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Men and Women are Different


The topic is this memo written by a Google engineer, who was then fired. More from Elissa Shevinsky ’01:

An internal post went viral at Google, and is now dominating the news cycle in tech / feminism. The resulting conversation has covered a lot of already familiar ground. Women and minorities continue to come forward with stories of discrimination, and white nationalists continue to complain that diversity efforts lower the bar.

If everyone who believes that men and women are biologically different — in ways that might effect job preferences — is a “white nationalists,” then . . .

Read Slate Star Codex for a thorough rebuttal.

But, as always, we need more Williams connections. How about a Record article which includes interviews with various Williams professors? I bet Nate Kornell would provide some nice crime-think on this topic!


Death of Fun

Elissa Shevinsky’s ’01 former partner, Pax Dickinson, writes about moral panics and the death of fun.

Hi, I’m Pax Dickinson. I’m the guy who was shamed by Gawker and fired because I made off color jokes on twitter. I’ve been quiet for the past year, but I wanted to stick my head up and talk about some troubling trends in the technology industry. This isn’t an essay about me and my moment of infamy; it’s an essay about tolerance (or, rather, the lack of it) in the tech world and how political correctness is making people fear to ‘Think Different’.

Read the whole thing. One of the main reasons that most EphBlog authors post psuedonomously is precisely the lack of tolerance that we have encountered online. Bug or feature?

After being fired last year from my job as Business Insider CTO, I went full time into building Glimpse with my co-founder Elissa. I really felt strongly that I could try to take some of the negativity and try to leverage it into building something positive for privacy and free speech. The Glimpse story is still to be concluded but having built out the infrastructure and encryption architecture successfully after a year it was time for me to move on to other things.

I also knew that I was holding Elissa back. I know my baggage was hurting the company. We were asked to insert clauses that would strip my equity if I “embarrassed” the company and it’s reasonable to assume that my presence as co-founder made other VCs shy away from us, which is heartbreaking to me because Elissa is fucking amazing and deserves better than that.

As do we all.


Shevinsky ’01 on Williams


A recent EphBlog post reviewed “Lean Out,” the book by Elissa Shevinsky ’01 that is currently burnishing her reputation as one of the tech industries’ feminist thought leaders.

Shevinsky’s career has taken her through stops around the world, including New York, Tel Aviv, and Silicon Valley, and she presently maintains an itinerant existence with a number of home bases. Since this is EphBlog, we’re as interested in her time at Williams as we are in where she is now, and one of her own essays in “Lean Out,” titled, “The Pipeline Isn’t the Problem,” delivers on that subject.

The first part of “Pipeline” recounts key elements of Shevinsky’s career: from her first startup job, at Williams-incubated to her most recent product, Glimpse (an online dating app designed for women, by women). Then, she tells the story of her real introduction to tech as a freshman at Williams:

It was 1997 and I was taking CSCI 105: “The Web: Technologies and Techniques,” the Computer Science department’s most introductory class. It seemed like a lightweight way for a humanities major like me to fulfill the college’s science requirement.

Let’s hear it for divisional requirements — they’re not just how we turn biology majors into museum directors!

Led by Professor Tom Murtagh, the class covered the architecture of the Internet, along with html and Java programming. My teaching assistants were nerdy white guys (who I totally admired) but the class was mostly gender balanced. In 1997 we didn’t know that programming was for boys.

Computer Science 105 was more challenging than I had anticipated . . . I was so frustrated that a program could work on my machine and not work correctly on my website. At one point, the teaching assistant was confused as well! I’ve since learned that frustration is a basic part of software development. The best developers are persistent as well as smart, and simply don’t stop until the code works. Sometimes it takes days or weeks. At the time, I just thought that I didn’t have an aptitude for programming. But Professor Murtagh (aka “Tom”) was a warm and easy-going professor and the class was incredibly fun.

With Professors Danyluk and Bruce, “Tom” would go on to publish the valuable “Java: An Eventful Approach,” an influential redesign of curriculum structure for teaching Java.

Nerds were so uncool at Williams College that the section of campus where we lived was known as “The Odd Quad.” … We would get together on Wednesday nights for hot cocoa spiked with liquor, and play “Magic: The Gathering.” It was a gender balanced group. Actually, it was nearly equally men and women… My college memories are mostly of hanging out with this group of wonderful nerdy gamer coders. This included some college grads who were working at Tripod.

The Williams students choosing in the late 90s to live in row houses instead of Prospect might have chosen differently, if they’d known the opportunities on which they were missing out:

I got internships and job offers everywhere that I applied, ultimately working for Ethan Zuckerman [’93]’s startup Geekcorps… I remember being offered a programming job at twenty-one. I would have had to drop out of school, which wasn’t that interesting to me at the time. I turned the job down.

Probably a wise choice, given how her career – and her new book – have turned out. In a recent interview, she brushed off credit for the high caliber of her publishing debut:
“I was definitely really new to making books,” praising her editor as incredibly helpful in turning out a polished final product. Still, she acknowledges, “I had an intuition for what would be a good book,” and reading “Lean Out,” it’s hard to resist crediting her (and her Williams education) for the result.


Book Review: Lean Out

ES01Elissa Shevinsky ’01 has not only been an EphBlog favorite of late, but was recently featured on the cover of the Williams Alumni Review (pictured above is her Twitter avatar, drawn from that cover illustration). Shevinsky is a serial entrepreneur with a focus on cyber-security; her current company is JeKuDo, which is “building the very best easy to use privacy tools.”

Shevinsky is also now the author/editor of the recently-published “Lean Out,” available from Or Books and (naturally) for your Kindle or Nook. The collection of essays and perspectives from women working in Silicon Valley includes an introduction and commentary from Shevinsky along with a couple of her own essays. Full disclosure: Shevinsky and I are what she might call “introvert friends” on Twitter and regularly “favorite” each other’s tweets.

“Lean Out” tackles a popular and sensitive subject: the overwhelming male representation in Silicon Valley and the larger tech industry, one of the highest-value and highest growth areas of the economy. In “Lean In,” Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg advocated for women to be more proactive in challenging this norm by doing more to be accepted into existing power dynamics and transform the “system” from within.  Relatedly, many tech companies have claimed that there is a purported “pipeline” problem — a shortage of women with STEM and computer science backgrounds, coding skills, or even video game experience that translates to a subsequent shortage of women interested in the industry.

Many critics — including several of the writers collected in “Lean Out” — have challenged these claims.  Many women, particularly those coming from diverse backgrounds, object that Sandberg’s perspective as one that requires women in the tech industry to adapt to the system, rather than building a new system for women and by women.  Others, including Shevinsky, believe that the focus on a “pipeline” is a diversion, little more than a marketing effort by big tech companies to  transfer attention from culture (hard to measure) to an issue that can be quantified and to which they can dedicate eye-catching amounts of spending.  In this view, the claim that there aren’t sufficient women in the hiring pool is akin to the implausible suggestion that there aren’t enough actors in Hollywood.

Taken individually, the essays in “Lean Out” might read as a collection of diversity-oriented polemics: interesting as descriptions of individual experiences, identities, and related challenges, but many would be ultimately unsatisfying (the identities of authors include a well-balanced mix of sexual, gender, racial, and ethnic identities). One exception: Katherine Cross’s essay, “Fictive Ethnicity and Nerds,” an analysis of why the dominant Silicon Valley nerd culture is resistant to criticism from feminists. Agree or disagree, her analysis gives good insight into why individuals and groups can simultaneously be privileged and marginalized, although readers will recognize she might not agree with that characterization.

It is taken together that the greatest value in “Lean Out” is revealed as Shevinsky’s selection and structuring of the whole. Each writer adds a piece to our understanding of the culture of the technology industry — and each person brings their own view regarding how best to tackle the problems they see as creating an environment of exclusion. The juxtaposition of their suggestions, moreover, reveals that many approaches, taken alone, risk undercutting precisely the parts of the system that make others feel included, at least at times. Far from the simple solutions proposed in the polemics of online fora, “Lean Out” reveals a thorny knot that even Alexander might be unable to cut.

Take, for example, the concerns laid out in “Lean Out” about a brogrammer culture that makes outings for drinking cheap beer an integral part of many companies’ cultures.  Participating in these outings – which fuel interrelated cultural problems like unwanted sexual advances (and worse) and fart jokes (and worse) – may be a cultural and career necessity for many who would otherwise not participate.  But not only are they irreplaceable to the individual and team identity of their enthusiasts, but more than one writer in “Lean Out” recounts an instance when participating was an inclusionary experience, at least at the time or for a while.  So the answer can’t be just to replace alcohol fueled bar hopping with estrogen fueled coed outings to the ski slope or the bookstore.  And while doing so might make the introduction of sexist apps at major conferences less acceptable, would that really even matter to the presence of women at the partner level of venture capital funds or, ultimately, to investments in diversely-led startups?

Where does that leave Shevinsky and the “Lean Out” reader? Certainly with a lot to think about. But the structure of her book provides a clue that there’s more in her mind than merely provoking discussion or repeating the demands of others that people change their sexist ways. “Lean Out” opens and closes with passages by FAKEGRIMLOCK, the startup robot dinosaur. (Yes, this is a thing). Both are calls to action: not meant to provoke some centrally-led reform effort or even a social movement by the many, but for an individual action by the entrepreneur, “You”: “You Belong in Tech” and “You Must Start Up.” And then there’s the essay “Build a Business, Not an Exit Strategy,” by Melanie Moore, also near the end of “Lean Out.” Her simple present-value analysis of startups seeking an IPO home run vs. those seeking to grow on a human scale — and the explanation of why VCs are in the business of finding home runs and not the latter, presents one “Out” approach. It’s clearly one that serial entrepreneur Shevinsky is comfortable with. And it’s a reminder that what the tech industry may most need to create a set of spaces where the authors in “Lean Out” (and millions of others, men and women alike) can thrive is a different sort of diversity: a diversity of vision that yields a true variety of opportunities.

Elements of Shevinsky’s experience at Williams appear in one of her own essays, “The Pipeline Isn’t the Problem,” and I’ll excerpt a few details in a subsequent post.


Trolling is Trolling

Smart essay from Elissa Shevinsky ’01:

Along with most of the feminists that I’ve met, I’m here to build.

It is important for me to state as clearly as possible that we can wish to call out bad actors, to improve our ecosystem, to support women in tech, to combat harassers, and to generally support all of the causes articulated so well in Model View Culture — without also supporting the kind of speech represented by Shanley’s classic line “fuck your face.”

I imagine that this is where I am critiqued for tone policing. People are welcome to say “fuck you” to whoever they wish, on the internet. It’s a free internet and a free Twitter, or at least mostly free. It’s equally my right to assess that emotionally violent techniques are not the most effective possible tools within our collective toolkit, and that I would like to see us do better.

Read the whole thing.


Losing Cryptowars 2.0

Interesting article from Elissa Shevinsky ’01.

We cannot bend software or cryptography to our will. Technology is science, not magic.

Government officials’ requests to weaken encryption are based on a fantasy of what technology could be – not the reality of what software is actually like in practice. And their backers, such as The Washington Post editorial board, are also swayed by it. Even President Obama, the same leader who has recruited top Silicon Valley talent to join him in the White House, wants to find a compromise.

The problem? It is not technically possible. There’s no such thing as a secure back door. The idea that the US government can have built-in access to encrypted data – while maintaining consumers’ security and privacy, and preserving American business – is flawed.

Exactly right. Read the whole thing.


Shevinsky ’01 Tweets

Elissa Shevinsky ’01 is one of my favorite Eph Tweeters. Which Eph Tweeters do you read?

At some point, we hope to create a compendium of all the Ephs on Twitter, Instagram, WordPress and so on. The more that we can connect Ephs, the better off the broader Williams community will be.


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