Although I’m now happily ensconced in the mid west, once upon a time, in a vastly different personal universe, I lived in Boston. And I think the happiest times I had in Boston were the brief period where I was part of the informal Boston blogging crowd centered around Dave Winer, the Berkman Center at Harvard and a random crew of people that drifted into that orbit. Among those people were:

All of us were drawn together to the hotness of a new medium and it had, as best as I can tell, the feeling of an 18th century salon. Everything was new; the people were excited and it felt like something was brewing.

Today I’d like to talk about Betsy Devine and what I learned from her. I first met Betsy in roughly May 2003 as dated by this url where she was present; the pictures aren’t present any more – I’ll fix that some other time so you’ll have to take my word for it.

At the time I didn’t really know Betsy very well but here’s what I did and didn’t know:

  • I knew she was pleasant.
  • I knew she was clearly smart as a whip but I was in my mid 30s and Betsy was my Mom’s age so I suspect I didn’t give all the respect I should have.
  • I didn’t know that she was a published author (yes I just ordered it and you likely should to if you’re bothering to read this).
  • And I knew she was kind which is a character trait all to often overlooked and all too often ignored.

And then in 2004 Betsy’s life changed dramatically – her husband, someone I knew slightly from having carved this pumpkin at their house on October 22, 2003, won the Nobel Prize in Physics. At the time I met him, I was told “hey - here’s Betsy’s husband - he teaches at MIT”. And, yes, MIT is impressive but he’s a teacher (and a very pleasant fellow). And so Betsy went from being just Betsy to being the wife of a legitimate celebrity.

Learning the First: Celebrity Changes Things

In modern culture celebrity is an odd thing. I work alone, from home, in a pitch dark room, most days so I clearly fall into the introvert camp and I’ve never cared much for it but I’ve had a few random encounters with celebrities over the years:

  • My first partner physically crashed into Bill Gates at a CD-ROM conference back in maybe ‘91 and almost took him out
  • I stayed on Ted Turner’s yacht once upon a time when my Dad and I were hunting
  • My Dad’s best friend, Jim Mattingly, skippered Tenacious in the Fastnet Race in ‘79. He was then featured in posters that ran for years in the boating industry (I grew up in boating)
  • Andy Rooney used to shop at one of my family’s wood working businesses and he was exactly the same in person as on 60 minutes

But, even with some exposure to celebrities all through my youth, I suspect on some level, post 2004, I viewed Betsy at least a little bit as “wife of a nobel laureate” instead of as “Betsy”. Apologies for that.

Normally this is where I end this type of post but not this time. Upon reflection I learned at least two more things from Betsy.

Learning the Second: Never, Ever Underestimate the Brains People Have

Bill Joy is a computer scientist, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, the primary author of BSD unix and too many other technical achievements to write down and the author of Joy’s Law:

Joy’s law is the principle that “no matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else,” \ Source

Now Bill Joy wrote this in the context of Sun, Microsoft and technical nerds and who they work for but I would actually expand it to be something far more expansive:

There are smart people all around you. And at least one of them is almost certainly smarter than you are.

From my initial perspective Betsy was a mom, heck, she even looked like my mom. What I didn’t realize at the time, and wouldn’t realize for literally years to come, was just how damn smart she was. I should have taken a clue from the fact that she wrote humor professionally. Comedians are always smart and that should have tipped me off. Or I should have taken a clue from the fact that she had a Masters in Materials Science Engineering from Princeton. How smart did she have to be to:

  • get into princeton
  • get into a technical field
  • get into a technical field as a woman in 1978??
  • get a master’s degree that almost certainly required a thesis

I suspect that by any measure there’s far more depth to Betsy’s smarts then I’ll ever know. There are literally smart people all around you; never, ever, underestimate the brains people have.

Learning the Third: What Might Betsy Have Done?

Gender and identity politics is a dicey subject in America in 2016 so I write this with no small degree of trepidation. It is the reason that as a profoundly white male of privilege – the only college nickname I ever had was, I kid you not, Captain Whitebread – I actually had Betsy read this in advance of posting since I didn’t want to stick my foot in my mouth.

So my third learning is more of a zen like question – Why Might Betsy Have Done? As a woman, even an accomplished woman, in the late 1960s / 1970s, Betsy went down a fairly traditional route of wife and mother but also kept herself as a distinct entity. That’s a challenge because raising a family is an all consuming past time. I say that as a father and husband who has seen that his wife has a harder “job” that he has. And my wife certainly has a more important job than I have. My work product is literally ephemeral – I write lines of code that often don’t survive a week. My wife? She’s takes little people and day by day turns them into big people. Every product I’ve ever written – and I’ve written a lot of them – will be gone someday, generally soon – but my wife’s “work product” will last forever.

So I have damn near infinite respect for what Betsy did. But when I see how smart she is and how smart she has to be it makes me wonder what she might have done. Perhaps in a slightly different universe she might have the Nobel prize.

So the next time you see a wife and mother and look at the accomplishments that their husband has you should really wonder what that wife and mother might have done on their own.

Learning the Fourth: Engage More with Women at Work

For a brief period Betsy helped out with Feedster back in 2003 / 2004 and she added very real value. One of the things I noticed was that she made a great team player and brought a very different perspective to things. So the next time you see a woman at work, whether she’s “technical” or not, recognize that she’s almost certainly smart and there is a fair chance you’re underestimating her. Men are notorious for that and there’s no reason for it in this day and age.

And that’s the fourth learning.