LambdaConf and the question of diversity

Last week, I was excited to finally purchase my ticket to LambdaConf. I had heard many great things about the conference, and I looked forward to meeting in person many of the functional programmers that I knew from work in Boulder. As Co-Founder and CTO of Stack Builders, last week I was also happy to authorize a purchase of fifteen copies of Haskell Book (a sponsor of LambdaConf) to help our staff grow skills in Haskell programming, which is increasingly important to our company and our clients.

On Friday, I was disappointed to hear that LambdaConf decided to invite a figure to the conference who is well known for expressing incendiary opinions that I believe work to decrease, rather than increase, valuable diversity in the programming community. I publicly mentioned on Twitter that I would like a refund of my ticket to LambdaConf, and I also subsequently reached out to the authors of Haskell Book to express my concern about their continued support of the Conference.

Chris Allen, one of the authors of Haskell Book, quickly responded to my private message and suggested that we have a call along with Julie Moronuki, the other author of Haskell Book. While we may differ in opinion about the best action to take regarding LambdaConf at this point, I believe that we had a very productive discussion on Saturday morning, and I respect their desire to continue to work for social change from within the structure of the conference. At the end of our call, we all agreed that it would have been better had the divisive figure in question not been invited to speak in the first place. We also agreed that we need to change software, and in particular, functional programming, to increase inclusiveness.

After my call with Julie and Chris, I’ve spent much of the weekend watching the continued debate around LambdaConf. From supporters of the current direction of LambdaConf, there are two particular views that I’ve noticed which I would like to address:

  1. The view that without a general rule about acceptable values, we should not exclude anyone from giving talks based on their publicly-stated beliefs.
  2. The view that we should not lobby companies when we have concerns about their decisions.

I believe that absence of a general rule regarding acceptability of beliefs should not be used as justification to maintain the status-quo. Alissa Pajer wrote a very eloquent post noting that any speaker selection is a decision that includes some people, and excludes others. We have not just an ability, but a responsibility, to make decisions that benefit the section of our community that we feel is most important. In a deeply unequal software industry, I highly value making decisions that reduce discrimination due to factors like racism, sexism, ageism and homophobia. By making decisions based on a recognition of the social context in which we’re embedded, we can work to reduce discrimination in software, even in the absence of an agreed-upon set of universal values.

I appreciate that Chris and Julie took the time to talk with me, and I respect the work that they’re doing to improve our industry, especially through their actions like supporting child care at the Conference and by helping to provide sponsorships for individuals from marginalized groups. I believe that inequality is far too deeply entrenched in the software industry for us to expect it to improve without taking an active stance. I am very appreciative that Chris and Julie welcome civil discussion with users of their products so that we can find ways to improve the industry together. Advocacy doesn’t always have to be antagonistic — in many cases, we can find ways to work together to achieve common goals.

Julie and Chris believe that they can achieve more to increase inclusiveness in the industry by participating in the conference than by withdrawing at this point, and I truly hope that they experience a great deal of success in their goal. While I may disagree with their decision to stay on the list of sponsors, I’ll continue to support their great book as long as they continue to support increased diversity in the software industry.

Advocacy, when done with civility and respect, is important in order to change parts of our industry that we don’t like. We should keep in mind that choosing whether or not to participate in a technical conference is also a political decision, and I support speakers, attendees and sponsors who have decided to withdraw from the conference on the basis of their speaker selection.

I’m sad to see a conference that I was excited to attend suffer what is quite possibly irreparable damage. However, their decision to invite a speaker known for expressing racist views caused LambdaConf to lose quite a bit of trust from many in the industry, including my own. I don’t know whether LambdaConf can recover from the impact of their decision at this point, but I do hope that by making different decisions in the future, conference organizers can provide venues for talks with great technical content, while helping to strengthen our community to become more diverse in ways that we value.