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I'm Cathy Leamy, a Boston cartoonist and medical writer. Check out my comics! They're mainly about health care and autobio stories.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

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What you bring to the table

My friend the cognitive science academic once asked me to participate in a research study. She handed me a small stack of index cards with names on them and asked me to categorize them, describing my thought process as I went along.

I found that the names were those of musicians. I grouped them by creative output and style: jazz artists, commercial performers, folk singer/songwriters, and so on.

I'm a middle-class girl with a fair amount of school in my pocket, and I tend to be pretty single-minded about careers and creative accomplishments, so of course my instinct was to sort the people by what they make. I'm also the type whose first conversational question is "What do you do?"

It didn't even occur to me until ages later that there were all kinds of sorting methods you could apply: alphabetical, age, chronological by birth, gender, race, nationality, dead versus alive, and many more. My upbringing, my background, my interests, my demographic makeup - these all informed the sort options I chose to use. Everyone brings their filters to the table. Everyone has an angle from which they see and interpret the world.

This is why it drives me up a wall when I see the perennial "minority group in Information Technology" discussions crop up on the blogs. Inevitably, someone pipes up with some variation on "Developers are developers. It doesn't matter if they're black/white/purple/male/female/alien. They all do the same work. Why do we care about having more women/black/you-name-it IT workers?"

Creative groups benefit from diverse perspectives, that's why. Everyone's experiences are not identical, and this is what informs workflow, creative processes, input, and output. They bring new ways of thinking, new objectives that might not have been considered for projects, and shiny new ways of sorting. The team members who aren't exactly like all of the others might be the ones who think back on their own lives, on their own ways of using tools, on what happened to them on the bus this morning and ask "What directions would the site users need if they didn't own a car?" "The social calendar interface is so simple - you know what would be a great application for it? Documenting chronic illnesses!" "What if the users want to roleplay a female CEO in this game?"

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