Apprenticeship Community

Ask-Me-Anything With Coraline Ada Ehmke

March 24, 2015 6:00PM PDT to 7:00PM PDT

Coraline Ada Ehmke is a speaker, author, teacher, open source advocate, and technologist with 20 years of experience in developing apps for the web. As a founding member of LGBTech, and and, she works diligently to promote diversity and inclusivity in the tech industry. Her current interests include refactoring, code analytics, and artificial intelligence.

Coraline talked about diversity, open source software, public speaking, and mentorship during her AMA with the Apprenticeship Community.

The full AMA follows, edited for punctuation, style, and clarity.

You’ve started various diversity in tech projects:, LGBTech and What are you most excited about right now?

I’m really happy that is gaining so much traction. It’s basically a code of conduct for FOSS (free and open source software) projects. It’s been adopted so far by AngularJS, lotus_rb, some Mozilla projects, Canvas by Instructure, and many more. This year the Ruby Bundler team added it as an option in their interactive gem creation wizard as well.

I really believe that FOSS is for everyone and that a few bad actors have been acting in a benevolent dictator/gatekeeping capacity, and that is bad for all of us.

A code of conduct is a way to fight back against that, to make FOSS available and accessible for everyone to safely participate in.

Have you noticed more diverse participation in communities/projects that have adopted the covenant?

I think as it gets more widely adopted we definitely will. At workshops for women who want to get started in open source, like Write/Speak/Code for example, I always include the presence of a CoC as one of several indicators that a particular open source project is a good candidate for their time and energy.

It’s a great signaling mechanism, but it has to be combined with good follow-through and good stewardship. It’s really a first step.

Establishing a baseline of what is and is not acceptable behavior is so important. We have to take control of the FOSS culture and ensure that community mores are explicitly expressed and enforced.

geekoncoffee: Does it damage the signal strength of the code of conduct if it’s adopted by projects who then don’t abide by it? How do we prevent that from happening?

Definitely. That point was raised by Ashe Dryden earlier this year, when the Bundler team was going to include the Contributor Covenant by default in all new Ruby gems. Without enforcement a code of conduct is pointless and even dangerous.

In terms of ensuring that it’s enforced, that’s really a community effort. I believe that those with the platform, voice, and security to call out bad actors have an obligation to do so.

Unfortunately a lot of “leaders” in the developer community are silent on a lot of these issues. If you have 20k followers and are only using them as a platform for sharing cat pictures, you’re failing as a leader.

geekoncoffee: Are there resources we can provide for leaders (and those with the security to speak out) to make them more comfortable speaking out? I’m in a position where I could and should do more, but every time I want to speak up I worry about the potential repercussions, and I’m sure that’s common.

In terms of resources, there are a lot of us out there doing the work who don’t have the safety, security, or network to reach as many people as we need to. I always say that if you want to be an ally, favor the “retweet” button over the “favorite” button.


geekoncoffee: What’s one thing that you think would have a drastic impact on the world if everyone knew/read it?

Wow, that’s a tough question!

I think it’s empathy. Unfortunately I don’t think that can be taught from the outside; it’s a change that has to come from within.

I struggled with this myself. Prior to deciding to transition I didn’t show much empathy for those outside my immediate social circle. I had to be very deliberate about practicing it, and I messed up a lot. But it’s a habit that you can develop and internalize if you really work at it.

I still mess up a lot. It’s a process.

You’re doing ten talks this year (!) What’s your favorite piece of advice for beginning or intermediate speakers?

I would have to repeat the words that Write/Speak/Code focuses on so much: own your expertise.

The first talk I gave as Coraline, I was a nervous wreck. I had been invited by Liz Abinante to speak to Girl Develop It Chicago on open source.

My talk was “An Open Source Survival Guide for Women.” I came to her in a panic a few days before, feeling an incredible onset of self-doubt.

“Who am I, with all the male privilege I have experienced, to tell a group of women what it could be like for them in open source?”

Liz calmed me down. She pointed out that as someone who had had that privilege, and was in the process of losing it, I had a valuable and unique perspective that was worth sharing.

And I think everyone could be like that. We’ve all experienced life differently, and each and every one of us has something to teach as well as something to learn.

As an aside…

Many of my talks are recorded by the wonderful people at ConFreaks. One of the videographers pulled me aside last year and said how different my talks were since I transitioned. I seemed more comfortable, more confident, and yet less declarative – my tone went from “this is how it is” to “this is how I experience it” or “this is what I have learned.”

I haven’t gone back to look at my pre-transition talks, I’m honestly a bit afraid of seeing my own arrogance captured on video, but I think she’s right. It feels that way at least.

You mentioned that everyone has something to learn and something to teach. I saw on your site that you spent a lot of time tutoring and mentoring. What do you enjoy about mentoring others?

Well, the obvious answer is that I am helping someone get their start in what could be the most amazing profession ever. Your mileage may vary.

But I also get a lot out of it as well. I am constantly surprised, energized, and inspired by the women that I work with. Whether this is their first foray into a profession or they are switching careers, they all have so much experience and intelligence and passion that they bring to the table. And I find that really rejuvenating on so many levels.

I firmly believe that if you’re doing mentoring right, it’s a joy for both and a job for neither.

On that note, I’m a little disappointed in some of the trends we’re seeing in mentorship over the past year or so.

I’ve seen some bootcamp-style code schools switch to a sort of “office hours” approach. While I think that that can be useful for solving immediate problems, it really shouldn’t be called mentorship. Mentorship requires trust and commitment beyond answering technical questions for an hour every week.

To be effective I think it has to be a long-term relationship.

It would be disappointing to see “mentorship” become another startup-y buzzword.

That’s exactly what I’m afraid of.

anne: What do you think a mentee should do to get the most out of their mentor? Any mistakes you see mentees fall into?

I think that establishing some ground rules up front can really help in that regard. Both people should make sure that they have been explicit about their expectations and their time commitments. I’ve seen mentors who are inconsistent with their availability, which can lead to frustration. I’ve also seen mentees who are afraid of being bothersome. I think discussing things like this in advance can save a lot of wasted time, hurt feelings, and missed opportunities.

I also think that people who are being mentored should talk to each other and compare what’s working for them and what’s not. And then share with their individual mentors any ideas or feedback that results.

It’s a relationship, and relationships require trust, open lines of communication, and adapting to one another as we learn and grow.

csaunders: What would you say is the best way to foster a mentorship with someone?

Being available when you’re needed – and sensing or otherwise cluing in to when you’re needed – is really important. It’s also important not to oversell what you have to offer. You can’t guarantee that your mentee is going to get a great job just because you have a great network, for example. Being open and honest upfront in setting those expectations is important.

But basically I think being trustworthy breeds trust, and trust is crucial.

Another thing that I think is important…

It’s really easy to fall into the role of an all-seeing eye, an omniscient being, and really let your ego get in the way. I don’t think that as mentors we should position ourselves as infallible oracles. This is an easy trap to fall into. One way that I combat it is to answer a question with a question – “What do you think will happen if you try it that way?” or, “Can you explain why you chose that implementation?” This honors and acknowledges the other person’s thought processes and can lead them to their own “aha!” moments. And sometimes they are right and you are wrong!

geekoncoffee: Any tips for maintaining empathy when pairing?

Try to remember what it’s like to be a beginner. Try not to let yourself get frustrated. And this goes contrary to popular wisdom, but be the typist in the pair more often than not – but only type what you’re told. That takes discipline.

Notice I said “typist” and not “driver”. I think the driver metaphor is crappy.

Could you elaborate a bit on why the “driver” metaphor is crappy?

Pairing isn’t like driving a car. It’s a flawed metaphor. The notion is that one person is thinking/observing and the other person is implementing. I think that in a true collaboration those roles are switching faster than you can pass a keyboard back and forth. It’s about communicating an idea, examining and cross-examining it, trying it out, and repeating. I fail to see how that is like moving a car down a road.

Pairing is a circular motion if that makes sense?

Pairing is also very intimate. You’re revealing the contents of your mind, laying bare your thought processes to someone else. Trust is essential. I think that gets forgotten in a lot of situations – I’m thinking (job)interviews in particular – and some people just can’t be comfortable in those circumstances until they really get to know their potential pair partner.

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