Conf Writeup: Write/Speak/Code 2016

Last year, a few friends told me that Write/Speak/Code was one of the best conferences they had ever been to, and when the 2016 conference was announced, I decided I would make it a priority to attend even if I wasn't speaking myself. How could I resist a conference that hit upon 3 major themes of my life: writing (I have a blog, hello!), speaking (I speak at conferences!), and coding (that's my job!), all with a focus around women and community. Everyone I told about it said, "Oh, obviously you should go to that." So I packed my bags and headed to Chicago.

The conference had two tracks, one for "first years" (people who had never attended the conference before) and alumna (people who had attended before or were sufficiently senior enough to self-select into the "advanced" track). I found myself in a bit of a quandary, as there were sessions that appealed to me from both tracks, and while there were certainly sessions in the first-year track I wanted to attend, there were others that did not sound useful to me personally based on where I am at with my writing and speaking. I think there were others like me in this sort of in-between state, so I sort of made my own schedule even though I wasn't supposed to (sorry, organizers, you did a great job with the curriculum!).

On the first day, I went to the alumna track in the morning, which had a focus on leadership skills. I got to see fellow Hackbright alumna KWu (@kwugirl) speak on ask and guess cultures (Ask vs. Guess Culture Communication), which is something I had never heard of before, and was fascinated with what she had to say about it. Without knowing anything about what her talk was going to be about, I figured I would be an "ask culture" person, since I value honesty and directness, but the more KWu spoke, the more "guess culture" started to resonate with me, and it turns out you can be an extroverted guess culture. To over-simplify, ask culture people tend to ask for things directly even if they might be turned down, and guess culture people would rather not ask until they are sure they will get a "yes."

Ask vs. Guess Culture Communication

In the afternoon, I attended the newbie track for writing, as being forced to come up with blog post topic ideas really appealed to me. We did a topic generating exercise with M&Ms that I really enjoyed:

You could also totally do this without M&Ms by just picking randomly, or procrastinate by writing a script that randomly picks a color for you. Hopefully I can turn some of the topics I generated into real posts on this very blog!

We closed out the day with a session from fellow Android dev Annyce Davis about how she produces videos (Say It With Video), which was very educational. This seems like something I could get into one day, so I'll be keeping these notes around until then.

Say It With Video

The next day was Speak day for first-years and Visibility day for alumna. The Visibility sessions kicked off with a fantastic presentation from Neha Batra (@nerdneha) about building your personal brand ("Branding Is the Most Cringeworthy Term You Want to Know About"). 

Another session I really enjoyed on this day was "Challenging & Democratizing Algorithm Development" by Liz Rush (@lizmrush). Her talk was about bias in algorithm development and it's a topic that I think more devs should study. Along with the myth of merit culture, it is commonly believed by tech bros and people who listen to tech bros that computers can't be biased because they are machines, so any examples of racist (or other biased) algorithms are not any person's fault, they are just the product of unattached, unfeeling code. The thing is, humans are biased, and as long as humans are programming algorithms, they are going to contain bias unless we actively fight against it. It's a topic that deserves more attention and I hope more people have the opportunity to see this talk, whether given by Liz or on video.

I also have to mention the closing keynote on the second day, "It's Not You, It's Them: Reflections on Being Marginalized in STEM" delivered by Naomi Ceder (@NaomiCeder). This talk really encompassed a lot of what made Write/Speak/Code so special: we could have discussions and talks that were beyond the basic level of diversity discourse so often seen at tech events these days. We didn't have to establish what bias is, or what it means to be marginalized, or talk about kinds of microaggressions, because we all had a baseline just from living our lives. Naomi opened with "This talk is different because YOU are different," and poignantly outlined her experience as a transgender woman in tech. She ended her talk with a proposal for how to redefine imposter syndrome, not as a "psychological phenomenon" but a "social phenomenon in which people internalize common negative opinions about them" (which sounds very similar to stereotype threat, something brought up by Alex Qin (@alexqin) in her keynote, "Shaving My Head Made Me a Better Programmer").

The third day was Code day, and I was really excited to make my first pull request (PR) to an open-source project. I chose Julia Nguyen's (@fleurchildIf Me site for a few reasons: I think it's a great project that is connecting people and helping to de-stigmatize talking about mental health, Julia recently started working with me at Indiegogo, and it's a Rails app so it was a technology stack that I am familiar with. I led up a small group of people and after familiarizing myself with the code, opened two PRs and reviewed someone else's PR. It felt great to contribute and I look forward to helping out more in my spare time.

Code day closed out with a sobering presentation by Ruby superstar Coraline Ada Ehmke (@CoralineAda), "The Broken Promise of Open Source." Open source can be a really fucked up place and the kinds of discrimination and harassment Coraline has had to put up with is disgusting. I greatly admire her strength in the face of such overt hostility and hope that we can all make open source and tech a better place for women and other underrepresented genders.

The last day of the conference was all about self care, and was a new addition to the conference this year. I loved Ashley Powell's (@AshleyPQPQP) salary negotiation talk (Salary Negotiation for Women in Tech), which had tons of great advice, including phrases to use when negotiating that don't sound overly aggressive, and how to get a raise without getting counter offers.

The conference closed out with an unofficial activity, and my favorite form of self care, #nailconf.

I really got a ton out of this conference and hope to come back in the years to come. It had tons of actionable advice and it was so refreshing to hear so many incredibly intelligent people talk about their work and experiences at such a high level of discourse. I believe all of the talks in the main track were recorded, so be on the lookout for those videos. Many thanks to the very hard working organizing team: y'all rock, keep it up.