Late last year the thorny topic of diversity (or lack of it) at technology events was in the spotlight again after the British Ruby Conference (BritRuby) was cancelled following outcry about its all-male, all-white speaker line-up. Following the controversy many men pledged to boycott all-male panels at tech conferences. The idea proved controversial, with bloggers making impassioned arguments for doing so, and as many putting the case against.
A month ago, I popped along to altUKGovCamp (with UKGovcamp postponed due to snow, the brilliant Lloyd Davis and James Cattell swung into action and swiftly convened an impromptu geek meetup event. An un-unconference, if you will.) where this quickly became a hot topic for conversation. Our discussion covered the full gamut of issues, like:
- Is the lack of diversity an issue?
- Is it merely a symptom of the makeup of the industry?
- If it is a problem, what can be done about it?
This proved a lively discussion which generated a range of practical ideas, particularly from the rather brilliant tech entrepreneur Mary McKenna, who noted many of the issues which make women reluctant to put themselves forward to speak – nervousness, undervaluing your own skills – are also those which make women less likely to negotiate a pay rise. She’s already blogged her tips for successfully negotiating a better pay deal, and I said I’d follow up with a post on diversity at tech events. So here we are.
Diversity in tech is important
And not just because I’m a sandal-wearing, Guardian-reading leftie. This is a knowledge economy which increasingly relies on digital skills to create products and deliver services. We need more skilled tech people. The world particularly needs skilled creative tech people who can focus on the needs of the customer and find creative solutions. So we need diversity in skills, experience, knowledge and thought, at all levels. Diversity makes tech better.
But the tech industry is male dominated – aren’t conference speakers just a reflection of the audience?
Women are a minority in the tech world, it’s true, particularly at senior levels. But is that chicken or egg? The lack of visible, high-profile women at these events only serves to reinforce the idea that tech is a male preserve.
All-male panels aren’t just the preserve of the tech field either; following the BritRuby conference bloggers took aim at conference organisers in all manner of industries. It’s clear conferences have a problem, and not just in male-dominated industries.
Diversity isn’t just about women
The current debates focus on women, but the fact is panels are overwhelmingly white, and very rarely include people with disabilities.>
So diversity shouldn’t be seen as a ‘women’s issue’; it’s about ensuring conference panels reflect the audiences they’re talking to. Inviting speakers from a wide range of backgrounds might bring a different point of view to the conference, which helps making talks and panels a lot more interesting. It’s been long known that diverse teams in the workplace are more successful– is there any reason the same wouldn’t be true for conferences?
As Mary McKenna pointed out, promoting diversity isn’t just about doing the right thing; it’s also something which makes commercial sense.
So if it makes so much sense, why are there so few women speakers at tech conferences?
Good question. Here’s some of the reasons which have been suggested:
- because of a lack of confidence
- because they lack experience and are unsure how to write a good proposal
- because they don’t see other people like them speaking, and feel uncomfortable being the only woman there
- because they don’t think their work will support sending them to the conference
- because they have childcare or other commitments that limit their ability to travel
- “we’d love to have more women on the panel, but we haven’t had any submit proposals”
- Because conference organisers – consciously or otherwise – seek out male speakers more actively than female ones
- Selection committees may be biased against female speakers when selecting papers
- There are fewer women in the field in the first place, so the lack of women speakers just reflects this
So what can be done about it?
The discussion at altUKGovCamp covered a wide range of ideas. Widespread threats to boycott all-male panels have certainly succeeded in drawing conference organisers’ attention to the issue. What’s clear is that conference organisers have a clear role to play in promoting diversity in their conference lineups.
Quotas provoked some fierce debate, with many suggesting this is tokenistic and ultimately devalues the contribution of women who are selected – suggesting perhaps that they weren’t selected on merit alone. Others felt a firm commitment to have, say, women make up a third of speakers signals a strong signal to those attending that diversity is a real issue. But it’s also bloody hard work.
Conferences are big business, and conference organisers are not charities. Those conference organisers who are making real efforts to recruit more diverse speakers are to be applauded for their efforts. But the fact is, it is a real effort – this blogpost from Courtney Stanton explaining how she got 50% female speakers at a video game conference illustrates it can be a real pain, and when you’ve got venues to book and tickets to sell, it’s a hassle one can easily do without.
If you’re organising a conference, here’s some advice:
- Timing. if speaking at your conference is contingent on attending all three days (plus a half-day travel each way) you’re already making it more difficult for someone with caring responsibilities to attend.
- Say it. Why not put a diversity statement in your call for submissions, making it clear your conference values diversity and actively welcomes papers from women and other under-represented groups. Let people know they are welcomed (here’s a great example from J Boye)
- Be proactive. Check websites focusing on women speakers, get in touch with potential speakers who may be reluctant to put themselves forward, ask potential speakers to recommend others.
But making conferences more diverse takes both sides. Women need to put themselves forward, too. Here’s some tips for women who’d like to speak at a conference but aren’t sure about how:
- JFDI. Speaking at a conference is a great way of boosting your professional profile.
- Speaking in front of hundreds of people is a little scary. But you don’t have to start there. If you’re not sure, start by running a session at an unconference or doing a quick Ignite-style presentation to get a feel for it, and work up from there. Starting at a lower-key event gives you a chance to practice your material and get over your nerves
- Don’t undersell yourself. It’s all too easy to fall prey to imposter syndrome and think you’re not good enough. Fight those negative feelings! What’s the worst that could happen?
- Make some noise. If you’re asked to speak at a conference, don’t keep it to yourself; mention it on your blog, LinkedIn, Twitter, and so on. Once you have a track record as a speaker you’re more likely to be asked again.
- Advocate for other women. If you’re asked to speak at a conference, ask the organisers if they’re interested in hearing from more women. Get them in touch with some of the brilliant and talented women you know.
Having a greater variety of voices, backgrounds and experiences represented makes conferences better. But for that to happen, organisers need to be more proactive about it, and more of us need to get over our nerves and put ourselves forward.
To that end, Mary McKenna and I will be holding a session at the rescheduled UKGovCamp next week for anyone who’d like to raise their professional profile by speaking at events but isn’t sure where to start. We’d love to see you there.If you’ve got any other thoughts or suggestions on diversity at tech conferences, let me know via the comments.
Creative Commons photo credit: miss604 on Flickr
So, a couple of weeks back I had the enormous pleasure of working on ChaMPion, the winning project at the second UK Parliament Hack Day.
For the uninitiated, a hack day is nothing to do with phone hacking, Anonymous or GaryMcKinnon, but a themed event (usually over two days) where developers and designers get together to create usable apps or websites in a brief, intense period of work. Hack days have been growing in popularity over the past five years or so, both in the commercial sector – where they’re a great way to generate new ideas for innovation and funding – and in the public sector, where hack days have been instrumental in turning open data into usable information for public good.
Here in the UK, Rewired State have been instrumental in championing and delivering public sector hack days, beginning with the first National Hack the Government day in 2009, and have since lent their talents (and that of their extensive and impressive network of 1,000 developers) to a host of commercial projects too, such as Honda’s Power of Minds event, in which developers worked with Honda’s own cultural engineers.
I helped to organise the first Parliament Hack last year; since moving on to financial services earlier this year, I thought I’d put that behind me. But when Mark Smitham asked if I’d join the team he was pulling together for this year’s Parly Hack, I jumped at the chance to work with such a talented, dedicated and generally rather brilliant bunch of people.
But I wondered what I, as someone with no coding skills, could bring to the project. The answer was a solid understanding of the business – the workings of Parliament and the needs of its users, gathered over two years spent there, working closely with a wide range of users and audiences.
So, what’s being on a hack team like?
They’re all different. Some people prefer to work alone. Others come to the event only with ideas and skills, and form teams on the day with others who can complement those skills.
Our team – Mark Smitham, Giuseppe Sollazzo, Lewis Westbury, Hadley Beeman, Glyn Wintle, Brett Husbands and me – began work some weeks earlier, with a brainstorm (in a pub, naturally), where we looked at some of the available datasets and sketched out some of the potential problems which needed solving.
These broke down into a few broad areas:
- Increasing transparency and making the workings of Parliament – the creation of new legislation and the work of MPs themselves – easier for the public to understand (early ideas included ‘Fiddler on the House’, a comparison site showing how hard your MP works and what they claim in expenses)
- Apps or sites which would be useful to MPs (like access to real-time information)
- Data visualisation which, while increasing transparency, also had the potential to embarrass MPs or Parliament (e.g. looking at the correlation between the marginality of a seat and the amount spent on stamps, so an MP could work out how many things they need to post in order to retain their seat)
- Things which would just be funny (an early contender was described as “like Grindr, but for MPs”)
After this first session we divided up tasks to match our own skills, with Mark, Giuseppe and Lewis looking at existing datasets and how these could be combined, Hadley turning unusable datasets into usable ones, and me identifying other potential sources of data.
We met for a second session a week or so later, where we whittled ideas down and threw out some of those we would like to have done but didn’t have available data for, like the idea we had to improve scrutiny of bills in order to identify those which are being rushed or filibustered. Again, we assigned tasks to team members (I was to focus on creating wireframes for the shortlisted ideas), before the planning session moved on to a game of Cards Against Humanity, the best team-building tool ever made.
On the hack weekend itself, 100 or so developers began with a tour of the Houses of Parliament before moving on the The Hub Westminster to begin coding (I couldn’t make it in, so worked remotely). It was only that morning that the judging criteria was revealed, and it was this which swayed the final decision on which project to take forward – people want to find MPs who care about the issues they care about. Often their “declared interests” are not particularly meaningful or up to date, so we decided we could look at the content of their speeches, and create a tool that allows the user to enter a given topic and returns a list of MPs who have spoken about that topic, ranked by relevance.
Over the weekend, Giuseppe, Mark, Brett and Lewis mined the data, looking for keyword distribution by MP, developed functionality and the UI. Giuseppe’s blogged a detailed write-up of the development side. Meanwhile, I worked on design, creating a name and logo, collating assets and pulled together a convincing presentation on what the project was and what we wanted to achieve with it.
Our project: ChaMPion
ChaMPion is a website which helps people find the MP who cares most about the causes they do. It uses an analysis of Hansard, applying text analysis techniques to identify keywords by MP, in order to match users’ interests to the MP who most frequently talks about the subject in Parliament.
We produced this in response to growing political disengagement; turnout at this month’s elections was at a peacetime low. Coverage of Parliament on TV is generally focused on adversarial politics, in particular PMQs, leaving people confused about what MPs actually do all day.
We wanted people to understand that what happens in Parliament really does make a difference, and that MPs’ workload covers a vast range of subjects and interests. Whatever you’re interested in, there will be an MP who’s fighting that corner; this app aims to show just who that is, helping to connect people with the person championing their cause in our democratic system.
Coding continued through the night, with 28 projects completed before judging began on day 2 – here’s a full list. Each team had just a few minutes to present and demo their hack to a panel of judges comprised of MPs and officials.
We were delighted to win the coveted ‘Best in Show’ prize, given the high calibre of other projects. Other winners were:
- Parliament 2015, a visualisation of historical data
- Have your Say, a site which enables people to debate on the issues debated in Parliament
- Toe the Line, an interactive data visualisation on Parliament’s most rebellious MPs
- Bernard, which uses real-time data on what’s going on in Parliament right now (one of the creators, Tim, has blogged about that here)
What happens next?
Mark, Lewis and Giuseppe are continuing to refine the hack and fix bugs. We’re not sure where to take it next, but we’re keen to get your feedback and ideas on what to do with it. Have a play with it, and let us know what you think: http://www.champion.puntofisso.net.
We each won a Raspberry Pi, so I have resolved to teach myself to code, even just a tiny bit.
What did I learn?
This was my third hackday, and only my second as a participant. Every time, I come away with a feeling that hack days are a truly remarkable tool for innovation and creativity. Every time, the quality of outputs generated in two days and with the aid of beer and pizza is frequently well above that created in months of office-based work.
Given I’m not a developer, I was nervous that I’d be a spare part. I was wrong; in fact, it really reaffirmed my feeling that teams which include someone who understands the business create better outputs, because they help to focus work on the needs of the end user and the context in which the project exists. It’s this I do in my day job, and it was great to remind myself of why it’s good to have strong working relationships with your developmer team.
This time around, I came away with a particularly nagging feeling that nearly every organisation would benefit from adopting the spirit – if not the precise method – of the hack day.
Lately I’ve been reading Dan Pink’s Drive, which looks at motivation for success. Pink argues that traditional notions of motivation – chiefly, that if you pay more you get better results – are outdated in a knowledge economy which relies on creativity and ideas. Instead, the secret to high performance and satisfaction is the need to direct our own lives (autonomy), to learn and create new things (mastery) and to do better by ourselves and our world (purpose). If the thought of a whole book on this makes you all tl:dr, there’s a lovely animated precis from the RSA here.
Hack days tap into all three of these motivational needs – talented people choose their own ideas and projects, use the time to develop their own skills in a low-risk, low-reward environment, to make cool stuff that makes the world a slightly better place – to make things which are truly great.
A handful of organisations already build this need for autonomy, mastery and purpose into their way of working; Google famously gives its staff 20% of their time to develop their own projects, and it’s this free time which led to some of their most successful end products, including Gmail. Insurance firm Aviva invited employees to come up with ideas for apps and were amazed to receive hundreds, many of which made it to finished products. Wired reports that ‘time to tinker’ phenomenon is becoming increasingly widespread in technology firms.
But thinking beyond Silicon Valley (or Silicon Roundabout) is this something that more organisations could benefit from doing, even just as a one-a-year event? Having attended a handful now, I really think it is. Think what your own employees could do, given the time, space and permission to make something brilliant.
An unquestioning press release re-hash on The Guardian’s website today claimed “traditional graveyards are being transformed through technology with interactive headstones providing a revolutionary way for people to remember loved ones.”
A £300 QR code etched into granite, claim Dorset funeral directors Chester Pearce, will enable visitors to learn all about the person buried, rather than being limited to a name, age and date of birth and death.
Or will it? QR codes attract significant criticism for being fiddly and hard to use, but in many cases this is simply because they’re used in entirely the wrong contexts.
My concern in this case, though, is that people are being sold a transitory technology for what’s supposed to be a lasting memorial. Let’s look at the issues:
- The QR code links through to a website giving details of the deceased, as well as providing a comment feature where people can share memories.
- All well and good – for now. But how long will this last? Who curates the content? Who ensures the domain remains up in five years, ten years?
- Then let’s look a little further ahead. Despite a great deal of hype, signs are pointing towards QR codes not really gaining traction with smartphone users. People are talking about the (far less faffy) Near Field Communication protocol performing the same job, better. I would wager that the QR code won’t be around in 2030, let alone 2080.
- If my wager is wrong, that’s ok, because I’m pretty sure this website won’t exist either – and nor will the ‘lasting memorial’ websites these QR codes point to.
- So what are we left with, in 2030? A weird design, etched in stone, which no device can decode, and (even if it could) almost certainly won’t point to a live website.
Claims that the QR codes will be “useful to those visiting graveyards to research their family tree” in the future ring very hollow once you think the thing through.
I’m no fan of QR codes, but in the right contexts they perform a useful task. What are those contexts?
- Where the subject is out of doors – for instance, an OOH poster campaign
- Where there is something in it for the user. A good example would be how QR codes were placed on statues of Olympic mascots Wenlock and Mandeville put up across London, allowing people to scan and collect them all as they walked around the city – providing additional details about the surrounding area too
- Where the campaign is time-limited – so it can be guaranteed the content being linked to is a) live (actionable) and b) up-to-date
- Where the content linked to is actively managed and curated. A good example of this (and a good comparison with the less well-thought-out funeral director’s offer) is how QR codes have been placed next to old gravestones in Washington DC’s Congressional Cemetery; these link through to Wikipedia pages about the more well-known people buried there.
As Bruce Willis’s case against Apple over the right to bequeath digital purchases highlights the fleeting nature of online content, many are starting to look at their digital legacy. As content increasingly becomes digital-only, it’s right that we consider the permanence of what we leave behind. But leaving a QR code as your memorial means that you’re merely one whose name was writ in water, not marble.
(with thanks to Adrian Short for the Keats quote).