I've sought to explore, through my work as a communications student, the relationships that we build and those who build the software, and maintain the infrastructure that we are unaware exists, or that we take for granted. In the spring of 2018, I had the chance to interview a longtime acquaintance of mine, Madison Scott-Clary: one of the people who maintains the tools we use to run infrastructure. Madison, a transwoman I encountered through the Open Source/Free Software community, has been an inspiration for me as a person; her willingness to explore and express herself through her own work has left an impression upon me, and helped me be comfortable with myself.
I started this project trying to understand why we, as software developers, are seen as special in the eyes of the unlearned. After interviewing Madison, I've come to understand that the reason behind this isn't so much our own making, but a side-effect of how we each go through a process of transformation through our lives: software developers are encouraged to be unique and a little odd, leading to a wide and diverse set of personalities and self-expressions. For myself, working with computers was less a discovery and more a given—my father and grandfather have both worked in the tech field for many years, with my grandfather herding the massive mainframes of yore and my father working on embedded hardware that keeps people alive and planes in the air—but the turning point was when I realized I could write about people and technology and people seemed to actually like it.
In our entry to the world, we are assigned three things: A body, a name, and a family. We often take on many names, aliases and "handles" through our lives, and together these names become the means the world identifies and associates with us. Our family raises us, helping us grow from child to adult, pushing us to mature, learn, and become whole—assigned this task by life; sometimes, this family is also chosen, curated from friends and those close to us in helping guide us into adulthood.
So what do we do when our body doesn't fit? The androgynous person, often caught in the middle of two social extremes, is afforded the privilege of choosing more freely the body they wish to present to the world. Some may not even feel that the binary of male or female fits them, and instead the nonbinary individual is afforded an even more firm stake in the center of the gender continuum. Androgyny, however, can only take one so far in realizing our internal self-image. For those with a distinct discomfort, often called body dysphoria, change comes in a more radical form, the extent of which varies from person to person and often involves long-term medication, surgery, and therapy.
Sometimes, it isn’t safe to be yourself: transgender and genderqueer/nonbinary people see themselves at the receiving end of hate, harassment, and violence, are regularly faced with ostracization by their families, left to fend for themselves. Facing these, they often seek a means to survive and dull the pain of being attacked; LGBTQ teenagers regularly face homelessness, and often turn to sex work to survive; some are tolerated by their families—or never reveal their identity to their families, living a double life— and often see harassment targeted at themselves or others online.
For Madison Scott-Clary, one place became a shelter where she could be herself, quietly, where her works and personality were judged, not her physical being, and another where she could be herself in full force, accepted for whoever she wants to be and her being is celebrated by her peers.
Madison goes by the handle Makyo in many communities, a name picked up during her time in college. The name comes from Zen Buddhism, referring the demons that distract one from the path of enlightenment in times of meditation and through life, but has taken on a life of its own, for her: the word can also be translated as an "enchanted or mystical" place—one of our own making and desires. Madison's usage of a degrading term has transformed into something empowering: it's fine to indulge in our own worlds and dreams, long as we accept that they are only based in reality.
Madison ended up in the software world as well while in college. Her father had pushed for her to be an engineer and encouragement by others landed her in the field of biochemistry. This didn't work out for her, but the field of protein folding was intriguing to her. She found herself unhappy with the state of software in that field: with many of the tools looking like they were been built less by those knowledgeable in software and more like they had been thrown together by graduate students—to be fair, they had been written by graduate students.
She moved to music studies, which put her in contact with more of the same sort of unrefined software. This time where there was a distinct divide; commercial software was very refined, but expensive, often making it inaccessible for her and her peers in college. Others were free—not just in price, but in the user's ability to modify the software to their liking—but often looked unrefined, had terribly maintained (or unmaintainable) source code, and worse support from the community which created them. She curated her knowledge of software development through her university studies at Colorado State University, moving to work in the software world shortly after college.
Software, long defined by its "freaks and geeks" culture, is a liminal place for those who don't fit the common mold that society has attempted to enforce; on one hand, many of those in the broader software culture are easily comfortable with their own bodies, with jokes and memes about the common software developer being an overweight—neé, obese—male living in their parent's basement. At the same time, it is one where early internet culture lead to anonymity for those who didn't say much about their personal lives. In those moments, documents like The Hacker's Manifesto became more than just words, but documents to live by.
For years, especially in fiction, software development has been viewed as a bit "magic"; Arthur C. Clarke, for instance, coined the phrase "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Like the fantastic works of Oz's wizard, software is nothing more than the careful placement of instructions into a form that a computer can understand. In the industry, terms like "automagic" are used to describe tools built to combine many disparate parts into a coherent structure.
Fiction author Rick Cook's The Wizardry series is built around a programmer who is tossed into a parallel dimension where FORTRAN can be scrawled upon tablets in charcoal and used as magic. In real life, as a software developer, I have found it can feel like magic to interact with computers at this level, both to myself and to someone who is not learned in the art. It becomes easy to call ourselves "magicians" or "wizards". We lay hand on a computer and it begins working when it did not previously—a feat historically attributed to necromancers. It is still reasonable to use one term, Mage—a learned person, someone capable of producing magical acts through their hands—to describe software developers: often with just a few keystrokes, whole worlds can appear or disappear from existence, incantations and cantrips performed with computer terminals.
Madison no longer sees software as magical—it has become predictable, malleable to a point of intimate familiarity; hardware, on the other hand, still retains a certain amount of that magical feeling, remarking "we made rocks think." Computers are much easier to deal with than humans: linear and predictable in a way that humans are not, especially when getting medical documents for things like HRT.
As Madison began her transition into womanhood, being in the software business was "safe – for better or worse." The world of software offered a safe shelter: Software developers are often judged more on the quality of their work than who they are as a person, leading to an environment plagued with its own issues. In recent years, "dudebro" culture—fraternity-house culture imported from large colleges and petri-dish grown in the warm climate of Silicon Valley—has become more common. While not always terrible, it has brought with it a misogynistic undercurrent that has become a talking point within software development communities. Keep your head down, though, and nobody will notice, and working from home meant that Madison could be whoever she wanted to be, as long as she did the work she was being paid to do.
Where Madison found comfort and support was with the Furry fandom. The fandom, a child of the broader Science Fiction fandom, is a community focused on the appreciation and enjoyment of many medias, genres, and foundational works. Often criticized for being "immature", it has become a home for many a young person who found that there was an open pair of arms and an empathetic ear to be had if you're willing to talk. The Furry fandom has been, for Madison, a place where she could be Makyo, someone other than who she is in person; in a recent survey, nearly 20% of the fandom is transgender or otherwise "complicated", making the Furry Fandom a more welcoming place.
And then it happened... a door opened to a world... rushing through the phone line like heroin through an addict's veins, an electronic pulse is sent out, a refuge from the day-to-day incompetencies is sought... a board is found. "This is it... this is where I belong..." I know everyone here... even if I've never met them, never talked to them, may never hear from them again... I know you all... The Mentor, Hacker's Manifesto
Within the Furry Fandom, it is not uncommon to pick up a persona, or fursona (and some create multiples) which are an idealized version of yourself, a projection of what you wish to be or have become through your life. For each person, this projection is different. For Madison, it was a means to express who she was at any one point in her life. Neither puppet nor mask, but an expression of self.
Madison has a need to explain what makes her tick, who she is; it's not a narcissistic urge, but one rooted in understanding herself: if she can quantify who she is in some way, she can help herself understand who she is at that level. Projects such as 300.01, a short meta-game in which she explores being diagnosed with general anxiety disorder, explaining it as "a game, but also a little bit more," are a tool to express changes in her day-to-day life; similarly, A Full Life explores what it's like to function with regards to mental health, sexuality, gender and all that these come with. Works like You're Gone have helped her work through what will happen after she dies, creating meaning from fiction. Long-term work such as the [adjective][species] Furry Survey quantify the fandom which has been so helpful to her.
Madison isn't sure what the future holds. Despite being highly talented, and the technical world being a place where she was given space to become herself, an uncertainty still arises over if she's going to be a viable candidate in her future technical endeavors; there is still a heavy bias that pervades the software landscape, and being trans doesn't help.
She hasn't let that deter her from finding fantastic technical and non-technical projects to work on. A talented and creative writer, her personal writings have been published several times in anthologies, and she has been a part of the writing community that feeds the Furry community.