Zombies, Cakes & Goddam People

On Saturday, I gave a talk at the University of Birmingham Women in Tech conference, based on 3 key quotes.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic
Arthur C. Clarke

If it weren’t for the people, the god-damn people … always getting tangled up in the machinery. If it weren’t for them, the world would be an engineer’s paradise.
Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano

I have in me both north and south polarities;
… the deepest Analysis, with brilliant Imagination forever playing on the surface of those grave & fathomless depths.
Ada Lovelace, 1844 (Letter to Michael Faraday)


My main points were that:

    • Learning to code gives you creative powers to amaze your friends (e.g. to build cake orchestras).
    • Goddam people can mess up things you build because they don’t act in the (rational) ways that you expect
    • Why? Because many of our brain processes are zombies, running automatically without conscious awareness, trained by repetitive behaviour, messages from culture and our past experiences.
  • Western culture tends to educate these zombie processes that tech isn’t for women, it’s for straight, white men. Take a look, for example, at the Barbie Computer Engineer book (““It will go faster if Brian and I help,” offers Steven.” Gah!).
  • Which means that the automatic zombie reponse to technology from women tends to be “it’s not for me” (I won’t apply for that job/promotion/course; Imposter Syndrome), and the automatic zombie response from employers tends to be that the female candidates aren’t the right fit.
  • You can fight back by retraining your zombie, just as employers like Google and Facebook are putting their employeers through anti-bias training. Surround yourself with examples of women in tech (e.g Ada Lovelace, Margaret Hamilton (moon coder!), Sue Black, Marissa Mayer, Ursula Burns, Martha Lane Fox, Dame Wendy Hall, etc. etc. etc.) and look at #ilooklikeanengineer; attribute at least some of your success to yourself and not to luck; check out Project Implicit to find out whether you may have some unconscious zombie bias (despite what I do, I have a slight bias towards associating men with science and women with arts subjects).
  • Finally, a slight aside about working in tech & having kids: kids are hard to debug; they mean you will have to be more flexible (note that the flexible person does not *have* to be the woman if you are in a different-sex partnership!).

Some helpful links:

  • Join Ada’s List – an email list for women in / interested in tech to chat: adaslist.co
  • Research resources (US based organisation but lots of great info): anitaborg.org
  • Tech-related scholarships e.g. Google Anita Borg Scholarship (I very nearly didn’t apply for this because I thought I’d never get it; it was only the encouragement of a fellow female computer scientist that convinced me!) – see the WISE list
  • Check out the masses of free learn-to-code resources:
      • For a quick-start creative coding platform, check out Processing – it’s got great support, tutorials and code.
      • My own Processing resources for flappy cakes

        A cake with wings

        Flappy Cakes!

      • If you’re interested in literally making things go bing, check out Sonic Pi, a great live coding synth for Raspberry Pi, Mac & Windows
      • Futurelearn Creative Coding course
      • etc. etc.
  • Find actual real life women to talk to about tech – Code First; Ladies Who Code; for kids see Code Club; etc..

I am pleased to report that the conference cakes were delicious :).

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