The Ada Initiative is ending, but our work continues on

A little over four years ago, my good friend Mary Gardiner and I co-founded the Ada Initiative to support women in open technology and culture. Today, thousands of conferences have anti-harassment policies, dozens of communities have codes of conduct, over 2000 people have taken the Ally Skills Workshop (and 40 people know how to teach it), and more than 550 people have attended AdaCamps. Awareness of sexism and misogyny in open technology and culture has increased dramatically.

This week we announced publicly that we are shutting the Ada Initiative down in mid-October. I feel really good about what we accomplished in a few short years. Since we made a practice of releasing our work in open source form and training other people to carry it on, the programs we developed are all continuing in some form. As I told Selena Larson at the Daily Dot, “I have not made the tech industry good enough that I’m willing to work in it again,” but Mary and I and all of our supporters made it a little better for a lot of people.

I’m excited for my next project, founding a consultancy to teach the Ally Skills Workshops and anything else I (we?) end up developing. I’m wondering if perhaps diversity in tech work as a whole has moved past the stage of donation-funded non-profits and into the stage of for-profit consultancies paid directly by those who benefit the most (mostly large corporations). It would make sense: 10 years ago we could only do this work as unpaid volunteers; 5 years ago awareness was high enough that it became possible to do it as non-profit employees; today enough companies think of this work as necessary and skilled labor that they are willing to pay for-profit consultants market rates to do. For me personally, I think I’m done working with non-profits for a while – I just stepped down from the board of directors of Double Union as well. I’ll also be taking a good long break from working before starting my next venture, probably in January 2016.

Mary and I will be teaching a few more Ally Skills Workshops and Impostor Syndrome classes before the Ada Initiative winds down. Spaces are still available in:

We will be announcing a few more workshops before mid-October; keep an eye on our blog and Twitter account to find out how to register for them.

Leading the Ada Initiative for four and a half years is the longest I’ve done anything in my life; it’s also by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I developed a lot of valuable new skills as a result of working closely with Mary Gardiner and the members of the Ada Initiative board of directors and advisory board. I want to especially call out Sue Gardner, Amelia Greenhall, and Caroline Simard as being particularly influential in shaping me as an executive. [Update 5 Feb 2016: Amelia and I are no longer collaborating on any projects.]

On a sadder note, the shutdown of the Ada Initiative coincided with the untimely death of the person whose experiences and passionate advocacy inspired its creation. As I’ve said in numerous interviews, Nóirín Plunkett’s experiences with sexual assault at open source conferences and their public refusal to put up with them were influential in my personal decision to co-found the Ada Initiative. I first met Nóirín about 14 years ago on the LinuxChix IRC channel, and never expected I’d end up riding a giant Ferris wheel with them in Brisbane, or attending their pirate-themed wedding in a Portland donut shop. Nóirín was an active advisor to the Ada Initiative since its founding, and worked with us as a consultant during our executive director search earlier this year. Nóirín was one of the bravest, most brilliant, most competent, most caring, and adventurous people I’ve ever had the honor of knowing. I will continue to think of them as a role model and inspiration in everything I do.

Finally, the Ada Initiative’s work was supported in large part by many of my friends and acquaintances and I’m incredibly grateful for your trust and dedication. I’m also grateful for all the new friends and working relationships I developed while working for the Ada Initiative – my life is so much richer and happier now! Thank you everyone who contributed to the important work we did together over the last four years.

Thanking things for their service

Personal organizer Marie Kondo has some unique organizing advice, as summarized by Penelope Green for the New York Times:Discard everything that does not ‘spark joy,’ after thanking the objects that are getting the heave-ho for their service.” One of the symptoms of hoarding disorder is a stronger than usual emotional attachment to inanimate objects, which makes it painful to throw them out. Most people have emotional attachments to objects at some level, but instead of mocking or denigrating them as irrational, Marie Kondo acknowledges and values your emotional relationships to objects, in a way that helps you let them go instead of keeping them.

As anyone who has ever visited my apartment knows, I don’t have difficulty getting rid of things. This time I went through my closets with “thanking objects for their service” in mind and caught myself several times denigrating a formerly useful object – and my own judgement by extension – and stopped myself. I ended with 5 bags of garbage (including a dozen old bras), a cart full of things for Goodwill, and a lot of happiness about the decisions I made in 2014.

I have always been good at ending things, as even the most cursory glance at my résumé (or my love life) will tell you. What I’m getting better at now is ending things well: passing them on to new people, or winding them down gracefully if no one wants to continue them. That connects strongly to the idea of thanking objects – or your past self – for their service. I’m ending things not because they are useless or ugly or a bad idea in the first place, but because I’m ready for something new. So, here is a list of things I am ending or passing on right now:

Leading the Ada Initiative: My typical job tenure is on the order of 18 months, so it was with a sense of wonder that I realized I’m approaching 4 years in one job: Executive Director of the Ada Initiative. At the same time, I am thrilled that we are searching for a new executive director. I have really enjoyed these 4 years, especially getting to work so closely with my co-founder and friend Mary Gardiner. (If you really like someone but you live on opposite sides of an ocean, I can recommend co-founding a business with them as a way to make sure you get to spend lots of time with each other. ALL THE HEARTS to you, Mary.)

I really enjoyed building a business from the ground up, and working with people I genuinely like and respect. I’m proud of myself for working with my excellent career counselor to find out for sure that I don’t want to lead the Ada Initiative forever. By giving up the head spot, I’m giving myself time to develop new training programs in 2015 – teaching and designing the Ally Skills Workshop and Impostor Syndrome Training are my favorite parts of my job right now. In the past, I’d have had to justify quitting the ED spot by deciding that the Ada Initiative was a bad idea and I wanted nothing to do with it; now I can say it is still awesome, someone else will want this job, and I can do something slightly different and keep working with the same people and organization.

File systems consulting: I shut down my file systems consulting business at the end of 2014, after 7 years of freelance work and some really sweet file system debugging problems (my favorites: root causing bad flash by the pattern of data corruption, tracking down and fixing a deadlock in the VFS freeze/thaw code, and parallelizing fsck for ext3). I continued to consult even while I had a full-time job because (a) it pays really well, (b) I didn’t want my expertise to “go to waste,” (c) almost no other file system consultants exist because we tend to prefer steady full-time jobs that let us code happily away in a corner. In some way, it felt like I was being ungrateful to everything my file systems career had given me if I stopped consulting, but I really didn’t have the time or the interest any more. (Also, Miklos Szeredi’s overlayfs finally got integrated into mainline, so I feel like I can lay unioning file systems to rest.) So I took Marie Kondo’s advice, thanked my file systems career for what it gave me, shut down my consulting web site, and updated my LinkedIn profile. Yay!

Treasurer of Double Union: I served as treasurer of Double Union from mid-2013 to December 2014, and happily handed it over to Sally Maki last month. The job of treasurer is never “done” but it is well-documented, mostly automated, and a great thing for people to do as preparation for starting their own business. I am really happy to have been a key part of growing Double Union from a twinkle in our eyes to a 130+ member makerspace with a comfortable environment for women and a working 3D printer. I’m still on the board of directors, but hope to step down at the end of 2015 in favor of people with fresh ideas and new energy. I always envisioned Double Union as a thing I wanted to help start but not run for very long, which is maybe why stepping down as treasurer was the easiest and simplest thing to end (emotionally – in terms of work, it was hours and hours of writing documentation and setting up software and meetings with various people over more than a year).

Looking at the above list, it’s clear that a full-time job as Director of Training at the Ada Initiative won’t be enough to keep me busy for 2015. I don’t know what else I will start or take on, and I’m excited! I love learning new things, solving new problems, and growing sustainable organizations.

Operating systems war story: How feminism helped me solve one of file systems’ oldest conundrums

A smiling woman with pink hair wearing a t shirt with the word "O_PONIES" in Courier font
Valerie Aurora in 2009 (keep reading to find out why my shirt says “O_PONIES”)
CC BY NC-SA Robert Kaye
Hi, my name is Valerie Aurora, and I am the inventor of a software feature that has prevented billions of unnecessary writes to hard drives, saving energy and making our computers faster. My invention is called “relative atime,” and this is the story of how my feminist approach to computing helped me invent it – and what you can do to support women in open source software. (If you’re already convinced we need more women in open source, here’s a link to donate now to the Ada Initiative’s 2014 fundraising drive. My operating systems war story will still be here when you’re finished!)

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First, a little background for those of you who don’t live and breathe UNIX file systems performance. Ingo Molnar once called the access time, or “atime” feature of UNIX file systems “perhaps the most stupid Unix design idea of all times.” That’s harsh but fair. See, every time you read a file on a UNIX operating system – which includes OS X, Linux, and Android[1] – it is supposed to update the file to record the last time it was read, or accessed. This is called the access time or atime. Cool, right? You can imagine why it’s helpful to know when was the last time anything read a particular file – you can tell if you have new mail, for example, or figure out which files you haven’t used in a while and can throw away.

The problem with the atime feature is that updating atime requires writing to the disk. So every read to a file creates a tiny disk write – and writes are expensive and slow. (SSDs don’t get rid of this problem; you still don’t want to do unnecessary writes and most of the world’s data is still on spinning disks.) Here’s what Ingo said about this in 2006: “Atime updates are by far the biggest IO performance deficiency that Linux has today. Getting rid of atime updates would give us more everyday Linux performance than all the pagecache speedups of the past 10 years, _combined_.

So, atime is terrible idea – why don’t we just turn it off? That’s what many people did, using the “noatime” option that many file systems provide. The problem was that many programs did need to know the atime of a file to work properly. So most Linux distributions shipped with atime on, and it was up to the user to remember to turn it off (if they could). It was a bad situation.

A cartoon of a woman driving a robot penguin
LinuxChix logo
In 2006, I was a Linux file systems developer and also an active member of LinuxChix, a group for women who used Linux. LinuxChix existed in part because it was impossible to have technical discussions about Linux on most mailing lists without people insulting and flaming you for asking the simplest questions – and it was ten times worse for people with feminine usernames. Tell a cautionary story about installing RAM correctly, and the response might be a sneering, “Oh, you didn’t let out the magic smoke, did you?” On LinuxChix, that kind of obnoxiousness wasn’t allowed (though we still got a lot of what is now called mansplaining.)

So when I advised several people in LinuxChix to turn off atime, a friend felt safe telling me that hey, performance on her laptop was better, but now Mutt, the email reader we both used, thought she always had new email. This is because in her configuration, Mutt would look at an email file and compared its atime with the file’s last written time to figure out if any new email had arrived since the last time it read the file.

Now, the typical answer to “Mutt doesn’t work with noatime” was “Switch to a slower directory-based method,” or “Use a file size hack that had bugs,” or any number of other unhelpful things. Mostly, people just wouldn’t bother reporting things that broke with noatime. But I was part of a culture – a feminist culture – in which I respected people like my friend and programmers that attempted to use fully defined, useful features of UNIX in order to implement features efficiently.

I decided to look at the problem from a human point of view. What my friend and the Mutt programmers really wanted to know was this: Has this file been written since the last time I read it? They didn’t particularly care about the exact time of the last read, they just wanted to know if it had been read before or after the last write. I had an idea: What if we only updated a file’s atime if it would change the answer to the question, “Has this file been read since the last time it was written?” I called it “relative atime.”[2]

The amazing thing is: it worked! Matthew Garrett (also a known feminist), Ingo Molnar, and Andrew Morton made some changes to patch, including updating the atime if the current atime was more than 24 hours ago. Other than that, this incredibly simple algorithm worked well enough that in 2009, relative atime became the default in the mainline Linux kernel tree. Now, by default, people’s computers were fast and their programs worked.

I came up with this idea and the original patch in 2006, when the atime problem had been known for many years. Previous solutions had taken a very file-system-centric point of view, mainly along the lines of buffering up atime updates in memory and writing them out when we ran out of memory. What led me to a creative, simple, and extremely fast solution was being part of a feminist community in which people felt comfortable sharing their technical problems, wanted to help each other, and respected each other’s intelligence. Those are all feminist principles, and they make file systems development better.

I try to take that human-centered, feminist approach with other topics in file systems, including the great fsync()/rename() debate of 2009 (a.k.a “O_PONIES”) in which I argued that file systems developers should strive to make life easier for developers and users, not harder. As recently as 2013, a leading file systems developer was still arguing that file systems didn’t have to save file data reliably by mocking users for playing computer games.

I was working on another human-centered file system feature, union mounts, when I heard that a friend of mine had been groped at an open source conference for the third time in one year. While I loved my file systems work, I felt like stopping sexual harassment and assault of women in open source was more urgent, and that I was uniquely qualified to work on it. (I myself had been groped by another Linux storage developer.) So I quit my job as a Linux kernel developer and co-founded the Ada Initiative, whose mission is supporting women in open technology and culture. Unfortunately, as a result of my work, several more Linux storage developers came out publicly in favor of harassment and assault.

That’s one reason why I’m so excited that Ceph developer Sage Weil challenged the open storage community to raise $8192 for the Ada Initiative by Wednesday, Oct. 8 – and he’ll personally match that amount if we reach the goal! UPDATED: Sage and Mike Perez raised this to $16,384!!! The number of Linux file systems and storage developers who both donated to Sage’s challenge and wanted to be listed publicly as supporters is reminding me that the vast majority of the people I worked with in Linux want women to feel safe and comfortable in their community. I love file systems development, I love writing kernel code, and I miss working with and seeing my Linux friends. And as you can tell by the lack of something like union mounts in the mainline kernel 21 years after the first implementation, Linux file systems and storage does not have enough developers, and can’t afford to keep driving off women developers.

A woman sitting at a table explaining soemthing with her hands
Me teaching the Ally Skills Workshop
The Ada Initiative is capable of changing this situation. In August 2014, I taught the first Ally Skills Workshop at a Linux Foundation-run conference, LinuxCon North America. The Ally Skills Workshop teaches men simple everyday ways to support women in their workplaces in communities, and teaching it is my favorite part of my work. I was happy to see several Linux file systems and storage developers at the workshop. I was still nervous about running into the developers who support harassment and assault, but seeing how excited people were after the Ally Skills Workshop made it all worthwhile.

If you’d like to see more people working on Linux storage and file systems, and especially more women, please join Sage Weil and more than 30 other open storage developers in supporting the Ada Initiative. Donate now:

Donate now

Edited to add 10/6/2014: Sage made his goal, hurray! And here’s my favorite comment from the HN thread about this story, the only one actually flagged into non-existence (plenty of other creepy misogyny elsewhere though):

Screen Shot 2014-10-05 at 10.18.37 PM

Also, I had no idea Lennart Poettering planned to post this detailed description of the abuse, harassment, and death threats he’s suffered as an open source developer.

We’re still raising money for Ada Initiative to fight this kind of harassment, so feel free to donate:

Donate now

[1] Yes, Android is Linux too, I’m just naming the brands that non-operating systems experts would recognize.

[2] “Relative atime” isn’t so bad, but the name of the option that you pass to the kernel, “relatime”, showed my usual infelicity with naming things as it looks like a misspelling of “realtime”.

2013: Tipping point for the Linux kernel community?

As the last days of the Ada Initiative fundraising drive come to a close ($103,000 so far!), I’m reflecting on what’s changed for Linux in the last 2 and half years. And it’s pretty awesome.

This is the year I’ve been waiting for in the Linux kernel community: the year that 7 new women are learning kernel development at once, the year that kernel developers directly called out the leader of the Linux kernel for fostering a hostile, shitty culture, the year that we as a community realized that the “graying of Linux” is a serious threat to the future of the kernel.

Back in 2011 when I quit my Linux kernel job at Red Hat and co-founded the Ada Initiative, making the Linux kernel community less hostile and more welcoming to women (and all people) seemed like an impossible task. Many Linux developers, past and present, donated to the Ada Initiative anyway, in an act of what I can only call rampant optimism. I decided to focus on more achievable goals, like never getting groped by another Linux kernel developer at a conference again. (So far, so good!)

So I was thrilled to hear about the 7 Linux kernel internships, and the call for civility, and the recognition of the lack of new kernel developers, but I didn’t think the Ada Initiative was directly involved in any of them. But then I kept learning more about ways that the Ada Initiative played an influential part in these events.

As one example, Marina Zhurakhinskaya, head of the fabulously successful Outreach Program for Women in open source, wrote last week about how AdaCamp brought her together with new mentors for the Outreach Program for Women. She told me that the connections she made and the discussions she had at AdaCamp were key to making this year’s 7 Linux kernel internships for women possible. She also credited the increase in the percentage of women speakers at GUADEC this year (from 7% to 21% in one year!) to skills she learned from reading a post on the Ada Initiative’s blog.

It took 2 years to make a noticable impact on the culture of the kernel community, but the Ada Initiative’s approach is working, thanks to people who believed in us back when we were just a web site and two programmers turned activists. My personal goal is to make the Linux kernel community as functional, productive, and enjoyable as the Django community or the Python community. Just imagine: What would a Linux kernel developer event with 20% women be like? What if Kernel Summit was dominated by polite people who just wanted to work together to make the kernel better? How many top developers who left the kernel community could we convince to come back?

For the first time, I’m starting to believe this idea could come true. You can make that day come faster by donating now. And when you meet the new OPW interns at LinuxCon, smile, say hi, and let them know that you’re on their side.

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Coding is a human right

Today I was walking down the street, thinking about how barbaric it was that many women were forbidden to learn to read and write in the 19th century in England (some people felt that illiterate women made better wives). Then it struck me:

Preventing women from learning to code is the moral equivalent of preventing women from learning to read and write in the 19th century.

Now, I don’t believe that everyone should learn to code, any more than everyone should learn to repair cars, or write a legal opinion. But I do think everyone should have an equal opportunity to learn to code. Perhaps a better analogy is that access to computer programming is the modern-day equivalent of access to higher education.

I co-founded the Ada Initiative in part to address the stunning gender disparity in open source software: 2% women at the last measurement. And it’s working – as a community, we’ve made more progress for women in open tech/culture in the 2 years the Ada Initiative has been in operation than in the previous 10.

During the month of August, we are running our annual fundraising drive to raise money for our next year’s work: running AdaCamps, teaching Allies Workshops, and working for codes of conduct in online communities. You can help by donating now and by spreading the word about our work. Thank you so much!

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Software is changing the world. Women should be one half of the people writing that software.

Ada Lovelace Day party in San Francisco

Ada Lovelace Day is coming up next Tuesday, October 16th, and so the Ada Initiative is throwing a party in downtown San Francisco.

Details at the link, but I wanted to post here so I could make a personal comment: I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the first Ada Initiative event in San Francisco. The vibe was totally different from the usual San Francisco geek gathering: Every conversations sounded like people were enjoying talking to each other. I’m sure some people like those competitive geek conversations in which people try to prove they are smarter than each other, but I find them pretty boring now, and apparently so did everyone else at the event.

Both AdaCamps were like this too – a geek conference which yet had zero of the things I hate about geek conferences. Running events in which 100% of the attendees are people who think more women should be involved in open technology and culture has completely changed my mind about what geek culture can be.