BraceLand

Catherine Bracy is the Director of Community Organizing at Code for America. Until November 2012, she ran the Obama campaign's technology office in San Francisco where she recruited technology volunteers to build software for the campaign. She also worked on outreach for Tech4Obama, the campaign's technology affinity group. Previously: Knight Foundation, Berkman Center.
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A couple weeks ago, I made my first Instacart order. It was amazing. Some nice lady took my shopping list to the grocery store while I sat on the couch surfing Netflix. A couple hours later she was at my door apologizing because Whole Foods was out of my preferred brand of bottled water.

On Mother’s Day, I was poolside with some friends discussing what we were going to do for lunch. Fifteen minutes later, a nice lady from SpoonRocket pulled up outside my door with hot food for us. As she was handing me my meals we chatted about the fact that she was working a 12-hour shift on Mothers Day because she was hoping to afford to take her kids on vacation soon.

We celebrate what this new economy means for workers—independence, flexibility, higher wages. And we can argue those points (what about health care? what about labor protections?) but no one seems to be asking what it means for us, the ones whose phones have become the little ringing butler bells that summon our ladies maids, our housekeepers, our cooks, our drivers. What does it mean to live a life essentially free from inconvenience? What kind of world are we creating where there’s a class who lifts a thumb and a class that delivers their on-demand service? Have we stumbled into a twenty-first century version of Upstairs Downstairs?

This has been troubling me since that first Instacart order (not that I’ve stopped using it, I’m not THAT troubled), and it was on my mind when I read a recent New Yorker piece about Soylent. I’ve been harping on the fact of Silicon Valley’s woeful isolation and lack of diversity is leading the industry to focus on—and invest heavily in—more and more meaningless things, solving problems that are ludicrously indulgent. Soylent has to be the apex of this trend.

Let’s leave aside the fact that there’s not one single solitary innovative thing about Soylent, and the fact that the founder’s experience of nutrition and hunger extends to him having read a book about it. The problem its founders are solving is quite literally “I’m too lazy to walk to the microwave.” Even SpoonRocket, where nice ladies bring piping hot, prepared meals to your door in under ten minutes, is too inconvenient. We have reached peak sloth—just let me reach over and squeeze the nutrients down my throat, I can’t be bothered to get up to grab a fork.

EDIT: I should make very clear that GitHub does not seem to have been employing holacracy as their organizing model. Instead, Tom Preston-Werner describes it in this talk as “business minimalism.” I was sloppy in equating the two. I do stand by the larger point that these anti-hierarchical models, whatever you call them, don’t deal with power structures effectively. Business minimalism and holacracy both seem to be trying to address the same problem, bureaucracy, without really dealing with why bureaucracies get to be the way they are in the first place. I also edited the title of this post replacing a colon with the word “and” to help clarify.

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A couple weeks ago I was in a conversation with some of my progressive organizer friends about holacracy, the latest fad in tech culture which calls for organizational structures without any hierarchy (ie: managers). Some of them were really intrigued by the elements of empowerment and decentralization at it’s core. I felt differently. Holacracy always smelled to me like a naive reaction to bureaucracy, without really understanding how and why bureaucracies end up like they do. It also has this implicit disdain for people in organizations who are responsible for the softer skills that keep things running smoothly. You know, things like communication, empathy, human resources management, etc. I see these skills getting devalued in the tech world all the time. If you can’t build shit you’re not worth anything.

Watching this debacle go down at GitHub, I’m not at all surprised to hear (from my fabulous colleague Mike Migurski, who explains perfectly why I think holacracy is bullshit) that the co-founder implicated in the story was a believer in the holacratic ideal.

Channeling Marshall Ganz, the absence of structure is a structure in and of itself. When you allow a power vacuum to emerge someone will fill it, and it’s usually the people who have traditionally held power (rich white men). That’s how you end up with stories like this coming out of GitHub.

In the wake of this, I’m starting to think all of the problems we’re seeing with Silicon Valley these days—the ineptitude at politics, the clumsiness with handling inequality in SF, the lack of gender and racial diversity in the industry—are actually rooted in a systemic failure to understand how power works. As we move to an era where tech is central to our culture and economy, smart founders and investors will come to realize that stacking their companies full of people who understand politics and can create healthy cultures is as important to success as having kick-ass engineers.

The problem with management isn’t managers, the problem with management is bad managers. And it’s not hard to imagine that people who don’t understand how power works aren’t going to be very good managers.

A redneck with a cable show said some very stupid and hateful things about black people and gay people. It’s captured the American imagination for the last week and reignited the red state/blue state divide.

Around the same time, the (arguably) most influential investor in one of the highest-growth industries implied that women are intrinsically less interested in being tech entrepreneurs. He has said in the past that people with “strong” accents can’t be good CEOs. He’s been saying crazy shit like this on the regular for a while now (I highlighted one of his comments from summer 2012 in a talk I gave last year). He’s still investing in companies that create a lot of wealth for a few (mostly white, male) people.

Somehow we’ve latched on to the Duck Dynasty guy as the problem. He’s the guy who evokes liberal wrath. And of course what he said is abhorrent, much more viscerally offensive than what Paul Graham has ever said. But here’s the thing: Duck Dynasty guy has close-to-zero actual power in the world. He has a reality show on a cable channel that, prior to Duck Dynasty, was most well-known for reruns of Murder She Wrote. He’s not making decisions about who builds wealth. He’s not making decisions about the future of industries. He’s not deciding who gets to grow a company, making it into the owner class, and who gets left behind. Paul Graham is. That’s where our attention and our anger and our calls for change need to be directed.

The reason bigotry has ever been a problem is because it comes alongside discrimination and unjust power distributions. The Duck Dynasty class of bigot is dying. It’s plain to see (at least to me) that the bigotry they project is wrapped in a desperate cry for their loss of influence. So, frankly, I think we should ignore them. By getting all worked up every time a powerless bigot says something in public we encourage people to think that bias only exists when there are ugly words involved. In a world where that’s how we judge bias, Paul Graham gets a pass. And he and others that think like him will continue to decide who makes it and who doesn’t.




I just got back from San Francisco’s #iMarch event to promote passage of the immigration reform bill, a bill I am fully supportive of including its provisions for high-skilled and entrepreneur visas.

But the arguments I heard made in favor of the bill are extremely problematic, whether it passes or not. 

What I did hear was an assumption that the tech industry is the next big job creator in the US and without these immigrant entrepreneurs our future economy is in imminent danger. I’m willing to be convinced that these future broad-based, middle class jobs are coming but the current  research I’ve seen shows that wealth creation from the tech industry is extremely unequally distributed, and current venture capital is going overwhelmingly to a small, homogeneous elite.

The more problematic theme that came up a couple times was that we needed to figure out a way to explain why these issues were important to people in the “the midwest.” As if the problem with convincing midwesterners it was a good idea for more entrepreneurs to settle in Silicon Valley or New York was just a matter of making them understand. Actually, the reason “the midwest” isn’t taking up the tech industry’s cause is that people in “the midwest” haven’t seen Google or Facebook or Microsoft—or any other tech company for that matter—create many, if any, jobs for them. They will, however, see Ford create 2,350 jobs in my home state, Michigan, alone this year. That’s about half as many people as Facebook employs worldwide.

But of course, the manufacturing economy is living on borrowed time. The knowledge economy is our future. So we need to create innovative new companies, and a 21st century immigration policy is key to that innovation. That’s likely true. But one argument, which I actually heard from a panelist tonight, that is not likely to win support with any midwesterners, is that bringing in immigrants to start companies is actually a better return on investment than having to create that entrepreneur at home. In other words, why invest in education and infrastructure when you can just lure some other country’s educated go-getter to start a company here!!!! I’d like to give that panelist the benefit of the doubt that he doesn’t actually believe what he implied but they didn’t allow any Q&A at the end so I couldn’t clarify.

Look, we need this bill to pass and it’s great that the tech community is fully on board supporting comprehensive reform. But this head-scratching about why we can’t relay our message to the middle of the country is really frustrating. We seriously need to get out more.

There’s been a lot of talk these last few days about Charles Ramsey, the man who is responsible for rescuing the three women who were being held captive in Cleveland (we all know the story at this point). He became an instant Internet superstar, mostly because of this interview he gave to a local TV reporter just after the women were rescued. And predictably there’s now a controversy emerging about just how racist the portrayals of him in the media have been. Now, I’m a good liberal. I usually nod my head in agreement when someone calls out some subtle racist nonsense. But this one I can’t get behind, especially the comparisons to Antoine Dodson. Here’s why:

Ramsey had agency. In fact, I find it really patronizing that all this talk of minstrelsy and stereotyping assumes that Ramsey couldn’t have been in on it himself. As far as I was concerned (and I understand reasonable people can disagree on this interpretation) we were laughing with him rather than at him. The thumbs up, the chuckles, the thing he said about the white girls. Watch that original interview with the local reporter without the sound on and tell me that Ramsey isn’t completely in control of the narrative. Dodson clearly wasn’t trying to be funny.

More important than that, even if white people are laughing at Ramsey and there is some racial animosity below the surface of the jokes (I’m sure not everyone making memes is purehearted) they still have to reckon with the fact that Ramsey is a hero. Dodson wasn’t the hero, he was the man on the street. Through all Ramsey’s performance, he’s telling the story of a ridiculously dramatic rescue that he executed. The guy most people would avoid saved lives, lives of white people! That is sinking in.

In that sense, a more apt comparison might be to Wesley Autrey. Remember him? He’s the black guy who jumped onto the subway tracks in New York—while a train was coming!—to throw his body over that of a young white male seizure victim. Oh yeah, and his daughters were standing on the train platform the whole time. That one still completely blows my mind. (If you have time you should watch the Letterman interview) While he doesn’t challenge our stereotypes the way Ramsey does (Autrey is a family man, a Navy veteran, a construction worker, he gets his hair cut, he has all his teeth, etc.) he still doesn’t fit our image of the hero, especially the hero that saves white people. But that was some Captain America shit he did and it forced people to rethink, even if that wasn’t the dominant narrative.


So, from my seat on the Liberal Committee on How We’re Allowed to Talk About Colored People in the Media (LCHWATACPitM) my vote goes for letting this one just be funny. We don’t have to hand-wring every damn time. First, it’s exhausting. Second, it’s not effective.

It’s a low day for the tech industry: it seems that SendGrid has fired Adria Richards.

For those who don’t know, Adria was at PyCon sitting through a plenary session when some men behind her starting making “dongle” jokes. You get the idea. Adria (who was SendGrid’s developer evangelist), fed up with having to sit through sexist crap at tech conferences all the time, took a picture of the offenders and tweeted it at the conference organizers. She’s documented the exchange with context on her blog though you may or may not be able to see it since last I checked it was under DDoS attack. You can read more at VentureBeat.

There’s an unconfirmed rumor that one of the men Adria took a picture of got fired. That’s when the high-minded defenders of liberty (liberty, apparently, to make sexist jokes in a public and professional environment full of strangers and colleagues) decided this couldn’t stand and started DDoSing both Adria and SendGrid, not to mention threatening her personally.

Before I go further, I’d like to say that we have no way to know the full reason either of these people was fired. This could have been the straw that broke the camel’s back in either case. So there could be many reasons either or both of these individuals is out of a job today (it’s also not confirmed that the man in the picture was actually fired).

But let’s assume for the moment that both of these people, Adria and the man she took a picture of, had perfectly fine employment records and there were no pre-existing reasons that either would have been let go. Assuming that’s the case, it’s a very sad moment for the tech industry when the woman who calls out misogynistic bullshit gets fired and has to deal with death threats and more.

One can imagine a world where SendGrid stood up for Adria. Maybe said something like “the behavior Adria witnessed at PyCon was unacceptable in our industry. We’re proud to have someone on our staff who refuses to remain quiet in the face of such sexist and inappropriate behavior.”

Or at least a world where SendGrid would have been too ashamed to let Adria go based on her speaking out against sexism.


Unfortunately we don’t live in that world yet. The myth of the tech meritocracy is officially dead.

In honor of the dude who asked me last night on BART whether I was “South American or Asian,” (clearly the only two options) I’m reposting something I wrote a few years ago. Some additional thoughts:


1) Asking random people on the train about their ethnic background isn’t really acceptable small talk. I’m not interested in explaining my family tree to you, dude, I’m just trying to get home.

2) In any situation, if you are going to ask someone about their ethnic background, it’s best not to presume what the answer will be. Just wait for them to tell you. And if they blow you off, don’t fucking be offended. You asked kind of a shitty question.

3) Despite my annoyance, I’m kind of jazzed that someone thought I was Asian. Never heard that one before so I can add it to the list. And, since this guy was Asian, it further goes to prove my point that this is mostly about people trying to project themselves onto you so they can figure out how to deal with your ambiguousness. This is my whole theory behind the Obama presidency, by the way, but that’s a whole ‘nother post. Or even a book. Maybe I’ll write it someday.

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American (originally posted November 2009)

 

Stranger: Where are you from?
Me: Ummm, I live in Cambridge?
Stranger: No, I mean, originally.
Me: Well, I grew up in Michigan
[awkward pause]
Stranger: But where are your parents from?
Me: My dad’s from Chicago and my mom’s from upstate New York
[another awkward pause]
Stranger: yes, but what is your nationality?
Me: Uhh, I’m American

At this point, depending on my mood, I’ll either break the news that my mom’s white and my dad’s black (which always disappoints the inquisitor, who’s expecting something much more interesting), or I’ll ask them where they think I’m from (I’ve heard everything from India to Sicily), or I’ll just let the awkward silence hang.

If only I had a dollar for every time I had this conversation. Or for every time an immigrant spoke Spanish to me conspiratorially when we were alone together in an elevator. Or when a white woman told me what a nice tan I had. Or when a black playmate wanted to run her fingers through my hair.

I was bi-racial before it was cool. Middle school was especially hard, with indifferent white kids and openly hostile blacks. Neither one of my parents’ families was accepting of their marriage, and so we grew up without really close ties to our extended family. I’ve only just recently begun to feel like I fit. And yet, despite not knowing how to articulate why, I’ve always felt deeply American. My roots here run deep, going back generations before the civil war. My family’s story has been personally and viscerally intertwined with just about every defining moment of this country’s history—slavery, the black migration north, the labor movement in industrial northern cities, World War II, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, Vietnam.

The Obama candidacy, and the white populist backlash against it, has had a big impact on me. I remember telling my extremely skeptical brother and sister, in July 2007, that Barack Obama was going to be the next president. They thought I’d been living in Massachusetts for too long. I thought they’d been too crippled by their experience in the South. As per usual, I was right. But their warnings about the deeply entrenched racial animosity that’s alive and well were also justified. Recently, Pat Buchanan (one of my all-time favorite bigots) tried to articulate the sense of why “traditional” Americans—working-class whites—felt like they were losing “their” country, as if people like me have no claim to the idea of America. Andrew Sullivan’s response to Buchanan [this is a dead link now] said it better than I could, as he describes his immigrant experience here:

It struck me almost at once, if only in the music I heard all around me – and then in so many other linguistic, cultural, rhetorical, spiritual ways: white Americans do not realize how black they are. Even their whiteness is partly scavenged from the fear of – and attraction to – its opposite. Even something as stereotypically white as American Catholicism, I discovered to my amazement, was also black from the very start. (Yes, those Maryland slaves. If you’ve never been to a Gospel Mass in an ancient black Catholic parish, try it some time.)

From the beginning, in its very marrow, this country was forged out of that racial and cultural interaction. It fought a brutalizing, bloody, defining civil war over that interaction. Any European student of Tocqueville swiftly opens his eyes at the three races that defined America in the classic text. Has Buchanan read Tocqueville? And that’s why it seems so odd to me that the election of the son of a white mother and a black father is seen as somehow a threat to American identity for some, when, in fact, Obama is the final iteration of the American identity – the oldest one and the deepest one. This newness is, in fact, ancient – or as ancient as America can be. The very names – Ann Dunham and Barack Obama. Is not their union in some ways a faint echo of the union that actually made this country what it is?

That’s what’s so offensive about Buchanan’s position. Not that he recognizes the loss of influence of some white Americans, but that he deems irrelevant the contributions and American-ness of people like me.

I was always hard-pressed to articulate my patriotism in a way that didn’t sound like I was channeling Sarah Palin. It’s definitely not cool to admit that you get teary-eyed on the Fourth of July or that you have a crush on Alexander Hamilton. But Sullivan’s characterization puts a finger on what I had yet to figure out—my identity is tied to this country’s history. I am here because of it, and my family has both benefited from its opportunity, thriving as a result, and been savagely oppressed by its demons.

When I travel to foreign countries, I always expect to be able to blend in. After all, everywhere I go in the US I’m mistaken for whatever ethnic fetish happens to strike someone’s fancy. But for some reason, before I even open my mouth, people tend to know I’m American. Maybe it’s just my American eyes and wide smile, but I tend to think it’s more than that, that I embody the character of this country, all of its good and bad, promise and shortcomings. And the last time someone told me I had a nice tan, I put on my American smile, looked them in the eye, and said thank you.

I imagine everyone in my orbit is reading this article from the Sunday Times Magazine today (if they haven’t already). I was skeptical going in because I thought it was going to be yet another attempt to give credit for Obama’s victory to technology. But pretty quickly it’s clear that the writer is using technology as a metaphor for what’s really wrong with the GOP: their ideas suck. David Plouffe, unsurprisingly, drops knowledge:

Pouncing, he replied: “Let me tell you something. The Hispanic voters in Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico don’t give a damn about Marco Rubio, the Tea Party Cuban-American from Florida. You know what? We won the Cuban vote! And it’s because younger Cubans are behaving differently than their parents. It’s probably my favorite stat of the whole campaign. So this notion that Marco Rubio is going to heal their problems — it’s not even sophomoric; it’s juvenile! And by the way: the bigger problem they’ve got with Latinos isn’t immigration. It’s their economic policies and health care. The group that supported the president’s health care bill the most? Latinos.”
Plouffe readily conceded that he and his generation held no iron grip on political wisdom, but then he flashed a grin when I brought up the R.N.C.’s Growth and Opportunity Project, composed of party stalwarts. “If there’s a review board the Democrats put together in 2032, or even 2020, and I’m on it,” he said, “we’re screwed.”

I often get the sense that Republicans (at least the ones in power) don’t actually know anybody who’s different from them. And so while it’s self-evident to David Plouffe that Hispanics might care about things other than immigration, Republicans trot out poor Marco Rubio as the answer to all their problems. Just recycle the same tired ideas but do it in Spanish—you’ll be fine!! It’s really no surprise to me that the Republicans who are trying to bring their party back from the brink all live in cities where they have to interact with other human beings and at least consider developing some sort of empathy. I really hope they succeed because our country is much better off with a Republican party that comes back to the middle than one that goes off the cliff.

I’m going to say something controversial: I do not want to write code. I’m eager to learn the basic concepts of computer science, if only for my own curiosity and to understand the how and why of software, but I don’t have any burning desire to build software myself. However, over the the last couple years I’ve become increasingly insecure with my lack of coding skills, to the point where I sometimes feel unqualified to work in this space without learning.

A lot of that insecurity is personal, but I think another big part of it is the rising trend of elevating the engineer. Let’s call it the Cult of Engineering (CofE) for shorthand. In the Bay Area at least, we can’t turn a corner without people telling us how important engineers are. There is more and more talk about universal coding literacy. And the rise of the brogrammer and shows like Bravo’s Start-Ups: Silicon Valley can only be a function of the Cult of Engineering.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I feel strongly that we need more people getting into the engineering game (especially women and minorities!). And I love my engineering friends and colleagues and think it’s imperative that we expand engineering thinking into more sectors (hence my work at Code for America). But I worry that the CofE is having unintended consequences, like:

1) Subjugating non-engineers/programmers to second-class status, devaluing skills like relationship-building and communication. Whether we’re willing to admit it or not, human networks are still vastly more important than technical ones. And the most important new technologies are simply platforms to make it easier for humans to do what they do: talk to each other. Communicating, building consensus, and organizing are all non-negotiable elements of any world-changing undertaking including technology endeavors. We should be fostering and elevating these skills as much as we foster and elevate engineering.

2) Making it more intimidating for women and minorities to come into the tech space. If the ability to code—or the deep desire to learn—becomes a de facto prerequisite to being a part of the community, are we making the barrier to entry too high? And are we discouraging groups that are already disproportionately susceptible to self-doubt?

When tossing this around with some friends, I got really great feedback. Here’s what resonated with me:

  • This is a supply and demand issue: If engineers weren’t such a scarce resource we wouldn’t see this phenomenon.
  • It’s likely no coincidence that the positions that get devalued are jobs that are often seen as “women’s” work BUT it’s important to remember that men are also affected by this. There are men who don’t want to code, and there are also male coders who feel unqualified sometimes.
  • Everyone does not need to code, but everyone should have the opportunity to learn.
  • We suffer from a failure of language: Techies and non-techies often don’t know how to talk to each other, and it’s got less to do with a lack of technical skill on one side (or a lack of social skills on the other) as it has to do with a lack of shared reference points. Which leads me to my next point,
  • And, my personal favorite: we don’t all need to know how to code but we should all understand the basic principles. I wasn’t born to be an engineer and that’s ok. But it’s not ok for me to be in conversations with engineers about what they’re working on and have no interest in the basic elements. It seems like there was agreement that you should at least know if what you’re asking an engineer to do is a complex thing or an easy thing.


So, to that end, we started to put together a list of resources for people who don’t necessarily want to learn how to code but want to know enough to have some credibility. Here are a few I’m digging into:

  • Of course, I started with the Wikipedia entry on Computer Science because it’s the best place to start digging into ANYTHING.
  • Lisa Williams has a ridiculously valuable list of resources geared toward journalists, including Comp Sci 101 classes from Khan Academy and Harvard.
  • My search on Coursera shows 61 returns for “computer science” courses. I’m checking out this Comp Sci 101 from Stanford.


Once I feel like I have the landscape down I may start digging into a language. But I’ll never be an engineer. I’ll probably never build any piece of software that anyone else uses. I’m (getting better at being) ok with that.

marihuertas:

It was a tongue-in-cheek joke on the campaign trail, and I smiled about it for a while – the recurring meme about the “bearded” Obama Technology team, a group of dudes who wore flannels and didn’t shave and didn’t care at all about either, thankyouverymuch. I smiled about it because it was true,…

Mari was my sister-in-arms on the campaign. Really glad she wrote this.