A book club for developers.
BookBytes is a fortnightly (or biweekly) book club for developers. Each episode the hosts discuss part of a book they've been reading. And they also chat with authors about their books. The books are about development, design, ethics, history, and soft skills. Sometimes there are tangents (also known as footnotes).
(Intro music: Electro swing)
Hello and welcome to BookBytes, a book club podcast for developers. This time we’re doing something a little different and going over a picture book called “Ara the Star Engineer” by Komal Singh and illustrated by Ipek Konak. And I hope I got those names right. I’m Adam Garrett-Harris.
I’m Jen Luker.
I’m Safia Abdalla.
And I’m Jason Staten.
All right. Jen, do you want to introduce the book since you suggested it?
Yeah! So Ara the Star Engineer is written by a woman who works at Google and when she was talking to her daughter about what she wanted to be the idea of an engineer not only didn’t occur to her daughter, she thought it was only for boys. So she decided to combat that philosophy by writing a children’s book where a girl is the protagonist and she actually goes through and talks to a bunch of other women engineers to solve a problem.
What’s really awesome about this is the women engineers that she talks to throughout the book are real people that work at Google.
Yeah, that was one of the bits that surprised me until I got to the very last page where they have all of the bios of the characters what were in the book and you realize they’re actually all senior technical women at Google and it was very awesome to read about.
Super inspiring and I read it to my daughter.
Yeah! Yeah, I want to get into that more later if y’all read it to your daughters. Yeah, I thought it was a really cool idea. Even for boys I think it’s a really cool picture book.
So it starts off where she has like a little robot which is pretty cool. I think there’s a lot of… a lot of things kids have these days that they could actually program that maybe they don’t realize they could write programs for.
That’s actually one of the things that Ara goes through the discovery process of as well through the book, was “How can I teach my robot something else rather than just its simple task that it knows?” And being able to talk to some of the women engineers about it and learn how to program it through creating an algorithm and I guess, I’m skipping over steps on it but uh-
Something that’s on the very first page that I really loved was the fact that she introduces her robot whose name is DeeDee however it’s called a googol. They both love big numbers and she’s telling him about a number that exists that has how many zeros? 100 zeros, and it’s called a googol which was named by another 9-year-old kid.
That was a fun fact I did not know that the numerical concept was named by a kid.
Which I think is awesome, too.
And then she goes to describe the fact that her name is Ara which is also a constellation which has seven stars and she kinda chuckles and says there’s a lot of stars and she wonders how many stars there are. And that’s kind of the beginning of our story.
So this was kind of reiterated at the end of the book but one of the consistent themes throughout the book were these four main topics which were courage, creativity, code, and collaboration; and the whole book was kind of talking about how being an engineer requires patience, it requires good communication skills, it requires the ability to like, troubleshoot and like, the plot of the story is that she goes through all of these adversities and she like, keeps going and she recruits people to help her out and she figures things out and I was like, “Wow. There are some adult engineers I know who could use this picture book.” Just ‘cause I think those themes of, like, collaboration or communication are things that people in senior roles and positions don’t necessarily grasp about the field.
Yeah, I totally agree. We’ve pretended that you have to be some sort of genius that works on your own to be an engineer. And I was a little worried about it at first when the title of it was called “...the Star Engineer” because that’s actually probably been some people’s titles. Like, “Ninja Engineer” or “Superstar Engineer” and I didn’t realize it until five minutes before we started recording why it’s called “Star Engineer.”
Because she’s counting stars!
But, Adam, you’re the master of those kind of puns, I-
I know! (laughs)
So attached to my version of the book on the very, very back is Ara’s notebook where she goes through and keeps her notes that includes things like algorithms and examples of an algorithm to figure out how to brush your teeth. She goes through coding and marks things like Ruby, Python, and Java, and draws little photos for them and-
So yeah, what struck you about that little notebook section? Was it just kind of like… I feel like if I were a kid and I saw something like that it would just make it a little bit more, like, personal and real to me. I am not a child and do not have children so I clearly am not the expert that should be talking about this, but I thought that was a really neat addition to the end of the picture book.
Yeah, I really did, too.
I also agree that it’s just kind of another approach for understanding the book. Or it’s kind of like a, almost, behind-the-scenes sort of viewpoint of it, too. So, I mean, when you’re reading through the book you are being told the story from Ara’s perspective, but in her notes it’s kind of how she’s thinking through it and how she’s processing which is often different than the way we explain something to somebody else, and so to be able to have the two viewpoints of it is really cool. It’s a nice little addition, for sure.
I love the part at the end in that little notebook that has “Superheroes in Computer Science” and it highlights three women who were amazing engineers, or mathematicians and that kind of thing. So, Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper and Katherine Johnson.
Talk about some awesome heroes.
Another thing I really liked about this book was a picture that they had, and it was early on in the gbook when she first goes to visit the innovation plex and there’s kind of this wide panorama photo of everyone who works at the innovation plex and all of the, like, different things they are saying and thinking. And what I really like about this picture is that you had images of people of different races, of different genders, of different physical abilities, and it just, like, they were all just collaborating and doing things together and it actually surprised me when I saw it ‘cause I was like, “Whoa! I’ve never actually seen this in real life, which is unfortunate.” But I think this book is working to change that.
Yeah. I love that photo, it’s probably the best, best one in the book, I think.
So much going on.
Yeah, it’s one that I”ve come back to several different times because you can find something different in each of the pictures. Like, each time you kind of progress through it, like, seeing the space elevator sort of thing and I didn’t actually catch that, like, the first couple of times going through because there’s so much more color from all of the different people and things going on that I missed kind of the-
Gray in the background.
Yeah. I just noticed that.
Yeah! But like, the depth of it and I mean, I guess is kind of a deeper reflection on it. Like, often there are big things going on that we don’t necessarily notice. I mean, things that may not be on at the immediate forefront right now that are pretty critical to us that don’t necessarily catch your eye right out front. Like, we gotta keep our eye out for those things, too.
But I mean, it’s not just the fact that there’s a space elevator, there’s also, like, the first plane, and hot air balloons, and a rocket ship, and, you know, a car run by wind power it looks like, and bicycles, and robots, and there’s a woolly mammoth skeleton, and there’s, like, a planetarium on the top of the building and there’s a giant brain. There’s a water faucet that’s pouring water into the fountain. There’s just so many things.
And something else is that you can see that there’s kind of different professions that are running through here and different cultures described not just in hair, and skin color, and physical ability, but also in, like, clothing that they wear. It’s amazing.
So, have any of you read this book to a child in your life?
How did that go?
My child is 4, she was excited about things like color and stars, and she wasn’t too excited about counting the stars. (laughs) She kind of ended up making up her own story to go with each photo.
Like, there’s the room with, basically, walls of whiteboards and there's lot of drawings and there’s pictures of things on the floor, and there’s toys that are on the tables, like rubiks cubes and stackable pieces and a... abacus and there’s a slide! And so she’s like, “Look, honey, it’s the school!”
She was also really excited about things like cupcakes and did you notice that as you’re going through the book each woman is actually wearing a piece of jewelry that they end up giving to her?
And that they mimic. So like, a hair barrette, a robot hair barrette, and a bracelet-
And later on-
I just noticed that!
See? Yeah! So as she’s going through and learning each piece she’s actually gaining a new item. And-
Oh my goodness.
-part of her skillset and her tool set, and so by the time she’s done, she’s developed and gained each of these tools in order to be able to solve problems in the future, as well.
Oh my goodness! That is so cool. I just noticed that. (laughs) There are so many interesting things in this book.
Yeah, I noticed one of them giving her bracelet and then I was like, “Wait a second…”
“...Did she have all those bracelets to start off with?” And she actually did have the android barrette, or the robot barrette, to start off with, but she gets a bracelet from everyone.
Yeah, she did start out with it.
One of the things I liked about the book that kind of goes along with the gaining skill sets thing, is whenever she met a new person and asked them, you know, “What makes you an innovator?” or “What makes you a troubleshooter?” The things they described as the reason for being in their role were not gendered. It was just like, “I do this and that.” Or, “I’m good at this or that.” It was such a refreshing twist from the narrative that’s usually presented on like, who’s an innovator, and who’s a troubleshooter, and who’s a problem solver that do often tend to be gendered and usually tend to associate being a problem solver or an innovator with having the loudest voice or other machoistic traits. And it was just cool to see, like, an innovator is just somebody who makes new solutions and that’s something that’s universal and accessible to everyone and not at all gendered.
You know, for instance, the Prolific Problem Solver, there’s a line that says, “Her team in panicking, but she is calm.”
And she comes back and asks, “How do you figure out how to solve and keep thousands of computers running?”
And she’s just like, “Well, we break it down into little, itty-bitty, teeny-tiny pieces and we solve each, one at a time.”
Which is like, monitoring for production systems explained to 4-year olds (laughs).
(laughs) Um, but yeah, that was great.
Yeah, and then the innovator, the Intrepid Innovator, says, “I create new solutions that make computers solve big problems.” So, but I liked the fact that it’s, like, courage to be able to handle all of the large problems that are happening, and then it’s the creativity to come up with the solution to that problem and then the Code Commander (that’s me, but not really me)-
Essentially says she’s a linguist. She can communicate with computers, that’s what makes her special.
And, you know, with that it goes with communication, (laughs) and then when you look at the last problem which was the Tenacious Troubleshooter… My fingers need to be wetter for this, flipping through pages and I keep getting stuck on all the pretty pictures.
Her answer is, essentially, “Let’s improve.” And it just goes down to another situation of working together to find a solution.
So I like the part right before the Tenacious Troubleshooter where her program was working and then it, the computer kind of just fell over with a memory error.
And she just slumps down and she’s just so disappointed. And she’s like, “Engineering something new is so tough. I don’t think I can do it.” So it doesn’t present it as something that’s easy, but it presents it as something that you can do if you learn how to solve problems and not to give up.
But what I also loved is the encouragement for her is, in fact, DeeDee where DeeDee says, “Don’t give up. Don’t quit.”
If only computers actually did that.
I know, right?
That would make my job- (laughs)
You get a compiler failure and it’s like, “You can do it!” (laughs)
That would be so wonderful! I need that in my stack traces.
Right, but what was really awesome is on the next page she’s like, “You’re right, DeeDee. I’m a problem solver, I won’t give up.” And then she goes and asks for help.
Another lesson that most adults can take from this.
There’s no shame in that.
No. That’s, that’s the way you do it. And like you said, Adam, I also really like that it’s not portrayed as programming or development is easy so much as, like, it is a challenge to overcome and I think that’s also an important thing that we need to watch ourselves when we’re talking to somebody else or teaching somebody new, to say, “Oh, well programming’s easy!” because that can be degrading to them if they are struggling with it, and saying that “You can’t do something easy.” So rather, like, to show Ara actually struggling with this problem and then pushing through it is a good example of what you do have to deal with when you’re solving problems.
I know that people are going to look at this and go, “Well she’s a child and of course she’s going to have trouble, but I’m an adult and I won’t.” But that’s…
I mean, when was… I don’t know about you but I’ve never really grown up. I can’t really believe I’m this old.
I still remember being 10 and going, “Oh my god, do you realize how old I’m going to be when I graduate?
I can’t relate to this part of the conversation yet. (laughs)
You’ve graduated! You remember when you were 10.
I’m a terrible person to use as an example for this because I’ve always been like a very old soul and mature-minded person. So I’ve never, like, I’ve always felt like a grownup, I’ve never aspired to it.
I kind of went both ways. I felt like I was older than people treated me, but younger than people expected me to be.
Yeah, I was pretty much the same. So, Jen, you mentioned reading this book to your daughter. I’m curious to know if anyone here read it to a… I want to say “boy child” but that sounds so weird. (laughs)
A bo- (laughs)
Like, a son, or-
A child who does not identify as female and, like, what was their reaction to seeing a girl represented as an engineer and seeing all of the characters in this book as women?
Yeah, I tried to read it to my foster son who’s 8, and... I think, actually I think Rebecca read to him the first couple of pages. I think he lost interest and I’m not sure if that was because it was a girl or what.
But he wasn’t super interested in it.
It takes a few times to really gain interest in, really, anything. So I mean if it takes eight times before they’re willing or, what? Like, at least eight if it’s not, like-
32 times for them to, like, learn to like a vegetable, then I think it’s okay to read them a book a few times until they start to identify with the story.
Something else that we were talking about before, the aspects of “it was hard” and, you know, all of these things are not easy problems? What I appreciated about this is that it had no ego involved. It’s not about Ara solving it by herself from start to finish. It’s about Ara finding the solution. So it doesn’t matter that she’s asking for help throughout this as she reaches roadblock after roadblock. It’s about finding the solution.
Yeah, there’s no point where it’s like, “I am amazing! I am so awesome because I did this!” It’s like, “Wow, this is cool that it works!” Or whatever. And there’s the part where DeeDee is like, “Troubleshooting is fun!” I think that’s a great message because you’re not going to have successes all the time. You’re going to be troubleshooting a lot.
Pretty sure most of our time is spent troubleshooting.
Walking it all the way back to that? Like, it took a good chunk of time but it was not, like, a frustrating thing but rather it was a, “Oh, well we kind of peeled back this layer and we found out this was not really the root cause here. We’re seeing a race condition, but why is there this race condition?” And, like, picking it apart to find it and yeah, it’s fun and exciting. Like, you should enjoy it. I mean, it can be frustrating, but at the same time it’s awesome, like, when you reach the bottom of it, for sure.
Yeah. It allows me to indulge my childhood dream of being Nancy Drew, that kind of investigation and that’s how I tend to refer to it as, like, solving a mystery.
So, that might be an appealing narrative to a child in your life who is into mysteries or things like that. That programming, in a way, is kind of like being a detective.
Except you don’t have to walk around a lot. (laughs)
That all depends, your fingers do a whole lot of walking.
Oh. That’s true.
On the next page they have semantic versioning, launch version 2.
I’ve actually run into a few companies that have really avoided, like, having to release a second or a third version of something is seen as, I don’t know, a failure that you didn’t do it right the first time and you have to release it to fix things. So…
Right? Yeah, like, if you’re up at version 70, like, what’s… what’s wrong?
I know that in some cases it can be perceived, like, if you are shipping version 3.0 to somebody versus 2, then it may, there may be concern that, “Oh, this was, like, a big overhaul so it’s going to be buggy as all get out.” And so sometimes there is that concern of, “We don’t want to drop a big version number because people might be scared of it.”
I’d rather you drop a big version number than me have to fight through version number 70 to try to find which one of these minor versions actually broke my code.
(laughs) There’s some truth to that. I mean, as a developer, like, bring on the new versions is, like, semantically version correctly, but I guess with, like, official product releases, like, that can be a little, I don’t know, off-putting to people. Maybe because they’ve been burned in the past.
Yeah, it’s- I was actually a little disappointed in this book that this version 2.0 worked the first try.
I don’t know, I thought-
There’s no patch level? (laughs)
‘Cause they had to put in more RAM, and that fixed it. So…
I guess it wasn’t really version- wasn’t really version 2 of the code, was it?
It was just upgrading the compute resources on your V- (laughs)