A Black Man Walks Into the San Francisco CTO Summit…

On May 8th, 2017, at precisely 11:41am, I walked on stage at the San Francisco CTO Summit to give a talk.

At $995 for the session, and with over 200 attendees, the event is billed as senior engineering leaders from startups (75%+ are CTO/VPE/Dir Eng) with previous presenters being the CTOs/VPEs of Stripe, Coinbase, MongoDB, Zenefits, Warby Parker, Squarespace, Shopify, Birchbox, Tumblr, CustomInk.

As I took my place on the stage, I looked out at the crowd and posed the question, who identifies as an African American. No one responded. It was if no one had noticed, until that moment, that the makeup of people in the room, and the title of my talk were strangely in alignment.

With all the ongoing conversations and controversy around inclusion an d diversity, it is surprising that a tech conference, in San Francisco that bills itself as a place to learn and connect with your peers, allows this to happen. Let’s unpack what makes it difficult:

  • Inclusion takes work. You have to expand your network and ask for help from people you are not accustomed asking help from.
  • Inclusion is uncomfortable. The conference organizers knew the title of my talk months in advance. How awkward would it have been for the conference organizers to ask for help in finding People of Color to attend/present. Probably less awkward than me calling it out on stage.
  • Inclusion means changing the way you think about everything. For example, there were no affordances for hearing impaired or physically limited people to present. whereas, when I moderated at @SVComicCon, there were 2 sign language translators.
  • Inclusion is not free. It takes time, effort and money. If you are willing to spend money on schwag, you should be willing to spend money on inclusion. #JustSayin

I greatly appreciate every opportunity to speak on diversity and inclusion, however this was a very uncomfortable experience for me. The time spent preparing slides, practicing and rehearsing was impacted by the stark lack of diversity and inclusion I was there to talk about. This is also what happens to Eng Women and People of Color in the workplace all too often. It is very difficult to be at your best in those environments. It does not have to be this way and it will take upfront, concerted, and deep work by conference organizers, employers, and people to change.

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