A Heads-Up About Head-Down Coding

This was originally posted on the Local Fourth blog as part of my participation in a community media innovation project at the Medill School of Journalism.

I first became acquainted with the term hackathon in college. A computer science student group organized an all-night event in one of the computer labs and ordered in pizza and a seemingly limitless supply of caffeinated soda. I remember the event as fun, but I mostly worked on classwork. I didn’t yet have a backlog of personal hacking projects that could really benefit from hours of uninterrupted coding.

At the start of this project, Shane, Steve and I participated in a mobile hackathon sponsored by The Media Consortium. It was a fun way to familiarize ourselves with our chosen software tools, get used to coding as a team and anticipate some of the hurdles we’d encounter during the innovation project. Though I spend a lot of most days in front of the computer, there’s something pleasurable about having an entire day, or weekend, of frenetic, uninterrupted programming. This might sound like hell to a lot of people, but it’s fundamentally satisfying to building something from scratch and to be able to be fully immersed in a project, really feeling every aspect of the process and design.

Most of my coding time doesn’t feel this way. Within the innovation project, there are countless meetings, e-mail threads to read, documents to share. While there is a certain amount of coordination required between developers working on the same code base, the time overhead required to connect with other teams feels like it increases exponentially. While communicating about the project often feels like an interruption, finding uninterrupted time to program is even more difficult when I have to factor in childcare responsibilities.

On a typical Wednesday, I try to leave the workspace before 3:30 to pick the kids up from their after school program. Then we head home where I have to help with homework, cook dinner, do the dishes, go to the park if we have time and then remind them when it’s time for bed. It’s around 9 before I can even think clearly about code again. Thursdays, I leave even earlier to pick them up from school, drop Florence at home and drive Oona to the West Loop for her dance class (though this has made me really good at doing long division in my head while navigating traffic). If the traffic’s bad, I’m in the car for around two hours total. I sometimes try to squeeze in a little work while they’re doing homework, or reading after dinner, but it usually feels like a kind of attention purgatory where I’m neither able to focus on the infuriating bug that I’m trying to fix or the needs of the kids. On the days when I have to leave early, it feels like I never end my work day at a coherent stopping point, where I’ve at least discovered the cause of a bug and have a plan for a fix or where I’ve sketched out enough of the implementation of a feature where I can come back to it and everything will make sense.

I’ve lived with and helped take care of my friend’s twin daughters, now 10 years old, for a few years.  But, my responsibilities, and their impact on my time, really ramped up since we all moved to Chicago. I’m somewhere between a babysitter and a parental figure and this ambiguity mirrors the range of likely responses to talking about trying to work on a software project and share in childcare responsibilities. For a lot of my peers, who are childless, the response is “I can’t imagine what that’s like.” For older folks who are parents, it’s more like “duh, that’s how it is.” It’s a tough topic to talk about, made tougher because, from week to week, I either feel overwhelmed by all the juggling or like the responsibilities that I have are a cakewalk compared with those of a full-time single parent.

As a recent thread about parenting and start-ups on the excellent Geek Feminism Blog points out, its not a very productive conversation to generalize about how parenting or any other real-life experience affects technology projects and the people behind them. Still, the experience of someone struggling to balance the needs of a project and the needs of others is different than those who aren’t struggling with such ambivalence. I’ve read accounts of developers who are fathers feeling alienated when they leave at the end of the workday, just as their childless colleagues are ordering pizza for a late-night coding session. During this past year’s Ada Lovelace Day, a campaign to forefront women in technology, a blogger voiced criticism that some men used it as an opportunity to acknowledge how their female partners gave them time to work on technical projects rather than celebrating the direct technical contributions of women. In the context of childcare responsibilities, it’s easy to see how this underscores a trade-off between one person’s ability to participate in demanding technology projects and another’s. But I want to go beyond pointing out that there might be some disparities and prejudices around different people’s availability for technology work or projects. Instead, I try to question whether the amount of time someone spends hacking on a project, or in the office necessarily represents the only value of their labor.

I yearn for days where I can work, uninterrupted and on my own schedule, on a juicy programming problem. But I, and hacker culture in general, may also overly romanticize this kind of heads-down coding. Interruptions are frustrating, but they can also mean that our work and lives as programmers are grounded in the world and not just in code. Good software exists to meet needs, not for its own sake, and a life without significant demands outside of a software project can make it much more difficult for a developer to design software that is both elegant and useful. Furthermore, more code, or time coding, doesn’t necessarily mean better code. I’ve definitely spent hours of intense coding, only to find that I’ve hacked my way into a corner, leaving behind a series of commits more convoluted than when I started.

Now I just need to remember this when I’m stuck in traffic rushing to make that after-school pickup.

awesome punk rock shows, kids, and change

For more than a decade, I’ve identified with and invested myself in punk music and subculture.  As I get older, I struggle with feeling like punk as I know it can be a little too much like Project Runway, “one day you’re in, the next day you’re out”.  Perhaps that’s overly cynical, but I do feel like my standards of what makes an ideal show have changed since I first got into punk.  If I can trust my memory, I think what made for a good show as a teenager was feeling like shows were a space made by and made for youth (without being mediated by adult regulation or supervision) and feeling part of a group of people who I knew and who could identify as separate from the dominant youth culture of my community.   The absence of violent dancing wasn’t a huge part of my standard for a good show, nor was equitable gender dynamics.  Both are things that I notice and agonize over now.  These days, I think a lot about who is encouraged to be in and who, by neglect is pushed out of punk subculture.

What is hard to reconcile is identifying with a subculture that rejects adult authority and now feeling like some of the people I most respect are parents or teachers.  It was never this cut and dry, of course.  My first introduction to a diferent way of making and experiencing music, one that was exciting then and remains endearing now, was at the hands of two teachers at my high school, Mr. Nagle and Mr. Barnes.  They formed the Alternative Music Club  and through this club helped students set up shows featuring bands from my school, nearby schools, and friends of the teachers during the club period of the school day and after school.  I still see this as an awesome and totally appropriate collaboration between adults and youth where the adults shared what they knew and loved without totally mediating it for their students.  This, I would imagine, was not an easy line to tread for Mr. Nagle and Mr. Barnes.

Living with kids and meeting  more and more parents in the last few years has made me realize a changing standard that I have for punk music.  One thing I’ve always liked about punk music, and live performance in particular, is that it has been a fun or celebratory expression of shared politics or values.  One of my greatest wishes for the music I’m involved with is for it to be a fun, excitng space that I can share with people with whom I have shared politics or values, even if they don’t have any affinity or history with punk subculture.  I see the comfort of people coming to shows with kids as one of the ways of judging how close we’re coming to this goal.  Most of the people who are my punk peers don’t have kids and most of my friends with kids don’t identify as punk.  When they come together at a show it’s obvious that there is a huge barrier between navigating the distance between the concerns and responsibilities of people who have kids and the absence of any of those considerations for many who don’t.  Furthermore, I see people with kids struggle to break out of an identity centered primarily around their role as parents (whether they’ve chosen this for themselves or had it imposed on them) and engage with people without parents as another person and not just as a person identified as a parent.

Will tried really hard to set up the last show of Defiance, Ohio tour in a way that might break through some of these dynamics.  We had it start early, made it a pitch-in, and had it in a picnic pavilion at a park near some nice hiking trails, a creek full of wildlife, and a bumpin playground.  Most notably, he put ‘kids welcome’ on the flyer.  These efforts had mixed results.  More people came with kids than most shows I’ve been to in Bloomington.  People seemed to enjoy eating together and it was nice for kids to have a place to play around the show, or to watch and listen to the show where it wasn’t so loud.  One friend’s middle-aged mother who was in town visiting came to the show and hung out and rocked out.  Unfortunately, the show was pretty slow to get started which tried the attention span and bedtimes of many kids and their parents.   There was also a noticeable division between the people who usually come to shows and people who brought kids, though this probably has more to do with people not knowing each other because the parents didn’t come to shows often.  Still, its something that needs to be worked on.

Its nice to know that others are thinking about this too.  I read an interview with Zegota in a recent issue of Give Me Back and one of the band members said that he evaluated shows on whether or not his mom would b comfortable going to them.  Also, my friend Josh wrote this about an adult and kid friendly show he’s setting up in Ann Arbor:

hey everyone! I’m sending out this mass e-mail to a whole bunch ofpeople to let you all know that this Saturday Sept 13th will be thesecond ROCK N’ ROLL FAMILY PICNIC/POTLUCK.     for those of you thatdon’t know what this is let me explain. the idea is to give parents andkids and friend of parents and kids a day to hang out in the park andsee some bands and do some art and play games and hang out in a kiddiepool and ride on a slip and slide and eat  some food. you know funstuff like that.  since it’s hard to go see bands when you have to paya sitter now you can bring the kids to the show.  the bands are notnecessarily going to be kid bands, but they will be bands kids can rockout to, if you understand what i mean. (like there bands that playaround town for adults but kids could get into them.)  so far PatrickElkins and Charlie Slick are signed on to play as well as a fewacoustic acts and hopefully one more rock band.