24 March 2009

Ada Lovelace Day heroine: Valerie Aurora

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, named for the world's first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace. It's interesting to me that while the first programmer was a woman, and all of the ENIAC programmers were women, there are so many more men than women in technology fields nowadays. Ada Lovelace Day is a day to highlight women who rock in the tech world. Since here in FOSS-land, the FLOSSPOLS survey reports that only 2% of developers are women, compared to 28% in the commercial sector, I decided to write about a Linux kernel hacker: Valerie Aurora.

By default, Ubuntu uses the "relatime" mount option. It decreases the number of metadata writes on ext3. It turns out, Valerie created relatime because one of our friends discovered that Mutt couldn't tell which mailboxes had new mail when using noatime.

I think she really loves (or hates?) fsck. I can't tell which. She's responsible for some patches that shorten the amount of time needed to fsck an ext2 partition, along one that gets a 50% improvement on RAID 5 systems with ext3 and ext4. She also worked on a new filesystem architecture called ChunkFS. The goal of ChunkFS is to deal with the fact that as hard drives get bigger, fsck times get longer. She wants to be able to fsck smaller parts of the filesystem at different times, to avoid day-long fscks in the future. The white paper is interesting. And yes, she wrote a working prototype. Oh, and you know ZFS? The filesystem from Sun? She worked on that too, back during the architecture phase.

It's not all filesystems though. She's got patches in libc to make malloc() more efficient. She worked on the TCP/IP stack. She was the maintainer for SMP PowerPC support in Linux. Device drivers? Done that too. She's done it all.

She's not keeping that knowledge locked up though. Not by a long stretch. She's spent countless hours mentoring. She taught Linux kernel development classes at IBM, and she was even kind enough to teach kernel hacking classes for LinuxChix (on the old site). One time, she held a real-time kernel development Q&A session on the LinuxChix IRC server. She also used to writes "Kernel Hackers' Bookshelf" for Linux Weekly News

Valerie was one of the first people I met in LinuxChix. Immediate first impression? Wow, she's smart. Second impression? Don't mess with her. She's tough. You may have seen her HowTo Encourage Women in Linux write-up. If not, check it out. Possibly, you said something that offended someone and were directed to it. If that did happen, I hope you read it. It's the link everyone uses for those situations.

Valerie Anita Aurora was once known as Val Henson, but she recently changed her name. She chose the middle name "Anita" after Anita Borg, a computer scientist that strove to encourage women in technology fields. Pretty cool name change, eh? Just bringing this up in case "wait, that sounds like Val Henson..." was on your mind.


mexlinux said...

Wow, she's not only smart but also so beautiful, I'm in Love!

jwl said...

On the point of there being a much wider gender gap in FOSS compared to commercial development, I was reading a paper on the monoculture of FOSS as a whole, gender issues being one amongst many others:


It's a bit old, but it's a bit disheartening to see that while there's been some progress, your observations (and the above comment) show that there's still a lot to be done.

jarich said...

mexlinux: Ada Lovelace Day isn't about posting about awesome women as an extension to the lonely hearts' column. Your comment is inappropriate.

Mackenzie: Great post. Val is indeed an amazing woman, and one of my role models. She's down to earth too, and very happy to talk and share ideas with people who are either less technical or who have focussed their interested in other technical directions. This is a refreshing change, as it seems that many of my conversations with my male colleagues revolve constantly about their interests to the exclusion of all else.

Adria Richards said...


Thanks for taking this post "there" into the wonderfully detailed world of tech.

You are really lucky to have met her in person!

I too was impressed when I landed on Val's page to see she had rewritten kernals. I think at the time I was struggling to see if I could rewrite the linux kernal Mandriva was using so I could have it recognize my ipod without me having to mount it at the CLI.

Plus, yeah. Guys just don't get it that being "eyed" up and down is gross!

Thanks for dropping a comment on my blog so that I could connect with you.

Anonymous said...

There are a lot of claims about this lack in FOSS. If it is true, in as great of numbers as is claimed, I'd suggest it is because Title VII cannot be used to force a group to bring on a woman. Whereas many corporations have no choice, even if they cannot find qualified (read interested) women for a position. Title VII basically forces them even in that case to just fill a position with any warm body that will take it.

I am emphasizing here that I am not suggesting women lack ABILITY. As was pointed out by the OP, the first programmers were women. Not to mention they created computer languages (of course my favorite being the Irish woman Grace Murray Hopper with her COBOL). So yes women have ability when they are interested.

Now some will insist that women are not interested because the men in foss are jerks. True enough. Keep in mind though, they are jerks to everyone. But men have such an interest in FOSS that we plug right on through the jerks and do what we want. I'd suggest then that women that claim they want to be treated "the same", don't really.

Anonymous said...

I've been lucky to meet Val at our recent Fedora Users and Developers Conference in Boston, January 2009. She gave what was undoubtedly the best attended talk, on the future of file systems in the kernel. She's piercingly smart yet incredibly friendly. You can catch a glimpse of her enthusiastic style in the FUDCon F11 recap video.

Mackenzie said...

I think your last paragraph is a bit off. See, what keeps women from shrugging off "he's a jerk like that to everyone" is the fact that, well, while he may be a jerk to everyone, not like that. For example, a guy who's a jerk to women by undressing them with his eyes, asking for nude/near-nude photos, staring, hitting on a woman or other forms of sexual harassment....do you really think he's like that to everyone? Or just to women? Do you think in the battle between sexual harassment and a hobby, the hobby would ever win? What woman would want to go back into a community that she felt threatened (physically, emotionally) by?

There is one woman in the Ubuntu community who I'm surprised is still here, given all the harassment she experiences at the hands of another Ubuntu contributor.

And guys who try to challenge my skills and catch me in a screw up to prove that I am not as competent as the guys? They're part of the reason I try to make sure I can talk on any subject that comes up.

Mackenzie said...

Rather than "treat us the same" we should be saying "treat us like human beings"?

Silvio said...

She's a very successful computer scientist. She'll be recognized and admired by many.

mexlinux said...

Mackenzie, Ada, jarich, everybody.
Sorry for my first comment.
I certainly felt that it was not going to be appropriate... but I posted it anyway.

I have just read her document on How to Attract Women to Linux, and now I'm not only sorry, now I know I'm guilty and feel like such a jerk.

Anonymous said...


Q1. Like that to everyone or just to women?

A1. I've personally dealt with jerks in the "community" that were VERY harmful to me. I won't diminish your experience, hoping of course you offer me the same consideration. When I run into these kinds of people, as soon as I realize the sort of people they are, I extricate myself fully from their presence permanently. Their bad deeds, do not prevent me from persisting in my desires, that's what I mean when I say we plow on through the jerks.

Q2. Would the hobby ever win?

A2. I do not allow others to define my experience. I have an interest in software, so I create software. I study, learn, read, experiment and do what I want to with it. My interest is in the project/hobby/job not the people that are abusive. I understand that not everyone is this way.

Q3. Want to go back to a community that we felt threatened physically or emotionally?

A4. I've experienced both. It is for this reason I mostly avoid the community. Avoiding the community does not mean I have to avoid foss.

I am not surprised that this woman has experienced harrasment in the Ubuntu community. She is by no means alone, and harassment occurs so much there, that when I install Ubuntu for someone, I warn them immediately to avoid the community. Those that are not a healthy part of our experience, we should avoid. The Ubuntu community is very unhealthy and harmful to many of us. Avoiding them, does not require avoiding the OS.

I see challenging someone for any reason as divergent from the other issues you mentioned (threats, violence, harm), as challenges improve us. Men challenge each other's skills all of the time. If you were part of any of the projects I work on, we'd be challenging your skills as well as we challenge each others. Some men certainly do this because you are not a guy. I've been challenged because I use COBOL, because I had buck teeth, because I'm now fat, because I wasn't a "ladies man", because I WAS a ladies man (yeah love the contradictions), because I have alternative relationships, because I like old music, and lots of other reasons unrelated to the job. Personally, I do not care why someone challenges me, I relish it, as competition improves my skills. Your comment demonstrates this; "They're part of the reason I try to make sure I can talk on any subject that comes up."

But here is the point I hope folks take away from this, that a lot of folks just miss. Using and modifying foss does not require that we become part of *their* various communities. There are numerous "read only" resources on the web, and in print, that can help us learn the good old fashioned way, on our own. The difference that foss offers is that we can take much of it, and suit it to our own purposes, without asking anyone's permission. Since I don't need anyone's permission, I certainly do not need the permission of jerks. If I am dissatisfied with my treatment in one group, I can join another, form my own, or just be alone. And in all cases, I can still persue my own interests outside of their systems of control. Women that are deeply interested in these things have that same option.

Anonymous said...


Regarding the treating like equals/human being thing, even that has different meanings for different folks. Many men for instance, are self deprecating, and group deprecating. Typically this actually builds our relationships.

So often I've seen women become offended because of something a man has said that was typically self/shared deprecating and insist that she wants him to treat her as his equal. Yet, that's precisely what he is doing. Because they have different experiences and are coming from different places, this is hardly ever communicated. Yet he really is often treating her just like one of the guys.

So rather than saying things that can be misinterpreted, (I want to be treated as an equal, or as a human being) it is better to say exactly what you want, without demanding it. I *demand* respect? No respect is earned.

Now those men that are jerks, they're likely not going to listen or change. So why should anyone allow the conduct of others to determine the path they walk in this life?

Mackenzie said...

:( Wait, now I want to hear about your experiences with the Ubuntu community.

I've had overall good experiences with them, and I actually feel like a lot of the developers are a nice big happy family. Finding me saying "hugs to whomever fixed $issue!" and seeing people say "/me hugs __" on IRC are not uncommon situations. Hey, our special bug triaging days are called "Hug Days."

There's just one specific jerk that thinks it's cute to harass people. And he's *not* a developer--just vocal.

And yeah, you don't have to quit the field if someone's a jerk, but that leaving the community thing... Well, in private business there are laws that force people to behave respectfully--or get out. In open source communities, it's usually the other way around: grow a thicker skin or get out, because the jerk was here first. And being essentially ousted from the community makes it a little hard to become a common contributor, don't you think?

calc said...


If this person is annoying in Ubuntu channels they can be banned and if they are an Ubuntero and have signed the CoC then they can be kicked out of the project as well... So putting up with this behavior regardless of if they are developer is not needed.


Mackenzie said...

That's the thing...there's a specific woman in Ubuntu Women that he bothers the most, and he follows her to other websites to do it. Right now, I've suggested that he read Val's HowTo. Taking it up with the CC has already been suggested, and if he doesn't self-adjust...

Anonymous said...

To be frank, mexlinux's comment didn't strike me as particularly offensive compared to what I witness daily, and it was most likely not trolling. Still, it's refreshing to see him grow to an understanding. All's well that ends well. :)

Anonymous said...


My experiences with the Ubuntu community is like everyone's experiences everywhere. There are nice folks, and not nice folks. While the /me hugs thing sounds nice, it only holds as long as you fit someone else's reality. Step outside of that ever, and you will experience the other side of their friendliness.

Ubuntu is an operating system that [mostly] works pretty well (despite the jokes that were the last two versions). It's not an ecosystem, not a family, not a religion, not an ethos. There is a vast array of people that use Ubuntu, and thus that come to the forums, blogs, chat rooms, bug reports and other *tools* used to create, manage and support this operating system. Each of these will have different ideas about what is respectable, acceptable and harmful. There will also be people claiming to attempt to protect themselves and others, who are in fact ACTUALLY CAUSING harm. Often on purpose, sometimes without realizing it.

It is for this reason that the COC is a failed concept. It is a simple phrase really, that sounds really nice. But it gets interpreted by those that wish to force THEIR [often FAMILY ONLY or POLITICALLY CORRECT oriented] view on others. So what words and topics you can use are limited by THEIR choice, not yours. EVEN when you point out that they've used the same words or spoken about the same topics themselves. Finally, people just move on.

I explain all of this ahead of time when I help someone install Ubuntu. A couple of folks thought I was being over serious, UNTIL they witnessed it and experienced it for themselves. Touche.

Because the COC is required (as far as I understand) to use Launchpad, I will NEVER be supporting any projects I create on Ubuntu proper. I will not accept bug reports from Ubuntu upstream to me, nor communicate them downstream to Ubuntu. I'm writing software, if someone uses it, then well on them I'm more than happy to support it. But on terms we BOTH can agree to together, without coercion of any sort. Since the COC is required, and since it can be twisted to craft any complaint against someone, it is clearly coercive. A software project should simply be a software project, just the facts ma'am.

As far as the laws with private businesses, I'll suffice it to say that I lean towads Libertarian Anarchy more and more every day. The clients and employees of a business should drive it's decisions, not law. There is of course an exception here where things of necessity impact others. So a business should not be able to dam up a river and prevent the downstream users from having water. But whether a businessman talks nicely to his clients or employees or not, should be driven entirely by them, not the law.

We have become so PUNISHMENT oriented that people weigh decisions not based on a code crafted from morals, honor, or ethics, but on what benefit or harm comes to them for a certain action. A prime example of this is the ancient Irish Brehon Laws. They had no prisons, no ENFORCED punishment, simply guidelines of conduct and details of actions an offendor was expected to take ON THEIR OWN for violating a law. It is surprising to people now that those accused did follow the requisite actions. They were honor bound to do so. Even men false accused would often fulfil a requirement. Thus I know that men and women can live honorably, without threat, jails, coercive government fines that bankrupt businesses and economies.

Now in the case of the jerk, not quiting or getting out because he was there first, well, I communicate with certain people that use Ubuntu. We're not part of *your* community or the *official* Ubunut community because we've found out that our lifestyles, sexual preferences, religions, beliefs, manner of talking, and other aspects about us are simply not welcome. So we form our own communities that are safe places to simply learn and use an operating system. The point of course is that there is no ONE Ubuntu community. We have our own and are content to leave the meanies to their habits.

My suggestion then to women and men that want to improve the [claimed] 1-2% of females in FOSS, is to simply do the same. Let the jerks frag off on their own, wallowing in their own communities. If a woman really has an interest in Tech, the skill of women being unquestionably there (to wit Grace Murray Hopper anyone? Ada Lovelace? Valerie Aurora?),let her understand that she does not NEED these people. If one place is not suitable, find or create her own space, even if it is, as many of the men, an alone place with no one else. She can thrive in tech then, as many of us do, on our own terms without the rigid controls which attempt to generate thought crime for merely being outside of the [so-called] norm.

PragmaTechie said...

Hi, Mackenzie, Nice post.

I agree that there are so much more men than there are women in tech specially as developers/programmers. I think this is the reason why software sucks these days.

In my opinion, gals can do a much better job at programming than guys because programming needs a lot of patience and perseverance—not our strongest points.

So, I hope more ladies will join open source (specially Linux) communities despite the attitudes of some losers out there.

...Come to the dark side of the source. :)