thoughtwisps One commit at a time


These words, I have wanted to write for a while, but the opportunity and the impetus never presented in the right amounts. Yesterday, I had several encounters, which finally gave me the words I needed.

I am not speaking in specifics nor naming anyone. Doing so maybe helpful or harmful - I am too far from the situation to truly see the details and to truly know the extent and so I choose to be silent about the details. Instead, I can talk about my part in this sometimes wonderful and terrifying effort of being a technical community organizer.

I became part of a small and welcoming technical community in my first month after moving to BigCity. I was alone and lost, feeling unwelcome in a job where there were more managers named Steven than there were women and the community gave me a space to be who I was - a person interested in programing, mathematics, science and technology who happened to be born a woman. The environment was friendly and grassroots - the blatant tech recruiting swag and marketing were absent (there is nothing wrong with events that have recruiting and swag, but there should also be a space for simple food-and-code meetups). Instead, it was just a group of people and laptops working on things ranging from Project Euler to web apps and eating food (usually pizza).

I wanted to give back so I became involved. In the beginning, by choosing topics and giving talks, then more extensively by organizing meetups. It was good fun for a while and I hope that what I did helped at least a few people learn more about programming.

However, as of late, something has changed. What started as a study group and friendly meetup has become a ‘training provider’, or so it seems based on some of the comments the organizers are receiving. It was and will hopefully always remain without charge to allow everyone, and especially underrepresented minorities, to benefit from the spirit of learning and respect. Even if the event itself does not cost anything, it does not mean that organizing it is free. Instead, the brunt of the ‘second shift’ is borne by the volunteers who generously give their time and employees at companies who support technical communities. This time is not free. This is time that someone could be using to learn a technical skill or spend with their loved ones.

For some reason, this fact, the simple fact of respect for the time put into the community and the events by the volunteers and the employees has been lost. I’m not speaking about veneration or even gratitude. Acts of volunteering are rarely done for applause. Nevertheless, the time that is invested in making a community flourish or an event happen deserves respect and this is the respect that I find is lacking.

Moreover, (and perhaps this part is the most painful to say), I have realised my work as a technical community organizer is no longer accomplishing what I want it to accomplish. The roots of the inequality and imbalance in the technical industry (and many others ) are too long and deep to shake.

That is the impetus.

The opportunity is the conversation that I have witnessed in a series of tweets and blog posts by designer Karolina Szczur and by technologist and engineer Cate Huston. Yesterday, Karolina tweeted, “We can’t have more women, people of colour, people with disabilities and other underrepresented groups in engineering, design and leadership if they’re all busy doing community work”. Further to this, she wrote up her thoughts in this blog post. The piece is an honest look at her own journey in her career and the toll that community organizing has taken on her progress. In many ways, the words are painful to read. Juggling the desire to build up ladders and safer spaces, a wish to see the industry embrace diversity beyond the shallow marketing campaigns, and the desire to build up skills to truly lead in the industry is exhausting.

As a result, we often become spread thin over the many responsibilities, some forced, some chosen.

I used to think that this was the price that was necessary for change.

But now I am no longer sure of the direction or the speed of change. Or if the acceleration my own actions are providing is helpful or harmful.

“I have mixed feelings about lists of women. Well I say mixed: my feelings on lists are, broadly, negative.”, writes Cate Huston, in her essay Lists of Women Don’t Change anything. She is speaking about the kind of lists that are frequently publicised in the various corners of the internet: lists of women speakers or women influencers, usually in tech or STEM fields and usually compiled for the purpose of avoiding the so-called “manel” phenomenon (an all-male panel). “ ‘Diversity attention’ is at best worthless and at worst harmful. The only valuable attention is to work and/or impact”, Cate concludes and I agree. I want to work toward a future where more minorities start technology companies and become leaders in their field.

However, I no longer believe that the kind of work I am doing in the community is steering toward this goal. Instead, the ripples I had hoped to make are dissolving into the lukewarm pool of “diversity attention” and fading out. I have to consider that what I am doing may be more harmful than helpful.

Fellow community organizers, you have taught me more about perseverance, empathy, engineering and kindness than anyone ever could and it is those lessons that I will cherish forever. For that I am forever grateful.