Event: Inclusivity and Innovation in S.African Software

I am facilitating a panel discussion as one of Cape Town’s World Design Capital 2014 events, in collaboration with the IEEE.  Attendance is free.
This is the brief that I have given to the panelists.
Software development in South Africa is still a closed society.  It is also a consumer society.  It is closed because we are not inclusive nor embracing of our cultural diversity.  It is a consumer society because we are net importers of technology, fed by global technology companies motivated by profit in a third world market.  This is the lifestyle of software development – import ideas, import technology, and restricted participation. A desired future state is a lifestyle of software developers where we are net exporters of ideas, exporters technology and encouraging inclusive participation.  In this session, we want to explore why this future state is valuable, and what we need to do to achieve this.
And the panelists are …
  • Philip Copeman of Pink Software.  He is the custodian of TurboCash, most probably South Africa’s most successful open source software
  • Brain Leke of ThoughtWorks.  Brain is a long time champion of equality of demographics in African software communities.
  • Lorraine Steyn of local startup I’m Bored.  Lor has been in the trenches of helping young developers kick start their careers for over 25 years.

When, where …

  • Date: May 20, 2014
  • Time: 12.30PM to 1.30PM.  It’s deliberately being held over lunch, and it’s a free attendance.
  • Where: 3rd Floor, Bandwidth Barn, Woodstock Exchange
  • Address: 66-68 Albert Road, Woodstock, Cape Town (here’s the map)
  • Cost: Free

Why are we doing this?

… because it is an important for the sustainability of software development as a thriving sector, and this spurs further discussion and action too; and to a much wider audience.

… and because we should care.

We are better than this

The people whose contributions to a public Twitter conversation that I mentioned in my last blog post were offended by my opinion on themes that we touched upon.  I’ve apologised over Twitter that my intention was not to be personal, negative nor offensive.  I’ve read my blog post again, taken in the feedback over Twitter and from Kevin’s blog.  I believe that I could have given better context by acknowledging the value of the code retreat and Kevin’s efforts in the community.  Also, I could have expressed my initial tweet differently or at a different time.  That it distracted Kevin from his code retreat was insensitive of me.

Events like Kevin’s code retreats, Black Girls Code, and other initiatives are important to improving our community and software development in South Africa, in general.  Yet, we are still facing glaring disparities in our sector and in our country that I find difficult to ignore.  My fear is if we all take defensive positions, we may never ever discuss such matters openly and respectfully.  Like I said in my twitter conversation to Kevin, this is not about him and not about me too.  It is about us and our future.

The fight for equality is so much tougher when we have freedom.

A question of demographics and then some

Update: Kevin Trethewey has extended this conversation on his blog.

I commented on a photograph that Kevin Trethewey shared of the code retreat that was hosted in Johannesburg, South Africa recently.  His response was very defensive and it clearly showed that he was taking my observation personally.  That was something that I didn’t anticipate, as I have not seen Kevin carry prejudices of other race groups.

What followed was quite an interesting conversation on the disproportionate representation of non-whites in the South African software community.  I’m going to comment on parts of this conversation.  For the full conversation, go here.

A point to note here is how quickly people focused on racial composition as opposed to gender composition of the group.  That is a problem in itself, even for the most gender-aware man in a software community.

This is a long, long, long post, mostly because it is a brain dump of the themes that were flowing in this conversation.

There  is adequate opportunity and access for everyone

Kevin believes that there is fair access and opportunity for all of us to attend an event such as the code retreat.  I disagree. For example, I know a few black software developers that don’t live in a conveniently accessible middle class suburb.  For them, getting to work is a challenge.  To get to a community event outside of the peak public transport service hours is a huge issue.  The same applies to people attending university.  A black kid living in a township with minimal to zero essential services loses at least 3 hours of study time a day when compared to her more privileged peers.  Accumulate that over a month and we find that she loses about 6 days of work a month.  Our lives are not equal in far more fundamental ways than we wish to acknowledge.

It is also a matter of survival, and not that people lack ambition to be better developers.  When we have less than enough of everything that is essential for living, then a meagre salary is a big deal.  Many black developers I know are supporting their entire family, if not an extended family.  When we’re in survival mode, ambition is lower priority.

I would love to see events hosted closer to the people that have greater logistical challenges.  That’s why Braamfontein was a good venue for Agile Africa.  Maybe in 2014, we will have a software conference in Soweto for the first time.  When I want to help someone out of a dark place, I prefer to go into the dark and walk out with them, taking the bumps together, than to just stand outside and shine a light in the distance to where they should go.

People are apathetic

Simon Stewart was of the opinion that it is a lack of caring – an apathy.  I don’t know which group of people Simon refers to here so I will steer clear of making assumptions.  What I have noticed is that the majority of software developers don’t care much for self-learning.  The code retreat that sparked this discussion is a case in point.  Twenty seven developers pitch up to practice their TDD skills.  I don’t know how many developers there are in Johannesburg, but I guess that this is less than 1% of the total.  Regardless, I don’t have a problem with this apathy.  Some people “give a shit” about different things, like earning a salary first.  Because they care less for self-learning, does not mean they don’t care at all.  It just means that their value system is stacked differently from others.

I don’t believe it is about software craftsmanship either.  I think software craftsmanship as a community appeals to people that share that value system and the way that community engages with others.  I’m not one for the craftsmanship movement for reasons that are irrelevant here.  However, I do respect that this community has a right to exist alongside all the others.  Not caring about software craftsmanship does not mean that a developer does not care about growing.  Some of the most accomplished, self-taught developers I know care far less for craftsmanship than I do.  We need to help people understand their potential, and provide diverse ways in which they can fulfil their potential.  Sometimes people will break through that ceiling, setting up a new potential to fulfil.

Lack of diversity is commonplace

Simon rightfully points out that the lack of diversity is common.  I concur.  I’ve spoken at a few conferences outside our continent and it is the same in most places, as much as it is within ours.  Again, that it is so does not mean that we should accept this.  Make up your own mind, but I cannot accept that.  I’ve been talking about diversity publicly for several years now.  I’ve been on projects where the direct result of us not working with our diversity resulted in a tragic cost of the human spirit.  I cannot accept that we are prepared to allow that to happen again and again and again.

I try to be a lot more aware, a lot more empathetic.  I’ve been fighting my own unsettling biases to appreciate our diversity, to celebrate our differences and embrace our uniqueness.  The scary part is this very process of appreciation demands that we drop all our prejudices.  To do that requires self-reflection and clarity to face the truths of our deeply internalised, and camouflaged stereotypes.  Be prepared to cry for ourselves.  Be prepared to feel lighter on the other side of that.

Quotas and Meritocracy

Steven asked what he thought was a silly question.  But it is not silly at all – “How should a code retreat represent the demographics of the country?”  For me it comes down to us building a significant software development sector in South Africa.  The white minority cannot satisfy that agenda alone because there aren’t enough of them.  We need black software developers too.  Parallel to this, we need fair and equal gender representation too.  South Africa has one of the most humane constitutions in the world.  Yet, I see many software developers adopt the non-inclusive behaviour of frat boys, country clubs and colonial style thinking of the west and north.  That is a learned behaviour that I refuse subscribe to.  Given our history of the inhumanity of apartheid, I find this behaviour equally abhorrent.  Incidentally, I was part of a very diverse group of developers that were reflecting on what we don’t like of the software development community, locally and globally.  What emerged were distinct pointers to this imported, inhumane subculture: elitism, arrogance, fear, bullying, sexism, racism, monopolies, nepotism and a lot more.

Steven also dangled the option of quotas.  South Africans are masters of quotas.  We’ve tried that in almost everything from sports to business.  It turns out that Steven is not offering quotas as an option.  What is relevant for me is the other side of the quota argument – inclusion by merit.  Meritocracy is a subtle form of exclusion.  In Africa, where we have significant disparity on multiple levels.  Meritocracy just widens the gap between those that have excelled and those that may excel but don’t have opportunity to do so.

I’ve been guilty of exercising meritocracy to the extent of building a company based on inclusion by merit.  Being elitist is one of the easiest ways of being exclusive, and oh so easy to cover up whilst staring in the face of everyone.  What changed for me was a change in my attitude.  I now carry an attitude where I respect the potential of each individual.  I realised that we need people to contribute in their own little way, acknowledge that contribution and then help that person raise their own ceiling.

We must challenge the bias of minorities

Here is Steven’s alternative to quotas.  I ask that we not flame him or attack his position.  This is his position and I want us to respect that.  If I want to change Steven’s mind, then I need to offer him alternatives, not antagonise him.

I agree that tech events are open to everyone.  I don’t accept that non-whites and women – the “minorities” – don’t attend because they hold prejudices against the pale males.  I think the problem is to do with accessibility, opportunity and a necessity for survival prioritised higher than self-learning, as discussed above.  By the way, Steven, as a white male, you are the minority.

Yet, there is a strong element of intimidation.  This, we cannot ignore.  I’ve been on the receiving side of intimidation.  It is subtle and, strangely, more powerful in its exclusionary effect.  It exhibits itself as quiet arrogance, and other times as open boorishness.  Tech conferences are testosterone events where geeks flex their muscles using absurd measurements of superiority like “my big data is bigger than your big data” or “I’ve got more pull requests accepted on blah-blah-blah repo than you”.  All it takes is one moment of acknowledgement, a moment where there is a little light shining on us and people smile and say that we are awesome.  It is that moment when we pack the soap box in our suitcase and take it everywhere.  From that moment, the superior position is taken and others struggle to fit in, white or not, male or not.  Tech events are open for those of us with soap boxes. Oh, and you must make sure your soap  box is bigger than other soap boxes.

This is why I promised myself to always step off the podium and be accessible to everyone in the room and beyond.  This topic of soapboxes, self appointed popes, cardinals and priests of industry, blogging, tweeting, etc deserves deeper discussion more than this already far too long blog post.  And, yes, I know that my irony is that I’m blogging and tweeting too.

Tell me when you’re done talking

I was uncertain by what Kevin meant when he asked me to let him know when I’m done talking.  It would have been easy for me to fire a flame attack along the lines of “WTF makes you think I’m all talk and no action?”.  That’s not useful because twitter is a horrible medium that draws assumptions out of people.  So, I just asked for clarity first.  This is important; a behaviour that I try to instil in myself all the time – pause, listen, think and ask for clarification if I have even the slightest doubt.  That double check saves me a lot of unnecessary flaming.  I also found that asking for clarification in the face of cynicism does defuse the situation. Then again, rushing around with a burning flamethrower, defending every single one my opinions is a horrible way to spend my life.  It doesn’t take me forward in the least bit.  Worse, still, is that it causes me to stagnate.

I do try my best to not draw public attention to the work that I do.  I respect the privacy of being in a group and have learnt a long time ago that it is self-serving to tweet about such work.  As a mentor to a few people for many years, I respect that unspoken code of confidentiality.  Being a mentor, for me, is a two way street.  I need to be equally open and honest as I expect of the other.  Sometimes, that means being quite personal and deeply private.  So, I don’t crow about my work.  But I blog and open conversations based on observations which I’ve extracted from my time with others.

Those that work closely with me know the extents to which I go to change the status quo.  Then there are those that are even closer that know the extent to which it pains me when I can’t change the status quo.  At a deeply philosophical level, is it possible to give unconditionally – without even the tiniest drop of self-serving satisfaction?

Celebrate the success

Mark Pearl, on a separate conversation stream, reminded me that that progress was being made.  That is true, there is progress being made.  I mentioned that at Agile Africa that the demographics are changing, slowly for the better.  I think we are moving forward and I am not so concerned about the pace either.  There is a part of me, though, that is cautious of grand celebrations for small steps.  That is just me.  I prefer constant acknowledgment of progress for each tiny step.  It keeps me humble, knowing that the big picture is still not fully painted.

Can I plug in, please?

Hearing that I am doing something, Kevin invited me to breakfast to hear more so that he can plug in.  I’m happy to share with most people, but this work isn’t about plugging in.  It is not a thing at all.  It is about my individual behaviour and attitude.  There are no recipes that I can offer to make this better.  It requires me to find a connection with myself.  It is about holding a heightened sense of self-awareness, of each thought, each action and each consequence.  It demands a level of honesty with myself that is, at times, extremely hard to face.  This is a journey that I’ve been trying to walk.  It is painful to look in the mirror and see beyond the reflection.  I am motivated by a belief that we have a primal encoding for decency and an inclusive humane culture.  Everything else is an invention that is designed to obscure that basic encoding.

For more than 50% of the time, I get it wrong – my behavior and attitude.  So, I cannot stop here and I must persevere with this.  This is why demographic representation is important.  It is a measure of our collective shedding of invented biases and a statement of us including each other without prejudice.

To Kevin and the others, thanks for opening a powerful, multi-faceted conversation.  And if you want to plug-in to this inclusive, humane culture, then you will need to plug-in to yourself first.  This is not something I can help others plug in to.  I can only behave in a way that I want our software community to behave.  I believe that others will change in step.

There are no boundaries, just forces

I shared by thoughts on people dynamics and how it affects success of software development projects with Yuanfang Cai yesterday.  In particular, I was explaining my thoughts on how diversity in a team affects the performance of a team.  When I talk about diversity I mean a lot more than just culture, language, and timezone.  I also view diversity in terms of value systems, political affiliation, economic position, overlapping worlds (such as work world overlapping with home world).  But my weirdest interpretation of diversity is that of diversity based on team boundaries.
Traditionally, each team has a boundary.  This boundary determines whether you are included or excluded from the team.  Sometimes, the inclusion and exclusion rules are clear, which is a good thing.  Sometimes, it is not.  Regardless, the boundary exists to eliminate diversity.  But, there are too many edge cases of people being brought into the team for a short while, then leaving.  The position taken is often “Joe is not part of the team, but sometimes we need him to join in so that we can …”.  Well, teams don’t work like that.  Let me rephrase: GOOD teams don’t work like that.

What I explained to Yuanfang was that I don’t think a team should have boundaries at all.  Instead, everyone is part of the team.  However, some people have a strong force that attaches them strongly to the team and others are attached by much weaker forces (like Joe’s part-time involvement).  When, you think of the team constructed via these forces, then the team can still work from one value system.  Why?  Because the degree of adoption of the value system is independent of the strength of the team forces.

Try it out and, maybe you will get greater harmony in the team and increased collaboration too.

One Hundreth Away from Fame

I read an article on the strength of the Finnish schooling system yesterday.  It’s considered as the best in the world with a 4% variance between the best school and the worst school.  How did they achieve that?  They give a lot of focus on the bottom 99% of kids in the classroom and not the top 1%.
I have a fear that as a community we promote the top 1%.  I hear developers being labeled such as rock stars and ninjas.  It’s no different to junior developers and senior developers.  We find all sorts of measures to be in the top 1%:  Twitter follower-count, Facebook friends, LinkedIn connections.  I think such labels and measures create an air of exclusivity and elitism to the detriment of 99% of the people.  NINETY NINE PERCENT !!

My 1% rankings have always been nothing more than a fleeting moment.  Once I won a book prize at school and I got an award for some design in university and meal voucher or two for a job well done.  It was meaningfully great in that context, relative to the others in that context.  But it was perceived as such by a few at that moment in time.

Looking back, I feel sad.  Not because of the scarcity my top 1% ranking, but by the reflection that those fleeting moments did not have lasting value to those that were in that context with me.  I should have made it count more significantly.  These days, I want to do things that touch others meaningfully.  Is my my code worth reading and from which you can learn?  Did our conversation over coffee move us closer to understanding each other?  And I want to be affected similarly too, by 100% of the people, not just the 1%.

Sometimes you’re in the top 1% and sometimes you’re in the bottom 99%.  But you will always be part of the 100%.  I am nothing, yet I am everything.

Digging into Diversity

A few of nights ago I had chat with Scott Hanselman about diversity in teams.  This experience and the .NET Rocks experience were really important learning moments for me.  Although you have the opportunity to “rewind” and be edited, I decided not to do that and just let me be heard as I am – unedited.
As usual, we all tend to be our own worst critics and I know I have some bad habits.  These are the ones of which I am most aware.  (a) I ramble on a bit before getting to the point and I miss the point sometimes, (b) I tend to interrupt people when they speak, and (c) I unconsciously complete people’s sentences.  Have a listen to the Hanselminutes podcast and please give me your feedback, good and bad.

The show could have gone in any number of directions but Scott did an amazing job of keeping it on a particular path.  There were some things that I thought about after the show and just want to elaborate a little bit.

The code that you write affects people on your team. Although we glossed over this and it felt like a weird application of Ubuntu, I really believe that your code impacts other people on your team.  I always joke about not carrying code to your grave.  Seriously, your code will be visited by the “second” team because your project is never complete until the “second” team comes into play after your first production release.  So writing code that is a positive experience for someone else is important.  Anyway, your code is collectively owned, and read more than written, right?

Greetings and introductions should be meaningful. The words that Scott used to describe me are nothing more than tangled mess of words that are superficially meaningful.  From that description, all you can do is categorise me by your previous stereotypes associated with those words.  Knowing people and learning how they feel at that moment in time and making that meaningful is all about discovery focused conversations.  Most people know that I really look for simple solutions to everything.  Having a conversation is easy, but choosing the right words to say is tough, especially if you are protecting yourself with a personal space wall or probing through someone’s personal space wall.

Learning is more important than being the best. I now really believe that just learning to be better for yourself is the most important thing.  It is a personal thing only.  It is not about being the top dog.  Aiming for top dog is an ego trip and power positioning becomes a vehicle for the journey.  Power destroys lives and spirits.  I have been down that road, practiced it, hated myself and been a subject of it as well.  I call it power oriented architecture.

Values and behavior compromises are contextual. We spoke a bit about clashing of value systems and I said that it is about compromise.  I think compromises only work in a context.  I have a  friend and it bothered me that he was, on occasion, a snob.  After a long time, I made peace with his snob-mode.  He was a snob in certain contexts and I acknowledged that and looked passed that and realised that the value systems and derived behavior we exhibit changes as we shift through contexts.  Ideally, it shouldn’t but we are humans and are fallible.  (Sure, we do have core values that are consistent across contexts.)  Knowing when people are applying altered values and behaving accordingly can help you create contextual compromises that can lessen the possibility of conflicts in teams.

Soft skills do not have hard recipes. Scott kept pushing me about techniques that we can use to work through these challenges in our teams.  I really did not have any.  After we stopped recording we both said that these are soft issues and there are no hard techniques.  Soft is soft. Period. It is really about becoming a better person – for yourself – and in so doing you become a better person for others.  I can’t coach this or teach this.  I can just share my experiences and thoughts on this.  And I am so very far away from not “being a jerk” as Scott politely put it.  The one thing I have seen consistently is that your “jerkness” is inversely proportional to your humbleness.

Voting for the first time in 1994 was significant. I opened the discussion about the important junction in time when apartheid was abolished and we voted freely for the first time.  This was significant because it divided our search for identity into two distinct eras.  It’s hard to manage diversity if we don’t have own identity.  Secondly, it was the most harmonious, collective experience of my life.  We stood in a queue from 8am to 6.30pm in Yeoville in Johannesburg.  In the queue we had old, young, black, white, Rastafarians, Muslims, Jews, almost every categorisation you could think.  But it was peaceful and celebratory.  It proved to me that human beings are capable of living together when we share a common ideal that we all believe in … even for one single moment.

If the real me is not Scott’s intro, then who am I? I am Aslam Khan.  I am a software developer.  I am a father, a husband, a brother and a son.  I am a neighbour, a friend and nice guy and a jerk. I am 40 and I am looking for balance.  I have two kids aged 8 and 5.  My thoughts are pre-occupied by the challenge of being a parent. I treasure my time with my family immensely but suffer serious guilts by not doing so.  My 5 year old child has a terminal disease and is classified as cerebral palsy which changed my view on many things.  My 8 year old child amazes me at his simplistic maturity and makes me realise that I am unnecessarily complicated.  I am a citizen of this world.  I wonder how many people will come to my funeral – it’s my measure of meaningful engagements.  I question whether writing software is a good way of becoming a better person.  I am hopeless at character assessments and my wife is my Deanna Troi.  I exist.

Resurfacing Diversity Challenges

I got a tweet from Clive Seebregts which pointed me to an InfoQ article that made reference to an old Hanselminutes podcast that I did.  It’s nice to see that diversity is not being left in the wilderness and that other people are thinking about it again.  It seems like some people are trying to promote diversity and others are trying to manage the challenges of diversity.  Hmmm, somewhere there is point of brutal contact, but it will be for the good.
BTW, digging around on material diversity in agile teams I came across this video.  I didn’t know it existed at all.  Suddenly, the references to the FIFA 2010 World Cup seem sooooo dated.