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Sunday, December 4, 2011

Anti-pattern theater: how to get women to quit

It seems a bit boring to keep talking about things in terms of "how do you get women on your team" or "how do you keep them on your team". Let's mix it up a little and play it as an anti-pattern instead this time.


How do you piss off a technical woman so she will leave your team? It's easy. Just go and lob a few complaints about her behavior that would never apply to a guy. The easiest one of these is to say "you're being too emotional". Who's going to argue against that? All you have to do is find places where she emphasizes things instead of remaining in a flat monotone and you hit paydirt.

It doesn't even have to exist! You can totally claim it's happening just because you think it'll still work. Here's how.

It's Monday morning in California, and it's time for the weekly production meeting. Meanwhile, you're in Dublin visiting the other half of the team, and it's getting late in the day there. You get to witness the following interaction between your team's boss (B) and the one woman (W) on the team.

B: So I was looking at the pages from this weekend and it looks like we had something bad on Saturday. What happened?

W: Too many queries were failing in the Netherlands.

B: Why were they failing?

W: The new authentication daemon on the machines has a bug where it locks up after it runs too long.

B: How do you know this?

W: After it woke me up for the fifth time, I got out of bed and troubleshot the whole stack down to this daemon and proved it by restarting one, at which point everything started working again.

B: What did you do about it?

W: I wrote something to restart the daemon before it can run that long until we get a patch.

B: When did this start?

W: Before my shift.

B: Who was on call then?

W: S.

B: What happened on his shift?

W: He rebooted the machines and it stopped happening for a while.

B: Is that it?

W: Yes.

B: How do you know that?

W: I talked to T and he said he had talked to S during that shift, and that was their conclusion: reboot it, and it goes away.

It's a very bizarre and stunted conversation. The woman is clearly going to great lengths to not elaborate. She's answering things as succinctly as possible so as not to give you any way to claim that she's being emotional. It doesn't matter! You can still play that card!

Here's what you do. After the meeting, you get her on chat and you say "wow, you were really hard on S". It doesn't matter that she was answering direct questions posed by the boss and had to answer them. The more you accuse, the more it becomes true, so stay at it!

If you're lucky, she'll get fed up and go somewhere else. That'll let you relax again and enjoy the good life. Who needs the stress of having a woman around on your team?


For those following along at home, I was the "W" in that conversation, and it really happened just like that. This was the Monday production meeting after the Saturday fail-fest in question.

I knew it was going to be a disaster and they'd use it against me, so I talked to some friends over the weekend and came up with a plan: I was going to be cold and dry and only answer exactly what was asked of me. I would not elaborate or speculate or anything else of the sort. That had to work!

So the meeting started, and we went through it just like that, and sure enough, afterward, one of the guys who was visiting the remote office that week said that "I was being hard on S". This, after having gone to ridiculous lengths to not do anything overly "mean" or whatever, was the final straw. I started looking for a new team later that week.

They "won", in as much as they got rid of me.

Of course, they still didn't know what they were doing, and they had to keep coming to me for technical assistance months after the fact. I finally had to raise this with their manager (my old boss). I put it like this: "I don't know how to say this, but I don't want you to get the idea that your staffing levels are adequate, because clearly they are not". If they have to come to me, something is very wrong.

His response was approximately "everyone has different abilities, and some things are as high as they are going to get", which to me says "they hit max level, and it's below the point where they can actually handle running things". It was pretty damning stuff, and I'm surprised he said it.

Within six months, they had an actual user-affecting outage directly attributed to things on that team. We hadn't had any of them during my tenure running that service. Some of the services which relied on us had actually delivered 100% uptime for several quarters thanks in part to our solid-as-a-rock service level. Then this happened. A few weeks later, it happened again. I'm talking about the kind of thing where every single news agency starts writing gloom and doom stories about "the cloud". It was big.

Talk about a mixed bag. On one hand, you're proven right. On the other, you realize the whole company's reputation is being tarnished by these outages, and that still reflects on you. You can laugh it up but you're still affected by it.

Sooner or later, all you can do is quit.


December 4, 2011: This post has an update.