Slides and commentary for the talk I gave at Ignite Waterloo, June 15th. Missing two slides – title slide and end slide (with my twitter handle and website on it). Ignite is a tough format – 5 minutes, 15 seconds a slide, the slides auto-advance. The *’s are where I expect the slide to change (I’m going to follow this up with a post on preparing, when I think they will be useful).
I was talking to one of our facilities people recently, about someone behaving a little… strangely. And she said, “they’re an engineer”. To which I replied: “I’m an engineer!”. She responded, “Oh,*but you shouldn’t be”.
Actually, I really love my job and so I’m pretty sure that it’s exactly what I should be doing. But, I have noticed something, where if an software engineer seems, y’know, normal, and well-dressed* and functions socially then people are surprised, or even skeptical of their profession.
Back when I was a student in Edinburgh, I went to a ceilidh. And I met a guy. And he asked me out on a date. Sure*.
And then ascertained from my roommate that I was single (apparently me agreeing wasn’t enough, but as it turned out him asking me out didn’t imply he was single, so fair enough). And then, he starts getting to know me. So he asks what I’m studying* – extremely normal, student, conversation – right?
So by 3rd year I’ve finally accepted that I am not meant to be a chemist – mostly due to the sheer volume of equipment I was smashing. And so I say, CompSci.* And he says, “I don’t believe you”.
And then – you can tell we were both drunk at this point right? I mean, it was in Scotland – argue about this. And I’m all, if I was going to lie about it I’d pick something better. Like, “I’m in an elite program* that feeds into MI5. We take core courses in math and languages, and then weapons and advanced driving. I’m specializing in sword-fighting and snowmobiles.”
In the end, it probably would have been easier to convince him I was training to be a female James Bond than a CompSci student*. He just kept saying, “I don’t believe you. You’re too normal”. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work out. And now I live in Canada.
And honestly, I wasn’t that offended. Not so long before that I’d been dating another CompSci who had used to tell women he met in bars* he was studying “social anthropology”.
I told this story in introduction for another talk I gave last summer, and afterwards my friend came up to me and said, “Cate, how did you KNOW?” – *she’d been telling people she was an English lit major.
Some engineers, even ones who have girlfriends, have taken offence, and they say “I don’t have to lie to get dates”. In this town, I can believe it.*
But here’s the thing – engineers, we have an image problem. And maybe this is why in the US more parents encourage their daughters to be actresses than software engineers, a fact that horrifies and terrifies me.
But we also have a communication problem. We don’t *communicate the value we bring and what we do well. And we don’t listen well enough to what users want.
I was trying to explain to someone what I do. I was like, “you know, if you have an iPhone? And you get your GMail in safari? That’s what I work on.”*
And she said, “Oh, you work for the internet”.
Which is not really that accurate, but would be a pretty awesome job title, right? “Hi, I’m Cate. I work for the internet”. I guess Vint Cerf can really say that.*
Meanwhile, my mom calls me because she can’t get Facebook to work, or her Windows machine to connect to a network, or some kind of question that I know nothing about, because I don’t use Windows and barely use Facebook. Last time I was there she complained is that my sister’s trainee-accountant boyfriend *gives better tech-support than I do. Which caused me to exclaim, “this is like asking a brain surgeon why your cat is shedding hair!”
What’s the point of all this? I think if we could communicate better, then engineers would have to lie less to get dates,* but also humans would get better products.
Clearly, I don’t have the communication figured out. But I do know that we need to listen better, and ask more questions.
Engineers need to realize that humans don’t care about the things that we do. They mostly care *about getting what they want to do done, not how, or in what language, or requiring how much RAM.
Humans, writing code is not the same as using software. I literally spend all day every day using only Chrome, XCode, and an emulator. If you have a problem in an application running on Windows,* it’s extremely unlikely I know what that is. The big difference, I think, between engineers and humans when a computer is “not working” is that the engineer isn’t afraid.
(slide which only contains the words “DON’T PANIC”)
But the human shouldn’t be either, and if they are – that’s something that* engineers need to fix.
And finally, please tell your daughter to think about being an engineer. It’s awesome, and I think we need a more representative selection of humanity building our software, changing the world, and connecting, enabling and supporting humans*, to do whatever it is, they want to do.