How IT workers get conned out of an honest wage through secrecy

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A friend recently asked me to pass along information about a job opening for a project manager position at a local tech company. It’s a vendor position, meaning that an agency would hire you full time, then loan you out to a tech company, such as Microsoft, Amazon, and Google, to work for them on-site. You’d be a full-time W-2 employee of the vendor agency rather than an employee of the tech company itself.

The tech company pays the agency an hourly rate, called the client bill rate. You, the worker, have your own hourly rate with the agency. Here’s the tricky part: the vendor agency is under no obligation to tell you how much their client bill rate is. If you’ve signed a nondisclosure agreement with your agency and the on-site company, you will have no idea what your time is actually worth.

In general, tech client bill rates are at least $70 an hour. A contractor on a 1099 would receive this full amount, and then pay their own employment taxes—perhaps 40% of the total—leaving them with $60/hour if their bill rate was $100 (which is a common amount for a web developer or designer of medium skills and 5 years’ experience). However, when contractor operates through a vendor agency, she becomes a vendor, and is instead paid a W-2 paycheck based not on her client bill rate, but on her hourly pay rate with the agency.

Think of it this way: a fair bill rate for a senior developer with specialized skills and experience might be $250/hour. Taking $75 an hour of that is a 30% charge and results in $175/hour for this highly-skilled worker who is now thrilled and happy with the agency. What actually happens most of the time is something like this: the agency tells the dev that they can only get $80 an hour for their skills and then they pocket the remaining $170 as a 68% charge. And individual recruiters are incentivized to maximize the difference between the client bill rate and the vendor hourly rate—because that’s where their commissions come in. Add to that the nondisclosure, and you should be realizing now in a way you never did before: if you are working for a vendor agency that does not disclose their client bill rate, you are not your recruiter’s client or partner. You’re their product.

Tech contracting is how the tech industry gets around labor laws. Now, because tech workers are paid so much, there is little public outrage on their behalf when labor laws are skirted, ignored, or outright violated. This is a problem. Tech contracting means that the tech company can work contractors for 80 hours a week or more with total impunity, so long as they pay the agency for the vendors’ time. Then the vendor agency merely pays whatever hourly wage they have settled on with the vendor. This system, which is manipulative in its own right, also sees many common abuses, such as having a limited amount of hours that you can work your contractors each week but asking them to do work off the books or off site to “make sure this contract stays open at renewal time,” or asking them to double their hours one week and work nothing the next, while being paid as if they were working a regular amount on a weekly basis.

To make matters worse, many major companies with brand-name recognition work with only a few “preferred vendor agencies,” meaning that to take a contract position at a major company and get a feather in your cap, you must agree to work for a preferred agency, and risk being in the dark about your true value to the company. My first position at a major brand-name tech company (and let’s put it this way: I live on the Eastside in the Seattle area) was as a lead web developer. This company had a great deal of money after laying off many full-time staff to replace them with contractors who do not have to be paid benefits. Many of the contractors had previously been full-time employees of the company in question. I cannot reveal my exact rate, but let us assume that I was paid between $40-$45/hour. I found out later that my time was being billed to the company at between $110-$140. It’s very common for people with no expertise in negotiation to take the first rate offered to them, leading to an even lower rate for women and minorities than they would have had—and this difference is exacerbated by the conspiracy of secrecy around their actual value. When told that they’re not worth a higher rate, the women and minorities tend to believe it and accept the amount offered—and while in full-time employment you could never tell someone that they’re not worth the amount they ask for, a vendor agency can do so with total impunity because they’re negotiating on behalf of two parties.

That is correct: your eyes do not deceive you. The company doing nothing more than signing my paperwork as a preferred vendor agency and passing along my employment taxes to the state (about $15 an hour, at my bill rate) was making two and a half times what I was. I received no benefits, no health care, no paid time off, and no overtime extra pay—only the money I was paid hourly.

Let’s add to this the fact that tech is actually a very small world, and the existence of blacklists for tech workers who have caused problems in their contracts is real. If you’re put on ‘the list’ at a major tech company, you can expect that other tech companies will refuse to consider you for employment. Similar to pursuing a discrimination suit at a major law firm—you can absolutely expect that you will never be hired to work for a large firm again. To stand up for yourself means to have only one option: to start your own firm and declare victory. There’s a good reason that top-level minority and female contractors leave high-paying contract gigs to build their own startups and companies. When you work on-site at a tech company but do not work FOR that tech company, any discrimination or harassment issues you may face are your tough luck. You don’t actually work FOR that company, so you can only sue your vendor agency if you have issues—and why would you do that? You weren’t harassed or discriminated against by your direct superior, so how do you prove a hostile work environment in a company you don’t technically work for?

Here’s the punchline: I never negotiated with the large tech company I worked for. In that first position, I was treated well, by people who themselves had no idea what my bill rate and hourly wage were. I had to negotiate with the vendor agency for my wages. As a result, the vendor agency was incentivized to lie to me with every breath (in fact, I signed paperwork saying that the vendor agency wasn’t obligated to be open with me about my bill rate, without necessarily understanding that this meant they could and would lie outright to me about my worth). I was told: “this is the way it is if you want that position at XXX Co.” I had no reason to doubt that, because I didn’t yet know of the existence of full disclosure vendor agencies.

Let’s be clear: vendor agencies serve a great purpose. In tech, investing in an employee is time-consuming and resource-intensive. If you become an employee at a tech company, it’s likely that they see a future for you there with multiple roles and an upward trajectory. However, there are a lot of positions in major tech companies that are by their nature temporary. If you have a project that must be executed in Python to work with one of your company’s client’s interfaces, and your company only has a bench full of C++ programmers, you have a short-term job that means you should hire a contractor. Think of it this way: you don’t invite the people who remodel your kitchen to stick around in case you need them again in a few years. They possess a specialized skill that you need on a temporary basis, and you pay them well to come in, do their job, and leave when they’re done, without any feeling of long-term obligation to them.

To extend the analogy, however, imagine that you have hired a construction firm that sends a three-person crew to your house, and you discover that though you are paying the company for the hours spent by that crew in your home at the rate of $60/hour per person, each of the workers themselves only make $11/hour—the minimum wage in the state of Washington. Worse, they have no idea how much you are paying for their time, can be fired for asking, and cannot share their information with any of their colleagues.

All of a sudden, your conscience starts to twinge. Why is it that the best construction business in town won’t share its rates with its own employees? Why not be honest about what you are paying for these services? It doesn’t change the amount itself. All it does is empower the worker to choose an agency that treats them with respect and transparency.

This is why I do not pass along information on jobs from vendor and contracting agencies that will not disclose their client bill rate. If you’re a vendor agency, it is understandable and appropriate to charge anywhere between 15-40% of the client bill rate for your services. After all, you’re handling employment taxes, W-2s, accounting, paperwork, direct deposit, and possibly benefits as desired. You should be making a good profit on your service to both parties. Taking 85% of the client bill rate and leaving scraps for the actual worker, all the while hiding behind a non-disclosure agreement, is simply morally indefensible.

You should refuse to work for agencies that do not disclose, and I pledge now that if I am in a position to engage a contract or vendor agency to fill open positions for my company, I will not work with one that does not disclose my rate to their developers.

Look, it’s easy to lack sympathy for people who make sixty bucks an hour sitting in a chair. Realize, however, that these folks work hard, many have student loans that they took out to get their specialized training, and even more have families they support. Just because the amount of money they make is more than a construction worker does not mean they’re not facing the same kind, if not degree, of injustice.

If this article makes you angry (and I hope it does), please use the comments section to make your own pledge about refusing to hire vendor or contract agencies who use NDAs.

Beyonce may be ‘The’ Boss, but she’s not ‘a’ boss. I am.

Boss

I appreciate the #BanBossy campaign by Beyonce and Sheryl Sandberg a great deal. We know the stories of how Sandberg was called ‘bossy’ by her schoolmates while she was younger, and Beyonce is definitely on a campaign to popularize feminism.

There’s an issue. It’s in this picture here: banbossy-beyonce

I appreciate the spirit behind this message. However, this image and Beyonce’s campaign is making use of the expression “The Boss” as someone who is awesome, cool, in control, and admirable. What we need to get used to is the notion of a woman as **a** boss, not “The Boss,” as if she was Bruce Springsteen. A boss is someone who has power over people, who is a leader, who directs other peoples’ actions, and who makes decisions about hiring and firing. This isn’t what we mean when we say as a compliment that someone “is a boss!” or “did it like a boss!” Instead we’re simply offering a platitude. This is the same meaning that we attach to Beyonce’s statement that she’s “The Boss!”

I have responsibility for the hiring and management of more than 15 people now. I’m a boss. I tell people what to do, and sometimes I’m not popular. I accepted responsibility as a leader, and that means making tough decisions. It’s the part where I direct other people’s actions that makes so many people uncomfortable. That’s the thing Sandberg and Beyonce are trying to make ok, but they’re not coming at the issue directly. Instead, they’re popularizing the removal of the word “bossy” from our lexicon.

The #BanBossy campaign doesn’t tackle the real issue of why women are uncomfortable being bosses. Beyonce writing a blog post or doing an interview in which she explains how she hires and manages her staff both remotely and in person would be a better explanation of actually being a boss. We know Sandberg can handle management; I’d love to see her explain how to direct people’s actions and take ownership of the fact that people sometimes have issues with direction, rather than worrying about the label being applied.

Labels are important. What we call people matters to them and to us. I had a wonderful professor of social and political philosophy when I was at Carroll College doing my undergraduate. His name was Barry Ferst. He made a very specific point of repeating everyone’s names in his class, and working hard to remember how to pronounce them. If people preferred a nickname, he would write it down and remember to call them by their chosen name. When I asked him why he was so careful to pronounce my name “Tare-ah” instead of “Tah-ra”, and for that matter why he bothered to remember everyone’s preferred names in his class, he said to me “It doesn’t hurt me at all to call people what they want to be called, and it makes them happy.” I took that as one of the more important lessons from my academic career.

If women don’t want to be called ‘bossy’, then I’ll avoid that. When you actually **are** a boss, you find you have little time to care if someone is calling you bossy–you’re too busy taking over the world. Show women that the label ‘bossy’ matters less than the act of taking responsibility and leadership. Mentor them and demonstrate what it’s like to make hard choices, to serve a community and your team, and as women accept and seek out leadership roles, the label of “bossy” will fade into much-deserved obscurity.

I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors: the perfect go-away email.

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Stop feeling bad for telling people that they’re wasting your time. I don’t mean Radical Honesty; that’s a great concept, but not very helpful in business and technology. Instead, when people email you with a request for your time, and aren’t capable of clearly articulating why they want to talk to you in person or on the phone, make them choose between being clear and leaving you alone.

New people often want to talk to someone in person about Hack The People, our mentoring in tech initiative.  They may have questions, want to share their stories, have administrative questions, or want to form a group in their area. Every so often, someone emails one of our coordinators with a request to talk in person or on the phone rather than simply saying why they’re contacting us. We’re still a small group with only two dozen or so part-time staff, organizers, and directors. We ask why a person is emailing so we can direct them to the correct local HTP group, handle a media request (which should be clearly marked MEDIA REQUEST in the subject line, btw), or get them signed up as a local organizer. We cannot help you if you don’t have a question to ask.

This happens to me a lot for Fizzmint as well. People email me and ask for my time without being able to clearly articulate why they want to talk to me. Often, it’s specifically because they want to get me on the phone to sell me something, or $DEITY help them, they want to try to recruit me to a junior Ruby contract dev gig in Austin. Even more often, it’s because outsiders to tech and very junior people feel very uncomfortable clearly stating what they want and need from me. They want to spend fifteen minutes over coffee or on the phone feeling me out and seeing if I’m sympathetic enough to help them. I’m more likely to be able and willing to help if they’re clear and efficient in their communications.

Here is my first reply: “Can you please email me your questions? I’ll see what I can do to help.”

If they double down on the request for personal time, still without telling me why, here is my second reply: ”I’m sorry, it seems like you’re not able to tell me why it is that you want to meet with me. I’m happy to answer any specific emailed questions you have, and I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors. Thanks!”

If you get still another request for your time from someone after sending that email, you can feel free to ignore it/trash it. They’re clearly not able to socially understand that they’re wasting your time. Alternately, if they do clearly tell you what they need and you want to continue the conversation, you can.

Your time is valuable. It’s truly the only thing you possess, and people will eat it like Cheetos if you’re not careful. Being clear with people in email and in all communications is a courtesy to you, and one you and everyone else deserves. Insist on it, and practice it yourself.

Ladies, you’re not the chief-cook-and-bottlewasher. You’re the damn CEO.

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Why are women so uncomfortable at acknowledging that they have power and authority?

I went to Founder Friday on the 15th of November here in Seattle. It’s an event put on in multiple cities by the amazing people at Women 2.0. The goal is to network women in technology by creating a friendly space and relaxed atmosphere with notable speakers. The amazing Mary Jesse, CEO of Ivytalk, and inspiring Nadia Mahmud, co-founder of Jolkona Foundation, were the keynote speakers.

It was a networking event, so I clutched my better-than-usual-grade Riesling (thanks for the hospitality, Facebook Seattle!) and started the business-card-shuffle in the pregaming part of the evening. There were maybe 25 women there.

“Hi! I’m Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack, and I’m the CEO of Fizzmint, an HR automation company. What do you do?”

“I am part of a cool startup that does X.”

“Oh really?” I say. “What do you do there?”

She blushes. “I do the business stuff. My co-founder, he does all the technical stuff.”

“Wow, that’s awesome! What do you call yourself there?”

“Sorry,” she says. “I’m just the chief cook and bottlewasher. My co-founder, he’s an awesome CTO.”

You have a technical co-founder, and you handle all the business, marketing, hiring, and tax matters. What the devil do you THINK your title is, woman??

I move on to the next person, thinking that this might be an aberration. It’s really, really not. Out of 25 women at the event, I met two people who had the audacity to put a CXO title on their business cards. Yet, every one of them was a co-founder of an up-and-coming startup.

We know the insidious, vicious effects of impostor syndrome. I won’t pretend that I don’t feel the impulse to soften my speech, to not intimidate the people to whom I’m speaking every once in a while. When you do an image search for “CEO” on Google, the first seventy images have only 3 women in them–and one of them is CEO Barbie.

However, if you’re creating a startup, and you’re handling the business end of your company, have the respect for yourself and your employees to call yourself the CEO. No one starts out as a CEO. It’s an unnatural job title. You still have to learn. I am the CEO of a 9-person startup, and I am constantly learning. I am never NOT taking a class to improve my communication, to better my listening, to increase my business financial savvy, and to add to my human resources skills. It’s uncomfortable–even unpleasant–to grow personally and emotionally this rapidly. I am in a class now that is intended to improve my listening skills, not only for Fizzmint, but also for Hack The People, the mentoring charity that I and my CTO Liz Dahlstrom co-founded. I have a wonderful coach who is working with me on how to handle the very different style of communication that men in business use from my usual compatriots in the hacking world.

Did you think you could become a CEO without acknowledging that you are imperfect? That you would simply start out by looking and acting like a CEO? Don’t make me laugh. The job of CEO is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and it means confronting my own weaknesses every day. CEOs are made, not born. You can be the CEO of your startup, but it means acknowledging your weaknesses, and it means acting to compensate for them or eliminate them. You already have the responsibility for your people, whether your “people” are your family, or your employees.

Don’t push your authority and power away. It doesn’t “soften your image.” It makes you powerless and ineffectual. Have the respect for the people you lead, like it or not, by accepting that they trust you, and that it is your obligation and joy to learn as much as you can to serve them as best you can.

Implementing security in pre-investment startups

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Today, I and Liz Dahlstrom had a great experience speaking at SOURCE Conference: Seattle. Run by Jamie Fullerton of SERENE Security, our audience was a group of security pros and executives.

Our talk, “Implementing Security In A Pre-Investment Startup,” was well-received. Unfortunately, there was an A/V issue, and the talk was not recorded properly, so we’ll just post our outline and slides here. Please note that Brad “RenderMan” Haines is our third author on this talk; as a Fizzmint team member and security researcher, he helped us write, discuss, prepare for, and pull this talk off.

Our SOURCE Talk slides as a PDF doc.

The outline for the talk.

SOURCE Conference: Seattle was a gracious host, and we had a good time. Thanks!

Your private ssh keys do not copy over with a sudo dolphin! You must use bash in Kubuntu.

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I’m glad I keep good backups. When backing up your Kubuntu box, do not just drag and drop one home folder from a hard disk to another hard disk.

Your ssh keys will not be copied over, even though you may have opened the Dolphin file manager over with the command

sudo dolphin

To ensure you have admin privileges over the copy procedure.

Instead, you should use a full copy command like this to ensure that you get everything, including files with 0400 permissions and all hidden files and folders (anything with a dot in front of it like this: ‘.ssh’).

sudo cp -R /home /your/backup/location/home

I’d normally cite some links to help you see more about this problem, but I discovered this one the hard way myself.

Free Interview Training Videos for Underserved People In Tech

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Hi! We’re Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack and Liz Dahlstrom. As far as I know, these are the only training videos ever produced for people who want to know what it’s like to be in tech, and we’re giving them to you for free. We’re giving you over eight hours and over 8GB of videos showing how you interview, work in programming jobs, negotiate salary, work with supervisors, handle whiteboarding, and much more. These videos cost us over $30,000 to produce, edit, and release. We believe strongly that everyone needs this information, and that the trust reposed in us by our backers on Kickstarter should be repaid. Thank you for believing in us, and thank you for helping underserved people in tech. Liz and I have always believed that mentorship and networking only succeeds in the presence of openness, friendliness, acceptance, and tolerance. We’re releasing the digital download with a Creative Commons license, so you can download this freely and distribute it noncommercially.

This series of videos trains people in technical interviews and what to expect out of a life in professional programming. Created out of a Kickstarter in 2012, Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack and Liz Dahlstrom are now releasing the videos under Creative Commons licensing to the public in fulfillment of their obligation to the public, and are thrilled to announce that the training provided to these people has launched a mentorship movement in tech!

The links are to the videos at YouTube.

01-Welcome
02-Skin-Deep
03-Interview-Paperwork-And-Prep
04-Corporate-Startup-And-Freelance-Career-Tracks – Guest speaker: Jon Callas, CTO, Silent Circle
05-Physical-Presence-And-Body-Language
06-Meet-Your-Interviewer – Guest speaker: Mike Reinhardt, lead developer from Microsoft Game Studios and engineer, Microsoft Exchange
07-Women-On-The-Job – Guest speaker: Lonnye Bower, SQL developer evangelist, Microsoft
08-Certifications-And-Skills - Guest speaker: Anne-Marie Marra, senior partner, SOMA Law Group
09-Powerlunching-And-Networking – Guest speaker, Shannon Anderson, senior vice president, NuWest Group Staffing Solutions
10-Public-Speaking
11-Recruiter-Round-Table
12-Closing

Download all the videos by getting the torrent here at Kickass Torrents.

Released under Creative Commons CC BY-NC.txt

If you want to support this effort and help the cause of mentorship in tech, you  can DONATE and learn more at HackThePeople.org, ask questions at @tarah and @tanglisha, and support diversity in technology.

How to negotiate your salary as a woman in tech

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Women have a very difficult time negotiating salary. We are trained to be nonconfrontational, to paste a smile on our faces, and to be grateful for what we are given. This is not the most effective tack to take when trying to increase your compensation. There is no way to convince you that you will not immediately be tossed out of the applicant pile for negotiating a better salary. You must experience for yourself the respect garnered by insisting on the maximum possible compensation in order to truly believe me.

I am not generally considered the most pliable of women, and though I can be very direct and confrontational in negotiations, I have never been thrown out of a salary negotiation before. I have had companies which were unable to meet my price, but never any that simply refused to negotiate with me. I’ve gotten much better salaries and far more respect by understanding that whether salaries are labeled as ‘negotiable’ or not, men will negotiate them, and I had better do the same. This is Minute-Zero in the gender pay gap; this is the single place that women can improve their economic condition most of all.

It does not matter if an F500 company is offering me 10% equity and a salary that makes Steve Jobs roll over in his grave (may he rest in peace). I have never in my life opened a salary negotiation by saying “Yes, that sounds like a reasonable number.” Instead, I have a phrase I repeat ad infinitum, ad nauseam, and it would behoove you to memorize it until you can parrot it to the pursestring-holder with whom you will be negotiating. “That is a lower number than I was expecting to hear, but at least it provides a baseline from which we can negotiate. I assume that your offer will also include benefits as well as stock grants or options of some kind?”

Just repeat that exact phrase after they give you the first offer–and make no mistake, they are making you an offer that they expect you to counter. If you do not, they will believe that they offered too much, or that you had no other options. Both those statements may be true, but you should never admit it. Do not get cute with your salary negotiator. This is not the time to use excuses, to plead or flirt, or to describe your personal situation in great detail (“I need onsite daycare”). You will be in a much better position to negotiate that after you have a salaried position with the company.

I cannot emphasize this enough: the men with whom you will be working do not need to like you, and the person with whom you negotiate your salary should breathe a sigh of bewildered relief after they are done speaking with you. If I can be permitted to lapse into stereotyping, men are often very good at working well both for and with people that they do not like–so long as there is mutual respect. Women sometimes have a hard time with this, and if you want to work well with the men in your workplace, you must learn that respect, not friendship, is the coin in which your colleagues will trade.

This means that you should think about this negotiation as the reverse of a used car purchase.

  1. DO NOT NAME A NUMBER FIRST.
  2. DO NOT NAME A NUMBER FIRST.
  3. Have a number below which you will not accept the position.
  4. If the negotiator accepts your number too quickly, you did not ask for enough. Add 10% to the amount for which you will ask initially, as it is too late to ask after you have given your first number.
  5. If the negotiator must continue to talk to someone else to get approval on your demands, either they are using a very effective negotiating tactic (“Someone who does not know or like you must make this decision, not I.”) or you are not speaking to the person with whom you should actually be having the conversation.
  6. A baseline from the company which is too high for the position means that you do not know everything about the position for which you are being wooed.
  7. Be willing to accept addons which are able to be negotiated in place of those which are not, i.e. stock grants or flextime to tempt you in place of a too-low salary set by company policy and not your hiring manager.
  8. WAIT FOR THEM TO NAME A NUMBER FIRST.
  9. Neither of you should be happy with the final number. If one of you is thrilled–and you will be able to tell if you are bargaining hard enough quite easily if you treat it as a purchase–then you are either being paid too much (Were they honest about the unpaid overtime?) or too little (You are that woman who is being paid 78 cents on the male dollar. Do not be her.) for the job you will be performing.
  10. Ensure that you understand the fine details about the expectations in relation to the salary and benefits. A telecommuting benefit does not appear quite as appealing when you realize you will have to personally purchase a work cell phone, work laptop, networking equipment, an additional router, company-approved security equipment, and possibly an entire home office in order to take advantage of the option. A wonderful salary may hide a poor 401k employer matching benefit, or expectations (common at most tech firms, regardless of what they tell you up front) that you will be on call for your job 24/7. That last is particularly endemic to we web developers and all of you poor, martyred database administrators. I have been unofficial tier IV support for several websites for which I was the lead developer–and that is not something they tell you when showing you the vegan options in the company cafeteria.
  11. DO NOT NAME A NUMBER FIRST.

If you want to ask specific questions, do so in the comments below. Leave your best tricks and tips too!

Portions adapted from “Technical Interviews for Technical Women,” © 2011 Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack

How to play Amazon Instant Videos on Ubuntu/Kubuntu Raring Ringtail 13.04 with Firefox

Mountain High

We’re all aware that there are issues with Flash and playing streaming videos on Linux. You can’t play AIV on Chrome; you’ll get that annoying “If you’re using the Chrome browser with Linux, you must disable PPAPI to continue using Amazon Instant Video. You can also use a different Web browser, like Firefox. Learn more” message. Just use FF for now to play AIV. At least you’re not using Wine. So, let’s solve your real problem.

Having trouble playing Amazon Instant Videos on Firefox? Have you seen this message?

“Sorry we were unable to stream this video. This is likely because your Flash Player needs to be updated.”

Here’s how to handle this.



sudo add-apt-repository "deb http://archive.canonical.com/ $(lsb_release -sc) partner"

sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get install flashplugin-installer

sudo apt-get install hal -y

sudo mkdir /etc/hal/fdi/preprobe

sudo mkdir /etc/hal/fdi/
information

/usr/sbin/hald --daemon=yes --verbose=yes

rm -rf ~/.adobe

Now, go restart Firefox, and you should be good.

With thanks to:

http://www.liberiangeek.net/2013/03/install-adobe-flash-player-in-ubuntu-12-10-13-04-raring-ringtail/

and

http://askubuntu.com/questions/286297/is-there-a-work-around-to-get-protected-hulu-or-amazon-prime-instant-videos-work

photo by: Zach Dischner

My last name is correct, and your DB validation is stupid.

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My name is Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack. My name matters, and no, you cannot just leave some of it out if you don’t feel like using all of it, spelling part of it wrong, or if your system doesn’t handle names as long as mine. I have the same number of letters and one syllable less in my name than Hillary Rodham Clinton. She doesn’t hyphenate either.

I added my husband’s name onto mine when I got married. I didn’t change my name or hyphenate–first, because I didn’t bloody well feel like it, second, because hyphenation can change search results and destroy SEO, and third, because hyphenation can indicate spamminess when found in URLs–like those that would have made up my name.

Last year, San Diego Comicon’s registration system couldn’t process
names with hyphens, special punctuation, or spaces.
I joined my voice to those saying that if there had been even one single woman on the SDCC tech team or handling the database, the thought would have been raised that perchance, just possibly, women might also want to come to Comicon, and that they sometimes have hyphens and spaces in their last names.

Recently, I switched over my personal email and site from tarahwheeler.com to thetarah.com. I wasn’t really sure what to do about that. My name isn’t just Tarah Wheeler anymore, but DAMN, tarah@tarahwheelervanvlack.com would have been one hellacious email address. Liz Dahlstrom, my co-founder and business partner, was talking to me one day, and I was hemming over trying to get a new email address. Just my first name is already taken. She said, “Why don’t you get TheTarah.Com? It’s short, easy to remember, and no one will misspell it.” Twelve or thirteen minutes later,
I was switching the MX records over on t@thetarah.com. Such a short email address–you have to love it.

We talk about branding as a woman in technology, and I do worry about search results. There’s a more serious problem, however. As of right now, Enterprise Car Rentals, Bank Of America, Bellevue College, the US government’s student loans processing, Puget Sound Energy (my power bill), the Oregon and Washington Secretary of State’s office (my company tax and registrations), my health care provider, Verizon, and many other major service providers that I have no choice but to do business with simply do not allow for spaces or punctuation in names. I am not usually one to pitch a fit over something that seems to be small, and there are matters in the world that are greater and more important than validity checking in SQL. Still, in so many places on the Internet, I don’t get to use my name. Every time I have to edit or change my name because someone didn’t think about the fact that women have to
have multiple names is another time that I have to track or elide or alter my online identity.

UPDATE: Fourteen hours after I originally posted this, I went to order a new debit card. AAARRGHH. Click on the image below to embiggen. I have to go into a branch now; I cannot order a card online.

Bank of America   Alaska Airlines® Debit Card   Your Information

This isn’t just a female problem; people with apostrophes and commas in their names all have this problem. I have it extra because I also have a
Dutch last name. Maybe it just seems a little more unfair because so many people say, “I’ll just put down Tarah Wheeler” when I tell them my whole name. I say “No, my full name is Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack, and you’ll put my full name down,” but there’s only so much bitchiness that even I can contain and exude in one day, and I shouldn’t have to do so to defend my name. I also shouldn’t have to call it ‘bitchiness’, but that’s basically what it feels like. It’s the same thing that happened to Quvenzhané Wallis at the Oscars, when she was instantly dubbed “Little Q” rather than being given the respect of being called her name. Having your name taken away from you is enraging, dismissive, and is an assertion that you have less power than the person to whom you’re speaking. This isn’t something that often happens to men. It happens to me about once every three phone conversations.

Imagine “Benjamin Frederickson” on
the phone with Comcast and scheduling a repair visit. He’s asked to give his name and number. “Wow, buddy, that’s a hell of a long name. I’ll just put down Ben Freds for the repairman to call.” Benjamin Frederickson has the same number of letters and one more syllable in his name than I do, but doesn’t this seem like an absurdity to you? Like something that simply doesn’t happen? In fact, I just went and Googled Benjamin Frederickson to entertain myself. Turns out, there actually is a Benjamin Fredrickson (one fewer ‘e’). I think I’m going to ping him to see what he has to say about this.

The internet is my home, and I do not like feeling like an unwelcome guest. At each site I visit where I must change my name or squish it down or lose my capitalizations or remove the spaces or–and for some reason this really jerks my chain–when I see that hyphens are automatically added in where I have put in spaces, I wonder who carelessly thought that no one would need to enter a name in that wasn’t a
heteronormative single capitalized word. One day, I am going to have zero problems adding my full name on a car rental or government website. I am going to go to the About Us page, and I am going to see that the database engineer’s name is Ms. Destinnee Chang-O’Driscoll. Then, I am going to paste a giant grin on my face, take a selfie, email it to that woman, and thank her for kicking ass at SQL.

Look, the way it works is this. I am identified by several names. My first name is me. My second name is my dad. My third name is my husband. I live in a world where this is the way it works. I love my dad, I love my husband, and I love me. I am fine with my name, I made my choices, and I’m not going to engage in a giant war to have us all get a UUID. I have a better war to fight. I do, however, want you to permit me to spell my name the right way in your first and last names fields on your website. Show some respect, and stop taking my name away from me.