Ima Lumberjack, (s)he’s OK

2008-03-24, Comments

Introducing the team

Ima, the new recruit, paired with Alyssa, our most experienced programmer. The two of them worked on the user interface. Noah and Seymour looked after the persistent storage layer. Once Seymour got Noah into unit testing — well, you just couldn’t stop them. Cy managed the build, installation, porting, tools, and generally helped sweep up any regressions. What a star! That left me, Lem and Eva free to work on the core of the product. Ben led the team, but you know Ben — Ben kept a hand in.

He started it

This all started when Simon Sebright posted a question on an email reflector:

Just wondering what people think of the approaches of expressing the gender-neutrality of developers in particular when reading books/articles on the subject. The approach I have encountered most recently is the subtle mixing of “he” and “she” from paragraph to paragraph. Personally, I find this really grating, although better than he/she. My preference is for the 3rd person plural, i.e. they found that joining accu was useful for their career.

I don’t want to revive that discussion here, except to say that it caused me to rethink my personal approach to this problem, that I’ve always considered it unacceptable to use “he” to mean “he or she”, that I’ll avoid using “they” in place of “he” or “she” — oh, and that the best technical writers avoid any mention of gender without sounding stilted.

Sometimes though, however technical your subject, you may want to introduce a character to bring a story to life. At which point being gender-neutral becomes harder. You need a person. A person needs a name.

Isobel might be more interested in becoming a programmer if she sees a few more women around when she visits her father at work.”

Name taking

One technique I like is to give these fictional characters fictional names — and a carefully invented name can be gender-neutral. Here are a few examples taken from some great technical writing:

  • Alyssa P Hacker, Cy D Fect, Lem E Tweakit, Eva Lu Ator, Ben Bitdiddle, employees of Microshaft, a thriving high-technology company in the Boston area.
  • Ima Lumberjack, who’s implemented a web 2.0 app for managing his sawmill, who’s not OK about Python 3000, and who wishes he’d been a girlie just like his dear Papa.
  • Noah Shortcut, Seymour Checks and Mr Deadline, who fall into archetypal rôles in a late-running project. People, communicate!

Inventing names isn’t easy, which is why I shall continue to shamelessly plunder these ones and any more I come across. Call it a homage.