We went to an open house in our neighborhood last week. While there, we ran into Expert Dave who was chatting with the seller about their wood doors. He motioned toward me and said, "there's an expert right here."
It was laughable.
You see, I (Geek #2) have been restoring the wood trim in one of our rooms, part of our first renovation project that we started in February. Much more on that soon. Anyway, what's so funny is that this is the first time I've ever done this. I didn't take a carpentry class, I didn't apprentice with Ye Olde Master Woodworkers & Sons, and I've told everyone I have no idea what I'm doing. I just read some stuff (ok, a lot...) on the web and gave it a try.
Recently we had to hire a handyman, and when I showed him what I've been doing he simply said, "Nice job!" Both generalist and specialist, he worked in construction for decades and has done just about everything. I was stuck on a few things and when I shared my trepidation he reassured me and gave me a few pointers.
That's all I needed, I felt confident again to press on.
So I surprised myself by answering, "Yes?" when Expert Dave called me an expert. The woman pointed out a tiny spot on a door where she had made a repair and tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to match the stain of the wood. Even though I knew that if it was my door it might have looked better, her work was good enough. I gave her a suggestion and reassured her that she did a good job, that the wood looks good, don't worry too much about it.
Here I was stepping into this title with ease for a brand new skill, but after almost two decades of building websites, I still don't call myself an expert.
Why? Because as soon as you do someone will make a point of telling you that you aren't.
Technology is a gamified industry. The prevailing culture is one in which you actively strive to take down the other guy, to prove that you know more, that you are the expert. And if you are brave enough to work in this industry and even braver to put yourself and your work out there publicly, for all the world to scrutinize, then you are a sitting duck. The shots will come. It's like being an actor in a room with a bunch of bad movie critics (there was only one).
I'm a coder not a fighter (a total pacifist, actually. I hate gun analogies like the one I just wrote.) I try to speak through my work, not words. And that's worked out pretty well for me. So well, in fact, that I've been scared to say much of anything. I'm not so worried that people will like my work less if they get to know me better; rather, I want my work to stand on its own despite who I am: a woman.
But I also don't want my work unfairly discredited because I'm a woman. I'm (still) learning that sometimes good work just isn't enough, sometimes you also have to speak up. And that's partly the reason for starting this blog: I'm hoping to find a voice. Hopefully mine.
The lingering question, though, is why isn't good work good enough? It is everywhere else, why not in technology?
Amy Nyugen asked this same question in a recent piece called, I Need Terrible Female Engineers - possibly the best thing ever written about women in technology. Some people misinterpreted the article as favoring untalented women but it was really an action call to accept women's expertise and the lack of it:
I'll tell you right here, right now, that I am not perfect. However, I have tried very, very, very hard to be. And that pressure has been stifling. I think the real subtext to Nguyen's article is that we, as women, need to cut ourselves some slack. We need to tell ourselves first that good is good enough, and then someday in this industry it will be.
And once in awhile, we need to give others some slack, too.
As humorous as it was, being called an expert did make my day. Maybe after I do the entire house, I will be one. Maybe this is my Office Space moment, my newest Fallback Position. But that's absolutely not my goal. Sure, I'd love to have the wood in my house look like a French Polish applied by a dozen craftsmen, but I will be 100% perfectly content, on the deepest metaphysical level, if people who see it just say, "Nice job."
In the boss-killing world of technology (that's what the big monster at the end of a video game is called, not necessarily a real boss, though not necessarily not a real boss), we could all use a little more of that.
On a side note, I'm not much of a gamer. That kind of talk is best left to Geek #1, maybe he'll serve up a better analogy, or just check out John Scalzi's Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is.