Women in Science: Can Twitter help us improve software?

LOrealZSL Soapbox 200 300x199 Women in Science: Can Twitter help us improve software?Last Friday I took part in an event called Soapbox Science which had the aim of showcasing UK women in science, inspiring the next generation of scientists and making science fun and accessible. Easy, right? Well, no. That is actually a pretty tall order, but definitely a very laudable one.

When I was initially asked to speak at the event I was absolutely delighted and honoured to have been chosen by the fabulous organizers Nathalie Pettorelli and Seirian Sumner. But then, as the day of the event got closer and closer, I started worrying about what I was going to say. I am used to talking about my research to academics at conferences, and to students in the classroom, but talking about my research to the general public whilst standing on a soapbox on London’s South Bank? I’m not used to that.

The research I planned to talkabout was carried out with some great collaborators: Joanne Jacobs, Rachel Harrison and Mark Baldwin. We investigated whether using social media as part of the software development process could improve the quality of softwareproduced.

Although I’m very keen on getting everyone interested in, and excited about, technology, how important it is and how it will continue to become more and more important in our lives, I’ve never stood on a soapbox and tried to do that.

I thought hard beforehand about what I was going to say, but didn’t get very far. I thought that maybe people would ask what software was so asked friends on Twitter a couple of days before the event how they would describe software to someone who didn’t know what it was. I got some great answers:

@marxculture It’s the petrol that makes a computer run

@andyfield The tools that allow you to actually make use of the computer

@barnstormed The car is the hardware, the driver is the software :)

@MarDixonSlowly. I usually explain it like a TV show on a TV box.

and many more.

On the day I didn’t need to describe what software is, or how it works, no one asked me that. After I arrived I went around to listen quickly to the other scientists that were already speaking. They all had props of some sort. I went inside and put together three boards to hold up during my hour on the soapbox. I focused on what I thought (hoped) would catch the imagination of passers by. On the main board I wrote down several numbers:

  • 7 billion
  • 2 billion
  • 750 million
  • 200 million
  • 62 million
  • 20 million

and asked my audience what they thought the figures stood for. When I made it obvious that I was talking about social media most people seemed to be able to guess, more or less, correctly what the figures referred to (answers below).

Once I got people interested I then went on to talk about how much social media, the internet and technology affect our lives in general, and then about how social media can help improve communication, especially between geographically dispersed teams, how it can speed up problem solving and much more.

Software is so important, it is all around us these days, not only in our computers but our phones, cars, ATMs, washing machines…it’s everywhere. These days the teams of people that produce the software that runs these machines often live in different countries from each other. Our research focuses on how people involved in the software production process are improving what they do by collaborating with each other via social media such as Twitter, Facebook etc. If we can work out how to improve software we will end up with improved phone/car/ATM/washing machine performance,and therefore, ultimately, better products.

When I was writing softwarefor my PhD, a few years ago, if I got stuck with errors in my code I would look through my programming books, talk to a couple of other PhD students and possibly pull my hair out trying to work out what was wrong. These days software engineers have access to a vast array of resources, not least of which is social media. We found in our study that not only can social media help improve the speed at which software can be developed, but it can also improve problem solving, make it easier to share best practice, enable more rapid and comprehensive testing and improve people’s working lives. 91% of our survey respondents said that using social media didindeed improve their working lives.

Once I was in situ on my soapbox I quickly overcamemy initial panic. I was able to talk to people walking along the South Bank trying to enjoy a Friday afternoon’s sunshine hopefully in an interesting and engaging manner. By the end I realised that I had really enjoyed my time out there on the front line. In fact they had to tell me to get off my soapbox at the end as everyone else had already finished J

So Soapbox Science, great idea, well executed. But it is a real shame that we need to do this. Unfortunately women leave science careers in droves from mid-career onwards. Why is that? I’d love to know what you think….

Remember the figures that I mentioned earlier? Here is what they represent:

  • 7 billion people on the planet
  • 2 billion people on the internet
  • 750 million people on Facebook
  • 200 million people on Twitter
  • 62 million people in the UK

20 million people on Google+ after just 3 weeks!

The world is changing….

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  • Lisa Crispin

    Taleah, all I can say is you might want to follow different people on Twitter. I’m learning more about women in science and engineering from tweets than I could find out trying to follow blog feeds and searching the web. I’ve learned about many programs to encourage girls and women to go into software and engineering professions. Tweets have pointed me to many interesting articles and research papers about why women leave science and engineering professions.

    Last year, I helped with a program sponsored by the Agile Alliance to recognize and raise visibility of some awesome women in agile software development. This started a big discussion on Twitter that spilled over into many blogs. It was a sometimes acrimonious discussion, but I think it had a good result, got people thinking about the importance of diversity in any profession, and how we can get more women (and other ‘minorities’) into software development.

    This is apart from the comment I posted here yesterday about how I get solutions to problems, new ideas, and other information so quickly via Twitter.

  • MonkeyBot5000

    I just figured it would be ABOUT women in science – it’s not. It’s about software engineering and happens to have been written by a women.

    It’s not really even about software engineering, it’s some media luvvy stuff about social networks. Those networks will make no difference to development unless the devs are checking those networks.

    You might as well say you’ve found a new tool to make software better because it let’s you email the devs in a different font.

  • erngnctrk
  • John V. Keogh

    A lot of this anti-Twitter feeling in the comments reminds me of my participation in the early internet social networks like Compunet (C-64), Cix, both pre-web! and things like AIM. Trailing the telephone wire downstairs from the modem…

    People scoffed and and would challenge me as to what the internet is and what it had to do with real life and real communities. Nothing changes…

  • Mark Cotton


    Sue was blogging about what she did at an event organised by ”Women in Science”, as i said all the people speaking were women and they are all involved in some branch of science, i genuinely don’t see what you don’t get about that.

    I don’t see why you are SO negative about this piece. You really don’t like social media do you, “social media luvvy stuff”. As i said in another reply, surely the only way we as a species can collectively “move on” is by having “conversations”, whatever medium that takes place on. What is so negative about that ?

  • MonkeyBot5000

    It’s not that I dislike Twitter, I just dislike the way that Tomy My First RSS gets treated like the second coming. What I’m getting at is that “social media” is no more use than pen and paper without the human element of somebody listening on the other end.

    If the devs don’t pay attention, you won’t see software improve – it doesn’t matter whether you’re sending messages through Twitter or semaphore.

  • MonkeyBot5000

    “Collaboration is the future business model for the application of all our sciences…”

    No it’s not. It’s the current and historic model of science. The web itself was created as an electronic version of the journals at the time. Why do you think it came out of CERN?

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