The Power of a Position

Bryan Cantrill is Senior Vice President of Engineering at Joyent, a cloud infrastructure company. Like many tech companies, Joyent has a management team made up of mostly white males. Unlike some tech companies, Joyent (via Cantrill) recently came out with a strong statement in favor of the power of a pronoun – a gender-neutral one, to be specific.

Joyent is a sponsor of node.js, an open source platform for building web applications. Recently, an engineer at Joyent wrote some code to remove gendered pronouns from part of the node.js project. Another contributor rejected this modification, calling it a “trivial change” and displaying a lack of concern or awareness of the importance of how people are addressed in a software application. The modification was eventually reinstated, but not after plenty of discussion (and a revert of the approval of the pronoun change).

The details of the issue aren’t as important as the fact that a tech company was a) able to recognize that gendered pronouns might be a (non-trivial) problem and b) willing to take a very decisive public stand on the issue, going so far as to say a programmer who rejected the change would have been fired. Listen to the conviction in Cantrill’s writing:

On the one hand, it seems ridiculous (absurd, perhaps) to fire someone over a pronoun — but to characterize it that way would be a gross oversimplification: it’s not the use of the gendered pronoun that’s at issue (that’s just sloppy), but rather the insistence that pronouns should in fact be gendered. To me, that insistence can only come from one place: that gender—specifically, masculinity—is inextricably linked to software, and that’s not an attitude that Joyent tolerates.

It gets even better:

…we believe that empathy is a core engineering value.

Holy iPhones! An engineer explicitly recognizes that people, not just code, might actually matter. Stop the compilers, it’s time to raise some funds for this company. Seriously, though, I recognize that coding is a sufficiently difficult endeavor without worrying about pesky people, too. But code is generally written to achieve something that matters to people – especially if pronouns are involved. Losing sight of the human element of software is a surefire step toward building an application that might “work” – but won’t actually help anyone.

Compare this with Truceconf, a well-intentioned but shortsighted effort to create a more open dialogue in the tech community (it’s not directly related to the node.js incident, but that incident. This seems like it’s shaping up to be a conference that may happen – but may not actually help anyone. Inspired in part by many women’s negative experiences at tech conferences/companies, Truceconf says its goal is “to help the tech community heal, through learning from others outside our industry and having an open dialogue and on how we can be better humans to each other in the world of tech.” That’s an awesome goal – and note that it’s predicated on something very similar to the idea that empathy is an engineering value.

But folks are bristling at the concept of Truceconf for a couple reasons. One is the very notion of “healing” or a “truce” between two sides substantiates the notion that both might be right or need healing, when the “side” that is assaulting or excluding people is clearly in the wrong. Jacob Kaplan-Moss clearly reveals the problematic nature of giving equal voice to “both sides,” especially when one side is composed of sexists, racists, abusers, and harassers. This is a crucial point that hearkens back to the notion of empathy. Those behaving without empathy – without humanity – can’t be tolerated, much less welcome, in any community.

The second problem with the conference is that it seems likely to fall into the all-too-familiar scenario of serving as Feminism/Racism/Sexism/ism 101 for those who haven’t been paying attention (or reading Skepchick). As one person tweeted, “My real gripe with trucecrap is that it’s just code for ‘don’t yell at us for being ignorant and clueless while we ask 101 questions-conf.'” Truceconf may be a “solution” – but it’s not a solution for both “sides,” if sides exist. It’s only an opportunity for the people who need to be educated to finally open their ears. It’s not a new opportunity for the people who have been calling for empathy and understanding all along, only to have those calls fail to compute with their colleagues.

Another interesting layer to the situation is that the Truceconf organizer actually works for Github – the very place where the recent gender neutral pronoun code modification was rejected (and later reinstated). So what if Github were more like Joyent and took a real position on the issue – as a company, not just a charity? What if Github did a blog post about the acknowledged gender and geographic inequalities in its contributor base? Heck, what if Github or another company held a HumanConf – a conference dedicated to how software matters to real people?

Because these are not special issues that need to be sectioned off from the code base. These are integral parts of working with and for other people. Just because you work with code doesn’t mean you don’t work with people – you’re writing code that makes something for someone to use. It’s time for more tech companies to take a position – and not one that involves increasing isolation from other humans.

StrongLoop, which employs (and was actually founded by) the developer who rejected the gender neutral pronouns, took a position – that the guy made a mistake and needs to learn: “Ben made a mistake by not understanding how important the gender pronoun change was in the pull request.” And that’s a pretty okay position to take. Mistakes do happen. But it’s also important to understand the difference between a “mistake” and an unwillingness to acknowledge that another person may exist or have a worthy position on a topic. Because those are two totally distinct things.

So: What’s your position?

Fifth position image from quinn.anya on Flickr


Kerry is a longtime skeptic and technology enthusiast, currently in recovery from too many years spent working in enterprise software. She still believes in the power of technology to do good, when used judiciously. Find her on Twitter or Google+.

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  1. Sequence of events brings context that’s relevant to the example you’ve raised here. Clarifications, in chronological order:

    Alex Gaynor is an employee of Rackspace (not Joyent). He created a proposed documentation change (not code change) for software related to node.js (not to node.js) The proposed change was to 2 instances of “he” (into “they”) and 1 instance of “him” (into “them”).

    That particular software project has been written by more than 90 people, and is very widely used. A project of that size typically has only a few people with the power to transform a _proposed_ change (which Alex’s was) into an _accepted_ change; i.e. something that’s actually incorporated.

    Github isn’t directly involved. It’s a service that is being used for managing this software’s development.

    The project itself is sponsored by Joyent, and a Joyent employee is the Project Lead.

    The co-founder/employee of Strangeloop has contributed a lot of code to the software. He is one of the people who has the power to accept proposed changes (such as Alex’s) into the software. The Strangeloop employee rejected the proposed change as “trivial”. Normally that’s where a scenario like this ends.

    However, a large number of software engineers raised objections to that decision. Others voiced support for the decision. Discussion among respective sides grew heated: https://github.com/joyent/libuv/pull/1015

    The software’s Project Lead was alerted. He accepted Alex’s proposed change. That is, it got incorporated after all. The Project Lead then stated ‘”They’ is ‘singular gender-neutral’ in english, has been for centuries. Libuv is intended to be used on all major operating systems, and by all genders.”

    The Strangeloop employee reversed the Project Lead’s action, i.e. removed it from the software. Discussions among software engineers remained heated.

    The Strangeloop employee’s reversal action was then overrided, restoring the 3 gender neutral pronouns into the software.

    Neither Joyent or Strangeloop had been directly involved up to that point. Afterward, Joyent posted to their blog post about it. Then Strangeloop posted about it, as well as Joyent’s post. Those two posts are the ones you’re referring to. They are responses to a situation, not sparks to it.

    While it’s been a learning moment for a lot of people, facts of chronology and company roles are context to the post here.

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