Thursday, November 7, 2013

Navigating an 'engineered' and 'gendered' world: questions about communities and belonging

Yesterday morning I went birdwatching in Ragihalli with 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 POSTAgain, 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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