Techies: The Process + FAQ
A lot of you have asked questions about Techies. Where did the idea come from? How did I do it? What else can be done?
I’ve shared my entire process for making Techies Project below, formatted as an FAQ based on the questions I’ve been asked the most. If you have additional questions, add them to the comments at the bottom of this page and I will add them into this post.
Ideally this will help folks looking to make their own creative projects that help push culture forward.
Who are you, anyway?
I’m Helena Price, a photographer based in San Francisco, CA, whose work is primarily focused on Silicon Valley. I usually spend my time doing commercial, editorial and portrait work. My portfolio is here.
How did you get your idea for this project?
I’ve wanted to do a project like this for about ten years. I am obsessed with oral histories and the idea of archiving libraries of human experience, to function both as art and utility.
This year was the first that I’ve had the time or resources to do a personal project. In December I decided that I would do my first project like this, and it would focus on the tech industry.
Why do you care about this stuff?
I’ve worked in tech for seven years, the first four as a Silicon Valley startup employee, after which I got fed up and left the industry to become a full-time photographer. I also don’t come from the typical path you’d expect of a Techie. This project was created through the lens of my own experiences in tech, and in many ways, was therapy for me.
How long did you spend on the project before it launched?
About 1000 hours over the course of three months.
What inspired you to do it?
I had three main goals: 1) I want to show the outside world a more comprehensive picture of people who work in tech. 2) I wanted to show the inside world that tech is not a meritocracy. 3) I wanted to help underrepresented people in the industry feel less alone.
Why did you choose to do this project in three months?
I know myself well, and if I didn’t set some ridiculous constraints on myself I knew I would never get it done. I’m easily distractible in terms of side projects and function well in sprints, and I figured I could sprint pretty hard on one thing for three months without going crazy or changing my mind. So I chose a launch date of April 4, publicly announced it to hold myself accountable, and then ran like hell to meet it.
How did you find your subjects?
I spent about 150 hours whittling applications down to 100, which was not an easy process. The first round of cuts left me with 270 great applications. Then I cut it down to about 200. Then 170. Then 150. Then 130. Then 110. Then 105. And so on.
I had a couple of main goals for what I wanted to represent in the 100:
1) I wanted to make sure as many perspectives were represented as possible. When going for “diversity” in a diversity project, one way to go about it would be to focus on what most companies focus on — filling quotas. But that wasn’t the point to me. Instead of making sure I had X women and X people of color and X people over 50, I wanted to instead focus on the breadth of representation, from gender to race to age to sexuality to education to socioeconomic background to family life to place of origin and more. I wanted to get to the crux of what seeking diversity is really about — it’s not about percentages and filling quotas, it’s about the power of diverse perspectives, informed by different life paths and different struggles, and how it contributes to more comprehensive, informed ideas. I wanted to make sure as many perspectives were represented as possible.
2) I didn’t want the project to skew particularly positive or negative — I wanted to show the complicated relationship that so many of us have with the industry. So I ended up gravitating toward stories of folks who 1) come from places you wouldn’t expect a techie to come from, 2) overcame unimaginable obstacles to get to where they are today, 3) continue to face obstacles day to day in Silicon Valley based on their age, race, gender, etc., but 4) stay because they are super activated and proud of the work they do, they love tech and they want to see the industry get better.
How did you do the interviews?
I decided to do the interviews separately from and prior to the photoshoots. I did this for two reasons — 1) The more I’m able to get to know a subject prior to a portrait, the better I am at being able to make a portrait that accurately represents them, and 2) I wanted to take up as little of the subjects time as possible for this project, and by allowing the option to do interviews separately and remotely, the only in-person required of the subjects was coming by my house for 20 minutes for a portrait shoot.
So my schedule during the interview phase was something like this:
8am-2pm — Wake up, exercise, answer emails, do research on interview subjects, eat food
2pm-10pm — Do eight back-to-back one-hour interviews
11pm — Sleep
Sometimes not all eight slots would be filled, or sometimes I had last-minute reschedules or cancellations, which gave me some time to do normal things, like answer more emails or eat food (I forgot to schedule time for dinner, lesson learned for next time).
What tools did you use for the interview process?
For scheduling, I used Calendly. It was a godsend. I could set parameters (i.e. one-hour slots from 2–10pm, M-F), and it would automatically sync with my calendar, so once I set up the machine, scheduling took literally no effort on my part. It was beautiful.
For audio recording, I used Zencastr — a relatively new online tool built for podcasters, but it works perfectly if you are doing any sort of audio call and hoping to record it. It records each local channel separately and then mixes them after the fact, so the quality is quite good. I ran it in conjunction with video chat on Google Hangouts, because the facetime was important to me.
How did you get people to be so open with you?
I think the best trick is to actually give a shit about the people you are interviewing. Do your research on them. Do a pre-interview to see what really matters to them and what they want to talk about. It also helps to have a genuine appreciation for people and learning their stories and what they’ve been through.
I was up front with subjects about my own story, my experiences in tech and my motivations and goals for the project. I think if I was a rando who didn’t know the setbacks of tech culture first-hand, the conversations wouldn’t have been the same.
I also gave subjects the opportunity to edit their interviews after the fact, so if they said something they regretted later, they’d have the opportunity to remove it. Allowing the subjects to tell the best version of their story was in the best interest of the project, and I think that peace of mind allowed people to be more open in the interview process.
How did you transcribe everything?
I have a strange love for transcribing things (I was that girl who stayed in at recess to play typing games in elementary school), but unfortunately in the interest of time I needed to find a third party to do 100 hours of transcriptions for me. Little did I know at the time that 100 hours of transcriptions is $6,000.
When I work-worked in tech, my last role was Head of Comms and Partnerships, so I put my old biz dev hat on and shopped my project around to different transcription services to see if anyone would be willing to support a project like this. I ended up going with TranscribeMe as a transcription partner.
The time needed to clean up the transcriptions ended up not really making the discount worth it, so if I could go back in time, I think I’d use a different service, like Rev, whose transcriptions are cheaper AND require very little cleanup.
How did you do the 100 photoshoots?
The photoshoots were an interesting challenge. I love shooting portraits with window light, but to make 100 consistent portraits, you can’t depend on natural light, which changes throughout the course of the day. So I needed to set up a studio that generated light that looked natural, but was consistent.
I also needed a studio. Studios in SF are around 750 bucks a day, so I needed to figure out a way to cut that cost out of the budget. So I ended up squishing the studio setup into my living room.
I ended up doing a few different test shoots to figure out the exact lighting setup I wanted. I ended up going with one light (I use B1’s) shot through an umbrella w/ diffusion at the subject, and one light bouncing off the white wall of my apartment directly across from the subject, to both override the ambient and provide fill. I used a 4’ navy blue seamless and shot with a 50mm lens.
As far as planning, I knew that most people wouldn’t be able to come by my house during the workweek, so I shot every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in March, 11 days total. Shoots were set up in 20-minute sessions, also scheduled via Calendly. I did between 10–20 shoots per shoot day.
How did you pick the final photo of each subject?
It was a collaborative process between me and the subject. I was shooting tethered, so we could preview photos in real-time as I was shooting. I would have the subject come to the computer between rounds and pick the photos that they liked and felt represented them the best. With each round, we’d whittle it down, and at the end of the session they’d pick their 1–3 favorites. If they couldn’t decide, I’d make the final decision.
In general I wanted to choose photos that really represented the subjects’ personalities. Typically I gravitate toward more serious photos in my portrait work, but for some people, serious just isn’t part of their personality. Each photo can give you some glimpse into the subjects’ demeanor and how they see themselves.
What do you edit with?
Where do you keep all of your files organized?
I keep every asset needed for this project in Dropbox. Every person has a file, and within that file has research + interview notes, an audio file, a transcription, and photo files.
Who built your website?
Alonzo Felix did all of the design, and Martha Schumann did all of the dev work. They are amazing and talented and donated a ton of their time to making it awesome. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them. You can follow Alonzo here and here, and Martha here and here.
Why did you create filters?
I wanted people to be able to pick their own path. I don’t expect anyone to read all 100 interviews, and not every interview is supposed to resonate with every reader. By creating filters, people are better able to find the interviews that DO resonate — interviews with people who are like them, come from where they come from, or have been through similar struggles. People can also use it as an opportunity to learn about people who are different than them.
How did you get all of that press?
I went and researched every journalist that I thought would be interested in a project like this — journalists who cover diversity and tech culture, or journalists in silicon valley who are underrepresented themselves — and sent them the project. Those who found it interesting, wrote about it. Once it launched, word spread and more journalists reached out from there.
How did you get those sponsors?
I hear this question often. I didn’t go into this project expecting to go after sponsors — I expected to cover all of the costs myself, and do the project as scrappily as possible as to keep costs to a minimum.
Turns out doing a project like this is still expensive, even when you’re being scrappy.
Here were some of the costs:
Audio gear: $163.95
Transcriptions: $6,000 (got it down to ~$3,100 after discount)
Studio + gear for 11 days: $11,385 (brought it down to $6,404 by shooting in my house)
Domain registration: $103.80
Fonts for website: $275
Launch event: ~$20k (event space, drinks, food, printing, security, staff, etc — I originally estimated like $7k for this, but hoo was I wrong)
Once I realized the costs, I thought I’d try and go after sponsors for two reasons:
1) It would be cool for this project to not financially ruin my life
2) It would be an opportunity to see if I could get some larger companies to back this project, and thus create a market for future sponsorships of future projects from other creators.
In terms of how I actually got the sponsorships —it wasn’t easy. I have more connections to mid-to-large tech companies Silicon Valley than most people (in most cases I have worked directly with them as a photographer) and many companies I reached out to said no. Sponsoring a diversity art project by a rogue creative person is uncharted territory, and many companies are scared to get involved with diversity initiatives beyond sharing their numbers and saying they plan to do better. There are companies whose heads of diversity declined an intro to even discuss the project.
The ones that did want to support were Ueno, Medium, and Facebook Design. It was still a risk for them, but because I already had relationships with these companies, either as clients or as friends, there was a mutual trust that went into where the money was going and whether or not I could make the project worth their investment. sf.citi, LinkedIn and Pinterest later came on board to help cover the costs of the launch event.
FYI, I still lost a good bit of money on this project, and I did that on purpose, as I did not want people to question my motives for doing this project. Turns out, people still question your motives no matter what. Cool!
If you’re looking for sponsorships for your project, my advice to you: Go to companies and people you have a relationship and mutual trust with — maybe that’s your employer, maybe that’s friends or connections. Plan to probably still lose a considerable amount of money on the project, and work to keep costs down. And don’t expect to actually make a profit on anything like this — that’s not why you should be doing this work.
How can I help?
Here is the original list I published of ways you can use your privilege to help: https://medium.com/techies-project/techies-project-how-you-can-help-a494284ca7d6#.eqj5p6jlx
Another way to help the industry is to create personal projects that make an impact. You all have skills that can be applied to the industry’s problems in unique ways. You can use code, design, photography, etc. to create work that serves as a catalyst for conversation and change.
Are you still interviewing people for the project?
The plan was to only do 100, but over 900 people applied, so it feels a little silly just letting those people sit in a Google Doc forever.
I plan on doing one smaller, additional batch of interviews before I consider Techies finished. I will be focused on finding perspectives that were not yet covered in the project. As far as how many people I will add, I don’t know. As far as when I will add them, I also don’t know. It depends on how much time or resources I have in the future.
Can I still apply?
The window to submit closed on 7/22.
Can we partner in some way?
This is just meant to be a personal photo project and I’m not looking to do any partnerships. Your efforts are better spent partnering with the organizations I mentioned here.
I want to do a project like this, what advice do you have for me?
Here are the main pieces of advice I have to share, based on what I learned making Techies.
Check your motivations.
Before you settle on a project, think hard about your motivations and whether they check out. Have you picked a topic you truly care about and that you personally relate to? Are you willing lose a shitload of time and money for it? Are you willing to stand behind your point of view?
I’ve been wanting to do a project like this for 10 years, and almost a decade of life experience directly prepared me for how I decided to approach Techies. My best advice is to spend a good amount of time thinking hard about your own experiences and how that may inform your work and the problems you’d like to help solve. Choose a subject that you have a personal connection to. Expect to lose a considerable amount of time and money. If you really care, it should be worth it.
Play to your strengths.
Play to your strengths and the skills you do best. If you’re a photographer, do a photo project. If you’re into video, do a documentary. If you’re into data, figure out new creative ways to present it. If you love print, make a zine or a book. If you’re a superconnector, do an event series or meetup.
To make your project even stronger, find people who care about the same thing and who are great at something you’re not, and figure out a way to collaborate. In my case, having Alonzo Felix do all of the design and Martha Schumann do the web development made the web experience a million times better than if I had tried to do the website myself.
Be respectful of people and their time.
Do your best to minimize what you require of them. They are busy people and they are being generous to give their time to you.
In my case, I needed to interview and photograph my subjects but I planned all of the logistics to require as little of their time as possible. I did the interviews before the photoshoots and gave people the option to do them via google hangout, so the only in-person time required was coming by my house for 20-minutes for a quick photoshoot.
You should also find ways to make participation worth their time. People deserve some sort of compensation for being involved, and while financial compensation could easily put you in the hole 10 or 20 grand, you can alternatively trade your skills or other resources in a way that feels fair. In my case, it was giving them a free portrait shoot. Maybe in your case, it would be offering free consulting, design services, or web development in exchange for their time. Talk to your subjects and make sure that whatever you’re offering feels fair.
Done is better than perfect.
Most of you reading have probably worked at a startup or tech company, and it’s helpful to treat your projects the same way. You have to throw perfectionism out the window. If you spend too much time worrying about doing everything right, you’ll probably never get the project done. Figure out how to work quickly and efficiently, and don’t be scared of launching an MVP.
In my case, that meant committing to a three-month timeline, publicly announcing a launch date to hold myself accountable, and working 10–15 hours a day with no days off until launch. I also had to be okay with launching a rough product, full of bugs and typos (yes I know there are still bugs and typos, thank you), in order to commit to the launch date. But at the end of the day, the bugs and typos didn’t matter — the project itself mattered.
Stand behind your work.
Lastly, stand behind your work. Launching important work is hard. You put your time and soul into something you care about, and you put it out into the world for people to potentially rip apart. Important work is polarizing. People will criticize you, and some people will absolutely hate whatever you represent. But if you believe in the work you are doing, and your motives are in the right place, you can’t let it get to you. Remember you are doing good work, it’s important, and it’s helping to move tech culture forward.
And if you guys end up doing projects in this space, please share them with me so I can help spread the word.
If you have other questions related to Techies, please share them in the comments below and I will add them to this post.
Thanks again to Ueno, Medium, Facebook Design, TranscribeMe, sf.citi, LinkedIn and Pinterest, as well as Alonzo Felix, Martha Schumann, and all of the amazing project participants for your help making Techies happen.