Inclusive tech conferences, workshops and DIY publications
Marlena Compton is a software developer, writer and collaboration artist. She organizes conferences such as "Pear Conf" and "Let’s Sketch Tech!" builds software, and introduces people to pair programming. Marlena’s agile hat-trick of working for IBM, Pivotal and Atlassian, has left her with a life-long appreciation for quality code, empathy and working together with a team. Marlena enjoys writing about tech, sketching talks at conferences and sometimes giving talks too.
“I want to clean up leftover food from tons of people,” said no event organizer ever.
These were the thoughts running through my head after a “Let’s Sketch Tech!” meetup I ran over a year ago. This meetup came on the heels of a successful “Let’s Sketch Tech!” conference about art and tech I organized in San Francisco at the end of 2018(?).
Then it hit me. “What if I ran this online?”
This year, it’s been heartbreaking to watch event after event get canceled because of the coronavirus. It hurts to see people who work in the events space lose their jobs and it also hurts to see so many events and communities lose their physical footing.
In my case, after the catering was cleaned up (with the help of the meetup’s attendees), I chose to take my meetup online. The next meetup was a virtual one, and it ended up being a more positive change than I expected for several reasons:
People from everywhere could join making the reach of my event much larger
I was able to invite speakers from different places
I was able to participate and benefit from my own meetup
and yes, there was no food to clean up
This year, once I was inside for shelter-in-place, I realized people would need to make some art, so I organized my meetup as a conference. I had the most attendees I’ve ever had at an event, and the feedback was wonderful as we were able to give each other an escape, if only for a few hours.
Meet Brody “Bro” Harrison, who is at a conference, about to give a tech talk…
The conference organizers have known Brody for a long time. He wasn’t on the conference schedule, but the speakers invited him to give a talk after someone had to back out. Brody, a prolific speaker, is known as a dude’s dude and prefers to be called “Bro.”
Brody, wearing a red baseball hat and cowboy boots, walks onto the stage for his talk holding a beer and stroking his beard. He makes sure everyone is watching, then takes a gulp of his beer before handing it off and stepping to the microphone.
“Alright, guys, are y’all ready to fire the Bro gun!!!!”
It used to be that it was a major step forward for a conference to adopt a code of conduct. With efforts such as The Ada Initiative (Valerie Aurora and Mary Gardiner) and The Contributor Covenant, (Coraline Ada Emke), many conferences now have a Code a Conduct. Indeed, the conference where Brody is speaking has a CoC, but the organizers told Brody to tone it down a bit and trusted that he would listen.
But first, let’s take a look at how Brody’s talk is going from the perspective of Kaya, an attendee.
Kaya is attending her first technical conference at her first tech job. She watches Brody walk onstage and feels immediately confused. She worked her way through her coding program while being a server at a restaurant part time and Brody reminds her of the rowdiest, most annoying customers…at the bar.
Kaya worked hard to learn how to code and didn’t give up, surviving through the rigorous coding interview grinder until she landed her first tech job. She’s frustrated because she planned out how to pay for attending this conference months in advance and worked with her boss on getting the approvals necessary for the company to pay for her ticket. Her boss asked her to make a few notes about what she learned so that she could present findings to her team.
Watching Brody launch into a talk filled with references to guns, tanks and dudes high-fiving, Kaya tries to make some notes, but she feels out of place and can’t find anything in the talk worth writing down. She tries to remind herself of what she’s often heard, that it’s all about the code. But it’s hard to focus on code when she feels like an outlier at the conference. She looks around and notices that the crowd mainly consists of men who seem to be enjoying the talk. After the talk, the man seated next to her asks if she’s a developer.
So far, the conference CoC has not been violated at all, yet Kaya is having a bad conference experience. She watched a talk that made her feel out of place and awkward in tech. The micro-aggression of being asked if she’s a developer at a developer conference makes it worse.
Kaya leaves right after the last talk of the day and goes back to her hotel room, alone, and watches TV. She knows other attendees are at a happy hour, but she can’t imagine trying to socialize with them. Back at work, she gives a quick summary of talks to her boss. The conference didn’t feel worth it to her. She doesn’t request travel to any other conferences for the next year.
Having a Code of Conduct is not enough
Protecting marginalized people’s safety over privileged people’s comfort is a guideline that can be used to think about who is being centered in a given situation and how the path is being cleared for inclusivity. A conference that creates a comfortable environment for people from under-represented backgrounds extends this guideline to protecting not just the safety, but also the experience marginalized people have at the conference.
Make no mistake, people who are under-represented end up feeling threatened because they have been threatened, possibly with their lives. It would be awesome if the reason for having a code of conduct and protecting marginalized people was simply so that people could get along, but people who are under-represented face threats to their livelihood, well-being and even their lives on a daily basis. It’s not about manners, it’s about safety and survival.
A conference experience includes the speakers, their slides, recruiters, swag, caterers, etc. No matter what the intent of the organizers, the voice of a conference comes loudly and clearly through the microphone. This is the voice your attendees will be sharing out to their friends and co-workers. Slides from talks and swag from recruiting tables shows up on social media and become the early advertising for next year’s conference. What your speakers say is what you say.
Turning it around
Clearing the path for under-represented people takes work, but, more importantly, if you come from a white and/or privileged background, it takes a shift in head space. Once you start making changes, you’ll notice that some of the speakers and attendees who were “cranky” or “curmudgeonly” before are now safety risks. It is, indeed, “time to fire the Bro gun” but this time, firing means not putting them on your stage.
It’s up to you to prioritize marginalized people’s safety over privilege people’s comfort and to make sure everyone at the conference does this as well.
Although some tech conferences will always be problematic for marginalized people, there are conferences who take this seriously.
Showing the persistence and courage that got her into tech in the first place, Kaya finds another conference to attend, one that seems more welcoming. A Woman of Color gives an amazing technical keynote. Kaya didn’t have to worry about getting so many approvals for this conference because she was able to get a free ticket through the conference diversity initiative.
Kaya is sitting with a conference guide and feels more comfortable that she knows someone at the conference. The keynote resonates for Kaya and she smiles at the end as she claps for the speaker. She’s excited to be here and can’t wait for the next talk. In fact, she starts to think, for the first time, that she’d like to apply to give a conference talk herself.
Other than doing more pairing, there are not a lot of obvious ways to get better at working with a pair in any setting: pair programming, pair testing or pair design.
Indeed, what are the skills that matter if we talk about getting better at pairing? Obviously, there are the subject matter skills such as programming, testing and design, but how do you level up on empathy, listening and knowing how to trade off?
To be sure, these are basic communication skills, but there are different ways to approach them. For example, do you know how to apologize properly when you mess up with your pair? How about making sure that you are using the right pronoun for them?
Changing the reading experience
Nobody has time for the 300 page animal book anymore. Even if we do have them, chances are you dip into certain parts for a bit rather than read it end-to-end. Because of our changing reading habits, we’ve changed up the reading experience in 2 ways.
Once you purchase your Pear Conf quarterly read, an email will be sent to you allowing you to opt-in to a set of 3 email guides. These guides are automatically spaced apart over a few weeks and contain pointers back into the book as well some extra links for exploring. If you don’t want to purchase the book, the guides are available separately.
Each quarter, we’ll have a Pear Conf online meetup focusing on the issue handled by the chosen book. While we use the book as a starting point for an interactive session, there is no need to have read the book to get value out of the meetup.
Are you on an engineering team with no access to a designer?
On an engineering team, we tend to make the assumption that there’s always a designer. In reality, I’ve found that the opposite is often the case, but this doesn’t mean you can ignore design.
We typically equate design with photoshop and assets, but it’s not about that.
It’s about connecting users to the value you can bring them whether there is a UI or not.
I’ve developed a 1-day workshop to help engineering teams with limited access to designers find their own way to create value for their users. Here’s a what recent customer had to say:
“I manage an infrastructure team with no access to a designer or product manager. As a result, it’s a challenge for the team to conceptualize building with the end-user in mind. The Hypothesis workshop helped my team see more about our user in one day, than it ever has before. This has helped us to get started with incorporating user feedback in our process.”
During October, artists all over the world participate in project called Inktober. Every day, they post, in their channel of choice, a drawing done in ink.
There are some suggested prompts, but the drawing doesn’t have to be from the prompt, in fact it doesn’t have to be that great or that finished either. Sure there are artists posting amazing works they’ve just whipped up, because they are, after all, professional artists.
There are plenty of other folks posting drawings that are less, shall we say, polished. These are sketches drawn before getting kids to school, starting the daily commute or getting down to actual work. Inktober is about coming back to your doodles every day and then sharing them, even if it is scary or you skipped a day or five (truly, it’s even ok to post 1 or 2 things).
We have a lot of secret doodlers in tech. I know, because I used to be one of them. I would secretly show up early for meetings so I could spend a few minutes secretly doodling.
My secret doodles helped me sort out the difficult tech concepts I was working with on a daily basis and, eventually, I found ways to share them.
“This is so great!” friends would tell me.
“Really??” I would ask. This helped me get up the courage to post things online.
Here we are on the day before Inktober starts, and I have a proposal:
Let’s have an #inktechtober where we post some doodles about tech concepts we’re working with or trying to figure out. Here is a prompt list if you’re having trouble coming up with something you want to sketch.
Post it to your social media channel of choice using the hashtag #inktechtober.
If you enjoy inktechtober or sketching related to tech, check out the Let’s Sketch Tech! conference happening in December.