In mid-January I came across a link to a story about a new book by Random House called Barbie I Can Be…A Computer Engineer. As you know, I travel with a Computer Engineer Barbie (@data_model) and Venus Barbie (@venusbarbie) in my work advocating that girls take more STEM courses. So let’s say I have a strong interest in making sure my wonder girl Barbie has a great book.
But the story said that the book actually put Barbie in not so great place. So I bought the book and read it. And it made me cringe. I read it a few times and decided it needed to be fixed. Or in Computer Engineering terms, it need to be refactored.
So that’s what I’ve done. In this review of Barbie I Can Be…A Computer Engineer, I will point out the parts that set a lousy role model for girls and offer suggestions on how it can be refactored to make it better. Just like in software refactoring, I’m not going to change the functionality of the book, but I’m going to improve the
code words to leave it better.
And to make it easy for you to fix you copy, I’ve included a Refactoring Computer Engineer Barbie PDF. You are welcome.
Synopsis (SPOILER ALERT!)
Barbie is working on a design for a new puppy computer game when her laptop catches a virus. Luckily, she wears a heart USB drive around her neck and has backups of her files. So she uses her little sister’s (Skipper) laptop to try to retrieve the files. Oh, CURSORS! she has infected Skipper’s laptop, too. She promises to make it all right and rushes off to school to ask her computer teacher (who is a female!) how to fix it. Her teacher gives her some tips and Barbie heads to the library to get get both her data and Skipper’s data back. She gets two friends to help and they get it done. Skipper, with her restored data, makes an excellent presentation in her class where she says that Barbie is the person she most admires. Cue tears. Barbie presents her game in computer class. She does such a wonderful job, her teacher even gives her extra credit.
Well that sounds Awesome! Isn’t it?
Sounds like a great story with good female leadership, doesn’t it? Female teacher, Barbie and friends fix the problem, Skipper and Barbie give great presentations. We need more great females to speak, right? Well, just like in database design, the Devil is in the details.
Unfortunately, some of the details really make it look like Barbie is more of a Booth Babe than a Computer Engineer. This is making the IT community cringe. Twitter is blowing up with campaigns to get the book removed from shelves or to get Random House to fix it. Well, I’m going to save Random-House the effort by
fixing refactoring it for them. It’s one thing to raise the issue, but as a designer-architect-project manager-methodologist-computer engineer, I just want to FIX it.
Let’s start with the first troublesome passage:
Computer Engineer Barbie Laughs and is Needy
"I’m designing a game that shows kids how computers work", explains Barbie. "You can make a robot puppy do cute tricks by matching up a color blocks!"
"Your robot puppy is so sweet," says Skipper. "Can I play your game?"
"I’m only creating the design ideas," Barbie says, laughing. "I’ll need Steven’s and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game."
That last line is a problem. First, saying “I’m only” makes it look like design work is some how lesser than building. I know there are some techs out there that would agree with that, but it’s still not true. In fact, in technical professions, the designer / architect is the senior position on the project. Secondly, she is laughing this line, as if it is hilarious to think that Barbie can build something. Finally, Steven and Brian are recurring characters throughout the I Can Be… book series. They are friends and friends help each other. But this passage seems to reinforce a position that boys build, girls draw.
So I’ve refactored this passage by changing out that line with this one:
"Not yet," explains Barbie. "I need to finish the design then work with Steven and Brian to turn it into a game."
See how that says basically the same thing, but it doesn’t devalue Barbie’s design work? It also reinforces the more realistic situation that teams work together to make a product. Barbie doesn’t “need help”; she is part of a team to get it done.
Steve and Brian Will Get It Done Faster
After class Barbie meets with Steven and Brian in the library.
"Hi guys!" says Barbie. "I tried to send you my designs but I ended up crashing my laptop and Skipper’s, too. I need to get back to lost files and repair both of our laptops."
"It will go faster if Brian and I help," offers Steven.
This last line could be interpreted that Steven and Brian, not Barbie, can get this done faster. I realize this is just one interpretation and the intention could be that if everyone works together, we can get it done faster. We know in software engineering this may or may not be true – in form of the Mythical Man Month. But in general, three people fixing two laptops might make this all go faster – debugging, troubleshooting, copying files and those sorts of things typically do turn out better with more people at the desk.
But I’m still concerned about the fact that the less generous interpretation could be that boys can fix things; girls just come to them with their problems. So I’ve refactored this to say:
"We can all work on this together; it will be faster," says Steven.
The work continues with this on the next page:
"I got Skipper’s assignment from the hard drive!" exclaimed Steven.
"Fantastic!" says Barbie. "And her other files as well?"
"I got everything," says Steven. "Now let’s retrieve the files from your hard drive. Both laptops will be good is new in no time!"
It’s here where the dialogue really makes it look like Steven did all the work and Barbie waited anxiously for the results of his work. So I’ve refactored these to show Barbie being more engaged in the process. Not just the Holder of the Compact Disc.
"We’ve got Skipper’s assignment from the hard drive!" exclaimed Steven.
"Fantastic!" says Barbie. "Let me get her other files as well!"
"Great! Now we’ve got everything," says Steven.
See how Barbie has a more engaged role here? No confusion about her fixing this problem, too.
One More Thing…
One of the key things that an engineer should do when disasters happen is to ensure that it never happens again. One of the steps missing from this story is making sure Barbie and Skipper’s laptops are safe from future viruses. So I’ve added a new line to a passage:
The next morning Barbie gives her sister a big surprise. Skipper turns on your laptop – and it works!
"My lost assignment! cries Skipper. "You are just too cool, Barbie. You fixed my computer and saved my homework!
"I set up new security software on both laptops to make sure this doesn’t happen again," exclaims Barbie.
Skipper gives Barbie a huge hug.
You can’t just retrieve the files; you have to ensure those pesky viruses don’t come back.
How Do We Fix the Book, Though?
I fixed my copy by refactoring the printed pages. You can do that, too. I’m sharing the Refactoring Computer Engineer Barbie PDF I created with the refactored dialogue. Just print it on sticker paper and cut out the revised sections to update your copy of the book. You might also want to head over to read that open letter to Random House, too.
I love my Technical Barbies and I want girls (and their parents) to have great role models in real life, not just with
dolls action figures. So books like this need the Best Practices in their writing. I hope you do, too.
I have another post coming about the computer security parts of this story. But for now, go fix your copy of this book. Don’t leave it sitting around in production, waiting for someone to read it when it’s wrong. Love your Data and Love your @Data_Model.
Recently @VenusBarbie visited Europe for the ILATweetup and SpaceUPEU events. I wasn’t able to go due to other commitments, so Rob had to take over escort duties for our traveling Astronaut Barbie (@venusbarbie | Technical Barbies on Facebook). The truth of the matter is that we humans officially get the invites, but we know that it’s really the space mascots that are wanted due to their celebrity status. Rob also took along a 2D version of Commander Chris Hadfield (@cmdr_hadfield), AKA #Chris2D
I have some other photos to share, but the set I found most interesting were those with European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli showing Rob how to ensure that Barbie’s hair is just right before a photo shoot:
I guess all that centrifuge training she did at the DLR comes in handy when she hangs with other astronauts.
Once VenusBarbie was set, then all four (Rob, Paolo, VenusBarbie and Chris2D) were ready to pose.
Good job, men. And @VenusBarbie.
For more than a decade I’ve worked on teams that accredit college and university programs in computer science, information systems, and technology. For the most part the criteria we use for computer science programs has been traditional: algorithms, programming, math, software engineering, components and architectures, models of computation, analysis of algorithms, fundamentals of program specification and verification, computational complexity, automata, etc. There are requirements for humanities and other subjects, but it is rare to see programs remain unaccredited if they were missing them. A sample set of criteria can be found on the CIPS website.
One of the things that annoyed me during computer science accreditation visits were the all too common references to women not being able to succeed in CS programs. When I’d ask why, I was usually given one of these types of answers:
- Women are incapable of thinking of complex topics
- Women just don’t want to learn computer science
- Women don’t want to study in programs where they are outnumbered
- We’d have to dumb down the programs too much (see point 1).
It took all my might to simply record their responses and not fight it out. I figured their answers might be a reflection of their program administration and management than of the women they are running out of their programs. For instance, a computer science program chair told me directly that if he had to dumb down his program enough to get women to stay, "no one would be able to log in". Tell me what sort of rewarding student experiences the females in his classes have on a daily basis?
Applied vs. Research Programs in Computing
One of the issues computer science programs have is managing the fact that they often exist as a research program but many students are more interested in studying computing at an applied level. In other professions, applied means just that – learning to apply sciences in a practical, real world environment. Other professions produce professionals just that way: lawyers, doctors, engineers, teachers. For the most part, they study in applied programs. But in the research world, applied is the equivalent of dumbed down. So many computer science programs are designed to produce researchers even though the vast majority of students are there not to become researchers, but practitioners. And yet most women are drawn to professions where they can see a direct link to studying and working on projects that will change the world.
I was thinking about this while speaking on the #SQLSat157 San Diego WIT panel this past weekend. When I got home, I found this great interview with Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College: Q&A What Women Want in the Communications of the ACM. One of the questions was exactly what I experienced when choosing a program of study all those years ago:
You’ve talked before about the importance of teaching practical applications from the start, rather than waiting until students have mastered the building blocks.
We know from research that for women and minorities, the attraction of computer science is what you can do with it. It doesn’t mean they are not interested in complexity theory or other esoteric parts of the field, it just means that that tends to be the driving motivation. And in our experience, it’s not like women take one course or go to the Hopper conference and say, "I want to be a computer science major." It’s more like, you take one course or go to the Hopper conference, and you take the next course. And then you take the course after that, and by then you’ve taken three courses and you’re going, "Oh, I’m actually good at this, and it gets me summer jobs. Maybe I should be a CS major."
The curmudgeon computer science chair and his colleagues also had thoughts on programs that shifted their marketing and delivery, but not their content, to appeal more to women and minorities: it was cheating. As an IT professional, I say "Let’s cheat, then". Let’s ensure that computers science and other technology programs can step up their game to be more appealing. As a business person and someone who interviews candidates for jobs, I want to see people who understand theory AND application of it all. Cost, benefit , risk and all. Saving the world. Making a difference.
Information systems and technology programs are generally applied programs of study. However, we tend to see them as lesser siblings of computer science. Maybe we shouldn’t, especially as employers for organizations that don’t directly hire researchers.
Do we need theoretical, research-only computer science programs? ABSOLUTELY! But we also need IT professionals who can fit solutions into a corporate environment. One that can’t just think in terms of theory. And I want a more diverse, educated workforce available to hire from. Not just for the numbers, but because we get better solutions. But in order to get this, our programs of study need to step up.
This past weekend I attended SQL Saturday San Diego, AKA, #SQLSat157. This was my first time speaking at this event and I want to give lots of thanks and kudos to the organizers for putting on a fine event.
Because I arrived in town early to meet with friends from both the space and data world, I was able to visit the San Diego Air and Space Museum. It was fitting that it was the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s Rice University speech on space exploration:
There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
Not only is this fitting for motivating a generation to invest in space exploration, it’s fitting for professional development work, too. We attend and speak at SQL Saturdays not because it’s easy, but because we need goals to serve to organize the best of our energies and skills. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been inspired to learn something new because I saw a fellow community member demonstrate how it could help make life for end users or co-workers better. And SQL Saturday gives me a full day of these sorts of workshops and demos…all for free. How great is that? It means giving up a Saturday and for those of us who travel to speak, 2-3 days plus expenses. And yet every time I leave one, I think "That was so worth it".
I spoke three times at this SQL Saturday: DB Design Throwdown, the Women in Technology Panel, and Career Management for Data Professionals. Between those, I was able to see just a couple more sessions. I really enjoyed Lynn Langit’s (@lynnlangit | blog) NoSQL for the SQL Server Developer. Lynn did a fabulous job explaining the differences between SQL and NoSQL technologies, as well as demoing MongoDB and cloud-based technologies. You should spend some time on her blog; she has a lot of great stuff with plenty of videos and demos.
I also had the pleasure of being on the WIT panel with Lynn. This panel, moderated by Tara Kizer, focused mostly on how we can energize the next generation of girls (and boys) to be interested in IT careers. Lynn is doing some fabulous stuff over on http://teachingkidsprogramming.org, where she and her partner, Llewellyn Falco (@llewellynfalco | blog ) are building a framework for, well, teaching kids programming.
I talked about the importance of talking with girls in your life, which is my usual homework assignment for attendees. Having someone in the IT profession share the fact that the industry isn’t just about typing and programming can make a real difference to a girl who just needs to hear that IT professionals can make a difference in the world. In fact, I have another blog post coming up soon on that topic.
Download the Database Design Throwdown: The Trailer presentation.
Download the Career Management for Data Professionals presentation.
I was interviewed by Shannon Kempe of Dataversity.net about my career and my experiences being a woman in technology. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the diversity issues in technology and all STEM sectors. Unlike some, I don’t think we need to see the diversity of the general population reflected in the technology world, but it does bother me that we see so many classes of people underrepresented. I tend to focus on the gender classification, but that’s not the only group of people missing from our team.
I also talked about people who think that there is no issue, or that continuing to work to ensure that obstacles are removed is wasted effort — either because there is no problem or that working harder at your job is a better solution.
My interview is part of series about women in Data Management. Check out the interview and let me know what you think. Are we wasting our time working towards a more diverse IT workforce?
I know I work in a man’s world. Women make up a small percentage of technology professionals, but I’d like to see that changed. Rob recently came across this report from the Ontario Labour Relations Board about a dismissed elevator company worker who had appealed his case to the board. One of his defenses was that his behaviour was acceptable because there were no women working on the job site and therefore his behaviour should have been okay. In other words: it was a man’s world.
Wait until you read about the behaviour…Okay I should tell you to swallow that swig of coffee and put your mug down, first.
The responding party dismissed the grievor from employment when a video posted on the internet showing the grievor with his genitals exposed and his scrotum being stapled to a 4 x 4 wooden plank came to its attention.
Did that get your attention? It did mine. I’d like to hope that it wouldn’t have been just females who thought that this act was inappropriate for the workplace. In fact, the outcome of the hearing reaffirmed the dismissal and the behaviour was deemed to violate the company’s workplace harassment policy. Think about that. A guy who was stapling himself was harassing others.
Boys Will Be Boys?
Part of the former-employee’s defense was that the lunchroom where this happened was an "all male environment" and that this sort of thing happened on the show Jackass…basically that boys will boys. This reminded me of a recent article from Business Week about the new trend for companies to recruit and hire Brogrammers. These are anti-geek, all-male teams of programmers who like to "bro down and crush code". I guess because that is "better" than being a geek. I left a comment on that article in case you are interested in reading my opinion about companies who want to recruit only brogrammers.
But back to our elevator guy…
Some of the other wonderful things that took place in this broworker environment:
One individual (not the grievor) was offered $60 gathered from the people in the room if he ate the spoiled food. He did and received the $60. The grievor explained that someone watching what had taken place said after the money was paid, “what are you going to do to top that next week?”
The following week, the grievor suggested to the individual who had eaten the spoiled food that he would collect money from the group if that individual chewed off the grievor’s rotten toenail. Some $75 was collected from about the same number of people. When that individual chewed off the grievor’s rotten toenail, the $75 was paid to him.
Again, you’d think that gender had nothing to do with whether or not this behaviour was acceptable, but it was a part of the defense to state that this sort of thing happens when guys get together. In fact, it turns out this might not have been issue until someone posted a recording of the stapling to the Internet.
There was no evidence that any one who witnessed the incident first hand was offended by the grievor’s conduct, the applicant pointed out. To the contrary, both the grievor and others were cheering. It was only after the video was posted on the internet that the grievor’s conduct became an issue and the grievor was not only not responsible for circulating the video so widely, he had sought to have it removed.
One of my favourite findings:
I agree with the grievor; exposing his genitals and permitting his scrotum to be stapled to a wooden board was not only inappropriate behaviour, it demonstrated a great deal of stupidity.
And in case you are worried about whether or not you need to update your organization’s workplace policies:
In my view, any reasonable employee would recognize that exposing one’s genitals and having one’s scrotum stapled to a 4×4 wooden board on the employer’s premises and permitting that conduct to be recorded on a video is patently unacceptable in almost any workplace particularly when the employer of the employees involved can be easily identified. An employer, in my view, need not establish and promulgate a policy prohibiting that kind of behaviour.
I’ve also been in workplaces where there is a lot of harassment going on. It’s always a tough decision as to whether I should just say "boys will be boys", to ask people to stop, to leave the room, or to escalate the issue. I think I’ve only ever once escalated an issue and it just about killed me to do so. But someone else was being bullied and she nor I could get the bullies to stop. In the end, she had to leave and find a job elsewhere. It’s tough to be the person who feels a workplace has become hostile.
What I learned from this case:
- Your team members will have a huge range of opinions about what they think is acceptable behaviour and what isn’t.
- You are bound to cross that line or witness that line being crossed at some point in your career…or even many times.
- Sometimes speaking up isn’t about complaining…it’s about stopping something stupid from hurting everyone.
- Just because no one has reported you now, doesn’t mean someone isn’t going to report you in the future.
- Your activities in The Office matter because they reflect on the reputation of the company.
- If there’s a camera around, the pictures and the video will end up on the internet. Act accordingly.
- I’m going to bring my own stapler to work from now on.
I’m wondering, though, where the team crossed the line, in your opinion. Was it at the eating of rotten food? The toenail thing? And was the behaviour more acceptable because there were no women in the room? I really want to know what you think.
I’m glad the Board felt is behaviour was unacceptable even though there were no women around. It’s difficult find the balance between "it’s all fun and games here" and "until someone gets hurt". But I think I’m really clear on this point: staplers are for paper only.
It’s International Women’s Day. Yes, we get one day a year to celebrate our ladyhood. Or something like that.
I used to snicker at meetings, classes and events focused on Women in Technology (WIT). The thought of sitting around in a room full of women complaining about how hard it is to work in a man’s world did not appeal to me. To think of rallying around a cause for pay equity drove me crazy because I had never met a woman who had ever asked for a raise. I still have met only 2 who have told me they have done this. I thought that WIT issues were only about man-hating and failing to ask for what we deserved. Then an amazing thing happened. I was asked to serve as a national spokesperson for the CIPS Women in Technology program. I really didn’t want to do it, but agreed because I wanted to help.
Why was it amazing? Because I found out that most WIT initiatives aren’t about male-bashing and waiting for someone to make our lives better. One specific cause that made me "get it" was the fact that girls who are interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) don’t pursue studies in these areas because we, society, are constantly throwing obstacles in front of them. That got me going. I had experienced the same things:
- A high school guidance counsellor who told me that I did not want to pursue a career in a man’s field. That I would be lonely amongst all those guys and never feel at home. Wow. Was she wrong.
- A series of really terrible math teachers. And by terrible, I mean a couple who were very vocal about a female’s inability to succeed at math…high school math. Teachers who were also coaches who really didn’t want girls in their classes.
- Family members who didn’t really want me to study science. My grandmother told me it would be better to marry an engineer than to be one. So I did both.
- Messages from all around me that pretty was better than smart. That pink is the only colour for girls. That boys do fun things and girls take care of them.
So in my time as WIT spokesperson, I was able to see that we have a huge problem in society that the majority of the population is being discouraged from studying STEM and pursuing STEM-related careers. Sure, no one should be forced into these careers, but it makes me mad to see smart, highly-capable girls being steered away from professionally and financially rewarding jobs.
Recently the Girl Scout Research Institute released a report, Generation STEM: What Girls Say about Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. In the executive summary, they outline their findings:
These findings, we believe, will lead to more comprehensive solutions to the underrepresentation of women in the STEM
workforce. We found that:
- Seventy-four percent of high school girls across the country are interested in the fields and subjects of STEM.
- Girls are interested in the process of learning, asking questions, and problem solving.
- Girls want to help people and make a difference in the world.
- Girls who are interested in STEM are high achievers who have supportive adult networks and are exposed to STEM fields.
- Girls who are interested in STEM fields are actually interested in many subjects and career opportunities—STEM is just one area of interest among many.
- Perceived gender barriers are still high for girls and may help explain why STEM fields aren’t their top career choices.
- African American and Hispanic girls have high interest in STEM, high confidence, and a strong work ethic, but have fewer supports, less exposure, and lower academic achievement than Caucasian girls.
This research can help to change the discussion on girls and STEM by offering a much needed
strength-based perspective focusing on what contexts are most supportive for girls. We hope
this research helps to take the conversation to the next level by focusing on how to use girls’
interests to cultivate career plans for them in STEM fields.
So girls do have an interest in the subject, they do want to work in these fields, but something stops them. That’s what I talk about on WIT panels. The number one question I get from people opposed to WIT programs is "why should we force girls into something they aren’t interested in" The answer: we shouldn’t. But research like the GSRI report shows that many girls who say they aren’t interested don’t have a clear image of what our careers are like. Others have an interest, but don’t believe they can or don’t believe they should. This is a huge problem for the IT industry and for the economy. More than half of our workforce is female, but things are getting in the way of them preparing for, entering and staying in the IT field. I want to motivate those of us in the IT profession to actively do something to remove these obstacles, one misconception at a time.
You Can Help
You have the power to do that. Talk to the young women in your family. Tell them how great it is that you still have a job and your company is still trying to fill open positions. Tell them about work you do that is making a difference in other people’s lives. Talk to their parents about how important it is that they ensure their girls have a great math teacher or tutor. Ask your local user group, DAMA Chapter or SQLSaturday why they didn’t have a WIT panel. Volunteer to be on a WIT panel — yes, even you men. If your local user group doesn’t allow men on the WIT panels or events, ask them why they think this is only a female issue. Start people talking about why they think WIT is an issue or not. Then share the facts with them. Volunteer to speak at your schools. Take a girl to a museum. Let your daughter shop in the "boys" toy aisle, too. Speak out when someone says that giving girls career options is forcing them to be less female. Talk to people about this post. Leave a comment. Share it. Get people thinking about the WIT issue as a problem for all of us.
You can make a difference. One person at a time. Do it.
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