Saturday Oct 11, 2008

Engineering Across Languages and Cultures

I had great fun earlier today participating on the cross-cultural engineering panel at the Pasona Tech conference in Tokyo (here, here). We addressed cultural, language, and career issues facing Japanese engineers as they engage employers and developers around the world. This is not only an interesting subject for me, but it's also an important issue since economies are globalizing and software development is moving to open source community development. Dealing with people from around the world every day is now normal. It's not an occasional interaction. So, having a sense of language and cultural issues is critical since these things pervade our jobs -- even if you work in the country in which you were born and even if you work in your native language.

Since I have an interest in China, I talked a bit about the changes occurring in Chinese technology universities, and especially how students, professors, and administrators are now assertively engaging westerners in English. That was not necessarily true a few years ago in China, and it's not especially true in Japan today so it will be interesting to see where those trends lead in the future. A side note: when I'm in China I talk a lot about what the Japanese are doing to build community here and how they contribute to communities in Japan and around the world (their contributions are substantial but many times difficult to find at first). So the learning can go both ways since both sides have a great deal to offer.

At the event, we also talked about different communication styles (face-to-face vs online) among Japanese and American developers. Again, both sides could do a bit more reaching out to each other in these areas. Americans tend to be direct and Japanese tend to be indirect, and this very obvious difference can lead to some rather interesting situations. Balance is critical. If you have too many Japanese in a given situation, it's too far skewed to the Japanese language and thought processes. The opposite is true, too. When you have too many Americans in the room there is too much English and American thinking going on. You need both to balance things. You should try to offer enough communication channels for everyone to participate at some level, while encouraging the bilingual people to serve as conversation facilitators reaching out to both sides simultaneously. I think Tokyo2Point0 and the Tokyo Linux User Group are good examples of communities who recognize this issue and address it very well. I'm sure there area others, too. This is how I'd like to work with the OpenSolaris community in Japan. If the community is built with an international focus as its foundation, then it has a good shot at growing large and connecting globally.

Many opinions were shared on the panel and at the nomikai afterwards and they all had validity. No single person has all the answers covering such subtle issues like these, and there is lots of room for humility and opportunity to rule the day. I look forward to the next cross-cultural engineering event in Tokyo. We should meet quarterly to continue these conversations. All posts on cross-cultural engineering will be here

Thanks to Toshiharu Harada, Edward Middleton, Gosuke Miyashita, Iwasa Takuma, Hiroumi Mitani, and Tomoyuki Sakurai for their participation at the event. And thanks to Shoji Haraguchi for snapping this image.

Tuesday Sep 30, 2008

Cross Cultural Engineering Panel

On Oct 11th, I'll be at Pasona Tech in Tokyo participating on a panel about cross-cultural engineering. Should be great fun and very educational as well. I love this topic and I live it every day. We'll explore how language and cultural issues affect Japanese engineers as they work and interact with other engineers from around the world. I'll be talking about my experiences in Japan, China, and India in particular, but I'll also probe some things I've learned from dealing with developers across many language and cultural barriers in other regions on the OpenSolaris project.

17:00〜18:30 エンジニア・グローバル・サミット2008


Open Solaris技術部
Jim Grisanzio 氏

原田 季栄 氏

TLUG President
Edward Middleton 氏

事業戦略本部 副本部長
宮下 剛輔 氏

岩佐 琢磨 氏

櫻井 知之 氏

美谷 広海 氏

Sakurai-san will be monitoring the panel. Here we are together from a previous cross-cultural event.

Tuesday Jul 08, 2008

Different Language, Different People

Are you a different person when you speak a different language?: "People who are bicultural and speak two languages may actually shift their personalities when they switch from one language to another, according to new research in the Journal of Consumer Research. The authors studied groups of Hispanic women, all of whom were bilingual, but with varying degrees of cultural identification. They found significant levels of "frame-shifting" (changes in self perception) in bicultural participants — those who participate in both Latino and Anglo culture. While frame-shifting has been studied before, the new research found that biculturals switched frames more quickly and easily than bilingual monoculturals. -- eScience News.

Interesting report. I buy the language switching bit because I see that affect personalities every day in bilingual people around me and also in my own kid as well. But I'm not sure I buy the notion of "biculturals" that much. True bicultuals seem rare to me or superficial at best. Perhaps that's because I live in a culture that has such a low level of diversity and mixes very little with the west, I'm not sure. There are many shades of culture within cultures, too, so it's difficult to draw conclusion that apply across larger cultural differences. For instance, I think it's reasonable to say that the distinction between cultures within Europe and the United States (where this study took place) are much more narrow than the distinction between the East and West. I don't doubt the study, per say, but I just question how deep it goes. I've met westerners living in Japan for 30 years who are totally fluent in writing and speaking, yet they haven't even scratched the surface of being Japanese, and I'm told this is quite common.

Friday Feb 15, 2008

Cross Cultural Engineering

I had a great night tonight at an event in Tokyo at Pasona Tech right outside Shibuya. It was called Cross Cultural Engineer Party and was organized by Tomoyuki Sakurai. There were two technical presentations, a discussion of cross cultural and communication issues between Japanese and westerners, and some beer and pizza and open conversation. Wonderful experience. I met a lot of Japanese and western developers from various companies and from the Linux and BSD communities, and everyone mixed quite freely. The communication and cultural challenges between westerners and Japanese are pretty significant, so it's good to get together to specifically address them and move to new levels of understanding. The world is rapidly changing, and we need more cross-cultural communication and more diverse ideas. I hope Sakurai-san does this quarterly.

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Flickr images here.

Monday Nov 19, 2007

Language, Culture, Community, China

Check out Stephen Walli's online presentation for the China FOO event in Beijing -- My China FOO Presentation 一起建桥梁. Very impressive. He talks in English (well, Canadian English) and Chinese. I agree with Walli's opinions on language, culture, trust, and community. In his talk he tells the story about the China Open Source Summit he ran in Beijing (here, here, here), and he gives a real quick sense of how he dealt with contracts and trust in a new way. I can only imagine doing what he did, my goodness. I used to run a construction business in New York, and my customer and partner interactions were based largely on handshake. You get used to it. But at least I had the same language and culture on which to base the darn experience. Stephen did it across a rather gigantic language and cultural divide. It all worked out well in the end, and it wasn't quite a handshake but it was pretty close.

So, could the power of community be used to transcend some of these obvious language and cultural barriers? I don't know. I go back and forth on this. Language and culture are so critical to a functioning community and the understanding of even the most basic assumptions. And although open source communities are surely growing in a variety of languages and cultures, that's not the hard part. The hard part is linking the communities across their natural barriers and communicating with understanding. That's where all the good stuff happens.

Friday Sep 21, 2007

The NetBeans "Attitude"

NetBeans vs. Eclipse, this time with attitude: "While I’m not switching to NetBeans (or anything else) any time soon, I do find much to admire in this new release and the philosophy behind it. I had a hard time coming up with a good word to describe this but let’s call it: the NetBeans attitude ... So what do I like about the NetBeans attitude? First, I like the attitude that NetBeans means one thing. It’s an IDE. Its entire purpose is to make life easier for developers. I’m a developer, so I’m all for anything that does that!" -- Ed Burnette, Software, gadgets and games, ZDNet

That's an interesting quote about NetBeans from an Eclipse fan. I can appreciate the quote because I agree with it. I was involved in NetBeans on the marketing side right around the time when IBM launched Eclipse. It was a wild time for the NetBeans team, but they surely taught me all about attitude. :) They were an amazing group of people back then, no question about it, and I see that little has changed in that regard. Which is very cool.

So, after reading this post I got to thinking about OpenSolaris. What's the OpenSolaris attitude? Do we have one? What's the one thing we are known for and do best? What's our attitude?

Friday Sep 14, 2007

To Diversify or Not

Seems multiculturalism isn't what it's all cracked up to be. Or is the science on it faulty? Probably a bit of both. This is an interesting article below based on some research that hasn't been released yet, which is part of the problem. My comments spread throughout:

Diversity's Dark Side
By John Luik, 11 Sep 2007

For at least the last twenty years the cultural and political elites of the United States have championed the cause of multiculturalism by claiming that diversity was something that made all of us better.

Well, I can think if many ways diversity has made me better, and I don't need any "political elite" telling me either. It's a challenging, though, for sure. It requires work and flexibility and a hugely open mind, but I think it's worth it in the long run. We need to understand how others think and communicate and make decisions, so we are less inclined to drop so many bombs on people. History demonstrates that humans really don't have a good record in this respect over the past 10,000 years or so. We over react a bit too much. I had hoped that diversity would teach us to not overreact so much. Perhaps I'm wrong as this article certainly suggests. I have my doubts, though.

Little effort was ever made to define precisely just what was meant by diversity, difference or most crucially "better." Nor was there any significant research that provided empirical support for the claim that multiculturalism and diversity translated into better people, better communities, better organizations and businesses or a better country.

I'm not sure about the hard core science involved, but I suspect that there is more of it than this article suggests. Also, just based on personal experience I'd have to say that diversity is better. It's certainly more interesting! :)

But now a considerable amount of solid evidence about multiculturalism is in, and it suggests that far from something positive, it is a corroding and corrupting influence on just about everything that it comes in contact with, from social capital, trust, and community spirit to altruism, volunteering, friendship and even happiness.

Wow. That's overkill to say the very least, eh? It's difficult for me to take that paragraph seriously. "A corroding and corrupting influence on just about everything ..." I doubt it. I grew up in New York and lived in Boston and San Francisco. All three of those regions of the US are quite diverse, and there's no way I'd describe those areas using the above paragraph to the exclusion of all else. It's just too extreme. There are big problems, sure, but how about balancing at least some of this out?

That's the startling conclusion from Harvard's Robert Putnam best known as the author of Bowling Alone. According to Putnam a variety of research from the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe

I have no clue who this guy is and I've never read Bowling Alone. Haven't bowled in years. Also, this "variety of research" he talks about ... nothing about India? China? Korea? Japan? And is he saying that Australia represents Asia? And does "Europe" represent Western Europe or both East and West? How about South America? Africa? It's a big world out there.

shows that ethnic diversity is associated with lower social trust, lower "investment in public goods," less reciprocity, and less willingness to contribute to the community. In workplace situations diversity is associated with "lower group cohesion, lower satisfaction and higher turnover."

I wonder if he studied more monolithic societies to juxtapose the two?

Putnam's own research in the United States, confirms this international picture.

How could research in the United States confirm an international picture and leave out most of the world? That makes no sense.

In the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey carried out in 41 US communities ranging from Bismarck, North Dakota to Boston and involving 30,000 individuals, Putnam found that the "more ethnically diverse the people we live around, the less we trust them." This translates into nine particularly troubling behaviors, including reduced confidence in government and in one's ability to influence politics, reduced voter registration and interest in social change, lowered expectations about the willingness of others to work together cooperatively, less charitable giving and volunteering, fewer close friends, a reduced quality of life and more time spent watching television. Indeed, one could hardly come up with a list of behaviors more likely to undermine democratic society.

Sure, I see some of these things in the US, no question, but I wouldn't describe the US (or any other relatively diverse society) that way. It's just part of the picture. And, by the way, I see many of these very same problems right here in good ol' monolithic Japan. And it's very obvious, too.

But the consequences of the multicultural diversity extend beyond its effect on social and community engagement. For instance,  criminologists have found that effective community policing is much more difficult in areas with increased ethnic diversity.

[Of course it is open to defenders of multiculturalism to argue that Putnam's findings are skewed by the fact that poverty, crime and diversity are themselves interconnected, making causal conclusions difficult. But Putnam's research show that even in comparing equally poor and equally crime-infested neighbourhoods the outcome is the same "greater ethnic diversity is associated with less trust in neighbours."]

This is one area that I'd love to explore more. There's far less violent crime here in Japan than there was when I lived in the US. And I feel safer, too. But there is plenty of other types of crime, though..

Putnam's findings should not come as a surprise. For instance, studies from business, which has been one of diversity's greatest champions, have shown that diversity produced few if any positive effects on business performance. One major study even concluded
that industry should move beyond trying to build a business case for the benefits of diversity and multiculturalism, since there was no empirical evidence to support such a case.

In part this is due to the fact that homogeneous teams tend to outperform diverse groups because diverse groups often suffer from communication and process problems. As psychologists Katherine Williams and Charles O'Reilly have noted "The preponderance of empirical evidence suggests that diversity is most likely to impede group functioning."

I experience this here in Japan all the time. However, I'd rather we mix in teams and reduce our productivity a bit than have monolithic teams separated by a total ignorance of other cultures and ways of doing business. We have to work together eventually, right? I mean, sooner or later, teams will butt heads and cross paths, right? Also, after an initial period of confusion, I can point to a growing number of instances where productivity has increased as a result of the diversity I'm experiencing. Also, when you talk about teams, you have to separate "culture" from "language" issues. They are related, sure, but if there is a unifying language then the culture differences are much more easily overcome. Working across language barriers are gigantic, though, and that only serves to exacerbate any cultural differences.

As a champion of multicultural diversity, Putnam finds his results disturbing and he has been reluctant to publish them. The only place to find them is in a speech reprinted in the academic journal Scandinavian Political Studies. And even there the data is not provided, only summarized. Putnam told the Financial Times that he "had delayed publishing his results until he could develop proposals to compensate for the negative effects of diversity."

He needs to publish his data and study so it can all be critically analyzed. And I think he needs to publish his stuff before going to the press, too. Very interesting issue, though. I can go back and forth on some of it.

More here: New Scientist Mistrust rises with social diversity and Times Online People in ethnically diverse area ‘less trusting of others’

Update: It seems this article I'm commenting on is wrong on multiple levels, especially the assertion that the study hadn't been published. That's unfortunate and does a disservice to Robert Putnam's work, as have my comments. It's amazing how easily you can be led the wrong way when you have little context, my goodness. Putnam's study can be found here. If you are interested in this subject, give it a read. It's long and detailed and utterly fascinating. I love the distinction Putnam draws between the diversity challenges experienced in the short to mid term and the mid to long term. I'll have to read this thing a few more times and then blog about it again.

Putnam concludes: "[M]y hunch is that at the end we shall see that the challenge is best met not by making 'them' like 'us', but rather by creating a new, more capacious sense of 'we', a reconstruction of diversity that does not bleach out ethnic specificities, but creates overarching identities that ensure that those specificities do not trigger the allergic, 'hunker down' reaction." -- Robert Putnam

Thursday Jun 28, 2007

Leaving Asia Behind?

Interesting article in the reg about cultural issues dividing open source communities. Here's the article (in bold) and my comments spread throughout:

Open source 'leaving Asia behind'
By Bryan Betts
Novell veep warns of collaborative culture clash

The open source community risks leaving Asian users and developers behind,

I think that's probably a bit of an over statement, don't you? It's clear that Asia in general is behind the West in this area, but who the heck is racing? Now that open source has gone mainstream in many Western markets, some of the leaders in some of the communities are starting to sound like this all happened over night (and by implication others are "behind"). It didn't. It took decades even in the supposedly more enlightened West. Also, I bet some Asian communities come up to speed on open source faster than some in the West realize, and I bet these new Asian communities will start to express open source development methodologies in different and interesting ways. So much of the rhetoric from the U.S. and Europe is like this, though. It's patronizing. Many times it's not intended as such, but it is nonetheless.

thanks to cultural differences

This is true. And these differences are nothing short of gigantic -- especially comparing East Asia with the West. And then when you add language to that mix, it only magnifies the challenge. It's huge. However, with some focused effort, these differences can be mitigated to a certain degree. It takes time, though, and you have to want to overcome the problem and find the middle ground. I find a lot of people on both sides generally pretty ignorant about the issue, though. In other words, a lot of people see communication issues as relatively minor, when in reality I think it's so much bigger than anyone realizes. Also, many people on both sides can appear totally genuine, but it's clear that they are oftentimes locked behind cultural and/or language walls -- East or West -- and can't really see the other guy's perspective.

and western business's tendency to treat programmers there as code monkeys rather than software designers, a senior Novell staffer has warned.

Kurt Garloff, the company's global product opportunities veep, said that while open source communities regard criticism as constructive, others see it as insulting. Speaking at the start of the company's Hackweek in Germany, he argued that software companies need to find ways to mitigate the sometimes confrontational nature of open source development, if Asian developers are not to be excluded.

I have many examples of people from Korea, Japan, and China who view the OpenSolaris community as too hostile to engage with. Others here have said the same about some parts of the Linux community in the U.S. Some of this is true, of course, but some of it is an over-reaction as well. So, I'd generally agree with this point. Though I must admit, I've never heard the term "code monkey" before. It doesn't surprise me, though.

But even when you remove obviously bad behavior, the larger -- and much more important -- issue is that some of these cultures simply communicate differently. And very differently at that. It really is that simple. And hard. The West can't expect the East to adopt the open source culture from San Francisco or Portland or somewhere, and the East has to open up to new ways of communicating online as well. There is more than enough room for both sides to move to the center.

"If you look at the open source mailing lists to see where the posts come from, it is almost exclusively white males, from Europe, including Eastern Europe and Russia now, and North America, plus some from South America," he said.

Sure. I agree. But there are other lists here in Asia where various Asian communities communicate quite well. We have to stop thinking about "the open source mailing lists" as one set of lists. There are many sets of lists for many communities and they are spread out all over the world. Also, the implication here is that there is one open source community. There isn't. The open source "community" is actually a community of communities. And although open source types recognize that obvious fact, they don't then factor in open source communities of communities across cultural and language barriers. Also, the very terms "open source" and "free" and "community" may mean something in Boston but I'm not sure it means quite the same thing in Tokyo or Beijing. In fact, I rarely talk about "community" here like I used to talk about it in San Francisco. Concepts change when expressed in different languages. Sometimes dramatically.

"The absence of countries such as Japan is striking.

Why is this striking? It's easily explained, actually, but the statement itself demonstrates a clear lack of knowledge about the Japanese market and culture. Look, some aspects of Japanese business are so utterly closed they make Microsoft look open. No question about it. There is a lot of old and traditional companies here. But guess what: there are a lot of traditionalists in London, New York, Los Angeles and even in the oh-so-too-cool San Francisco Bay Area. Also, I'm starting to get to know some of the guys in the Mozilla, Linux, Ruby, and PostgreSQL communities here in Tokyo, and they are remarkably open even by the artificially imposed Western standards. I still think they can be better connected to the West, but at least some of these communities demonstrate that Japan is not as monolithic as it may appear from the outside. In fact, the Ruby conference here recently literally blew me away and surely ranks right up there with the very best open source conferences I've ever seen. It was clearly a community event. But I've seen the other extreme as well. If you show up in Tokyo or Seoul or Beijing and do some sort of controlled corporate event, then sure, all the cool guys go away or get quiet. This is a predictable as the sun rising, by the way.

"Open feedback is OK culturally in Western Europe but a big problem in Japan - for example, open criticism can be seen there as a big shame on you. I do hope it doesn't keep them on the margins of open source - we are trying to create awareness of these issues."

Yah, that "shame" bit is so overblown. Someone is reading too many old sociality textbooks from the 1950s. Just like the myth of "the Japanese (and Chinese and Koreans) don't ask questions at conferences. These are all generalizations that get in the way of understanding.

Sure, many of the gigantic Japanese companies are conservative and pretty traditional places. But the radicals and innovators are out there, and they are happy to engage. Finding them takes a little effort, though. At Sun, some of the guys here put on a monthly event called Developers' Lounge. At first glance it's just a party, but when you hang out longer you find that it's an amazing communications mechanism. Lots of communities from Tokyo all gather in this little club and drink and eat and swap stories and basically do as series of rapid-fire lightening talks about projects they are working on. Very simple. But every time I go there I have the impression I'm at OSCON or something. No difference. Other than it's in Japanese. And it ends on time, too. :) Ruby gave me this exact same impression.

So, there are clear examples to contradict some of the thoughts in this article, but I think that the scale of the communities in the West are so much larger that we can't even see the guys in the East. In terms of scale, I bet India and China change that. Not in the short term, but over the longer term. Also, the last time I was in China some reporters were asking me how China can contribute to open source. I said I have no clue. Who am I, I thought. You tell me. You know best. The only thing I can say is to learn what the West has done and then express that in a Chinese way and take the concepts to new levels. But don't just follow the Americans or the Europeans because they were first. Do something different with what's already been done and let the West learn from that. And around we go. Seems to me that would be a great contribution. Same goes for Japan. Same for Korea. India. Etc.

He suggested that while Asian cultures are evolving and opening up to constructive criticism, one option for now might be for open source companies to create less free-wheeling and more protected environments for would-be developers to collaborate in.

"The second angle is that the open source community needs to adapt and become less confrontational," he said, adding that the language of on-line discussion can discourage western newcomers as well.

I agree with this. Although I live in Tokyo, I was born in New York and the rhetoric I see in many Western open source communities is a total turn off. This "open constructive criticism" bit is not a license to be obnoxious or rude or to attack people online. Yet I see it every day and people keep saying its ok. It's not.

The previous point, however, I don't agree with at all. The bit about creating "less free-wheeling and more protected environments" and all that. That's so overtly patronizing I can't believe it was even suggested. The West should be less confrontational not to better engage with the East but because it's simply the right thing to do to engage with everyone. And I hope Asian communities reject the idea of being protected. It's silly. Instead, why not try understanding the Asian communities. Why not even try to facilitate the creation of new Asia-specific communities (whatever technology, whatever country) where people interact in their own way, not in some manufactured and protected American or European way. And then why not create connections to those communities, so entire communities can interact via specific people who are bilingual and who understand the cultural differences? This already happens today, by the way.

"In countries such as India and China there's an additional problem," he continued. "Their education system trains them to do software manufacturing - the straightforward but tedious work of implementing specifications - rather than software engineering, and that's how western outsourcers use them.

I'm not sure about India in this case. I've heard otherwise, actually, but I'm not really that aware of the India market. I hope to change that this year, though. However, I think this is probably more true of Japan and China. And it's tough to even compare Japan, Korea, and China due to the differences in scale, language, and culture. I just don't know very much about the universities in these areas, but these points are critical so I'm looking forward to getting involved.

"Software engineering is an art, it's a fundamentally different mindset to software manufacturing."

Ah, yes the "art" bit. Therefore, the implication is, it's better. Perhaps. I'm not convinced. I have heard this from time to time from Japanese and American/European developers and administrators here, but I really have no direct knowledge about it yet.

He added, "I can certainly see people being afraid of the low-cost economies, but the bigger loss is for the whole world, if it doesn't use developers from all cultures to develop code."

I'm not sure what the "afraid of low-cost economies" is all about, but all this makes my life quite interesting right about now.  Fascinating issues. And issues that will not go away any time soon. In fact, as open source engineering and community development methodologies grows into new areas, it will be really interesting to see how new people implement the concepts. It will be just as interesting to see all the new leaders emerge, too ...


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