I am a Cranky, White, Male Feminist

Today, I was re-reading an linux.com article from 2014 by Leslie Hawthorne which had been reshared by the Linux Foundation Facebook account yesterday in honor of #GirlDay2017 (which I was regrettably unaware of until it was over). It wasn’t so much the specific content of the article that got me thinking, but instead the level of discourse that it “inspired” on the Facebook thread that pointed me there (I will not link to it as it is unpleasant and reflects poorly on The Linux Foundation, an organization which is in most circumstances largely benevolent).

In the article, Hawthorne describes the difficulties that she faced as a woman in getting involved in technology (including being dissuaded by her own family out of fear for her future social interactions). While in her case, she ultimately ended up involved in the open-source community (albeit through a roundabout journey), she explained the sexism that plagued this entire process, both casual and explicit.

What caught my attention (and drew my ire) was the response to this article. This included such thoughtful responses as “Come to my place baby, I’ll show you my computer” as well as completely tone-deaf assertions that if women really wanted to be involved in tech, they’d stick it out.

Seriously, what is wrong with some people? What could possibly compel you to “well, actually” a post about a person’s own personal experience? That part is bad enough, but to turn the conversation into a deeply creepy sexual innuendo is simply disgusting.

Let me be clear about something: I am a grey-haired, cis-gendered male of Eastern European descent. As Patrick Stewart famously said:


I am also the parent of two young girls, one of whom is celebrating her sixth birthday today. The fact of the timing is part of what has set me off. You see, this daughter of mine is deeply interested in technology and has been since a very early age. She’s a huge fan of Star Wars, LEGOs and point-and-click adventure games. She is going to have a very different experience from Ms. Hawthorne’s growing up, because her family is far more supportive of her interests in “nerdy” pursuits.

But still I worry. No matter how supportive her family is: Will this world be willing to accept her when she’s ready to join it? How much pressure is the world at large going to put on her to follow “traditional” female roles. (By “traditional” I basically mean the set of things that were decided on in the 1940s and 1950s and suddenly became the whole history of womanhood…)

So let me make my position perfectly clear.  I am a grey-haired, cis-gendered male of Eastern European descent. I am a feminist, an ally and a human-rights advocate. If I see bigotry, sexism, racism, ageism or any other “-ism” that isn’t humanism in my workplace, around town, on social media or in the news, I will take a stand against it, I will fight it in whatever way is in my power and I will do whatever I can to make a place for women (and any other marginalized group) in the technology world.

Also, let me be absolutely clear about something: if I am interviewing two candidates for a job (any job, at my current employer or otherwise) of similar levels of suitability, I will fall on the side of hiring the woman, ethnic minority or non-cis-gendered person over a Caucasian man. No, this is not “reverse racism” or whatever privileged BS you think it is. Simply put: this is a set of people who have had to work at least twice as hard to get to the same point as their privileged Caucasion male counterpart and I am damned sure that I’m going to hire the person with that determination.

As my last point (and I honestly considered not addressing it), I want to call out the ignorant jerks who claim, quote “Computer science isn’t a social process at all, it’s a completely logical process. People interested in comp. sci. will pursue it in spite of people, not because of it. If you value building relationships more than logical systems, then clearly computer science isn’t for you.” When you say this, you are saying that this business should only permit socially-inept males into the club. So let me use some of your “completely logical process” to counter this – and I use the term extremely liberally – argument.

In computer science, we have an expression: “garbage in, garbage out”. What it essentially means is that when you write a function or program that processes data, if you feed it bad data in, you generally get bad (or worthless… or harmful…) data back out. This is however not limited to code. It is true of any complex system, which includes social and corporate culture. If the only input you have into your system design is that of egocentric, anti-social men, then the only things you can ever produce are those things that can be thought of by egocentric, anti-social men. If you want instead to have a unique, innovative idea, then you have to be willing to listen to ideas that do not fit into the narrow worldview that is currently available to you.

Pushing people away and then making assertions that “if people were pushed away so easily, then they didn’t really belong here” is the most deplorable ego-wank I can think of. You’re simultaneously disregarding someone’s potential new idea while helping to remove all of their future contributions from the available pool while at the same time making yourself feel superior because you think you’re “stronger” than they are.

To those who are reading this and might still feel that way, let me remind you of something: chances are, you were bullied as a child (I know I was). There are two kinds of people who come away from that environment. One is the type who remembers what it was like and tries their best to shield others from similar fates. The other is the type that finds a pond where they can be the big fish and then gets their “revenge” by being a bully themselves to someone else.

If you’re one of those “big fish”, let me be clear: I intend to be an osprey.

A sweet metaphor

If you’ve spent any time in the tech world lately, you’ve probably heard about the “Pets vs. Cattle” metaphor for describing system deployments. To recap: the idea is that administrators treat their systems as animals: some they treat very much like a pet; they care for them, monitor them intently and if they get “sick”, nurse them back to help. Other systems are more like livestock: their value to them is in their ready availability and if any individual one gets sick, lamed, etc. you simply euthanize it and then go get a replacement.

Leaving aside the dreadfully inaccurate representation of how ranchers treat their cattle, this metaphor is flawed in a number of other ways. It’s constantly trotted out as being representative of “the new way of doing things vs. the old way”. In reality, I cannot think of a realistic environment that would ever be able to move exclusively to the “new way”, with all of their machines being small, easily-replaceable “cattle”.

No matter how much the user-facing services might be replaced with scalable pods, somewhere behind that will always be one or more databases. While databases may have load-balancers, failover and other high-availability and performance options, ultimately they will always be “pets”. You can’t have an infinite number of them, because the replication storm would destroy you, and you can’t kill them off arbitrarily without risking data loss.

The same is true (perhaps doubly so) for storage servers. While it may be possible to treat the interface layer as “cattle”, there’s no way that you would expect to see the actual storage itself being clobbered and overwritten.

The main problem I have with the traditional metaphor is that it doesn’t demonstrate the compatibility of both modes of operation. Yes, there’s a lot of value to moving your front-end services to the high resilience that virtualization and containerization can provide, but that’s not to say that it can continue to function without the help of those low-level pets as well. It would be nice if every part of the system from bottom to top was perfectly interchangeable, but it’s unlikely to happen.

So, I’d like to propose a different metaphor to describe things (in keeping with the animal husbandry theme): beekeeping. Beehives are (to me) a perfect example of how a modern hybrid-mode system is set up. In each hive you have thousands of completely replaceable workers and drones; they gather nectar and support the hive, but the loss of any one (or even dozens) makes no meaningful difference to the hive’s production.

However, each hive also has a queen bee; one entity responsible for controlling the hive and making sure that it continues to function as a coherent whole. If the queen dies or is otherwise removed from the hive, the entire system collapses on itself. I think this is a perfect metaphor for those low-level services like databases, storage and domain control.

This metaphor better represents how the different approaches need to work together. “Pets” don’t provide any obvious benefit to their owners (save companionship), but in the computing world, those systems are fundamental to keeping things running. And with the beekeeping metaphor, we even have a representative for the collaborative output… and it even rhymes with “money”.