How diversity in the workforce leads to better IoT solutions

The Internet of Things has a great deal of allure for consumers and businesses alike. It holds the promise of easing the tedium of mundane tasks, creating greater connection, and bringing new concepts to life. Men and women alike find value in these advances. Yet, as in most areas of technology, IoT has been largely dominated by male professionals. This is changing as more and more women are drawn to this field as leaders, experts, innovators, contributors, and makers. As they do so, they are reshaping the connected landscape.

Women are getting hands on with IoT

What does it look like when women team up to create something new with IoT? The collaborative and creative nature of hacking in the maker space is probably one of the most gratifying things about IoT for developers giving it a try for the first time. Rachel Petterson and Carson Holgate, two software engineers at Google, built a project for a recent event sponsored by Women Techmakers. They shared their experience with using Android Things cards along with other hardware and creating a massive twenty-foot installment piece of interactive art.

The pair of engineers carefully crafted a giant Joshua tree made of rebar and foam…and named it Steve. According to Rachel, “Steve is covered in about five thousand LEDs and twenty-some-odd sensors including force resistive, microphones, light sensors, and gesture sensors. So, attendees can interact with Steve and wave to him, and he reacts through his LEDs, the frequency, color, and how many are showing.”

Google’s IoT mobile platform came in handy for real-time adjustments. “Each of the cards would write to a Firebase database. They would write the raw values there. We did that partly because we didn’t know exactly what the situation would be when we got to the Women Techmakers event.” Petterson and Holgate knew the floor sensors would have grass over them, and there was no way to guess what the volume of the crowd or background music could be. “We accounted for that by having everything written to the database, so we could modulate the values once we got there.”

Carson explained. “The sensors would write to the Firebase database and then we had cloud functions that would translate those raw values to an aggregate that the individual strands of LEDs would read from to determine how they responded. We could change the code on the fly on the server instead of having to go to each board and reflash them.”

How might women do IoT differently?

Author and activist Jasmina Tesanovic offers a frankly feminist take on IoT. She is one of the founders of Casa Jasmina, a project in the business space of domestic electronic networking based in Turin, Italy. In a recent presentation, she posited that the current approach to IoT as envisioned by and for web technologists is not sustainable because it does not take women’s world views into consideration. In her experience with all-male IoT teams, “Many of the things the guys were inventing were brilliant but not very practical.”

What do women care about when it comes to creating and using the Internet of Things? Based on her many conversations with female technologists, Tesanovic found that, while inclusion is important, women also seek seclusion. For example, while they see the upside of connectivity, they may also view an overly connected world as a threat. Women tend to have questions like, “Is there a place where we will not be connected? Can we have firewalls? Can we decide to whom we want to be connected? We don’t want to be spied on.” With privacy breaches linked to IoT objects as seemingly innocuous as Barbie dolls, such caution is warranted.

The physical items that women want to connect to the internet may also be different than those that are attractive to men. New and shiny isn’t always their first choice. “Women like to think about connected objects as stories with emotional and historical value. For example, they want old things to be retrofitted for high-tech-controlled stuff.” Connecting grandma’s chandelier to the rest of the smart home network could take some doing, but it might also have more meaning than simply putting in a new LED lamp.

Jasmina also pointed out that cultural differences dictate the suitability of IoT. For example, in Serbia nobody wants an automated coffee machine. The ritual of grinding coffee is something people don’t plan to give up. In contrast, Americans want to be able to hit a button on their phone from the other room and have the coffee waiting for them on the counter. In Jasmina’s experience, “Women tend to be more aware of these things.” Certainly, adding more voices and perspectives to the conversation has great potential for creating a world of IoT that is as diverse as the people it is designed to serve.

It’s time for women to take the stage in IoT

While individual contributors are making their mark, it’s also important to cultivate the next generation of leaders in IoT. At the recent IoT Evolution Expo, a panel of experts discussed ways to increase the participation of women at all levels in the emerging field of IoT. From encouraging girls in STEM fields to ensuring adequate maternity leave, the panel pointed out many practical ways to support the current and upcoming generations of female technologists.

Bobbie Carlton, Founder of Innovation Women, is doing her part to make diversity the standard. She revealed that there are plenty of women who are experts in their field. However, they rarely make it into the limelight due to factors like childcare or eldercare responsibilities, the high-ticket price of attending conferences, and the fact that they often own or work for smaller companies. “You cannot be what you cannot see. Having women on stage at conferences and events is important in terms of getting the next generation here.”

IoT itself is hitting its stride and being used to solve more and more real-world business problems. Heidi Wilson, Senior Global Account Manager at TELUS, pointed out: “A few years ago, it was all about, ‘How do we get these things to connect? What platform do we use to manage it?’ I was interested to see all this talk about AI and that’s really just use cases and automation on steroids. I feel like we’ve gotten away from the stage in IoT where we’re talking about the plumbing and we’re now talking about the business value.”

It’s certainly an exciting time for all IoT professionals to make their mark. As the nature of the problems being solved becomes more critical, businesses tend to focus on and invest in competence. In that sense, technology is becoming the great equalizer. Organizations are investing in diversity, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because they can’t afford to miss out on the innovation potential provided by an inclusive workforce. The panel at the IoT conference urged female technologists to be choosy—to pick jobs based on how much they like the work and the people involved. Drudgery is not required. Capability, proven performance, and a strong network will dictate success. In terms of IoT career paths, it all comes down to being meaningfully connected. And there’s never been a better time for women to make this happen.

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