Sunday, March 22, 2009

Mary’s Random Curiosity

“If women need female role models, let’s come together to highlight the women in technology that we look up to. Let’s create new role models and make sure that whenever the question “Who are the leading women in tech?” is asked, that we all have a list of candidates on the tips of our tongues.”

I was looking for a role model for the me that was myself in an earlier existence and I was hooked by Mary Gardiner’s blurb at the LinuxChix miniconf 2009 where she was giving a talk about free software and mentioned command lines and coding in her spare time and something about her turn of phrase appealed. I had the feeling that she cared about things technical. So I set up a meeting to find out more. Here's her bit about herself.

Over coffees we talked about how an old computer with DOS2 and BASIC came into her life when she was only 8 years old and with help from a book from the library she learnt how to program, but with the perennial problem of not really having anything that she particularly wanted to make the machine do it was forgotten. Until high school, that is, where she was reintroduced to programming and Visual Basic in year 9 when she completed the HSC computing course early. It wasn’t a straight trajectory even after that but in spite of a diversion through Chemistry she was running her own server by the time she was 19, with her own domain name – still in use , and a bloglike journal continuous since then. By 2000 Mary had discovered Linux and LinuxChix. For a couple of years co chairing the LinuxChix miniconf. Her areas are Python, Java, Perl, and C and now her PhD is taking up most of her creative efforts.

Mary’s journal intersperses tech talk with life thoughts with suggestions that people donate blood for the bushfires. But overall a pretty solid amount of tech.

What I really like was her blog On Girl Stuff about her talk on Free Software and who came and the way women seem to land in the low status roles and how that happens and what our obligations to other women are in all this. And outreach programs for girls. Mary was putting out there that tension I feel between saying Yes girls can do that stuff (code climb mountains etc) but lots of girls are better at other things (communicating weaving etc) what do we do? Push girls into boy places? Make sure that girl places are respected and paid properly? No easy answers for me after a lonely lifetime of being a geekish girl with no geekish girlfriends, would I do it all again? Well I think the answer to that is I’d have to, I did what I was good at and that was coding but my life gradually tipped over into other roles because I was good at communicating too. Whoops this is about Mary.

I asked Mary about whether she has some female friends who she would go to for technical advice and it turns out that Mary is rich in female friendships that include computing. She has actively sought them out, LinuxChix is one of the places for this. She said it takes a while to develop from being there from being interested in the same things. Not really different from other interests. So that’s a big shift from my day and how wonderful. Maybe what’s changed is that there are enough women around now to be able to find the ones that you want to be friends with.

Mary’s Monthly Comp Sci Reading Group
Mary and her friend Alice started a group that meets monthly and discusses computer science papers that focus on a different topic each time. Sort of a techie’s book club. There’s blokes as well in the group, but Mary’s friendship with Alice was going to become the focus of this blog. I just haven’t managed to meet Alice yet.

The other things about Mary – Mary likes scuba diving (big time), snowboarding, swimming, yoga. She’s been with the same partner for nearly 10 years.

To be completed and pictures added when Mary gives permission.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Who am I?

The following is an interview I completed for the Social Media site, EMC|ONE, at EMC where I work.
Q. The ever tough intro question... Tell us abo
ut you...

Here's me today via my webcam. I'm not so young any more - in fact I was 60 this year! I've seen a lot of changes both in computing and in our community. I grew up in Sydney, Australia and still live here (who wouldn't, given the opportunity!!) I can walk to the beach where I swim or surf. I can see the sun come up over the Pacific from my home. And I do just that most days because I usually start work by 6.30am to be able to cross over time zones with my colleagues. As much as I love the asynchronous and sharing milieu of the web it can take ages when you're waiting on responses, so I like as much realtime interactions as I can get.

I'm a plain spoken sort of person, not so good at subtleties. Often the straight man when someone is cracking a joke. This makes me pretty good at technical writing because I need to get everything down to simple statements before I can understand it myself.

A bit more: Water, boats, swimming, surfing, kayaking. Bush, wilderness, walking, camping. Anti war activist, feminist, photography, filmmaking, publishing. Married, three children (home birth). Vegetables, gardens.

Q. Tell us a bit about your professional world... Where were you before joining EMC?
I started as a student then a worker at Sydney University Basser Computing. Over the following years I worked on/with/as mainframes, systems programmer/technical support, software development, project management. After having children I switched to College teaching (the joke was on me - teaching is as hard as anything else I ever did in the computing world), distance education, early online learning systems - Check out my paper from the AusWeb conference in 1997

This is a picture of the online campus we developed to deliver a course in Microcomputing almost entirely by distance, I think that we were the first to ever do that! You can see how we were influenced by that early Apple iWorld (eWorld? I forget the name). Ahhh the dreams. I went back to software development and was the joint creator of an interactive web page technology using XLink architecture and java, (IBM Java Brainwave prize 1998 at WWW7 Learners are Teachers Too)

Then I decided (if you ever have some good wine and a long evening I'll tell you about it) it was time to slow down a little so I moved into Technical Writing. That let me stay up close to interesting technology but no longer right in the middle of it.

The last place I worked at was Visionbytes where I had an opportunity to work with an amazing bunch of very young, enthusiastic and very clever guys and I wrote the complete documentation for a pioneering media system which exposed me to modern storage technologies along with more XML and java applications.

Q. When did you join EMC and could you tell us a little bit about your current areas of focus?
I joined EMC in 2005 as a technical writer in Knowledge Centered Support, Global Services. In 2006 our team was given the responsibility for extending the existing Documentum and Legato Support forums to include all the classic EMC products. I was lucky enough to be given the task and started working with Erich Zirnhelt who had been looking after them since 2005.

At first it was a process of getting the structure and the platform right, then it was getting people
involved and working out how to handle all the things that came up. We didn't have many resources, we learnt to recognise what was possible and to do the best with the resources we had. We have developed a lovely community in the forums.

I am very aware of the differences between the enthusiastic volunteers and the reluctant conscripts. Somehow with the volunteers I barely need to show them what's there and they'll take off and do more than I even imagined with the tools. But when it's someone who's been told that this is now their responsibility I struggle to get the message across. I have experimented with different forms of training but essentially we still depend on the volunteers for all that's best in our community.

Q. You clearly have a passion for the Social Web... What opportunities do you
see for EMC to leverage and better connect with our audiences?

I’m already seeing what can happen. Many of our customers are isolated as the only expert in storage technology in their workplace. Our forums have been providing them with a place where they can meet up with other experts both EMC people and other customers. I can see that there are friendships growing up from interactions within our forums, there is an enormous amount of warmth for colleagues expressed in our coffee break forum.

I have watched sometimes abrupt and critical new participants become cheerful members of the community, contributing more than they ever received. We had some photos posted to show the meeting of two forum users who had only met before in the EMC forums!

I was part of the Apple Macintosh user community for many years, that was before the advent of Social Web and they put huge efforts into fostering the kind of loyalty that I am seeing emerge from our forums, with remarkably little effort from us.

Q. Has EMC|ONE - or Social Media in general - helped improve your daily
activities? Any examples you can share?

Nowadays the forums/social media is everything I do so it's a bit hard to spot the difference. But in terms of EMC|ONE I've been very happy. All my efforts to make use of our own forums to share information about the forums and how to use them failed, the more rich interface of EMC|ONE has been much more successful and the ability to have wiki documents is terrific. I've been able to share the documents as I create them, and can keep them up to date without having to go through an official publication process. This has been so important because we've been inventing as we go and may need to make changes often to the processes that we create.

The other benefit was that by using EMC|ONE to share our experiences they were getting a wider audience. And above all – we stopped feeling so isolated with all the issues that the customer facing forums bring!

As a remote worker, who's closest work colleague (Erich) is in the wilds of Canada; the fact that Erich keeps a personal blog up to date has enabled me to have the kinds of social exchanges with him that you take for granted in a shared office space. In fact this has become the best bit for me of EMC|ONE - the generous sharing that people like Gina Minks have done with their personal web spaces and interests. Dale Hoopingarner turned out to have so much more to know about than I had discovered in my brief meetings with him.

In my personal life, as the mother of a traveling anarcho-vegan son who chooses not to initiate any direct communications but did allow me into his Myspace site I have benefited on a daily basis. I could see that he was still OK, and I could almost keep track of what cities he was in and what events he was attending. and a bit about his friends too.

Q. If you could share one bit of advice with the community, or with your EMC
peers in general, what would it be?

Wow just ONE bit of advice??

Right now we have a lively and active community on EMC|ONE but its made up of all early adopters, the small proportion of people who jump in and give new things a go. If we want the EMC|ONE community to include everyone at EMC then we'll have find a pathway for the majority to get involved.

Who will I choose for my Ada Lovelace Day blog

From amongst all the unsung heroines: entrepreneurs, innovators, sysadmins, programmers, designers, games developers, hardware experts, tech journalists, tech consultants . . .
Who do I want to write about? Someone who's already made their mark? Somebody that represents what I feel/think about technology?

I've been a woman in technology all my adult life. Sometimes I've been the only woman present in a bunch of geeks. Sometimes I've been the only geek present in a bunch of women.

So I jumped at the chance of helping to document the existence of women in technology when Suw put out the pledge for Ada Lovelace Day. I thought it would be easy - just select one of the great women that I have studied or worked with over my time in computing.

I wanted her to be an Australian. So I started to contemplate who I could write about. My first thought was Jenny Edwards, one of the 4 women in third year maths at Sydney Uni in 1967. It was Jenny who introduced me to Computing as a reality and not something in science fiction because she was already studying it. Jenny went on to have a distinguished academic career with plenty of notable involvement in the industry but I was looking for something else.

Then I thought of Judy Kay, now a Professor of Computer Science at the School of Information Technologies (formerly Basser Department of Computer Science) at the University of Sydney. Who was helpful to me when I returned to study there briefly in the 80s and who has specialised in the edge between people and machines. But I wasn't going to be able to do much better than her own description of herself.

By now I knew that I was looking for je ne sais quoi so I stepped sideways and looked for famous Australian women in IT. This led to Kate Behan who helped establish the Australian Computer Society as what it is topay. Then to Lindsay Cattermole who made a great commercial success with Aspect Computing and followed this with extensive roles in the business of IT in Australia.

But something was missing. I wanted to feel the geekness I wanted to write about someone that I wish I had had as my friend. I found myself sifting my Google searches and landed on a Linux page and there I discovered a nice nest of geeky women. I’d forgotten about my time with the Sydney LinuxChix - this was where I might find the person I was looking for.

I spotted Mary Gardiner who was giving a talk on "Starting Your Free Software Adventure" at the AussiChix conference and had in her biography: “Mary Gardiner learned DOS 2.0 when it was already old-fashioned and has never quite got over the commandline. She was therefore a natural candidate to bang her head against Linux on the desktop in 1999 and has never looked back and only looked sideways a little. She's been involved in LinuxChix since 2000 and the Australian Linux community since 2001. She codes and documents and in her spare time occasionally spends time on her PhD work in computational linguistics.”

I loved it, here was someone who codes in her spare time! And what’s more she is completing her PhD at the Uni right next door to my office so I could meet and talk. Woohoo . . . off I went and you can read about our meeting in my next blog!