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From Tiny Houses to Tech Giants

“Most important, I stumbled into a new sort of “happiness,” one that didn’t hinge on always getting what I want, but rather, on wanting what I have. It’s the kind of happiness that isn’t tied so tightly to being comfortable (or having money and property), but instead is linked to a deeper sense of satisfaction—to a sense of humility and gratitude, and a better understanding of who I am in my heart.” – Dee Williams, The Big Tiny: A Built It Myself Memoir

The Big Tiny is as much a tale about the struggle and reward of building a house as it is finding oneself and living in an intentional and purposeful way. In that, it epitomizes the Tiny House movement and the people, that remarkable tribe, who downsize their lives and whittling down their Stuff, giving themselves greater freedom to live a life of their choosing. The path to that leaner life is in the construction of a home, the space in which we live.

Tracy Kidder’s House is the opposite, an account of building a grand house from the perspective of every participant: the contractor and the workers, some more handy man than craftsman; the husband and wife, concerned as much about money as final product; and the architect, advocating always for his vision. There are concerns that the house is not big enough, and then that it’s too big, and as it ended up with 5 bedrooms and is on AirBnB, you can be the judge. There are heated emotions, money squabbles, and disagreements. But above all else, there is teamwork. The team building the house. The team of the married couple, envisioning their new life. The one-man architect mercenary, learning to navigate within the larger team of the house.

Teamwork is represented in a different industry in another of Tracy Kidder’s books, The Soul of a New Machine. Here it is a team of engineers, and we are introduced to the personalities of a new breed: the kind willing to binge code for hours, weeks, and months on end, led by a man who uses techniques both novel and arcane to whip his team into a productive frenzy. It is a famous book, the first of its kind (called “the original nerd epic” by Wired), and it has had a far-reaching impact in leadership and tech circles (and the 20 year follow-up is refreshing because it focuses on tech’s middle-aged worker bees instead of its buzzy young hot shots). Mostly, The Soul of a New Machine highlights how a team of men became the standard for these emerging technology companies, and for what Silicon Valley has become: a land of billionaire brogrammers and night owl nerds and mighty men of all stripes. The only thing missing? Women.

The oft-ridiculed, socially ill-at-ease male, he who spent his life socializing with 1s and 0s now has money in spades (also known as a 1 followed by 0s), which is where Sexism in Silicon Valley: Tinder, the “Dave Rule”, and Tech’s Glass Ceiling comes into play. The power enables boys to be boys, the kinds of boys who tease girls, and by teasing I mean a disgusting industry-wide trend of underemployment of women in engineering roles, criminal underpayment, and hazing. But how else would girls know the boys liked them if they didn’t get teased?

Last year, nine women took a stand against that overt sexism and wrote a manifesto calledAbout Feminism. In it, they talk about how their love for tech and for problem-solving that put them on the path toward engineering. To get to do the work they love so much, however, they suffer through a waking nightmare of porn pranks, meetings-turned dates, and underpay. As women are usually underrepresented in the workforce, finding an equal voice has proved difficult. Though it’s certainly fine to ask why we need women in tech, the benefits from a diverse, collaborative, productive team far outweigh the alternatives.

The story of Othermachine is the story How One Hardware Startup Solved Silicon Valley’s “Woman Problem” – currently “11 out of 21 employees are women.” While one company hardly constitutes a solution, it’s remarkable given the damning industry statistics – women are 12% of engineers, and many top companies such as Apple and Microsoft havewidely skewed demographics. Othermachine didn’t arrive at their balance by accident, either. The team actively seeks out qualified women, then works to ensure a harmonious workplace.

While seeking out the best possible candidates for open jobs may be effective in creating equality, it’s not efficient. Efficiency comes from a wider pool of applicants who can present themselves, so it’s important to figure out How to Attract Female Engineers. One of the findings is that “women seem to be drawn to engineering projects that attempt to achieve societal good.” Though broad strokes like that can be difficult to support, it’s hard to argue with class enrollments at MIT, Arizona State University, University of Minnesota, Penn State, and Santa Clara University, all of which found that comparable “humanitarian engineering courses and study options have twice as many women as its traditional engineering classes”.

As promising as it is to see these changes on the university level, corporations also need to embrace diversity for the potential of these changes to be fully realized, which is why Intel’s new $300 million diversity initiative is a good start. Headed by Renée James, Intel’s President, the program’s goal is to employ a workforce that is more representative of actual demographics by 2020.

Beyond massive changes to education, and even more massively funded diversity initiatives, what else do we do? For Debbie Sterling and her company GoldieBlox (as famous for its Beastie Boys lawsuit as its actual products), that means proving they can get girls interested in engineering through a combination of storytelling and problem-solving., Is higher education’s goal of positioning their engineering programs as ‘achieving societal good’  anything more than telling a story about saving the world?

For change happening not with hundreds of millions of dollars, but just hundreds of eager girls, look no further than DIY Girls, run by Luz Rivas. For the group, a few thousand dollars means providing an expanded summer school program which allow middle-school girls to solder, program and build on their way to being our future tech innovators, to complement their already impressive year long offerings. The importance of starting small can’t be overstated. Who knows what one girl with a soldering iron will do? Maybe she’ll grow up knowing full well she can build her own house. Or maybe she’ll lead the team that transforms the tech industry. But she’ll certainly live a life confident in her own abilities, freely able to choose a future entirely her own.

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