Today, I exercised patience …

Some days are just some days … Life just seems out of balance on such days. And then, either I accept or I fight. I either keep the balance or let it all go and see where I land.

So was today. Nothing remarkable, but it just turned out to be an extremely remarkable day.

Our house cleaning maids declared yesterday that they’d be off from work starting today, for the next three days. I was like, ‘whoa! how am I going to clean and wash the house in the middle of managing a baby, work and simultaneously doing all the new things I have started doing – cardio exercise, playing guitar, writing, reading and participating in online groups.’

And then today was doomed right from yesterday. Amal woke up at 2 AM and it felt like it was daytime for her. She started crawling on the bed, babbling, sitting up and she wouldn’t sleep. After nearly one and a half hours, I figured that she needed a change of clothes since the clothes she was wearing were too warm for her. Once we changed her into new clothes, she slept in less than 20 mins.  It was 4 AM by then and I was like ‘shucks, this day is ruined for sure.’

I woke up at 7:30 AM and there was no exercise because I was washing utensils and putting out clothes in the machine. Amal was awake by then. I was attending to her needs. There was to be no cardio exercise this morning. Ok, so I accepted that that’s how the day may be and it is ok if I didn’t get to exercise. I won’t be hard on myself. The whole point of finding time for myself is to ensure that I don’t fill up the time and space with activities and more activities.

The day started passing by. Surprisingly, I was feeling very calm despite the constant disruptions and interruptions in my attention and concentration. I wondered what caused this perception change. That’s when I thought back to an event that took place yesterday.

Cut to yesterday …

I was visiting a mom to a 10 month old baby. She mentioned how she was starting to get back to work. But the frustrations she experienced in the midst of trying to focus on her work and getting things done, were often taken out on her child. That’s when she decided to stop working and put all the attention to her daughter.

Cut to today …

For quite sometime, I have been wanting to give up work and be a full-time mom with Amal. I have often found the exhaustion of managing home, work and baby too much to handle, and that has been causing burnout and depression. When I heard the other mom’s story yesterday, something switched in my mind when I was interacting with Amal today. If Amal were to be at the centre of all that I was doing, will I be able to experience more peace and accept that the time spent with her is the time I really spent with her? In any case, I have three hours of help on working days when the caretaker comes in in the afternoons to look after her. So I’ll have the three hours today as well. The fact of putting Amal at the focus of everything else actually helped me to achieve better focus. I was no longer fighting with time or with myself. I was against no one.

We spent a good 1.5 hours, with her playing with the paratha she was eating, learning to drink water from a glass, and smearing her new play mat with yoghurt while she also learned to crawl and mess around.

Cut to this afternoon …

I was better off at work this afternoon despite the lack of sleep and the tiredness beginning to wear on me.

One of the things that did put me off this morning was someone thanking various parties and entities for putting together the DevOps event I had organized on Saturday. My name was clearly missing in the mention. I had worked for over three months to make this event happen, including the content and theme, and I was still completely invisible. This thought has often made me feel upset and has led me to question why I am even participating in tech communities when I clearly don’t belong here. Why put in energies for a cause when there is no attribution?

This lingering thought from morning and then a bunch of meetings this afternoon, including a near bad snap from my partner, and I just wanted to leave everything and walk away.

This afternoon’s meeting was important to clear communication and be transparent. And here I was experiencing tremendous amount of negativity. I wanted the meeting to end soon.

As soon as the meeting ended, something came over me and I decided that even if the meeting was not transparent, nothing prevented me from being transparent with the concerned person. I found myself becoming much more capable then. I held a brief meeting with the concerned person, expressed my sincere desire to be transparent in communication, expressed both my excitement and my concerns about working in partnerships, and I suddenly found the world to be a different place.

Thereafter, I had a pretty enjoyable evening with my daughter and while I am dead tired in my bones right now, this day has turned out to be an extremely remarkable one.

What’s the purpose in wasting so many words to say that I exercised patience today?

I think perspective change – just like the mental and physical switches that happen in babies where one day they seem unable to do something and the next day they have a developmental leap – is what shapes our reactions and communication. While at Hillhacks and since my return from the event, I have found myself more and more committed to improving communication because communication is what ultimately helps to make and build strong organizations, relationships and foundations. Communication in groups and within organizations is even more critical. The amount of character that we as individuals can show towards being honest, transparent and clear in communication is what eventually makes good things happen.

While I have been running technology conferences at HasGeek for nearly three years (and fret about people not recognizing the passion I have in learning things, and therefore the passion I bring in putting events together), it is only now that I have started thinking very carefully about communities and communication. It is turning out to be a tremendously interesting and rewarding experience unlearning how to organize conferences and rethink how to facilitate communications and spaces for discussion.

And so it was the perspective change that got me through today. I did not do cardio exercise. I did not practice the guitar for 15 minutes as promised. I could not manage to read a single page of the book that I have been meaning to finish. But then, I exercised patience. And it’s gotten me until here.

– dedicated to myself

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Unmaking as a parent – Little Bo Peep needs to learn how to sleep

After my last blog post, Vasumathi wrote to me, sharing her experiences of parenting her 18 month old child. Helping her child to learn to sleep was one of the key topics of discussion.

Much before I was pregnant, Rajesh Mehar once told me how his son announces when he is sleepy and walks into his room to go hit the sack. We were damn amazed that Malhaar (Rajesh’s son) could do this at less than two years age. Of course, there was a little process involved before Malhaar could actually sleep. He cried a little when put into his bed. Rajesh kept time before going in to Malhaar’s room to comfort him. Typically, within less than five minutes of the crying, Malhaar was asleep. The parents rarely had to step into his room to comfort him. He had learned to sleep.

Learning and insights are easy when read or experienced by observing others. They are hard to internalize when you have to put them into practice yourself because this involves de-conditioning yourself, unlearning and shedding the old, learning something new and then continuously practising the new behaviour till it gets internalized. My favourite example is from my experiences with running long distances. Simple lessons such as lifting your legs higher while running, knowing how to shift weight in the lower half of the body to run more consistently, speed training – these are lessons that I constantly learned on every run, forgot, then switched back to old behaviour, learned the right way the hard way, practised a few days, forgot, then experienced the pain again and back to the same old cycle.

Raising a child is indeed the painful process of unlearning. Rajesh had been cautioning me since Amal was 6 months old to help her learn to sleep by herself. Helping a baby to learn to sleep by herself is the process where you help the child by comforting her till she is drowsy. Put her down on the bed or crib in that window period between drowsiness and sleep so that in the drowsy state, your child figures out how to put herself to sleep. There are tonnes of references and literature out there about how sleeping is a learned behaviour (and not natural or innate), and how children need to be helped to learn how to sleep.

When Vasu brought up the issue of helping Amal learn to sleep, I started to think back on my own childhood. Honestly, I never learned to sleep by myself until the age of 7 or so, and even afterwards, I had a lot of trouble sleeping by myself if I happened to wake up in the middle of the night. To put it more concretely, when I returned back to my parents’ home at the age of 4 or so (I was living with my grandparents and maternal uncles and aunts until then), I needed my mom to sleep next to me so that I could fall asleep. She had a tough time because she’d first put my sister to sleep in her bed. Then she’d lie down next to me until I fell asleep. And only after that, she got her space to sleep by herself.

Even at my grandparents’ place, my aunts used to rock me on the swing and I slept in the comfort of their arms and warmth.

I was always afraid of the dark and of ghosts. It was worse when I saw a horror show or some scary movie before sleeping because then I’d keep thinking about it and had a tough time sleeping.

Learning to sleep is knowing how to comfort your own self and go back to sleep should you happen to wake up at night. From the literature I have read on this topic so far, it seems that we adults also wake up a few times in the night.  But because we have learned how to go back to sleep – by pulling a sheet on ourselves, or cuddling up to the pillow or turning to the left or right side whichever is comfortable, turning off the night lamp – by acting on the associations we have built up for learning to sleep, we just know how to go back to sleep. This is unlike in babies and toddlers who haven’t yet learned to build these associations. Hence, they wake up and cry because they want help to go back to sleep.

As a mom, I’d just give my boob to the baby and feed her to sleep. She’s actually not hungry (or not always). She just wants the comfort of sucking to put herself back to sleep. But this means that I am required for her to go back to sleep. And that means my sleep is ruined. Weaning her from the night feeds is not the answer to her sleep problem. The answer to her sleep problem is helping her to learn. And that means I have to learn (or unlearn) to put up with her crying while she is learning to build the associations and becoming more capable.

It is all good when it is not your own child crying. Really, I mean it. Ask me if I can tolerate Amal crying for more than two minutes. Even if I don’t rush to shussh her, I shout out from the other room “what happened? Mamma is coming.”

Helping Amal to go to sleep means I have to time myself before I can intervene to comfort her. Wait until two minutes in that window period between drowsiness and sleep. Is she unable to sleep despite two minutes of wailing? Alright, then I intervene only to the extent of comforting her. Does she manage to fall asleep in the window period? Not again? I wait another couple of minutes. Now?

It’s not going to be as easy as writing this blog post. I’ll really have to develop the patience and also the insights to understand her cues. There’ll be times when she genuinely needs me to comfort her for longer, for example when she is teething and has pains.

It’s going to be a massively huge unlearning process for me. Some of the literature guarantees that within six weeks, she’ll get to sleeping by herself only if I persist.

So I think parenting is also about persistence, but persistence for those aspects which will really help your child become independent.

I never had a room of my own to sleep until the age of 26. I had to rebel silently and fiercely to move out of my parents’ bedroom at the age of 16 and sleep in the living room. This rebellion helped me build my personality. Now that I can afford to hand the luxury down to my child to sleep by herself and get to the first step of building an independent personality, can I put myself through the six weeks grind and persist?

Let’s see!

– Dedicated to Vasumathi!

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Hillhacks – unmaking myself as a parent and as an individual

It’s been a really long time since I wrote here. In fact, I thought it best to punish myself by not writing. The greatest punishment is not allowing yourself to do what helps you best express yourself. That’s all a story for another day. Let’s talk about now.

I delivered a baby girl in March this year, and boy, life has changed in many significant ways. For once, I have started realizing the importance of sleep. Allowing myself to sleep for 45 minutes this afternoon was absolutely refreshing. I suddenly woke up with a different perspective on life and the rest of my evening. Each day, I discover new significance of sleep and what wonderful things it can do to a person. And I keep telling my daughter every now and then, “hey, get some sleep. You’ll really miss it as you grow.”

The other thing I have realized is that culturally, and somewhere biologically, as a mother you are wired to keep wanting to be there for your kid – mentally, emotionally and physically – even when your kid don’t really need you all the time. I have been trying to watch myself on this one, and become a little more discrete in figuring out when I can afford to detach mentally and physically. After all, I am pretty sure Amal will reach a stage where she will not want me around all the time. And, I’d also like to have some space to myself from now onward so that I don’t have to keep asking myself permission to be by myself. It all sounds nice in words. I find this one tough to act on.

And the last thing that keeps getting reinforced to me, either by the world or by the accumulation of my experiences and perceptions of the world, is that motherhood is extremely invisible labour. It’s mentally taxing because you are really on your toes (with your mind keeping you on your toes) with respect to nursing, diaper changing, bathing, helping your child eat, and doing a series of tasks which have very little socio-economic value and which, many sections of society, will consider non-productive.

So here I am. I have a bundle of joy, and I have my bundle of gripe, anger against this bloody world, and this war against myself to stay away from people and participating in little happinesses.

No wonder, when I got to Hillhacks – that event in Dharamsala where there were many people with many talents, all there to be part of creating something and contributing something – I was terribly negative. I thought to myself – shucks, another event that I have to be at. Can’t Kiran just have a vacation where we don’t have to be with other people?

I’ll admit I hate being among people these days. For one, I already find it taxing to be around my daughter for most part of the day where she needs me for one thing or the other. For another, I have lost a lot of confidence in myself to be among people and just be myself. I don’t know, anymore, who I am and what my needs and desires are.

So Hillhacks day 1 and I was already hiding inside the room of our lodge, saying I have to attend to sponsorship phone calls and emails. On the other hand, I was really happy for Amal because she has these vast patches of grass where she could sit on and enjoy herself to no end. What little pleasures in life!

There were also a bunch of other children around and that was so exciting for her because she has much to draw from their energies and activities. I was suddenly feeling relieved about not having to be there emotionally and physically for Amal.

By the evening of day 1, I was so petrified of people that I just didn’t want to get out. I didn’t even want to smile at any of the participants. I just wanted all of them to disappear and I wanted to be in some land where I was all by myself. Ah, I so wish!

That evening, Kiran comes up to me and says “why are you hiding? What’s causing you to be so upset?” I just burst out saying I hate being in another event. I hate being among techies because this is not my community. In fact, I don’t have any community to belong to anymore and I feel you are subjecting me to this bunch of geeks who are ‘effing opinionated and so very male. In fact, I even hated that sticker (which everyone else loved) which said something to the effect of a clean household is a waste of life. It had the picture of a woman who was beaming as she had cleaned up her place. I felt like such a wasted person because it reminded me that my busy body was all the time cleaning up the house and my energies were all spent on keep Amal clean and healthy. What an ‘effing sexist environment had I landed into and why the heck does this keep happening to me?

‘Eff you world!

I don’t know what changed the next morning. Maybe it was the night’s sleep (after two nights of traveling with one night of a bus journey where Amal was sleeping on me and I was trying to ensure that she had a comfortable warm body to be on).

I woke up the next day, went down with Amal to get breakfast, as usual gave her her bit of food to play with and put a little in her tiny mouth based on her consent. Two other kids came down and she played with them. I got into the routine of giving her a bath and Kiran put her into the sling and went off. I took my own time to get down and be among people. (I wish I didn’t have to.)

There was some group discussion going on about something downstairs. In the brief bit that I attended it, there was blabber going on about multi-tasking. Someone said, “women are better at multi-tasking than men, so says research.” I wanted to wring that person’s neck and fry him alive. A good deal of my burnout these days is owing to the fact that I have to constantly divide my attention between looking after Amal and dealing with people at work (or with ticket buyers or sponsors). This multi-tasking is no longer enjoyable, especially when it’s happening in my sleep deprived state and in a situation where I want to be wholly focussing on my daughter and not on anyone else. Yet, I have no choice but to simultaneously attend to others. It’s a horrid state to be in, or so I feel.

By the time that discussion got over, someone came up to me and said, “she (my daughter) is lovely” and I gave a wry smile thinking, “well, for you, I am only her caretaker. I am not some creator or maker here.” I really don’t know if this level of bitterness is not the hitting the bottom of the pit (or whether there can be worse forms and I am only experiencing something lesser than the worst).

It’s my negative attitude towards myself and the rest of the world that makes me very hesitant to participate in many situations. Again, that’s another story for another day.

So I make my way through day 2. The big game changer of day 2 was when Arun Ganesh came up and started talking to me. And we got into a really engaged conversation about his life, his experiences, the village, children in the village, technology and what not. The conversation was very stimulating. But I think the key to the conversation was the honesty and genuineness about Arun. There’s something so warm and nice about him, something that helps establish a fairly instant connection. I think that made a huge difference to my perceptions. Suddenly, the world did not feel like such a bad place to be in. And people, well, I could actually tolerate them a little more now.

In the middle of this conversation, someone from Air Jaldi started talking and I felt excited about hosting an event on net neutrality.

Kiran had been insisting that I participate in making a lamp like many others had done, and make the circuit board which many others were making by soldering the parts, courtesy a man named Akiba (or Aqiba). Really, everyone was hooked to that soldering gun and the equipment. In the beginning, I was super nervous, thinking how the heck am I am going to do this without burning my hands. After all, I am so damn clumsy. But once I got on to it, I really got hooked. I never realized how easy it was (at least in this case), to melt metal and ensure that it traveled through enough to help the bits stick together. I was focussed on doing a neat job.

Post-lunch, some of the folks decided to go to McLeodganj. I felt a bit hesitant again. Did I really want to go with this group? Maybe I didn’t. I felt happier being by myself. But then, I could also visit my cousin and his family if I went up there. Just at the beginning of the trip, as folks were trying to find transport to get to McLeod (because of Diwali festivities and lack of buses and cabs), I started to chicken out. I didn’t want to go with this group. I am such a slow coach, and I’d be left out alone trying to keep up with them if I went with them. And no one would care.

Again, Kiran insisted I go. But when we reached there, I gave up and threw a fit. “I don’t want to be with a group,” I said angrily. We negotiated through un-negotiated emotions and decided that Amal, Kiran and I would go over to visit my cousin while the rest of the gang did what they wanted to. That was indeed a great decision because being alone with my family and my cousin was really nice. I felt re-energized once again. And that was good because what followed was really an adventure. We never got transport to get back to Dharamsala and the only option was to walk all the way down. The path was steep. I was managing somehow. At one point, Cindy, my colleague at HasGeek and co-participant at Hillhacks, figured that Amal was getting cranky and something had to be done. She managed to get a cab and the a gentlemanly gentleman (really!) said ladies with babies go first. The cab took in exactly three of us women and two of our kids. Rest of the gang walked all the way to the lodge.

We made it through that night. Rather, I made it through the day and night. Awright, that wasn’t so bad.

So next day, we did this trek to a point before Triund. Getting to the trek was a trek. I mean gathering all the folks and their consent to be on the trip was the first trek. I stayed off this effort. I hate organizing people especially because this is what I do when running conferences. So I won’t do it outside conferences. I sat down to listen to the first keynote of the day. It was super interesting because this person, an activist Tibetan and a poet, started talking about how activists get overwhelmed by structures to the extent that they disempower themselves by thinking about structures. Gosh, just that morning I was thinking about the World Social Forum that happened in Mumbai many years ago and how activists were visibly constrained by their person emotional baggage. This speaker wanted to talk about hacking by referring to subversions of the structure and points of hope. By the time the talk got interesting, the instruction of our sub-group was to get up and move to the cab. Ouch! I missed something interesting here.

But what followed from then was an interesting trek up to Magic View point. I had heard so many perspectives about this trek to Triund that I wondered if it was a really big deal. Actually, the trek is not. It is just a little steep and the path gets narrow as you go up. While people say it is faster to get down (after climbing the peak), walking down is tricky for the knees. Kiran was doing the trek because he really wanted Amal and me to go there. He carried Amal up and down in the sling, and everyone saluted him for being such a brave father. :) Well, Amal surely has one heck of a dad, and some day, she’ll thank her stars for having him there for her (as much as some days when she’ll hate him for being her dad).

Evenings are just terrible with Amal because she has such a difficult time going to sleep. I still don’t understand why she gets so agitated just before getting to sleep. What happens to her mentally and biologically? That evening was one such. I was aching in my knees and legs + I hadn’t stretched enough, and here this little munchkin was wailing because she was sleepy but wasn’t able to get to sleep. Finally she did sleep, but that was after a lot of tricks and efforts to calm her. It is such times that I have very little patience as a person to help her, and that I wish I just had more strength and patience.

The next day was even better. I really liked Tink’s stretching session (even though it was for geeks), and I really liked Tod’s keynote which was really his journey of how he got to where he is now. These keynotes where people talk about their life stories, especially their journeys, and the milestones they achieved, are wonderful to listen to. Oh wait, sorry, the keynote that morning was Kiran’s (and Tink did the session on stretching which was great)!

Anyway, even if the chronology ain’t right, by that morning, Amal was clearly the darling of Hillhacks. Everyone said she is such a happy kid (which she indeed is), and there were enough people holding her, being with her, playing and what not. By that day, I had made one of the first mental switches in my head. Community events such as Hillhacks are actually liberating because they can teach the value of energies you can draw from other people. By now, I knew that Amal would be taken care of. I was still around among people who were complete strangers and who held her (just to ensure that they knew who she had to get back to in case they missed out on noting whose kid she was).🙂

The mental switch was that my kid can be happy among other people when she is comfortable and that being a parent does not mean 24/7 slavishness (because of my conditioning and wiring) to my daughter.

The second switch was that community events are actually good. It’s most likely that Amal will grow up among people who aren’t her relatives (always) and who she will have a lot of bonding with them, and lots to draw from. The greatest skill that I could enable her to have is by letting her be with people and she’ll learn because she is already an individual. There are parameters and there is some caution that she’ll learn through experience and some imparting from Kiran and me. That’s as she grows. For now, people are good for her, as are cats and dogs and other kids.

The chief highlight of Hillhacks was that this was one event where apart from talks, there were lots of activities which involved ‘making’. You had soldering, making lamps, screen printing, segregating garbage, making things from trash, setting up WiFi, 3-d printing, and what not. At any given point in time, you had every opportunity to engage your mind with your hands or by talking to people or just basking in the sun. This aspect of the event made it an extremely spirited enterprise. There is no doubt that the people who were part of the event were there in the right spirit (including my good and ugly self). And Hillhacks was made up of all of us.

During the event I also thought Scott Peck’s somewhat unknown but profound book “The Different Drum”. The Different Drum is a book about community building. Peck talks about emotions, conflicts and things uncomfortable which take place in the process of community building. I was wondering how an event such as Hillhacks will handle these, if they were to arise, because everyone was in spirit of celebration and giving and there wasn’t that much of room for emotions and conflicts (at least visibly). I wonder about this aspect of community in the events we organize. Coincidentally, two folks did try to raise a discussion about sexual harassment and how communities deal with this. I don’t know what responses they got one-on-one. I thought it was interesting that this came up, although briefly, in Hillhacks. I don’t know if any issues of class, race or any other form of discrimination did arise and if it did, how was it dealt it. This aspect of community is something I’d like to work with if I were to organize a community event such as Hillhacks.

I also spoke briefly about child care and community events, and asked we could do at HasGeek to enable more women with children to attend events. I was feeling a little bashful about speaking about this, but realized later that someone had to do this.🙂

Alright, so cutting to the close of the event, I really liked being there, after all. In fact, I have even expressed an interest in organizing the 2015 edition. Organizing something like this is like Masanobu Fukuoka’s do-nothing philosophy. Many things come together and fall apart when organizing an event and when dealing with people. You really have to do nothing to do something in this case – discretion may be one tactic. Observation will be another. And acting without reacting will an important strategy.

The Hillhacks experience has unmade me as a parent. It has also helped me shed open some of the layers that I have developed as an individual – anger, resentment, despise, negativity, exhaustion. I don’t know where all this will go from here. I just have to take one day at a time.

I look forward to the 2015 edition and what I can do further to undo myself.

– Dedicated to Leslie Nazareth, Vinod Sreedhar, Kiran Jonnalagadda, Cindy, Bernie, Arun Ganesh.

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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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