Women in Tech: Shelley Powers

BlogHer Original Post

This is the first of several interviews with women in technology. Today you'll learn about Shelley Powers. Shelley is perhaps best known as a writer. Her most recent books are Learning JavaScript and Painting the Web. She's also a programmer and web developer, and she applies a powerful and logical mind to everything she does.

Q: I looked you up on Amazon and found a list of books you've written that includes Learning JavaScript, Painting the Web, Adding Ajax, Learning JavaScript: Add Sparkle and Life to Your Web Pages, Unix Power Tools, Practical RDF, Powerbuilder 5 How-To, Developing Asp Components, Dynamic HTML, Dynamic Web Publishing Unleashed, Javascript How-To: The Definitive Javascript Problem-Solver, and Using Perl For Web Programming. Wow! How did you get started on a career as a writer? What was your education and background?

A: I'm a late bloomer educationally. I quit high school when I was 15 and joined a religious cult, Children of God. When I came to my senses and left the group, I went from the frying pan to the fire by marrying, at 16, a man who had learning disabilities and resented the fact that I liked to read. We lived in a house in the country and if it weren't for the fact that the local library would send books out, and allow you to return them in pre-paid envelopes, I would have had very little to read for two years. At 18 I realized that I was pretty much a fool to stay with my husband, divorced him, got my GED, and a job in an insurance company. There, I had excellent bosses and co-workers who encouraged me to believe I could do more with my life, and I started college. For not having beyond a 9th grade education, I did well in college. In fact, I loved it. I was a pre-law major, but took a logic course one day and the professor suggested I try out a computer class. My first class was a Basic class, and I was hooked. The first time I wrote a program that actually controlled the computer, well, that was all she wrote. Eventually I ended up with two degrees: a BS in Computer Science and a BA in Industrial Psychology. As for my writing, I've loved writing all my life. When I was a kid, I wrote and produced two plays for my school--a Christmas play, and one an adaption of an old movie, The Day the Earth Froze (which had a profound impact on me for some reason). I also received a DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) award for a study I did on Martha Washington, and even published a poem. The poem was awful, the worst sentimental dribble. Luckily, for your sake, I dropped the poetry. My technical writing began in the online help forums that proliferated early in the 1990's. I was a Powerbuilder developer in 1994-1996, and used to spend a lot of time in user forums helping people out. An editor from Waite Group Press, asked if I would be interested in co-authoring a book on Powerbuilder. I jumped at the chance, and that book led to the next, and the next, and so on until with my recent book, I've managed to author or co-author 16 books in the last 12 years, most published by O'Reilly. I think it's 16. After a while, you lose count.

Q: You are one of the more visible women in technology. You use that platform and acknowledged expertise to advocate for more visibility for women in technology and internet related fields. How do you think things are going in that area?

A: I'm not sure that I am very visible, outside of a small group of people who have been weblogging for years (close to eight for me). I wish I were more visible so that I could do more women in technology, but then that would mean doing conferences, and I really don't like attending conferences. I don't want to come across as being overly negative, but I don't think we're doing well, or at least, not as well as I would like. For a time, we made an impact on conference organizers who actively began to recruit more women as presenters or panel members. However, looking at the popular conferences this year, such as the recent Ajax Experience, you might find one woman out of 20, 30, or more presenters. We're seeing more women appear in popular tech-specific weblogs, but most of them are writing for established publications, such as GigaOM. Or Blogher. It's rare to see an individual woman weblogger given prominence in the tech buzz sheets. Women are making great strides in every field of science and technology, except computers and engineering. Our numbers are decreasing every year--a fact that should alarm not only women, but men. Some would say the same gender disparity applies to a few fields dominated by women, such as teaching and nursing, but we're seeing increasing numbers of men in both of these fields. The converse is not true for the computer sciences.

Q: What could we do in the educational system that would help women advance in technology fields?

A: Over the years, I've come to believe that the real problem with computer technology and women is that the computer field is tied to the engineering field. In early years, when people had to be able to handle both hardware and software, it made sense that the study of computers was lumped into engineering. This reason is just not true today, as very few professional in the field whip out their soldering iron and Philips head in order to finish an assignment. Combine this with the fact that the engineering fields are even less friendly and welcoming to women, and you can see why a field that actually had a greater number of women participating decades ago, has been slowly "bleeding" diversity over the years. We should either eliminate computer science as a separate field, completely, or design the field specifically for those who want to design programming languages or machines--the researchers and theorists. Put the rest of the computer science curriculum, the database training, the programming, the design, and so on, into other fields as computer-based specializations. The art and design programs would then provide a web design specialization, database specialization for accounting, user interface design specialists in the psych program--the potential is enormous, and would go a long way to diversify the computer field. In other words, I'm advocating a complete revolution in the computer science field. Needless to say, I haven't had colleges knocking at my door, wanting to know more. Q: Burningbird is an umbrella for several of your blogs. The one I read most often is Burningbird's Real Tech. You write about your home state of Missouri at Missouri Green. And there's a sort of general topic feel to The Secret of Signals. How does it help you to keep these blogs separate?

A: I also have a personal weblog at shelleypowers.com that hasn't established its sea legs yet. I want to try new things with it, but I'm not sure what, yet. One reason I split off MissouriGreen and Secret of Signals is that I had hoped to perhaps turn these into ad-based sites. However, I'm finding out that I'm not very good at depersonalizing the sites enough to make them commercially viable. I was born without the marketing gene. Now, I like the fact that I can write about Missouri at MissourGreen, and not feel I'm boring my tech readers. Secret of Signals does interest the techs, but my hope for it is to use it as a basis for a book on the new video opportunities on the web. I also love to tweak web sites, to play around with web design and development, as well as content management software, such as Wordpress, which I used for years, and now Drupal. Having several sites gives me that much more opportunity to tweak. Seriously, I could tweak all day and be happy as a bird in a worm pail.

Q: What kind of blogging software do you use? Why is that your choice?

A: Speak of the devil...Drupal. Wordpress, which I used previously, is good software, but it's really meant to be used more or less as is. For non-techs just wanting a weblog, I recommend Wordpress, as Drupal can take more of an investment in time to start. However, for tweakers like myself, or people who want something beyond "just" a weblogging tool, Drupal has all sorts of nooks and crannies, with dozens, hundreds of opportunities to tweak. I find it unlikely I will ever get bored with Drupal. I also like the more international feel to Drupal, as well as the more open source nature to the Drupal project.

Q: Your photography, especially at Missouri Green, is simply stunning. How did you get started with photography? What kind of camera do you use now? Are you doing anything with your images in Photoshop or some other program that other photographers might want to try?

A: You're very kind, Virginia. As an incentive to quit smoking close to 25 years ago, I bought myself a Nike N8008 and I've been taking pictures ever since. Right now I have a Nikon D70 and a D200, though I mainly use the D200. I use Photoshop CS3 on the Mac for most of my photo preparation for posting on the web. However, I have been moving more of my photo development and other graphics work over to GIMP, again on the Mac. GIMP has been improving with each release, and you can't beat the price (donation, only).

Q: I know you are interested in the Semantic Web. What is it about that topic that seems important to you?

A: Once upon a time, I wanted a poetry finder from the semantic web, but the guys thought that was too sissy. Years ago someone mentioned RDF at a job interview I was on when I lived in Boston. I became curious about it, and eventually ended up writing a book on the topic for O'Reilly. [Ed: RDF is Resource Description Framework, a recommendation for creating meta-data structures that define data on the Web.] I can respect the work that Google and Yahoo have done when it comes to search, but we're always going to end up with search results, half of which are crap. (Can I say "crap"?) [Ed: Hell, yes.] I like information. I like knowing stuff, and having the ability to send a request to a machine and get exactly what I need back. Not information that's been mucked up by some algorithm fooling optimizer, or link magnet weblogger; not accidental results that return posts about Paris Hilton when you're looking for information about Hiltons in Paris. Scanning web pages and using all of the fancy machine algorithms in the world are not going to provide the optimum information solutions, especially as the web grows older and more "cluttered". I like the idea of using a little bit of annotation embedded into my web pages or photos that can then be utilized with the same data others put into their web files, so that when someone from Paris wants to know more about the many floods in Missouri, they'll find MissouriGreen site; and when I look for a Hilton in Paris, I get only hotels in Paris. More importantly, the information that is returned is also annotated, which means I can add the hotel I find to my little travel planner, to automatically create a reservation, or generate a map that also includes restaurants featuring my favorite food, or taking into account food restrictions. Or when I upload photos to my web site, the GPS information that's part of the meta data in the photo can then be used to automatically map where the photo was taken, and even provide the temperature and weather conditions on the day the photo was taken, pulled from an available weather database. While I'm eating in one of those perfect restaurants near my hotel in Paris, perhaps I'll hear a song and later on in my hotel room will wonder what it is. I'll pull up the restaurant's web site, with their annotated music playlist, plug in the time when I was there and it will return all the songs that played while I was there--passed on to iTunes or eMusic or whatever, which plays a preview all the songs until the one I'm interested in pops up. One button can then add it not only to my music player, but could also post the name of the song into my online travel journal to provide ambiance to my rambling travel stories. Who is to say where all this will end? The possibilities are infinite. However, the semantic web won't find me my perfect mate, be my best friend, or help me figure out the meaning of life; get me over the blues; or ease my grief at the loss of a loved one. The semantic web is only technology. But the semantic web can make that science fiction dream of information at our finger tips real. Throw in a flying car, and I'll be in heaven. I may not necessarily agree with Sir Tim Berners-Lee's semantic web, where his system can talk with his dentist's system and arrange a dental appointment all by themselves. I mainly want a semantic web to help me find things out. Still, the mechanics behind both Sir Tim's semantic web dream and mine are the same so it all comes out in the wash.

Q: On your website, you say, "Woman does not live by technology, alone." What's the rest of your life about, the non-tech side of you?

A: I have a roommate who is my best friend and who happens to be my second ex-husband. I'm very quiet in person, soft spoken, and uncomfortable in crowds. I love this world so much sometimes it hurts, which means I can be obsessive about the environment. I've never met an animal I didn't like. I cannot say the same about people. I like to hike, though after a couple of bad falls the last few years, I'm wary of hiking by myself and leave my solo walks to parks around the city. Out on a trail or path, I will stop a stranger to point out a rare bird or unusual butterfly. Needless to say, I get a lot of strange looks. I like to work with my hands, and have been trying out bookbinding, and some electronic gadgetry discovered from Make magazine. Someday if I create something that looks like what I intended to create, I'll post photos online. Years ago I was a Vietnam anti-war demonstrator, and once tried to incite a riot. I was less quiet in those days. I also helped manage a program for women returning to college when I was in school. I am extremely liberal, and darn proud of it. I am a feminist and darn proud of that, too. I love history and think if I were to return to college, I would study history. Not especially useful as an occupation, but still interesting. I worry every damn day about being a 54 year old woman in a field dominated by younger guys.

Q: All of us are reading your tech blog to find out the real technology goods. Who are you reading?

A:I'm a big follower of the Planets: Planet RDF (at http://planetrdf.com), Sam Ruby's Planet Intertwingly (at http://planet.intertwingly.net/), the Drupal Aggregator (at http://drupal.org/planet), the browser specific planets for Mozilla, Opera, and Webkit (at http://planet.mozilla.org, http://planet.opera.net, and http://planet.webkit.org), and the MS IE Blog (at http://blogs.msdn.com/ie/default.aspx). The planets provide a way to easily keep in contact with several favorite tech writers, including Sam Ruby, Mark Pilgrim, Joe Gregorio, Bob DuCharme, Danny Ayers, Simon Wilison, Anne von Kesteren, Jeff Schiller, Ian Hickson, Tim Bray, the W3C, and many other excellent sources of tech news and innovation. I used to follow Planet Ajaxian, but it's became little more than a feed for Techcrunch and ReadWriteWeb--there isn't enough diversification or fresh voices. Unfortunately, the planets don't feature all that many women in technology, which is why I read your Web Teacher and you and other authors in the Technology and Web channel at Blogher (http://www.webteacher.ws/ and http://www.blogher.com/topic/technology-web). Your work, in particular, has become a pseudo "Planet for Women in Technology", providing greater visibility to women in the technology fields. I used to follow DevChix (at http://www.devchix.com/) but the site has gone dormant. I also follow PHPWomen (at http://www.phpwomen.org/wordpress/feed/atom/) and Molly Holzschlag (at http://molly.com), though both sites don't update frequently. This in addition to Laura Scott at pingVision (at http://pingv.com/blog), Christine.net (at http://spacejockeys.blogs.com/christine/), Dori Smith at Backup Brain (at http://www.backupbrain.com/), Girl Developer (at http://girldeveloper.com/), Leah Culver (at http://leahculver.com/), and others who are listed in Blogher's Technology Blogs page (at http://www.blogher.com/blogroll/technology-blogs). What BlogHer needs to do is take those weblogs, grab the feeds from each, and create a Planet Venus. Who knows, maybe I'll get inspired and try it myself. [Ed: Great idea, Shelley!] Returning to my reads: I enjoy the design and graphics tutorials at Veerle's Blog (at http://veerle.duoh.com/index.php/blog/index/), as well as the accessibility in the web reporting at Juicy Studio (at http://juicystudio.com/). I also follow Dave Shea's work at Mezzoblue (at http://www.mezzoblue.com/). I don't follow the "social networking" topic, as much as I once did, but when I was following it more closely, I read Anne Truitt Zelenka (at http://www.annezelenka.com/), danah boyd (at http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/), Tara Hunt (at http://www.horsepigcow.com/), and Jeneane Sessum (at http://allied.blogspot.com/). I also don't follow the gadget blogs or the popular sites as much as I once did, but I do check into Techmeme once a day (at http://techmeme.com), as well as ReadWriteWeb (http://www.readwriteweb.com/), GigaOM (at http://gigaom.com/), and most of the Apple-based weblogs (one can dream). I also read Ars Technica (at http://arstechnica.com/index.ars), on occasion. Others in the tech field I read are Audrey Eschright (at http://dyepot-teapot.com/), Karl Martino (at http://www.paradox1x.org/), the SitePoint weblogs (at http://www.sitepoint.com/blogs/), and xkcd (at http://xkcd.com/). Can't do without my xkcd comics. That's quite a few weblogs, so I'll stop there, with apologies to those I left off the list. My reading habits have begun to change recently, primarily because I am getting a little tired of the constant barrage of new toys and products you can buy, which, to me, clashes with what's happening in the real world. In addition, several people I really enjoyed reading in the past, have either stopped writing completely, or haven't written to their spaces for months. People get tired, move on. I can understand, though I regret their loss.

Q: What's coming up for you? Any new projects you are working on that you can tell us about?

A: Actually, no, other than putting together a curriculum for teaching SVG for WaSP. I just finished Learning JavaScript, second edition, and I don't have any plans to do another book. Well, not a traditional style of book that is. I do like the new avenues for electronic and self-publishing books. I'm taking a little time to explore new technologies, as well as spending some time doing non-technical things. I'm working at adding a proficiency in Drupal to the other technologies I use frequently (markups, CSS, JavaScript/Ajax, PHP, and SVG), and return to consulting work; to get paid for tweaking other people's web sites. --

Virginia DeBolt

BlogHer Technology Contributing Editor

Web Teacher

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