Diversity – what’s in it for you?

You don’t want to feel guilty. You have no time and energy to waste on that. Guilt isn’t fun. Which is why all kind of diversity talk fails when it is based on the game of people who feel excluded make those they think are excluding them feel guilty. Human communication is difficult as it is, all that negative emotion makes it nearly impossible. Especially since everyone thinks of themselves as good, and if we try to make them feel like bad people, cognitive dissonance kicks in – what we are telling them is conflicting with what they already think of themselves. The easiest reaction is to just say “what does this have to do with programming, why should I listen to any of this?” So, guilt as the great motivator and social emotion and self-punishment to prevent anti-social behavior doesn’t work well here.

Anna Martelli Ravenscroft starts her EuroPython2011 talk “Diversity as dependency” exactly at this point, and promises a guilt free zone for all concerned. She makes it perfectly legitimate to start the discussion on diversity with an all important question – WIIFM – what’s in it for me?

So, what’s in it for you, and for all of us? Why should you tolerate people that clearly don’t understand you, don’t think like you, talk like you, work like you? Why take the trouble? After all, you are part of the select few, and have earned your right to be there, and part of the reward is to be able to work with others like you on cool projects? Why tolerate differences? Why should diversity be seen as a dependency, that is as additional stuff that makes our projects, companies and communities do more stuff and do it better, like software libraries?

Because fresh perspectives and cross-polination and “structural holes” (think doors) between groups are good for creativity and problem solving. As sociological studies show, small towns benefit from inhabitants who read cosmopolitan magazines and bring in new thoughts, and companies are more creative when some individuals communicate with different groups and create structural holes that connect them. Fresh analogies and metaphors can prevent us from being blind to innovation.

I’m not even telling you not to be elitist. Be elitist all you want, but don’t be it in a predictable way. There all many interesting and extraordinary people out there, and not all of them are great in the same way. Take some trouble to learn to recognize them by looking beyond the surface.

If you want to know more about that and also take a look at a few of my own thoughts on the subject, click “Continue reading. You can also download the video of the EuroPython2011 talk. The O’Reilly website also provides a good summary of the talk.

These reflections go beyond the usual girls versus boys, ethnic origin etc. diversity stuff. Like Anna Martelli Ravenscroft, I am interested in building bridges between people of different motivations and backgrounds, in applying different perspectives, analogies and metaphors to same problems. Which may or may not correspond to things like gender, origins, etc.

First of all, because the world is not at all a simple place. And the world of IT is less simple every day. It used to be simple to divide the world population into those who are good with computers and those who are not, and those who are eventually all came to know each other when computers were first networked together in various ways. Things to know were less than they are today, and so were the things that could be done with computers. It was easier to recognize each other.

Today our world is expanding, the IT world is expanded. Computers are used in different fields, and people with different skills are using things like programming to do their research and jobs. Anna, for instance, programs in Python as a part of her project with a startup that focuses on learning in cognitive neuroscience. Python is used in all kinds of science projects, as Guido van Rossum describes in his blog post. The web is opening up all kinds of possibilities, like news apps enabling journalists to presents large sets of data in interesting ways, and environmentalists are mapping forrests and calculating the risks of cutting those trees for the ecosystem. Etc.

There are all kinds of interesting people involved in computers, who share a passion for knowledge and tinkering but may have different backgrounds and perspectives and languages, apart from the programming ones which they have in common. How can we make them talk to each other sometimes to cool projects together?

The question also involves us apprentices, that is individuals who are not yet experts or hard core tinkerers in programming or any other field, but who are bringing a valuable baggage of experience and perspective and may shed new light on old questions and problems. How can we make our voice heared in the existing communities?

Why is all this important?

Anna backs up her reasoning with some interesting scientific studies. Robert K. Merton did some research in 1957 about small towns to figure out who were the most influential people in the community, through studying the reading material, namely magazines. He found out that those who brought information from the outside, reading all kinds of things from all over the world, brought in valuable insights for their towns. Ronald S. Burt did a network analysis on thousands of employees in a corporation. He noticed that people who communicate with different contexts and so create structural holes between groups create more creativity for their groups bringing in fresh thinking. Groups are often blind to potential new discoveries because they treat them as errors and explain them away. Fresh minded individuals can help apply new analogies to old problems and see them in a light that enables discovery. This leads to cool conceptual changes, we see things differently and call them with different names than we used to. If we apply another metaphor or an image or a map to the same problem, we solve it differently.

Considering diversity can help you in unexpected ways. Anna cites the example of curb cuts on streets, those little slopes that help us get on and off street curbs when moving on something that has wheels? They were created for people in wheelchairs, but have been useful for bicycles and tourists with trolleys as well.

Different people with different motivations and skill sets and interests take on different projects and contribute in different ways. Some write code, some use code and debug it, others write documentation, others yet write books, and someone then publishes and distributes those books, etc. All of that is useful.

As we know, given enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow, and we may now take into consideration also that diversity could be good for creativity and problem solving.

That doesn’t mean diversity is easy. It isn’t. Communication and collaboration are hard enough as it is, having to explain oneself to someone different than us makes it more complex. But sometimes it is worth it, because it prevents getting into a rut and routine, group-think and banalization. If you are part of some cool group of experts who know all kinds of stuff and understand each other well, remember that what made you all that way is that you were never afraid to challenge yourself and expand your horizons. Why stop now? We all need to keep learning new stuff in order to keep our edge. And that new stuff can come from all kinds of sources.

I’m not saying that you should listen to just anyone, any time on any topic. You get to chose, of course, what kind of diversity to tackle.

I, for one, am a programmer apprentice, and have to deal with my own diversity in many ways. I am a girl, have moved to another country, have changed fields of interest, etc. Just being an apprentice in itself makes me diverse from the ones I get to work with, since I obviously aspire to collaborating and communicating with programmers and individuals more advanced then myself. But I am trying to see my diversity as a resource and a positive challenge, not as a problem, both for myself and for others. Where I can’t bring the greatest expertise, I can bring enthusiasm and fresh perspectives. Where I am not a specialist, I can look at the bigger picture. At the very least I bring tales from far away lands and try to make things interesting. All of this is not always easy. There is a temptation to become discouraged and sad and lonely and blame others for not understanding you. But that doesn’t lead anywhere. I just have to keep cultivating my passion, and passion is contagious. Passion is a good thing to share and leads to positive communication beneficial to all concerned.

So, I would like to express thanks to Anna Martelli Ravenscroft for this encouraging and inspiring talk which I really needed in this moment of my apprenticeship! See you the next time, and happy diversity to you all.

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About apprenticecoder

My blog is about me learning to program, and trying to narrate it in interesting ways. I love to learn and to learn through creativity. For example I like computers, but even more I like to see what computers can do for people. That's why I find web programming and scripting especially exciting. I was born in Split, Croatia, went to college in Bologna, Italy and now live in Milan. I like reading, especially non-fiction (lately). I'd like to read more poetry. I find architecture inspiring. Museums as well. Some more then others. Interfaces. Lifestyle magazines with interesting points of view. Semantic web. Strolls in nature. The sea.
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