Patterns of Resilient Leadership

RailsBridge was founded by a group of people who were experienced with open source. With intention and thoughtfulness, we applied open source practices to the creation of teaching events. In the past five years, RailsBridge has spread widely across the globe, spawning new workshops in other languages and other locations. We have strong patterns of enabling new leaders to step up and make change. We must be thoughtful on how we support those leaders to create a resilient organization.

The Power of Decentralization

“The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations,” strongly influenced how I thought about the early patterns of the RailsBridge organization. The book highlights the research of Tom Nevins, a cultural anthropologist specializing in Native American tribes of the Southwest. The introduction tells a powerful story about how, in 1519, the powerful centralized Aztec civilization was more easily and quickly conquered by Cortés, than the Apache tribes which withstood the Spanish for hundreds of years — a contrast of centralized vs. decentralized organizations:

A centralized organization is easy to understand. Think of any major company or governmental agency. You have a clear leader who’s in charge, and there’s a specific place where decisions are made (the boardroom, the corporate headquarters, city hall). Nevins calls this organizational type coercive because the leaders call the shots: when a CEO fires you, you’re out. When Cortés ordered his army to march, they marched. The Spanish, Aztecs, and Incas were all centralized, or coercive. Although it sounds like something out of a Russian gulag, a coercive system is not necessarily bad. Whether you’re a Spanish general, an Aztec leader, or a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, you use command-and-control to keep order in your organization, to make it efficient, and to function from day to day. Rules need to be set and enforced, or the system collapses…

Decentralized systems, on the other hand, are a little trickier to understand. In a decentralized organization, there’s no clear leader, no hierarchy, and no headquarters. If and when a leader does emerge, that person has little power over others. The best that person can do to influence people is to lead by example. Nevins calls this an open system, because everyone is entitled to make his or her own decisions. This doesn’t mean that a decentralized system is the same as anarchy. There are rules and norms, but these aren’t enforced by any one person. Rather, the power is distributed among all the people and across geographic regions. (Brafman & Beckstrom, Locations 254-268)

Emerging Leaders

On reflection, I believe the title of the book is misleading. The so-called leaderless organizations actually have very strong leadership; however the leaders are chosen in ways that are independent of a traditional hierarchy, power is distributed, and leadership can emerge from any individual. The book describes many different organizations with non-hierarchical leadership models. The Apache tribe model of leadership is particularly inspiring, leading to resilience in the face of genocidal attackers.

Instead of a chief, the Apaches had a Nant’an—a spiritual and cultural leader. The Nant’an led by example and held no coercive power. Tribe members followed the Nant’an because they wanted to, not because they had to… Coercion is a foreign concept. The Nant’ans were crucial to the well-being of this open system, but decentralization affects more than just leadership. Because there was no capital and no central command post, Apache decisions were made all over the place. A raid on a Spanish settlement, for example, could be conceived in one place, organized in another, and carried out in yet another. You never knew where the Apaches would be coming from. In one sense, there was no place where important decisions were made, and in another sense, decisions were made by everybody everywhere…

Not only did the Apaches survive the Spanish attacks, but amazingly, the attacks served to make them even stronger. When the Spanish attacked them, the Apaches became even more decentralized and even more difficult to conquer. When the Spanish destroyed their villages, the Apaches might have surrendered if the villages had been crucial to their society. But they weren’t. Instead, the Apaches abandoned their old houses and became nomads. (Brafman & Beckstrom, Locations 269-289)

Working with Allies

Another path to a decentralized organization can stem from leveraging an existing network. The book highlights abolitionist, Granville Sharp, who worked with the Quakers to abolish slavery. He did not lead an organization from the top down, but rather activated an existing network from its edges. This is an effective paradigm that is embedded in the RailsBridge model where we ally with corporate and community groups to achieve our goals. However, we must look at his presentation as a cautionary tale. As someone who was for many years an active member of the Society of Friends (aka Quakers), I found it a little disturbing that the authors positioned the Quakers as a “platform” for Sharp’s abolitionist goals, largely ignoring the fact that slavery is inconsistent with the core tenets of the religion and the many activists within the Society of Friends who worked to highlight the hypocrisy and change the dominant paradigm. There is great strength when we tap into a like-minded network. If there exists a group that share values, but has not yet seen the light, then our ideas can spread like wildfire. We must be conscientious in crediting that organization with the creation of that network, the strength of its core values and openness to change.

Eric Ries, who named the entrepreneurial movement “Lean Startup,” is quick to point out that many people were practicing the art for many years. He catalyzed a movement by naming it, creating connections and a space for people to share their success stories and evangelized other people’s success as well as his own. When we tap into companies that seek to create a diverse workplace that is consistent with their own values, we should honor their initiative. Our incredible growth and strength can attributed to the openness and support of the Ruby community, where we had our start, as well as generations of women and people of color who came before us. When new organizations are inspired by our model, get their start at one of our workshops, or leverage our open source software and processes, we cheer them on and tell their stories.

Step Up, Step Back

We should not strive to be a leaderless organization, but rather one where any individual may step up and become a leader without seeking permission or being granted authority. I believe that every person has leadership potential, and every role within our organization, every volunteer task, allows people to practice and demonstrate leadership.

Open source documentation about the structure of the organization is intended to serve as an invitation for anyone to step up. We have such big problems to solve that there is plenty of work to go around. We have infinite possibilities for leadership roles. However, even an open process can appear opaque from the outside — documentation is important, but not sufficient. Each experienced leader must also invite new people to step into a leadership role, then step back into a mentoring role. When the new leader steps up, we have the opportunity to take a rest or step up to a new challenge. We seek to include a persistent, open invitation in documentation and presentations, and augment that message with in person communication.

Patterns of Resilient Leadership

Internet Pioneer Estrin to Speak at RailsBridge Fundraiser

Internet pioneer and Silicon Valley leader Judy Estrin will be the keynote speaker at an event hosted by Railsbridge, a San Francisco-based non-profit focused on fostering diversity in tech, and Galvanize, a startup ecosystem for digital entrepreneurs. Tickets available:

April 7th, 2104:
    6pm VIP dinner
    7:30 Main Event with Judy Estrin
Galvanize Theater, 543 Howard Street, San Francisco

portrait of Judy Estrin Estrin has co-founded eight technology companies and served as the CTO of Cisco Systems as well as on the boards of directors of The Walt Disney Company and FedEx Corporation. While at Stanford, she was a member of the research team, led by Vint Cerf, that developed the initial TCP protocols. She was involved in the early standardization efforts of the Ethernet and a key player in developing the commercial local area network and internet markets.

She will share stories from the early days of the Internet, from the invention of TCP/IP in an academic setting, to creating one of the first commercial local area network systems, to building companies that defined the infrastructure for the World Wide Web of today. Estrin will also share some thoughts about the state of innovation and the internet looking forward.

The event will raise funds for RailsBridge, with matching funds to be provided by Vail Resorts. Galvanize CEO, Jim Deters, was selected to participate in the Vail Ski Challenge and selected RailsBridge as its non-profit partner.

Reserve your spot at the SF event now, and you can also support us by voting for our team on the Vail Ski Challenge Facebook app — you can vote every day! Up to 2000 votes increases the donation to RailsBridge at the end of the challenge.

Internet Pioneer Estrin to Speak at RailsBridge Fundraiser

SF Game Development Workshop

Almost 20 people, mostly women and a few men, crowded into TrueCar‘s conference room. Many thanks to Chris Lichti who responded to a last minute text message and Jeremy who stayed late at the office. Thanks also to Nike for supplying food & drink, Women Who Code who got the word out, connected us to Nike and helped with last minute logistics.

Phoenix Perry from the Code Liberation Foundation taught a hands-on workshop in 2d game programming with Unity. It was great to have an event where experienced programmers could dive in and learn a new environment and programming language — everyone had coded before, but most were new to C#.

At the beginning of her talk, Phoenix reviewed the history of computer programming — from a field that was almost exclusively female to the strange shift to the male-dominated industry we see today. Almost half of gamers are women, and I’m excited about what Code Liberation is doing to bring more women into the exciting world of game development. Normally they teach a series of classes in C++ and open frameworks, and graduates have gone on to develop and publish games.

How did we bring this exciting new movement to San Francisco?

These kinds of simple, yet powerful teaching events do not need months of planning or complex logistics — just like Women Who Code, RailsBridge, ClojureBridge, PyLadies, or any of the other grassroots coding communities, we can make this happen in any major city and in quite a few smaller locales that have a few passionate coders willing to teach. I’m delighted to share the simple and powerful story about how the community came together to support the Code Liberation crew and made this happen.

Late Sunday night, I got a message from an old friend introducing me to Phoenix Perry:

Sarah, Phoenix runs an organization, The Code Liberation Foundation ( to teach women to program games for free… They are in SF this week at the Game Developer Conference and Phoenix is speaking. However, despite the fact that only 4% of game developers are women, they refused their proposal to teach a free workshop for minority voices in games. Persistent, they are still looking for a place where they can run a free workshop. Do you know anyone in SF who might host them?

What kind of person travels across the country to speak at a conference and instead of just going to the parties after a long day at the conference volunteers to teach a group of strangers a new coding skill for free? I do that. So does Desi, Mary, Renee, Sarah and so many other people who have spread RailsBridge far and wide. And here’s someone who wants to come to our town and teach the skills that she knows. How could I say no?

It was heart-warming how the community came together. I decided to reach out to Women Who Code whose thriving community has a lot of experienced developers who write code for all kinds of platforms. Alaina Percival’s quick response was simply to create a meetup event and make me the host so I could fill out the details. There were all sorts of shenanigans in getting the event to happen, as you might expect when you plan an event in 4 days with a loose collection of people communicating via email, twitter, and text messages. With community support, we can be resilient and move fast.

Were you sorry you missed the event? Would you like to see one like it happen again? All the code and teaching materials are on github. I’ll bet Pheonix would be up for a remote teacher training, and we may have some would-be teachers lurking… or could it be you?

SF Game Development Workshop