Conference Recaps, Speaker Notes, and Why I'm Opting Out in 2015

November 22, 2014

Conference Recap 2014

This year I was able to attend 5 conferences--and I spoke with my project partner Hsing-Hui Hsu at two! Here is a quick run down on my thoughts about each:

Lesbians Who Tech Summit
This was the first LWT conference, though for "inclusivity"'s sake it is officially subtitled "Queer Women In Tech & The People Who Love Them". It was awesome to hear a bunch of great speakers and get exposed to new female role models in tech such as Kara Swisher (founder of Re/Code), Danae Ringelmann (co-founder of Indiegogo), Kathy Levinson (former COO of eTrade), and Megan Smith (former VP of Google[x], now CTO of the US).

The hackathon was also a pretty kickass experience where I got to work in python for the first time and build a django app for the Chicana/Latina Foundation. You can read a more thorough write-up of my experience at the LWT Summit here.

Open Source Bridge
Open Source Bridge gave away a ticket to the Seattle.rb group, which I managed to snag in a thrilling raffle that no one else signed up for. It was a rollercoaster of emotion as our organizer Pete picked my name off of the list of one. I had no prior knowledge about this conference when given the ticket, but I was stoked to try something different and also to get back to Portland to visit some friends. While I am sure that this conference hosts a great community for some, I found myself feeling very alienated by the whole thing. Part of the reason I was unhappy with this experience was because multiple men commented on my appearance as a reason to believe I must be a designer or work in another non-technical role. Yeah, I might be stylin' and wear a lot of black eyeliner, but the presumption & condescension that comes along with these interactions is incredibly frustrating.

A major focus of the culture track at Open Source Bridge was about mental health. This focus revolved around an archetype of the programmer as an introvert with anxiety and insecurity. While mental health issues for programmers is important, I struggled to find where someone like myself would fit in this narrative. Because I have been in other industries, I have never tied my mental health to my professional identity. Additionally, I found this alienating because there is a clear line of what is considered an acceptable mental illness to talk about in this sphere--depression, anxiety, severe insecurity, etc. If your mental health concerns fall outside of this spectrum, then not only will an open discussion of your issues be seen as over-sharing & inappropriate, but also it can be seen as a liability and won't result in being applauded for your bravery. It leaves very little space for those who are wary of individualized rumination, have radical politics, or are critical of psychology & mental health industries in general--regardless of their own diagnoses.

Cascadia Ruby
Cascadia Ruby was a pretty good conference for me. Since it was in Portland in August and the weather was fantastic, I got the chance to ride my fixed-gear around for hours, catch up with old friends, and visit former co-workers. Despite spending a lot of my evenings away from the official conference events, I found that the best part of this conference was meeting more regional developers in a more intimate setting. Because it is small, I felt like I really had the opportunity to get some good networking in and it was there that I started my post-internship job hunt. The venue was beautiful and most importantly, the coffee was clearly the best conference coffee out of all of 'em.

Strangeloop is the largest and by far the best conference I attended this year. Seven of us Ada students were granted full scholarships to attend, covering both the ticket and travel & accommodations in St. Louis. We had an amazing time, loved the talks, and hope to attend next year. While there, I even met some great guys from the Nordstrom Innovation Lab--and have now accepted a role as a developer on their team! You can read more about my experience at Strangeloop here and here.

RubyConf was in San Diego this year, so it was a fantastic opportunity to escape the dark & wet weather in Seattle for a minute. Hsing-Hui and I were still interns when they accepted our talk and the conference didn't offer speaker support, so to get to RubyConf we had an indiegogo campaign. We are incredibly grateful for all the community backing in getting to the conference!

While I didn't really leave the talks as excited as I did at Strangeloop, I did find RubyConf to be a great experience for the people we met. I found unexpected support from some developers I was intro'ed to over twitter and made a few new friends during the conference.

Speaker Notes

Hsing-Hui and I spoke at both Cascadia Ruby and RubyConf about our project and the journey of becoming professional developers.

Hs and I speaking at Cascadia Ruby
Here we are on stage at the PAM in Portland!

The organizers of Cascadia Ruby reached out for help finding speakers, so we took them up on their offer to submit a short proposal for our talk. We would have never thought to submit something to the general Call For Proposals, so having the organizers ask us to submit directly was really what got the ball rolling. I am incredibly humbled, honored, and grateful for the person (anonymity by request) who championed our careers by suggesting us to the conference organizers.

confreaks screenshot
Our talk even made it to the number three spot on confreaks for the week following the conference!

I had a hard time processing the experience of our first conference talk. On one hand, I love public speaking and it was great to get my name and face out there. We did get to meet quite a few people who were excited for us. On the other hand, I felt pretty burned by the different reactions Hsing-Hui and I got. While multiple people talked to her about the technical challenges we faced and asked her about our code, no one talked to me about those things. All of the feedback I got at Cascadia Ruby was about my speaking skills, the slide deck, and my appearance. Yes, more than a handful of people approached me after the talk to say things like "Great talk; I love your haircut!" or comment on my outfit. One guy came up to me in the hallway and said, "I saw your talk. You're really pretty", then immediately walked away. It was an unexpected shock that many attendees, primarily but not exclusively men, only engaged with me to tell me their opinion on my looks.

As for RubyConf, I was on the fence about speaking again after the experience at Cascadia Ruby but Hsing-Hui suggested we submit to the CFP. I honestly thought there would be very slim chances of our talk being selected, so I figured I'd humor her and write the proposal. Well, we got selected and re-wrote the talk to expand on various themes based on the feedback we got from the first time around. I felt that it went well and we did get positive comments about our presentation skills despite a few fumbles. Hsing-Hui blew everyone away by fielding some follow up questions in French right after our talk--everyone was so impressed and I'm incredibly thankful to have such an amazing partner!

Unlike Cascadia Ruby, after giving our talk in San Diego very few men approached me to comment on my appearance. I wonder if this is due to the fact that I spent much more of my time in the company of others, including men. I had noticed a similar reduction in annoyances at Strangeloop when I was able to travel in our safe Ada pack of women. This is another reason I am so thankful that we had those scholarships as well as the scholarship Blake received to come to RubyConf. Without their company, I'm sure my experiences would have been markedly different and probably more negative.

After our talk in San Diego, I was actually able to engage with audience members about data and the future of our project! It was such an exhilarating change compared to the reception I had at Cascadia Ruby. Perhaps this problem is compounded due to the suject matter of our talk and the fact that it was not an in-depth technical topic, but even with that concession I'm suspicious of dismissing my own experience since Hsing-Hui didn't appear to have the same problems at Cascadia Ruby and because the audience did in fact engage with me on the technical topics brought up in our project at RubyConf.

Unfortunately the experience after the second talk was tainted by a few sexist micro-aggressions. One man refered to us as "girls" while trying to compliment us, which we all found infantalizing. Luckily we had the support of Jack Danger who proved himself to be a great pro-feminist ally of ours by attempting to engage with this audience member over twitter and educating him on why that kind of language is belitting.

Now, you're probably skimming through this and hoping to get the "why I'm opting-out" part. Let me prep you by sharing the experience that pushed me just a step too far and prompted me to really reevaluate my role in the dev community:

After our talk at RubyConf when we were standing around the stage talking to folks, an audience member approached the group after I had just finished chatting with a friendly developer. I said hello and asked him how it was going, to which he replied that he wished to follow up on a question about mentoring. Before I could respond, he added that he was uninterested in talking to me because my partner "looks like she has more to contribute".

Over It & Opting Out in 2015

While I did gain valuable experiences and meet some fantastic people over the course of these five conferences, I'm sad to say that as I look back I'm not so sure about my future as a speaker.

A few of the conferences were fantastic vehicles for expanding my network and gave me the opportunity & means to travel when I otherwise would not have been able to afford to do so, but it's not clear if the pay-off is worth the time spent dealing with the bullshit. It's unbelievable how much time I spend doing the emotional work necessary to remain engaged and educating men in the dev community. The negativity, which is not just around me but often directed at me, affects my productivity and undermines my confidence as a programmer.

Despite being asked by conference organizers to submit to proposals for next year and finding myself eyeing a few CFPs coming up such as EmberConf even before RubyConf ended, I'm reconsidering my level of involvement in the conference scene. For now, I'll remain on the fence about attending, perhaps returning to Strangeloop or scoping out XOXO & the Stupid Shit No One Needs & Terrible Ideas Hackathon. As for speaking, I've decided that instead of being put in the oft-disparaged position of explaining basic social graces to other developers and licking my wounds after being belittled, in 2015 I will forego giving talks at tech conferences.

Considering my experiences over the course of the last year, I believe that I can better invest my time. This isn't to say that speaking is a waste for everyone; I believe that it was a valuable experience and would encourage others to try it out. Of course, that encouragement will now always come with the caveat that for female speakers it is likely that the experience can be rough, can negatively affect what you understand your role in the dev community to be, or involve a lot more emotional work than anticipated. Instead of pursing that work in the near future, I plan on attempting to find and invest in relationships with other developers who share my values & respect my contributions in order to work on projects that allow me to produce more code.

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