Toeing the line: My take on the GoGaRuCo presentation fiasco
No, I’m not going to further whip Matt Aimonetti about his poorly chosen theme for his talk about CouchDB at GoGaRuCo this year. I think that enough has been said about the topic by far more influential members of the community than myself (there are many more links). Matt Aimonetti has already apologized, and I believe that he is genuinely apologetic. I will disagree, however, with Sarah Mei’s assertion that Rails is still a ghetto. If anything, the fact that we have been able to discuss this topic in such depth shows that the Ruby diaspora is not a group of antisocial hackers. We’re not a ghetto; we’re a real community that cares not only for the quality of our craft, but for being responsible craftsmen that care about having a positive impact on society through our passion and professionalism.
What I haven’t seen a lot of, however, is how we can benefit from what has already happened. We can’t go back and stuff the proverbial cat back in the bag. What’s done is done, and in order to move on we need to learn from our mistakes. I can’t rationalize why Matt Aimonetti did what he did better than he can, but I can an embarrassing story about myself making a very similar mistake. “All this has happened before, and all this will happen again,” I believe the adage goes:
My sophmore year in college, I took a job working in Housing IT to pay the bills. I was majoring in Computer Science and had to start somewhere; prior to the job I had worked doing data entry and filing clerk type duties. It was a huge step up for me. I was 19, pretty good with computers, and overall excited to finally have a real tech job.
For whatever reason, at the time, SJSU Housing IT’s leadership, in all their wisdom, decided that every student that would be using the residential network (ResNet) needed to have their NIC’s MAC address registered and a static IP configured. I suppose there were liability reasons, or the rules were created by someone with no knowledge of how modern networks function, or whatever. The point is that it was a particularly arduous job to go around to every student’s computer and, no matter how old or how messed up their copies of Windows 98 and Windows ME were, to get them up and running with internet access. Housing IT hired 5 of us students to serve as PARCs, short for Peer Advisors for Residential Computing, to deal with the management of this process, and when the initial configuration was done, to slip into more Helpdesk like positions. We had these gigantic binders of printouts of MAC addresses, their assigned Ethernet port number, and their IP address, and the first few weeks of school, I spent my time buried in hell of Windows TCP/IP configuration hell (random note: a semester after I left, one ambitious student set up DHCP … and I said to him, “You idiot, you just put all the remaining PARCs out of work” in jest).
The challenge we had was information propagation and telling students the process for signing up for an internet configuration appointment. You have to remember what life was like before the age of ubiquitous Web 2.0 for college students. You got information out by posting fliers that no one read and making announcements that no one listens to. And of course, we couldn’t post information on the website or email students, because, well, they didn’t have an internet connection.
So being 19, ambitious and a bit of a maverick, I took it upon myself to start a bit of what resembled a viral marketing campaign. I took pictures of all the different PARCs and created posters that would have what I thought were funny taglines, a picture of a PARC, and a short description of the process of signing up for internet. The taglines were pretty random. I don’t remember most of them, but they were along these lines:
BE MY FRIEND!
DO YOU LIKE MY HAIR?
In my mind, it was pretty hilarious, since housing seemed to make it a point to take terribly unflattering pictures of us wearing branded shirts in the only size they could afford: XL. Ah, public school.
I saved the edgy one for myself, since, hey, I’m an edgy guy. I had a grin from cheek to cheek and blinked during the photo. Here’s what I put above my face:
DOES THIS LOOK LIKE A CHILD ABDUCTOR?
It was funny, right? Right? I mean, I laughed when I was making it.
Imagine my surprise when the excrement hit the fan. I had raised a furor, and it came All The Way Down The Mountain from the desk of the president of housing through several layers of management, and finally my boss, who called everyone on my team to ask who the culprit was. I quickly fessed up, and even though I was a little bit confused – it was only a joke – I was summoned to his office, where he asked me about the fliers, holding one in hand.
“What part of you thought this was a good idea?” He asked. He was usually a pretty jovial guy. He was not smiling.
I didn’t know, and I told him. But I didn’t try to defend why I did it. In fact, at this point, part of me still thought I was in trouble for unofficially posting fliers that hadn’t been signed off (and rightly so) and not because of the flier with my face on it subtlety implying that I was some kind of a sex offender.
“No,” my boss said to me. “These other ones are fine. You’re a smart guy, what the hell could compel you to make a flier like this? Don’t you realize that many of these parents are first time college parents, and this is the first time their children are away from home?” He paused and looked me in the eye because he wanted the next point to really stick, “Don’t you realize that we might fire you?”
Wow. I slunk down in my chair. My first real day working my first job I cared about, and I was on the verge of losing it. Looking back, I sometimes wonder if my shame came more from the fact that I almost lost my job, or more from the fact that I could do something so boneheaded and not realize how people would react. Luckily, I didn’t lose my job, though I spent a lot of time hunting down fliers and apologizing to people. And configuring &%&*@* Windows ME TCP/IP settings, of course.
In retrospect, I’m glad the whole mess took place, because I learned a lot about being edgy, and the seminar we had prior to student check-in about respecting a diversity of opinions really sunk in. I haven’t forgotten them since, and I don’t think I ever will. I learned that even though I am, myself, someone who likes to make jokes and be edgy and push the envelope, not everyone else is. The same traits that can make me interesting and fun to be around also have the potential to make me obnoxious, offensive, and to create a bad perception of myself in the eyes of people who don’t really know me yet. The easiest lesson to extract here is to simply err on the side of caution when communicating with people who don’t know you, but I’d like to think it goes much deeper than that. I don’t think we give ourselves enough credit for just being decent people on a day-to-day basis, because interacting with other humans is really challenging, and we’ll often get it wrong. Even though we can usually be safe by avoiding sex, politics and religion, we still run the risk of offending people. I didn’t realize my “child abduction” tagline would lead to parental types with torches and pitchforks calling for my head. I stayed in a hostel on a recent overseas trip and the manager confided with me that he was there because he spent a few years in a maximum security penitentiary and was deported; a few days later I made some joke about a jail cell to him before I realized how stupid that was and walked away, savoring the taste of my foot. Human beings are notoriously difficult creatures, and that’s why there’s a premium on respecting others. It’s not easy to do. We can be R-rated individuals. I’m one. But that doesn’t give us the right to be assholes.
I can see how and why Matt Aimonetti ended up with the presentation he did, because I’ve made the same mistake. Believe me, everyone, he feels like crap. Thanks to the interwebs, it’s a thousand times worse for him than it was for me. A few months ago, I submitted a talk about social media, and the conference organizer emailed me back giving me some advice about one of the screenshots of Facebook I had taken. There was a swear word on one of the images. I honestly didn’t even notice it and I quickly removed it because it added nothing to my talk. He didn’t ask me to remove it, he just suggested that in previous years, some people complained about swearing. I wouldn’t have been one of those people, but also, I wouldn’t have been one of the people complaining about people complaining about swearing. As a community, we have matured to the point where we are starting to set boundaries. I can understand the Ruby community’s aversion to fences; Matz has always placed the importance of happiness over that of arbitrary rules. These rules, however, aren’t arbitrary. In fact, it’s through these boundaries that we open up our community to outsiders and become inclusive of people who want to create great applications, use fantastic tools, and work with awesome people. In a sense, I’m glad someone has set off this fire, because a lot of things that needed to be said have been said, and as a result, I’m absolutely positive the Ruby community will become better for it. I’m glad someone has pushed the boundaries a bit too far, and as a result, we’ve all stepped back and said, “No, we can’t.” And lastly, I know it’s selfish: I’m glad that someone wasn’t me.