Being *that* person

Dear reader,

There are so many things I want to write about this week, I don’t know where to start.

I’ll start with the easy stuff: I’ve moved to a new newsletter platform. I liked TinyLetter (what a great name!) but it had its drawbacks so I’m trying SubStack. Nothing changes for you, so no need to re-subscribe if you’re already a subscriber. If you’re not, you can subscribe here.

OK. Now on to the other stuff… The week started with an adrenaline kick. I logged on to my office chat at 9 am and made a public suggestion to all developers in the company that we rename our master branches to something that doesn’t have references to slavery.

For those of you reading this who are confused about what I just wrote, it’s common for software developers to save their work on what is called a “branch”. Most projects have more than one branch so to differentiate between them, the “main” branch where all the work eventually ends up is usually called master. The term master in this context is said to reference a master/slave scenario.

It’s not the first time the topic of how we name things has come up in the wider software development community, but the recent events around #BlackLivesMatter have brought it back on the table, along with other terms such as blacklist / whitelist.

As you can imagine, mixing politics with work can cause fireworks and the topic did lead to a flurry of messages in our work chat app. Questions that came up:

  • Doesn’t “master” come from “master copy”?

  • Is anyone in the company actually offended by the use of the word “master”?

  • Isn’t this just a way for white people to feel good about themselves? Shouldn’t we be focusing on bigger problems?

  • And do we really want to be discussing racism at work?

Unfortunately, the term “master branch” does come from the master/slave analogy. And while most people might not have a problem with this, that doesn’t make it OK. Words matter. Becoming more aware of the words we use in our everyday language can only be a good thing.

The third point however is more difficult to argue against, especially when it’s coming from people of colour. After all, why should I, a white middle-class woman, push for a change that many people don’t feel is necessary or, worse, believe is diverting attention from more important problems?

I don’t have the perfect answer. However, I will say the following:

  • Once people are made aware of the connotations the term master has in software development, they tend to agree that it is problematic.

  • I don’t think I have shifted the focus away from bigger problems. Until I brought up the topic of renaming the master branch at work last Monday, there had been no discussion of the events happening in the US and around the world following George Floyd’s killing in our public work channels.

  • Renaming a branch is a small change (yes, it really is for the vast majority of software projects).

So do I think my work is done? No. Does changing the name of a branch make me feel better about myself? Not really. Do I still think it was the right thing to do? I do. Even if the repercussions of the change are small or non-existent, I’ve learned something about how to trigger change. (I didn’t check in with any colleagues before making the suggestion, but I was confident that a few people would be on board. They were.) And, I’ve hopefully set an example for others to speak out on other topics. Which brings me to the last point: should we bring up issues that make us uncomfortable at work? Definitely.

I think it’s naïve to believe that what happens outside the office has no place inside and, conversely, that the way we behave in the workplace has no effects on the outside world. But, I feel like that may be too big of a topic for this week, so I’ll stop here for now.

Take care,

Alicia