Ada Initiative board member Rachel Chalmers: "Open technology saved my life"

The Ada Initiative is governed by a six person board of directors, comprised of women with expertise in open technology and culture, women’s diversity issues, and non-profit and for-profit businesses.

Today we introduce you to one of our directors, Rachel Chalmers, Vice President, Research – Infrastructure Management, The 451 Group.

Rachel Chalmers

Q. What interests you about open technology and culture?

Open technology saved my life.
In 1993 and 1994 I was a graduate student in literature at Trinity College, Dublin. It was the first time I had ever left Australia. I was wretchedly lonely and very cold. I stayed away for a year and a half, and the Internet was my lifeline. This was when the Web itself was newfangled so I’m talking about email and Usenet, accessed from a CLI on a dumb terminal talking to a DEC VAX; and later, after I graduated, via a secret account on a Unix box belonging to some computer science students who took pity on me.

I’d fooled around with computers long before that, writing text adventures in CP/M Basic on an Osborne 1, but connectivity made the computer itself melt away, leaving only the conversation: text in green or amber on a phosphor display. I’m still friends with a couple of women I met on Usenet that year. (I still haven’t met one of them.) When I moved back to Australia at the end of 1994 it was my familiarity with the Net, and not my shiny new Master’s degree, that got me my first job.

None of this would have been possible without open standards and protocols and a culture of sharing technical knowledge. I could email my Dad in Australia because the Internet was deployed and accessible all over the world. I was given the resources and taught how to use them because volunteers thought that would be a good and worthwhile thing to do. I had an excellent formal education, but my informal education was even better. It felt then — it still feels — as if I had groped my way through a dark cave holding onto a rope, and come out blinking into a lighter place.

Q. What’s the greatest change for women in open technology and culture you’ve seen in the last 5 years?

I think some of the communities we work in have started to maintain state. For my first ten or twelve years in the software industry, every feminism conversation was a review of Feminism 101. Whether it was Larry Summers pulling out the gender essentialism in 2005, Telsa Gwynne shutting down her blog (that I loved) in 2006, or Kathy Sierra getting death threats in 2007 – the reaction was always the same, people standing around gasping like goldfish: “WHAT IS THIS UNDERCURRENT OF CONTEMPT FOR WOMEN IN OUR COMMUNITIES GREAT HEAVENS I WAS NOT AWARE.” And it always seemed to be the same activists having to explain the same basic facts over and over again.

What’s changed isn’t the frequency or intensity of incidents (if only! If anything, they’ve gotten worse.) What’s changed is the existence of the Geekfeminism Wiki’s Timeline of Incidents. The Timeline makes it much more difficult to write off individual incidents as “isolated”. It’s harder for offenders to plead historical amnesia, and it’s easier for defenders to take lessons learned from one incident and apply them to the next. I see the conversation continuing, rather than tapering off and getting reset to zero every time. And I am seeing this as far afield as the skeptical and fandom communities. New people are picking up the threads, which is great news for those of us who are interested in preventing activist burnout.

Q. What do you bring to the board of directors?

Ironically for a person with two literature degrees who has made my living by writing for twenty years, I am the board’s voice of fiscal discipline. The other board members are brilliant and influential visionaries and I feel honored to serve with them. I am the bean-counter adding up our expenses and dividing them into our remaining capital to calculate how long we will stay solvent. This reflects the many years I have spent working for a scrappy little startup while writing about hundreds of other scrappy little startups, most of which have sunk without trace. God knows I never imagined I would be a corporate executive with a cold eye for the bottom line, but it’s nice to have the opportunity to use those powers for good.

I’ve also always been one of those people who embody institutional memory. My job is putting technical innovation in historical context, for profit! My family members come to me for the contact details for other far-flung family members. This is probably why the Timeline of Incidents resonates with me so well. I’ve been lucky enough to be with TAI almost from the beginning, so I get to be the one who says “You know what? We started this for a reason. Let’s focus on that.”

We did start it for a reason: because open technology is a lifeline, and because sharing knowledge is a good and worthwhile thing to do. Because informally-acquired technical knowledge is as useful in the job market as a formal education. Because women and everyone else who isn’t male, white, straight, cisgendered and able-bodied have just as much right to that lifeline and that knowledge. That’s why we’re here.

The Ada Initiative needs your help to continue our programs supporting women in open technology and culture. Support us by becoming an Ada’s Angel donor today!

Donation progress bar: donate now