John Brand remarks that “ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics were probably the first real “commercial” examples of data visualization” (via @DashingD3js).

He references a historical visualization that was new to me. In 1858, Florence Nightengale’s visualization of cause of death in the Crimean War told a compelling story of the how the real enemies were cholera, typhus, and dysentery:

Edward Tufte highlights a similar story about Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, which maps the size of his army over space, time, and temperature:

I agree that visualization today is more an art than a science, but I believe it will always be so. Visualization is editorial. What we choose to highlight with shape, color and annotation tells the story. Our ability to collect data has far outpaced our ability to process and analyze that data. I believe there are many answers to urgent questions that lie dormant on personal hard drives and cloud storage.

I’ve been spending time with d3js, which is a fabulous, modern visualization framework. For now, it provides flexibility for rather sophisticated programmers; however, it is my hope that the tools will emerge that will allow any person with critical thinking skills to ask questions and tell stories by pouring data into images.

Here are some modern examples (with code!):

Small Multiples: stock prices over time, nested by symbol

Multiple Area Charts: an infographic with multiple area charts along with a context tool to zoom and pan the data.

Lots more examples in the d3js gallery.

I initially pursued gender diversity initiatives in tech because I love to create software, but sometimes felt alienated in new groups which were all or mostly men; however, I have grown to believe that the lack of diversity in our industry is not a women’s issue, and that gender parity is not diversity.

Relative to the population, the number of tech creators is small. We could solve the gender imbalance by finding more of the women who can fit into the specific tech culture that emerged in the last century or we can welcome all types of individuals allowing for a diversity of approach, personality, culture, and background, and then we can filter only for ability to effectively do the work. From reading popular media, one would think that the latter approach is rare or non-existent, but my experience proves otherwise. At the recent Lean Startup Conference, I saw this approach in action, and I was inspired to share this pattern that is also having a deep effect at RailsBridge, and at my own company, Blazing Cloud.

Lean Startup Conference

I went to the first lean startup conference, “Startup Lessons Learned,” in 2010. I was impressed at how Eric Ries had transformed a loose collection of ideas into a movement. I was starting to think about how I could spread the word about the good work that was happening at RailsBridge, so I approached Eric at the end of the event to ask his advice. He was open and gave me some practical tips and encouragement for hard work involved behind the scenes, and then he asked “Are you the Sarah who gave that talk?” He was asking about Sarah Mei’s talk Moving the Needle: How SFRuby got to 18%. He shared with me about he struggled with this issue in his own community — women were as poorly represented in tech startup founder groups as in open source software. He said that used our example to challenge his colleagues: “if something as geeky as the San Francisco Ruby Meetup can get to 18%, why can’t we?”

At this year’s Lean Startup conference,about one third of the speakers were women and there were a few people of color, but that superficial diversity was less significant than the range of experience represented. Over the past year, I saw Eric go through a few iterations of CFPs seeking talk proposals from a diverse audience. I was impressed by how he defined diversity. They were not simply seeking people who looked different from each other to decorate the stage, but sought to surface all of the ways that Lean Startup methodologies were being applied in diverse organizations to diverse challenges.

The day provided an existence proof: you can do lean startup anywhere. We heard from Todd Park, the CTO of the United States, talk about how he successfully applies lean startup techniques to get parts of the US government to act like a startup, and from Beth Comstock, SVP at GE, who works to give small groups the opportunity to experiment and fail, in order to innovate. There were stories from small and large companies, from consulting to product, and from hardware and mobile, from design and code. For every situation where it was hard to imagine that Lean Startup techniques could possibly work, there was a speaker who talked about how they made it happen, often sharing their painful failures along the way. If they can do it, why can’t we?

RailsBridge and SFRuby Meetup

At RailsBridge workshops, most events are targeted at women, but we welcome men to help as volunteers or join as the +1 of another woman student. We’ve define a safe space for learning. Of necessity, we teach communication skills and conflict resolution along with the code. We have created a culture where people respect each other, people teach what they know, and every failure is simply one of the many things we haven’t gotten right yet. RailsBridge has many projects, but the workshops have been most successful, spreading to at least 14 cities all over the world, with hundreds of volunteers and thousands of participants. I often see its effects first-hand, here in San Francisco, where we started.

I recently attended a SFRuby Meetup, sponsored by Social Chorus. Sandi Metz spoke about object-oriented design. There were 10-20% women in the audience, but more importantly, there were men and women with deep experience in software patterns and people who had just started to learn, and all levels in between. This diversity of experience led to a wide range of engaging questions from the audience. You couldn’t tell someone’s background by looking at them. Most of the women and some of the men were there because they were first introduced to the Ruby programming language and to this community through RailsBridge. The RailsBridge outreach workshops in SF were designed to create gender diversity, but caused the happy side-effect of creating a group that is more welcoming of new people and includes people of different levels of experience and background.

Blazing Cloud

At Blazing Cloud, I sought to create the place I wanted to work, with people who care about making great software, people with good communication skills and a passion for learning. I wanted to work with interesting people who challenged me, who could also learn from. There are 50% women, but also diversity of age and interest and culture.

When looking for software developers, I didn’t try to hire Javascript developers or iOS developers, I looked for smart people where I had evidence that they could solve problems by writing code. I also hired people who solve problems by creating images or writing words or making spreadsheets. So we ended up with people from several agile (and non-agile) cultures, various educational backgrounds, and different levels of skills and experience. We had different practices, sometimes with similar names, and we found we needed to establish our own unique processes, create ways for them to evolve, and teach each other what we know. We struggle through our differences, but when we need apply new tech, chances are someone on the team already has knows how. More often new technologies burst forth as proposed solutions to new problems. I have discovered that our diversity doesn’t just make it a fun and engaging place to work, it actually increases our effectiveness, our creativity, and therefore our ability to deliver great software to our clients.

Diversity Paves the Way for Excellence

Diversity increases creativity and resilience of a team because it allows the team to draw from a wide range of experience and apply different kinds problem-solving skills and communication skills. If every individual on a team can work with people of different cultures and different skill sets, then the team will work together better and be able to adapt to more challenging situations.

If we can look at a team or a group and everyone looks alike, that is likely to be a symptom of a deeper problem. Homogeneous teams are often fragile. Our world is changing. We need to change to adapt. If we’re used to adapting to different kinds of people that we work with every day, it is much easier to adapt to change from any direction. Especially in tech, we need everyone to participate, so that we can come up with solutions that work for the very real and urgent problems in our world today.