My Journey to “Someone” [or] On the Terribleness of Silicon Valley
Last week, I gave a talk at ForwardJS, and it seemed to be pretty well received. This was the first time I gave a “soft” talk not directly about anything code related. It is also a pretty personal talk, so I was very nervous, to say the least. But I’m glad I did it. I feel very motivated to keep talking about this, and even obligated to talk about it, if that makes any sense.
Below is the script from this talk. It is not 100% accurate, as I deviated with a few small asides here and there, but it is probably 95% accurate. The “—” indicate a slide transition.
Today I’m going to talk about my journey into Silicon Valley and into the Node.js and NodeBots communities.
Before we start, a trigger warning. I will be discussing harassing behavior at events and companies. If this is triggering for you, I won’t be offended in the least if you want to step out. Please take care of yourself, first and foremost.
I also want to give a big thank you to my friends Kelsey Breseman, Kassandra Perch, and Emily Morgado for reviewing this talk and providing feedback.
One last note, due to the nature and length of this talk, I will not be taking questions during or after the talk. If you would like to discuss it more, find me in the hall afterwards and I will be more than happen to strike up a conversation.
So let’s get started.
Most developers tend to work 9 to 5, and that’s the extent of their involvement in tech. This is perfectly OK too, I was one of these developers for the first few years of my career.
There is more out there though. There are conferences, meetups, and even just being more active on Twitter. Getting involved in a developer community can be really rewarding, but it does entail risk, especially for marginalized groups.
I want to tell my story of how I got involved in the Node.js and NodeBots communities, the lessons I’ve learned, and the different levels at which I’ve participated in these two communities. I’ve learned over the years that my story reflects the common story of so many developers in the Node.js and NodeBots communities, and Silicon Valley in general.
My journey started one summer at a resort in Florida. I was at JSConf 2013 at the recommendation of a friend, and I was forever changed.
More importantly though, this is where I first met Raquel Vélez. I wouldn’t be organizing NodeBots SF or speaking to you here today if it weren’t for her. I owe her more than she probably realizes.
It was also because of JSConf 2013 that I was first inspired to speak at a conference myself. Soon after the conference, one of the speakers named Adam Solove wrote a blog post titled “You Should Speak at JSConf”. Still coming off the high of the conference, I thought “Wow, ya know, maybe he’s right? Maybe I can do this too.” So I submitted a talk proposal for JSConf 2014.
And it was rejected.
Probably with a fiery burning passion.
Because my proposal was terrible.
And that’s OK! We always suck the first time we try to do something. No one rides a bike perfectly the first time, so why should we expect public speaking to be any different? It takes time and practice, but it’s also a lot of fun, just like riding a bike.
When you see some speaking at a conference, or organizing an event, or leading a popular open source project, it’s easy to think they are naturally gifted, that they’re “born for it.” We tend to put experts on a pedestal. We subconsciously think that they are experts in everything, just because they are pretty knowledgeable about this one thing.
What you don’t see is how much we have failed along the way, and all the people who helped us get to that stage.
All of us speaking at ForwardJS today? We don’t know what we’re doing either. Not really anyways.
So remember how I said I met Raquel at JSConf? Well, I followed her on Twitter, and I found out about the NodeBots SF meetup.
I attended my first NodeBots SF event in November of 2013, and it was incredible! I met many more awesome new people there, including Dan Shaw, Morgan Allen, Rick Waldron (very briefly), Alex “Merlin” Glowaski and so many others.
My course was set, I had a new favorite Meetup, and I had found my community.
I didn’t let my first talk rejection get to me (too much). I realized that my first proposal was terrible, so I scrapped the entire idea and came up with a new one. I had been working with the Raspberry Pi a lot and figured other people might want to hear about it too. So I wrote a new proposal.
And it was also pretty bad. Not as nearly as terrible as before, mind you, but still not what we often refer to in the industry as “good.”
In this proposal(which was public), I made a mention of Johnny-Five that attracted the attention of Rick Waldron. As part of our discussion online about it, he mentioned that we should get Raspberry Pi support in Johnny-Five.
I had never worked on an open source project with other people that wasn’t related to work, the thought hadn’t even crossed my mind, but now I was intrigued.
I wrote up a plugin for Johnny-Five that added support for the Raspberry Pi to it and published it online. It was also kinda terrible. It was slow and missing support for pretty much everything.
This is also OK, because the first versions of new software are usually pretty terrible. And I am so very glad that I wrote it! Knowing that I’m creating software that other people use to make amazing art is immensely gratifying.
I have since rewritten the entire library and given it a lot of love in general, and it’s actually pretty decent now. It’s still missing features though, and is not fully optimized, and I really need to get some unit tests written for it one of these days.
Getting involved is an ongoing process. It’s OK when you don’t get everything right the first time. There’s plenty of time for that later.
Also, for the record, I still haven’t given a talk on the Raspberry Pi yet.
I still wasn’t deterred from speaking, but I realized that I had set my sights a little too high for a first talk, so I decided to try something a a bit smaller.
This proposal wasn’t terrible. In fact, it was pretty decent. I submitted the proposal, and lo and behold, I was accepted to speak at the very first ForwardJS.
So yes, this conference means a lot to me. It was the first time I had given a talk since college. And it went pretty well. Not great, but pretty well.
At the time, I was worried that someone would ask me questions about ECMAScript 6 that I didn’t know, because at that time there was quite a bit more about ECMAScript 6 that I didn’t know than I did know. That’s still true today by the way. It didn’t matter though. There was one question I couldn’t really answer, but it turned out not to be a big deal.
You don’t have to be an expert on a topic to speak about that topic.
And conference organizers want you to talk, and they want you to be awesome! There are lots of people out there that want to help, such as Katie K.
Around the same time that I submitted my ForwardJS proposal, I was at an all-day NodeBots hack event as part of JSFest San Francisco. I was helping to clean up with Raquel and she casually mentioned to me that I should help organize NodeBots SF.
Previously I didn’t even given organizing a second thought, because surely organizers have tons of experience and have been organizing forever and how could I possible help organize cause I’m so new and I would just screw it up and they wouldn’t want me anyway and…round and round. Raquel made me think otherwise and I contacted her and Dan Shaw about helping out.
As it turns out, the timing couldn’t have been better. The current organizers at the time were working on some awesome new things and didn’t have quite the time to devote to NodeBots SF as they once did. This is when I got to know Dan better, and he’s been so very helpful. I knew nothing about organizing going in, and I’m definitely still learning.
And that’s OK. We all have to start at nothing. But we don’t have to do it alone, there are other people willing to help you if you’re willing to take the risk and try it. Dan, along with a few others, were the ones that helped me.
We all start out at nothing. We don’t become speakers, organizers, or project leaders because we are innately more talented than other people. We’re not. We get involved because other people came before us and were supportive enough, and generous enough, and welcoming enough, to give us a chance and helped us succeed.
Looking back on it now, I realize that I am prone to small boughts of Impostor Syndrome. I’m dealing with it today even, especially after Karolina’s amazing keynote this morning. Geek Feminism describes impostor syndrome far better than I could, so I’m simply going to read their definition:
[Impostor Syndrome is a] situation where someone feels like an impostor or fraud because they think that their accomplishments are nowhere near as good as those of the people around them. Usually, their accomplishments are just as good, and the person is applying an unfairly high standard to themself (and not to others).
I think this is something we are all prone to, it’s human nature. It’s important that we recognize it for what it is though, a trick that our minds play on us. Every single one of you in the audience is capable of speaking at a conference, or leading an open source project, or writing blog posts, or organizing events.
Ok, it’s time to switch gears and get serious for a minute. I grew up in Texas, and not Austin at that. I’m also a liberal bisexual atheist, among other things, so as you can imagine I didn’t fit in there. San Francisco seemed like the golden city on a hill. The tech scene wasn’t the only reason I moved here.
I am embarrassed to admit now that I genuinely believed this place was a meritocracy when I first arrived in 2009. I just assumed that everyone here was more enlightened, that companies were diverse and welcoming, and that Silicon Valley wasn’t the cesspool of misogynistic, racists, ableist, ageist, homophobic assholes that it is.
But you know what, it’s not like I was enlightened back then either. As a cisgendered white assumed-to-be-straight male, I didn’t directly encounter or see these problems. Sure I was sensitive to the occasional homophobic slur, but I was more or less used to it. I also wasn’t out back then, so, yeah, there’s that.
I didn’t view myself as part of the problem. I mean, I never hit on women at professional events (or men for that matter), I never said anything overtly misogynistic online, I didn’t engage in overtly harassing behavior. Surely I was one of the good guys right?
Well, no, I wasn’t. I was contributing to the problem. I see that now. Back then, I had no idea what microaggressions were, I didn’t know what intersectionality was, I didn’t understand the concept of privilege.
Here’s the truth of the matter. The Silicon Valley card deck is stacked. If you didn’t win the lottery of being an affluent educated straight cisgendered able young white male, you are automatically at a disadvantage. When it comes to people, our industry is fundamentally broken, and we are all complicit.
Not standing against the current status quo is to support it.
Not standing with those facing harassment and abuse is to encourage harassment and abuse.
Sitting comfortably in your own situation, ignoring those around you who are suffering, is to say “Fuck you, I got mine.”
If you aren’t trying to make our industry better, you are part of the problem.
And I was part of the problem. I still am, to some extent. But now I’m trying to be part of the solution too.
So what changed? I started listening to people. I started learning about feminism and social justice. I started believing women, people of color, LGBTQ, when they say there’s a problem.
To be clear, I’m not an expert in social justice now, not even close. Just last Saturday, I was at a conference called AlterConf where I heard some stories from people of color that absolutely floored and devastated me. I realized that, although I have a pretty good grasp on feminism 101 at this point, my understanding of racism 101 is still nascent. I have a *lot* of work to do.
And I still fuck up.
And that’s OK too, as long as I catch myself or have someone call me out, I apologize for it properly and promptly, and I take steps to ensure I don’t make sure I don’t do it again. These last parts are critical though. Making mistakes is OK, we’re only human and we will make mistakes. Not learning from those mistakes and not taking steps to make sure you don’t make them again? That is absolutely not OK.
Going back to the fall of 2013, I had been unhappy at a previous job for some time. I had a hard time putting my finger on why exactly, but I eventually came to realize it was because this company was pretty typical for Silicon Valley, which is to say misogynistic, homophobic, and on and on and on.
In all fairness, this company had a reasonably culturally diverse workforce. We have to keep in mind that just because a company or community is terrible in one area doesn’t mean they do everything wrong, but more importantly if they are doing something right in one area that it doesn’t make them above reproach in others.
At this company, I heard frequent references to strippers, men calling their wives “bitches” and “cunts” for not letting them be, well, assholes to them, the words “gay”, “ retarded”, and so on used as slurs, saying someone was “acting like a woman” or that they needed to “stop acting like a girl,” personal insults in pull requests and on IRC, and rumors of much worse things. One of my coworkers would somewhat regularly try and get me to go to a strip club, knowing it made me uncomfortable, just to get a rise out of me.
There was a reason that there were only 2 women engineers in a team of 50 or so, and both of them were acqui-hired. The company didn’t care about hiring women, and even if they did, there was a hostile work environment waiting.
As for me, I didn’t feel comfortable being myself there, evidenced by the fact that I didn’t come out to a single coworker. I was scared to come out. I didn’t feel that I would be accepted for who I really was.
So I quit. And it was the best thing I have ever done in my career.
I’m not picking on this company because they are especially problematic though. I have come to realize that they are, actually, a pretty standard Silicon Valley startup. And that’s what is problematic.
When I went looking for a new job, my number one requirement was a not-terrible culture. I found Rdio, which is made up of some pretty amazing people. I love my coworkers. We’re not perfect of course, and we still have work to do to increase diversity, but I’m actually optimistic we can do it, and I’m comfortable being myself there.
So what does all of this have to do with community? Well, my experiences switching jobs taught me something crucially important and valuable.
The reason many people get involved, or stay involved, or leave a community, or quit a job, is directly related to how comfortable they are being themselves there and how much support they receive from everyone else for being themselves. This is true whether it’s an employer or a community.
We have to be kind to one another. We have to be. All of us. Even if your not an organizer, or regular speaker, or regular attendee, we are all responsible for shaping our community.
Organizers play an important role, of course. Organizers are the ones who set the initial tone for the community, and have the power to take disciplinary action when needed. But organizers can’t be everywhere at once. We aren’t privy to every conversation, every interaction between attendees.
To change the tech industry from one where entitled people think it is acceptable to say bigoted, offensive things, into a community where people are recognized for their abilities and achievements regardless of sex, gender or race, we need your help.
To understand why, let me tell you a story from RobotsConf last December. It was an amazing conference, it had a diverse lineup of speakers, a strong Code of Conduct, and organizers who genuinely care. Despite all this, it didn’t go without incident. One of my good friends, who creates some really amazing robots and wearables, was there as an invited expert. She was hanging out at her booth with her hardware, and a guy comes up to her and asks point blank “So, did your dad build this?” Remember, invited expert. And this still happened. Assholes are out there, and organizers can’t be everywhere at once. We need your help.
So what can you do?
Start by learning. Familiarize yourself with social justice. Understand what privilege is and how it manifests itself. Learn what microaggressions are. Listen to and believe women, people of color, LGBT, the disabled, when they speak about harassment and exclusion. Amplify the voices of those less privileged than you.
Call people out when they are acting inappropriately. When someone calls you out on your inappropriate behavior, apologize properly, think about what you did, and change your behavior.
Invite people you know who aren’t currently involved to join you at the next event you’re going to. Encourage your friends and coworkers to submit proposals, especially if they’ve never spoken before.
Don’t know where to start? Model View Culture and Geek Feminism are excellent resources on social justice, and I encourage all of you to go read all of them.
The Node.js community, and the NodeBots community in particular, are pretty good as far as communities go. We’re not perfect, of course, no one ever is, but there are a lot of wonderful, caring, empathetic people in our community. People like Mikeal Rogers, Raquel Velez, Emily Rose, and so many more. Other communities can be like this too!
And not just communities. Our workplaces can also be better. But just like communities, the people in charge aren’t the only one responsible. We all play a part in making our own workplaces better.
Silicon Valley is broken. It is the new Wall Street. We suffer from a severe lack of diversity, and diversity is actually getting worse, not better.
Lack of diversity hurts business, it hurts productivity, it hurts creativity. An industry of young affluent straight cisgendered able white men only caters to young affluent straight cisgendered able white men. It ignores the business opportunities of the majority of the population on this planet.
More fundamental than that, and far more important than that, lack of diversity hurts people. It hurts our fellow human beings. It hurts our brothers and sisters. Fuck the business case, this is about human dignity.
And it doesn’t have to be this way. We can make a difference, but all of us are needed to make a difference.