Navigating an ‘engineered’ and ‘gendered’ world: questions about communities and belonging

Yesterday morning I went birdwatching in Ragihalli with Deepa and two other avid birdwatchers. Two years ago, if someone asked me to come birdwatching, I’d perhaps not have gone. These days, I face such an emotional, intellectual and physical burnout that I try to participate in any activity which involves anything other than ‘technology’ and is a group activity. 

Understanding Technology: Two years ago, Fra and I were volunteering for Droidcon 2011. She was managing PR and media. Once, she mentioned: “The vocabulary of technology is too far from me.” She was frustrated and resigned at not being able to articulate the essence of the event and Android technology.

Both, out of personal interest and the desire to communicate the events better, I have tried very hard to understand some of the intricacies of technology. It has been tough because technology changes very fast. Moreover, HasGeek events are meant for individuals who are fairly advanced in their technological understanding and practice. This makes it tougher for a novice like me to participate in the events beyond a point.

In the first year – 2012 – I struggled really hard to understand everything from front-end engineering to big data, JavaScript, Android, security and what have you. I relied a lot on Kiran’s understanding and his ability to simplify things in order to communicate the thrust of the events to myself, the media, participants, sponsors, etc. I was fairly enthusiastic then as I tried to put together every little piece of knowledge and understanding hungrily, and engage in conversations that I could to improve my communication skills. I guess part of this assiduous learning was driven by the desire to belong to a new community of technologists, developers and geeks and get some bearings and foothold into the ‘ecosystem’ that the company and I were part of. (Kiran being a geek and member of many communities already had a legacy in the ecosystem. For him, starting HasGeek was a consolidation of his experiences and learnings.)

Despite these efforts, the every-now-and-then reminder that I was not an engineer or a geek and that I could not be part of geeks and communities, demotivated me. The sources of these reminders were various: well-intentioned friends and well-wishers, and people from various domains who expressed surprise at my being part of the company.

I persisted in the first year, despite the dejection and demotivation. By the end of 2012, I began to resign and internalize that I could not be part of the technology communities and that technology and its problems were too many for me to understand thoroughly. I was now left with the challenge to find a place where I could position myself as an insider in the company and simultaneously as an outside observer of technology, and feel satisfied.

The lack of a community, the lack of belongingness: This challenge of finding a place for myself was by no means a small one. It was worse because by 2013, I was quite isolated from my earlier peer groups and activities, and I was too involved in the company to be left with any energy to pursue new interests, hobbies and membership in new groups. I kept missing the ‘running’ group I was part of between 2010 and 2011 mainly because I wanted to feel that I belonged somewhere. At the same time, I could barely bring myself to get into a routine of physical activity. I am not sure if this was the period of an emotional and intellectual burnout or that the burnout started to aggravate from here. The continuous reminders that I was only an ‘organizer’ and not a ‘geek’ made me even more resentful of this entire ecosystem (even though the reminders were not from developers, but from other sources). Each of these episodes made me worse off as a person primarily because I kept feeling isolated and had no belonging to an alternative group(s) where I could derive energy and motivation from.

Is this an ‘engineered’ world or a ‘gendered’ world? Often times, people ask Kiran (as someone just did once more last week): “So you said Zainab is your partner in HasGeek. What does she do in the company?” This question is often asked in my presence, when I am right in front of the person asking this question. Kiran’s instant response is: “She runs the company”. The conversation then veers off towards other questions. People have often commented saying that this question and those who ask this question should not be taken seriously. For me, this question is often a reminder of “what am I really doing in this company? Why am I even here?” It goes back again to the question of belongingness and community, and why am I passionate about pedagogy and activities that will help put together communities that I won’t have any belongings with.

I presumably or actually don’t understand geeks and technology communities. I don’t particularly enjoy organizing events these days because of the physical burnout I am facing (organizing a conference is a huge drain and more so when one has to do it one after the other). I have also started experiencing indifference towards technology and those who care about it. I have reached a stage where I hate to hear the word ‘technology’ because it drains me out and because it constantly requires my mind to switch contexts and make an effort to understand a language that is neither mine and which I don’t feel passionate about.

The moot question then is whether there is something about the world of engineers and geeks which they themselves have created, and/or which has been constructed by those from the startup and VC worlds, the media and academia (among others) which puts those with different skill sets in the technology world as lesser or outside beings? Is it also the case that because women tend to be stereotyped with certain roles and attitudes – such as thrifty, organized, creative, etc – that they occupy jobs fulfilling these stereotypes and are therefore typecast even more? In general, how do women adjust and participate in communities? How do communities accentuate and/or confront gender tensions and stereotypes?

By way of ending this post … Again, this is not a very precisely articulated blog post. There are two strands of questions here: one about communities, belongingness and what it means to be an ‘outsider’. The other is about the relationship or the non-relationship between tech communities and gender stereotypes.

For those who may be alarmed by the burnout situation I have described here, I am seeing a counsellor to get perspective on my situation and life goals. I have also started pursuing relaxing activities such as reading and cooking to rejuvenate myself. I also try to reconnect with older friends and past associations which will help me to build a support group, and help in gaining clarity on life goals and pursuits.

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Organizing events – curation and selecting speakers

JSFoo 2013 – held between 18th and 21st Sept – is the third edition of JSFoo I have organized in two consecutive years. JSFoo has come a long way since the previous edition held in October 2012 in terms of:

  1. Increase in the number of outstation participants attending the event. This year, we had 120 outstation participants i.e. 25% of the total number of the attendees.
  2. Presence of international speakers – five of them as against none last year.
  3. After two years of persistent efforts, Mozilla participated in JSFoo this year, sending a strong contingent of three speakers, number of local representatives and showing Firefox OS to developers in India.
  4. 7 outstation speakers from India (one of who could not make it at the last minute owing to a medical emergency).
  5. Some of last years’ participants were on stage this year as speakers.
  6. Significantly better quality content this year, despite some talks not living up to the mark.
  7. Workshops and trainings held before the event to help beginners understand JavaScript better and skilled practitioners to further improve their craft.
  8. Overall, increase in the number of attendees.

Judging by some of these parameters, one could say that JSFoo 2013 has been a successful event.

In this post, I elaborate on some aspects of organizing events which I have been thinking of deeply since the beginning of this year. These have to do with content curation, selection of speakers, presence of international speakers, and the absence of ‘women’ speakers. Part of my reflections (and discomforts) also stem from my earlier stints with organizing academic conferences and editing research publications. Here we go:

Content curation: This is always a tricky one. I learnt a great deal with The Fifth Elephant 2013 process because I was chairing the programme committee.

In order to eliminate biases in voting patterns, we decided to count votes from ticket holders and not from everyone who voted on the funnel. (Earlier, at Meta Refresh 2013, decisions were made based on the votes of the programme committee only.) We felt that ticket holders have a greater stake in voting because they are attending the event and therefore want to decide which talks they really want to listen to.

For The Fifth Elephant 2013, we held three rounds of voting. In the first round, we found that some talks received high number of attendee and proportionate number of programme committee votes. There was no conflict here.

In some cases, there were more attendee votes and little interest from the programme committee. I found this to be a surprising trend and insisted that the programme committee reviews the proposals again and speaks to the proposers either over phone or comments in detail on the funnel about their concerns. The Fifth Elephant 2013 programme committee was highly responsive. (Ashok Banerjee left the committee owing to personal commitments and lack of time, though he played an important part in setting the agenda of the conference at the start.)

Through this process, we found two things: programme committee members typically consist of individuals who are ace practitioners themselves and are usually looking to explore and learn about cutting edge technologies. Whereas attendees have different motivations – learn more about something that is becoming / is popular and mainstream, improve their skills levels and knowledge, and become better practitioners. Attendees vote on some topics and technologies with these intentions. In this case, programme committee members accepted audience wisdom and gave appropriate feedback to the proposers. In yet some other cases, when programme committee members found a talk to be interesting / important and found zero to little attendee interest, they intervened by commenting on the funnel about the importance of the talk and why it was beneficial for the agenda of the conference. This influenced audience voting patterns. Regunath’s talk at The Fifth Elephant is one such instance of this.

There were other trends we discovered during the second and third rounds of voting. Older proposals continued to receive more votes and therefore continued to stand out against talks that came in later. This problem was acute in the third round of voting: newer talks that covered more diverse technology stacks and also promised to be interesting had fewer votes because they came in late. At that time, we decided in favour of diversity in technology stacks and discounted attendee votes (and counted only committee members’ votes). Later, we implemented a new feature on the funnel: view votes on a day-by-day basis to improve decisions about talks that come in later. We hoped that this will also make the review process simpler and more thorough.

Despite each of these improvements and the rigor in the review process, there are subjective factors in curation and talk selection:

  1. the amount of time that programme committee members put in for the process.
  2. disproportionate ‘voice’ between different programme committee members’ voices – some being more dominant than others.
  3. setting the expectations from the programme committee right at the beginning – what are their roles, responsibilities, how they will refer to votes on the funnel and attendee votes when judging on talks, etc.
  4. the ability of the committee chair or coordinator to bring in each of the committee members to chip in equally or at least proportionately.
  5. the process followed for curation and review. For Droidcon 2013, each committee member is in charge of a separate track instead of all committee members reviewing every talk. This reduces the overall overhead for all the committee members.
  6. time between selection, scheduling and dates of the conference – the shorter the time, the more pressure there is in selecting good talks and greater chances of the process becoming ad hoc.
  7. speakers’/proposers’ past reputation and popularity which can bias decisions.
  8. speakers’/proposers’ commitment to share drafts of their presentations in advance and willingness to receive and act upon feedback.
  9. mismatch between what the proposer initially proposed and what s/he eventually presents on stage.
  10. ‘sponsored’ proposals and proposals by ‘sponsor’ companies which put committee members in jeopardy about the financial status of the event and maintaining neutrality in content (though committee members are not connected with the financial status of the event at all. Their concerns stem more from being HasGeek well-wishers.)
  11. committee’s interest in a certain talk but low level of knowledge among attendees about the subject matter. For instance, the Julia talk at The Fifth Elephant 2013 was confirmed much later because attendees did not poll for the talk. This was because attendees did not have much knowledge about Julia. It became the committee’s task to help the proposer to make the talk relevant and more interesting to the audience. (Eventually, the Julia talk was one of the most appreciated talks at The Fifth Elephant.)

Undoubtedly, content curation is a very hard task and extremely time consuming – negotiations, hard decisions and resolving conflicts at multiple levels. We created the funnel to preserve audience interests and keep them foremost. Funnel has achieved some of these objectives and is continuously improved to make the selection process free of subjectivity.

Yet, at the end of JSFoo 2013, I am forced to think of processes and best practices for curation. How can these processes within programme committees complement the funnel, ensure that good talks are selected, good proposals stand a good chance to get to the stage, new presenters have the opportunity to be seen and heard in the community, and proposals by popular speakers continue to be thoroughly evaluated and scrutinised?

Presence of international speakers – ‘local knowledges’ and ‘outsider wisdom’: I have always held that HasGeek conferences are spaces for knowledge creation and thought leadership as much as they are spaces for sharing knowledge. This is a political process too, invariably. In my earlier experiences with social sciences, I have learnt that knowledge creation in natural and social sciences is a political process: certain forms of dominance are promoted over time, some practices get naturalized and others get delegitimized as knowledges get disseminated.

For HasGeek conferences, the presence of international speakers was important from the standpoint of:

  • Awareness of worldwide trends.
  • Knowledge of and interaction with persons who had built public / community projects (such as Cynagenmod at Droidcon 2011).
  • Raising the quality of content by having prominent international speakers. By doing so, known and unknown developers may be encouraged to come forward and present their own work and be in the presence of someone who has made a substantial contribution to the community.
  • Encouraging local speakers to imbibe some of the best practices especially with respect to presentation skills and delivery of content.

Interestingly, this year at JSFoo 2013, some of the international speakers made a point about not needing outsiders to tell local people about their knowledge systems and practices (or something to this effect). I have personally held that a ‘white person’ does not automatically have more wisdom than those who are part of local ecosystems. This is a constant reinforcement in anthropology and production of knowledge in social sciences. Presence of a ‘white person’ at HasGeek conferences is similarly not an assertion of the ‘white man’s’ or ‘white world’s’ hegemony in information technology. It is a carrot for practical reasons.

But it also produces interesting outcomes. For instance, this year, the international speakers from Europe were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the conference and the quality of developers attending them – they were simply surprised with what they saw and how their presentations were received. Our hope is that they will eventually evangelize what is happening in India with respect to information technology, open source and emerging technologies. Over time, this process may help in shifting the scales of hegemony and dominance (and perceptions).

Lack of  ‘female’ speakers: We have had this concern since a long time and have been even more conscious of this since the beginning of 2013. We have also been thinking of the means to get more ‘female’ speakers at HasGeek conferences. Should we reserve slots for women speakers? I am personally not in favour of this approach. There have been a fair number of women in technology and the industry who have also argued against this position.

I must admit that we have not made very concerted efforts in reaching out to women in technology to propose more talks. One of the action items on my agenda is to connect with groups who are actively working with / encouraging women in technology and explore possibilities and collaborations with them.

The other option is to seek women speakers who are known in technology circles and invite them to submit proposals for conferences. Perhaps this might encourage more women to even attend the conferences. (Having said this, I am told that there were more women attendees at JSFoo 2013 as compared with the previous years. We need to review the participant lists and crosscheck whether this was indeed the case.)

Finally, one of the things I am also told is that having women organize and be in charge of tech conferences – rather visibly – can be a draw for other women. I have no way of verifying this and knowing whether it is indeed true. The only instance I know is when girls from Mysore came to the JavaScript and Security hacknight in August, telling their parents that they need not worry about safety since a woman was organizing the event. :)

This is again an open question, and one that may take some time to be resolved.

This post has been motivated by my constant questioning of knowledge production, dissemination, and now entry into a new domain called technology whose sources of knowledge production and sharing are new and unknown to me. The post is further motivated by my business partner – Kiran Jonnalagadda’s – consistent efforts to implement solutions to bring more community participation in events, improve interfaces to enable more participation and make technology events better quality and openly available to individuals and communities. 

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Navigating a “gendered” world – role divisions, nature of work and founding a startup with a spouse

One day, I was eating lunch with a buyer and my parents. The buyer started to inquire about dad’s business. Mom chipped in between and said she also helps dad with the business. He immediately said, “Ah, you manage accounts?”

I was taken aback by the spontaneity with which he asked this question. I wasn’t exactly sure how to read this response. Are women generally considered to be good with accounts and finance management? Are women working with their spouses ‘assumed’ to manage ‘support’ functions such as accounts, operations and management in the business? 

I don’t know the answer to these questions. I don’t even know if these are the right questions to ask. 

When I started to play an active role in HasGeek from Nov 2011, I did not see myself as doing anything more than support functions: accounts, organizing roles and responsibilities when it came to event management, making event logistics simpler, working on ticket sales, managing vendor relations and trying to do some public relations and media. Over time, I started to manage sales. While I was good at each of these activities, I viewed them mainly as support functions. I felt that more ‘important’ functions such as steering the organization’s direction and vision, writing code and building technology, working on the content of the events, and being the spokesperson for the company were still managed by Kiran.

Partially, I put myself in a secondary position by thinking of this division between ‘important’ and ‘less important’ work. Part of this distinction also came from the fact that I still considered my PhD and intellectual labour as more important than running around to execute and finish tasks. And yet another reason for thinking of myself as performing “support” functions came from the internal and external questioning of “what am I doing in HasGeek, among geeks, in an unknown world, with my background?” I even began to doubt the credentials of my past background and whether these had any value in what I was doing at HasGeek.

I tried seeking ‘professional satisfaction’ and trying to find desperately what I could do that’d make everything seem more meaningful. I felt in charge and motivated when I first organized The Fifth Elephant 2011. I decided to run the event because I wanted to learn more about the politics and economy of big data. I derived personal satisfaction in doing sales for the event, building partnerships and networks, going to different cities and organizing activities there in an attempt to understand the nature of communities in these cities. I felt like I was steering the ship and for once, I was happy. I was making every effort to learn about the tech and startup ecosystem that I was coincidentally part of by running HasGeek.

As the event progressed, I realized I was learning less about big data and more about handling people and processes in events. This discouraged me and made me wonder what kind of future lay for me if I were to continue in the company – will I always be managing relations and people? I still ran the event with every bit of gusto and gumption I could. Despite the depression that I was beginning to experience, I continued to move forward. The event was a huge success, like none other in the brief history of HasGeek. This was one thing I could take credit for. However, when one newspaper attributed the statements in the post-event report I wrote to Kiran, I felt discouraged once again and wondered what kind of headway I’d be able to make in a world where Kiran was de facto associated with technology and therefore running HasGeek. 

Executing and operations are painful tasks and tough asks. I acknowledge this fully now. In 2011, operations and sales did not only involve dealing with vendors and organizing the final stages of the event. It also involved planning the various sub activities of an event, striking partnerships with communities and working with them, selling tickets and making event tickets sell by themselves, sourcing potential speakers, persuading potential speakers to go through the funnel / open submission process of turning in talks and review, negotiating with sponsors and working with various people in the sponsor’s company till the completion of the event, responding to ticketing inquiries, despatching receipts, writing event reports and following-up post-event with speakers, sponsors and supporters. By the time one event gets over, it is already time to buck up for the next event and perhaps even go into the fast track mode and execute quickly to make up for lost time. All this is extremely consuming and taxing on my physical and mental reserves. In addition to this, the constant questioning of what I am doing in HasGeek adds to the drain. 

After The Fifth Elephant, I was beginning to suffer from depression which stemmed from an increasing sense of hopelessness that I’d never be able to get back to research and writing and that I was getting trapped into doing operations in the company. I tried to hold on – emotionally – as much as I could, sometimes immersing myself fully into an event in the hope of emerging with an anchor at the end of it. I could not find any. I tried asking ‘research questions’ in the hope that something would spark the fuel of writing inside me and that the momentum would be enough to move away from the company and be back in the world where I belonged. 

In the process, I kept belittling my role as performing “support”, thinking that something bigger was driving the company and not me. Whereas, in reality, I was driving the company and making things happen. I could not see it then because I was blinded by my own sorrow and depression, and also isolation from everyone I knew and from every little activity that earlier gave me joy – running, writing, cooking, ethnography.

I started writing this post in the hope of being able to ask the question of division of labour, roles and functions in a business/enterprise. Here are some questions that strike me:

  1. Have these roles and functions become gendered over time owing to stereotypes? Or it is that women are just better than men in performing certain tasks such as management, operations, sales, public relations, etc?
  2. In a world whether technology is glorified as the means to scale, how do most organizations perceive the value and importance of technology?
  3. How has the introduction of technology in companies now reconfigured the work and functions of men and women?
  4. In traditional family-run businesses and enterprises, how were men’s and women’s roles organized? 
  5. Do women in general struggle with respect to agency, autonomy and power when working with spouses and the other way round?
  6. How much do spousal relations configure the way in which men and women project themselves and their respective ownership of the business? 

I have interacted with few women who ran businesses with their husbands and some who chose to stay away from the startup/enterprise. It will be valuable to hear from women running their own businesses and those running businesses with their spouses and learn from their experiences. 

[In the hope that this post sparks some interesting discussions, the rest is to be continued ... ... ...]

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Navigating a “gendered” world: starting a startup with a spouse – Part II

In the previous post, I started to narrate how I got involved in running HasGeek – financially and in terms of holding the company together in day-to-day matters. I must admit one more time that it is tough to write this series of blog posts and maintain objectivity since the issues involved in running the company and being in a spousal relationship with the co-founder are highly intricate.

By the time we finished executing Droidcon 2011, Kiran was burnt out. However, by then, it was time to start executing JSFoo Pune. I offered to run the event since I was going to be in Bombay and Pune during Dec 2011-Jan 2012. At that time too, I was ambivalent about my role and involvement in the company because I was still committed to my PhD. But I was also beginning to question the sustainability model of academia and the general direction of social sciences at a time of scarcity of resources. It was also clear to me that HasGeek was taking off in a somewhat big way. I now started to understand the business we were into, the thought process that had gone into the conceptualization of the idea and the possibilities that the future held.

Once again, there is always the temptation of giving up a slow moving project and jumping into something more fast paced. I also started living the very insecurities and perceptions I was studying with respect to possession and ownership of ‘property’ and ‘shareholdings’. Clearly, the value of something that Kiran created showed promise. Now it became a matter of ‘securing’ the company and the shares. Ambivalence never left me because I was still trying to decide where I was going to be and what I was going to do. Kiran, on his part, tried to get me more involved in the company so that I was not left out. I continued to participate in the company’s affairs, thinking that the company was a side project I could do along with my PhD and continue to feel hopeful whenever I was feeling stuck with the writing.

JSFoo Pune was a fairly successful event. I enjoyed running it despite the stresses and tensions because I was also teaching and writing at that time. In the next few months, I began participating in marketing events and started to get a flavour of raising money through sponsorships and participant ticket sales. I was managing accounts and books for the company and understanding the complex world of taxes. I was trying to coordinate with people to put into place internet at events, building an inventory of things required to run conference internet successfully and essentially, reduce some of the pain points involved in running events.

While I was doing many things, the dissatisfaction of not being able to do one thing in-depth and learning the ropes carefully was always there. As the year went on, I realized that it was not always possible for me to get into minute implementation details and that I had to leave the detailed execution to someone else so that I could focus on the bigger picture of holding the boat together. Simultaneously, I was always struggling with the question of what I was doing at HasGeek and how that tied into the big picture of my life, and the dreams and aspirations I had before I got involved in the company.

HasGeek remained a side project until the first four months between Jan and April. I was still focussed on making a career as a researcher and writer. However, the mistake I made during this period was to cut off from the life that I had, and build a community and affinity with the people and groups who Kiran was associated with. I had stopped running because of the change in my lifestyle and schedules. Cooking and baking became once in a while affairs, something I ideally should not have given up in order to retain my sanity. I stopped going to my PhD research centre because there was barely any time to go there. Besides, the centre was going through several changes. Going there made me feel depressed as I saw the space become more and more sterile. I briefly took a course in the post-colonial and pre-liberalization era in India’s history to understand the Indian economy. That was the only community I was briefly associated with. Going to the course made me constantly question the future of social sciences and where the world was headed towards.

I was also going through the painful process of questioning my established beliefs about capital, enterprise, possessions, security and speculation. At the same time, technology was more intricate than what I had understood it to be when I was researching e-governance and digitization of land records. The language of technology was overwhelming and at times, alienating. As much as I tried to understand things from a sociological perspective, I always felt like an outsider to this world. It felt important to grasp the language just in order to have a sane and interesting conversation with the groups we were working with. I did not know where to begin and what ropes I should pull at to get anywhere to start this process.

The first four months at the company were a period of adjustment to a new community, a new world, two new languages – one of technology and the other of startups – and dealing with the ambivalences of my past, present and future. While I was not running any major events between Feb and April, I felt a sense of burnout just with these adjustments and the constant self-questioning.

Perhaps this blog post – the flow and the words – also reflects the tensions and struggles which have not left me ever since. These tensions and struggles have always led me to question my place in the company and in the world:

What am I doing here?

Why am I here?

Why did I get involved in the first place?

Is this what I really want to do in my life?

[to be continued]

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Navigating a “gendered” world – starting a startup with a spouse – Part I

The first post I wrote last Sunday received a good number of responses. I am not going to dwell too much on the responses and the post itself. I have changed the way I am now approaching the subject of “gender” in this post. I have put “gendered” in double quotes because the first post and the responses got me thinking me whether some behaviours and attitudes I experience in the tech and startup world actually have a gendered angle or not. I hope that this series of my personal reflections and what I observe will help arrive at a fair conclusion. 

Before I begin with the second post, I want to acknowledge that some of the people I have worked / interacted with during my journey at HasGeek have been remarkably insightful and sensitive. Many are practising programmers with some great reputation in the community. Some of them are individuals with an active interest in technology and communities and have been ardent supporters of HasGeek. I have sincerely had the good fortune of working with them, learning the intricate mazes of technology, industry, economy and community. Thanks to all of you!

Figuring out the starting point of the second blog post was very tough. I spent the last six days wondering where to begin. As some of you may have perceived by now, the issues I confront are highly intricate (not necessarily uniquely) because they combine both the personal and the work elements of founding a company with my spouse. Further, as I mentioned in the last blog post, Kiran is a highly visible and respected person in the tech and startup communities. This further makes it tough to determine whether certain behaviours and attitudes are the result of gender biases, or whether they stem from issues of visibility-invisibility, voice and lack of voice, and uneven trajectories.

I thought I will start by reflecting on my very journey in HasGeek – how we started the company together, how I got involved and what I do here. This will give me clarity on issues and the world out there.

Kiran and I have been married for a little over four and a half years. Before our marriage, we had known and been together for two and a half years. We had a unique meeting. Quite honestly, for a very, very long time, I did not know who I was dating and was married to. My choice to be with him was based on his remarkable and clumsy sensitivity, my desire to make a difference to someone else’s life, and many other nice aspects of him that I started to care and appreciate. I knew that he was a fairly known and respected person – from academic circles, from his BarCamp Bangalore days, from his associations with circuits connected and unconnected with my worlds.

Quite immediately after our marriage, Kiran decided to take a sabbatical because of the burn out from his previous employment stint and desire to explore something different in life. His decision was a shocker for me since that was the year I was beginning my PhD fieldwork and was hoping that I’d have emotional and financial support. PhD students are perennially faced with the angst and worry about lack of money and finances. Writing about a PhD student’s insecurities is a full treatise altogether. For now, see this post to get a good perspective: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2013/07/21/the-awesomest-7-year-postdoc-or-how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-the-tenure-track-faculty-life/

The first two years after our marriage were particularly tough. I was trying to get a hold on my PhD and support myself financially and build on my financial capital while also dealing with various crises in my family. Kiran was busy figuring out his ideas for starting up in life. Initially, I dismissed all his ideas and insisted that he should take up a job. Each time I insisted that he take up a job, I felt very guilty and unfair that while I was living life on my own terms, I was subjecting him to do what I wanted him to do. I spent many nights staying awake and questioning my values and hypocrisy until such time in September 2010, in Coorg, when I found myself saying to Kiran that he has to jump into the waters he wants to because if he does not, he and I won’t know whether he will swim or drown. I felt a great sense of relief at having reconciled that Kiran had every reason and right to pursue his dreams. Come to think of it, that was one of the happiest moments of my life. 

While it is easy to say that a person has the right to pursue his/her dreams, it is difficult in practice. When I read this blog post this morning – http://www.feld.com/wp/archives/2013/08/startup-couples-when-is-it-time-to-ask-for-help.html – I could resonate with everything that the wife felt in this case. However, during those initial years, I had to keep reminding myself that Kiran and I were friends first and spouses afterwards. And that good friends always stand by each other. Therefore supporting him was a standard I set for myself. I am not a paragon of virtues and despite the high standards, I kept struggling with my inner insecurities and desires. 

In Dec 2010, we incorporated the company. Kiran chose me as a partner for reasons he knows best. I decided to join the partnership because I wanted to start my own research firm and not be dependent on academia’s wretched and miserable hierarchies and poisons. I always wanted the freedom to function as an independent individual. So here was a fairly good opportunity to start a business together where I could run an independent unit within the company and do what I wanted to.  

The struggle with a startup husband and a PhD wife (or vice-versa) is that one rides on high energy whereas the other has variable energy levels and extreme mood swings. In 2011, while I was trying to concentrate, build on my dissertation arguments, deal with isolation and the conflicting desires and disdain for social company, I could feel every moment of high energy that Kiran was going through as he was building the foundations of HasGeek through coding, organizing events, networking, learning, growing, etc. Our worlds were quite apart at that time because we were each trying to achieve something we really wanted. Our time together in that year was a fortnight’s vacation in Ladakh, which I will admit was terrible because I could feel the constant stress and pressure (positive and negative) he was going through in trying to organize an event remotely. Even then, I had no clue what business my husband was into. All I knew was that he was happy while I was trying to build a career and reputation as a researcher.

After our return, we were fairly immersed in our worlds. I tried to support Kiran whenever he needed assistance with an event – whether it was finding a venue or fixing a caterer or help on the actual day of the event. It was a nice break from the routines of writing (and the anxiety and sleepless nights I was experiencing then because of the intensity of my dissertation writing). Being with some members of the tech community was also a welcome break and experience after all the isolation I was constantly immersed in.

By early October, I had started to experience the extreme stress that Kiran was going through in trying to put together two back-to-back events, including one of an international scale. I was trying very hard to set boundaries for myself because I did not want to be affected by his emotional states and disrupt my focus. At some point, I felt the effort to separate our lives was becoming too much. I still remember that night when I went over to the coffee shop after a meeting at Jaaga and realized that just the act of sitting together with him while he was working and offering unconditional love, support and care was critical for him to tide over his tough times. I was the tea-making person for him in the ensuing month when he stayed up at nights trying to build a website or reply to innumerable and piled up emails. Those were very satisfying moments!

My dad was a businessman in the late 1970s. When he married my mother, he was struggling with his finances and was under the constant pressure to be successful and support a young family. I remember all those times when my mother went all out to support him. I have a lot of appreciation for those early days of my parents’ marriage because they set an example for me. I felt I could do the same for my husband, or more importantly, for my closest friend. I also have memories of those early days of growing up when my father was not around. My mother was the only person we could go to for all the world’s problems and she held the fort at home while also building a financial future for us with my father’s limited savings. She has been the fortress that I took inspiration from early in life. Later, I was scared of her when I realized that in the years when my father was not around, she had grown resentful of all the sacrifices she had made. She had a fairly turbulent 40′s. During my teenage years, I was determined not to have a marriage like my parents’. More importantly, I did not want to ever become like my mother who made sacrifices all her life. I grew fiercely independent and yet vulnerable from deep inside.

Coming back to Oct-Nov 2011, I was the fortress for Kiran. I decided to put my writing and studies on a short break and support him in every way I could. That was the start of my active role in the company. I became ‘the organizer’ – getting people together to run an event, collaborating with sponsors and vendors, working out deals, etc. Droidcon 2011 was an interesting spiritual experience because it reinforced the power of collaboration. I was forced to think about my PhD world which reinforced isolation and independent work. It was quite a period of surprises.

Back then, I did not foresee myself as playing an active role in the company. I kept telling myself, “I am only helping my husband”. Seemed sufficient to rationalize this way at that time. Not any more!

[to be continued]

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Navigating a gendered world – some questions

Last evening, Kiran and I walked into a dinner organized for entrepreneurs (or some such event Kiran asked me to come for). One of the guests, who seemed like the co-host, introduced Kiran as “this is Jonnalagadda and he runs a group called HasGeek”. At that point, I intervened and said, “we both run the company. And I am also his financier.” The co-host immediately corrected himself and said “of course”. I settled into one of the chairs in the balcony rather uncomfortably.

I started talking to one of the women who was sitting in the gathering. I asked her “what do you do?” Just as she started to tell me about her company, the co-host said “she is my wife. She is also my financier and banker.” He then went on to elaborate the story of his marriage with her, how he had been living on the edge and how she had accommodated and been with him all the years. I wasn’t sure how to read this turnaround. I let it be.

Later, when the other guests started stepping in, he continued to introduce his wife as his “financier and banker.” The host for the evening looked at me and asked why I was silent to this introduction. I said, “well, I have set a trend.” I wasn’t happy with the tone of my responses because I felt the responses were stemming from reaction, defense and anger. Having been through the Vipassana school of meditation, I have come to realize the value and importance of responses that are free of reactions.

Through the evening, I forced myself to sit in the balcony. Gradually, the host’s and co-host’s wives went to the living room and the balcony was occupied by men. I was the only woman sitting there. The wives of other men joined the women in the living room. I tried to put myself in an optimistic, positive mood and genuinely talk to some of the ‘entrepreneurs’ and engage in their conversations. I found I could do it most of the times but my heart was definitely not in the right place. At dinner, I felt the need for my own space and did not want to force myself into making conversation with men just to be part of the group.

Years ago, I rarely went for dinners and gatherings with my parents’ friends from our religious community because the separation of genders affected me very strongly. By the age of 19, I was part of an organizational culture where our leader was a woman and she had imparted to us a culture where men and women were equal. Since then, I could not tolerate discrimination or any separation of genders on the basis of intelligence quotient, power and roles. I have picked fights with my father, father-in-law, ex-boyfriends and male friends on issues of a woman’s entitlements and marginalization of women in households, professions and society.

In recent times, I admit I hate to go for entrepreneur gatherings, startup founder meetings and other such events because I find these spaces to be very “male”, like boys’ clubs. The figure of an ‘entrepreneur’ is typically a ‘man’ and in Bangalore, largely ‘male, engineer’.

In the past, I have felt uncomfortable about my position as a non-engineer, newbie to the jargons of the technology world, ‘woman’ and unknown to the world of SAS and media business. I perceived my role in the company as someone who has simply been managing the company and ensuring smooth running, and that this is a no-brainer activity. This perception of my position in such a simplistic fashion has made me feel very vulnerable and marginalised in tech and startup spaces. My silence reinforced my position of marginality. In turn, I was marginalised because I was not speaking up. Clearly, I was doing disservice to myself.

In the past few months, I have started pulling myself up and asking why I have been behaving like a victim in this space of a gendered startup and tech world, and why am I doubtful of my own position in this space and the company I run with my husband. I realize I have caved into one of the biggest pressures and glamours of the startup world – the glamour and sexiness of being an engineer, and the assumption that engineers can help to achieve scale in businesses. I am not an engineer and the pressure of not being one has been getting to me. And this pressure gets to me even more when people don’t recognize that in some of the technology conferences, I have played a part in framing the content and agenda of the events. Neither have I spoken up to those who have failed to recognize this role.

I also have to question my relationship with the technology community since this is the primary community our company works with. For Kiran, his relationship with technology communities has been organic by virtue of him being a developer, open-source programmer and a person who is passionate about the freedoms and logics associated with open source software. He has also spent many years of his life thinking about interactions in the community and interfaces that facilitate more interactions. I have no such ties or history. Further, I have found that members of these communities respect practising programmers. I am not one. And I am also not sure if I feel a sense of belongingness to these communities despite my active interest in developing ideas for hacknights and curiosity to participate and learn by organizing more technology conferences.

This blog post is not a rant. It is an attempt to question some of my deepest angers and resentments against the tech and startup world and to separate my emotions so that I can understand the situation more objectively and why it is so. Why is it so much easier for my spouse and co-founder to be part of these communities – is it simply because he is male, engineer, ‘product oriented’ and visible in social media and networks? What causes invisibility for me? Is it because of my non-sexy role in the company, not being an engineer and practising programmer? Is it because I am a ‘woman’?  And if being a woman is what works against me in the tech and startup world, then what it about being a woman that is uncomfortable and unacceptable in tech and startup worlds?

I am emotionally and intellectually invested in these questions because the subject of ‘entrepreneurship’ is very, very close to my heart for 34 years now. My father was an entrepreneur, a true risk-taker, and growing up with him made me a risk taking woman. I have taken risks in love, in career, in finances and I have been amply rewarded for each of these risks – sometimes with tangible outcomes, sometimes with life’s most insightful lessons, and on one occasion, with the man I married four and a half years ago.

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Notes about tentative-ness. (Alternatively, notes from London.)

Thursday 25th April, 7:30 PM. George Tavern Pub, East London

I walked into the pub. It was dark inside. And outside was an expanse of an empty road with shops (mostly) run by Bangladeshi immigrants.

I was feeling uncertain about the pub and my place in there. I felt like a stranger among the groups of Bengalis and firangs who had gathered to listen to Sahana and Aurko sing that evening. I decided to be present with an open mind, an open heart, open to a new experience. As I was moving around the pub in my tentative state, a man with beautiful tresses, wearing a black outfit, walked in. He smiled at me with a smile which seemed to indicate that he knew exactly how I was feeling and empathised with my tentative-ness. I smiled back at him to reciprocate the generosity of the emotions behind his smile. 

As the performance began, I realized that the man who smiled so generously at me was Aurko, the performer. Aurko had a beautiful voice. He moved seamlessly between blues, Sufi, folk Bengali and African music. He seemed very passionate about his music, his purpose as a singer and his songs.

As the performance proceeded, I kept moving into the depths of his rustic voice. At times I felt the pretence in the rustic tone that he seemed to skilfully project. Sometimes there was pure joy and strategy in his voice. When the performance got over, I decided to say bye to Aurko and congratulate him for his voice. Riju insisted that Sahana introduce me to Aurko and make the exchange of goodbyes a memorable and dramatic experience.

Meanwhile, everyone was busy congratulating Sahana and Aurko on the performance. It was getting difficult to get Aurko’s attention. Finally, Sahana insisted and got him to meet me. She said to him:

This is Z. Not only does she like your voice, she is madly in love with you – prochond premer pode gaise!

I stood still as Sahana uttered these words. I felt like I was shedding the robes of my 34-year old person and adorning the desires of a young girl.

Aurko, on his part, did not seem very impressed with a starry-eyed woman. He had changed his robes from an equally tentative person at 7:30 PM to that of a successful performer by 10:30 PM. His half smile shattered the initial connection we had made through our tentative-ness.

Where are you from?

Kolkatta.

You have a nice voice.

Thanks.

As we walked out to board a bus, I wondered about the identities we adorn in a city, the clothes we wear, the nakedness we feel comfortable sporting, the nakedness we hide. We are all vulnerable and sensitive. And, there are times when we turn our vulnerabilities into manipulation, our tenative-ness into sure-ity, uncertain grounds into slow and sure pathways. Yet, we will never fully know (and be sure) of the robes we adorn, the clothes we shed, what we show of ourselves and what we hide inside … … …. 

Wednesday 24th April, 12:01 PM. Shoreditch Grind, East Central London

I wasn’t sure what kind of a person to expect when I set up the meeting with Chris. I had known him in HasGeek as some sort of a rockstar speaker. One of the main reasons for this visit to London was to meet him and convince him to come to India. I had known him briefly through his photos, even more briefly through geeks around me, and rather more briefly through short email exchanges. 

I walked into the meeting with an open mind, an open heart. Somehow, this trip to London has naturally driven me to open my heart to new experiences. I walked into the Shoreditch Grind, looking for him. Had he arrived yet? I looked inside. I peeked outside. I grabbed a table and seat. Someone sitting on the opposite side seemed like him. I sent a SMS.

I am wearing a bright pink tunic. 

The man on the other side immediately looked at his phone and then looked up. I pointed my index finger at him and then to myself. We had met, at last. 

Meeting Chris was one of the most fantastic experiences of this trip. We spoke about everything under the sun: Bombay, Bangalore, London, Brighton, geeks, developer ecosystems, Indian culture, hotels, mix-ups with room bookings, squat toilets and the habit of washing the backside with water versus toilet paper. The conversation moved seamlessly and unlike the rustic tone in Aurko’s voice which was a mix of pretence, strategy and beauty, this conversation was beautiful in all aspects of its mundanity.

I have often wondered what is it about people, their spirited nature and the vibes they transmit that makes the encounter such an evocative experience. I met several people in London after the meeting with Chris. With many of them (as also with Aurko), I adorned robes of pretence, came naked in my vulnerability, loathed the outfits of (over)confidence and dwelled in the mirth of patience and understanding. 

Chris and I hugged when we were leaving. The spirit in this exchange gave me a firmer grounding, a sense of courage to be vulnerable. I have often felt that places are about people. People make places. As I walked towards the Thistle Barbican, I also realized that my life’s endeavour has been this yearning and seeking for people. I am glad I found some folks in London.

Thursday 25th April, 7:30 PM. George Tavern Pub, East London. Actually, it was my phone!

And I also lost some people in London.

Sahana started the performance with a song about sleep - ghoom - and how someone had lost sleep over a loved one. As she sang this song, a sense of pain pierced my heart. I had hints of tears in my eyes as she moved from lyric to lyric, verse to verse, word to word. Soon after the song got over, I continued the conversation with EM, this time pointing to how relationships were transactional for him whereas I sought depth in emotions and relationships.

EM and I were trying to meet that day but I decided to forgo the meeting with him and dinner with the conference delegates, instead going to the performance.

The meeting with EM was causing me tremendous amounts of tentative-ness. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting from the meeting. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to meet, especially after 8 years. I wasn’t sure what his expectations from me were. My heart was not at peace. But the sudden insight about transactions and depth in relationships set the course of destiny for us. It brought peace to my heart. It set his heart fluttering. He decided not to meet and let our memories, persons and journeys remain like oasis where thirsty travellers come up to but cannot get the draught of water they so very much want. I now desired to meet him, to repose the trust in our relationship. But the windows were closed and the clouds had come over.

Next day, the skies were cloudy and the rains had taken over. I could see some white clouds. I was rejoicing the vulnerability and the strength I had experienced in the space of a song, in the space of an insight. The dark skies and rainy clouds were having the effect of a romance for life, once more! 

The strength was brief, but while it lasted, I felt peace, comfort and most importantly, a song in my heart.

Dear London, has the romance for life that I once sported returned to me? Is the comfort in tentative-ness becoming  more and more manifest? Do I still have a yearning to live and know more about life?  

To London, music, Sahana, Aurko, Riju, James, Thibaut, Chris, Andy, Neha, Paul and many others.

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