Category Archives: technology

Web Women Weekend

^ top: the finer points of CSS – Tara and Elena in my kitchen Increasingly frustrated with the low visibility of women in technology in Italy, back in June I and a few like-minded ladies hatched a plan to start doing something about it. The first step was to get together. So I invited them Read More…

^ top: the finer points of CSS – Tara and Elena in my kitchen

Increasingly frustrated with the low visibility of women in technology in Italy, back in June I and a few like-minded ladies hatched a plan to start doing something about it.

The first step was to get together. So I invited them all up for a weekend at our house (sent Enrico off to visit his mother – yes, he is a supportive husband!).

Turnout was not as large as I had hoped (the house could have slept 14 or so), but those who came were motivated – most had to be, to trek all the way out here.

Friday night it was just me, Tara, and Elena. It had been a long week for us all, so we ate dinner, watched a movie, and went to bed.

The next morning I woke up early (as usual) and got to work cooking (while my computer was compressing video for Sun). Tara and Elena eventually wandered in and set up their laptops on the kitchen table, working separately and together on this and that. It was oddly comforting to have them there while I cooked (usually a lonely activity for me); I’d like to have girl geeks in my kitchen more often!

The crew gradually assembled and introduced themselves:

  1. Tara Kelly, founding partner of PassPack
  2. Elena Franco, aka Delymyth, sysadmin
  3. Silvia Cavallon, a former colleague of mine from Incat days, now a tech support manager for HP
  4. Sara Rosso, Internet Services Manager at Ogilvy Interactive
  5. Sara Maternini, corporate blogger and event manager for San Lorenzo, who kindly furnished us with a six-pack of Franciacorta (Italian champagne-method wine)
  6. Celia Abernethy, web designer/builder/programmer and owner of MilanoStyle
  7. Susan Quercioli, a manager of technical projects and people
  8. me

Talk flowed, mostly informally, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t sharing useful information.

There were the expected horror stories:

  • Every woman in Italy knows that being married and in età fertile (of childbearing age) is an enormous handicap in finding a job. It is perfectly legal for a prospective employer to ask your age and marital status (indeed, many job announcements specify the age range they will consider). Italy’s generous maternity leave law has backfired: no one wants to hire a woman who may go out to have a baby, costing the company money. And there are no real protections against discrimination of any sort in the Italian job market.
  • As in many other countries, women in Italy are paid less than men for the same work (and all Italian salaries are low against European averages, especially considering the cost of living here). One of the group, upon requesting a raise, was asked: “Doesn’t your husband earn enough to support you?” As if her work was just a hobby! The reality is that most women in Italy who work do so because their families need their income as much as their husbands’, so, yes, we need (as well as deserve) equal salaries.
  • We see our male colleagues getting jobs, raises, and promotions based on their skills at self-promotion as much as or more than for their actual abilities or work accomplishments – and getting paid more for doing less than we do!
  • And on, and on…

So, yes, there is plenty for women in IT in Italy to be unhappy about. But we didn’t get together just to bitch. The point of the weekend was to discuss what we can do to help ourselves, each other, and the larger community of girl geeks in Italy.

Under Sara Rosso‘s (welcome) leadership, each of us described what we hoped to get out of this event. These included:

  • “How should I write my curriculum to reflect my real-world experience, especially since I don’t have the formal qualifications that companies think they need?”
  • “I’m a female manager in a male world, and I think I can see better, let’s call them more ‘feminine’, ways of managing people. But in my job I don’t have any role models I can look to for advice or examples. I’d like to have someone to talk to about my ideas.”
  • “I’ve been badly underpaid in my career, partly because I find it hard to negotiate, partly because I don’t know the Italian market value of my skills. Where can I get information on salaries and freelance rates, and advice or training in how to negotiate?”
  • “I wanted to change jobs, but I didn’t know enough about possible Italian employers to tell which companies I might actually like to work for.”
  • “It’s great to know that I’m not the only woman in high tech in Italy, and not the only one to deal with these issues. When can we meet again?”

^ Sara Rosso and Susan Quercioli [Susie Q?]

Sunday morning the first-round attendees left, to be quickly replaced by:

  1. Enrica Garzilli, Sanskritist and journalist
  2. Ruhama Zayit, software engineer at TVBLOB
  3. Bruna Gardella, Senior Analyst at Etnoteam Spa

More useful experiences and information were shared (as well as an Indian lunch that I cooked).

At the end of the two days, we had some next steps:

  • Set up an online community where we can discuss and plan. For the time being, this is a Yahoo group.
  • Though we did not explicitly say so, one of the aims would naturally be to get more women to join this community – if you want to join, head on over and ask!

Possible projects for the community:

  • Periodic social events – aperitivi, Girl Geek dinners. A monthly aperitivo in Milan will probably start in November (2nd Tuesdays), organized by Lisa Morris of TVBLOB. And we’re discussing a date and a speaker for the next Girl Geeks Dinner.
  • Practical workshops where we can learn skills we feel we are lacking. One specific suggestion was negotiation – ideally, with role-playing to help us learn how to do it. We need to share info on where we might find people to do such workshops and how we would finance them (e.g., a good friend of mine is the Italy coordinator for the Open University, which might be interested in doing something relevant).
  • Job bank? At the very least, we can start sharing information on jobs we’re aware of via the Yahoo group.
  • Salary bank, with a wide range of both men’s and women’s salaries and freelance rates (in Italy), to help us see how we’re doing and price future jobs and freelance work. Bruna told us that Il Sole 24 Ore already runs quantomipagano.com, which looks very useful but does not cover freelance or contratto a progetto rates. Perhaps we can persuade Il Sole that it’s in everybody’s interest for them to expand their database to include this info. Who has a contact there?
  • Events calendar. Sometimes we don’t go to technical conferences or barcamps because we feel overwhelmed by the vast majority of men there. A shared calendar will let us track events we might be interested in, and encourage each other to go.
  • Speaker lists. Another reason we don’t go to events is because we’re not represented among the speakers – we get tired of being talked at by men. We can develop and maintain a list of women qualified, willing, and able to speak on various technical topics, and, um, gently suggest them when we know about events being organized.
  • Many of us don’t have women technical colleagues we can talk to at work, so we would like to both give and receive mentoring (on specific questions or for general support and advice).

Having this nascent supportive community of women in IT is already proving useful. Had I met Bruna a year ago and talked with her about some Italian IT companies she’s familiar with, I might not have been so much in despair about my job prospects in Italy. Celia said that, had she known us three years ago, she might not have abandoned the web business she enjoyed (and in fact she’s now thinking about getting back into it!).

Your thoughts and contributions welcome!

FemCamp Bologna 2007: Sessions & Reflections

In the afternoon I attended some sessions, though I missed the most popular presentation of the day, Iocelopiulunghismo (“Mine’s-the-biggest-ism”), by Elena and Feba, a funny and ironic look at (male) bloggers’ obsession with their (blog) statistics. I poked my head into Andrea Beggi‘s unfortunately-titled presentation on “Blogging for Ladies,” but the room was so crowded Read More…

In the afternoon I attended some sessions, though I missed the most popular presentation of the day, Iocelopiulunghismo (“Mine’s-the-biggest-ism”), by Elena and Feba, a funny and ironic look at (male) bloggers’ obsession with their (blog) statistics.

I poked my head into Andrea Beggi‘s unfortunately-titled presentation on “Blogging for Ladies,” but the room was so crowded I couldn’t stay. I hope and assume that he intended the title to be tongue-in-cheek, but it was risky, and evidently a number of people did not take it as ironic. After what was apparently a useful bunch of technical how-to’s on getting more traffic to one’s blog, he came in for some flak about “what makes you so sure women want more traffic to their blogs?”

If this comment was really made, it was more than a bit silly. There are indeed private blogs intended for specific, closed audiences (e.g. one’s family), and hopefully the people who write them are smart enough to make them accessible only to the desired readers. But anyone else who’s blogging probably does want to be found and read – if you blog and nobody reads you, have you truly blogged at all?

I attended a session on women in the open source community, basically a report of statistics which, while I had not heard them before, did not surprise me in the least. I knew instinctively that women are a small percentage of the people working on open source software (I can remember seeing only one on my particular beat – storage – in the OpenSolaris.org forums). The interesting question is: why are there so few? One possible answer (given) is that people tend to do open source work in their free time, which women have less of than men (this is not fair, but that’s a topic for another time).

Something was said about technologies designed by and for women, a concept that wasn’t clear to me. In that context, we certainly weren’t talking about recipe organizers. Marzia responded with an example, Cercatrice di Rete (“Web Searcher”, the word searcher being in the feminine in this case), which she explained in more detail the next day at the E-Wit conference. It’s a search engine tuned to highlight women’s issues, e.g. searching on violenza returns results related to violence against women.

I suppose it’s one more example of a vertical search engine. I may be missing the point but, if I wanted to research “violence against women”, wouldn’t I just type that in? And if I needed immediate resources to protect me against an abusive spouse (the example Marzia seemed to have in mind), I would probably search on something more to the point, like: “how to murder your husband and get away with it.”

When it was my turn to present, I was disappointed that few of the younger women I’d seen at the camp were in the room. I was aiming mostly at them in my talk Fuori dagli Schemi – Aneddoti e Lezioni di Una Carriera Insolita (“Outside the Box: Anecdotes and Lessons from an Unusual Career”). I was afraid that what I had to share would be obvious to career women closer to my own age (well, okay, in their 30s), who seemed to be the bulk of my audience.

But several friends were present to cheer me on, and everyone seemed enthusiastic in spite of my quavering delivery in unusually shaky Italian (a result of nerves plus jet lag). If you want to hear it, go to this page and look for my name (towards the bottom), and click video at the end of that line (actually, it doesn’t sound as shaky as I had feared, though the grammar is not perfect).

Afterwards one woman told me she had needed to hear my admonition to “make sure the people who count know about the work you’re doing”, because she, too, had suffered from accomplishments that went unnoticed.

There wasn’t time for discussion, unfortunately, so I missed the opportunity to raise the question of what next steps the group could take for us women to help each other in our professional IT careers. I do have some ideas, though, which I’ll be discussing shortly in these pages.

Lele then got up to introduce a group of “cheerleaders.” I was about to rip his head off – the idea that my “go get ’em girls” talk should be immediately followed by sexist, male-pleasing bullshit was just too much. Then I realized that he had been asked to introduce a presentation I’d been curious about, “Save the Cheerleader, Save the World,” on gender in the fan communities of Heroes. Lele had gotten the wrong end of the stick in introducing the three young women doing the presentation as cheerleaders – the cheerleader referred to is character Claire Bennett.

One of the three did a good job of presenting the research carried out by a (mixed gender) group of students at the University of Urbino, but we didn’t actually hear any conclusions: those will be presented in a video to be posted on YouTube. It’s a pity her two colleagues didn’t get to speak, and I wasn’t sure of any of their names as Lele made a joke of them. But I appreciated that they had stood in the audience and smiled at me through my own presentation – I hope they gained something from it (e.g., don’t let someone else do all the talking for you, even if she’s female). later – I know at least one of them did: she left a very nice comment.

Amanda then gave a well-researched presentation on women in IT in Europe. That ties in well with what I heard the next day at the E-Wit conference, so I will talk about it in that context, in a future article.

Organization

There’s been a lot of bitching about how hot and crowded the venue was. In fact there would have been a lovely and capacious alternative venue, the one used for E-Wit the next day, in quarters shared between the Women’s Library of Bologna and the University of Bologna’s Department of Visual Arts.

However, as Federica (one of the organizers) explained to me, Internet access there was so hemmed about with firewalls that it would have been impossible to stream the video which allowed people from all over Italy (and the world) to follow the event live. Many of us present had also attended RitaliaCamp, hosted at a branch of the University of Milan which turned out to be very grudging in allowing attendees network access, to everyone’s frustration. (Hyper-bloggers gasp like fish out of water if cut off from Internet access for more than 15 minutes.)

The organizers of FemCamp opted instead for via San Felice, and, thanks to a sponsor, were able to provide the best wireless coverage anybody has yet seen at a camp in Italy – lack of which would surely have been cause for complaint at the other venue (note to conference organizers: you can never please everybody).

Fixing the “iPod Won’t Unlock” Problem

I belong to the “don’t have anything to lose” school of electronics repairs. Six months ago I was profoundly irritated that my new-batteried iPod suddenly wouldn’t respond to its buttons. It could still play if attached to a computer, but that didn’t do me much good, so I had to replace it with a new Read More…

I belong to the “don’t have anything to lose” school of electronics repairs.

Six months ago I was profoundly irritated that my new-batteried iPod suddenly wouldn’t respond to its buttons. It could still play if attached to a computer, but that didn’t do me much good, so I had to replace it with a new iPod.

Or did I? Yesterday I ran across the old one in one of my boxes of “I’ll do something with this someday” electronic junk and thought “Maybe I can use this as a travelling extra hard drive.” I plugged it into my laptop and, sure enough, it was still perfectly recognizable by the system. I was able to delete all the data from it and reinstall the iPod software, though this did not fix the non-response problem.

I couldn’t do the usual iPod three-finger-salute to reset it because you first have to click on and off the lock button and, no matter which way I slid it, the lock symbol on the display remained on. The problem was clearly mechanical: the iPod wasn’t responding to the lock button.

I did a Google search and found an old post by danah boyd, whose blog I read regularly, but it’s not usually technical in that way: she had issued a cry for help with her own iPod. She ended up having hers replaced, but it was still under warranty – I didn’t have that option.

The numerous comments, however, provided my answer: a mechanical problem admits of a mechanical solution. Some suggested banging (well, tapping) it on a table, others pressing on the case until the two parts re-aligned properly.

I had a better option: I had kept the plastic doohickeys used to open the iPod to replace the battery as described above. I ran one of them around the join of the case at the top, where the button is. I heard a loud, satisfying click – and the iPod lit up, ready to play.

Help in Saving My Hands

Now and then I suffer from RSI (repetitive stress injury), from too much time on the keyboard: my fingers feel stiff and painful, arms and shoulders get tired, and so on. I know I should move around more, type less, etc., but when I’ve got a lot to do, it’s hard to know when to Read More…

Now and then I suffer from RSI (repetitive stress injury), from too much time on the keyboard: my fingers feel stiff and painful, arms and shoulders get tired, and so on. I know I should move around more, type less, etc., but when I’ve got a lot to do, it’s hard to know when to stop.

Now I have something to tell me when to stop: a piece of software called WorkRave, which I started using a few weeks ago. Wow! It really is something to rave about. It’s a well-behaved little utility that sits in the background and monitors your keyboard useage. You set it to remind you to take a break at fixed intervals; I have set “microbreaks” (60 seconds) every 15 minutes, and a ten-minute break every 45. During the longer break it even suggests helpful exercises you can do, though I’m more likely to go for coffee, talk to colleagues (or, if at home, put in a load of laundry, start dinner)…

Prior to installing WorkRave, I had pictured myself as too easily distracted – always jumping up to go to the bathroom, go for coffee, or do household chores. Now I’m surprised at how quickly those 15- and 45-minute chunks fly by. Heeding the reminders to take a break does seem to be helping my hands, too – I feel worse on days when I’ve chosen to Skip or Postpone them too often.

If you spend too much time on the keyboard and your body is letting you know it (or better, before it does), I highly recommend installing WorkRave. And the price is right: it’s open source.

2013: Two years ago I switched to the Dvorak keyboard layout, which helped far more than anything else I’ve tried in a long history with RSI.

Long-Distance Working – A Tale of Two Companies

Old Days, Old Ways: Adaptec When I began working for Adaptec in 1995 (as a result of their acquisition of Incat Systems, the company which created Easy CD), I was already a remote worker. Fabrizio Caffarelli, who had founded Incat in Milan, had moved himself and the engineering staff to California in late 1993 with Read More…


Old Days, Old Ways: Adaptec

When I began working for Adaptec in 1995 (as a result of their acquisition of Incat Systems, the company which created Easy CD), I was already a remote worker. Fabrizio Caffarelli, who had founded Incat in Milan, had moved himself and the engineering staff to California in late 1993 with the goal of selling the company. In the meantime, though still living in Milan, I needed to work closely with engineering staff to document, test, and help to improve our software products. I began travelling to California regularly, but most of the time I worked from home, keeping in touch by phone and email.

Nobody at Incat had a problem with this, but the concept was foreign to Adaptec back then. In 1995, they had not even had email for very long because (so I was told) the company’s executives had resisted, fearing it would be "a distraction" (they may have had a point).

Adaptec at the time did not have any employees working permanently offsite, and they were not about to make exceptions for an unknown quantity like me so, in spite of my clearly-stated preference to become a "regular" Adaptec employee, I was taken on only as a contractor.

Adaptec’s employee benefits would not actually have been all that interesting or useful to me (e.g., I didn’t need US health insurance). However, although even the regular employees had California-standard "at will" contracts, I suspected that, as a contractor, I was more vulnerable than they to cyclical layoffs.

Some people at Adaptec even treated me as an outsider – not realizing (or perhaps resenting) that, to the CD-recording world, I was the face of Adaptec online.

On one memorable occasion, a customer reported to me that he had phoned tech support, quoting me on some technical question.

"Oh, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about," responded the tech. "She’s just a consultant."

I also had the uneasy feeling that, even among some of the people I worked most closely with, I wasn’t perceived as being part of the team, nor as being serious about my career. Part of the reason I started an MBA (via distance learning, of course!) was to demonstrate that I wasn’t just an over-privileged housewife.

While I was doing one of my first MBA courses, an engineering colleague from Adaptec’s Longmont, CO office, Dan Maslowski, came up against a personal situation: he was perfectly happy in his job, but his wife had been offered the opportunity to open the European offices of the (Web) company she was working for.

Dan’s boss didn’t want to lose him, but wasn’t sure how to deal with a remote employee. So they talked to me, as an example of how it could be done, and Dan eventually moved to the Hague while still working for Adaptec. We were a mutual support society of two, commiserating on how difficult it was (and still is) to schedule phone conferences when you’re eight or nine time zones away from everyone else. I even wrote him up as a case study for my MBA course.

My own situation with Adaptec endured, but several changes of manager back at headquarters increased my sense of vulnerability, frustration, and alienation. From some perspectives, I had an ideal job: I could set my own hours (as long as those included lots of late-night phone conferences), and was largely managing my own work and that of two other contractors, all of us working from our respective homes.

But I was at a career dead-end. It was clear that, with Adaptec, I could never become a regular employee, let alone have a career path, as long as I was off-site. I was good at what I was doing, but had been doing it long enough to be getting bored. I could see things that (desperately) needed changing to make life better for Adaptec’s customers, but I would never be in a position to make those changes happen.

Hence my attempted move to California in 2000-2001, to participate in the Roxio spin-off. I wanted to help define, from the ground up, how a new company would deal with its customers, using the Internet as a tool for support, marketing, and relationship-building via customer communities.

I planned to move my family to the US for a year or two – long enough, I hoped, for me to launch a career and then find a way to move back to Italy, where my husband had his own career that he was not willing to give up.

That didn’t quite work out. The whole Roxio situation went sour for me, and I returned to Milan in March, 2001 – back to the same situation in which I had previously felt so vulnerable, alienated, and frustrated.

All those same adjectives still obtained, redoubled. The (ridiculously good) money was not enough to overcome my misery, especially when my mother-in-law was diagnosed with breast cancer. I didn’t think I could handle a major family crisis while hating my job every day. I quit in July, 2001. (My mother-in-law was successfully treated for the cancer and is still living; Roxio is no longer with us).

A New Dawn: Sun Microsystems

Corporate practice and technology have naturally moved on, and working remotely no longer seems as strange or difficult as it did ten years ago (although in Italy it’s still highly unusual). Having suffered through the early days with a resistant employer, I am now delighted to find myself working with a company that gets it.

Remember Dan? He ended up working for Sun Microsystems, where he’s currently a Senior Engineering Manager. When he realized in February that the new position he had just taken on entailed responsibilities for part of a website, he thought of me.

I knew nothing about Sun, except that Dan worked there and I liked what I could see of his management style. He had even left Sun for AMD, then gone back to Sun, and they’d kept his company blog waiting for him. This is standard practice at Sun (10% of whose ~33,000 employees have blogs open to the public), and is a subtle indicator of the company’s relationship with its people.

Obviously, Dan was asking me to join him knowing that I live in Italy and, though very willing to travel, this is where I’ll be staying. It didn’t occur to me to ask whether this would be a problem; his answer would have been: Of course not. His team was already spread across time zones from Silicon Valley to Beijing, so managing one more person in one more location wasn’t going to make much difference to him.

Arriving at Sun’s offices in Broomfield, CO for a first meet-and-greet visit in March, I astonished to learn that practically all of Sun is like this: teams seem to be formed on no geographical basis whatsoever, and many Sun employees work from home, wherever home may be. According to an official company statement I heard in an online presentation for newbies, at least 50% of Sun employees work from home at least one or two days a week.

This point was made most forcefully for me when I read the first blog post from Deb Smith, a Director in the software group I’m working for. Go read that now and you’ll see what I mean. As soon as I read it, I thought: I’m in the right place. The whole company is built for what they call OpenWork, with all the right systems – and, more importantly, attitudes – in place to make it work well both for the company and its employees.

This is probably a factor in the large proportion of women who stay with Sun – I’ve never seen so many women in an engineering organization!

And it’s not just the women: practically everyone at Sun seems to have been there for at least ten years (the company celebrates its 25th anniversary this year), with no intention of leaving. Upon getting to know Sun a little better, this does not surprise me at all. Sun demonstrates that it values its people, and understands the importance to those people of all aspects of their lives, not just their careers. That sounds like an organization I’d like to stick with.

what qualities do you look for in an employer?