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Sunday, April 14, 2013

"Crack pipes" followup

It's been another busy weekend after one of my recent posts made a big splash on several fronts. People really picked up on the "crack pipes" story and a few other elements. It looks like it all started with a Geek Feminism post and then found its way to Hacker News.

There were many points raised in that HN comment thread, and I figured I'd respond to some of them here.

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Various folks commented on the "being mistaken for HR" thing. I guess I need to give an example of how I make a business call. It seems to be something of a lost art.

First, I pick up the phone. Then I dial it. It rings. Someone picks up, and says "hello" or something to that effect depending on their locale. It's my turn to speak, so I do.

Hi, this is Rachel calling from $company. May I speak to $name, please?

In doing that, I have totally defused any possibility of it being the all-too-common annoyance call from a telemarketer. They don't have to ask who I am or what I want. I've laid my cards on the table and they are in control.

At this point, I'm usually talking to "$name", but sometimes, whoever answered the phone has to go fetch that person. Now and then, they would ask what I'm calling about, but that was mostly when I called businesses. It didn't happen when I did interview phone calls, since those were all (hopefully) direct to the candidate's personal phone.

Compare that to the (legitimate) business calls I seem to get now:

My phone rings. I look at it. It's some random number which has no mapping in my phone, or worse, "Blocked". I pick it up and say "... hello?", not knowing what to expect.

The person on the other end immediately asks if they can speak to Rachel. Well... I'm not going to say if they can or not until I know who they are and why they are calling this number. That forces things to go into the state where they say "I'm X calling from Y (about Z)".

Now you can see why I open with that. It cuts out that whole pointless and annoying exchange.

Does this sound familiar? If so, you might have read it in the book, or as a post right here in August 2011.

Does this set me up for having my engineering abilities doubted by the candidate? That seems completely wrong. Why is it so hard to believe that I could be technically knowledgeable, qualified to assess a candidate, and yet also know how to make a phone call "like a boss"? Don't people learn phone calling skills from their parents any more?

Actually, don't answer that. I bet a lot of people now grow up using their "phones" without realizing they can do voice-based comms with them. Grumble grumble.

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Apparently I'm a "smart-ass know-it-all whiner". Well, you might think that if you only ever read one post which was talking about horrible things which had happened. Go read some of my more technical posts and you might change your tone.

As for being a smart-ass? I reserve the right to be that way when facing off against a bunch of ramrods. So there.

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Quite a few comments said something like "it happens to me, too!". My immediate reaction to that is "and it sucks, doesn't it?". Still, these are two different assertions. I'm saying that something seems to happen to someone in set A. I'm not saying anything about whether it also happens to people outside set A. Those people have spoken up, and okay, so it does. Now we know that the problem space is a bit larger.

Let's try looking at this another way with a thought experiment.

Suppose the police chief in a city hates people from outer Elbonia. It's completely irrational, but that's just the way this person rolls.

It just so happens that everyone from outer Elbonia drives yellow cars. It's a long, drawn-out back story involving the local culture which would take forever to explain. Don't worry about why it happens. It just does.

Other people also drive yellow cars for whatever reason. They aren't from Elbonia. They might not even know anyone from there. Maybe it's a perfectly random distribution of non-Elbonians who happen to drive yellow cars.

The police chief decides to start "profiling" anyone who drives a yellow car to further his own agenda, and tells the patrol units to watch them very closely. If they drive 36 in a 35, pull them over for speeding. If they scratch their head while driving, pull them over because they might have a cell phone in that hand, and that's illegal. You get the idea.

So this starts happening, and pretty soon, all of the Elbonians are being pulled over fairly regularly, and are being picked on by the local police force. It's a pretty crappy situation.

Meanwhile, the non-Elbonians in yellow cars are also being pulled over. It's pretty crappy for them, too.

One day, some Elbonians speak up and talk about what's been happening, and shares some stories involving their people. It's clear something screwy is going on, and they want it to stop.

That's when the randomly-distributed yellow car drivers chime in and say "it's not anti-Elbonian!" Well guess what? You're technically correct. It's actually technically anti-yellow-car. However, the driving force behind that is actually something sinister: the police chief hates people from that fictional country.

Is this starting to sink in yet?

Human traits overlap. The set of traits which frequently earn bad treatment at the hands of others in this industry seems to largely overlap the set of women. However, it isn't a 1:1 mapping, so you will have women who don't have those traits, and men who do, never mind the rest of humanity.

This doesn't mean the situation should be allowed to continue.

I can draw this out as a series of Venn diagrams if people really don't get this. Come on, already.

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As for the actual "crack pipes" line? It was used on me once by a Lucent tech. Way way back when, I was trying to get a terminal server turned up at one of my gigs. I had ordered it with two T1 cards so we'd have 46 dialup lines. Yes, 46, not 48. I wanted to do PRI instead of channelized T1 with robbed-bit signalling. This way, my users would have better X2 and V.90 performance. I didn't need the two extra lines, especially considering that my existing modem pool was an actual stack of 28.8 Sportsters. (Yes!)

Well, the people who worked on that phone switch at this place where I worked weren't exactly clueful. They were cargo cultists in every sense of the word. If it wasn't something they had done a million times before, they didn't know how to do it and really couldn't figure it out. That's why the Lucent guy was there. He was supposed to help our guys figure out how to add a pair of circuits out of that switch which would run the six feet into my terminal server.

I found that things just weren't stable. I had provided the requested parameters for the line, but they didn't deliver them consistently. I'd manage to get it to sync by flipping things around into other configurations, but then they'd change it again. They wouldn't just set it up and leave it alone, and I was following them around. It was madness.

Well, at some point, the two of them (our phone guy, and the Lucent guy) came back to where I was sitting, and I told them what was going on, and asked them to just turn it up the way I had requested. The Lucent guy looked at me as if he didn't believe what I had been saying (about the line coding changing) and said something like "sounds like someone's smoking crack", and they both chuckled, turned, and walked away.

It took well over a month to get that stupid thing running thanks to them.

I could write a whole post about this saga. Maybe I will some day. The point is, people have used the 'smoking crack' thing on me, too.

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Someone said I should "dress nicely". Okay, that is definitely a mine field, particularly deep within the tech nerd-dom which is the valley. If you show up wearing a t-shirt, jeans and sneakers, you will look like nearly everyone else. Parity is achieved. Yes, that t-shirt and those jeans are curvier than others in certain places and the sneakers might have some pastel highlights, but at least you don't stand out too much.

The first time you go up a notch, and *gasp* wear a skirt or *shock and awe* go all the way to a dress, people will notice, and they will comment on it. You also run the risk of being seen as not an engineer by people who don't already know you... and maybe by a few who do. This has a way of limiting your wardrobe choices, no matter how beautiful the day may be.

I suspect that trying to command technical respect from those guys by varying my wardrobe in the "more formal" direction would have only ended in failure.

This didn't stop me from going beyond the usual engineer uniform many days, but that was because I wasn't going to give in on that part of my life. Who knows. Maybe it contributed to the overall lack of respect I got sometimes.

Meanwhile, if a guy showed up in something a little more formal than usual, like, say, wearing a shirt with a collar, it was universally assumed that he had an interview for another job. Even if he didn't, you'd joke that he had just come from one.

Such things are completely disconnected from ability in that world.

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I didn't see many suggestions to "be more like the guys", but to any guy who thinks that way, let me give you a suggestion in kind. Try being like a vastly different sort of guy for a month and see how well that works out for you.

If you're usually a rough, tough, cowboy type, try being a soft or effeminate type for a month and see how you feel by the end of it. Likewise, if you are naturally soft, go rough and tough for the same time. Change your mannerisms, clothes, and how much space you take up in the room. Defer more... or less. You get the idea.

(My apologies for not providing more example types. I am not well-versed on the particular variants of your tribe.)

Whatever your thing is, flip the sign on it for a month -- no cheating! You have to be this way any time you're involved in work. Even if you're at home writing e-mails, you have to come across this way in those mails.

I suspect you will find that "inauthentic" behavior is rather draining.

If you're one to laugh this off, but at the same time still recommend that someone acts like something they're not, then you're just a hypocrite. Try taking some of your own medicine and see how it tastes.

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"A professional does not lose her cool or insult others".

I have two things to say to that. First, a professional does not ignore teammates.

Second, calling someone unprofessional is basically the last-ditch option when you can't come up with anything else to say. It's a pretty good indication that the speaker is grasping at straws.

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Someone made an aside about food at Google being free. Sorry, but it definitely is not free.

What's funny is that the IRS has picked up on this in recent days. All I can say is: you brought this upon yourselves, you evildoers.

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There was a link to a clip which shows the exact thing happening.

Go watch it. It's short.

If what happened to me was an isolated event, then it would be rather odd for some Hollywood writer to notice and put it into a script, no?

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Someone related a tale of not being taken seriously because they were young. I've seen this happen to plenty of knowledgeable youngsters, and it also stinks. Just because someone is 12 doesn't mean they might not know what they're doing. They might have a totally fresh angle on something... or they might be a crackpot... just like anyone else. You have to listen to them to find out the difference.

The thing is, those kids grow up, and thus "earn" the respect they should have had all along. They leave the youth behind.

That doesn't work when the problem is one of gender.

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Okay, that's enough for now.