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.

Openness in OSS communities at CoreOS Fest Berlin

I was part of a very interesting session at CoreOS Fest Berlin today. The folks from CoreOS will prepare a proper blog post highlighting results of the discussion, but I wanted to write down some of my own impressions from the session. Apart from that, the thought process that led us to the chosen format might sound interesting to some.

This was the description of the session:

Join Marta Paciorkowska, DevOps at Acrolinx, Matthew Garrett, Principal Security Engineer at CoreOS, and Meghan Schofield, Product Designer at CoreOS for an interactive conversation about how to provide more openness and inclusiveness in open source. Marta, Matthew and Meghan will share the necessity of this conversation and will help brainstorm a measurable plan to help increase diversity in open source.

We were wondering how to make this particular event memorable for its participants. Our conclusion was that there is a lot of material online on why it is important to improve diversity in tech communities. These are widely accessible in the form of blog posts, articles, conference talks, and so on. We decided to focus on the how by engaging the conference participants – members of the community around CoreOS – into thinking what actions would they find feasible, realistic, most useful.

After a short introduction we shared a few stories of how a few communities improved their diversity and also one-two examples from our own lives on how a lack of openness combined with the habit of making assumptions about people can be discouraging. The focus of the discussion, though, was developing a set of ideas from participants in a way that they don’t feel pushed to participate (not everyone will feel comfortable sharing their ideas in front of people they don’t know) and that they don’t need to “censor” their ideas, if you will, meaning that idealistic, small, and big solutions should all be written down. I guess it was a classical brainstorming session. :) We distributed post-its and sharpies and gave people a few minutes to write down their ideas. After that we collected them, grouped them by sticking them on a wall and discussed them. It was amazing that even more ideas appeared during the discussion! Meghan and Matthew collected all of them and an in-depth idea list should appear in the near future.

Some of the ideas have already been implemented in a lot of other communities, but others seemed to not be popular.

I liked that we focused not only on women in IT – a lot of stress was put on engaging beginners; we also talked about people from varying age groups and non-programmers: because designers, translators, writers might also want to get involved in OSS, and a focus on programming skills might make them feel that they have nothing to contribute.

I am very happy with the session and I could see the participants looked happy, we heard a “thank you” here and there. It’s heartwarming to see a community that tries to actively improve itself.

By the way – if you don’t count Meghan and me – the remaining 12-15 people were all men of varying age. Now, after the discussion was over, one participant expressed concerns that having an all-male audience talking about women’s issues without women being there wasn’t the best idea. But first of all, two out of three people facilitating the activity were women; second of all, the initial idea came from an email discussion between three women; thirdly, it was not a discussion just about women’s issues, because that’s not the only axis that lots of tech communities could work ok. And – what I honestly consider the most important – all the participants had their own ideas and had a chance to see that they can do something to improve the situation. Like I mentioned before, there are countless materials on discrimination available on the Internet and our participants were most probably at least vaguely aware of the problems. Improving openness and fairness in tech communities should not be the work of underrepresented groups. I do think their/our input is essential, but burdening them/us with fixing a problem that’s not their/our fault is not really fair.

I am excited to see what CoreOS decides to do next.

PS. Earlier that day I was looking around booths when one person from a monitoring company approached me to pitch their product to me. He did not ask what I do, he didn’t ask if I’m marketing, QA, design – I felt he assumed he’s talking with an engineer/developer. I was wearing a dress and jewelry – I definitely didn’t fit the nerd stereotype – so I was (positively) shocked when we ended talking. It was a refreshing experience to hear a guy say “I’m only doing marketing… so I can’t get into the technical details”. It’s funny (and sad at the same time, I guess) that I consider an experience that should be perfectly normal to be a positive change that’s worth mentioning in a blog post.

Codes of Conduct, and stuff

This blog post originally appeared on my other blog,
but I decided to move it here to keep all my IT blog posts in one place.
I had a very interesting conversation with Florian Gilcher a couple weeks ago. Florian – one of the eurucamp organizers – shared his experiences on how hard it gets sometimes when you want to show how useful Code of Conducts are. Sure, you hear about People Doing Bad Things And Being Thrown Out For Them, but do you hear stories about how CoCs actually make the events more diverse? You know, the thing that’s missing is voices coming from people that started going to conferences, became active in a community thanks to being provided a safe, welcoming space.

 

I thought I could share my story, then.

 

Let’s go back a couple years. I’ve been trying to learn how to program two or three times. Each time I started getting it, some sudden Bad Experiences held me back. It started over ten years ago, in high school, and continued for quite some time (I don’t want to write about these experiences here, but if you really want to know, write me, and I might share). If you’ve been there, you know it gets a little harder to come back to it each time stuff happens.

 

Fast forward to a year ago. I became a software engineer. I slowly started giving talks at Ruby user groups, plus a lightning talk on an occasional bigger conference. I had ideas, but never submitted any actual proposals, for, you know, real talks. I’d say impostor syndrome might be at fault here. Not shyness – as a campaign manager in an NGO for a couple of years, I’ve been in the media more times than I can remember. Public speaking was a natural thing for me. And even on my worse days, I still considered myself quite a smart person. Public speaking at conferences, where almost everybody was different from me, where I stood out, about a topic I felt uncomfortable in, was a bit mesmerizing. Scratch that: it had significant panic potential.

 

Last year’s eurucamp was the first conference with a code of conduct I’ve been to. The organizers not only implemented one, but they also went to great lengths to invite a diverse audience. They did outreach to women and other minorities. They designed a blind selection process, to make sure their own biases do not get in the way of picking great speakers. They made it clear that everyone should stick to the rules in the code of conduct and were ready to take action and apologize for any misconducts.

I decided to give it a go. I got a ticket.

 

When I entered the venue on the first day of eurucamp, I felt… weird. Uncanny. “Am I really on a programming conference? There’s, like, so many women here!”

 

Yep. About 30% of the people in the hall were women and that was the first thing that came to my mind. And I’m a diversity advocate. Good job, girl. Seeing mostly white men at every programming meetup I’ve been to made me internalize this picture so much that entering a programming-related venue and seeing a group of people that resembles the society I live in a bit better gave me a genuine wtf moment. I’ve worked it through, but I honestly find my initial response a bit embarrassing.

 

eurucamp topped it this year with their mentorship program, where each chosen speaker received a mentor by default. Sounds perfect for people like me: scared to ask for help, sure to consider all their questions silly. A code of conduct, an outreach program, mentors – and, what was surprising to me, at one point I thought it’s time to (gasp!) submit a talk proposal. For a real talk.

 

So eurucamp was the only big conference I was able to send a talk proposal to. I was also confident in them enough to ask another friend to submit a talk – a friend that never goes to any user group meetings because she just doesn’t feel safe. I was pretty sure she’d feel safe at eurucamp. It’s horrible that smart people like her (or any people, for that matter) have to skip community events because some other people sometimes cannot into decent person.

 

So what did I want to talk about? Well, I wanted to talk about how the stages of development in literature can apply to the stages of development of programming languages. You know, how these two processes are actually similar to an extent. Weird? Yeah, but for someone with a literary studies background – extremely interesting and doable. When my talk proposal ended up not being chosen, but was rated very highly, a number of people encouraged me to brush the proposal up a bit and submit it somewhere else. I started doing that, but I finally quit. Silly or not, I guess I just still felt too scared. I feel it’s slowly changing though. Thanks to events like eurucamp, where organizers realize the process of getting great speakers at a conference does not end with announcing a call for papers, more people feel safe. People like me feel what they find interesting might be interesting and valuable for other people. People like me, who feel they might actually be smart. That can be a valuable part of a community, but have a limited chance without a safe space. And yeah, people that feel if anything goes wrong, someone will help them.

So that’s my two cents.