I write this as a privileged white cis woman, or at least that’s what I look like, with my blue hair, ivy league education and house in San Francisco. I have compound privilege, so what I describe below represents an easy life.

I work in the tech industry.

I started programming when I was twelve. My first commercial software was a Mac application. People bought our software and we sent them a box with a paper manual and some floppy disks. I thought sexism was something I would only experience from old men and young jerks. There were a lot of messed up things in the world, but on this point I thought my generation was cool.

Now I work on distributed systems. People fill out a web form and enter their credit card and then just start using our software. It runs 24×7 on computers all over the world.

We write good code. We have tests that run automatically when we change anything, and extra checklists when we make something new. We still write bugs, and even if our code were perfect, it runs on hardware that can fail. So we create data centers with redundant systems, and just in case there’s a storm or earthquake, we run some more copies of the software on the other side of the planet. We do all that work, and still, we prepare for a production outages — that’s what we call it when things are so bad that people will start noticing. It’s inevitable. It happens. In fact, it happens so much it’s routine. We prepare. We create systems to alert us as early warning signals, so we can do something to avert catastrophic failure.

No matter how much we prepare. No matter how hard we work. No matter how brilliant we are at writing code. It happens.

By the time there’s a production outage, We’ve already worked through all the solutions in the standard playbook and nothing worked. Maybe we’ve already looped in a few colleagues who happen to be awake or nearby. We start improvising. We try anything that is both fast and safe. As we pull in some experts, we hope we’ve written all the important things down.

Afterwards, we’ll do a root cause analysis. It could be a mistake we made 6 months ago that’s been quietly corrupting data. Maybe we made an incorrect assumption, or some other system changed and we weren’t notified. Sometimes we could have prevented the problem. Sometimes the root cause is entirely outside of our control.

Sexism is like a production outage.

We learn to expect it. We create systems that mitigate risk. We learn the rules. We study the written laws and policy, because we find that the unspoken rules we learned as kids don’t make any sense. Guidelines about appropriate behavior box us in so tightly we can’t actually get anything done. Sometimes you can ignore the rules.

If you have the privilege of working with men who will respect you, it can work pretty well to pretend these unwritten rules don’t exist. If you want to move to a new team or a new position, you make a judgement call: is the opportunity worth the risk?

There are places I won’t work. Being part of the next unicorn startup isn’t worth the kinds of production outages I would expect there — it’s too disruptive to get any work done.

To be successful in the software industry, we need to take risks — make new software, work with new teams. Men take risks too and can experience their own production outages. And I’m sure I can’t imagine your situation, but from what I’ve observed in the United States, there’s a class of privileged white cis men where failure is a sign of positive risk taking. For blacks and latinos, it seems that failure is more often perceived as failure, or condescendingly, as a lack of preparation that is not their fault. Asian men seem to have fewer production outages in their early careers, then at some point they stop advancing and hit the bamboo ceiling.

I’m not sure the tech industry is really worse than any other place to work, but it does seem different. I wonder if its because many of us were like me. I expected it to be different. When I encountered obstacles, I just worked harder. I thought everyone was held to the same high standards, but when I look back, I’m not sure that’s true. If you have to defend your ideas and plans more than your colleague, that slows you down. If you don’t ask permission, it’s more likely you will be held accountable for your failure, so you have to make sure you don’t fail. We need to take risks to do great things, but for some of us, there are more risks and the risks are bigger.

The “leaky pipeline” is well-documented. Through my own lived experience and hundreds of women I’ve known as fellow travelers in this strange world of the tech industry, I see patterns that seem to be invisible to most of my male colleagues. This metaphor of the effects of sexism as a production outage helps me develop strategies and advise other women when they face obstacles. If there is only one woman on a team, it’s hard to tell the difference between sexism and incompetence. Is she being treated differently? Did he just make a mistake? The research is interesting, but when it happens to you, it doesn’t matter. You can do root cause analysis later. Right now, you need to put your life on hold and deal with a production outage.

Jennifer Anastasoff served as the head of people for the United States Digital Service (USDS). She grew that organization from a small team of three to an office of over 200 people in just two years.

On today’s Friction Podcast, she talks with Bob Sutton about fixing government friction

I had been a Presidential Innovation Fellow in 2013, living through a government shutdown and witnessing the failure of healthcare.gov. Then hearing about the slow and steady work that revived it, over a matter of months to a functioning website that allowed people to signup for services that they needed.

Later, when I was at 18F, I collaborated with Jennifer on a few projects. We worked behind the scenes to bring stories of results to the tech folks in San Francisco and elsewhere across the country.

In those early days, before the USDS had a website, I don’t recall the formal statement of values that she talks about on the podcast. I worked closely with many of the folks at USDS and these values were evidenced in the work:

  • Hire and empower great people.
  • Find the truth, tell the truth.
  • Optimize for results, not optics.
  • Go where the work is.
  • Create momentum.

Maybe they were on the wall somewhere at USDS HQ when I was there for a meeting or just to unwind with people facing the same tough challenges. I do remember the hockey table and that room with the wires in the old townhouse where Teddy Rosevelt used to live with his family. Working in spaces where great history happened couldn’t feel more surreal than trying to figure out if it was really true that A/B testing was illegal.

In the interview, Jennifer talk about how people would say that “in government, we’re not allowed to break the rules…” However, a lot of time it was how the rules were interpreted: “if it doesn’t explicitly say something is possible, than it’s not possible. And that’s just not the case.”

But you can’t just reinterpret things by yourself. We needed technical folks who could work with lawyers and policy experts, doing the challenging work of figuring out a solution that would work and was legal. I have great respect and empathy for the government workers who would routinely say “no” out of fear. It is pretty scary to realize that something you might do in the normal course of your work might actually break a law, which could literally cause you or your boss to be called in front of Congress to explain your actions.

“There’s very little room in all of this for a hero narrative,” she says in the podcast. We accomplished much by giving credit to our government colleagues who stepped up and took a leadership role in this work. We were temporary employees. We could go back to our easy tech jobs, and these folks would need to continue the work. There’s a different kind of hero narrative, which requires each of us to step up in the moment, say the thing in the meeting that no one wants to say, or ask the naive question, or simply read a thousand pages of regulation until you find that one clause that let’s you do the thing. You perform the everyday heroics that let you try something new, and that sets a pattern for you and your colleagues, and future generations of government workers, to be empowered to effectively help the people they serve.

Jennifer Anastasoff is my kind of hero.

Listen to the full interview with Jennifer Anastasoff and hear about the everyday heroics of the how people really make history.

p.s. The work continues. Consider applying as an Innovation Fellow — deadline is July 6th!

Email is the killer app of the Internet. Amidst many sharing and collaboration applications and services, most of us frequently fall back to email. Marc Stiegler suggests that email often “just works better”. Why is this?

Digital communication is fast across distances and allows access to incredible volumes of information, yet digital access controls typically force us into a false dichotomy of control vs sharing.

Looking at physical models of sharing and access control, we can see that we already have well-established models where we can give up control temporarily, yet not completely.

Alan Karp illustrated this nicely at last week’s Internet Identity Workshop (IIW) in a quick anecdote:

Marc gave me the key to his car so I could park in in my garage. I couldn’t do it, so I gave the key to my kid, and asked my neighbor to do it for me. She stopped by my house, got the key and used it to park Marc’s car in my garage.

The car key scenario is clear. In addition to possession of they key, there’s even another layer of control — if my kid doesn’t have a driver’s license, then he can’t drive the car, even if he holds the key.

When we translate this story to our modern digital realm, it sounds crazy:

Marc gave me his password so I could copy a file from his computer to mine. I couldn’t do it, so I gave Marc’s password to my kid, and asked my neighbor to do it for me. She stopped by my house so my kid could tell her my password, and then she used it to copy the file from Marc’s computer to mine.

After the conference, I read Marc Stiegler’s 2009 paper Rich Sharing for the Web details key features of sharing that we have in the real world that are illustrated in the anecdote that Alan so effectively rattled off.

These 6 features (enumerated below) enable people to create networks of access rights that implement the Principle of Least Authority (POLA). The key is to limit how much you need to trust someone before sharing. “Systems that do not implement these 6 features will feel rigid and inadequately functional once enough users are involved, forcing the users to seek alternate means to work around the limitations in those applications.”

  1. Dynamic: I can grant access quickly and effortlessly (without involving an administrator).
  2. Attenuated: To give you permission to do or see one thing, I don’t have to give you permission to do everything. (e.g. valet key allows driving, but not access to the trunk)
  3. Chained: Authority may be delegated (and re-delegated).
  4. Composable: I have permission to drive a car from the State of California, and Marc’s car key. I require both permissions together to drive the car.
  5. Cross-jurisdiction: There are three families involved, each with its own policies, yet there’s no
    need to communicate policies to another jurisdiction. In the example, I didn’t need to ask Marc to change his policy to grant my neighbor permission to drive his car.
  6. Accountable: If Marc finds a new scratch on his car, he knows to ask me to pay for the repair. It’s up to me to collect from my neighbor. Digital access control systems will typically record who did which action, but don’t record who asked an administrator to grant permission.

Note: Accountability is not always directly linked to delegation. Marc would likely hold me accountable if his car got scratched, even if my neighbor had damaged the car when parking it in the garage. Whereas, if it isn’t my garage, bur rather a repair shop where my neighbor drops off the car for Marc, then if the repair shop damages the car, Marc would hold them responsible.

How does this work for email?

The following examples from Marc’s paper were edited for brevity:

  • Dynamic: You can send email to anyone any time.
  • Attenuated: When I email you an attachment, I’m sending a read-only copy. You don’t have access to my whole hard drive and you don’t expect that modifying it will change my copy.
  • Chained: I can forward you an email. You can then forward it to someone else.
  • Cross-Domain: I can send email to people at other companies and organizations with permissions from their IT dept.
  • Composable: I can include an attachment from email originating at one company with text or another attachment from another email and send it to whoever I want.
  • Accountable: If Alice asks Bob to edit a file and email it back, and Bob asks Carol to edit the file, and
    Bob then emails it back, Alice will hold Bob responsible if the edits are erroneous. If Carol (whom Alice
    may not know) emails her result directly to Alice, either Alice will ask Carol who she is before accepting
    the changes, or if Carol includes the history of messages in the message, Alice will directly see, once
    again, that she should hold Bob responsible.

Further reading

Alan Karp’s IoT Position Paper compares several sharing tools across these 6 features and also discusses ZBAC (authoriZation-Based Access Control) where authorization is known as a “capability.” An object capability is an unforgeable token that both designates a resource and grants permission to access it.