A talk given at ThunderPlainsConf 2014 about the responsibility of kindness in your community as an individual, online, at events, and leading.
“Let me try once more," Milo said in an effort to explain. "In other words--"
"You mean you have other words?" cried the bird happily. "Well, by all means, use them. You're certainly not doing very well with the ones you have now.”
There’s a fantastic book I’ve loved since I was little—The Phantom Tollbooth. The author, Norton Juster quit his job so that he could work on the book.
With the stacks of notecards of research, he felt as if he were in "grade school again, and about to be buried alive under a mountain of facts." Taking a
break, he went to Fire Island on the tip of NY. He had taken notes from a few days earlier when a boy about 10 years old, asked "What is the biggest
number there is?" Juster stated that "when a kid asks you a question, you answer with another question, so I said, 'Tell me what you think the biggest
number there is,'" and Juster repeatedly asked him to add one to the number the boy came up with, leading them to talk about infinity.
This fantastical book gave me an early interest in wordplay and how fun but also loaded our words can be.
Who am I?
I’m a Web Engineer at Urban Airship. I have a tendency to want to organize All the Things. I recently moved across the country via a road trip because I enjoy the conversation that comes
with cabin fever and running from crazy thunderstorms. I’m currently catching my feet in NYC, haven taken my Airship dirigible remote, and deciding how as an organizer, can I make an
Use your words.
So I was a jerk, recently(It happens, I know!). Once I had wised up, I decided(as I do), I had to research how to apologize. Really. Words are hard. I wanted
to be sincere. Apologizing is an art unto itself and the chance for messing it up is big, all with the slightest change in what’s come out of your piehole.
“Whatever we learn
has a purpose
and whatever we do
and everyone else,
if even in the tiniest
for whenever you learn
something new, the
whole world becomes
that much richer.”
My argument is this: “Whatever we learn has a purpose and whatever we do affects everything and everyone else, if even in the tiniest way...for whenever
you learn something new, the whole world becomes that much richer.”
How do we maintain our communities? How do we grow them? How do we help encourage people here, now, and manage their expectations of what
they are stepping into?
There are steps we can take with user groups, conferences, and as individuals that can help support an inclusive environment that allows for debate,
learning, growing, and excitement. The social sciences have 100 years of research that can provide us with tools to treat our fellow programmers with
care. Much of this has been battle-tested in the organizations we run. The bubbles we live in. I’d like to share how we're creating a better world that is
welcoming to programmers, new and experienced, so that we're leading by example.
all the way down.
Why is this important to me? I’m a career transitioner. I was welcomed by kind, patient, and seasoned programmers. They could have been battle-
hardened. Programmers who where compassionate and certainly(endless stories) didn’t receive the same treatment when they started. There are different
challenges to face as a young kid exploring the world bold and excited(unencumbered) than when you’re an adult looking for purpose and hoping that
your jump to code can help you realize it.
I like to think that we can all change the world in some way--as an individual connecting with another human, or as a leader. We aren’t all making apps that
have these tangible connections to making the world better. I’m not (currently) working on a project that helps a person find housing or make sure they
have a hot meal each day. That doesn’t mean I can’t make the smallest contribution, by helping at least one person’s day be a little bit better. Or, at the
very least, not worse.
I’m not asking for sanitization of personality or keeping PC. Just be a model of what you would want your future programming world to look like. Your
world won’t necessarily look like mine. Great! That’s how we learn. But prepare to butt heads. And be kind while doing it. The reason we argue is to be
understood. We aren’t feeling understood. Let’s get a little closer to that.
It takes support. Mentors. The whole way down. Today I’m going to feature a whole bunch of individuals who had made my life and a probably a whole
I struggle as an individual,
as a programmer
I struggle as an individual, as a programmer
In November 2012, I was knee-deep in the process of becoming a programmer. I had quit my prior career and was furiously learning Python as quickly as
After having seen a tweet regarding a company I wanted to work for touting their hiring bonanza, I became frantic. I hopped on IRC immediately to talk to
some friends (employees of the company) to see if I should entertain the thought. I had no idea how quickly this interaction would spiral into my blessed
current existence. Two of them immediately responded with detailed takes on what I would and wouldn’t like but that I should absolutely check it out.
I’ll step aside for a moment to say this:
I used to be that person looking in from the outside. That person who would always look at people with purpose and who had passion for their work and
just say, "how'd they get so lucky?" When my (then)partner got a job at Google, we kept hearing the same question from family and friends as they
congratulated. I started to reevalute.
I'm not a person that likes to believe in luck having power over my ability to make things happen. Luck seemed silly. When my friend contacted me about
meeting for coffee regarding my first developer job, I was prepared for this opportunity, less nervous, because I had worked hard thus far. A perfect storm
in the guise of luck. And armed with a collection of people cheering me on.
--And suddenly a mentor arises.--
It’s that simple!(or is it?)
She had approached ME of all people. I met Raechel at a beer2.0 in Portland, a networking event meant to expose people in the community to a startup
looking to gain exposure. That month, it was my friends’ new companyspace and I was excited to share in their joy. Raechel was considering getting her
own startup off the ground and was oozing with enthusiasm to talk to people. Or at least to me! She was interesting. She was excited. She wanted to talk
code. So I did.
It’s amazing how even having the slightest bit more experience than someone else considering to head that path can make them feel comforted. Calm.
Ready to stay the course. Raechel followed up with me the very next day. She needed to see a path. She needed to know that even short term, she could
look towards something just a little more tangible. We set a coffee date shortly after and never looked back. She divulged to me after a few meetings that
she was hoping I’d mentor her. That I’d been so supportive and
--we all need that.--
She was genuine and willing to share how scared she was. I was blown away. I didn’t quite know what I’d be able to offer her, but she was convinced and I
was willing to suspend my doubts that I’d be able to support her. Someone was asking this of me and I couldn’t let her down. She inspired me to keep
I struggle as an individual,
as a programmer
What it is: What is the problem?
I am but an individual. I have no place mentoring others.
Guess what? You have NO idea what people need to hear until you’re willing to listen a little. To share.
What it could be:
I am a coder who carries within me the ability to do superhuman(computery) things that can change the world. And I can be kind. These words thus far
have carried me far.
Words and encouragement. They can make or break someone. Don’t underestimate that.
as a meetup leader
Meet: Chris Dickinson Jan. 2013;
endless number of occasions where I couldn’t even find the words(really) to explain HOW MUCH I wasn’t understanding is something I will be eternally
indebted to him for. That wasn’t his job. That was his sanity. He was so excited about Node.js and thought it’d be nice for me to try being able to think
Meet: Ben, PDXNode Jan. 2013
He’s a fellow with an endless bound of energy, smiles, and kind words. At the inaugural Node meetup in Portland, he greeted every single one of the
attendees. I was astounded. After speaking with Ben about how many great things we had to look forward to as a group, he asked if I'd be interested in
helping organize. You mean someone actually wants me to help? Yes. Yes I will. So I ran with it. I helped make sure there were speakers. I attended and
announced the meetups. I worked up the courage to give a talk at NodePDX. I shared with attendees the fun times we were having and how Node is an
awesome space to participate in. This was all because BEN ASKED. He asked. Do you know what feels more welcoming to a new programmer than to be
asked to help in some capacity? Nothing. That's the answer. Nothing.
Since that January almost 2 years ago, there were 8 organizers total recruited to this shindig. That little user group grew to more than 600 node friends.
We ran International NodeBots day PDX with 5 weeks prep and had a 50+ person attendance with arduino kits in every hand and sponsors to boot. We
got people excited about hacking hardware with JS. What the heck?!?! There’s now a growing family of organizers and friends of PDXNode who help
support this rad community we've got going on. People joked about me cat-herding the organizers of PDXNode. It can be stressful. It was always fun. I
wouldn't have felt able and welcome if it weren't for Ben.
Because of the ask.
as a meetup leader
What it is(the problem)
There’s plenty of meetups. But they always need heart. And diversity of attendees. And thought. I’ve seen many an echo chamber. We need to continue to
push ourselves, like we do in our code. To make ourselves a little uncomfortable in order to grow. I started the weekly code&learn(and secretly also
kvetch) for Pyladies in Portland because I recognized the need for casual hangout time with those who tended to be newer programmers. There were a lot
of us who had been trying to break into full-time dev work and needed to know we’d get there. There were Saturday mornings I didn’t want to bike out. I
wanted to be lazy. I wouldn’t be helpful. I’m not that great at Python. But I was able to connect those needing help. Let a friend know that the urge to
throw her laptop would never go away but there’d be plenty of company to empathize.
This is a different kind of commitment. If you’re excited, this can be just as huge a time-suck as running a conference. Especially if you care. It’s just a
slower burn because it is consistent instead of leading up explosively to one big event.
What it could be:
A supportive community that raises each other up--helps network, get jobs, encourage speaking and traveling, and gives hugs(or whatever form of
encouragement that doesn’t violate your boundaries). There’s a number of exciting groups that do this. I can tell you about them. Follow their models.
Change it and make it your own.
I struggle as a leader,
as an organizer
–We, organizers, who are trying to do our best.
“Don’t be a jerk.”
At the end of this July, my attentions were drawn to a conference that had been many months in the making. CascadiaJS is a regional Pacific Northwest
project/event management, budget planning, and fundraising, I took this as a way to forge forward with creating a conference filled with the type of
community I wanted in programming--diverse, caring, and passionate about coding. Thanks to my organizing team including multiple friends I’ve already
mentioned, we moved forward a little bit --14% of our attendees and 11 of our 25 speakers were from underrepresented groups.
The conference was a place I got to see meet up organizers I had worked with shine on stage as speakers, as core organizers for this massive conference,
and as stewards of our awesome nature. I think the organizers that have given me so much advice, love, and support go far beyond the “Don’t be a jerk.”
That’s the lowest common denominator in my book.
Let’s take a look back at November 2013.
I was in Paris when I got the text. It was 3 weeks after I had attended Cascadia 2013. I had left exhausted from friending and energized to grow my
community. How would I contribute to my home and the tech community I hold dear? Carter would pose a question to me that would offer this at a much
To be clear, I thought he was initially crazy or that I was misunderstanding the question. I had been running one user group with multiple events and
hosting weekly hackdays days at another. I excitedly put together Hackertrain with Carter’s help to lead debs to Cascadia. But Carter was asking me to -
run- the show.
7 sleepless months later, we had a well orchestrated circus on our hands. All of which couldn’t have happened without Carter laying the groundwork,
supporting me along the way, and providing me with a sounding board and place to argue for what I find important and worth fighting for here.
I struggle as a leader,
as an organizer
And I’m smack dab in the middle of running another conference at the end of the month. It’s people like Amanda, Jesse, and Vance who help encourage
others in their excitement and kindness who keep people like me from burning out. From becoming jaded. They are exactly the type of people I hope to
get to meet. The type of wonderful humans who should thrive in tech.
I never spoke at my own meetups. You hopefully will see very little of me at the conferences I run. If I’m going my job correctly, you’re having a good time
not noticing the holes in the boat I’m racing to plug. I’m not there to make a name. I’m there to create an experience. I continue to invest in you, and I get
to continue to love my work and my field and the insanely wonderful people I’m surrounded by from those efforts. It’s really very self-serving.
Your words changed
I was lucky.
People took risks on me. And encouraged me every step of the way(again, I was lucky, they didn’t HAVE to do that)
I can suspend my doubts long enough to say ‘Yes’ and get moving. I’m stubborn enough to carry it through because I don’t want to fail anyone.
I model what I want to see in the world where I exist.
This is an undertaking. It’s not easy to fight tiny revolutions. It can feel like a near sisyphean cause.
Kind words can be the difference in your day/week/month/year or whether you even stick to it at all. I removed the temptations I knew I would face
through excuses or really learning code(I knew it would be a challenge) by quitting my job and learning full time. Having spent time in evening coding
circles, weekly hack Saturdays, and coffee dates seeing the different challenges my fellow transitioners faced, I recognize how incredibly blessed I was to
be able to afford this opportunity to myself. And even luckier I was able to get a job so sooner after making that jump. --The Django core committer ‘luck’
talk. Our privilege requests of us that we give back to what we’ve been given over others. I’ve questioned this a lot since I was a teenager. That I’ve been
given gifts and the world demands from me that I pay it forward. It’s a lot of pressure. My most recent conclusion on this is that I’ve received no shortage
of good fortune. I will keep putting my energy into this because it’s the least I can do. You mentor as soon as you get the chance. It’s mentoring as an
human to another human in the form of conversation, as a leader and raising up your community to let it shine.
I keep coming back to the notion of all of us carrying some responsibility for the knowledge we have. That from the moment you get a little, you mentor.
You answer questions. You try to be friendly and connect people because you can do that, until you can help contribute technically(or whatever strengths
I like people. I want to shape the future. Many of us will change the world with the tools we create. I have alwyas chosen paths I could somehow see a
…also that many places you would like to
see are just off the map and many things
you want to know are just out of sight or a
little beyond your reach. But someday you'll
reach them all, for what you learn today,
for no reason at all, will help you discover
all the wonderful secrets of tomorrow.”
…also that many places you would like to see are just off the map and many things you want to know are just out of sight or a little beyond your reach. But
someday you'll reach them all, for what you learn today, for no reason at all, will help you discover all the wonderful secrets of tomorrow.”
And you don’t get there without a whole lot of help.
To whom I owe thanks!
• Organizers in all their wisdom:
Carter Rabasa, Angelina Fabbro,
Eric Holscher, Troy Howard,
Chris Williams, Charlie Robbins,
Ben Acker, Mikeal Rogers, and
many more I’ve forgotten.
• Art by: Ben Acker[11, 12]
• Art by: Jules Feiffer[1, 4, 5, 7,8,
• Quotes referenced are from The
Phantom Tollbooth by Norton
And a whole slew of people I didn’t have time to name. Countless friends, family, and colleagues that have contributed to my well-being and success.