What Women in Technology Means to Me: Benjamin Haas, Software Engineer at Control Group

[This is the first post in a "What Women in Technology means to me" series on this blog. Also, check out Fanya Engler's post from yesterday on Technology and Gender Identity.]

Hi, I’m Benjamin Haas, and I’m a software engineer and manager at Control Group. I am also a developer advocate, which means that in addition to helping build great products and experiences, I try to ensure that developers have a voice in all company-wide initiatives, projects, and processes. Furthermore, I am involved with our developer community outreach initiative, as we recognize that we are part of a larger group of companies and individuals that are actively working toward the technological transformation of New York City.

One aspect of developer advocacy and outreach that is important for me is being an active part of our Women in Technology program. Gender diversity in the workplace is a goal that I am happy to say I am working toward, and I am joined by a pleasingly well-rounded crew of co-workers.

I grew up in a strongly feminist household in the midwest, where NOW, marches on Washington, and The Dinner Party were mentioned as frequently as homework, the Cleveland Indians, and lake effect snow. My mother was deeply involved in nonprofits, community outreach, and social services for underserved sections of society. Equality and social justice were concepts that permeated my consciousness. And while other kids went to the beach on their winter vacations, I accompanied my mom downtown to her office, and got to work. Just listen to the thrilling tasks I got to do: manual data entry, White Pages address lookups, and fundraising envelope stuffing. What a vacation! It was sure a blast explaining to my classmates why they came back from vacation with tans but I came back with papercuts.

I was too young to be able to protest this conscription, but it ultimately instilled in me a sense of duty. A duty toward putting in the necessary hard work to reach your goals. I learned early on that the old maxim is true: if you want to see change, you have to be that change.

The change I would like to see at this company, and within the tech community at large, is a workplace that reflects the city and world in which we live. At Control Group we create digital experiences that cut across wide swaths of the public arena – airports, subways, museums, parks, offices, and more. We design and build these experiences for all people, regardless of background, gender, persuasion, or favorite subway line. The only way to ensure a high quality experience for all users is to have a team that accurately reflect the user base.

The challenge, then, is to work toward building this diverse team.

I’m hoping that my childhood immersion in coalition building will lend itself to endeavors such as the Coalition for Women in Tech, which Control Group is building in conjunction with NY Tech Meetup and Girl Develop It. This group intends to gather, coordinate, and amplify opportunity-providing resources for women in the local tech industry.

Of course, we are all facing the question: why aren’t there more women in the tech industry? We take it as a given that the gender ratio in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professions are heavily tilted in favor of men (see this study, for example). What can we collectively as a company do about it? What can I do individually about it?

Currently, academic achievement in STEM has been measured as equal between the genders up until a point during or after high school, when women are more likely than men to leave the field. I would love to be able to work toward leveling this imbalance. One competing theory for this falling off is that women are leaving because they either don’t see a place for themselves in the field, or don’t feel as if the field is working on issues that are of interest to them (see this article, for example). I’m hoping to be a part of changing both of these perceptions. One specific strategy we are considering is bringing teenagers from local high and junior high schools into our offices on a regular basis, and giving them a chance to see potential career paths. I want to show off our people, our work environment, and most importantly, our rad gear! I want to prove that achieving in STEM does not mean locking yourself into an isolating, joyless job, but can mean building awesome, fun technology that will be used by tons of people.

To that end, I view it as part of my responsibility to help bring about increased gender diversity amongst our developer staff. We’re no different than any other tech company in this regard — we face the same challenges in trying to court women technologists to work here. Over the next year we plan on growing our talent base, and I will be charging myself with finding ways to improve in this area. I want our visitors to see themselves in our faces.

Public Retail: The L’Oreal MTA Makeup Kiosk

steps through the L'Oreal purchase process

L’Oreal PARIS has installed a three screen beauty experience that is housed within the infrastructure of the 42nd Street subway station at Bryant Park in NYC. The old Fashion Week stomping grounds of Bryant Park has become a bit of an experiential retail proving grounds, with Google’s Winter Wonder Lab in the park and L’Oreal’s Beauty Booth in the subway station. Continuing the trend of pop-up retail within the New York City MTA, the L’Oreal booth is located inside the station so you need to pay your fare in order to partake.

The flow of the user experience is as follows: the user walks up to screen number 1 which is a mirror outfitted with a Primesense (Kinect) camera and a rear screen projector. The onscreen (‘on mirror’) instructions ask you to stand in front as the camera takes your picture and determines your color palette based on your skin tone and clothing. Once your colors have been boiled down to three major colors, you are directed to the next screen where you select whether you want to “match” or “clash” with your colors. Then the system selects a grouping of lip color, nail color, blush and eye color all based on your colors. You are presented with the option to purchase any of the four items by adding them to your cart. Unfortunately you cannot select other colors or items beyond the recommended 4 items. Once you choose to checkout, you are prompted to swipe a credit card at a magnetic reader affixed to the wall next to the screen. Upon confirmation of payment, the makeup item is dispensed beneath the screen. For my purchase, I bought a nail polish and when it was dispensed I felt around and found the nail polish bottle in the bin beneath the screen. The lower bin was reminiscent of one of those corkscrew snack machines. When asked if I wanted a receipt, I entered my email address via an onscreen keyboard. The entire experience took less than 5 minutes from the personal color assessment to the dispensing of the product.

The core task of the installation – matching makeup to my outfit and coloring – was lost on me at first (being a non-makeup buying consumer). But upon getting back to the office I asked some more experienced makeup consumers and was told that the nail polish I bought did in fact match my outfit quite nicely. It was interesting that the sales transaction was handled with a magnetic swipe peripheral – as opposed to moving the transaction to the user’s mobile phone (like the Kate Spade Saturday window transaction). But in the context of being inside of the subway system this makes sense since mobile connectivity is spotty. I did witness an MTA subway conductor heading to work – stop and try to buy a lipstick that matched her work clothes – but unfortunately her color was out of stock and she was told to contact customer service.
This installation shows the innovative thinking within some of the world’s biggest brands when it comes to public retail interactions.

Technology and Gender Identity

One of the things I love about working in technology is that we are literally building a future that includes our own personal visions. We are creating new systems and constantly challenging current structures. Our collaborations are most impressive when they come from a broad range of experiences.  Technological development is by nature a continuously evolving process.  It consistently presents opportunities to show society what is possible.

At CG, a recent project included some demographic questions for the end-user.  The first question required the user to choose a gender.  As a gender-non-conforming person, I was happy to contribute to the discussion of how to ask that question in the most inclusive way.  I was also impressed that my co-workers were thoughtful enough to realize that might be a sensitive question and to actively seek out other voices.  My answer was to list options for male, female, and other (with an option to specify the other).  There is so much diversity in gender identity and I didn’t want to speak for anyone but myself so I created an informal focus group consisting of some of my friends (still a small sampling, but better than a single voice) to get more input.  After a lot of discussion, it was decided to completely eliminate the question because it was just too controversial.  In my opinion, that was the best possible outcome; sometimes there is no right answer.  On one hand, presenting an option that is not familiar to everyone is a path to education.  It validates the existence of the “other”.  On the other hand, the absence of a demographic question might go unnoticed to most, but for many, it’s a relief not to be forced to choose from a list of someone else’s labels.

Identity politics is a complicated thing, but at first, opening a dialogue is more important than the outcome of the discussion.  Technology, specifically the relative anonymity of the Internet, has given individuals more control over how to self-identify. Being judged on the quality of your code rather than pre-judged based on gender or physical appearance is not just easy, it is built into the structure of the system. GitHub does not ask you to specify a gender (or any other demographic information).  Online, you can choose to identify as a geek above all other identities and that is not just acceptable, it’s normal. On a personal note, I prefer to be known as a geek, an artist, a martial artist, and one of those crazies who bikes in NYC. I want to be known for the quality of my work, attention to detail, and problem solving skills. Woman is a label that has never felt like it fit me. I don’t want to be an excellent woman engineer; I want to be an excellent engineer.

The physical workplace adds visibility to the identity equation. Walking into CGHQ, it is apparent that there are “Women in Tech” here. The future we are building is inclusive of all genders. Our vision for the future needs to promote true equality and amplify all marginalized voices, not just female voices. We lead by example to deconstruct the system which perpetuates (among other abuses) the brogrammer attitude and allows a gap in compensation. The technology field is an ideal forum to destroy these socially constructed barriers. Within our industry, we can begin that process by creating an inclusive culture with zero tolerance for oppressive behaviors.

Politically, the U.S. is slowly shifting towards more inclusive workplaces. The version of ENDA (the Employee Non-Discrimination Act) passed by the Senate includes protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Although it is unlikely to get a vote in the House any time soon, it is significant that this conversation is being started outside of more progressive workplaces like CG. How is this relevant to technology?  Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook explains in a Wall Street Journal editorial:

“As we see it, embracing people’s individuality is a matter of basic human dignity and civil rights. It also turns out to be great for the creativity that drives our business. We’ve found that when people feel valued for who they are, they have the comfort and confidence to do the best work of their lives.”

The struggle for workplace equality is far from over even if ENDA becomes law. At CG, we have an opportunity to model a better system through technology and prove that equality and acceptance boost creativity and drive the development of better solutions.

What’s your vision for how tech innovation can promote equality and create new structures?  I welcome your questions and comments.

Control Group is an AWS Premier Consulting Partner

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We’re in the top 0.44%!

Control Group is very proud to announce that we have been recognized as an Amazon Web Services (AWS) Premier Consulting Partner, the top tier of Amazon’s partnership program.

Worldwide, Amazon has over 5,000 consulting partners, only 22 of which are designated as Premier Consulting Partners.

Most of our fellow premier partners are large systems integrators and global consulting firms. We’re excited to join their ranks as a unique 100-person innovation consultancy. What differentiates Control Group within this elite crowd is not only our size, but the creative and impactful ways in which we use AWS as a key part of our toolbox, enabling our clients to be more efficient, agile, and competitive.

We’re excited to leverage our new partnership to enhance the work we do with our clients; we’ll have better access to technical information and a deeper collaboration with AWS. The goal: realize a rapid return on agility in the form of new or improved revenue streams for our clients.

If you are interested in discussing how we can help you transform your business, please contact Max at moglesbee@controlgroup.com.

 

Agile Development: A Commitment to Success

Lately, there has been a great deal of negative press covering the false start of healthcare.gov. Even President Obama publicly expressed his frustration with the software bugs that remain outstanding. Control Group also has a history of being called in at the 11th hour to fix a project on the verge of catastrophe. Although there have been many great advances in technology over the last four decades, it is still the case that many well funded, high profile projects are late, disastrous, or simply canceled altogether. How can such problems be avoided?

Some have cited that government software teams continue to use the old waterfall model of development when they should be using an Agile model. But even companies that effectively develop products using Agile methods can run into nasty problems. Furthermore, Agile methods are easy to justify for a company that is making its own software products or internal software. It can be much more difficult to get the buy-in necessary from a client when software services are rendered. Especially when companies would prefer to buy software from a consultant in the same way they would buy an iPhone app. It is still too impractical for some companies to pay for technology services without having a list of predetermined “features” and a deadline on paper. For companies that provide technology services, iterative methods alone are not a magic bullet. If one wants to assure the success of a software project, then nothing short of a commitment to success is required.

Embrace Co-ownership

A true commitment to anything must motivate one to act. Establishing such a commitment starts before the project is in writing. Potential clients must be made aware that they will eventually own the technology they’re paying for. Before any project is done, the consultant must recognize and present all the responsibilities of ownership for a custom solution. Sometimes clients would prefer to engage with no involvement on their end. In situations like these, buyers might not know what they want or what they’re asking for. If a client isn’t involved in this process of discovery and ownership, then success will be determined by happenstance.

Hold Internal and External Stakeholders Accountable

Business development teams at service companies can face intense pressure to win projects. However, if a business developer makes unethical claims or is unaware of the nature of a project, he only stands to jeopardize its success; making promises that cannot be kept will ultimately lead to client disappointment (or worse) down the road. Additionally, clients usually want a scope of specific functionality, which can damage the Agile process if too detailed. Instead of getting “down in the weeds” before the project begins, the sales cycle should focus on building trust and transparency between the consultant and client teams. During the development process, it is imperative to document clearly all agreements so that every contributor and stakeholder knows what’s expected of others and from him or herself in return. These same agreements must also cover all aspects of the project. Any roles or responsibilities that go unaccounted for may imperil the process especially when multiple companies are involved.

Understand and Communicate Technical Risk and Technical Debt

Minimizing risk is key to success. One should rate technical risk according to the experience and core competencies of the organization. Being detail-oriented and up-to-date is a very important part of this. Minimizing technical debt should be a key goal for all engineers working toward a successful release. If reducing technical debt is not possible during a sprint, the team must create a plan for debt repayment. Furthermore, all matters of technical debt and risk must be transparently communicated to the client. Technical risk and debt can be cooperatively managed when out in the open. If its hidden instead then it will eventually become an unwelcome surprise.

Understand the Cost and Value of Technology

If a company commits to a price that’s lower than the cost of a project, that project will not be successful without the consultant or client incurring intolerable risk. It’s impossible to estimate the price without understanding the relevant technology and the associated costs of development, testing, integration, and support. If the client can’t commit to a reasonable price, don’t force a commitment that is out of reach. One way of avoiding this situation is to focus on obtaining projects that provide a high ROI for a business. The tolerance for imperfection on the final deliverable is directly proportional to the business value the software delivers.

Do the Right Thing

One of the core tenets of Agile is managing change using sprints and the backlog. This is critical because client needs always change during a project. Their needs should be accounted for with a focus on a successful delivery at all times. Naturally, every business wants to make money, so the temptation to overcommit is very high. But if one submits to this temptation, all bets are off when it comes to the success of the project.

Sometimes stakeholders try to micromanage the development process. This type of interaction must be limited. Teams that commit to the overall success of a project will likely find themselves at odds with individuals or individual changes. The consultant can either manage counterproductive requests or deliver them. Managing them produces a win-win situation. Delivering them produces a lose-lose situation. Technology consultants have a responsibility to provide good service. In this case, the best service is pushing back.

Gravely Consider the Costs of Failure

No two clients are ever the same, and neither are any two projects. Regardless of the software or relationship details, the most important constant of software development is to keep aiming at a successful delivery (or launch). Consider the end goals during every step of the process; if a software project fails, even after launch, there will be plenty of unhappy people asking questions. Just as a successful business venture between two companies can be a net gain for both, a failed venture can be a net loss for both. Consider some of the consequences:

  • Loss in revenue
  • Loss of trust
  • A damaged reputation
  • Workforce attrition
  • Legal disputes

A large software failure can even threaten the business itself. In the case of healthcare.gov, the costs are still unfolding. Bottom line: Never commit to a project unless you can also commit to its success.

 

Talking Transition: Civic Innovation with NYTM, Code for America + GovLab

Talking Transition_3
November 20
6:00 – 8:00 PM
Talking Transition Tent @ 6th Avenue & Canal Street
RSVP here!

 

Over the last several years, the City of New York has been promoting initiatives like Big Apps where the city opens it data to the public stimulating the creation of hundreds of new applications, platforms, and services that are pointing the way to a more open, accountable, and accessible government.

 

Join Control Group and NY Tech Meetup for an evening of demonstrations of some of the best of these new services along with a panel discussion with leaders from government and technology about the future of civic innovation in New York as a new administration takes office.

 

Hosted by: Scott Anderson, Partner, Control Group

 

Moderated by: Andrew Raseij, Chairman, NYTM and Founder, Personal Democracy Media

 

Panelists:
Andrew Nicklin, Fmr. Director of R&D, DoITT
Mark Headd, Chief Data Officer, City of Philadelpia
Carole Post, EVP, New York Law School, Fmr. Commissioner of DoITT

 

Presentations by:
GovLab at NYU
Code for America