Archive for May, 2007

Hitting a Brick Wall

Thursday, May 31st, 2007

There are days when I feel as if I will never understand the Japanese language – and today is one of them. I think I’m tired. I’m struggling with counting systems and numbers. The Japanese have many ways to count objects and the way that you count books is different from the way you count months, or people, or small round things. The word for a number can also change depending on the context. I’ve been trying to learn these but when my teacher starting talking about the system for counting cars I wanted to just bang my head off the table.

Coming from Europe Japanese is hard to learn. I was in Holland recently and was shocked at how well I can follow a Dutch conversation. But it’s not that surprisingly really. I’ve been hearing Dutch sounds for 17 years, I studied related European languages, I did take a Dutch course at some point and living in Japan is teaching me to listen very carefully when people speak. Unfortunately, Japanese is not related to any language I’m used to listening to. The only way for me to guess the meaning of something is to use context. I find it easier when reading as I can take my time looking over the whole sentence and piece together a meaning. But there are lots of times when people speak that I don’t understand a single word. That happened yesterday when a sales assistant approached me in Gap. I really don’t know what he said or even what language he said it in. It didn’t sound like either English or Japanese. We ended up standing smiling at each other until he backed away from me with an embarrassed look on his face.

Not being able to speak Japanese can make simple tasks daunting and difficult tasks become the stuff of nightmares. I received a letter from the health service telling me that I should arrange a visit to my local clinic for a smear test. Well, there is a situation full of words that I don’t know or even know how to begin asking someone to explain.

I did learn today that I was born in the 47th year of the Showa Era and that this was the year of the rat. I’m supposed to be charming, honest, ambitious, and have a tremendous capacity for pursing a course to its end. Let’s hope that’s true or I will never master this language.

Virtual Teams and Conflict Resolution

Wednesday, May 30th, 2007

Everyone knows that when you bring a group of people together to work on a project that there will be conflict. In the workplace how this conflict is resolved will have an impact on the success of any team. Small group theory shows that there are five main ways that teams deal with conflict: avoidance; accommodation; competition; collaboration; and compromise.

Competitive behaviour can be seen when one person tries to force their views on the other members of the team. It also happens when one member of the team is more interested in their own goals than those of the teams and as a result starts to withhold information or become very negative about any solution that isn’t their own. Not surprisingly this has a negative impact on the team causing friction and division which stops the team from bonding and results in poorer team performance. What I’ve been fascinated to learn is that competition can actually be beneficial in virtual teams.

Why should this be any different in a virtual team?

There are a variety of different ways to show your competitive nature, for example the tone of your voice, your body language, and the actual words you use. In electronic communication these social cues are removed and it’s much harder to tell the emotional state of the writer. If I write an email stating “I don’t think that solution will work” it could be seen as a very reasonable response. If I’m talking to you in person and I say the same thing in a terse voice while looking at you as if you are a complete idiot, my response is going to have a negative impact on you. So while I may exhibit competitive behaviour all the time it may not be perceived by the other team members when only electronic means are used to convey it. If the team members don’t perceive the behaviour it doesn’t have a negative impact on them.

This shows why the negative impact of the behaviour is lessened but why does it actually become beneficial?

It happens because we mistake it for something else. We think that the person is participating more in the team instead of recognising them as someone who has their own agenda for the team. It doesn’t cause the same division or resentment.

Mind you, it’s just as well that this behavioural trait doesn’t have the same impact on virtual teams as it does on co-located teams: it’s much easier to show your competitive side when you have a computer to hide behind.

Listening: an important management skill

Tuesday, May 29th, 2007

Today I’ve been reading about listening skills and how we convey our interest and attention. To be an effective manager you need to spend a lot of your time listening to your team. When someone is speaking it is important to show your interest because it is one way to form and build a relationship.

Body language is a key element to this. One aspect of that is eye contact. It is important to use the correct amount of eye contact, though it’s very difficult to tell what the correct amount is. Too much eye contact and you are going to make the listener think that you are threatening. Too little eye contact and you are going to appear as if you aren’t actually listening at all.

This is a complex enough area when you are dealing with people from the same culture. From various things I’ve read it appears that the British are taught to look into people’s eyes when they listening. People who don’t do this can be considered to be untrustworthy or unfriendly. Of course they could be just be shy. However, in Japan it is considered rude to look into the eyes of someone who has a higher position than you do – whether they are your boss, your teacher, or your elder.

If body language is so important in showing that you are interested and actively listening to someone, how do we deal with this in the virtual workspace? Many people now interact with their team mates primarily through electronic means. When you are talking to some one over Skype, how can you tell if they are listening to you? Does this make it much harder to manage a virtual team because you are missing one of the tools for relationship building?

Female Role Models in Technology

Monday, May 28th, 2007

For the last few days I’ve been thinking about the reasons why there are so few women in the Open Source or Free Software communities. I have asked female system administrators why they don’t want to attend the meetings of their local linux user group. They make going to a group like that sound as likely as getting one the guys from the linux group to go and have a pedicure or to enjoy going shopping for clothes. Not impossible but unlikely all the same.

I have accepted for a long time that women just don’t want to do these things and haven’t really seen it as a problem. But now I want to know why. What is it that stops a woman for even going once to see what it’s like? Why do they automatically think it’s something they wouldn’t enjoy?

A lot of research has been carried out in this area as it isn’t just me who wants to know this. There are many different reasons cited but one I’ve never thought about before is the impact of role models. I have a 13 year old sister and she’s quite happy to tell me that when she grows up so wants to be like Jordan or Nicky from Big Brother. This horrifies me. But it’s not that surprising since the media is full of stories of celebrities and their glamorous existences.

Looking back on my childhood the strongest female role model was that of Margaret Thatcher. She showed that a woman could become the leader of the country. But the things I remember most about her was that everyone seemed to hate her and that she was described as the Iron Lady and supposedly had balls of steel. Well, I wasn’t quite sure what all of that meant but it certainly didn’t seem like something I wanted to aspire to when I grew up.

The Information Technology Association of America released a report [pdf] in 2003 which stated the following:

Underrepresentation of women and minorities in IT leads to the inevitable “vicious cycle” of fewer professional role models for those who wish to enter the IT profession. The Panel believes that the scarcity of adequate role models and mentors has a direct correlation to the perceptions that female and minority candidates will develop about IT. These candidates may tend to view the profession as lonely and isolated or may find assimilation into mainstream networks of companies difficult due, in part, to a lack of common interests or a sense of just not belonging.

When my little sister thinks about what she wants to do when she grows up she doesn’t think about going in IT. To her it’s full of geeks and weirdos like her brother-in-law and her sister’s friends. Because of the generation she is growing up in she is much more aware of computer technology than I was. She spends hours on bebo and MSN. But she sees a computer as a communication tool and not something that she needs to understand. In the same way that I had no interest in how the phone worked when I was 13.

I don’t know what can be done to change the perceptions that woman have or to provide them with role models that they will aspire to be like. But I am starting to realise that although I expect to be accepted by any community of technologists that many woman do not feel this way.

Left Out in the Cold

Sunday, May 27th, 2007

I realised today that it’s less than a month before YAPC::NA. It’s strange but I don’t feel in anyway connected to the conference. This could be because there is no associated blog. As there is no feed to let me know when anything has been announced I end up just forgetting about the whole thing entirely. And when I go to the actual site and the first thing listed in “what’s new” is “site updated” I really don’t feel any the wiser. I also didn’t receive an email when my talk was accepted. It seems that you were supposed to find out by looking at the conference schedule on the web-site. I wasn’t expecting this and I’m still a bit surprised that I haven’t heard anything regarding slides or written materials.

I have also found their wiki hard to use as I haven’t been able to find a way to search it. Maybe there is a way but it isn’t obvious to me. I also only found out that they have a mailing list because one of my friends mentioned it to me in passing. I couldn’t find anything about this list on the conference web-site. I did subscribe to the mailing list today as I took the time to look for it in google. Reading through the archives for the past month I discovered that Damian Conway has had to cancel. I was really looking forward to seeing him in Houston.

This is the first American YAPC conference I’ve been to since 2001 and I feel as if there are lots of things I would know if I had been to more recent conferences.

TLUG Spring Madness

Saturday, May 26th, 2007

Today Marty and I went to the TLUG barbeque. It was one of those events that I wish I had brought my camera for. I really wasn’t expecting the games they decided to play. I was standing talking to two guys who were pretending to be from Scotland (the strange things people do once they’ve had some beer) and they starting talking about the games and how we were going to toss hard drives. I thought they were joking and making some reference to tossing cabers. But no we were really going to toss hard drives.

A red hat was put down on the grass and two teams – vi and emacs – were formed. The idea was to see which team could toss a hard drive closest to the red hat. I believe that vi won. Then they had debian -v- gentoo. This progressed to shot putting hard drives.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any stranger they announced a new game that involved removing all the alphabetic keys from a keyboard. Marty took part in this and ended up cutting his head as he decided to try head butting the keyboard to remove the keys. It really didn’t work. Neither did breaking the keyboard in half, or as Erin tried, smashing up the keys with your fist. And smashing up the keys spoilt the next game which involved putting all the keys back in the correct order. Marty, being the smart ass he is, put his back Dvorak style.

Infomercials: A tool for learning a new language

Friday, May 25th, 2007

Everyday I try to spend about 30 minutes watching Japanese TV. At first I tried watching the news or dramas but I found it much too hard to understand anything that was being said. I then thought I would try watching children’s programs but found it even more frustrating when I couldn’t understand these. I didn’t mind not being able to understand the news but to not be able to understand a word of Thomas The Tank Engine really made me feel stupid.

But I have found the perfect thing to watch – infomercials. I’m not overly fond of these and some are so badly made that they make me cringe but they have a number of properties that make them the ideal thing for me to watch.

The first of these is repetition. They keep repeating the price and the benefits of their product. They also repeat phone numbers and URLs. I really need to hear Japanese phrases repeated as I usually miss the meaning the first time I hear them. The repetition of numbers is also really helping me to understand the numerous Japanese counting systems.

The second is overacting. Everyone overacts in an infomercial. But this makes is really easy to see what sort of thing they are trying to tell you. Today I watched one advertising the roomba. I got to see lots of poor put upon housewives having to brush their floors by hand to suddenly have their life changed beyond recognition simply by having a robot that could clean the floors for them.

I also watched one that showed a sachet of herbs that would completely change the taste of all the food you cooked. This one was great. They had a panel of five people all showing different types of food and exclaiming about how delicious everything was. This contained examples of the food and it also printed their Japanese names beside them. From this I got to learn some of the Japanese names for food that I see all the time. And all the panelists repeated the same phrases regarding how good the food was.

The third thing that really helps is that they focus on one topic. In a normal TV program the topic of conversation wonders all over the place and can be really hard to follow. But in an infomercial they have one thing to show off and one simple goal – to make the watcher want to pick up the phone and order their product.

I have wanted to buy anything yet but I’m really glad that I’ve found something to watch that does seem to be helping me learn to speak Japanese.

When in Japan…

Thursday, May 24th, 2007

Today, for the first time since I was five years old, I went out carrying a parasol. And yes I did feel stupid. Being very fair I usually have to wear sun block on my face and I really don’t like it. So, I’ve decided to try the things that Japanese women do to protect their skin.

Parasols are very popular in Japan. The shops carry a large selection of them and nearly every young woman I saw today was carrying one. They aren’t like the parasol I had as a child. I think the only reason I remember my parasol was because my mum thought it was an umbrella. I can remember the one day that I took it out. It was made of cotton and the rain came through it. And the blue dye ran all other my arms, face and clothes. The labels on my new parasol claim that it will protect me from both the sun and the rain.

My tutor arrived this morning carrying a parasol and wearing a hat. I also bought a hat and the second time I went out shopping I decided to try that instead of the parasol. I preferred the hat to the parasol but it felt really strange wearing a black floppy hat with jeans. It’s the sort of thing I would wear to a wedding.

It’s going to take me a while to get used to it but today my skin hasn’t been burnt and also hasn’t been irritated by sun block. Maybe by the end of the summer I’ll think that everyone should have a parasol.

Is Sexual Discrimination Really an Issue in the Perl Community?

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2007

I’ve been reading the comments on Jono’s post regarding discrimination and a couple of them are asking for actual examples of sexual discrimination in their communities. I’m a member of the Perl community and I was trying to remember if I’ve ever had a problem with sexual discrimination. My first thought was that I haven’t at all. And then I occurred to me that maybe once, and I mean once in seven years, that assumptions were made because of my sex.

I went to register for a YAPC conference I was speaking at. The person in front of me was also a speaker and during the registration process he was given a ticket to the speaker’s dinner. I wasn’t given one when I was registering so I asked if I could have one. The person who was doing the registration looked at me and said “Oh I thought your husband was the speaker”. When I said that actually it was me that was speaking and not Marty I was given a ticket to the speaker’s dinner.

This did annoy me and made me rant a bit at the time but it’s the only personal example I can think of. Any other problems I can think of really can be explained by the fact that in any group of people there are going to be some that don’t like each other. It’s nothing to do with sex and everything to do with personality clashes and differing opinions. I really do think that sexual discrimination is low down on the list of things that are causing problems in the Perl community.

Discrimination Against Women in Technology

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2007

Jono has been writing about discrimination and in particular discrimination towards women in technology. This is a subject that I have mixed feelings about. I don’t believe that anyone, male or female, should be treated badly simply because of their gender but I do think that it’s very hard to treat men and women in the same way as they are different. I’ll give you an example. As part of my job I used to have to move computer equipment between labs. Some of the men who worked with me found it very difficult to let me carry heavy equipment. Was this sexual discrimination or mere politeness on their part? Or was their reluctance to let me lift things something I should have been annoyed at or something that should have pleased me?

I also get concerned because we often overlook the fact that woman can discriminate against other women. I can remember working on a team at ICL were it was very noticeable that the woman on the team would only ever ask the men for help if they had a problem with their computer or printer or any other piece of hardware. They never expected a woman to be able to help with these things and I couldn’t quite work out why. But I did get the impression that they thought that if they didn’t know how to fix the computer another woman wasn’t likely to know either.

I also worked in a couple of schools and on more than one occasion found myself explaining to a female member of staff that I didn’t need to get help from one of the male technicians to fix a computer. They expected me to be equally skilled with using the computers but only when they were working.

I have been discriminated against in the work place regarding my programming skills but I never felt it was because I was woman. My male team mate just didn’t like me. This happens everywhere. You end up on a team with someone who treats you badly, puts you down and tries to make you look stupid. This is wrong but sometimes we are too quick to label this as sexual discrimination if someone of the opposite sex is causing the problem.

I am also guilty of making it look as if I couldn’t do something and needed to get a male member of the team to help. I used to work on a client’s site where women were expected to wear suits with skirts. I never wanted to crawl under a table and sort out cables dressed like that. So, if the problem was under the table I used to go and ask one of the men on the team to come and sort it out for me. The men I worked with knew that I just didn’t want to crawl under the table but I was probably making the customers think that it was part of the job that I wasn’t capable of doing.

I am also not sure how I feel about “women in technology” groups. Every time I hear about one of these I want to know where the equivalent “men in technology” group is. Why do we need separate groups for women? Does this separation promote discrimination? I’ve been to talks at conferences such as E-tech that were promoting women in technology but I usually end up feeling angry. I’ll give an example of a topic that really angered me. The underlying theme was that qualification requirements should be relaxed to allow more women into the software industry. How insulting. Why should the bar be lowered for women? We are every bit as capable as men to getting qualifications. It really offends me to think that any woman would think that other women are somehow not capable. I never want to get a technical job merely because I am a woman. I want to get the job because I am the best person for the job.

As I said at the start I have mixed feelings about this topic and I am never sure how to articulate them well. However, I do think at times I’m treated differently because I’m female but I believe that men and women will always be treated differently. I expect both to be treated with respect.