Names and Diversity

(Previously titled Nipples and Poop)

Last month I got to experience a childhood dream, one I never imagined possible. I got to sit in the front row and watch Monty Python live on stage. Twice! It was magical. It was the best 40th birthday gift to myself possible – getting to relive being 10 with the fully emotional impact of reliving well memorized moments.

I grew up watching VHS tapes of the Flying Circus. It had tremendous influence over my humor, but more importantly, the way I look at life. The absurdity of it all. The total disregard for institutions and sacred cows. If you’ve ever spent an evening with me, I am sure you’ve heard some fucked up stories about something I did against the very fabric of the institution I was part of – school, army, college, work. It’s who I am.

When I set course on hapi, an explicit goal was to change the way enterprise software is created.

Not just technically, but culturally. The configuration architecture was designed to make it simpler for entry level developers to jump right into complex requirements. The plugin architecture was designed to support a large team by breaking up large monolithic systems into smaller, self-contained parts. And the module names, logos, and references were designed to make people smile and stop taking enterprise engineering so fucking seriously.

Not everyone finds the same jokes funny.

People who grew up loving the Ren and Stimpy cartoons come into the hapi world with a grin on their face. A sense of giddiness from bringing that world of silliness into their day job. Others find it silly and just ignore it dismissively. That’s ok. The trick is to know who you are going to offend and lose as the price of making a joke.

When I was asked to name a hapi plugin that takes automatic core dumps when the process fails, I named it ‘poop‘. It was a perfect pun. We now have a module that very serious ops people at large companies, my employer included, have to use and they have to say ‘poop’ in their very serious meetings. This is powerful change, and it is because it is silly.

Sure, some people find it offensive enough not to use, and that’s fine. It’s a tiny module that is trivial to recreate. It’s not like I named the entire framework ‘doodie’. But the key here is that the group of people who might find ‘poop’ offensive isn’t exclusively any segment of the population. People who take themselves too seriously are not a protected class.

That’s not the case with ‘nipple’.

The nipple module was initially created as an internal component that no one was meant to use except for those working on hapi core. I know this sounds like an excuse for picking an inappropriate name, and it is, but it was also what was going through my mind – a public private joke. And I’m sorry for that.

The problem is, that in the larger context of a community built around the hapi framework, this turns off women from using and contributing to the project. That’s unacceptable! There is no acceptable rationale for creating an environment hostile to any segment of the population.

Creating an environment in which a woman is forced to say “nipple” to a predominately male audience is unacceptable. I don’t think that requires any explanation. It might also create a situation considered sexual harassment in many places. This has nothing to do with political correctness which is all about appearances.

What is interesting about the ‘nipple’ experience is that no one brought this issue up. I’ve had very open, frank conversations with women about making a significant shift in diversity within the hapi community and while other topics came up, this didn’t (even though it turned out to be on their mind). But when I asked plainly on Twitter what did people think, the response was strong, quick, and overwhelming.

The issue only came up as part of my review of all hapi language for potentially offensive words or expressions. I have made it my goal to dramatically change the makeup of the hapi community. I want to create a project that’s the role model of inclusiveness and diversity. The gold standard in how to build the most inclusive and safe environment in open source. Clearly we have a long way to go.

A big part of that includes reaching out to people and soliciting contribution. You change a community by starting with the diversity of its leadership. So I set to contact people from under-represented groups within the hapi leadership. All of a sudden, I felt a bit uncomfortable asking a female developer if she wanted to take lead on ‘nipple’. It stopped being funny in my head.

An hour after asking for feedback, the ‘nipple’ module was renamed to ‘wreck’, a pun on ‘req’ (common short name for ‘request’ in node). It’s still silly. We are going to continue and review the language used around the project and solicit feedback. I am going to continue asking questions, and I am confident we’ll get this right.

Bringing this topic up surfaced some unhappiness with our use of non-descriptive (and outright silly) names for modules. Turns out, a lot of people don’t share my sense of humor. No surprise there. But that’s missing an important point. hapi was created to be silly, to change the stiff corporate culture, one silly module name at a time. We take our code more seriously than most.

Looking at the audience at the Monty Python show, gender diversity was very much present. Silly humor doesn’t automatically translates to a boy’s club environment. The burden is clearly on me (us) to make sure that’s the case, but I am not ready to give up on silly.

I think the line between ‘nipple’ and ‘poop’ is clear, between offensive and silly, but this perspective, of course, is open to a community debate.