Good. Evil. Bratwurst.

Why I Like Mongrels

Posted on by arlen

Given the recent BritRuby brew-up and the associated wailing and gnashing of teeth, I think it’s appropriate to put my own thoughts forward on this topic. While I’ve not organized a technical conference (yet) I’ve been the sole organizer of chess events catering to areas spanning a single city up to a full hemisphere, and been part of groups organizing literary conferences, so perhaps I have a little to contribute to the public post-mortem currently going on.

Let me start out with a simple fact: I’m a dog-lover, and I prefer mongrels. Pure-bred dogs (and my first dog was a pure Collie, so I’m speaking from some experience) come with issues. They can be nervous, even neurotic. Quick to anger (or hide). Prone to various diseases and birth defects.

Most of these issues don’t show up in mongrels. The mongrels I’ve owned were stable, loving and useful pets. They weren’t nervy, rarely got sick. The hardiness comes from the genes of one breed canceling out the weaknesses in the genes of another. (It’s like metallurgy. You want the iron to be stronger, more useful, you mix in some other elements. Alloys are the mongrels of metallurgy.)

So it goes when it comes to conferences. The wider the experience and cultural base of the presenters, in general the more they have to offer that I haven’t yet seen or learned. Yum.

Don’t start building that strawman, yet. I don’t believe in diluting the quality of an event just in order to achieve diversity. But I also refuse to accept that a decline in quality is a necessary result of trying to achieve diversity. In fact, just the opposite. All my experience as an organizer points to a properly organized diverse event being of higher quality than a monocultural one.

Let’s take the ruby world in particular, since that’s the concrete example on the microscope slide currently.

BritRuby started with 15 invited and 5 “open” slots for presenters, then filled those invited slots with 15 white males. Now, if I were picking my 15 favorite ruby presenters, I can’t imagine leaving off Sandi Metz (“Go Ahead, Make a Mess”) or Katrina Owen (“Therapeutic Refactoring”) at the very least (I’ve never made such a list, but they’d easily make my top ten). I wouldn’t end up with such a homogenous list without several people turning me down. I have no idea if that happened here, but available evidence (albeit hearsay) suggests not. And that’s unfortunate.

Why is something like diversity an issue? Can’t we just focus on the presentations, and leave the presenters out of it? Well, yes, but the numbers alone suggest such a list is unlikely to come out of a process that actually is blind to presenters, and experiential data is even more insistent on that point. (This Princeton article, for example, shows that when there is nothing except the music to concentrate on, more women are judged the superior performer than when any unconscious gender biases are allowed to influence the process.)

To be fair, I do not for one millisecond believe the BritRuby organizers to be evil, or even moderately chauvinistic, based on this list. I think more likely this is just one more example of the type of unconscious bias shown in that Princeton article: all of us are unconsciously biased towards selecting those in the pool more like us than others. In other words, I “accuse” the Brit Ruby organizers not of being ravening sexist misogynistic pigs, but merely of being human (and no less human than I, if it comes to that).

To me, diversity in a conference is a lot like tests for my code. I don’t write tests because other people want me to. I don’t write tests simply to have tests. I don’t have a specific number of tests in mind when I start writing, nor do I have a target number of tests per lines of code that I am expected to meet.

I write tests to make sure all paths through my code are exercised, and help me maintain that code in the face of changing requirements. My tests help me bring new developers into a project by helping them understand what the code is meant to do, and help non-developers understand what the code is doing, because the tests are easier to understand than the code.

Because of this, in order to write the tests I need to look at my coding task through other’s eyes, forgetting for the moment what I know about implementations and what I expect to do. I wasn’t always very good at this (in fact I used to stink quite badly at it, to be honest) and I still commit howlers even after all my focus on tests.

I rely on other people to see what I don’t. They have a different perspective on the code, so they see different things. After all, it’s not easy to look at code (or other things) from someone else’s viewpoint. Unless, of course, you *are* someone else.

And that’s the point. The more different from me someone is, the more likely they are to think of something I’ve missed, and I’ve learned the hard way that by listening to them I improve my ability to think of those things myself.

We all know “Linus’s Law” (“With enough eyes, all bugs are shallow”) and know its utility. But I’ve discovered that there’s a quality factor to that as well — that the more the eyes are like mine, the more likely they are to overlook the same things I do. I’d much rather have one pair that can see what mine don’t than a hundred pairs that see what I see.

We all suffer from unconscious biases, we all have blind spots that will bite us unless we put up controls for it. A useful one when organizing is to make the program item proposals anonymous, putting up a wall between me and my people biases. A second is to review my list of pre-selected speakers, and ask myself if there’s a valid reason it isn’t more diverse. (There may be one, though if the reason is because all my diverse invitations were turned down, I’d call that an “organizer smell” and start looking for a bug in either myself or my approach.)

Make no mistake about this, I’m not encouraging diversity simply for the sake of diversity. Like code quality in TDD, making everyone feel included is a byproduct, not the goal. I’ve a much more selfish agenda than that. Conferences with the same old guys giving the same old talks are boring. Hearing from minds different from mine, minds built from radically different experiences, strengthens my own, expands it, makes it capable of imagining bigger and better things.

Makes it into more of a tool I can build good stuff with.

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