Last night I attended my first Women in Technology event. It was quite interesting, but more importantly inspiring to meet so many women from the industry.

When I think back to the ongoing “Where are the women?” conversations in the geek conference space, where some claim it’s impossible to get women to attend, it was wonderful to see a mid-week evening event with an attendance approaching 400.

Sadly I’m not down in London frequently enough to make it to many of these events, though I still hold out hope that I’ll make it to a Girl Geek Dinner!

Although unfortunately Elly and I didn’t make it to Highland Fling (which by all accounts was a great conference), we did drive up to Edinburgh to attend Friday’s Refresh Edinburgh event, organised by John Sutherland and Matt Riggott.

The line-up was very interesting – ranging from “show and tell” type of presentations for new web apps through to more training/”lessons learnt” talks.

Alex & James Turnbull were first up talking about their Google Sightseeing site and the lessons they’ve learnt from starting it up as well as creating the related book. I was impressed with these guys, not only for what they’ve accomplished, but also for how honest they were and how freely they shared their experiences.

I was next up, feeling a little out of place since I had no product to display, just some thoughts on why project management can be useful to geeks too. At least some folks seemed to like it though, so hopefully it was useful 🙂

Tony Farndon then did a mini-talk, introducing us all to Flock and the extensions he’s created. He piqued a lot of people’s interest — I think there’ll be quite a few Flock downloads coming out of that talk!

Andrew Cavers was next up, talking about Edinburgh Menus, a restaurant review/maps mashup he’s about to launch. It was interesting to hear the development process he’d gone through and some of the design decisions made — although I’m still not sure about the little flash image-drawing widget… 😉 Andrew’s slides can be found here.

Brian Suda was next up doing a microformats introduction. He got swiftly derailed into a disagreement about the appropriateness of his markup, which was a little unfortunate for anyone who didn’t know about microformats yet, but useful for those most interested in best practices. Brian’s slides and some other resources are here.

John Sutherland was up next discussing the business case for web standards. He seemed disheartened by something that Christian had said the previous, which has prompted Christian to start up a wiki to capture the various business cases for web standards. Hopefully this’ll turn into a great resource for anyone needing to sell the idea.

Dan Champion then talked about the development of Revish, a new book reviewing site. I’ve cribbed the following great advice from his slides:

  • Be passionate – build software for yourself
  • Don’t compromise your standards – build it right, don’t cut corners
  • Pick one thing and kick its ass
  • Ajax is the last thing you need to think about – one of the most interesting design decisions was that he gives users the option to permanently turn off Ajax, largely for accessibility reasons
  • Forced registration sucks
  • Free your data (RSS, API, Microformats)
  • Don’t obsess about the competition
  • Be the “Design Dictator”
  • Serve RSS and your API from subdomains – this was great advice, mainly because if your traffic goes through the roof it makes it easier to balance load the performance
  • Avoid Google dupe penalties – have content in one place and one place only
  • What can we release in 4 hours?
  • Integrated admin
  • Recruit testers early (and look after them) – sounds like Revish already has a close-knit burgeoning community from the tester base
  • Don’t launch during a period of major life change – advice he’s just developed since he went freelance and launched Revish in the same month! 😉
  • Don’t take advice from strangers

The last session was a presentation from the boys behind groopit. Personally I found this app to be the most interesting of all those on show on Friday, because they’ve chosen to focus very specifically on existing real-world groups, in contrast to most other social software apps. Their site intends to make it easy for existing groups to meet up and spend time together more often, which I reckon is a great mission! It’s also led to a number of interesting design decisions – for instance, each group has an automatically private (members only) area.

The other cool thing was that the community feel at the event meant they got a lot of feedback from the audience on their feature design as well as the more technical back-end decisions. This was true in all the presentations, but especially evident in this last session since I think it really caught the imaginations of the group.

All in all, Refresh was a fabulous event and I hope there are more to come in future!

Tags: , , , , , , .

There are two main things I’ve learnt since starting up Make Me A Speaker!:

  1. Write/talk what you know
  2. You need to invest in becoming a speaker, much as you would anything else

As a result, you can see me speaking this Friday at the latest Refresh Edinburgh event.
I’ll be talking about Geek Project Management, which is a topic I feel pretty comfortable speaking on. Although it’ll be similar to the session I did at BarCampLondon2, I’ve got a bit more time and so I’ll be going into more details of how to run a successful project without getting overwhelmed by loads of useless documents and meetings.

Which brings me to the other thing I’ll be talking about to everyone over the next couple of days: we’re in the process of setting up the first BarCampNorthEast as well, so sign up if you’re interested!

UPDATE: Talk is done — if you weren’t able to make it and would like to check out the slides, you can download them from here.

Tags: , , , , , , .

I’d already posted quite a lot as part of the discussion about the diversity of speakers at conferences. One of the things I said I’d like to see happening more was experienced folks mentoring those aspiring to becoming speakers. That thought got quite a good reaction and so as a result today I set up Make Me A Speaker!

Make Me A Speaker! is a simple site — a wiki where you can get advice, hear from others about their journey to becoming a speaker and also hook up with folks who are interested in mentoring the up-and-comings. For me the real crux of the site is two sections: Need Mentoring? and Got Mentoring, designed to let people put themselves out there to help or be helped. There’s also a Conferences & Opportunities page where I’d hope those conference organisers who really are interested in expanding the potential pool of fantastic, innovative, engaging and excellent speakers will come along and pimp their own events as possible stages.

If you’re interested in helping to nurture new speakers, an aspiring speaker yourself or a conference or workshop organiser wanting to broaden the pool of potential candidates for speaking at your events, please do go along and help make a difference.

As I said in my previous post: “You never know, we might just change the world”.

Ryan Carson and his team have taken a bit of a beating recently and I think it’s great that they’re trying to respond with positive steps.

That said, there was a particular part of the article that really didn’t sit right with me and I think is representative of a whole load of misunderstanding in our industry:

“None of the ideas were submitted by women. This was a great opportunity for women in the industry to put themselves forward for a speaking slot. But unfortunately none materialised.”

There is more to embracing diversity than just making “opportunities” available and then blaming the minority when they don’t take advantage of those opportunities.

I’ve done a lot of diversity work & training, in both academic and corporate settings. One of the most powerful workshops I ever attended on the subject was also one of the most uncomfortably emotional I’ve ever experienced. We were asked to think about our past experiences and how we thought they impacted our present behaviour. As a young lesbian growing up in Apartheid South Africa, I’m sure you can comprehend that I didn’t have the easiest time of it. Let’s summarise it as fear- & hate-filled and violent. So how do I react when people assure me it’s OK to be gay here in the UK? I don’t believe them.

The reality is that if a dog is kept in a cage and beaten every time it tries to escape, eventually it stops trying to escape. Merely opening the door can bring up such painful memories that it almost hurts to THINK about escaping.

Now, before I get flamed, I am not saying that women are like dogs that have been beaten. But I AM saying that we, as humans, all learn from our experiences. And saying “well, you had your chance” without understanding why that chance might not have been seen as a real chance by the group you are trying to reach out to is short-sighted.

Whatever the characteristic that puts you in a minority (e.g. whether you be gay, disabled, female, black or a member of a minority religion), chances are pretty good you have faced negative experiences in the past because of what makes you different. You will have learnt survival behaviours — for instance, many gay people “pass” as straight, because it’s easier than dealing with the stress of people hating and abusing you. Many women in technology “fly under the radar”, just getting on with their work and trying not to stand out. It’s easier than being harangued for your presence, or attacked for your gender.

Embracing and valuing diversity is about more than just going “here’s a chance”. It’s also about building an inclusive environment. Encouraging more diversity in your audience as well as on your speaking roster. Helping those new to speaking (or even to the industry) to find relevant mentors and coaches. Making clear that diversity is valued — that different opinions and backgrounds and characteristics are a good thing.

I am not saying that conference organisers need to pander to the possible emotional insecurities of women in the IT industry. But what I am saying is that offering “opportunities” that really don’t translate as such to the group in question comes across as nothing more than tokenism.


Please Note: For more positive suggestions on how to improve things, please see my previous post.

Tags: , , , , .

Seems everyone is talking about gender balance in conference speaker line-ups again. I won’t re-link to all the various discussions (my next daily del.icio.us post will contain a bunch of links and quotes), but as a woman working in the technology industry, I’m going to weigh in on a few things.

  1. There is a distinct and definite business case for diversity. A lot has been said on this topic out in the world, but I’ll summarise as “Differences lead to different thoughts and viewpoints. The more different viewpoints you can get looking at a problem, the better your chance of solving it. Also, if you want to understand and appeal to all different types of people (you know, customers and consumers?) then reflecting them internally might be a good idea too.” Obviously this is more workplace diversity, but there are obvious parallels in the conference arena.
  2. Responsibility for diversity doesn’t lie in just one camp. Conference organisers (and employers and companies and governments and so on…) need to think about diversity and actively consider speakers who don’t fit their traditional selection criteria. Equally, those who want to see speaker lists more reflective of the diverse reality of our world should try to put themselves forward. Victim mentality on either side of this debate benefits no one.
  3. Positive discrimination is a dangerous place to play. It SHOULD be about keeping your standards high AND considering a wider pool of candidates than you otherwise would. Don’t lower your standards to benefit minorities — you’ll just reinforce the original discrimination. Equally, consider whether your “standards” are automatically discriminatory to some groups. E.g. if “is good with the senior execs” == “plays golf with us all on Sundays”, that MIGHT just be a little unfair…

Things I Would Like To See

So how can we improve the world? There are some developments I would like to see:

  1. Conference organisers making a clear statement of intent regarding diversity. Many companies have started to do this (in addition to other efforts) and it DOES make a difference. People are more likely to admire and aspire to be included in your conference (either as an attendee or as a speaker) if you are clear that you see value in diversity. If you don’t see the value — well, you have bigger problems.
  2. Already successful speakers mentoring those who would like to develop into the speakers of the future. The world of conference speaking can be rather opaque to those not already inducted. If you’re already a successful speaker, pick someone whom you think is promising and help them along — whether it be with contacts, simple advice or recommendations as to how to improve their speaking style, for instance.
  3. Attendees being encouraged to help improve the diversity of the audience. At my first South By “Where are the Women” panel, there was a (male) manager going “My entire team is female — why don’t they ever ask to come to these conferences?”. The response from the room: “Why don’t you ask them??”. Diversity is a great thing — it can be encouraged by anyone at any level in an organisation. Let’s encourage conference attendees to think of someone different to themselves who would also benefit from the content and then try to convince them to come along. Obviously this is easier at free/cheap conferences (such as BarCamp or SXSWi), but for those attending the more expensive conferences with work backing it might be an option too.

You never know, we might just change the world.

Most of the rest of BarCampLondon2 was spent geeking out and playing Werewolf. I had personally never played the game before, but having Tom as our moderator definitely helped everyone to get on top of the rules faster. I was an addict by midnight and the fact that there were multiple games running until 4 or 5am seems to indicate I was not alone! My only regret is that I never got to be a werewolf 🙁

Eventually Elly and I grabbed a quiet, semi-dark corner, created a little nest of sleeping bags and caught a couple of hours worth of kip. We were soon up again and having breakfast with everyone. I was terribly impressed with Nat, Ian and Jason continuing to be sociable and chipper and the very definition of the perfect hosts, even when I KNOW they must have had little to no sleep.

For the sessions, I followed the same logic I had on the Saturday (i.e. “everyone here has an equal chance of being interesting, I might as well just pick a room and stay there rather than getting stressed about picking exactly which sessions look most promising”) and just sat in the main Auditorium, attending the following sessions:

  • Sheila Thomson did a great spoof session about how e-Voting is fantastic as it makes every election result hackable. No more pesky democracy!
  • Then Glyn Wintle talked about the Open Rights Group, billed as “the British EFF”. Nice to know they’re there and on our side.
  • Jeremy, Chris, Brian and Ben all did a sterling job of answering Microformats questions and generally fighting the good fight.
  • The final session I attended was an absolutely BRILLIANT talk by David Hayward entitled “AI: Syntax of Emotion”. Really interesting stuff and a great example of why BarCamp is such a great (un)conference — you get to hear about things not necessarily just web-related.

After that there was a bit more socialising and everyone packed off to the pub. Unfortunately, I needed to get to Bristol that night, so I had to wander off pretty much immediately and missed the final drinks. All in all, a fabulous weekend, if rather tiring!

Tags: , , , , , , .