Abbie Headon runs Abbie Headon Publishing Services, and offers a range of skills including writing, editing and commissioning, alongside social media, website development and publishing management. She champions fresh approaches to solving the industry’s challenges and can be found mingling at most publishing events. Abbie’s also BookMachine’s Commissioning Editor and sits on the BookMachine Editorial Board.
Last Wednesday, we had a packed house upstairs at The Driver for the latest BookMachine Unplugged event, hosted by Emma Barnes, Founder and CEO of Consonance (formerly known as Bibliocloud) and MD of Snowbooks. Emma and her panel members each took the stage to explain why learning about tech is important and why we shouldn’t be afraid of getting stuck in to the world of coding.
It’s about empathy
Lola Odelola, software engineer and Founder of blackgirl.tech, didn’t originally plan on a career in tech. Having studied English Literature and Creative Writing, she wanted to create a website to show off the diversity of her writing, but with no budget to spare realised that she needed to build it herself. She started to immerse herself in programming languages, then signed up to a boot camp, and her career took off.
Lola described how joining the tech industry led her to think about empathy and the role it plays in technology. She outlined some examples where a failure to empathise with the needs of users led to a bad outcome:
- People with visual impairments often rely on screen readers to access website content, but not many web developers build their pages with screen readers in mind. This creates sites that may look stylish but fail to meet all their users’ needs.
- Some years ago, a friend of Lola’s took some photographs of himself and friends, and loaded them to Google Photos. Unbelievably, Google’s new tagging facility spotted that there were faces in the pictures, and tagged them as apes. If black people had been in the room when this functionality was developed, this would never have happened.
- Finally, and also shockingly, Lola pointed out that taps operated by motion sensors, the kind often found in public bathrooms, often don’t recognise black people’s hands.
To avoid problems of the kinds listed here, we need to have a more varied group of people round the tables where products are developed and decisions made. And no matter how diverse the group becomes, we still have to ask ourselves about the needs of users not in the room. Getting a wider range of people into the tech industry will allow empathy to flourish.
It’s about power
Sara O’Connor now works as a full stack developer at Consonance but began her career in publishing as an editor, and later an editorial director in children’s books. She grew up in a computer-literate family and learned to play with programming from a young age, so never felt the distance from technology that discourages many girls and women from having a go at coding.
On joining the publishing industry, Sara discovered what a lot of us know all too well: that there is a great deal of paperwork, much of it repetitive and frustrating. In her first job she had to type a lot of rejection letters, and she came up with the idea of a system that would record incoming submissions and produce rejection letters. In a later post, she developed an Excel sheet to generate schedules, which the company is still using.
Sara wanted to learn how to build these software tools herself, instead of always having to brief somebody else to do it for her, so she started with one-week courses, then a boot camp, and finally launched herself fully into a tech-based career, which eventually brought her back to the publishing world with Consonance. As Sara explained, “The best way to build tools is when you know what you want to use them for.” By learning to code, we give ourselves the power to create the tools we need, saving time and money along the way.
Here are Sara’s tips for where to get started on your coding journey:
- Codebar, which runs events round the country as well as online learning.
- Rails Girls London, which runs free coding weekend courses each November.
- Then intensive boot camps such as Makers Academy will help you get a job!
It’s about being a rolemodel
Janneke Niessen, entrepreneur, investor, board member at Inspiring Fifty and Project Prep, started with a question: Why should people be interested in tech? She then showed us some of the things that can go wrong when tech culture is too monolithic: a so-called ‘smart scale’ showing someone he’s gaining weight much too fast, without realising the person involved is a toddler; medical data taken from a population of white men being used to reach conclusions about everyone, with potentially dangerous results; Twitter’s decisions about whose accounts to close down not being informed by people who experience daily abuse on the platform.
Including minorities in tech is not just the right thing to do; it’s also good for business, because the users of technology are far more diverse than (at the moment) the people who create and invest in the sector.
As well as getting involved in the tech industry ourselves, we also have a duty to become rolemodels: Janneke’s motto is “If she can see it, she can be it”. Here are some of the ways we can do this:
- Encourage girls we know to try coding, and praise them not just for stereotypical female traits like being pretty, but also for being smart. Show girls what we do, and explain that tech is everywhere: it’s not just dry code; it runs Instagram too.
- Watch out for our own internal biases: Janneke gave an example of a talented developer who sent in an impressive application for a post and then told her he was blind. Her gut reaction was that he wouldn’t be able to do the job; she was wrong, and he was great at it.
- Finally, if somebody asks you to do something that takes you out of your comfort zone, always say yes. You can make a plan about how you’ll achieve it afterwards.
It’s about the future of publishing
Emma rounded off the evening by sharing her own story with us. Like the other panel members, she did not follow an obvious trajectory into the tech sector: after studying archaeology, she became a buyer for retail chains and then a consultant. Just as she realised this path wasn’t making her happy, she was made redundant, and started Snow Books with her redundancy package.
Emma discovered that independent publishing isn’t great at admin, and so started tinkering with Excel in order to make some of her processes more efficient. She built a tool that produced ONIX to send to Nielsen and to generate catalogues at the touch of a button. After this she was hooked and wanted to learn more and more.
Learning Ruby, a programming language which she and the others all agreed is ideal for language-lovers such as editors, was a key moment in Emma’s development as a coder. She wanted to blow away any idea that you have to be some kind of tech whizzkid to learn Ruby: you only need to be able to read and type, and a world of elegance and harmony is waiting for you to discover it. The best place to start is railstutorial.org.
Emma summed up the mood of the entire panel when she closed the event by saying that coding gives you the tools you need to fix things you care about and improve your own life. Her final plea was that we use our new-found knowledge in publishing, instead of leaving for shinier tech realms, because in our all-too-un-techy industry we can make a real difference. No pressure, but as Emma concluded, “The future of publishing is in your hands.”