How to become high-class

The New York Times has just completed a week-long series on social class in America. A lot of it is pretty obvious — getting a factory job instead of going to college is not the road to security in the future — and generally the whole things shrieks “Give us a Pulitzer cause we are so socially relevant!”, but there are some cool factoids. Like apparently the measure of social class is now in services more than goods, including the services of a full-time stay at home mom — so hiring a babysitter to pick up your kids from school indicates a lower class position than having the mom pick them up herself, which indicates a lower class position than having the mom and a full-time nanny pick them up. Heh.

The most interesting thing about this series for me at least is a little Flash app they cooked up where you can input four variables — occupation, education, income, and wealth — and figure out your own class position! I chose “computer programmer” as my occupation, which apparently puts me in the 65th percentile of classy jobs as measured by an entirely unscientific process — in the lower half the of second quintile of all jobs, below grammar school teachers and “commercial drivers” whatever those are. But if I were to call myself a “computer software engineer” instead, I’d instantly shoot up to the 77th percentile of occuptional prestige. And if I said I was a DBA, apparently I’d be third best out of all occupations, beaten only by those pesky doctors and lawyers! Hand me that MySQL manual, quick!

It’s pretty awesome when the newspaper of record reveals itself to have such a shaky grasp on the concept of class that they seriously use polls of occupational prestige — basically going up to a bunch of average people and asking them to rank a bunch of job titles — to measure it. The entire week-long series barely mentioned actual wealth: its creation, its visible signs, its transmission, its loss. Instead the NYT dwelt on epiphenomena such as the fact that cruises used to be for the wealthy (at some time before living memory) but are now for the middle class. I was sort of looking forward to the series because it is such an underdiscussed topic in the media, but I’ve learned yet again that the media is hardly the place to learn about complex social topics. If this is the best they can do, I’ll take the blogs of the numerous academics who write on this topic any day.

Degrease and crash

Dean Edwards’ article on disabling Greasemonkey crashes my browser reliably, so I can’t read or link to it. 😦

Where’s MY damn role model, she whined

The problem with role models is that you never know how close they have to be to your own situation before you can cathect on them. For a long time I’ve sort of looked for someone who is female, an engineer but preferably lacking formal CS training, Internet-focused, a minority, and entrepreneurial. It’s been a tall order to fill, and I’ve recently had a bunch of interactions that make me realize I should broaden my horizons… that women who don’t fill this complete shopping list can still be comrades and inspirations.

For instance, I was having a problem a few months ago that I thought might be a gender issue. Through a friend I was introduced to a woman who isn’t an engineer but has a wealth of experience in the industry. She ended up assuring me that the issue is unlikely to be as gendered as I thought, and is probably based on another variable. To be honest I still don’t know if I agree with her — but I did realize with vast relief that just talking to her about it, and hearing her point of view, made me feel better. Sometimes it really is who says something, not just what they say.

I also recently had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Telle Whitney, head of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology. She has a PhD in CS, and 20 years of experience in semiconductors and VOIP — and now she runs the major nonprofit associated with women in our industry. And she is kind! I did nothing but whine at her about how I couldn’t find any role models, and she listened with every appearance of not wanting to smack me on my whinging snout. She told me something fascinating: apparently CTO is the rarest position in the industry for women. That surprised me, because there are so many young and barely-qualified (male, needless to say) CTOs — it’s not like being a VP of eng, which is a position that takes years of responsibility and usually quite a bit of political dexterity to work your way up to. If you can get other people to call you a CTO without laughing in your face, you can be a CTO!

So I’m still dubious about female-techie networking groups and all, but I’m definitely starting to feel that there are individual women out there who I can learn a lot from and talk to about our shared experiences. It’s a good feeling.

Bad photos good

Listening to Mary Hodder and Peter Fenton made me realize that Flickr has made me value and even prioritize “bad” photos. Like my favorite photo of myself lately is this one — which by the standards of print photography is a horrible photo in every way. It’s low-res, shot without flash, dominated by two streetlights and a weird black streak across the middle. But it captures the texture of the moment so well, and oddly enough I think it really shows what I look like.

If photos are now purely digital, and mostly web-mediated, experiences… then forget about printing them out. In the new hotness, it’s all about the auratic power of experiential reality. So photos become interesting to the degree that they seem unposed, unself-conscious, imperfect — totally UNsuitable for framing.

I find that when I look at photos online these days, I’m unmoved by cleverness in composition or subject. I’m interested in expressions that rarely used to be captured by even “candid” photographs, because they were too far from the primary-color emotions to easily parse. I enjoy photos where the person doesn’t quite make eye contact with the camera, perhaps because it’s less clear where the aperture is or even what the camera looks like. I like a hint of exasperation, of not being sure whether the subject is up for a photo op or not.

All of this has made me decide not to smile in photos so much. Someone told me that I look exactly the same in every photo ever taken, and I think it’s because my smile is exactly the same wattage every time. Who wants to see another damn picture of Troutgirl and her teeth? Not me!

Blog spammers can bite me

It took half the afternoon, but I have captchas! Courtesy of Timboy’s Captchaservice. I also cleaned up all the blog spam, I hope. This may have resulted in a few comments being deleted, especially those with a blank author name.

The Troutgirl test

Everyone in the business knows and agrees with the Joel Test to figure out whether a software organization is top-notch (or even minimally functional — the difference between the two levels may be small). I have to add a couple points of my own, specific to web sites and services:

  • Is the process to set up a dev environment fully documented?
  • Do you solemnly swear that your devs never ever EVER edit code on the live servers?
  • Do your devs meet with operations to discuss deployment concerns before they start writing code?
  • Does development and QA occur against a data set at least one-tenth the size of the live service?
  • Is webdev part of the engineering organization rather than part of product management or design?
  • Is someone in your organization being evaluated on how well the development and staging servers are maintained?

Remember, boys and girls — feel free to ask these questions during your job interviews! If the company can’t answer yes to all of them, think twice about taking the offer.