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overhead view of two women standing six feet apart

The Social Presence of Physical Distance

Natural, cultural, and technical worlds conjoin. All are deeply cultural. How we perceive the nature around us partakes in the imagination of the culture from whence we come. For some a tree is an ancestor, for others a source of heat, for many an unremarkable background feature or some combination of all the above plus others.

As COVID-19 continues to run across the earth like a rushing river with many irregular eddies, I am reminded of our relationships as humans to nature, culture, and technology. I’m reminded of our shared humanity and the diverse range of contexts within which our humanities are embodied and enacted.

Over the past couple of weeks, friends have solicited my perspective on what new social practices driven by these circumstances mean for our shared humanity. As a Cultural Anthropologist working in tech, they figure I should have a strong opinion, or, at the very least, some considered reflections on these and related topics. I have some of each which I’d like to share with you. These are the thoughts that come immediately to mind:

We live in a deeply connected world:

The mappings and modeled projections of the virus that many of us have seen in the news and on social media underscore the connectivity of all living things — viral and human. Unlike the way the “world” is typically conceptualized in the popular imagination as a series of roughly contiguous regional snippets, we are now presented with visualization of a more holistic kind. The world has become a shared space. A space traced out in ever-expanding lines by the spread of disease. A space newly conceived by a growing number of people as transcendent of regional differences and the woefully abundant contagions of xenophobia consequent to “difference” and “othering.”

We should learn from this new view.

Technology has immediate practical and personal importance:

For many of us, “technology” is more real today than it has been in our lifetimes. It touches us more intimately. As a person who publishes on topics variously focused on human and machine partnerships under the broader theme of advanced technologies and human culture, I’ve spilt my share of digital ink on “AI/ai, NLP, ML, data ethics, algorithmic justice” to name a few. Despite my commitment to citing real world examples, much of this writing tends towards the theoretical or, at least, doesn’t tend to the kind of pragmatic utility we associate with DIY projects.

For those of us fortunate enough to be able to do our jobs from home, the practical realities of a strong signal, plentiful cables and adaptors, reliable Wi-Fi, and secure VPNs remind us that technologies, in general, are actual “things” we use to get “stuff” done.

Add the millions of US students now doing their schoolwork remotely and tech as tool in the old-fashioned sense of tool as “a device or implement, especially one held in the hand, used to carry out a particular function” is brought to the foreground. There’s something oddly comforting in the “materiality” of technology used in these intentionally “tool for task” ways.

Materiality or “thingness” of technology will continue to demand our attentions. A current shortlist might include eCommerce algorithms, medical supplies manufacturing automation, logistics and food delivery networks, pharma packaging science, and, of course, the range of physical and digital tools used in medical and research virology.

Rituals matter:

Along with mandates to “shelter in place” and maintain “social distance” comes a greater self-awareness of the role of ritual in our everyday lives. According to the late British Cultural Anthropologist, Victor Turner: “A ritual is a stereotyped sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed in a sequestered place….”

I can think of several rituals from my childhood important at the time, yet no longer prominent in my adult life. I am aware that of late some of these practices are beginning to return among my network of friends and family. For instance, as a child there was “play time,” “work time,” and “family time.” Play time was marked by late afternoon bike rides down to the neighboring marina but only after putting on “play clothes.” “Work time” was more or less school—up at 7:30 to catch the bus and home by 3:45 to begin “play time.” “Family time” was always about sitting down to dinner with my Mother, Father, Sister and Brother. I count myself as deeply blessed then and now to have a family with whom I want to share time.

With so many of us at home, notions around time have begun to (re)formalize into discernible moments or rituals. Some are about the practical affair of operationalizing the day’s activities and some about creating a controlled cadence within chaos. Common to these new yet older forms are the use of ritual as a way to provide comfort through repetition or tempo. In my experience, these are akin to Sunday phone calls, pancakes on the weekend, and play clothes. I’ve returned to some of these in recent weeks. Perhaps you have, too? Ask yourself if hearing the voice of someone you love sounds sweeter today than it did a month ago when you might have rather texted.

Practice of the arts of care and science:

I’m reminded daily of my connection to earth, to my communities, to my family and friends and to my fellow humans globally. As I reflect on what we — the Human Family — might learn in the coming months, it is my genuine hope that we will evolve a deeper collective sense of what it means to care for others and our environments. Asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture, Anthropologist Margaret Mead replied:

“If an animal in the wild breaks a major bone, they die — they starve, or something else eats them. For an early human to have survived a broken femur, someone else would have had to care for them long enough for the bone to set. They would have been provided with shelter, food, and water over an extended period. Someone would have had to have shown them kindness, compassion, altruism. Kindness, alongside science, remains the cornerstone of medicine.”

Kindness is a ritual I will continue to practice. Imagine the long-term benefits if we learn how to give more of it away. Kindness is part of what makes us human. Perhaps in the coming weeks more of us will have an opportunity to remember in words and through actions what so many of us have forgotten. In my view, that would be a very positive outcome.

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Samantha Ortiz headshot

Diversity and Inclusion in Tech

As a Latina software engineer without a four-year degree in computer science, I’ve been tuned into the divide between what’s considered a “typical” software engineer and myself.
Samantha Ortiz

I was fortunate enough to find a path into programming via the immersive bootcamp, Hack Reactor, which opened me up to a fulfilling career at Lifion, by ADP. I have experienced firsthand the benefits of having balanced representation, and have also seen opportunities where a diverse team would bring more value. Most tech companies face the challenge of finding new ways to approach true inclusivity despite corporate Business Resource Groups, training, and continued discussion around the subject.
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Lifion, by ADP Software Engineers, Jenny Eckstein and Samantha Ortiz, at WECode 2019
WECode 2019
I had the opportunity to attend the Women Engineers Code (WECode) 2019 Conference at Harvard this February, which brought together hundreds of female engineers with leaders in the tech sector. WECode’s goal is to leave attendees with a broadened awareness of new areas within tech, a greater understanding of social impact, and the confidence to influence the communities we are a part of.
Opening the Door
Throughout the keynotes, panels, and talks, there was a common thread of addressing diversity and inclusion, whether within the workplace, the classroom, or beyond. Dara Treseder, CMO of Carbon and previously CMO of GE Ventures and GE Business Innovations, delivered a keynote that walked us through the path to her success. Along her journey, she was blessed with female mentors that lifted her up. Yet, she made a point that although there may be a woman in the room, it does not mean that she will open the door for other women. Although it is an unfortunate, defensive instinct, it does not always stem from a place of malice… it comes from a place of fear. A place that senses the ingrained disparity between female and male representation in the industry, which drives an innate reaction for women to maintain their position and voice. Dara encouraged us to be aware of this, and inspired us to always open the door for fellow women, as it will not drown out our voice; it will drive forward our success, power, and diversity in the workplace.
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Photo by NESA by Makers on Unsplash
Finding the Power Within
A particularly enlightening group of panelists shared how they are able to tackle inclusivity and encourage diversity in their everyday roles. Tiana Davis Kara, Executive Director of Built By Girls, addressed the challenge many women face of who to look up to as they maneuver through their career within the tech industry. Her illuminating perspective flipped this idea on its head, insisting that WE are the ones we have been waiting for. We are the individuals the tech industry wants to step in; as women and minorities, we need to become our own role models. Often, women experience a sense of inadequacy. Tiana encouraged us to channel into our own successes, whether that means giving yourself a pat on the back, or even keeping a book of pride outlining your own achievements to look back on when your confidence isn’t quite there.
Handing Back the Mic
Tiana also shared her approach of “handing back the mic” when we feel a marginalized member of our community has been overlooked. For instance, if we witness someone brazenly interrupted, we should make a concerted effort to give their voice back to them. An effective way to practice this can be along the lines of stating, “Sally, you were saying something?” after the interrupter completes their thought. Being aware of these situations and giving a voice back to people that have it stolen or ignored is a key component to addressing commonplace destructive behaviors in our everyday lives. Kwame Henderson, Product Manager at Tumblr, encouraged us to maintain an optimistic, growth mindset if ever addressing microaggressions, which can run rampant through conversations and can be difficult to address. Knowing you can help evolve a person’s mindset with one conversation is an encouraging place to start.
Culture Fit?
As the panel discussed how to encourage broader diversity during the hiring process, it was noted that many companies interview for a “culture fit” from candidates. However, Kwame illustrated that this is potentially preventing us from including a broader array of candidates. Instead, he suggested rather than asking “does this person FIT our culture,” we ask “does this person ADD to our culture.” This simple, yet powerful shift in thinking can revitalize a company’s hiring practices and inspire the inclusion of a diverse set of individuals to join a team.
Mind of a Programmer === Mind of an Activist
WECode wrapped up with a final keynote by Jessica McKellar, founder and CTO of Pilot, a bookkeeping service, and director of the Python Software Foundation. She focused on how the mind of a programmer actually encompasses the mind of an activist. Having a system and knowing you can change it stimulates a unique way of approaching ingrained problems. Jessica saw a huge opportunity for change within the United States prison system, and she chose to make a lasting impact by teaching incarcerated people how to code through a program at the San Quentin State Prison, building the skill set and hire-ability of her students for a smoother reentry into society after completing their sentences. She also works to reduce the stigma of existing criminal records by encouraging companies to consider graduates of her program for employment. Jessica actively practices what she preaches by hiring people after their sentences for numerous roles at Pilot.
Changing the System
WECode’s inspirational lineup highlighted new ways to consider systemic issues and provided effective approaches to tackling those problems. Whether the system we want to change is within the application we are building, or a societal system that has room for improvement, we can each use our powerful, dynamic perspectives to drive forward impactful change.

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Women in STEM

From Art to Tech

Margot Dear’s advice to creative people interested in tech: Be curious and ask great design questions, but also always figure out how to explain your value.

When Margot Dear decided she wanted to learn French, she got on a bus in Vancouver and moved to Montreal. It took three days to get there, but that was part of the adventure.

C’est une aventure depuis.

It’s been an adventure ever since.

From Art to Tech

She loved Montreal and decided to go to university there, where she studied art history and studio art. After college, she also learned graphic design and opened up her own design firm for print, graphics and independent film design.

Around that time, Margot realized that art was going digital, so she focused her efforts on computer digital design. She also began working on web design. While she was learning, one of her favorite tricks was to hide her mouse so she would be forced to find another way to get the same result. She has been bridging the gap between the logic and structure of computers and the art and experiences of people ever since.

Understanding Design, Tech, and Relationships

When a friend invited her to come to London — “Because things are happening here!” her friend exclaimed — Margot left her web design position and moved to the U.K. She was able to get a work permit there because her grandfather was a British citizen, and she immediately started working as a freelance graphic and web designer.

She first worked to create online tools for a finance company, then she helped the British Post Office develop their online portal. The Royal Mail needed someone who understood both technology and design to create a central portal while managing relationships across distinct postal brands: Royal Mail, Post Office and Parcel Post. This was a pivotal position for Margot, as her role became less hands-on and more managerial, which meant that understanding people would be a key skill.

After the project was complete, LexisNexis recruited Margot to develop an online presence for their products and services outside the United States. This involved working with teams around the world from many disciplines, including academics, library science, taxonomy, tech, art and design. Margot says, with a laugh, “It was hard to recruit the creative team, because tax and legal compliance is not exactly sexy. But fortunately, complex problems attract great people.”

Coming to ADP

After about 10 years in London, Margot and her husband moved to the United States, where she joined Citrix to work on the Go to Meeting/Go to My PC interface. A friend there began working for ADP and told her about an opening at the ADP Innovation Center in Pasadena, California.

When she went for the interview, the Innovation Center was just starting, and the meeting was in empty office building. Despite the “Sopranos moment,” Margot found that they were so passionate about their work in design and UX that she decided to move to L.A. and take the job.

Now, Margot is the Senior Director of User Experience for Compliance Solutions at the Innovation Center, where she continues to focus on the connections between people, tech and work. In a recent talk at Enterprise UX, she explained: “Delivering products is not enough. We must also communicate the needs of our audiences, the value of our practices and the unique skills we bring to the enterprise table.”

She loves the Innovation Center and the opportunities to connect with others through the meetups and hackathons they hold there. Margot also appreciates the opportunities and challenges of constantly answering new questions and solving new issues. She especially enjoys going into the field and researching with customers to better understand how to design software interfaces in support of their work.

“Our work is getting into the hands of customers and we get to see what happens,” Margot says. “It’s exciting to see a large company invest in UX as an important part of their technology.”

Creating Value

Along the way, Margot has learned a lot about working with people and managing teams. “Give people enough time, space and trust to do great work,” she says. She has found that this is especially important when working with creative people.

“Roadmaps are linear. Creativity is nonlinear,” Margot says.

As a leader, Margot also had to figure out how to explain the value of the creative work she and her team were doing so they would have the resources they needed. This also helped senior leadership understand what they were getting for their investment in UX. Margot and her team are currently exploring how to measure and quantify the value that UX brings to both ADP and its customers by regularly measuring and reporting these metrics to stakeholders across the organization.

Margot has the following advice for creative people interested in tech: be curious. Ask great design questions, but also always figure out how to explain your value.

Parce que vous le valez bien.

Because you’re worth it.