SQLPass 24 hour Women In Technology hop; Why I’ve submitted a session

I’ve decided to submit to the SQLPass 24 hours of women SQL Pass event in March next year.  This was actually a tougher decision, so I thought it might be worth sharing.

First, a bit about me. I used to study Computing Science at the Université Pierre Marie Curie in Paris, which had a 50% split between men and women across the board, and the UNIX sysadmin was female. At university here in Scotland, however, the situation was completely different.  In the Computing Science department, there were four women in my class, and one dropped out; leaving three girls across the whole undergraduate and postgraduate courses.  Then came work: w

orking firstly with Cisco Contact Centre products and SQL Server, I was the only girl working next to 60 male consultants, and probably the only heavily-pregnant woman waddling her way around at a Cisco engineers event ever.

So now you know how I got here, doing BI with Microsoft SQL Server and, if I’m very lucky, Tableau too.  Now,

I never do any ‘girl’ IT events. I have never done a ‘Women in Technology‘ event, or attended a girl geek dinner

The reasons for this are as follows: 

I don’t want to make a ‘thing’ of being a girl, and want to me known for the skills I bring to the table. Being a girl in IT has upsides and downsides, for sure, like most things.

I don’t expect being a girl to give me any advantages.  I personally dislike being picked for things because of the lack of technical women. I want to get picked because of my skills, simple as that. A few weeks ago, I dropped out of recruitment processes because the recruiting company have started on about ‘positive discrimination’. The reason for this is simple: it means that I doubt myself getting the job in the first place. I often suspect some HR director needed more women to tick a box or meet a KPI. If I doubt myself, then my potential colleagues are definitely going to do the same thing. So it’s like a vicious circle, since it means I don’t engage.

As an aside I really don’t mind men swearing in front of me. Really. If you normally curse, go ahead. I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable in my presence. I’m Scottish and probably heard most of it before. So, if you want to surprise me, you’ve got to get really creative. 

I don’t expect being a girl to disadvantage me, either. And occasionally it does. As a consultant, customers occasionally would tell my boss that they didn’t want a female techie onsite because I would ‘disturb the equilibrium of an all-male environment’. This has happened to me a few times, without the customer having met me, and discounted my CV without even looking at it. Fortunately, my boss at the time simply said that he would not engage with any companies who adopted that attitude, putting the project at risk. As far as I’m aware, he always won the argument, but it took a lot of courage for him to do that. If you are reading this – and you know who you are – I am immensely grateful for your faith in me.

I can list other disadvantages. I’ve had men refuse to shake my hand on the grounds that I’m a woman who could be ‘ritually unclean’. Other stuff includes more overtly sexual stuff. For example, been asked to sort computers with spicy images all over it. Sat silently working whilst the guys next door are loudly admiring some fruity images that a red top British tabloid newspaper wouldn’t dare publish. Finding a golf score card rating my various physical attributes, or lack of, probably topped the list.  I’ve learned to live with it and it doesn’t bother me any more, although it used to. Like the swearing, I’ve heard most of it before.

I’ve had my work sabotaged and deleted because the individual involved didn’t like reporting to a senior woman; fortunately my customer caught him doing it and it was resolved. Then, the pressure was on me to prove myself, which I did. If you are reading this – and you know who you are – I forgive you. I have grace enough for us both.

If you think that women shouldn’t be in IT, that’s fine; everyone is entitled to an opinion. I do occasionally get comments like this directed to my blog. It may not necessarily mean that I will publish the comment. I work hard to write my blog, and I was hoping that people would read the content rather than get distracted from it. 

Fortunately, I think that most workplaces have ‘policies’ in place now around images in the workplace and so on, which they didn’t seem to do previously. I have noticed this change in the past few years, and it has made things easier for me.
So why do I keep going in IT?
  • The thing is that I love IT and that’s why I keep going. I love Business Intelligence, and Microsoft SQL Server has been my ‘home’ since 1998. With the advent of the new BI, things are coming closer to a tipping point where business users are really starting to get their hands on their own data. I want to be part of that world. 
  • The vast majority of blokes treat me as part of their team, or have done so in the past, have given me the best possible compliment; just taking me as I am, on the basis of what I can offer and knowing the my own personal limits as an individual (not as a girl). The previous examples of poor behaviour aren’t representative of everyone’s views, just a small minority.  For the majority of men I come across, it doesn’t seem to be an issue. Why should a small number of people divert me away from something I love? 
  • I’ve been able to combine IT with looking after my son. As a freelancer, I can – and do – work late at night or early in the morning at home, when my child is asleep, so that the job gets delivered. It also means I can work from home on occasion rather than having someone else determine my location, which was why I don’t work directly for consultancy firms anymore (recruiters take note). Depending on the contract, I’ve also managed to sort out my hours so I can do pickup; if this isn’t possible, then I have military planning around childcare for after school care. My child is happy, and does very well at school, and is well-behaved. I couldn’t be a prouder Mummy. 
So, back to the topic: why have I submitted to do the 24 hop PASS event? As I said previously, it was a hard decision. I don’t want to make a thing of being a girl, and almost discounted myself on that it was an exclusive event. There’s a bit of me that is uncomfortable because it is women-only event, and there are men out there who could present much better than I can. It’s not a men/woman thing, there are just simply fantastic presenters out there – male and female. As I said previously, I prefer this to be about skills. I really hope that the SQLPass 24 hour hop event will be every bit as high quality as previous events. We can’t afford for this event to be seen to fail, or the small minority could use this to further their argument. Taking the long view, it’s down to us women to make it succeed. 

If I don’t at least try to showcase my skill set, then nobody will see my skills. If people can see what I can do, then perhaps they will see my skills and work for what I do, and the whole ‘girl’ thing will go away. There are plenty of women in SQL Server who are contribute a lot to the field, and who are way beyond being known  as a woman, but instead, are known deservedly as talented contributors to the field. Hopefully you will be able to hear some of them at the SQLPass event.

We shall see what happens. Perhaps I won’t get picked, but at least I can say that I tried. If I don’t try to show people what I can do, then that is almost validation for the people who think I can’t do it, simply because I won’t. 

Finally, I have some people to thank for their encouragement in putting my name forward. If it hadn’t been for their insights, I wouldn’t have done it. So, I’d like to thank Rob Farley for mentioning the idea in the first place. I’d also like to thank Mark Broadbent for sending me long essays explaining why SQLPass was a great event and that I should grab any opportunity possible to do it. 

So watch this space. I await your comments with interest; the good and the bad! If you would prefer to email me privately, that’s fine. It’s jenstirrup [at] gmail.com and I look forward to hearing from you.

Data Visualisation and Infographics: Knowing the difference


It’s important to know about statistics and principles of data visualisation and presentation in order to assess the information that’s being presented to the you, the data consumer. It’s no accident that the English word ‘slogan’ comes from the Scottish Gaelic word sluagh-gairm or sluagh-ghairm (sluagh = “people” and gairm/ghairm = “call”, “proclamation”), roughly meaning ‘a call to the people’. In order to evaluate the reliability and subjectivity of the visualisation, it’s important to be able to critically assess evidence. The ability to read and understand the purpose of the presentations of data is an essential part of this process. This theme follows on from the BBC4 series ‘The Joy of Stats’, which I’ve eagerly awaited for some time; if you haven’t seen it, here is the link to the BBC website.

There are many beautiful data illustrations, and to evaluate them properly, it’s important to look at the purpose of the illustration. There are approximately two main threads of displaying data: Data Visualisation and Infographics.

  • Data Visualisation provides ways of analysing large amounts of data, which allows the data consumer to draw their own conclusions. Believe it or not, Data Visualisation impinges on our everyday life. Our bank statements, pension statements, and mobile phone bills are examples of presented data that we receive frequently. Very often, the data is not static in nature, but fluid and dynamic.
  • Infographics is focused on clarification; taking existing data, and re-packaging it so that it is easier for consumers to assimilate the information. Intellectual and artistic beauty, which focuses simplifying difficult concepts. It can help to express profound ideas in ways that are very creative. These visualisations tend to be static, with limited interaction.

Data Visualisation is about storytelling – going from the data to the facts. Data Visualisation can be used in different ways. In the book The Little Book of Shocking Global Facts by Barnbrook Designs, the data is displayed in a manner which is subjective rather than following principles of data display. Adherents of Tufte’s design principles may well be taken aback by the following display, which is taken from Creative Design:

Fans of Edward Tufte and Stephen Few may well point out the following issues with this visualisation:

  • It’s a pie chart. Enough said.
  • The ‘fill’ is confusing and is perhaps giving the viewer a headache due to the Hermann illusion.
  • The legend is too small and it’s difficult to match the values with the actual content of the pie chart.
  • The greyscale isn’t easy to distinguish perceptually. As Colin Ware points out in his assessment of pre-attentive attributes, it is expected that brighter or darker colours = greater values, but, in this case, there is no relationship between value and intensity.

In defence of this visualisation, the impact isn’t in the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of the visualisation since this is a battlecry about the unfairness of financial control being in the hands of the few. In order for the visualisation to meet its purpose, it is a subjective presentation of the data  which doesn’t stick to data visualisation principles for the purpose of raising a battle-cry about financial control, and ultimately, power. A knowledge of statistics, and data visualisation, can help the data consumer to assess the image, and to evaluate how much subjectivity is involved. Thus, this is the interpretative element which is involved in Data Visualisation. There are plenty of examples around on the Internet, and here are some examples, using Tableau, from my own blog. I also like work produced by the following tweeps: Freakalytics, Andy Cotgreave or you could head over to the Tableau Public site and have a look.

On the other hand, Infographics sets out to simplify the message on behalf of the data consumer. Unlike data visualisation, there are no real ‘rules’ around presentation since this would go against the grain of the creative process of producing an innovative infographic. This is where I get excited since it gives me the opportunity to show off some of my favourites here:

Jer Thorp, who is the Data Artist in Residence at the New York Times, produced this image. If you click on the image, it will take you through to his Flickr account.


I also like anything that Flowing Data produces; his Muppet Name Etymology made me laugh, and it’s worth a look!

I also like Information is Beautiful by David McCandless.

To summarise, it’s important to understand the aim of the visualisation being displayed. Broadly speaking, if it’s recycling the data to simplify the message for you, then its Infographics. If it is presenting you with the data to help you make your own mind up, then it’s Data Visualisation. Often the boundaries are not clear; that’s where a knowledge of statistics is essential, in order to try and evaluate the subjectivity of the message, and to help the data consumer to find alternative interpretations.

I will be interested to hear your thoughts!

World Cup Hosting Dashboard created with Tableau Software

I haven’t had fun with Tableau for a little while, so now I’ve had some time to create my first dashboard using Tableau 6.0 
Basically, this dashboard aims to display the number of times that different countries, in different FIFA zones, have hosted the Football World Cup. A few things to note:
This dashboard is hosted at Tableau Public, so you can go and have a play!

  • A diverging colour palette has been chosen to distinguish the FIFA zones appropriately. Additionally, this uses the Gestalt principles of grouping close items together to connect the countries by their FIFA zone.
  • Instead of using blobs – or even flags! – to display the countries, I have chosen a clean, simple circle. I have done this in order to keep the display as simple and minimalist as possible, whilst still getting the point across. Edward Tufte called this the data/ink ratio, which basically means using the smallest amount of ‘ink’, or points on the screen, to get the point across.
  • Instead of using a pie chart to show the proportion that each FIFA zone has been represented, I have stayed with a clean column chart. I prefer this because:
    • it matches the left-to-right reading pattern of Western reading habits
    • The length of the column denotes the size, or value
    • It assists comparison between the various FIFA Zones.

Here is the dashboard. If you click on it, then it will take you through to Tableau Public and it’s straightforward enough to interact with the graph by clicking on the desired FIFA Zone.

Football World Cup Hosts since 1930

One point to watch here was the cleanliness of the data. I obtained this data from the Guardian Data Store, but as I’ve noted previously, Tableau does not recognise country names very well. In this case, Tableau originally did not recognise ‘England’ or ‘Russia’. These country names were replaced with ‘United Kingdom’ and ‘Russian Federation’ respectively. There would have been trouble if I’ve left out the occasion of 1966, where England hosted and won the FIFA World Cup. 

This was fun and quick to do. Enjoy! I look forward to your comments.