It's Always Ada Lovelace Day at O'Reilly

I had a hard time choosing just one of the many marvelous women in tech that I might write about for Ada Lovelace Day, because, frankly, I’m surrounded by those women! Where so many think of the tech world as male-dominated, women have always played a major role at O’Reilly. A large part of our management team has always consisted of women, and women are the creators of some of our best known products and brands. I want to acknowledge their contributions, highlighting the fact that they have been so central to the success of my company. I also want to emphasize that there are many ways to contribute to a tech community, and that being a coder is not the only way to have an impact on the world of computing.

Christina O'ReillyMy first hat tip has to go to my wife, Christina O’Reilly. She’s a playwright and choreographer, not a techie. But if you’ve been influenced by me, you’ve also been influenced by her. The company, its values, and much of its unusual nature have been profoundly shaped by our relationship. (You can see her influence in some of the early company documents you’ll find here,.) In more ways than I can count, I’ve built the company to be one that she would be proud of. We met when I was nineteen, and she’s been part of everything I’ve ever done, in the same way that Elizabeth Barrett Browning said of her husband, Robert Browning:

What I do and what I dream include thee,

As the wine must taste of its own grapes

From the earliest years of the company, most of my key managers have been women. From 1985 till about 2000, there was a troika–Linda Walsh, Linda Lamb, and Cathy Brennan–who helped me shape the corporate culture, and for many years were touchstones for the values I still espouse.

Linda Walsh was my first employee. She helped me build my original documentation consulting business, and helped me come into my own as a leader when I broke up with my original business partner. She was also the key business leader for our digital books initiative in the late 1990s and one of the founders of Safari Books Online.

Linda Lamb was a key member of the team (along with me and Dale Dougherty) that developed our original publishing program back in 1985. Linda also served as our director of marketing for many years, with a delicious, quirky sense of humor. (I still remember one of her earliest trade show pieces, a wonderful riff on the National Enquirer, in which she reported on abductions by strange aliens with big eyes, programmers forced to participate in camel races, and exorcisms performed after errors in programming with curses.) She was also the original author of one of our first books, Learning the Vi Editor, and later creator (with Nancy Keene) of our series of Patient-Centered Guides.

I hired Cathy Brennan (now Strider) as a receptionist in 1985 or 1986, but her common sense soon made her one of my most trusted advisers and her ability to get things done made her one of my senior executives. When I decided to move to California from Boston in 1987, Cathy was the one who persuaded me to move our then-fledgling publishing business along with me, and agreed to move out herself to set up customer service and operations for this new line of business. She built and ran our operations as we grew from a tiny startup to a publishing powerhouse. She also managed the design and construction of our office complex in Sebastopol.

Laura BaldwinLaura Baldwin joined the company as CFO in 2001, just as we were crashing into the wall of the dot com bust. I can with confidence say that we wouldn’t have survived without her. I had always held up Harold, the last of the Saxon kings of England, as one of my management heroes. He went down to defeat by William the Conqueror rather than abandon his people to fight another day. Laura convinced me that I needed to do layoffs–and when I did, I found that the people we laid off moved on to what were often better jobs for them, and the company itself became leaner, more creative, and more effective. Laura brought financial discipline to the company. She helped bring us back from the brink, and built a bigger, more profitable, and more successful company. Living to fight another day helped us to birth the Web 2.0 movement, Foo Camp, Make: magazine, the Missing Manuals, and many of the other post-2001 products we are known for today.

Laura is now our COO as well as CFO, and is the day-to-day manager of the business. Those of you who wonder how I find so much <a href= to spend on twitter while running a business, look no further!

I have learned more about the nuts and bolts of business from Laura than from any other person. Harold Geneen once said “The skill of management is to achieve your objectives through the efforts of others.” Laura knows how to do that in spades – she’s a great manager. But she’s also the most amazingly productive person I’ve ever met. Usually, you have to choose between an effective manager and an effective individual contributor. Laura somehow manages to be both.

CJ RayhillThe list goes on. CJ Rayhill was our CIO for seven years, working with Laura to build the information systems that turned O’Reilly into a “real company.” (She was also one of the first women to graduate from the Naval Academy – here’s an interview about her history in the tech industry.) She’s now the COO for Safari Books Online, where she’s managing the extremely cool features that will be appearing in Safari 6.0 later this year.

Gina Blaber was the original managing editor for GNN, the world’s first commercial website. She then ran our software group (remember Website Pro, the first PC-based web server?) and now runs the O’Reilly Conferences group. If you’ve ever been to an O’Reilly event, it’s easy to think that the speakers and program chairs do all the work, forgetting that it’s Gina and her team (mostly women) who make it all look so easy.

Laurie Petrycki ran several of our publishing divisions (notably Head First and Missing Manuals) before taking on the challenge last year of launching our new education division.

And that’s leaving out the many women who’ve worked as editors, copyeditors, designers, and production staff at O’Reilly over the years. If you’ve ever read and enjoyed an O’Reilly book, take a moment to appreciate how many hands, how many eyes, read it before you did, to shape it into its final form.

Sara Winge is the creator of Foo Camp, one of O’Reilly’s quirkiest and most influential initiatives. While Wikipedia claims me as a co-creator of the event, I have to say that it has always really been Sara’s brainchild. I had wanted to do some kind of events at O’Reilly after the dot com bust left us with a lot of unused space, and I might have even proposed residential events, but Sara is the one who picked up this idea from the heap where we tend to leave good ideas that don’t have anyone to make them real.

Sara conceived and developed the format (inspired in part by Open Space, she says, but to my mind, all the best parts were original.) I’ve just been the front-man and impresario. So if you’ve been to Foo Camp, or to Bar Camp, or any of the many other “Camp” spinoffs, you owe a big round of thanks to Sara. Foo Camp also demonstrates a uniquely feminine sensibility. Sara didn’t charge to the front; she created a context where other people can shine, quietly facilitating. As Lao Tzu said, “When the best leader leads, the people say, ‘We did it ourselves.'”

Edie Freedman is the creator of the distinctive O’Reilly animal brand. Many people know a bit about the story of how strange animals came to be the symbols of so many technologies, but what they probably don’t know that behind this brand, so central to the company’s heritage, was an act of generosity by a complete stranger.

Our first books, published late in 1985, all had the same simple cover, featuring the image of a nutshell. The idea was that these small books had everything you needed, in a nutshell. In 1987, with seven books in print, we realized that people at trade shows weren’t recognizing that we had more than one book, so we hired a designer to produce some new covers. She developed a treatment that was colorful, geometric and high-tech. We had an all-hands meeting on a Friday afternoon to review the new cover treatment. I just couldn’t go for it. It was too expected. I said we’d have to try again.

original cover Reading & Writing Termcap EntriesLinda Lamb shared our plight with her housemate, Edie, who at the time was a designer at Digital Equipment Corporation. Edie thought that Unix program names sounded like weird animals. She also realized that 19th century woodcuts provided a unique, low-cost design option. Fair enough. But she went further than that. She produced and laid out seven mechanicals of possible covers over the weekend. Linda brought them in on Monday, free of charge. Here’s one of the original designs, for Sed & Awk, a book that didn’t even exist yet.)

How cool is that? One of the great brands in tech was a gift from a stranger! (Edie did later come to work for us, and served as our Creative Director for many years. She is still with the company.) That is one of the many experiences that made me receptive to the idea of open source as a gift culture when Eric Raymond wrote about that in 1997.

(While I’m on the subject of the kindness of strangers, I have to call out the contributions of Danese Cooper and Linda Stone, two people who’ve never worked for O’Reilly but who might as well have done, for all the tireless work they do on our behalf. I met Danese through our mutual work on open source when she was the “open source diva” at Sun, and later at Intel. She’s the person I always call when anyone asks me for advice on open source licensing, community, or corporate adoption. Linda Stone, former maven at Apple and Microsoft, is a mentor and inspiration on the value of making connections between people who ought to know each other. Linda is also the one who had the brilliant idea of Science Foo Camp when Timo Hannay of the Nature Publishing Group and I were scratching our heads trying to find a project to do together. She’s also the one who suggested we ask Google to host the party. Never mind random acts of kindness; there’s real power in random acts of connection. When I said a few years back that our purpose at Foo Camp is to create new synapses in the global brain, I was channeling what I learned from Linda.)

I could go on and on. There’s Allison Randal, who Nat Torkington already wrote about in his own Ada Lovelace Day post earlier today. There’s Kathy Sierra, the creator of the amazing Head First series of books, and also the subject of many another Ada Lovelace Day post. There’s Carla Bayha, who for many years was the computer book buyer at Borders, and whose penetrating judgment helped books on many an obscure topic find space on shelves across America. Carla is truly an unsung hero of the industry.

And of course, I celebrate the many other women authors, conference speakers, and coders who’ve been a part of O’Reilly’s story over the years. Truly, we could never have done it without you. As far as I’m concerned, it’s always Ada Lovelace Day at O’Reilly.

  • Very nice that you recognized so many women who helpd make the O’Reilly series of computer books so successful. Thanks!!!

  • It’s weird to cite her biological sex as a significant element of Lovelace’s contribution. It’s true to ack bio-sex imbalance in the industry and ponder why it exists but it seems disingenuous, if we go down that road, to cordon it off to a special “women’s day”.

    Alan Turing, they say, was in some sense queer. Let’s have a Turing Day where we all call out our favorite tech industry queer’s, yeah?


  • Falafulu Fisi

    Tim, perhaps your next SciencFoo Camp, the organizers may consider inviting prominent Harvard particle physicist Prof. Lisa Randall to give an hour’s talk on women in science. The Time Magazine included her in the most influential top 100 people of 2007.

  • @Thomas Lord: Recognizing accomplished people in the context of gender, race, nationality, sexual orientation, etc. can certainly be a little weird. I’ve had many discussions about the benefits and drawbacks of “women in tech” honors and events with lots of folks in the industry, including just about every woman Tim mentions in his post. That said, I look at Ada Lovelace Day as a good excuse to stop (heck, it’s worth doing just for that), think about how that one accomplished person changed the world, learn about how other women have contributed to the amazing technology I use, and just plain celebrate. I’d be happy to consider all the ins, outs, inequities, and weirdnesses of the topic with you some day (preferably over a beer) but for now I’ll just savor the chance to appreciate Ada and the other women her day has brought to light. I was mightily surprised and pleased to be included in that number, and am delighted to be in such impressive company.

    @Falafulu: We’ve invited Lisa to attend Sci Foo a couple of times, and hope she’ll be able to join us this year. We’d love to have her talk about women in science, theoretical physics, or whatever else she’s passionate about.

  • Sara,

    Thanks. Yeah, I think “weird” is the right word there because I certainly do not mean “plainly a bad idea” but do mean “not obviously a good idea and kind of hard to figure out.” I’m all for taking breaks, celebrating, and chatting over beer, though and don’t in any way mean to detract from Tim’s praise.

    Hell, if I’m frank: one can (with some probability of success) tell from outward appearances which firms are successful partly by making a good effort at being anti-sexist. You can just tell. Tim’s right to brag. I just wanted to add some acid to balance the sweetness :-)


  • @Thomas Lord: No worries–when someone starts Dave Winer Day to honor insightful yet sporadically cranky curmudgeons in tech, I’ll blog about you. ;-)

  • Sara,

    Damn, you’ve outed me.

    I remember well the day Dave and I sat down at a little cafe on Telegraph avenue to discuss “The O’Reilly situation”. We concocted a grand scheme wherein he would provoke Tim to make over-reaching public statements about Dave with pretensions of putting Dave in a finite and tightly bound career box. We figured if we played it right we could spotlight some of the weakest points of Tim’s leadership cheerleading. But there would need to be a hook.

    On the one hand Dave would have to do alright and on the other hand we’d need some secondary, seemingly unrelated challenge to Tim to put him in a box of his own. We had to concoct a second Dave, so to speak, in the rhetorical sphere of the open source / blogosphere / silly valley society. We’d have to spook them.

    So a new character was needed. And, well, I wasn’t doing much at the time having been fired (er, prompted to resign) from Cygnus. And I had the motivation – after all, people dear to my heart had died as a result of the scheming from the “open source” industry. So I undertook to develop an on-line presence as someone who was, indeed, often, on the issues of common interest, smarter-than-thou yet who had the essential Dave attribute: too challenging to work with (in the sense of having analytic skills that if recognized force managers to change strategy).

    It was all very improvisational. We needed first a solid set of technology proposals and there, lo, conveniently: gathering dust on the greybeard shelves, was a collection of ideas about revision control systems. We started with those and built up some objective intellectual appreciation for the idea among many people flung far and wide but the point was mainly political. So we recruited some Aussies and some Euro-trash to play the part of false friends and entangle Shuttleworth in the mess – get him to over-reach and launch unwarranted personal attacks in public and private as well. After all, we weren’t out to attack Tim personally – more just his style of managing public affairs and the free software issues he was going on about. Chaos happily ensued: with a foundation of the unpleasantness with Cygnus and a framed structure on top of the unpleasantness with Canonical I was well on my way to cementing my reputation as a difficult to ignore yet non-submissive hacker. It was all going according to plan.

    Over coffee and muffins, that first day, Dave and I could never have imagined the magnitude of our eventual success. Yeah, we hoped to ruffle some feathers, cause a ruckus, and to do so in ways that help expose the way in which some of the leadership fails to “work on things that matter” but the whole GNU Arch thing almost got dangerously out of control. You certainly can’t blame the existence of Ubuntu entirely on us but… well, you can a little. And that’s just a highlight of the crash and burn – there were some less public but more profound spectacular failures.

    A few years later we met again, Dave and I – this time over pizza, as I recall, probably at “Jupiter”. “Dave,” I offered, “we need another tech play here. We need something just far enough ahead of the curve yet just actionable enough today that when that mover and shaker crowd snubs it there will be a record of the bogosity of the way they analyze tech!”

    We were mulling that over and came to sketching out a little XML database hack when we realized that, whoa, there’s Moglen — yeah, that Moglen — at the next table. And he was eavesdropping. “Boys,” he said, “you guys are way too indirect. Here, I’ll show you how its done.”

    Well, Moglen did his big cannonball dive into the pool but we (mostly me) went on with the database thing for a while. I think Moglen scored some excellent rhetorical points there (“Somehow I knew that whatever I said it would be what you’ve been talking about all along”) but, really, our market research indicated that few had noticed. So keep pushing on the tech, was our thought.

    Time passed and our project of constructive lampooning of things progressed. The database ideas solidified to the point I sought out patent protection – people *will* be using this stuff in a few years. I hired a team of 10 or 20 ghost writers to help maintain a “presence” in the blogosphere and to help keep the character I was playing both smart as heck and irreconcilable with the prevailing value systems at the top of the industry. The goal remained to confront the fundamental contradiction between “he’s right” and “i’m not going to work with or in any way support him because he makes my economic class nervous by not affirming that our s**t smells good.”. To try to bring that to a head and expose the hypocrisy in a *constructive* way and thus end it.

    Dave came up with – at another meeting, this time over beer at a local micro-brewery – to double down on the whole concept of a WebOS. Tim talks about the abstract concept of a WebOS quite a bit but always in ways that afford him, as Moglen discovered, the future option to say “That’s what I’ve been talking about for years” and often without much substance beyond that, regardless of what is substantially being said. Abstraction to a degree is good but there is such a thing as “too abstract” and, well, Tim’s guilty.

    Dave and I were just getting ready to launch all of that new WebOS stuff and then do a big “reveal” (in the sense of stage magicians) — the whole “ha ha, Winer pwns Tim” kind of thing. But now you’ve outed us, Sara.

    The joke is spoiled. It’ll have to rest on its own merits. The best we can say is that maybe O’Reilly and the society there represented can evaluate the tech we are about to offer more intelligently, cooperatively, and productively.


    p.s.: Should it not be obvious I shall mention that, in reality, I’ve never once met Winer, that I recall. The above is pure silly fiction, except that I really am about to solicit O’Reilly (the firm) about something we can reasonably dub a “WebOS”.

  • Nicola

    What a wonderful and thoughtful gesture !

  • bowerbird

    that was a very nice post. i’m glad that i read it.


  • Harold Godwineson: it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye.

  • Update ; )
    Jen Pahlka

    Thank you for your wonderful post. It’s one of my favorites and I often forward it to women for encouragement, acknowledgment and inspiration. : )