thoughtwisps One commit at a time


Author’s note: This post was finished and published on the 19th of June, 2018.

for free

I have an unconventional friend. Unconventional, because he does not subscribe to the live-to-work culture that seems rampant among the glass-and-steel towers, finely pressed suits and freshly laundered shirts. We talk over the phone (or rather one of those apps - if this makes you think I was born middle aged, you’re probably right about that one), about life and politics and work. I sometimes forget how bizarre people outside of the tech bubble find our daily rituals of seeking exposure: conferencing, CFPs, meetups, showcasing open source contributions, endless hot takes on Twitter and shitting on the latest JavaScript library on Hacker News.

I’m going to give a talk, I tell him. Slides, demoing stuff on my computer, that kind of thing. I explain the technology I’m going to be talking about, how it’s used, what problems it solves. We talk. I tell him how much it’s starting to stress me out, this talk. How these things always seem like good ideas with months to go, but morph into nightmarish monsters when the talk date starts approaching. And how for some reason we keep signing up to do this more and more.

But you get paid to do this, right? he asks. No, most people don’t get paid to speak at conferences, I tell him.

Networking, hallway track, learning about cool new tech, meeting your heroes, or at least seeing them on stage, that’s why, I explain while he digests. I’ve become so accustomed to doing things for exposure: meetups, talks, tutorials, workshops, I never even thought about compensation. Everyone does these things. Twitter is bursting with conference hashtags and livetweeted talks - enough to induce a permanent state of conference FOMO. LinkedIn is full of posts celebrating this or that meetup. CFPs, conference parties, photos of happy people celebrating speaker socks - and here I am, in my pajamas, trying to figure out why the ef can’t I center this div using CSS.

Well actually: Conference talking is voluntary - at least on the surface. No one is filling out that CFP for me. And yet, when everyone is on the dance floor dancing, you feel you have to join in. When conference speaking becomes the norm, the way to become visible to potential hiring managers and future collaborators, it becomes a necessity, not a nice to have. A bit like having a GitHub profile. An active GitHub profile, mind you.

the good and the sad

Even though I actively hate myself on the eve of every talk I have ever given, the conversations and memories from conferences do usually make it worth the trouble! Some of my best memories of the tech industry are from meetups and conferences. I was a Django Girls Coventry mentor at PyCon 2015, met lots of amazing people and got to teach Python to a group of four women. One of the attendees later on became a full time software engineer. Stories like these are what makes interacting with the community very rewarding!

However, there are community experiences that are not great. My list is long and our collective list even longer. I won’t go into them here or likely ever. One incident still stays with me. Not because it was harrassment. No, on the contrary it was a comment that I initially took as a snide remark, but then upon later reflection, I realised the profound sadness of it. A lady came up to me and said ‘Of course you have time to do all this (referring to community organising) - you don’t have a family!’ I was a bit taken aback by it and perhaps angry. True, I did not (and still don’t) have a family, no husband, no children, no dependants relying on me to be there for them after work. But did it really mean I had no other issues or problems to take care of? The other reason why her comment hit a sore spot was that personal life had taken a backseat and eventually nearly completely disappeared from my life in the years post-university and I was starting to feel a nagging feeling of ‘is this it?’. The person who so desperately wanted to be consumed by work three years ago didn’t find endless context switching, battling for meeting rooms in open offices and panic-frenzy-debugging of production fires fulfilling anymore. How dare she think I haven’t sacrificed anything, I thought in anger.

I later realised that the comment had not been implying anything of the sort or even malicious. It had just been an exasperated reaction to the constant demand of free work and out of hours studying just to keep up for exposure, for the chance to secure a role. It favours people like me and imposes a heavy penalty on people who take up the bulk of caretaking duties in the household.

Even though this happened a few years ago, the comment keeps resurfacing. Last time I re-visited this memory was during the PyLadies Gender Paygap panel. A member of the audience noted that women are still more likely (in heterosexual couples) to be the ones taking care of the household chores and thus had less time to develop markers, that we in the tech industry equate with Being Good at The Job (TM): an active GitHub profile, a trail of conference talks, open source contributions to high profile projects, community organising with tech meetups (bizarrely, diversity and inclusion related meetups rarely seem to count in these conversations even though the leadership skills required to maneuver the hate filled waters are on par if not greater than those required for traditional meetups), and a record of experimenting with new tech on side projects. Exposure, is in many ways a privilege. It also takes a toll.

crags, precipices and other perils of exposed heights

Every hillwalk usually has an exposure rating: one for a light bimble, five for a fuck-why-did-i-sign-up-to-do-this. The higher the exposure rating, the more likely you will be required to scramble and try not to look down. The views will take your breath away, though.

An analogous thing exists in the tech industry. The more prominent someone (usually a woman or femme-presenting person) becomes in a given programming language or community, the more likely they are to become a target for harrassment and online and in-person hate. Several prominent contributors to open source receive death and rape threats on the regular and have to deal with racial slurs. Just being different in a space of homogeneity and doing one’s work seems to be enough justification for these vile attacks. The milder forms of this are various kinds of well-actually’s, the most notorious of which is no doubt, as Liz Fong-Jones - SRE at Google - put it: questistatements. It may come as a surprise to people outside of the tech conference circuit, but bizarrely during Q&A (which as the name would suggest is a chance for the audience to ask questions of the speaker) many in the audience who avail themselves of this opportunity use it to prove that they know more about the topic than the speaker. This always makes for rather awkward viewing and a de-moralising experience for the speaker. Exposure, crucial for many as a way to enter and advance in the industry, carries with it plenty of toxic waste.

This is not to say that all exposure is bad. Rather it is the requirement to be ‘out there’ all the time tweeting, blogging, pushing code to GitHub and conferencing in order to get a foot in the door that routinely disadvantanges people who cannot afford to buy expensive conference tickets or need to perform other duties outside of work time. Recently, a fellow community member told me that she had been recruited and offerred a position at a cloud computing firm, in part due to her extensive contributions to the local data science community. This is great and should be celebrated! But we should not expect people to give 90% of their waking hours acquiring exposure for the sake of getting into the hiring pipeline. She is a skilled data scientist and has the education and projects to prove it. Why all these extra hoops just to get interviewed?

re-evaluating success, life etc.

I am at a meetup.

I used to attend meetups religiously, on a schedule. My Sunday and Saturday evenings were spent zealously browsing the pages of, signing up for tech meetup groups and penciling them into my planner for the week. Then, if no production systems were on fire that night, I’d promptly make it by 6.30pm to the hosting company and hide in my chair reading a book until the talk began. You see, I’m not very good at striking up conversations with complete strangers and this fact is usually exarcebated if I am the only woman in the room. Anyway, regardless of how socially awkward the whole situation was, I made a point of attending, because let’s face it, I was and still am largely a newbie. There is always something new you could be learning. I’d decided that I was like a sponge: I had to absorb as much as possible from the technical community around me.

I certainly learnt a lot. About meetups and technical communities and about technologies. I saw some amazing talks, for example a talk on high-performance Java by Martin Thompson. The organizers of meetups deserve a lot of credit: it’s hard, sometimes thankless labour and you have to deal with everything from late pizza delivery to angry people who have been waitlisted.

The meetup ends and instead of braving the saunalike conditions on the Central, I decide to walk thought Holborn to St Pauls and then onwards to Monument. The streets are empty this late. A few Very Important (TM) finance/law people hail a cab. A guy with one of those square Deliveroo containers exits a restaurant and gets on his bike. The glass and steel buildings quietly observe, their mirror-like walls reflecting a distorted image of passers-by. Closer to Monument you can hear the laughter and the clink of half-empty pints being lowered on the pavement while their owners smoke a few cigarettes and laugh at whether or not Paul knows what a load of bollocks these new requirements are and how he’ll never get promoted. I’d be hard pressed to imagine these people - dressed in the City Banker Boy uniform - leaving their desks at 6pm to learn about a new and very complicated way to structure, slice and dice debt.

Why has tech industry developed these complicated rituals to prove one’s worth? The reasons are surely numerous and probably not far off from the reasons we perform whiteboard interviews - a topic for another time.

I’ve been playing the exposure game for a while, but I’m not sure I want to anymore. I want to be good at writing code and sometimes the constant need to stay on top of the tweet cycle takes time away from that. I want to be good at the basics, not learn yet another layer of abstraction that I won’t be able to debug when production hell breaks loose. So, today I’m taking some steps towards that. I’ve deleted all of the content I’ve posted on Twitter. I’ve reconsidered some CFPs that I had started. I’m not sure what will happen, but for the next six months (until December), I want to stay focused on the things that matter most to me.