The hook brings you back, I ain't telling you no lie.




posted 12 June 2018

Imagine you lived in a world where all there was only one kind of shoe, in a single size, called "medium". Everybody wears these shoes and no other shoes are available.

Most people do in fact have medium-sized feet. For most people this world would be totally fine, and since there was only one kind of shoe available, they'd probably not think about their shoes very much. They've got some shoes, no further decisions to be made.

But it wouldn't work for everybody.

Some people have smaller feet. People with smaller feet would find the shoes really annoying. For people with slightly smaller feet, the shoes might just flop around uncomfortably. For people with really small feet the shoes would fall off all the time. They'd get annoyed with the stupid shoes and they'd stuff newspaper into the toes to make them fit. It would work, and probably nobody would even be aware that their shoes don't fit properly.

Some people have bigger feet. People with only slightly larger feet would find the shoes uncomfortable. They might get calluses, or the heel might cut up their ankle and hurt a lot, but not so much they couldn't walk. But people with really big feet would find the shoes excruciating. Every step would be agony. They might want to stop walking altogether.

This is how I've come to understand gender. Most people, the gender they were handed at birth suits them just fine, and they don't even think about it. For other people, their gender isn't great but they can make it work with some extra effort. But for others, their gender is excruciating. Every step reminds them that these shoes don't fit, that something is wrong, that they need to change things.

The revolution in gender identity that's going on isn't just about the people who identify as trans, the people whose shoes fit so badly they had to change them no matter the cost. It's the realization for everybody that shoes come in every size. Maybe your shoes are fine, but it gives you the opportunity to explore: what if a couple sizes larger or smaller? Would that be more comfortable? What if I don't want to wear any shoes at all?

And of course, not only can we get shoes in different sizes, we can get them in different colors and styles. Some shoes look kind of ridiculous, especially if you've only ever seen standard, medium-sized shoes up until now. But for some people some brightly-colored new shoes are just what they've always needed. And why should anyone object? If somebody else changes their shoes it doesn't do anything to the shoes you're wearing, except maybe make you wonder if you need some new ones.

My shoes didn't always fit perfectly, so I got a slightly different size twenty years ago. Nobody noticed the shoes had changed, but they did notice that I walked more easily.

How are your shoes?

tagged with

Life in the bonus round

posted 26 May 2018

I've written about my teenage years several times before: about how my childhood shaped my choice of career and how the internet helped me connect with people and how it got better. I've mentioned in passing that I was, as a teenager, depressed and suicidal. But I've never written about how that period changed me in a very specific and important way: I live my life in a bonus round. It's fundamental to the way I think about myself, so I wanted to write it down.

Firstly: there is a different between being suicidal and just being a moody teenager. I was the first kind. I had written the notes (lots of them), and I had not just a plan but a backup plan. I also had a specific date: the day before my sixteenth birthday.

In the end I didn't do it. That day wasn't too bad, so I didn't think about it that day, and then I'd missed the date. But the intention to do it was so strong, so clear, I had spent so much time imagining exactly how it would go -- the rush of the air, the crunch as my neck hit the concrete -- that it made me think: what if I *had* done it?

What if I did die that day? I don't believe in any kind of afterlife, so death is just the end. Everything that's happening to me, good or bad, ends. All the dials go to zero. And I thought: what if I could then, at that point, make a decision about whether to keep going? Like in a video game, where you die or the game ends but it gives you the option to keep playing. What if life had a bonus round?

In a bonus round it doesn't matter how you do. There's no score, you can't win or lose, you're just playing for the fun of playing. You can stop any time. There's no time pressure and no ranking.

See, until that point in my life I had been judging myself relative to a pretty strictly defined idea of my own future. I was a straight white male in good health, from a well-off family and excellent opportunities for education. I knew how my life was going to go, and it was going to be great.

Discovering I was gay changed that. I still had a lot of internalized homophobia back then, so my idea of what being gay meant was a lot harder than my life has actually turned out to be, but there's no denying that being gay threw this perfect life I'd imagined for myself off the tracks it had been running on. There were roadblocks and obstacles I'd never expected. The game was no longer on the easiest setting. Don't get me wrong, my life has still been really easy relative to most people, but it was hard to think about it like that back then, when I was weeping myself to sleep every night, mourning my future.

But thinking about it as a bonus round allowed me to change my perspective. Okay, life #1, the perfect one, that was gone. That kid killed himself. Now it's bonus round. Everything that happens now just happens for fun. Every achievement can be measured relative to "nothing happened, because you were dead". Doing anything at all is better than doing nothing, no matter how well or how badly it goes. And if it ever becomes unbearable, well, you already died. That option remains available.

Does this sound sad or scary to you? I don't really know how it sounds to somebody else. But to me it's always been a comfort. In this life the scoreboard is turned off. I can't win or lose. I'm just playing for the fun of it. My life is, forever, the bonus round, and I'm still enjoying the game.

tagged with

Hands to Heaven, but about web standards

posted 11 April 2018

A million years ago I happened across a blog post called A Love Song About Web Standards. It featured a song called "Hands to Boag", a perfectly reproduced cover of the 80s song "Hands to Heaven", but rewritten to be about web standards and web development and the blog Boag, which is about those things. Even if you have never heard of Boag it's a pretty great cover and should make most web developers smile.

It's pretty good, but even better when you learn that Marcus Lillington, a host of the podcast in question, used to be a member of the band Breathe, who originally sang Hands to Heaven.

Every so often this idea that an 80s superstar is a web developer and people remade his song to be about web development returns to my brain and I go back and find the song and laugh again. But the last time, I discovered bit-rot had set in and the MP3 was no longer playable on their site. This is a tragedy! So I have rescued it and put it here, so you can still enjoy it:

Quasar Industries' Domestic Android robot hoax

posted 26 March 2018
In the late 1970s a shady company called Quasar Industries, capitalizing on popular enthusiasm for robots following the release of Star Wars, rolled out an elaborate hoax. It was a robot that purported to have speech recognition and be capable of dozens of household tasks, including vacuuming the living room and walking the dog. In fact it was all just marketing and puppetry. More interesting is that it spurred a debate in the barely-formed Internet community at the time about free speech. This excerpt from the excellent book Where Wizards Stay Up Late, about the birth of the Internet, is fascinating:

Then, in the spring of 1977, Quasar rolled in the door. Its arrival marked the beginning of the first debate over free speech in cyberspace. The controversy centered on an unusual device made by Quasar Industries and blew up into an argument over using the taxpayer- fundedARPANETto speak, in openly critical terms, about a private company.

The brainchild of Quasar Industries, the device stood five feet four inches and weighed two hundred forty pounds. It was called the Domestic Android robot, a programmable helper that could perform a dozen basic household tasks such as mopping the floor, mowing the lawn, washing dishes, and serving cocktails. It came equipped with a personality and speech, so that it could “interact in any human situation.” It could “teach the kids French” and “continue teaching them, while they sleep.” At the advertised price of $4,000, the thing seemed a steal.

Phil Karlton of Carnegie-Mellon was the first to alert the Msg-Group, on May 26, 1977. His site on theARPANETwas heavily involved in exploring artificial intelligence, speech recognition, and related research problems, so he knew a thing or two about robots. The android and its inventor had attracted a fair amount of national press attention, most of it favorable. Quasar’s sales pitch had also caught the attention ofConsumer Reports,which ran a skeptical item on it in the June issue, just out.

At first Quasar seemed nothing but an amusing diversion from the MsgGroup’s main business. Everyone in the group knew the thing was a hoax, and for a while that seemed enough. But then a sense of civic duty arose. Dave Farber told of being in Boca Raton, Florida, and hearing on the radio that the Dade County police department was considering purchasing a Quasar guard robot for their county jail, for $7,000. In March theBoston Globeran a story quoting MIT’s Marvin Minsky and other skeptical AI experts. But the article took the overall attitude, said a MsgGroup member, that it “just goes to show you, those academicians can’t do anything practical, and all you need is some guy working in the back of a garage to put them to shame.” The saga left a trail of disbelief in the artificial intelligence research community.

Brian Reid and a colleague, Mark Fox, from the Carnegie-Mellon Artificial Intelligence Lab, posted an offbeat report to everyone in the MsgGroup, giving them a personal account of their inspection of the domestic robot, “Sam Strugglegear,” at a large department store in downtown Pittsburgh. People in the research community, knowing of CMU’s pioneering AI work, had been calling the Lab to ask how it was possible for Quasar’s robot to be so much better at speech recognition than anything CMU had produced. Rising to the challenge, a four-member team from CMU had done the fieldwork.

“They found a frightening sight,” reported Reid and Fox. In the men’s department, among the three-piece suits, was a five-feet-two-inch “aerosol can on wheels, talking animatedly” to a crowd. Electric motors and a system of gears moved the device’s arms. The robot seemed conversant on any subject, recognized the physical features of customers, and moved freely in any direction. The crowd was charmed.

But the scientists were skeptical. They looked around for some evidence of a remote controller. “Lo and behold, about ten feet from the robot, standing in the crowd, we found a man in a blue suit with his hand held contemplatively to his mouth like Aristotle contemplating the bust of Homer in the famous Rembrandt painting.” Reid and the others watched for awhile and noticed that whenever the robot was talking, so was the man in the blue suit—muttering into his hand. The man had a wire dangling suspiciously from his waist.

The discussion about the Quasar robot continued on and off for a couple of years until in early 1979, Einar Stefferud, the MsgGroup’s moderator, and Dave Farber, who had been lurking on the sidelines of the commentary, sent a note of caution to the MsgGroup. “We are asking for potential problems,” they warned, “when we criticize the Quasar robot.” Using U.S. Government facilities to cast aspersions on a corporation, they said, could backfire on the ARPA research community. They urged their peers to impose careful self-censorship, to report only facts of technical interest to the community. Not everyone agreed, and with that the MsgGroup got embroiled in a soul-searching exchange.

Help decriminalize homosexuality in Trinidad and Tobago

posted 12 December 2017

The country where I was born and grew up still has some terrible, outdated laws against homosexuality. The laws are seldom enforced, but hang over the heads of gay people in T&T, forcing them to be quiet, subjugated, and fearful. They live their lives as second class citizens before the law. It is the reason I can't live in the country I was born in. These laws create misery for tens of thousands of people.

I have been waiting a long time for somebody to step up to the challenge of taking on these cruel and repressive laws, and finally, that's happening:

Jason Jones, a Trini based in London and an activist for 28 years, filed a legal challenge to these laws in February 2017, and the case will be heard in January of 2018.

The government is defending the law. Jason has received dozens of death threats and has had to hire bodyguards to protect him. But he's sticking to his guns, and his bravery for a cause that is so close to my heart is inspiring.

Jason isn't getting anything out of this case. There's no payout for him if he wins, just the freedom for him and the thousands of other gay Trinidadians to be openly themselves in the country they were born in. His legal team is working for free. Nevertheless, there are legal fees, travel and security expenses to cover. He's raising funds, and I want you to donate to his campaign right now. Over on Twitter, I'm going to be encouraging people to donate by matching funds.

Are we making the web too complicated?

posted 21 May 2017

Everyone's favorite sarcastic talking pushpin asked an honest question about the state of the web:

I replied with a tweetstorm. Here it is as a slightly more readable blog post on my ancient, creaky blog.

The replies to Maciej's tweet are interesting to read. They fall roughly into two camps:

  1. Older/not front-end developers: because the web is shit!
  2. Current front-end developers: because shit is hard!

As is often the case, both camps are correct! The web is a shitshow of wheel reinvention and bad APIs. It's also a blizzard of innovation.

Expectations for what a web site should be able to do have evolved enormously. Users expect snappy, desktop-like responsiveness and rich presentation in web apps. They also expect those same web apps to work equally well on mobile devices. And they expect these apps to load basically instantly. As Tom Dale says, that's actually a harder problem than desktop or mobile apps face. Users expect to download and install those types of apps before they will run.

Devs must meet these high expectations, but they have no more time and no more co-workers than they did before, and they still have to ship just as fast. To meet this requirement, they are throwing ever larger combinations of frameworks, boilerplate code, tools and build chains at the problem. The result is a lot of complexity and it's frequently frustrating.

The web as a platform, as ever, lags behind its developers. They want ES6 syntax, they want modular JavaScript, modular CSS and modular HTML. Browsers provide none of these things, so they are hacked together in frameworks.

Devs aren't adopting all this new tech just because it's new and fun (though it's a bad idea to dismiss fun as a valuable quality in a development tool). They are doing it because they have to in order to survive.

Modern web dev has the complexity of, say, the native mobile ecosystem, but no single vendor or consensus build chain or tools. iOS and Android have compilers and long build steps and dozens of competing frameworks, but nobody complains that these things are unnecessary. But they do for the web, because the web didn't need them before. (And if you're okay with throwing together a simple, 2000s-era web page, they're still not. But few users are happy with those any more.)

Are there some people using a huge pile of JavaScript and a monstrous build chain to throw together a single-pager web site with one box that collects an email address? For sure. And that's silly and unnecessary. But so what? The misuse of technology does not invalidate it.

Over the next 5 years I expect there will be a lot of consolidation in technologies and in tools. A lot of the stuff web devs are currently constructing using frameworks will be adopted as first-class citizens, built into browsers. Because the web has a lot of inertia, people will keep using these tool chains longer than they need to, much as web devs still use jQuery even though mosts of its API is part of browsers natively now.

jQuery is an instructive example: jQuery was a reaction to a terrible API and a lack of raw functionality in the web at the time. It changed the web for the better, forever, by showing browser makers what devs needed, and how it should work. It was a huge success, and its ultimate success is that it made itself unnecessary.

Webpack, babel, react, and the cambrian explosion going on in that ecosystem will do the same thing again. All of these frameworks and tools are devs experimenting, seeing where they want the web to go.

jQuery was a performance problem at scale, and sometimes over- or mis-applied, or used superfluously by newbies who didn't know there was a simpler way. Big deal.

Modern front-end devs are repeating the same mistakes: these new frameworks often create shocking performance hits. Sometimes we over-use them. Sometime we mis-use them. But the web is evolving, and evolution is by nature slow and messy. And the results are already amazing.

Is modern web development fearsomely, intimidatingly complicated? Yes, and that's a problem. Will we make it simpler? Definitely, but probably not as soon as you'd like. Is all this new complexity worthwhile? Absolutely.

The web's amazing capacity to reinvent itself, to evolve and adapt to new needs is its strength as a platform. Things that don't adapt die or are replaced. Nobody is talking about the death of the web. Nobody is demanding it be replaced. If anything they're pleading for it to slow down a bit, and let them catch up. That's a sign of a healthy platform, an innovative platform. The web was like that in 1996 and it's still like that, and that's amazing.

Nobody but nobody loves the web more than I do. It's my baby. And like a child, it's frustrating to watch it struggle and make mistakes. But it's amazing to watch it grow up.

How does one defeat Donald Trump?

posted 06 February 2017

It's a question on the minds of all right-thinking Americans, and on mine. I don't claim to be a political genius, or that this is the right solution or the only solution. But here's what I've got so far; tell me what you think.

First, to defeat Donald Trump you must make him unpopular. His popularity is what elected him, but more importantly it is what drives him. An unpopular Donald Trump will melt down and quit, humiliated. That's what we want. We need "being the next Donald Trump" to be an ignominious fate. We want Donald to never run again, and we want any Donald-shaped monster in future to be terrified of the possibility.

To work out how to make him unpopular, we must understand what made him popular in the first place. To do this, we must look beyond our liberal peers, with whom he is already maximally unpopular, as widespread demonstrations have indicated.

Here's what Donald Trump supporters believe about him (however incorrectly) that they like:

  • he is not part of the establishment
  • he is not as corrupt as most politicians
  • he is secretly racist, just like them, and will look out for white people
  • he's a strong man who will keep them safe

Anything about economic insecurity and not listening to the concerns of rural voters or the working class is bullshit. Poor people did not vote for Trump (his voters earn above the median wage, unlike Hillary). There are also plenty of rural voters who went for Hillary, and plenty of city dwellers who voted for Trump.

So to defeat Trump, we must make him look highly corrupt, part of the establishment, unwilling or unable to privilege white people over other people, and weak. The first two are easy, the second two more challenging.

Part of the establishment

It's easy to make Trump look like part of the establishment because he is part of the establishment. He is the damn president. Everything bad that the government does, whether or not he had anything to do with it, can and should be tied to him. Every slip in the economy, every problem with healthcare, every sparrow that falls from a tree should be loudly attributed to Donald's mismanagement. Republicans got really good at this and so should we. We can also point to his appointments of CEOs of Exxon, Goldman Sachs and other very-much-establishment companies to important posts.


Making him look more corrupt than most politicians is trivial because he is shockingly corrupt. His casino deals, his mafia ties, his many bankruptcies, Trump University, and repeatedly welching on debts to contractors establish him easily as a cheat, a liar and a crook. His base seemed to overlook or ignore these things as "tough negotiation" or something but we can keep dredging up more tales of his thievery basically forever.

Not racist?

Making him look like he's not secretly racist is very tricky because he is openly racist. He has repeatedly said he believes his superior genes guarantee his success, and that's before you get to his many obviously racist acts, from refusing to rent houses to black people, to failing to condemn the KKK, to demonizing Mexicans and Muslims (neither of which is a race, but racists aren't very bright).

To make Trump look un-racist will not work. What we can do is make him look powerless to act on that. Here we've already seen the most action: protests on the Muslim ban and swift legal action have halted it and may overturn it entirely. Protests against his border wall will likewise do so, and legal or legislative action should come there too. Making him look powerless to enact racist policy, however, is just part of the bigger play: make him look weak.


Because by far what people responded to in Trump is his strong man persona. He claimed he could do anything, fix anything, build anything, and it would all be great, the best, yuge, people would love it. His supporters bought these empty boasts as promises, so we have to puncture the idea that he can get anything done.

We have to be careful though. If the obstruction appears to come from outside -- from filibusters and other legislative hacks, from well-meaning heroics by democratic appointees, from "the establishment" -- then we bolster his support rather than erode it. Instead it needs to come from within, and here we are aided by Trump's stupidity and incompetence. His failure to negotiate trade deals, his inability to fund the wall, his botched attempt to ban Muslims, his failure to deport illegal immigrants: these are or will soon be his failures, and we can amplify them. This house of cards will collapse on its own, but we need to make sure it falls our way.

The other way to make him not just look weak but really become weaker is to peel off his inner circle one by one. The loathsome, openly racist and anti-semitic Bannon has already overstepped several times, to Trump's displeasure. By amplifying Trump's sense that he is being manipulated and overshadowed, we can use Trump's own ego to get Bannon ejected or diminished.

The repugnant Kellyanne Conway, with her "alternative facts" and imaginary terrorist attacks, is also faring badly in the spotlight. In any other administration her repeated, obvious lies would have already had her fired. In the Trump administration what will get her fired is if news organizations refuse to interview her anymore because her every word is openly mocked. If she doesn't get to speak on television, her power and her value to the administration will fail and she will be discarded after one lie too many. Sean Spicer will suffer a similar fate, perhaps even sooner.

Next steps

What can we do? We can amplify. Every failure must be trumpeted, every policy overturned, every decision nullified by protest or local action. His inner circle must be hounded until they become political liabilities, leaving Trump isolated and impotent. But be selective: don't amplify things that make liberals angry (you'll exhaust yourself, everything he does makes liberals angry). Amplify things that make him look stupid, make him look inept, make him look corrupt and compromised by establishment ties. And above all, make him look weak. If we can persuade his base to abandon him, he will not last as president.

Web development has two flavors of graceful degradation

posted 14 October 2016, updated 14 October 2016

Nolan Lawson has written a great piece about progressive enhancement that brings up some fascinating points. An over-simplified summary would be: progressive enhancement doesn't mean it works without JavaScript, it means it works without network. As a web developer of the oldest possible school, it's interesting to me that the most vociferous objections to his position seemed to be coming from similarly old-school devs (that was a totally subjective impression and might be wrong).

Offline-first is great for web apps

Right off the bat, I think it's important to acknowledge that I think a single-page application that works offline in 2016 is definitely doing more useful for its users than that same application rendering entirely without JavaScript. That seems to be where Nolan is coming from, and as far as it goes I agree. But I think early on he dismissed another interpretation that is equally important.

He mentions, briefly:

Paul Lewis is a big fan of progressive rendering for performance reasons
and then moves on with his argument about apps that require JavaScript, paying particular attention to the "next billion" users who will have decent, JavaScript-capable phones but crappy network connections.

But it seems to me this conflates two very different use-cases that we should consider separately:

  1. A single page web app (an "app" from here on)
  2. A website that consists of multiple pages (a "site" from here on)

Not everything on the web is an app

The generational disconnect I mentioned earlier seems to be coming from the fact that web developers are in two groups, with different "default" ways of thinking about web development. The first group, who turned up in the past 5 or maybe even 10 years, think of it as application development with the web as a medium. The second group, which includes myself, who started 20 years ago think of it as building a set of discrete pages. Obviously, both groups can and do build both types.

Progressive rendering isn't very useful for apps

If you are developing an app, the user ideally loads the app exactly once -- whether it's over a slow connection or not. Whether or not it's bootstrapped, they take the hit of activating the JavaScript one time, and then the app works. Given that the app is complicated and probably takes a while to load, optimizing for app caching and an offline experience is definitely worth the trouble. A single page app probably doesn't have any good use case for JavaScript turned off, because an application without JavaScript cannot really be interactive, and another name for a non-interactive application is "broken". Progressive rendering doesn't really make any sense. This was Nolan's point and I'm on board.

But if you are developing a web site consisting of many discrete pages, the act of loading goes from a single event to the most common event. Content sites of all kinds -- news, entertainment, whatever -- and lots of e-commerce applications are, and for good reasons probably will always be, page-based rather than applications. These types of sites can have a great JavaScript-less experience: it's easy to read an article with JavaScript turned off, and you can click a "buy it now" button without JavaScript as long as it's a real button.

Progressive rendering is essential for sites

In a web app, a user has exactly one chance to experience a catastrophic loading error -- getting their connection cut off mid-load, say, or a JavaScript error completely torching all other scripts on the page. Somebody who experiences this will reload and get on with things, probably. You want to minimize the chances of it happening, but it's not really very common in the first place, so you can probably dismiss it.

On a multi-page web site, on the contrary, the number of chances users have to experience a catastrophic loading error rises by orders of magnitude. In fact, it's almost guaranteed in a world of mobile connections that your users will experience half-loaded pages, and on ad-supported content sites, crappy ads will break your scripts another big chunk of the time. In this situation, optimizing for progressive rendering is an obvious imperative: the JavaScript-less case is both useful, and guaranteed to happen.

Long live web development, in every flavor

As I argue every time I give my Stuff Everybody Knows talk, web development is not a competition between single page web apps and multi-page web sites. Neither is going to "win". There will always be both kinds of web experiences, and what counts as "graceful degradation" is very different depending which one you're building.

Nobody's arguing that graceful degradation is a bad policy, merely what it looks like, and I think these widely diverged use-cases is the source of the disagreement. In fact, as I mentioned on Twitter early this month, web app development and web site development are so different now that they probably shouldn't be called the same thing anymore. Both types of developers are web developers, but you should probably specify which flavor you're talking about. Web app development and web site development (pick your own terminology if you don't like mine, just make it unambiguous) are so different now that rules from one flavor almost never apply to the other.

tagged with

Inclusiveness vs. safety in online spaces

posted 12 July 2015, updated 12 July 2015

A combination of events at Reddit and LGBTQ in Tech Slack spurred me into a tweet storm about online spaces:

On the Techdel test, and giving a shit about workplace diversity

posted 30 March 2015, updated 30 March 2015

[Disclaimer: I am writing this from my perspective as npm's CTO, but purely in a personal capacity. It has not been reviewed or approved by anyone at the company, and any questions or complaints about it should be directed at me.]

At npm, we care a lot about workplace diversity.

This statement by itself distinguishes us in no way from the majority of companies, who will all say, if asked, that they value diversity. Of course they do! "Diversity" sounds like one of those nice, cheap, HR sorts of words, like "empowerment" and "transparency", that you can put into your mission statement and be so meaningless as to require no effort whatsoever on your part to live up to. Just another buzzword. The actual level of commitment to diversity, and even the level of understanding what it means to have and support a diverse workplace, vary enormously from company to company.

We started npm, Inc. back in January 2014, and over the last 14 months I feel like I have come a long way as a manager of people and learned a great deal about what it means to really, truly value and support diversity. When I learn things I like to write about them, so that's part of my motivation for this. Another, bigger part of my motivation is intense, unbearable impostor syndrome about my own, and by extension npm's, actual level of success at doing so.

This started when I wrote a blog post comparing diversity at major tech companies, then seriously escalated when I wrote a half-joking rhetorical tweet about a Bechdel test for tech (which, you're right, Ryan, should totally have been called the Techdel test:

This then got picked up by the excellent people at 18F, who used it to kick off a much more serious and useful conversation about gender diversity at their organization, and from there to diversity in general. The original tweet has been remarkably long-lived and 18F's post has been picked up by dozens of other sources. It has been extremely gratifying to see an offhand remark of mine, mostly via 18F's amplification, spur so many interesting and useful conversations, but it has also made me feel like a huge fraud.

Here's why: npm has, at present, exactly 11 employees (though we are hiring a bunch more right now). The three founders are all white men (though we managed some diversity in sexuality, having one straight, one gay and one bisexual founder). Of the 8 non-founders, all of whom are engineers of various kinds, we have four women and four men, all but one of whom identify as white, with some additional variation in the LGBT spectrum. This is... fine. It's not great. It's better than a lot of places. It could be much better. It's also far, far too small to be statistically meaningful, so as we grow we could either get much better or significantly worse. The best I can say is that we're doing okay so far, and will continue to try to improve. Hiring diversely is hard, and a great deal has been written about it, and I'm not going to write about it now.

But hiring diversely is merely the first step. You can't just hire a diverse group and then employ standard Silicon Valley workplace culture and expect things to go well. Once you get people in the door you have to make sure the culture values them and helps them perform at their best. And this is another reason why I have been so uncomfortable receiving attention for our own diversity, because in this area we have been even less successful.

Of our eight employees, over 14 months, people have had big enough problems with the workplace environment and their job quality to raise those concerns to their manager (me, in nearly every case) a total of about 20 times (we keep records of the individual meetings, but I haven't collected them for exact stats). From my experience of previous companies, that's actually not bad -- people often run into things that make them unhappy at work, especially at startups where the situation changes rapidly. But what is bad is that of those reports, more than three-quarters were raised by the women.

These problems varied in scope. Some were minor -- we had problems with over-talking, especially during ad-hoc meetings. We were unnecessarily negative in our discussions of third parties and other technologies. A couple of times, I gave credit for a piece of work to a man who worked on a project instead of the woman who actually did the work until I was corrected. More seriously, I gave ineffective feedback in a way that was distinctly gendered. Various members of the team fell victim to gendered expectations on a number of occasions. On two occasions I really majorly fucked up, totally misunderstanding a team member's needs and expectations, making them miserable entirely by accident. Not all of these problems were gender-related, but obviously since women experienced the majority of them, gender bias was at work.

The best, in fact the only, thing that I can say in our defense is: we give a shit. We really do. When these things were brought to our attention, we took them seriously. We made immediate changes. Sometimes they worked and the problem was resolved or at least improved. On some we had to try a couple of times before we found something that worked. On some of them we still haven't found a solution. But we give a shit. We are trying.

Really early on, we talked about what npm's values are, and one of the clearest summaries of them turned up in a tiny paragraph of text that Isaac churned out for our jobs page. It's so good that it has been almost unchanged in 14 months:

npm is not a typical product, and we are not a typical early-stage “work hard/play hard” startup. We are responsible adults with diverse backgrounds and interests, who take our careers and our lives seriously. We believe that the best way to iterate towards success is by taking care of ourselves, our families, our users, and one another. We aim for a sustainable approach to work and life, because that is the best way to maximize long-term speed, while retaining clarity of vision. Compassion is our strategy.

The way you can tell what a company's values are -- as opposed to what they say they are, which are universally the meaningless platitudes I mentioned at the beginning -- is by their actions. In particular, you can tell what a company believes is really important by what it will give up, or pay, to get that thing. At npm we have made real, meaningful sacrifices in terms of speed of development and cash outlay, to ensure that our team works sensible hours, and isn't woken up in the middle of the night for operational issues. We have also made real, tangible sacrifices in speed of hiring to ensure that our applicant pool is diverse, and our interviews as fair as we can possibly make them. We didn't decide things in favor of happiness and diversity vs. cash every single time, but we did it often enough to hurt, and to be sure that yes, we really do value these things enough to bear that hurt. Because we give a shit.

And that's really all you can do. Detecting and compensating for bias is mind-breakingly difficult. You can be totally conscious of your bias and yet still make biased decisions even though you're actively trying to avoid doing so. You can put processes in place to promote fairness but the design of the processes themselves can and will be biased. You can track statistics and set goals but that doesn't make them happen. You can try to cast a wide net for hiring but job postings are more likely to spread via social connections, which means your friends, i.e. people who are already very similar to you. That's not to say you shouldn't try to correct for your bias, and make goals, and put processes in place, and hire widely. of course you should. But it will never be enough. It is a morass. Once you notice bias you suddenly see it everywhere. I spend an inordinate amount of time on my morning commute considering the gender politics of who gets out of my way.

Oh, and what about the Techdel test? Well, until very recently, npm didn't even pass that. Our four women devs are all on different teams (www, registry, cli, and dev relations). While they all lay down a great deal of high-quality code, their functions rarely call each other directly. On our website, Raquel's code now calls a caching library written by CJ, so we squeak by. I'm not beating myself up over this, though. The Techdel test was a rhetorical joke intended to inspire a conversation, not be a genuine measure of quality of participation, and while npm's gender diversity isn't perfect, we are well above the minimum bar that it was the original Bechdel test's aim to set.

Ultimately, npm is a tiny part of the overall picture. Me giving a shit about hiring diversely and working diversely is not going to change Silicon Valley, especially since I get it wrong half the time even though I'm trying really, really hard. But I care, and I really honestly try to do better every day. It's not good enough, but it's not bad, and that's better than most.

tagged with


RT @cowperthwait: ?I am not opposed to gentrification ? in fact, I am enthusiastically pro-gentrification. But I?m absolutely not a hips ... #


India has passed tough new anti-rape laws
Meanwhile, US congress still debating what "rape" is, exactly.
Minuum is a very clever re-imagining of how keyboards should work in small devices
via @danlev
"Free Think U" is a website that makes your college tuition contingent upon completing online courses in Conservative doctrine
This is a laughably horrible idea.
Support for gay marriage in the US is rising drastically, in every demographic category
81% of adults under 30 think gay marriage should be legal, and there are lots of other cheerful stats in this ABC poll.
The RNC's post-election study into why they lost has some hard, hard conclusions
The shortlist: stop hating immigrants, start listening to minorities, stop hating gays, stop blocking out opposing viewpoints, stop being all about rich people. As @eparillon put it, "stop being Republicans".
I think the definition of a "Millennial" should be "someone who, on getting a vibrating dildo stuck up their butt, live-tweets the entire experience"
This is either real or a fabulously elaborate hoax. But if it's real, it's actually kind of admirable. He was sex-positive and adventurous, he wasn't ashamed to tell his dad why he needed a ride to the hospital, and he thinks the whole thing is so funny that it's worth sharing with the world. You go, guy. You go with your big gay butt.
The API key and secret that Twitter uses for its own mobile apps have leaked
This ordinarily isn't a big deal because of the way OAuth works -- Twitter can just reset the keys and update the apps -- except that Twitter's own API keys are special: unlike any other keys to Twitter's open APIs, Twitter's keys are not rate-limited in any way, so developers have motivation to keep stealing them. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out.
The drop-down menu on is a masterpiece of subtle engineering
I am extremely impressed.
The projected timeline for clean-up after Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster is "30-40 years"
When nuclear power goes wrong it goes very, very wrong.
scroll kit's redesign of Time's enormous, important Bitter Pill story is really great
Everyone should read this story, and this version is a lot more compelling than Time's.
You should follow @linklog on Twitter.



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