A case against showmanship

This is a written version of a talk I gave at eurucamp 2015.
Slides from the talk can be found here.

Marta, why do you hate fun?

A couple months ago, I took part in a conversation about inappropriate content in presentation slides. The discussion was whether to modify a user group’s Code of Conduct to make sure such situations didn’t happen in the future. One of the people opposing any modifications presented an argument centered around free speech and quoted George Carlin (an American comedian) complaining on a trend to “soften” language. That situation got me thinking and inspired me to write this talk.

Free speech is an important issue, but is it an issue that belongs in slides about software? Don’t get me wrong – I couldn’t be further from the “shut up and show me the code” movement, that movement which ignores social and political complexities ever present in our industry. But free speech is a legal term, and let’s face it, when you use it to defend inappropriate jokes, you’re making yourself look silly.

Speaking of jokes – there is a trend to mix up a conference stage with a stand-up comedian stage. Doesn’t it get confusing sometimes? Conferences, meetups, user groups are places to exchange knowledge. “Oh gosh, I think I must’ve took the wrong turn, this doesn’t look like a programming conference”.

Think about how we portray ourselves – as an industry, as a community, as early adopters of newer technologies, trapped in a growing technological bubble. Young, cool, hip, edgy – not like those Java people, or those Microsoft types in suits and ties, tucked in shirts, with their corporate culture. We’re not like them, we’re cool-driven, innovation-breathing, flannel-bearing, rugged coding rock stars.

We see that in job advertisements and we see that on conferences. I’ll be honest with you: seeing another hip, edgy guy on stage makes me cringe. It’s not original. It’s not edgy. Pushing the limits of what is acceptable is nothing short of totally mainstream.

This being hip and cool means we allow, encourage ourselves to engage in and cherish behaviors not associated with corporate culture. The good thing is we don’t have to worry about dress codes and we can run events in a more casual atmosphere, but we will say or do things that would be frowned upon or found simply unacceptable in a corporate setting. One of those things is cursing on stage.

I had a conversation within a certain community where because the “leaders” repeatedly used heavy language on stage, there was a sort of peer pressure to also do it. It might sound funny or hard to believe, but stuff like that happens. It’s good to have a vocabulary that can help you express stronger feelings like anger, amazement, etc., but some people tend to go over the top. Standing on stage and cursing during your talk about Docker makes you sound aggressive and will alienate you. It takes away from your message – focuses on your tone, not what you’re trying to say.

The modern computer showman, with strong language, strong opinions, invited to speak at conferences because he attracts an audience – a very homogeneous audience, will help organizers fill their room with people just like him. Then, people just like him will get inspired to try getting into conference speaking and the vicious circle of whitemaleegodom in our industry is going to make people like me go crazy and leave. According to NCWIT, more than half of women in technology leave their employers mid-career – double the turnover rate of men (http://www.techrepublic.com/article/the-state-of-women-in-technology-15-data-points-you-should-know/). If everyone on stage looks the same, that’s what we desire and perpetuate. We listen to people that look like them, we hire people that look like them, we design products for people that look like them and ignore the ones that don’t.

Speakers get the benefits

And speaking at conferences is a sweet deal. First of all, you might sometimes get paid for it. And if not, you’ll still get some of these: a free ticket to the conference, free accommodation (all the hotels I’ve been in were fancier than my flatshare), travel costs. You gain recognition, respect and position in your community. You mingle with influential people on speaker’s dinners. When on stage, you can say, “Btw, I’m looking for work” and have tens or hundreds of people instantly register that.

How about we try something different?

You don’t have to show off. People will assume a certain level of competence was necessary for you to end up on stage.

Realize that fireworks, a chorus of singers signing your anthem in the background, strong language, and excessively strong opinions aren’t necessary for people to listen to you and engage. They often have the opposite effect.

Even though the conference is held in English, don’t assume everyone is fluent in it. Furthermore, being fluent in a language doesn’t mean being fluent in a culture. If your message is heavily based on the audience recognizing memes, TV series and obscure references to works of fiction – consider rethinking. I’m not saying completely drop it, but I’ve seen programming talks that were just tests in applied memology. I learned nothing.

My working title for this talk was “You don’t have to be funny to be a good programmer”. Funny is fun, but it’s not a prerogative. Not everyone can be the master of inducing laughter and there is no reason why everyone should be. In the end, people want to learn about the topic of your talk, everything else is optional glitter (except actual glitter – that shouldn’t be optional).

Simply, try to be a good speaker. There’s a lot of blog posts about how to achieve that and I won’t get into it now, but the bottom line is: speak clearly, rehearse and don’t put your ego between the audience and the message. Kathy Sierra, known as @seriouspony, writes about being a good speaker:

[t]he problem is thinking that what matters in your presentation is you. Because unless you’re a paid performer – musician, comedian, motivational speaker – you are not the reason [the people] came to the conference.

As long as we give in to the cult of heroes, we will not have a healthy, diverse and thriving community.

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