Game culture and engineering culture

I’ve never liked games. I didn’t get into D&D or Pacman as a teenager; bridge and poker put me to sleep about the time most people feel they’re just getting warmed up; I lack the reflexes for video games, even really slow ones like Wii Bowling or Sim City; and I can’t even imagine learning the rules to Settlers of Catan (although it always amuses me to hear players muttering things like “I must have sheep!”). On the two occasions I’ve forced myself to gamble in Vegas — on the nickel slots, no less — the experience was duller than life itself.

It’s probably the area in which I am the least engineer-like, and I’ve always been somewhat self-conscious about it. A shared love of games is embedded in engineering culture to the extent that people have become completely lazy and herd-thinkily unquestioning about it. Programming classes are almost invariably taught using games as the use case of choice. The vast majority of job interviews in Silicon Valley feature “brain teasers” that are supposed to measure your “raw horsepower” by means that are even more bullshit than the GREs. After hours, game nights are one of the most common social events in the Valley. Even my beloved Rands in Repose, in most matters the most reasonable and insightful of men, unhesitatingly defines nerds as those who most love toys and puzzles. I wonder how many non-gamers — who I’m guessing are mostly chicks — see this type of stereotype perpetuated over and over before deciding engineering must not be for them.

I really struggled with this “deficiency” for a long time, until finally it occurred to me: it’s not GAMES per se that define an engineer. I think a more general formulation might be that engineers are drawn to meaningless technical challenges with lots of rules and/or quantitative data (e.g. “scores”) to geek out on — and by that standard, I am easily in the fold. It’s just that interviewers don’t think to ask whether you’ve undertaken bizarre chick tasks like designing knitted garments using mathematical principles, planning long trips while optimizing over multiple variables, calculating the gear ratio when converting your bike to a fixie, or embarking on Iron-Chef style challenges to maximize the amount of nutrition per calorie for a given menu.

My point isn’t that games are bad, but that they’re limited and inevitably exclusionary and quite likely somewhat gendered. What if you, as an interviewer, had to expand your notion of “general interest” domains? What if you just weren’t allowed to ask puzzle questions? What if you were specifically enjoined to judge candidates’ interests by their real-world applicability — in which case trip planning would come in miles ahead of Grand Theft Auto or WoW for most of us? How would engineering be different?

Huge hidden audiences

I was at knitting camp (yes, knitting camp) last month when I learned something staggering. I’d estimate the average age of the ladies to be near 50 years old; and almost all of them listened to podcasts all the time. There was a brisk trade in tips for how to find, download, and enjoy podcasts from all over the web, for those few who weren’t already hooked on the habit.

Now to be honest, I’m not sure I’ve ever sat through an entire podcast; and I’d always sort of considered them an intermediate stage on the road from blogging to vlogging, like mesohippus or Neanderthal man. But then I realized that this is only true for people like me who spend all day long in front of the computer on fast internet connections. It turns out that for a lot of women it’s far more convenient to enjoy podcasts while they drive, wait around during appointments, do chores, cook, or practice time-consuming crafts. I also sort of suspect that listening is a skill more women have learned to enjoy 🙂 — a lot of them, it turned out, were devoted fans of NPR and recorded books.

Now I found these ladies to be affluent, sophisticated, life-affirming, eager to try new things, and technically capable if motivated. I imagine that women beyond the “children living at home” years control an awful lot of the wealth in this country, and have a disproportionate effect on many political and cultural organizations. The vast majority of my new comrades though told me that they found a lot of the web sort of… not very relevant to their interests. They didn’t watch videos, they didn’t read blogs, they didn’t social network except specifically on one knitting site, they weren’t interested in gossip or celebrity or mothering or beauty or any of the traditionally “female” categories on the web.

This is all by way of saying that if I — a middle-aged female — can ignore this huge and affluent audience, I’m kinda thinking you might too. Certainly your VC is unlikely to push you towards an audience that represents his mom or maybe his first wife 😉 — he’d rather pretend to be a 25 year old boy forever. What other huge audiences are lying just outside our field of collective vision while we huddle around San Francisco Bay sending witty 140-character quips to each other 20 times a day? Maybe we better get out there and find out sometime.

Hating on female websites

This is not a diss of Mashable, cause they know I love them… but may I humbly submit that their list of top 10 social networking sites for women made me throw up in my mouth a little? Umm… do you not see a certain THEME in your choice of sites? Hint: if a woman is neither a mom, nor does she think lip gloss merits more than a 2-minute glance at the drugstore — or even if a woman IS a mom and loves lip gloss, but doesn’t define herself that way — there’s no place for her in your taxonomy of chick sites.

I’d say the Huffington Post offers a strong community of people interested in organizing politically around what are often trivialized as “family issues”. Personally I enjoy Jezebel’s snarky takedowns of media images of femininity, which are all the more powerful because the writers and commenters acknowledge their allure as well as their danger. Salon has a proud track record of keeping us informed about political and social news affecting women (especially valuable for non-US news) and highlighting developments in the feminist blogosphere. And if Etsy isn’t primarily a site for women, I don’t know why not… and a lot of them turn out to have some interesting stuff to say about the personal (having a happy life while not making a huge income) being the political (eliding the division between career and home by means of not buying into “normal” consumerism). Unfortunately I can’t say I’ve found the perfect community for hard-core career-minded women, especially those in “traditionally male” fields… but when it happens, I’ll be there.

More importantly, many social networking sites — Facebook, MySpace, even GaiaOnline and Piczo — are now de facto “female first”. Even if the number of registered users aren’t overwhelmingly women, the gentler sex tends to be far more expressive and engaged on these sites. This has enormous implications for the whole business of technology — because for the very first time in the entire history of Silicon Valley, our “cutting-edge customer” is not a white geeky guy buying something from a white geeky guy… but a young woman talking to other young women. Facebook and MySpace ARE women’s sites now… so how come the media keeps shoving us in the ghetto of iVillage or Yahoo’s putrid Shine?

Dressing female devs

Niniane’s recent blog post about how female engineers should dress took me back to my early days in Silicon Valley when I worried about that stuff. Eventually I concluded that not only do I look terrible in logowear and jeans, but SO DOES EVERYONE ELSE. Yes you, Fatty McGeekerson… your man-boobs and beer gut would look much better in something less… clingy. And I’m talking to you too, Skinny O’Geeky! Get your narrow ass out of those black jeans and into some slacks right now. And don’t hem them too short either.

It makes me laugh to see that moronic blog commenters still think that giveaway T-shirts with jeans are “the traditional dress of my people”. Uh… silk hanboks with stiff petticoats and pointy-toed shoes are the traditional dress of my other people. But you don’t see me wearing them to the office either — cause I choose not to look like a freak. Generally I try to wear something relatively flattering, which because I’m so short and so bad at matching colors usually means a dress. And I always carry a big-ass purse, just because it’s the one area of women’s dress that seems sensible at all.

My bigger problem these days is not fitting into the engineering pit — it’s more figuring out what to wear when meeting outsiders, like customers or funders. You want to look like you’re making an effort, but it’s imperative not to look like a lame version of the other guy. I think Silicon Valley people pitching New York types almost always default to khakis and buttondown (the Bill Gates) or dark pants, dark sweater, and slightly subversive shoes (the Steve Jobs). Neither of those is really much of an option for me, although if push came to shove I’d don the turtleneck and sandals.

Math for fashion

I was seriously ticked off to see the nose-wrinkling contempt with which Salon’s so-called feminist blogger Carol Lloyd dismissed Danica McKellar’s new book aimed at convincing middle-school girls that math is cool, relevant, and learnable. It’s so depressing to realize that the fundamental bases of feminism are still mysterious to so many who should know better.

The thing that particularly seems to have aroused Lloyd’s ire is McKellar’s suggestion that girls who study math can get high-paying jobs which might enable to them to buy luxury goods such as designer clothes. This, Salon asserts, is a “sexist formula” — a spoonful of consumerist sugar meant to disguise the fundamentally “unsexy” medicine of math. So there’s the gauntlet thrown: in this corner, a female mathematician who talks to tween girls about expensive clothes, cooking, and high-paying careers; and in that corner, a female writer who doesn’t particularly like math or the lifestyle of wretched excess it might bring to deluded young women. Who’s the better feminist and who’s the victim of false consciousness here?

Why is it still verboten to talk honestly about the link between girls’ math/science performance, and their chances for long-term economic success — in terms that ACTUAL GIRLS might understand? Anyone with the slightest understanding of human psychology knows that 12 year olds — both male and female — don’t really grasp and valorize abstract professorial concepts like learning for the pure joy of learning. Kids understand tangible stuff: toys, clothes, cars, trips to Disneyland. So why can’t you make an equivalence that might actually mean something to them — like “Hey girls, if you want to wear pretty clothes as an adult, study math!” — without some bluestocking English-major tsk-tsking all over you in the name of moralistic feminism?

Feminism seems to me strongest and most compelling when it provides real economic, legal, and social benefit to the masses. The feminism that leads opposition to genital mutilation, “honor” killings, forced marriage, sex slavery, and spousal abuse is clearly on solid ground. The feminism that brought us voting rights, equal pay for equal work, legal redress for sexual harassment, and great opportunity for public life — hey, big ups ladies. But the feminism of recent days that has managed to get its head up its ass by engaging in endless arguments about the lifestyles of tiny minorities of the most privileged women in the world… that’s not a feminism that interests me.

I want all girls to study math and science, and to be taught it in ways that make sense to them, and to believe they can excel at it. Anyone who does anything practical towards that goal, like Danica McKellar, is getting my support. When Salon’s blogger writes a book about how middle-school girls should study math for reasons other than consumerism — study math to save the world! study math to become a more fulfilled human being! study math because writers don’t build technical societies! — I’ll support her too.


I recently picked up the debut issue of Pink, a new magazine for professional women. The thing that caught my eye was an article called “Get Fired Like a Man”. 🙂 Actually it turned out to be a good article for anyone who is entering the ranks of upper management, about how to negotiate a golden parachute in advance. Cause isn’t that what equality means? — that mediocre executives can be well-distributed among all genders, ethnicities, and sexual preferences? I have a dream! (I’m actually serious — I believe that excellence can take care of itself, so it’s not as good a measure of structural inequality as mediocrity.)

Generally I thought it was a good magazine, but… just once I’d like to read an article about a female businessperson that doesn’t mention her marital status, hairdo, and whether she goes to her kids’ soccer games. I do not give a rat’s ass about any business leader’s private life, male or female, except insofar as they have quirky hobbies like playing ice hockey or building replicas of the Titanic out of toothpicks. And when I flip through Business 2.0 or Fortune, they maybe have a single article per issue about work-life balance — not ten articles. In fact, I would like to see an article called “Blow Off Work-Life Balance Like a Man”.

Actually, one of the most innovative features of the magazine is that they take the line that female execs should “get over it” in their relationships to service providers — who may happen to be other women. For example, just get a housecleaner and stop guilting yourself out about it. Or just send a young associate on an onerous weekend trip instead of going yourself — hey, it’s an opportunity for brownie-points for him/her. Or just make your executive assistant come in at 9AM to open up so you can roll into the office at 10 when you prefer. Or if push comes to shove, make your younger employees go without health insurance so you can get yours first. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with any of these ideas, but it’s fascinating that someone needs to tell women it’s OK to do things like this — things that amount to using your power to make your life better, even if it means throwing off on other people, because you are creating more value than they are. I’m not sure men anyone to tell them that using power for your own convenience is one of the upsides of getting older and more powerful. 🙂