A Finland Swede in Bavaria

Monday, 20 October 2014

On obsession, Monty and gender issues

The problem with Monty is his communication. For instance, he often starts his sentences with The problem with <x> is. Like last Friday, where x == women. Not a great start of any statement, and a particularly bad one for x == women. For the context, you can read Laine Campbell's blog "The Meritocracy, and a Call to Action, thanks to Monty Widenius" and for the ensuing Twitterstorm, look for #ayb14 and Monty.

I wasn't present at #ayb14 in Oxford, nor have I heard exactly what Monty said. Judging from the strong tweet by @AYBConf that "We work hard to make every AYB inclusive and were gutted by @montywi's comments earlier which were plain wrong #ayb14", it wasn't pretty. 

On the other hand, I know Monty since the late 1970s, and I am sure Monty as a father of two daughters feels bad about being called a sexist. I am certain he thinks he honestly respects women. Period. This includes respecting women as programmers.

So I called up Monty to get his side of the story. 

Kaj: Monty, have you read Laine Campbell's blog entry from the All Your Base Conf?

Monty: No, I'm outside internet reach travelling with my family near Oxford. But I expect the worst. I am afraid I failed to get my thoughts across properly during AYB. 

Kaj: Well, in a way, it could be worse. Laine says "MySQL has been my bread and butter and one of my top passions in open-source for over a decade. I am always happy to see Monty and hear from him." And moreover, she confirms she is not out to "villainize you". What really happened?

Monty: I had said MariaDB was "10 man years in front of MySQL" in the optimiser area, and Laine asked me "what about woman years". First, I used "man years" because I am a non-native speaker and express myself in a way I believe to be understood by other non-native speakers. That doesn't capture lots of nuances or diplomacy. Second, I am not the sort of person to simply give a politically correct boilerplate answer, so I went into thinking out loud about the underlying reasons for the unequal gender distribution. 

Kaj: And, in your mind, why are there more male programmers of lead open source projects?

Monty: Obsession. My personal feeling is that men get more easily obsessed with things, including computers. They forget their surroundings, neglect their families and friends. And I think that's more insulting to men than to women, who I think are better at combining work and having a life. This type of male obsession I find to be mostly a negative trait, even though single-minded focus on coding from the early teens, followed by 16 hour coding days at work, is what has enabled many successful pieces of software.

Kaj: Can't women get obsessed? Or do you think they shouldn't?

Monty: I know lots of excellent women coders. I have personally been involved in hiring several of them, and I encourage more women to become hackers, software architects, and software engineers in general. And when it comes to obsession, I'm not talking about what should be, I'm just observing what has been the case around me. When women are obsessed, I find they tend to focus on social aspects, which is why there have been much more of an uptake in women in senior management, rather than among introverted, solitary hackers.

Kaj: Is obsession a prerequisite for being a hacker?

Monty: I am not saying that one needs to be obsessed to become a good programmer or have an influence in the software industry, and most are not. However many of the extreme programmers, especially those who create big software protects by themselves, are obsessed with what they do.

Kaj: In her blog, Laine mentions you acknowledging women as having a better work-life balance, quoting you as saying "It was the men who worked too hard, had no lives, no connection to families.". But Laine's key point is this: "this is not a gender problem, and shame on you Monty for saying it was." And she goes on to say "I don’t want this to be a witch hunt. I’d love to see Monty acknowledge his generalizations, and the harm that they cause." Can you follow this?

Monty: Yes, I can. Let me relate to my own situation. There were over ten years of 16 hour coding days during the 1990s and early 2000s, when I wrote MySQL. I was in the fortunate situation to have a wife, Carola, that took care of our daughter My (as in MySQL) and our son Max, taking a two-year break from her own career. Her sacrifices are what enabled me to focus so single-mindedly on MySQL. I am very grateful to her for that. Now, do I think the role division between Carola and me in the 1990s should be the norm, in the 2010s? No. It wasn't wrong, it wasn't right, it just was. And without that role division, there wouldn't have been MySQL as we know it.

Kaj: Looking back, are you happy with that role division?

Monty: I don't think it makes much sense to regret past decisions that I can't influence any longer. And I did spend what people call "quality time" with my children, not large quantities of it, but if you ask my children, I do believe they will acknowledge that "although dad worked all the time, he was still there for us when we needed, he often made delicious food, and we spent fun times together during holidays when we travelled".

 Picture: Monty on Galapagos 2002, surrounded by children, some of which are his own

Kaj: Laine thinks you made gender generalisations and should acknowledge them as such, including the harm that they cause. Do you?

Monty: I am deeply distressed by the situation. I feel bad to be thought of as a sexist, because I believe everyone should be given equal opportunities. While I am not a social policy maker, I replied with my reflections on the root causes of why there are more male programmers in the cultures where I have been working, and I understand that wasn't wise of me. I don't want to cause women coders any harm, and as I can observe from the angry tweets after my outspoken comments at AYB, I have done just that. I am deeply sorry!

Kaj: Thank you, Monty!