The Pipeline is a Bullshit Argument, and Other Rants

melting girl

Credit: Flickr / Charis Tsevis

The latest comments are from a guy who runs a startup incubator, but next week it will be someone else. Men, so many men, would like to explain why there are no women in the tech industry, and how it is not, actually, their fault, and there is nothing they can do, so can we just stop complaining, please? Why do they have to feel so bad about it? It’s just how the world is. Watch your tone.

It’s The Pipeline, Stupid

The pipeline argument is the ultimate refuge of the tech company or incubator that would like to pass the blame. There aren’t enough women graduating, so that explains the numbers. There aren’t enough girls going into the right courses at university, so there is nothing they can do.

This argument is blind to privilege, but also, I think, classist. The tech person making in excess of $100k a year, would like to blame the school teachers who make a fraction of that.

The school teacher could argue that 63% of women working in STEM report experiencing sexual harassment, why would they encourage students to go into that kind of toxic environment? They might be better off being accountants.

The pipeline leaks from the age of 5 until all women have dropped out, or died. (See The Primer). Handily it means that everyone can divert attention from the leaks closest to them by pointing to leaks further away.

Fast, Cheap, Good – Pick Two

A constraint of project management is – Fast, Cheap, Good. Pick two. My understanding is that the VC model is built on Fast and Cheap. Postpone as much as possible (including finding a business model) until after the big exit.

Women are shut out of this, and so women run business tend to more the Cheap and Good – bootstrapping – with a business model, and customers! – over a long period, with lower rates of failure.

The myth of the 20 something male, is correlation, not causation. What are VCs really looking for? Hubris? Lack of interest in anything else, willingness to work 80 hour weeks and put their life on hold in pursuit of some definition of success?

10,000 Hours and Other Nonsense

One argument is that starting at 13 is necessary in order to have put in the 10,000 – as explained by Malcolm Gladwell in his best selling book – in order to be good enough at 23. Except it’s not just about the sheer number of hours thrown at it, it’s about the type of work done. 10,000 hours will get you a middle ranking at chess, but it takes 5,000 hours of deep practise to become a chess grandmaster.

Also, this level of dedication is when you aim to become the best in the world at something. This is a master craftsman level of wood carving. Except what we are actually talking about is something closer to assembling a bunch of Ikea furniture, albeit in a tight timeframe. We wouldn’t extrapolate that playing with hammers and bashing together chaotic structures with no stability bears much relationship to the wood carver. And yet, writing terrible code with little feedback other than “it works” – for some definition of works, not a definition that includes any QA control – is seen to bear a significant relationship to the ability, 10 years later, to build a production quality service with millions of users and 99.9% uptime.

The level of “deep practice” during universities is unclear, but at the very least, whilst men definitely outnumber women in university computer science, I can’t find any data that suggests they outperform them – I’ve actually heard the opposite, that women tend to do better in 3rd and 4th year, by which point they outperform men. The thing that women do score less well on than men, is confidence.

So back to that argument about hubris.

The One True Way of “Hacking”

I posit that programming is a way of thinking, and that programming languages and technologies are just tools that we use. Why is there such a fixation on tooling? This is just an extension of the Vim vs Emacs war.

In sports, something much more measurable, as things like how fast someone can swim 100 metres of butterfly has a definite answer, path is less prescriptive than it is in the tech industry. There are different ways of training, people who come to the sport late and still succeed – I heard a talk by Alisa Camplin who won Gold in aerial skiing at the Olympics, who didn’t consider the possibility of competing as an aerial skier until she was 20.

Why is there this limited view on what it means to become good at something? Is it because we don’t really know what it means to be good at it? Or is it a deliberate attempt to keep the barriers to entry artificially high? Oh you’re learning to code at 18? Wow, you left it too late, may as well give up.

Inclusive, Not Pink, Makes $$

The video game industry was saturated, and then Nintendo launched the wii – opening up the market to people who had not bought video games previously. This included women, but please recall, the wii wasn’t pink.

Women control the majority of consumer spending. Women are the dominant users of social networks. Inclusive products, make a lot of money. Under-powered pink products get cancelled.

In 2014, still the idea of making something “for women” means making it pink (hilarious parody commercial of a pen for women). As a business strategy, this is stupid. This experiment in funding teenage boys to work incessantly and build things has only demonstrated what adult women have known all along – teenage boys have no idea what women want. The result is that the female market (and British women actually spend more money on technology than cosmetics) is completely underserved. The old way hasn’t worked. Surely, it’s time to consider the assumptions?

Meanwhile, women have been bootstrapping companies, and turning to Kickstarter, and it might take longer, but I do think that eventually women-led technology companies will show the adolescent boys and their admirers what women really want, and importantly, what they will pay for.

Such products may or may not, come in pink.


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