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Ellen Ullman's Life in Code

She's been a computer programmer for 40 years — and she's got advice for women who want to get inside Silicon Valley.

illustration of ellen ullman
Illustration by Zoe van Dijk

Ellen Ullman's latest book, A Life in Code, relays her experience through many of our major cultural tech moments: Y2K, the rise (and fall, and rise, and fall) of artificial intelligence, the emergence of the Internet, and the runaway growth of Silicon Valley over the past two decades. Ullman insists she is only a programmer, but she is also a sharp observer of Silicon Valley culture. Ullman's view as a woman on the inside of tech is incredibly rare, but her ability to remain within the system for decades without letting it consume her is still rarer.

While Silicon Valley abhors pessimism, Ullman reminds us that sometimes positivity about new possibilities is the result of an incredibly narrow view. It takes an expansive imagination or even just a willingness to explore different perspectives and walks of life, to see how good intentions can actually hurt without consideration for people who may lead different lives than the standard white, male tech-company founder. Ullman possesses both the imagination and willingness, and as events in our lives like the 2016 election and the carriage of justice and racial violence become inextricable from the bleeding technological edges, her perspective will only become more crucial.

Casey Johnston: You talk a lot about disintermediation, or the notion that people come to distrust "middlemen" in all kinds of transactions, including informational middlemen like journalists. The greatest example of someone who discredits middlemen, including the media, is our current president. The Internet provides a lot of access to information, but it doesn't tell you who is right or who is worth listening to. How do you think this phase ends? Do you think society has to collapse first?

Ellen Ullman: I saw this happening as early as 1998. So it's not like this is brand new. Once the web came on, it's like, Well, you don't need any intermediary. It's like this arrow that got shot in the air, and rose very high, and fell right at the feet of Donald Trump. Whatever you think about Donald Trump, one must look at the fact that one of the most powerful people on earth has a tool that he uses to go over the head of everybody: his assistants, his aides, the entire structure of the government. He mistrusts all of the security administrations: the NSA, the FBI, never mind the news. So it is a scary tool in this instance.

But in general, that's what it can be used for. It's not evil. People start these conversations, and that's fine, they're good, they're fun. I mean, technology can give you a lot of fun; programming is an art, and I'm still excited about it. But I try to have a balanced view. This love should be complicated. After the election of Trump, subscriptions to the New York Times digital edition went way up, so it shows you that there exists a great number of people who are hungry for the truth. The Washington Post has now on its masthead: "Democracy dies in darkness." The New York Times just had "Trump's Lies". His supporters believe him. They believe that mainstream media is fake news. Now you just get on the web and anything you want to believe, you can find support for. It breaks down the notion of culture.

Are we going to go back to something else? I can't tell you that. The Internet is a tool, and it has great power at this point. It has an existence of its own that human beings have adopted in certain ways, but millions of users on the Internet, billions, change the situation.

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In terms of the Internet being able to get truth into societies where things are blocked like China, and Russia, and Turkey, and you can go on with this, that indicates the problem of the Internet. It's a choke point. So we'd like to think of it as this truth giver, and in some ways it is. But on the other hand, it makes it easy for tyrants to shut down certain portions of the Internet.

CJ: What is it about tech that preserves the sort of narrow enthusiasm in people, that they tend to be very focused on what it can do and not the downsides of it?

EU: You have to get money from investors and venture capitalists, and the pitch has to be, "This will make a lot of money, and it will change the world." Oh my God, if I ever hear that again: "change the world." Never specify if for better or for worse. I see disruption as a large increase of inequality. In the middle are, let's say, taxi drivers, in particular. There's this whole level of smaller capitalists who were usually at the path for immigrants to come in: the first generation drive cabs, make money for the kids to go to school. The stories I hear about their desperation at losing their livelihood, it's affecting.

Disruption takes this whole middle of commerce and removes it and pushes all the winnings to the very top: people in the start-up, their investors, and so forth. So if you look at it that way, disruption is a way to throw the little guy out of business and make some very small group of people very wealthy. The jobs that are created, those people are being taken advantage of. They are stand-ins for Uber to replace them with self-driving cars. They're experiments actually working themselves into unemployment. These are the things to notice.

CJ: You spend a little time in the book looking at what tools are available to somebody who wants to learn programming and their various biases.

EU: I think everybody, to some degree, should be exposed to programming. Everyone. If only to demystify code and algorithms. They surround us, so it gives the sense that we are imprisoned. You can't get out of it if you live in the developed world. So, given that: One, everyone must have the sense that this is not mystical. This is not inevitable. This was written by people. And people can change it.

CJ: One of the things I really liked about this book was that you offer perspective on what work is like as a programmer. I love the passage when you're talking about the course videos; you advise, "Get what you need from this man. Just get it. All prejudice is meant to slap you back and put you in your place. Use your anger to fuel your determination. It is very hard to face such prejudice." You talk about men rubbing your back and complimenting your hair, all of this stuff that's horrible but also, I hate to say, extremely normal in this sort of environment. Do you see this as the only way into the field of tech?

EU: Everybody has difficulties. Being a woman is an added difficulty. It is a white and Asian world of men. I am not the first to say this, but working and trying, it's just not … the only thing. Get angry, but to just flash out in anger will certainly get you down the rung or fired. So I think that's true of anyone who works in a company, by the way. There's a way. Use that anger, somehow.

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Look, this is terrible, because it sounds like, "Oh, you should just put up with it." I don't mean put up with it. I mean use it. I mean see it and say, "This will not get me that."

I leaned into it. By lean into it, I mean, "Do all of the work." That's the thing to concentrate on. I love this work. I'm good at it. It allows you to withstand what's happening, because it's not going to change. You can write blogs, I can write it in my book, but it's not going to change unless women are just inside it. If you go inside it and just say, "Oh, this is sexist, and I'm leaving," then women will never get inside it.

Anyone who breaks barriers will have to endure something. That's the way politics is. When there is a segregated society, going into it will cause pain. Find a way to just say, "That doesn't kill me," and go through it.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Casey Johnston is a senior editor at the New York Times' Wirecutter and a Swole Woman at the Hairpin.