Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Overwhelmingly Helpful Comments

I'm going through a bit of an emotional flashback for a discussion I saw on twitter and tried to dismiss. Did not succeed to well with the dismissing, so I'm blogging to offload.

One of the 49 % of the 454 people (woman) I follow on twitter posted her Selenium code sample from a short training she had just delivered. And two of the 51 % of the 454 people (man) I follow on twitter posted comments criticizing her code.

I truly believe these comments of critique were made in good faith, and with the intention to help improve. Both comments introduced concepts that were missing from code ('page object factory', 'java 8 features like lambda') and you could even assume the authors knew there could be a reason things are excluded even if they could be there too.

What brought me to blogging is that it took me back to the time when I started coding decades ago, and when I stopped coding for precisely these kinds of lovely, helpful people who were suffocating me.

Talking in metaphors

I love dancing but I'm not a dancer. When I go to dancing lessons, on the basic level my teachers usually correct only the most relevant things, and a lot of times, they don't correct anything. They let me be surrounded with the joy of dancing, encourage continued practice without critique.

They could also do things differently. They could start right away telling me to pay attention to my dancing position. But they could also point out continuously everything that I could do differently and better. I could hear of my facial expressions (smile!), the positioning of every part of my body and the fact that you know, there's all these subtle differences to rhythms I'm not yet ready to pay attention to.

The joy comes first. And the other stuff comes layered. And sometimes, the feedback just sucks the joy out of dancing because that's all I want to do.

Being a Woman who Codes

When you are minority, the positive and helpful people around you tend to all want to pitch in to the feedback. The style of comments may be very constructive, but the amount of it can be overwhelming. You see that the amounts are overwhelming just for you because they just don't care as much for the others. The others are lucky if they get helped, but you get helped by everyone.

Everyone looks at what you do in a little more detail. Everyone wants to help you succeed with their feedback. And then there's someone, usually a very small minority, who uses all the feedback you're getting that others don't as evidence that 'women are not meant for coding'.

In projects with crappy code from everyone else, I always felt the feedback was asking me to be more perfect. Good intentions turn into sucking the joy out of the whole thing. I dropped coding for 20 years. And even as I've come back, I'm still overly sensitive to being helped in overwhelming amounts.

The environment matters

Recently, experiencing projects where pull requests get, regardless of gender, criticized and improved in detail are places I find safe again. It's not special treatment, it's feedback for everyone. And it comes from a place of putting every line to production pretty much as soon as it gets committed to the main branch.

Back to the twitter incident

So with the twitter incident of commenting in particular for this piece of code, I would ask:

  • Are these same people giving same attention to every other public speaker's code?
Selective helping is one of the things I've experienced that drove me away from coding. I can't speak for anyone else, but I surely know that at a younger age, it made a difference to me. I would not be back without (strong-style) pairing and mobbing.