04/04/13 | Uncategorized

The UX of Community in Contested Space

Urban Cycling : Bike Lanes :: The Internet : A Code of Conduct

By Alexis Finch (Pencil, GraphiteMind)

I’ve been struggling to try to put into words why a Code of Conduct is so important in tech. It’s difficult. Particularly since the issue has been so thoroughly polarized into one of women vs men. Particularly since any attempt to explain “a woman’s experience” to a man is met with disbelief, with indredulity.

Why? Because any man I take the time to talk to doesn’t NEED a Code of Conduct to be a decent human in the tech world. He already has one. It’s a moral compass that operates not just when he’s at work, or online, or face-to-face with another human. He’s a decent person and puts effort into remaining so.

But just because he doesn’t see it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

I finally got a chance to have a chat with Troy Hennikoff, founder of many a company, now heading up TechStars Chicago. We’re both busy people, so our “time to chat” wound up being on a mad bicycle ride north along his commute up to Evanston. I have never been so out of breath while biking, and simultaneously so unwilling to reallocate my air supply away from conversation. I’d been worried that a ride would be ill suited to a proper debate, with cars and potholes to be dodged. It turns out it provided me the perfect metaphor to finally explain what I’m feeling across the divide of gender.

Troy was the one who brought it up. He told me to think of the tech world the same way as I think of cycling. There are a few jerks out there, ones who try to run cyclists off the road – yes, swerving at a cyclist counts as “assault with a deadly weapon” – but that hasn’t kept me from riding my bike, right?

He didn’t know how apt a metaphor he’d chosen.

I’ve been hit by cars seven times. Maybe you’re not a cyclist, so let me explain what happened in each of these bicycle “accidents”:

I was thrown to the ground by 4,000lbs of metal slamming into me, because another human being didn’t see I was there.

Yes. It hurt every time.

No. It doesn’t get any less terrifying.

The first time was the worst. I was biking through downtown Chicago, heading south on my way to an interview at a small design firm. One moment I was heading through an intersection – yes, the light was green, I heard you thinking that – the next I was in the air.


I came-to lying on my back in the middle of the street. My bike was under the front tires of a car, ten feet away from me. A car that had turned left, across traffic, straight into me. I’d been knocked out as my helmet hit the pavement.

What did I do? I scraped myself off the street, began apologizing to cars that honked at me, drivers yelling out their open windows that I was “in their way,” blocking an intersection I only then realized was two blocks from the highway onramp. I was keeping these people from getting home.

A valet had stepped in, pulled my bike out from under the car tires – the driver had to back up to free them. Somehow I made it to the curb, “shaking like a leaf” yes, as in a leaf in a hurricane.

This is where it gets weird. I had just been hit by a car, right? This is the age of cell phones, but did anyone call the cops? No. Not me. Not the driver. He gave me his number, his business card. Said he was sorry, he just wasn’t paying attention, too focused on the street signs, because he was from out of town. He offered to pay for any repairs I needed.

I told him it was ok. That I was fine. I thanked him, and he drove away.

If you’re not saying “What the fuck?!!?” then I haven’t written this clearly enough. I was hit by a car. The guy said he was sorry, he hadn’t been trying to hit me. Then, he just drove away. For some reason, I just let it happen.

Now, lets think about this in the tech world.

I just got back from SXSW. I’d actually started a blog before I headed down there with the explicit GOAL of documenting any sexism I saw. The great thing? I saw nearly nothing. Here’s the less great thing:

I didn’t do many parties this year. I went to two in fact. One, at a club downtown. The other, off the beaten track, invite only, a dance party at a house folks had rented. It was a blast. The DJ amazing. The other folks dancing, from NYC, Philly, Chicago, SF… all over, all awesome designers, developers, startup folks I was completely amped to get to hang out with. Things started to wind down and I headed outside. I wound up talking with some friends about projects we’d been working on. Then one guy walks out. In a suit. He joins our conversation, asking me about some specifics of the difference between the startup scene in NYC vs Chicago… something like that. So, chatting, I follow him down the front porch stairs.

That’s when it got bad. He’s telling me he’s a VC. He’s telling me how well I’m articulating these differences, I’m telling him it’s my job, that I do UX research. Then he tells me I’m hot.

Wait. What?

He goes on. Switching back and forth between the amount of money he’s directly in control of, to compliments on various body parts. I’m not sure what to do. He’s an important connection, right? He’s introducing me to his boss, standing there by the car, then telling me how he’d like to dance with me some more…

Sure, you can say it was an “after party” …but he went out of his way to tell me what company he represented. He was the one who changed the context to a professional one.

I walked back up the stairs after he drove off. I felt dirty. I felt confused. I mentioned it to my friends… they laughed. So that was it.

But then, the other day, I found out his company is sponsoring a hackathon I’m supposed to be involved in. That he quite possibly could be one of the judges.

Now notice. Have I mentioned his name? His company? You are witnessing, as I sit here writing this, my internal debate. Do you see the parallel? I was hit by a car, the driver was at fault, but I’d been “in his way” so I didn’t call the cops. I was propositioned by a VC, who included as part of his “pitch,” the investment money he controlled along with a detailed assessment of my own assets… physical ones. But it was at an after party, so that’s only to be expected, right?

Over the past ten years that I’ve been riding my bike in Chicago and cities all over the world – five states, seven countries – I’ve seen a lot change. The most visible has been due to bike lanes.

The first day that they “striped” – put lines demarcating a bike lane via a solid white line – Milwaukee Ave in Chicago, the main street leading from the north-west side straight to downtown, drivers changed. They stayed between that new white line and the double yellow line separating them from oncoming traffic.

Even if there are no bikes there, the cars stick between the lines. Sure, every now and then some rogue decides to drive along the right-hand side of the street, but they’re met by rage-filled honks, and if caught, a hefty fine. Sure, some folks go and park in this still newly enstated bike lane, but they know they’re being naughty, leaving their lights flashing, dashing back to their car lest they get nailed with a ticket.

Riding in that lane, I feel safe. I’m still wary, but I know that for the most part, I am expected, I am recognized, I belong on the road and no one can contest that. Before, I’d get yelled at through open windows to get off the road, to get on the sidewalk – illegal – or to get a car. Not so much any more. There are still potholes, it’s not like they upkeep the bike lane any better than the rest of the road, and this is Chicago, with frost heaves and plows and construction. But I can watch out for those, because I know the cars are watching out for me.

That is what a Code of Conduct is in tech. It isn’t a promise that the road will be any smoother, for women, for anyone. It’s not a guarantee that there won’t be assholes and jackasses out there. However, it makes it obvious to everyone when someone has strayed outside the lines. Not just those who are effected. Not just those who are made unsafe. Everyone can see and recognize a toe over the line. Everyone can call the offender out. Not just the victim.

It means that those who spent half time speaking out, or keeping them selves safe, can actually focus on building things. Can spend their extra energy navigating and negotiating potholes.

I’m not calling you an asshole. I’m not accusing anyone of misconduct. I’m just asking for a space to be made where I can finally concentrate on getting shit done, instead of keeping myself safe, fighting off the trolls.

Something you might not know about me. Before I worked in tech, before I founded #XXHack, or Mentored a StartupWeekend, or volunteered my expertise to Women Innovate Mobile Accelerator, or co-founded Parsecco, or helped start @chiDUXX, I ran TyK [Thought You Knew].

We started as a group of women, tired of being sidelined in cycling, who’d hang out and support each other any way we could. I turned that into a four year long passion project to change the image of women in cycling, and help ladies in Chicago regain ownership of their sexuality as well as confidence in their bike skills.

Four years. Time and a lot of energy I put into a cause that should never have existed in the first place. It was an awesome project, and I wouldn’t take it back for the world. But that was time I could have spent on building my personal brand, on working on projects for more money and more notoriety and more professional success.

I am tired of all of this being up to women.

We are handicapped by being barred from access to the funding our projects need: am I having a drink with this guy and discussing investment, or his he hitting on me… and will folks just assume I slept my way into that first million?

We are handicapped by being different from those with the power: humans trust that which they recognize, so everyone – from investors to bosses, to the dude programmer on the other side of the interview table – is going to select those who look like them, before they take a risk on the unfamiliar, that which they don’t have a good way to codify or measure… before they take a risk on a woman.

We are handicapped by having our self-esteem eroded day by day: what in a man is iniative in a woman is pushyness, what in a man is an authoritative decision in a woman is bitchiness, what in a man is manliness in a woman is being a slut.

We are handicapped by spending our time trying to fix the system.

I suppose I could just “go build.” I could be the example of success that women need.

But I’ve done that before. I do that every day I ride my bike. Every time I take a photo of myself leaning against my bike, helmet and sunglasses and a grin. Every time I encourage someone to have the confidence to do that first five-mile commute.

What I don’t talk about is how all those times I’ve been hit, or the many many many times I’ve been “bumped,” or cut off, or screamed at out a car window, or run off the road, or managed to bail off my bike just in time.

People admire my bike. It’s a work of art, a bright rainbow of stripes and gold glitter that stops grown adults in their tracks. It’s elegant too, with sweep back handle bars that keep me sitting upright. It looks good.

The truth? It’s the only bike I can ride now. After so many times getting hit, after landing hard and badly, there are some injuries that haven’t healed. One woman turned across traffic, straight into me, headed wrong way down a one-way street. It took four years of litigation to close that case. Every time she saw me in court it was the same venom she’d spat at me when the cops first rolled up. A little old lady vs some filthy cyclist. That night, the cop asked me through the window of her cruiser, as I stood in the rain, holding an icepack to my bleeding elbow “So, are you employed?” Because that matters when someone has hit me with their car.

My shoulder has never healed. I had a steroid shot into my spine to help with the pain. I was told by my doctor “you should really just stop riding…” The woman who hit me? She’s still out there, driving her car and cursing cyclists.

So every time I hear about someone I know getting hit, someone I encouraged to start riding, I’m reminded: I got them into this.

I feel responsible.

Every time I hear about another woman getting torn down, dealing with being hit on at a conference, being asked “Hey hon, can I talk to the guys who actually built this?” at a trade show… when she’s the lead dev, I’m reminded: I’m trying to drag them into this. 

I feel responsible.

One of these days it’s going to be too much. I won’t be quick enough. I’ll finally get hit hard enough that I don’t get back up again.

Am I talking about the cars… or that next guy who tells me to “just be patient” when I try to explain why this is so damned hard, then squeezes my shoulder with a friendly leer.

Why is this up to me? Why am I the one putting time into making this better?

I feel responsible.

Why don’t you?

Yes, this was long. There’s also a lot more out there.

Additional Reading:

This post originally appeared on AGENTFIN. Photo credit: JASON ANFINSEN via Flickr. 

Alexis Finch is an applied anthropologist / UX researcher, but you may know her as @agentfin, the pencil behind GraphiteMind.com sketchnotes. She founded #XXHack, a weekly women-only hack night that is part of @CWDevs. She is also 1/3 of the co-founding team of DUXX, launched from Chicago as @chiDUXX, and aimed at bringing more UX women to the stage as speakers through mentorship and community support. Now based in NYC, Alexis is working on a startup to improve professional introductions and job referrals. Follow her blog agentfin.tumblr.com

Women 2.0 readers: Do you agree that tech needs a code of conduct?



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