Women in Tech: Addison Berry

BlogHer Original Post

Meet Addison Berry, a woman who traveled a roundabout path into tech and is now one of the most visible leaders in the open source content management world of Drupal. My thanks for Addi for agreeing to answer some questions and let us get to know her. Q: Let's start off with Drupal. You work for Lullabot, a company that does Drupal books, podcasts and videos. And, you're head of the Drupal.org documentation team. How did you become so interested and involved in Drupal? A: Well I was a Wordpress user for a while and had started doing little side jobs building sites with it. I managed to do quite a bit with it. Then at my old job, in the midst of redoing the website there, I told them that it didn't make sense for me to hand-code the whole thing and be the only one who knew what was going on. I convinced them that we needed to use a CMS instead. The only problem was that I didn't know of one to use. I quickly realized that Wordpress would not stretch that far for us. So I sat down and started reviewing open source CMS. I needed to decide quickly and honestly Drupal just made more sense to me, more quickly than the handful of others I was looking at, so I put my stake in the ground and started building. As chance would have it, a few months after I decided on Drupal, Lullabot offered their first Drupal workshop and it was located in Washington, DC - literally three blocks from my office. It was an easy sell to the boss. After the workshop, I really grasped the full potential of Drupal and got really excited about what I'd be able to do with. That got me excited about the software and they mentioned some community stuff, but ya know, I needed to get my work done. Several months after that a new thing called the Drupal Dojo started up and I plunged in full-speed ahead. It was a great learning opportunity, but more importantly I really got to know people and finally engaged with the community. The Drupal community is just amazing and once I was there, I jumped in everywhere I could. Lots of people helped me and so I did what I could to help others. That ended up coming back to me in a job offer from Lullabot that allows me to work with Drupal full-time. Q: Tell us about the book, Using Drupal, you just finished co-writing for O'Reilly. When can we get our hands on it? A: Using Drupal is basically a recipe book that shows you how to build different kinds of sites using Drupal modules, without needing any code. Each chapter walks through how to build a site and, in doing so, explains not only how to use the modules we selected but why we chose them. It starts with a simple brochureware site that highlights many pieces of core Drupal, then gives a solid foundation in CCK and Views (two fundamental building tools for most Drupal sites) before it moves on to things like a review site, wiki, image gallery, ecommerce, etc. We also have chapters for creating a multilingual site and the basics of theming. There were a total of six authors, all Lullabots, and I'm really excited because most of the books on Drupal to date have focused either on code or the very basics of Drupal. A lot of people get Drupal installed and then go "So, now what?" Drupal has so many contributed modules now, it's a bit overwhelming - even for those of us who live and breathe it every day. The book is intended to guide folks through those next steps of snapping modules together and explaining how to find the modules you need. The book will be out in December of this year. We are hoping they can get it out before our Do it with Drupal seminar begins, December 10, but we're cutting it very tight. At the latest it should still get out before Christmas. Q: How did you get into video tutorial production? I know you write a lot of tutorials, too. Do you think the video route is more effective? A: The first videos I made were actually at my old job. Part of my job was training. I would write up very detailed instructions but we had quite a lot of non-techy users and they always wanted me to come to their office and walk them through things anyway. I decided to make videos of tasks so I could still get the rest of my work done. I made my first Drupal video on the spur of the moment because I had finally figured out how to properly create a patch and was going to submit one. I decided that it had been a struggle for me, even with written documentation, so I decided to capture what I had learned in a video, to help others. It was pretty messy and low quality so I was really nervous about putting it out but the response from the community was great. Other newbies like me appreciated it and the experienced developers loved that there was a video showing people a task that would help them. Most videos tended to be about installing or using Drupal and not so much about the development side of things. I just kept making more as I continued to learn. I think that video has its uses for sure. I don't think they are "better." It depends on the person who is learning. Some people hate videos and really just want text. I personally don't tend to watch a lot of videos unless I have been confused by written instructions or the material is just a more visual thing. The major advantage that I see with video is that you don't have to necessarily understand the language to get something out of it. A lot of docs are written in English and if you don't read English, you are kind of screwed. Written docs with screenshots can help a lot with that, but the full context of what is happening in a video can make a huge difference in comprehension. Q: We've had interviews with a couple of other womrn in tech who consider themselves both writers and programmers. How do you categorize yourself in terms of skills? A: I would say I consider myself a "communicator" first and a programmer second. I feel less a programmer at times due to my self-taught, spotty background, but I definitely love to code and get great joy out of building things. I love that my job lets me play with different aspects of technology and doesn't make me choose one direction or the other. I do development, I do a lot of mentoring/consultation, and I get to do formal training in workshops, writing and video. That is a happy mix for me, both in terms of the skills I have, as well as expanding those skills. Q: You may have explained this already in the previous questions, but what's your background and education? A: Well, my schooling has a bunch of odd twists and turns to it. After eighth grade I never attended high school and instead, was home-schooled from the ages of 14 to 16. At 16 I took my GED (a high school equivalence exam) and started attending the local community college. I moved out on my own at 18 and it took me five years to get my two-year degree. I went off to work retail for a few years until I discovered my love for anthropology and was passionate about school again. I finished up my B.A. in Anthropology at the age of 24. After college I lived in Thailand, teaching English, while I decided what I wanted to do. When I came home from overseas I ended up in a Federal government job (in the court system) pushing paper as a temporary job, which eventually became permanent. I had meant to continue my education and teach anthropology, but, well life doesn't always go the way you plan it. I eventually ended up getting shifted to the IT department at the court because the IT guys had no idea how we paper-pushers needed to use a new electronic filing system thingy. Turned out it was faster to teach me how to administer the thing than for me to explain our needs to the IT guys. At that point I wasn't a "techy." I knew that the big button on the front turned the computer on and that when I regularly didn't check that email thing for a few weeks my boss would get mad. Once I was in the IT department my brain felt like it had been given a new lease on life. A whole new vista of learning lay before me. :-) I dove in and taught myself as much as I could, from the innards of a computer to how the web worked. I was particularly fascinated by the web so I taught myself HTML and CSS and started playing around. I just kept going with it and I'm still learning. I started in the tech world "late" (in my early 30s) and I often got discouraged at how much I didn't know compared to those college "kids" or peers my age that had a longer tech history. I've always been a "top of the class" kind of person and I have a horrible competitive streak. It was humbling to be out of my element and pushing through it all helped me not just learn technical skills but helped me grow up as a person in a new way. I still get frustrated at times that my tech education is so verrrry spotty. Instead of letting my frustration build and hamper me though, I try to use it to my advantage when it comes to educating others, in that I really empathize with a lot of people who are new to all of this crazy stuff. Q: Your blog is Rock Tree Sky. Can you explain how that title reflects the content of your blog? A: It took me several months of fretting over a name to finally buy that domain name back in the day. I basically chose it because the simple elements of nature make me feel happiest. It felt like home. Ever since then I've played on the name when categorizing things on my blog. It is horrible for usability because I ascribe things to the words that no one else would intuitively know that is what I meant, but it's my personal site so I can ignore all the "best practices" of websites (including making a theme that works in IE ;-)). Currently I categorize Rock as things to do with my home, family and friends; Tree as reaching out into the world through work and community; and Sky as topics where I expand myself through the arts and learning. It's all somewhat arbitrary and overlapping. I am often not sure which category a post should go in myself. Q: You are Add1sun on Twitter. Do you use Twitter for personal reasons, or should everyone who is interested in Drupal be following you? What do you think about social networking apps like Twitter, just in general? A: I was really anti-social-networking-oooh-2.0-friendy, and still am in many respects. I don't really use those kinds of things, like Facebook and such, mostly because I don't have time to play around with things if I don't see a clear advantage to using them. The only ones I use are Twitter, Flickr (occasionally) and Dopplr (because I travel a lot and want friends and family to be able to keep track of me). I finally caved in to using those due to peer pressure. Many of my coworkers at Lullabot use them and I finally decided to nose about and see what the deal was. I was really won over to Twitter because I could get glimpses into the lives of my friends that I didn't otherwise have access to. I don't really live near any of my friends these days and I can feel very cut off and out of touch. Seeing that a good friend's cat got sick or that they are enjoying a lovely evening on the deck makes me feel connected to their day to day living. In my typical electronic, go go go world, I often miss that connection to regular people just getting through life together. So yeah, most of my Tweeting is the normal, inane personal stuff. Though I do toss in various Drupal-related happenings, it is more because it is part of "a day in the life of" and not because it's Drupal, per se. Q: I read on your website that you like to brew your own beer. I tried making wine once and it was a disaster. What's the secret of great beer? A: First off, wine and beer are a bit different when it comes to the makin'. ;-) The secret to great beer is like any cooking: use good ingredients and understand how they effect things. If you are new, then get a high quality kit and follow the directions and measurements. Once you understand the different ingeredients and what the brewing process is doing to them, you can have a great deal of fun playing around. You also really do need to pay attention to cleanliness and sanitation. Like really. I do all-grain brewing and have invested a bit of time and money into some of my equipment, but you don't have to have fancy things or do all-grain to get really yummy beer. I started out with a few plastic buckets and some extract kits and I still make really tasty beer with just that when I feel pressed for time. Q: What do you think about the status of women in tech today? A: I think it is getting better all the time and I'm happy to see more and more women at tech events. Sometimes it feels so flush to see more than a handful that I forget that overall our numbers are still quite small. But I do feel that women are in an upswing and it will only get better each year. One thing I really want to put some energy into is getting involved in local schools to encourage more girls to check tech out. I helped run the GHOP contest (Google Highly Open Participation) for Drupal last year and there were very few girls involved. I'd like to get that number increasing more than anything, even if they don't make tech their career in the long run. Q: You've appeared as a presenter at some conferences. Where have you spoken? Do you think women need to be more visible at conferences or are we doing okay in the world of presentations? A: I've spoken at the last two Drupalcons (in Boston and Szeged) and was scheduled to speak at Women in Open Source but ended up getting sick and missing the whole conference. I'm definitely planning on speaking at more conferences next year. I've slowly been getting over my fright about it by going ahead and doing it anyway. I'd love for more women to step to the front of the room. There was just a discussion about the recent Drupal BADcamp where several attendees noted disappointment that there were no women speakers even though there was a good number of women in attendance. I think that being visible in tech makes it feel more inviting to other women and speaking is a great way to really make yourself seen. Sometimes just seeing someone else that you identify with, in any number of ways - gender or not, can give you confidence to stretch yourself a bit. I think offering that to others by standing up myself can be as much a contribution as writing up some code. -- Virginia DeBolt BlogHer Technology Contributing Editor Web Teacher First 50 Words

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