Women in code series: Joan Touzet

The Computer Weekly Developer Network and Open Source Insider team want to talk code and coding. But more than that, we want to talk coding across the diversity spectrum… so let’s get the tough part out of the way and talk about the problem. 

If all were fair and good in the world, it wouldn’t be an issue of needing to promote the interests of women who code — instead, it should and would be a question of promoting the interests of people who code, some of whom are women.

However, as we stand two decades after the millennium, there is still a gender imbalance in terms of people already working as software engineers and in terms of those going into the profession. So then, we’re going to talk about it and interview a selection of women who are driving forward in the industry.

Joan Touzet is an Apache Software Foundation (ASF) Member, Apache CouchDB PMC member and committer, with over 30 years of experience in commercial and open source software development. Based in Toronto, Canada, she currently works with Neighbourhoodie Software, running the CouchDB Development/Production Support team. In her spare time, Joan composes and records music, rides motorcycles, designs and builds electronic musical instruments, and pets cats. Gnomes over ponies.

Joan Touzet

CWDN: What inspired you to get into software development in the first place?

Touzet: My third-grade [US school level for 8-years olds] teacher at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools was named Ms. Fano. She had the distinction of having assisted in the running and programming of one of the first computers – UNIVAC. It was directly because of her example and the exciting stories she used to tell about a single console controlling rooms full of vacuum tubes, that I started taking those beige boxes with the colorful apple logo on them a bit more seriously. I can only hope that other girls in my class were just as impressed with those stories of a woman far ahead of her time.

CWDN: When did you realise that this was going to be a full-blown career choice for you?

Touzet: I went to school for electrical and computer engineering – hardware, not software. But fresh out of university, I ended up at an electronic design automation company, writing simulation technology used to verify microprocessors in the wake of the first Pentium scandal. I found I had a knack for it, and it’s where I stayed.

CWDN: What languages, platforms and tools have you gravitated towards and why?

Touzet: Largely, UNIX-based platforms, and one of four languages: Python, for quick-and-dirty work; Erlang, for solving problems that need distributed computing approaches; C, for low-level work when performance is paramount; and Verilog, when doing hardware design and targeting FPGAs.

CWDN: How important do you think it is for us to have diversity (not just gender, but all forms) in software teams in terms of cultivating a collective mindset that is capable of solving diversified problems?

Touzet: How could it possibly be valuable to want the reverse – a lack of diversity in software teams? If problems are diverse, then we need a variety of approaches to resolve them, which will come best from a variety of people. Even more important is to consider all possible angles of the problem – software developers tend to be blind to the social, economic, accessibility and ecological impacts of the problems they solve. So yes, it’s frightfully important that we maintain a broad-based team; we’re no longer just backroom engineers toiling in isolation.

CWDN: What has been your greatest software application development challenge and how have you overcome it?

Touzet: Taking to heart the fallacies of distributed computing and building systems that do not take, as an assumption, any of those principles.

CWDN: Are we on the road to a 50:50 gender balance in software engineering, or will there always be a mismatch?

Touzet: That depends on whether or not the industry chooses to prioritise problems that interest women as much as men.

CWDN: What role can men take in terms of helping to promote women’s interests in the industry?

Touzet: Listen to them when they pitch ideas to you. Fund more of their startups. If they’re your employees, consider their input seriously, even if you think they don’t have the background to offer the opinion they do. And – need I say this? – hands off their bodies without consent.

A no-dichotomy spectrum

CWDN: If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then what languages or methodologies separate the two (basic) sexes?

Touzet: I don’t subscribe to this dichotomy. Gender is a spectrum, just as there is a variety of opinions from people at both extremes of that range. The secret to involving people who don’t share your immediate interests is to listen to theirs, and find a way to appeal to those instincts. Look beyond the business interests to their personal lives – you’ll find hints of what can light someone else’s fire.

CWDN: CW: If you could give your 21-year old self one piece of advice for success, what would it be?

Touzet: Be patient, and continue to look for the best in everyone you meet and work with.

Touzet: If problems are diverse, then we need a
variety of approaches to resolve them.

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