At the Corner of Gridlock and Unlock

Lily Tomlin did a great character in her film, “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life.” The character was Trudy, the bag lady. Her monologue has been repeated by amateurs all over, but I wasn’t able to find Tomlin ever repeating the scene.

(This one’s pretty good.)

The monologue has alternately been dubbed “Standing at the Corner of Walk and Don’t Walk.” It’s that good – it has its own monologue name.

My home city of Pittsburgh, PA, is at its own Walk/Don’t Walk corner right now. We are at a better corner than a schizophrenic, convinced she once worked for a snack dynasty, though. We have an infrastructure problem to solve, and we just might get a whole buncha money to help solve it, and the technical expertise of Google’s mobility program, Sidewalk Labs to help us do it.

What’s at stake?

Well, as Sidewalk sees it, there have been some pretty big revolutions (three, to be precise) in city-building, and those revolutions have come at a high cost. If they can develop a more cost-effective and efficient solution to the sure-to-come fourth revolution, it will be…well…revolutionary.

steam engine

According to Sidewalk Labs, we first moved people around and developed cities thanks to steam. (Think locomotives!) That makes perfect sense when you think about Pittsburgh – for crying out loud, we wouldn’t have any trains and train systems if it wasn’t for steel, and steel is the very industrial backbone of Pittsburgh. (Hello? Our football team is even named the Steelers!)

Then came electricity, which granted us lights for interior spaces, which is also a darn good thing for Pittsburgh because with all that coal dust and smoke from the steel mills, we sure needed electric lighting. We even needed it to light the interiors of the steel mills, but probably more importantly the homes of the likes of innovators Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, and Henry Clay Frick, who paid for most of the development of the steel industry and the urban development anyway, despite the many controversies surrounding their methods. Remember that guy who said Pittsburgh was like “hell

hell lid
Pittsburgh, 1872

with the lid off?” (For the record, it was James Parton, a writer from Boston, who penned it in 1868 – we still don’t like him.)

So electricity is the second revolution. Then along comes the automobile. That’s a major issue in establishing urban living, to be sure, and if you haven’t seen Pittsburgh’s topography, you can’t possibly appreciate just how revolutionary the automobile is to comfortable urban development.

We are a city built at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, which places us in a basin of sorts, carved by mighty rivers, flanked by mountains which are gorgeous but steep and majestic, necessitating roads that wind, angles that astound. Pittsburgh as a city maintains 700 sets of “City Steps.” These are cool, essential components of a pedestrian infrastructure connecting neighborhoods that are steep, and which would otherwise have impassable vehicular connections street-to-street without winding a mile or more.

The steps are great, but without a car to spirit you over Mt. Washington or across the mighty rivers, you’d be stuck living along the rivers in what we lovingly call “the Golden Triangle,” and that would leave very little land to develop into the beautiful urban spaces we now have as both the North and South Shores.

Instead, our city planners and companies like Sidewalk Labs see a fourth revolution on our vista, and it’s a digital one. We already know that things like crowdsourcing apps (think Tiramisu) can help us transform transportation and smart living (think Wink) can integrate into our daily lives, but can they help our daily commute in ways that truly make us more secure, solve our most pressing problems as a city, make us safer, respect our privacy, and bridge the gap between city of today and city of tomorrow?

It seems like that is what they wish to set out to do, and since Alphabet-style (nee Google) minds and energy levels are behind it, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised that the rate of success feels quite high.

I’m looking at just one idea for now – it’s their notion of Flow.

Sidewalk Labs sets out to wrestle congestion. I’m an avid cyclist. I still harbor a bit of fear in city cycling because, hey, people get killed on bikes. It’s real, and it’s scary. It’s expensive to commute, though, and I love the environment, so if I could be a part of a solution to the rat-race commuter congestion issue, I’d sign up in a heartbeat. Flow analytics with Sidewalk Labs is looking at Pittsburgh as one of the finalists in a 7-city competition to use analytics and messaging to increase efficiency of roads, parking and transit. That is our Walk/Don’t Walk. Can we move from being one of Seven Finalists to being “the one?” Will Pittsburgh get the final rose?

So I’m asking myself, “Hey, as someone who wants to be able to bike around the city better, how will this help me?” And my answer was easy – if there is less congestion in general, I get back and forth safer, and the mobility issue in general is an improved experience. Win-win-win. Drivers and cyclists together are happier people. Mayor Peduto has been working hard to integrate better, safer bike lanes in our city, and although not all of the data is in, the results so far are pretty great. More bike commuters, with happier faces, and very little (if any) added congestion in our downtown corridors.

They have this interactive messaging (this is where the tech writer in me totally geeked out) and dynamic parking (woah) along with dynamic transit (everything green and eco-friendly about me went berserk now.

So here’s the gist of why this tech writer went all off-topic and posted about an urban-development app on a Tech Pub kind of page. This is the sort of thing every city should get behind. This is the kind of Justin Trudeau, Portland-can’t-beat-this, nobody can oppose this idea kind of stuff that makes cities great. This makes life great. Who doesn’t want a smoother commute every day? I mean, unless you already work at home in your pajamas and only have to walk to the grocery store, the dentist and the veterinarian, this seems too good to be true. And when this thing happens to be available near you, do the work. Participate in the data-gathering, because this is not big-brother in the way that some folk might cast a side-eye toward. This is the stuff dreams are made of. Beautiful, blissful, traffic-jam, I found a parking space dreams.


Pittsburgh, 2015 – We are much, much cleaner than Hell now!



International-Womens-DayI know I just posted yesterday, but I have had a working draft of this piece in the hopper for a while; it just never quite grew its feet, as I like to say. And I can’t put a piece on the blog until it has its own feet. But today, being Women’s Day and all, the piece found its feet.

I recalled Isis Anchalee – remember her? She’s the bright, talented, strong, and yes, beautiful platform engineer from the Tech Startup OneLogin who asked her to participate in their ad campaign, which then sparked the #ilooklikeanengineer hashtag movement. It didn’t take long for the misogynists among us to determine that Isis was simply too pretty to be a “real” platform engineer. There’s just no way a smart brain could be housed in that attractive body.

The movement caught on fast, but it has faded just as quickly. It’s not enough to repeatedly have lists like Forbes top 30 women under 30, although that’s a great list. I say it’s not enough, because when a company like Microsoft reveals its diversity numbers to reflect the staggeringly awful truth: over 75% male and 60% white, with an only 29% female workforce globally, that’s alarming. And then comes the real hit: only 12.5% of Microsoft’s senior leadership in America is female. (Source: Forbes). This is happening even though we know that women are generally better at coding tasks than men.

But we also have to reveal the truth that, according to the US Department of Labor, only 12% of Computer Science graduates today are women.

Why? What about this environment is blocking women? Are we really just not cut out for this field?


Not really. According to Gayle Laakman McDowell, author of Cracking the Interview, and a coder herself, it’s primarily that girls, when they are girls, are mostly sent the message that, “hey, this stuff is not for you.” Subtly or overtly, young women are, from a very young age, steered toward the humanities while young men are steered toward hard sciences. (We’ve known this for a long time, but I’m providing ethos here. I’m a writer, so to show you I have backup, I provide a subject-matter-expert, okay?)

So we tell girls and young women that they just don’t look like coders. They look like teachers, they look like nurses, they look like bank tellers or whatever, but they do not look like they fit in the cubicle-hive style pressure system that is software development or platform engineering. Is that it?

In other areas of their lives, we are telling them to be “totally natural,” or to be proud of what they look like. We tell them to embrace their body types and to live their lives with gusto. Kate Winslett recently signed a modeling deal with L’Oreal that has a “no Photoshop” clause, and we applaud this honesty and truth to herself.

But we haven’t told young girls that if their true beauty is in writing code, that they are totally entitled to that gorgeousness?

The percentage of women who work in tech companies remains consistent, at around 30%. So there ARE women who do this stuff, but it’s stagnant. It is failing to grow. Even though more women go to college, and an even greater number of women attain graduate degrees, the percentage stays flat. Now, what I find truly remarkable is that the percentage of women in technical or leadership roles – roles where they can actually influence the direction the company takes, is even lower. This difficulty may be the result of well-known sexism in the technology sector, or at least an unwillingness to combat it. The New York Times ran a great piece in April of 2014 called “Technology’s Man Problem,” documenting just this trend, and not much has changed in the last two years, but some things have.

It is not just a matter of moving more girls into a pipeline of studying STEM, because the high rate of attrition in tech moves them right on out the door just as quickly. Teaching women and girls that the tech field is appealing, lucrative, and open to them is not the quick fix we hoped it would be. Instead, fixing the culture that says, “you don’t look like an engineer, coder, tech writer…” THAT is the solution, or at least part of it. In the UK, a campaign called “This Girl Can” strives to connect young women through physical activity and inspiration, while here in the US, Target recently launched an ad campaign called Target Loves Every Body.

I believe we need a culture shift that defines, or redefines, the landscape to show that coders look like lots of things, and writers look like lots of things. Women in many careers have been trying to reshape their images from Hollywood to magazine covers, so why not in Silicon Valley, too?

Women helping women is the key to confidence and the key to success. If tech culture is going to change, everyone needs to change. The emotional and professional cost is simply too high not to. So on this, Women’s Day, the challenge is to reach out to a woman in your field – or a woman not yet in your field – and mentor or inspire, encourage or reassure her. That is how it gets done. Make a pledge to yourself that you will make room in tech for one more young woman, or that you will make additional room for one more established woman. It’s a jungle in here. Even women who have worked in here for years can get lost in the tangle of tasks, so have lunch this week, next, and next month too. There is networking to be done, and we could all use it. Today does not need to be the only Woman’s Day you have this year. Let the women in your life, especially in your tech life, know that they LOOK like accomplishers, achievers, builders, and leaders.

And then, if you are a woman, make sure you accomplish, achieve, build, and lead.


I Like the Ambience in Here


Almost all of us have those experiences. The ones where we “love the ambience” – of a restaurant, someone’s home, or even a park, a beach or a vacation spot. The way a place makes us feel is significant to us. But the word ambience has a more important origin. It hails from the Latin verb ambire, meaning “to go around.” It meant more of something that encircled something else. It was a verb, after all. In its current usage, it is a noun when it is used as ambience. It is an adjective when used as ambient, as I will here – ambient light, or ambient sound. There is a whole career  in which someone chooses the music to be played at a restaurant – the ambient music for your dining experience. Just the right song list for the evening.

But I’m thinking not just of music or lighting. I’m going more along the lines of the whole realm of other things that impact our daily lives. Because, you see, we have infiltrated our living with ambient computing – the ability to access and harness computing power is truly all around us, all the time. Not all that long ago, say right around 200, even, if you needed a bit of information but couldn’t recall it, you jotted it down – on your Palm Pilot, no less, and looked it up on your handy home computer when you could get to Google or a then-new Wikipedia article. Now, though, information is – quite literally – in the air. Peter Morville writes in his recent book, “Ambient Findability, ” about how to filter through the rampant deluge of instant information to get to what we actually need. Morville actually takes into consideration the evolutionary path on this journey – and that’s no small task. Is findability as essential as we think? Well, I’d argue that if information is our new ambience, then yes. Finding our way through it is a key element.


In computing (and here is where the intersection of my writing and my technology comes in – why I am interested in this whole word thing), there is the great concept of “calm technology.” The aim of calm technology is to reduce the information overload, or the ambient noise experienced by the brain so that the user can decide where to focus his or her attention so as to get at the most important or useful information. In my job, this means keeping pages user-centered, clean, and focused and free of things that you see elsewhere on the internet, like pop-ups and flashy distractions. While I do not want my material to be boring, since that is a distraction in itself, I likewise do not want there to be dancing monkeys in the corner of the screen. Dancing monkeys do not represent calm technology. Crisp, easy-to-access writing does.

For technical writing, the sense of calm comes from ease of use, from that ambient findability I mentioned before. Think of a meeting with your supervisor where only he or she knows the agenda to be discussed – you, as the invited attendee, feel very uncomfortable (not calm). But once the agenda is published and you know that the topics are clear and nonthreatening, you feel at ease (calm). The same works with technology. In technical prose, if the topics are clear and easy to access, the environment is calm. It’s a good ambience.

A video conference or a live teaching tool in user training can likewise be calm if it’s done properly. In our organization, we use monthly customer demos not just to show the work we’ve done, but to preview what we are working on, to sometimes lift the curtain on what’s to come – to create that calm ambience. It’s a good move. With all customer interactions, it’s just like that meeting with the boss – if the information is clear and accessible, the ambience is great. The metaphor works whether it’s tech or not, but let me bring it back around to specifically technology.

Calm technology, if we are lucky, pervades not just technical writing, but our work, lives, and homes. For instance, the calm technology that I have here on my desk includes two monitors. I use my laptop monitor for smaller things that perhaps don’t need my full attention – my email registers there, and my skype  screen, for example. I do my editing (like this blog) aamazon-echo-dot-lit-upnd my reviewing of documentation panels for my job, so that I can compare draft and final versions side-by-side. At home, I use a wink app  to make life a
whole lot simpler, from turning on and dimming lights to locking and unlocking doors. I integrate an Amazon Echo and soon I’ll order an Echo dot to simplify that even more. Learning, interacting with occupant behavior – all calming technologies. They make my space feel better, run more smoothly, interact with my world a little more easily. That’s the idea behind ambient computing, if we really reclaim the word.

Now, if only I could get these things to go to my early morning yoga class for me?