Archive for March, 2010

Ada Lovelace Day

March 24, 2010

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, a day on which we celebrate women in technology.  The intent is that we all blog about women in technology whom we admire not only to celebrate their achievements, but to provide role models for others.

As I write this I can see my male students and colleagues shrug their shoulders, shake their heads and mutter something about this being women’s history month.  So, I believe I should begin this essay with an answer to the question, “why should we care?”  That’s easy….

The IT field suffers from terribly high failure rates for systems.  I could cite statistics, but I suspect that no one reading this needs to be convinced that software projects often run over budget, don’t meet users needs or just simply don’t work.  The most commonly cited, of course are the Chaos studies that estimate between 20 and 50 percent of all projects are failures.   Specifically, they estimate that about 18% are total failures and another 53% are “challenged.”  There have been a myriad of solutions proposed to address the problem of system problems.

I would propose that the problem is not the methodology or tool or even upper management’s support, but rather the mix of the team that is developing the product.  Right now the majority of the systems developers are male.  Worse yet, the number of women in the pipeline shrinks every day.  When I began in this profession, women were happy because it was an even playing field compared to other disciplines in engineering. Women flocked to the discipline causing it to be at some point about 30% women.  Today, women are shying away from the discipline.  As I write this I know that I am about to go teach a class that has no women in it.  In my early years of being a professor, that never happened.  Today I see it more and more.

So, what I suggest is that addressing the goal for better technology is best done by increasing the diversity of the teams that develop it.  Countless studies show that diversity in a team leads to better products.  As a recent Ernst & Young report points out, a group of intelligent problem solvers chosen at random will outperform a homogenous group of even the best problem solvers, under the right conditions.  Will it work?  Well, teams comprising men and women produced the most frequently cited patents – with citation rates that were 26 to 42 percent higher than the norm for similar patents (i.e. diversity promotes innovation).  Companies with the highest representation of women in their senior management teams had a 35 percent higher return on equity and a 34 percent higher return to shareholders.  And, we have only to look to our colleagues in production to see that it is true.

There are lots of theories as to why women do not select the profession and it is up to all of us – male and female – to think about increasing the percentage of women in the field.  It is not a “women’s problem” it is a “better technology problem” that belongs to all of us.  So, that is why days like Ada Lovelace Day, where we celebrate the women who are in the field and attempt to attract more women are so important.

I want to celebrate all of the women in technology whom I know.  I know countless women who have wonderful careers and I could not possibly enumerate all of them here.  What I want to do, however, is to celebrate a trait that I see in the ones that are happiest and most successful.  That trait is to “do it your way.”   Early on, when there were few of us, we attempted to blend in, to be “one of the guys.”  Now there are enough of us that we can each celebrate our own individuality and gifts.  As we celebrate our differences, we begin to understand how those differences can be channeled to bring about the improvement in technology.  It is through those different views that we can see the problem, and thus the solution, for what it is.

So, I celebrate Mary Fowler who approaches computer problems and system design in an almost “psychic” approach.  I am not sure she could ever chart how she sees the problems or decides on the solutions, but she is brilliant in her analysis and design.  I also want to celebrate Sheila Burkett who approaches problems in a more traditional way with specific plans and procedures.  She can tell you how she got there and she is also brilliant in her analysis and design.

Those who are best, find that part of the field that they like and then practice the Shakespearean quote (from Hamlet): “This above all: to thine own self be true” (emphasis added).

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Personal Privacy

March 18, 2010

My undergraduates are increasingly teasing me about my reluctance to keep information online. In fact last week they had me wondering if I was, in fact, getting too old for the field. I used to be one of the people close to the bleeding edge – am I getting too conservative for that position now? Does that mean I can no longer be an effective teacher and researcher? In other words, I was having a bit of a crisis of confidence.

Then two things happened. First, I spoke with my son (who is always a source of wisdom) about my quandary and found that my concern about privacy online is not as conservative as his. So, maybe it is not my age? Second, I read a Time Magazine article about how we have the largest generation gap in history and it is all about this question of how much should we put online. OK, so maybe it is not just me?

Then this morning while reading the New York Times, I felt my confidence return. In an article How Privacy Vanishes Online, the authors discuss how people can deduce data based on the personal information posted on social networking sites – not only one’s own, but also those sites of one’s friends. In fact, it states, “Computer scientists and policy experts say that such seemingly innocuous bits of self-revelation can increasingly be collected and reassembled by computers to help create a picture of a person’s identity, sometimes down to the Social Security number. “

The article went on to remind the reader of last year’s MIT experiment during which students were able to identify with 78% accuracy the sexual preference of students based upon their profiles (which, of course) were stripped of that information. A more recent example is the recent decision of Netflix to cancel their second competition because although the records were stripped of identifying information, individual users could be identified because of their unique viewing history.

People judge you by the information you share and by your friends. This information can be put together in a distinctive “social signature” (as the researchers quoted in the article identify it) that can be used for good, bad an neutral purposes. We tend not to look at our social signature in the same way that prospective employers or others might.

I worry that we have a generation of people who are growing up putting all kinds of things online that will come back to haunt them in later years when they least expect them. Once online, of course, things cannot be taken back. They exist there forever. Just look at our web presence as identified by the Way Back Machine (see http://www.archive.org/). All those old web pages that may or may not have things on them that we would not want now (and certainly have design flaws that we would rather not see again) are available for anyone to view. Can we say there will not be a parallel site for facebook, twitter, and other social networking sites?

So, after having my crisis of confidence, I have reassured myself that the problem is that I have more knowledge about what can be done with the data than my students, so I can see possibilities that they cannot. In addition, I have the wisdom that comes with more years to see how one’s personal views change.

I used to tell my students that it was critical that they manage their careers, starting from what courses they take. I will now add that it is critical to manage their social signature so that they can have a career to manage (among other things).

Why worry about diversity in the IS Field?

March 18, 2010

Alpha Trade Finance is a publication that I never read. However there was a link in a Mentoring newsletter that caught my attention: “Ten Things Companies – and Women – Can Do To Get Ahead.”  As advertised, it really does identify 10 things companies can do and then 10 things women can do to get ahead.

Many of them are things we all have heard before. However, the first item needs repeating:

Work toward “Functional Diversity”: Professor Scott Page of the University of Michigan uses this term to capture the idea that we need people with diverse ways of perceiving problems, rather than groupthink, in order to devise better solutions. As a recent Ernst & Young report points out, a group of intelligent problem solvers chosen at random will outperform a homogenous group of even the best problem solvers, under the right conditions.

    That caught my attention because it identifies the primary reason I believe we need to increase the number of women (and other minorities) in the Information Systems field. The field suffers from terribly high failure rates for systems. Study after study has shown that diversity leads to better products. So, it is in everyone’s interests that we increase the diversity of the IS field. Don’t think of it as a “women’s problem” …. think of it as a “better technology problem” that belongs to all of us!