Misfits Make Great Speakers
The number of women at tech conferences is growing, but we still represent a fraction of the attendees, not to mention the speakers. You may look around at a conference and say, “There aren’t a lot of people like me here.” But that’s not inherently a bad thing.
Hear me out. Sometimes when you feel out of place, it could be a sign that there’s a need to hear from someone with a new point of view. The big secret is: many great speakers and thought leaders are misfits and that’s what makes them so interesting. Ladies in tech, if you feel like a stranger in a strange land, it’s time to take those feelings and use them to become awesome.
My introduction to professional speaking
I’ve been presenting at conferences in tech and related industries since 2006. My very first professional presentation was at the Semantic Technology Conference in San Jose. I learned of this conference in 2005, too late to go. I was working on a project where I was writing the requirements for a classification system that used SemTech standards, and I desperately wanted to learn more from other people working with this stuff.
I pored over the program. I swore I would go the following year. And then, to make sure that my bosses at the time would let me attend, I submitted a proposal to give a talk with another one of my co-workers on the same project. I did something that a lot of people will probably think is insane: I proposed a talk to a conference I’d never been to — a technical conference — as a relatively “non-tech” person. My co-presenter was also a non-tech person.
We proposed that we — a business user and an information scientist — would speak about our experiences working with these technologies. We figured we could talk about the problems we had been trying to solve, the solution that worked for us, and the challenges we ran into as we tried to implement it. This would be informative to other people like us who were trying to use these technologies, and maybe the people who were developing the tools would get a better understanding of what the layperson needed in order to make sense of it all.
And it worked. Our talk was accepted. We spent several months creating our slides and practicing our delivery. We were scheduled for the first day of the conference, which allowed us to get the presentation out of the way before we had a chance to get too nervous. As an added bonus, for the rest of the week people came up to us and complimented us on our great talk.
Arguably, I did not fit in at this conference. I describe myself as a “non-tech” person in this context largely by comparison, though in many other contexts I would be one of the more tech-oriented people in the room. But in this case, I encountered many people who were demonstrating their work and saying, “Look at these cool things we can make this data do.” I was one of the very few people in the room saying “Ok, but let’s talk about why people would want to do that.”
Being female was just one of the things that made me stand out at this tech conference.
My introduction to being a lady in tech
When I was growing up, my mother was a systems analyst for Sperry Univac. I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew she worked with computers. I knew she travelled a lot. And she trained people to use these machines at places like SUNY Stony Brook and NBC Studios. She would tell me things like, “When you’re a woman in a male-dominated field, you can’t just be as good as the men; you have to be better.” While that might seem like an intimidating message, her success in her field showed me that maybe we have something to prove, but we definitely have the ability to prove it. She was a role model I could live up to.
Because of my mom’s work and her lifelong interest in computers, I grew up surrounded by technology in an age when a lot of people didn’t. At 3 years old, I used to play with punch cards. At age 7, I had toys that let me build radios out of circuit boards. At 10, I wrote simple programs with a neighbor who loved his Atari so much that his greatest dream was to become a video game designer. At 14, my family was an early adopter of the home computer. At 17, I came back from my first semester of college and told my friends about “email.”
This is not to say that I was brilliant with technology, or even hugely into it. Tech was a constant presence in my life and I was comfortable with it. It wasn’t until much later that I realized my upbringing might have been unusual in this respect. But it also seemed to fit well with some of my other traits — I was smart, imaginative, quirky, and usually the new kid in school. Plus, there’s no getting around this part, I was kind of a nerd.
My introduction to being a misfit
I’m not sure if my acceptance of nerditry had anything to do with my mom working with computers and computer people, or if it had more to do with my dad, who was himself a serious misfit. My father had his own reasons for feeling like he would never, ever be invited into the inner circle.
When my dad was in high school, his working class family moved from New York City to a town in upstate New York that had a smaller population than the apartment building they left behind. He rose from his blue-collar background to go to college, but his aspirations led him towards poetry and youthful rebellion, so he never graduated. As a prematurely bald, Jewish, intellectual, degree-less beatnik from the sticks, my dad was continuously surprised about and appreciative of every opportunity that came his way.
From him I learned that you have to be yourself, no matter how weird you feel you are. The weird people are the interesting, inspiring people that others want to learn from. And he also taught me that, for weird people to be able to compete with the dominant majority, you have to take advantage of every edge you can get. Maybe that edge comes from making a bold proposal, like I did with the Semantic Technology Conference, because you’ve got nothing to lose. Maybe it’s who you know, like when you talk to smart people at a meetup and they’re looking for other smart people to team up with. Or maybe it’s because you’re not like all the other speakers and you have something new and unusual to offer.
My point is: if you’re worried about “tokenism,” you can’t let that stop you. I’ve been on panels where I was the only woman. I was also the only person from publishing. The only person who was a business user rather than a developer. The only consultant. Does that make my point of view less valuable? Or more valuable because I’m going to be able to speak from experience about things that the other members of the panel can only guess at?
Get into the spotlight, misfits
Think about the speakers you’ve seen and enjoyed, the most memorable ones. What did you like about what they had to say? Did they have such a great impact on you because they reaffirmed things you already knew? Sure, there are speakers you like for that reason. But the really great ones probably challenged you, taught you, and made you think about or care about something in a new way. Maybe they even surprised you with the way their minds worked.
Look, there’s a good chance you’re weird. I think that’s awesome. Don’t sit there in the crowd and wonder if the people next to you are really your peers and if you belong among them. You should be on stage, sharing what you know. If you have something valuable to say, don’t be afraid to seize whatever advantage you have to get your message out there. There will always be a need for people with a unique voice, a unique perspective, and a unique message to get up and share their vision with the rest of us.
Originally published at ladiesintech.com on April 23, 2013.