my new idea. Whenever I think about doing a different job, I really picture myself there. I visualise the whole thing: the office, the building, the colleagues, the work, the meetings. The more information I have to flesh out these details, the better I can imagine it. For example, when I was deciding to do a PhD I would picture myself as an academic, teaching students and making important discoveries, presenting at conferences and going on field trips. Some of the reality turned out to be slightly different to my imaginings, but I had a reasonable idea of the job, and how I would fit that job. Likewise when I took a position as an IT consultant: I could really see myself all smart in my black suit, holding forth in meetings with executives, the glamour of travelling and hotels, and the excitement of deadlines and handing over projects to satisfied customers. Again, real life was not quite the same, but I more or less knew what I was getting myself into. working as a sysadmin or a developer? If I'd have done the same thought experiment even five years ago I'd almost certainly have conjured up an image of a bearded, black-t-shirted geek tapping away on a laptop in a dark basement. I ended up as a sysadmin in a bit of a roundabout way via a secondment - I actually didn't even know sysadmining was a job. If I could have known that there was a job out there that involved tinkering with hardware and software and networks, that meant understanding vertical stacks of technology, analysing data, working in an environment where arguing about architectures and making each other laugh were both highly respected endeavours, I would have signed up years ago.

The point is that I didn't have enough information to picture the job, much less myself in the job. Right now I feel the same about being a lumberjack. Would I really just cut down trees all day? What would that be like in the different seasons? What else happens that I don't know about? And more importantly, what would that be like for me, personally, as a woman? Whenever I've seen it on television I've seen men doing it, not women - would it be different for me in some way?

So maybe this is part of the reason why we've so few girls entering the fields of maths, science and technology at school and beyond. They can't picture themselves in these careers with enough clarity to be able to say whether that's something that they'd want to do. To commit to at least three years at university, you either need to be very into the subject in the first place, or know that this path will lead you somewhere that you know you want to go, and that means across the whole shebang: day-to-day work, responsibilities, office environment, colleagues, salary, prospects, perks, job security, personal influence, expression and creativity, dress code, stress and pressure, travel, clients... Some of those things will be more important to you than others, and I expect it's these priorities that you'd focus on when weighing up opportunities.

I'd love to do some data research about this. Maybe there is some already out there (feel free to point it out to me). And if this is the case, what do we do about it? Do we need to do more at a personal level - getting professionals into school events and young people into work experience - or is there a wider cultural aspect? Television shows like CSI have massively increased the popularity of forensics as a career path - maybe we need an IT version. After all, it's been quite a while since films like War Games and Hackers were trendy, and I can't think of any more recent films that I have felt inspired by in that way. A niche in the market perhaps? Although I have one request to any future filmmakers: if you ever feel like you need to include a scene as technical as this one, please ask a professional first.