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Essays

Blind Spot Protector

Posted on Dec 02 2019 in Essays

This essay by Lisa Sanchez first appeared in Offscreen Issue 17.

I’m standing in the pristine lobby of a tech company. Elevator bells are dinging, up and down. Young, beautiful people slip past me on either side, clutching silver MacBooks. My heart is racing, though it shouldn’t be. I’m the interviewer, not the candidate! Still, I get nervous every time, no matter which side of the table I’m on. I have no idea what my candidate looks like, but I find him in the small crowd eventually. After confirming his name, I extend my slightly sweaty hand.

“Hi! I’m Lisa,” I say, willing myself to exude confidence. I'm reminded of recent feedback: Speak up! Look confident!

“Who?” he asks, bewildered.

“Lisa,” I say, as my sad little tent of internal confidence collapses.

“Who am I meeting with?” he says.

“Me?”

“I mean the hiring manager.”

“That’s me.” My voice contracts to a squeak. Fortunately the lobby crowd has dispersed.

“How’d you get that job?” he asks. He is older and taller than me, with a salt and pepper beard. His voice booms from above.

I hear my response like an echo from far away. Something about an acquisition. It sounds like an apology. Then I guide him toward the café, offer him something to drink, and politely conduct our interview. Part way through, I have to remind myself that I am not the one who’s supposed to be proving myself in this conversation.

His voice is one among many others that regularly question my presence, at work and in the world. I’m often asked about my accent (though I’m sure I don’t have one), my olive skin, and my last name. To the question where I’m from, ‘Pennsylvania’ rarely suffices as an answer. I’ve been informed, usually indirectly or playfully, that my apparent age, quiet voice, small stature, femininity, and curly hair do not add up to the term ‘boss’.

Even years later, I’m still reflecting on his question. Stripped of its condescending tone, it’s a valid question, and one I'm asking myself: how did I get here, and why does it matter that I am? The answer begins with how far I had to come to get here.

I grew up in a rust belt town of three thousand in Pennsylvania, born to one white parent, one Puerto Rican. My dad did seasonal field work, planting trees and pruning vines. Later he worked in manufacturing. I spent most of my life feeling different and trying to make it seem like I wasn’t – among peers with more privilege, among friends with ‘matching’ parents, and starting in graduate school, mostly among men. It wasn’t until recently that I began to embrace my otherness as a competitive advantage. I don’t just look different, I am different. I see things differently than the majority of my peers in technology, and that different perspective has remarkable value.

Sometimes I think of myself as a blind spot detector. It’s an exhausting role to play, but I can hear one more way in which a turn of phrase may be interpreted, see one more possibility for how a team might proceed, add one more lens through which to evaluate a candidate for a job.

Did you know that female drivers are 47% more likely to die in a car accident? According to a study by the University of Virginia, this is partly due to the fact that vehicle safety features are largely designed for and tested on male bodies. It’s no coincidence that women hold only about a quarter of the automotive jobs in the US, and make up less than 17% of the industry’s leadership. The car industry badly needs more blind spot detectors.

The percentage of women in technology is similar. Our efforts to improve diversity in this industry are often focused on incremental change. One more woman at the table or one more percentage point of people of colour in technical roles is considered a win. We don’t approach our product or business objectives in such an anæmic way. When it comes to diversity, what would radical transformation look like?

How might we create workplaces filled with so many different kinds of people that there would be no ‘type’ – either in particular roles, or in the company as a whole? How might we create workplaces where there is no qualified person who ‘doesn’t belong’? What possibilities might we unlock if all members of a team were remarkably different from one another? A team like that would not require a blind spot detector: it would already be equipped with powerful 360-degree vision.

Enjoyed this essay? Support indie publishing and buy available issues of Offscreen for more thought-provoking reads in beautiful print.

Uniquely Yours

Posted on Aug 19 2019 in Essays

This essay by Brian Bailey first appeared in Offscreen Issue 16 (now sold out).

There is a good chance you’re working on something new right now: an app, a game, an open-source library. You’re enjoying the challenge and the creative process. The final result, you tell yourself, will be useful to a lot of people. Then, over coffee, a well-meaning friend brings up a discovery she recently made online. “Isn’t this pretty similar to what you’re working on?” You put on a brave face, but your heart sinks.

Back at home, you critically examine your idea’s doppelgänger and confirm that someone is indeed doing something very like what you’re doing. In fact, they seem further along and have already solved a few problems that had you stumped. You take a deep breath as a wave of discouragement passes over you: ‘I’ve poured so much time and effort into this!’ A strong belief in the originality of your idea had fed your confidence, but now it’s just another version of something that already exists.

I recently spent a day with an inspiring book on modern architecture around the world. What struck me was the incredible variety. Just as writers strive to do with words, and artists with paint, architects work to push the boundaries of what’s possible, though they all begin with the same materials and are limited by the same physical laws. Cooking, photography, poetry – and, yes – apps and websites are all similar in that regard. Within artistic pursuits, original, significant expression can sprout from the same ingredients and constraints.

We humans tend to be shortsighted, though, and that tendency is nowhere so obvious as on the internet. Whenever a new project is revealed – whether it’s a prototyping tool, a podcast, or a to-do list app – a chorus of naysayers greets it with, “Do we really need another one of those?”

The answer is ‘yes’. Always yes. The web provides room for endless varieties of similar ideas to take root and co-exist, each with a unique twist. Niches thrive online. There are designers who wonder why there isn’t a prototyping tool that works the way they think. There are people waiting for the to-do list app that finally clicks for them. And there are many searching for a conference that speaks to who they are and what they stand for.

A few years ago, some friends and I started an online community called Uncommon in Common. A social network: how original! As we all know, there have been thousands of such things; some are home to over one billion people. It’s a solved problem, you might say. Well, there just wasn’t one that suited us. We wanted a welcoming, peaceful front porch filled with thoughtful conversation. We wanted a place that encourages a healthy relationship with our screens, a community free of ads and addictive feedback loops. Free of FOMO. We jokingly referred to it as ‘the next small thing on the internet’.

Uncommon isn’t an idea that appeals to a billion people. It may never be home to more than a few thousand. But for the people who stumble upon it, there’s the joy of finding the place they’ve been searching for – a place just for them.

Imagine a band recording its first album. Months of practice and sparsely attended shows have led to this moment. On their way to the recording studio, the car radio plays a new guitar-driven, uptempo song about relationships, eerily similar to theirs. Do you think they would turn their car around in defeat? ‘Well, we thought we were on to something, but it turns out someone else had the same idea.’

Here’s the thing: originality isn’t what sets your idea apart. You are.

Whatever you are working on, you have your own motivations, skills, beliefs, and priorities. You have past experiences that shape your work, and hopes and values that shape its future. Even though something else solves a similar problem or fills a similar gap, the end result will never be the same.

There is room in this world for you and your idea. There is room for another band, another book, another conference, app, game, or community – because only yours is uniquely yours. You don’t compete against someone else’s project. The competition is between you and unfinished. Believe in it, see it through, and share it with the rest of us.

Enjoyed this essay? Support indie publishing and buy available issues of Offscreen for more thought-provoking reads in beautiful print.

Acknowledging Privilege

Posted on Apr 05 2018 in Essays

This essay by Bryce Roberts first appeared in Offscreen Issue 14 (now sold out).

Last Sunday night, my daughter was moaning and rocking back and forth in her chair, wrestling with a question staring back at her from the computer screen. ‘What is the greatest challenge you’ve faced in your life?’, the college application pointedly inquired. As her Dad, I had some ideas. But her? She was stumped.

Looking at that question, I was torn between being terrified that I’d sheltered her from character-defining trials and grateful that I’d been able to provide her with a fairly carefree childhood. We ultimately uncovered something real and meaningful for her to write about, but in a world of possible obstacles and adversity it was clear that she has been living a very privileged life. That acknowledgement has provoked some real reflection for me too.

For years I’ve told myself a story. It starts with ‘no one ever handing me anything’ and ends with me in the position I am today. I didn’t come from a notable family, I never asked my parents for anything after I got married at the age of twenty-two. The opportunities that I’ve experienced and taken advantage of to bring me to today were a result of hustle, or something like that. When I graduated from college I started a company. As a young married family with one kid, and another on the way, we scraped by on $1,000 a month while we tried to get this new business off the ground. Taking that risk and coming out better on the other side laid the groundwork for all the other professional risks I’ve taken since. And look at where I am now.

I’ve revisited that narrative a lot over recent years and months, and the more I do so the more I realise that there are holes in that story that deserve acknowledgement.

I was raised in an upper middle class family. I never wanted for food or much of anything. My family owned a boat. The only jobs I worked as a kid were given to me by family or friends of family. And they paid me much better than my friends working summer jobs in fast food or at the Motel 6. I worked full time through undergrad and was able – with my parents’ help with tuition – to graduate with a degree from a well-regarded university with no student debt. When I married, we got a couple of old hand-me-down cars from our parents. And when I left a cushy job to go start a new company right out of school, my income was reduced to just $1,000 a month, so my parents offered to cover my rent for that first year. I could not have taken those risks or reaped the subsequent rewards had it not been for my family’s financial support.

So, the story that I’ve been telling myself all these years has big gaping holes that need filling. It has safety nets that require recognition, and privilege that deserves acknowledgement.

For those of us who are firmly convinced that anyone can do anything by working hard and pulling themselves up by the bootstraps, we need to recognise that most of us had additional hands helping us do the pulling, while many others had to fight hands that actively pushed them back down. We had resources avail- able to us that may not be available to those upon whom we heap our pearls of wisdom. We may, in fact, just happen to have been born into more favourable circumstances than those who we hope can learn from the path we’ve trodden.

This imbalance deserves to be countered. But before we start with the grandstanding, it’s a worthwhile experience to embark on some soul-searching. In acknowledging the privilege many of us have had, we can fill the holes in our own stories and move forward with a more honest, insightful, and impactful understanding than the conventional wisdom that anyone anywhere can achieve anything by just 'following their dreams'.

Enjoyed this essay? Support indie publishing and buy available issues of Offscreen for more thought-provoking reading material in beautiful print.

Human Scale

Posted on Aug 03 2017 in Essays

This essay by Michael Honey first appeared in Offscreen Issue 7 (now sold out).

“Is there anything you like to ask us?” A typical question you hear at the end of most job interviews.

“I am a bit worried,” I said, “about the whole idea of relentlessly driving down supplier costs just so that people on the internet can buy marginally cheaper consumer goods.”

Silence.

I’d like to think that my question rocked him to his core, made him reconsider his life up to this point, caused him to abandon principles he never knew he held. In reality, he was probably making a this-guy-is-an-idiot face to his coworkers on the other end of the line.

“Well, if you feel that way, our organisation might not be a good fit for you.” He hung up and it was over.

I don’t know what I was thinking. If I felt that way, why did I talk to them in the first place? Because it’s always worth talking. Because they were interested. Because it’s nice to feel wanted.

As an independent web guy I often wondered what it would be like to be hired by a giant corporation. I would enjoy the security that comes with money and a big company job. I know from experience that years of worrying about being able to pay the bills take their toll. But I would also be wondering what I could have built instead, had I gone my own way.

If I took that role I’d disappear for a year or two, and out the other end would come a better login screen, a cleaner list view, an improved signup form – and a big paycheck. Those are nice to have but at what cost? The usual pitch that a big company makes is that they have the resources for profound impact on a large scale. Often though, that impact is spread out over millions of users, and it’s in the service of giving corporate investors better capital returns.

‘It doesn’t scale’ is a criticism leveled at many new ideas. It’s true, some things don’t scale to millions of users. No venture capitalist throws their money at an idea that makes just a decent living for a small team. You need explosive growth to reach a worldwide market. But how many things which are good when small get better by becoming bigger? That local restaurant you love can’t scale to millions of users. Do you really want your favourite indie band to aspire to stadium-level fame? People get cheaper books, and an independent bookseller closes its doors to make way for a giant warehouse full of underpaid people working ten-hour shifts. You order your groceries online, but you’ll never bump into your neighbours at the local shop. Is this progress?

I’m aware of the disconnect between decrying large enterprise and, say, owning an iPhone. Some things, good things, are unbuildable without a critical mass – thousands of builders and millions of users. Acknowledging that, though, isn’t it also true that most things get worse as they get bigger? Humans are good at family, middling at community, dysfunctional as nations, and self-destructive as a planet. What doesn’t scale is our ability to relate to each other as human beings instead of target markets, as eyeballs to monetise.

I love technology and the internet and the wonders that it brings. I, too, build it for a living. But I don’t need another social network or more ways to share photos or further technological assistance for catching up with friends. What if we stopped building new things for a while, and tried to make what we have better?

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to go huge, to build something for millions, to double in size every few months, to scramble for market share – and then to try and find a way to pay for it all by putting ads on it. Maybe some day it’ll happen.

If I’m honest with myself, I probably would have taken that job had they offered it to me. I would have spent a couple of years generating shareholder value. I would have gained some management experience, a familiarity with Powerpoint, and some inexpensive consumer goods. But instead, I’m now working with a small team of people on human-scale projects for clients I respect.

I’m glad I asked that question.

Enjoyed this essay? Support indie publishing and buy available issues of Offscreen for more thought-provoking reading material in beautiful print.

Erased Experts

Posted on Jul 26 2017 in Essays

This essay by Sabrina Majeed first appeared in Offscreen Issue 11 (now sold out).

We have always been here.

Lurking in the shadows of your forums, passing silent judgment on your conversations, even joining in if we felt compelled to do so. You didn’t even realise it was us you were talking to, us you were so embroiled in heated debate with. We became good at disguising ourselves, donning ambiguous avatars and cryptic display names, basking in the freedom offered by anonymity. We congregated as our true selves in corners of the internet that you didn’t even know existed. Long before Pinterest and Tumblr became the designated spaces that you – you, with your anxious need to categorise and contain — would relegate us to. We were there.

You didn’t really think you were the only ones who could spend hours in the solace of a dark room, illuminated only by the comforting glow of a screen, did you? Softly clacking away at a keyboard, leery of waking up a family who just couldn’t comprehend why you needed to be online at four in the morning.

For a young girl growing up online, the internet was a source of sexual awakening. There was the early solicitation for age, sex, and location, and the late-night instant messaging marathons with internet boyfriends. Whether I was perusing the female-dominated, libertine world of fan fiction, or curiously poking my head into a more visceral, male-oriented landscape, I always kept my pointer carefully positioned over an exonerating browser tab, ready to pull the trigger if I heard footsteps approaching my room.

The web does not discriminate in its seduction. Its siren call is a whisper of white noise with the resounding wail of a dial tone. It echoed in my ears when I was at school, at the mall, with friends, always beckoning, and insatiable in its demands for my time and attention.

Yes, we were there too! Furiously scrolling and clicking in an attempt to escape the banalities of adolescent life. But few noticed. We were erased. Just as we were erased from the pages of history, like our contributions to society and our participation in the wars that toppled dynasties and drew new lines in the sand.

Now you purport to ‘make room’ for us on an internet you’ve claimed as your territory, as if it hasn’t been just as much ours all along. The rise of social media holds us accountable to our true identities, and anonymity is no longer a guarantee. The threat of exploitation is all too common, and voicing one’s opinion in a public sphere always bears a certain amount of risk. We now have to fight to feel welcome in the very spaces we’ve always occupied. It’s retrograde.

Even those few sites where femininity is allowed to visibly flourish, the spaces that dare to cater to women’s interests are dismissed as frivolous and unsubstantial. Should those strongholds fall to their founders’ desperate need for male validation, then perhaps we will become digital nomads once more. In the past our attention was fleeting and we were loath to tie ourselves down, to nest. New plat- forms popped up like frontiers itching to be explored, and we happily planted our flag.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that Bill Gates had access to the early computers during his childhood and college years. Gladwell looks back on those early interactions with technology as foreshadowing for Gates’ later success. Twelve-year-old Mark Zuckerberg had ZuckNet, a messaging program built with Atari BASIC. It was arcade games for Elon Musk.

Where do I hear about the woman who found her calling after building custom Livejournal layouts, who learned HTML so she could spruce up her Neopets shop? Or about the designer who can trace her success back to posting desktop wallpaper art on DeviantArt and GaiaOnline?

We need to start talking about them. We need to understand and celebrate the origin stories of women in technology just as much as those of men, and make those stories part of our industry’s cultural lore. Not only for the sake of looking forward and inspiring the next generation of creators, but to be able to look back and be reminded that this is our domain too. We are experts, CEOs, and role models. You can’t make room for us, because we’ve always been here.

Enjoyed this essay? Support indie publishing and buy available issues of Offscreen for more thought-provoking reading material in beautiful print.