Merit and Entrance Requirements

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Yaakov is right: sometimes we define merit in technical communities too narrowly.

I want more programmers in the Perl world who don't look like me (middle class, Caucasian, male, stubborn, autodidact, far too well versed in nerdy pursuits like math, Unix, comic books, video games, British humor, Japanese cartoons, and science fiction) not because there's anything wrong with those things but because I like being around people who aren't exactly like me sometimes. I like helping people with problems different from my own. Sometimes writing software for people who write software to help them write software isn't nearly as satisfying as helping a free speech attorney organize her cases or an eight year old boy catalog his collectable card game cards or a working mother download and print recipes for a son with special dietary needs.

I spent the past several days as a camp counselor with my eight year old nephew instead of attending yet another technology conference where rich old white men tell an audience of $1200+ per ticket attendees to spend their time "working on things that matter" because helping a bunch of eight year old kids spend time outdoors and realize that some adults really do care about them and want to help them grow up safe and happy and healthy is awfully satisfying, especially when compared to arguing over whether it's a sin from a technical sense to use XML in a templating system.

Take the ever-present idea of tutorials, for example. If you want to write a tutorial for an audience of purely system administrators with several years of experience managing Unix systems from the command line and really target that tutorial for people who'll never write a program of more than a couple of dozen lines where it only has to work once and no one will ever read it again and getting something mostly working is more important than everything else, go right ahead. Working system administrators need good tutorials. Blessings on you for helping such an audience.

Me, I have different people in mind—not better, not worse, not even necessarily more deserving, just different.

There can be many ways into the world of programming, and there are many places within that world: casual, professional, dilettante, perpetual novice, dabbler, whichever. I'd like to remove some of the barriers that keep people who don't look like me out.

How do we do that?

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Don't know if this will work for everyone. It doesn't always work for me. I write like they're sitting over my shoulder, interrupting me with questions about things like STDIN and pragmas. Then I look at the mess I've written and shuffle it around into an order that seems reasonable.

One thing that helps me tune that image of them is answering the occasional "help me program" question I receive. I try to pay attention to the person asking the question rather than the small detail that they are asking about - the detail that makes me want to respond with an email containing nothing but a perldoc formula for them to invoke. Look for opportunities to turn those simple questions and the conversations they generate into a tutorial explaining a set of concepts in more depth.

Keep the content current, relevant, and cross-platform. Many of those novices are going to be exploring Perl from an operating system that looks nothing like what the "average" JAPH (or Pythonista, or Ruby ninja, or whatever) uses. If they're really new, they may even need a little help with the concept of a text editor.

The hardest part is keeping current. I had some scripts that helped me do that with my Parrot pages, but I'm far enough out of sync that getting them up to date will be a serious project. Then of course there's the question of the relevance of a PIR tutorial ^_^

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This page contains a single entry by chromatic published on July 28, 2011 1:25 PM.

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