On Saturday I had the good fortune of attending AlterConf in Seattle. AlterConf is a conference series about diversity and inclusion in tech and gaming, which is something I have been getting more interested in and involved in recently. I am a huge fan of Ashe Dryden (AlterConf’s founder and host) and I had also spent some of the week watching awesome talks from previous AlterConf sessions. So I had high hopes for this event, and I was definitely not disappointed.
The first speaker of the day was Yvonne Lam who’s talk was titled “So You Want to Contribute to Open Source: Advice for the Non-Normative”. She had a lot of great advice about picking the right open source project based on what you are trying to get out of your involvement. I really appreciated the insights that “collaboration is not the same as community” and “interesting topic does not necessarily equal fun to work on”.
Monica Thomas gave a fascinating talk about “Tech Money, Gentrification, and the Policing of Blackness in Capitol Hill“. It was all about the impact that tech growth has had on Seattle, especially around gentrification of many Seattle neighborhoods, responsibility for skyrocketing rent prices and cost of living, and connection to the rapid growth in homelessness. When she talked about people who have lived in specific neighborhoods their whole lives being priced out and forced to move, she explained how they hadn’t just lost their home but “lost their communities” which is truly devastating. This is something our industry has to come to terms with and figure out how to fix.
Next we learned about “Invisible Arcade: video games as rock concerts” from founder Samantha Kalman. Invisible Arcade is an event in Seattle where attendees can watch someone play a video game projected on a large screen, or play the game themselves at demo stations. Samantha explained how games that lend themselves to performance, are visually engaging, mechanically rich, and dynamic, are preferred for this event. The popularity of the event has been growing rapidly. They are looking into hosting the event in other cities in the future. Samantha also explained the connection between the word “Invisible” in the title and queer visibility, specifically in Gaming. The rise of gaming as spectator sport (e.g. Twitch and the like) is really fascinating to me, especially since I am not a gamer myself, so I found this very interesting.
Anna Zocher spoke on “Resisting the Tidal Wave: Making Sure Chronic Disease or Disability Doesn’t Upend Your Career”. In this talk we learned about how getting a serious illness can derail your career and financial life, and what you can do to protect yourself. Specifically, Anna recommends getting “own occupation disability insurance” which will pay you what you currently make in the event you get a chronic disease or disability that prevents you from working.
In the next talk, Ijeoma Oluo told us about “How The Tech Industry Made Me A Social Justice Writer”. Her story began with talking about growing up very poor but bootstrapping herself to a career in telecom. She talked about facing all kinds of discrimination in her career, and how this fed into her interest in politics (she went back to school for a degree in Political Science). Then when the Trayvon Martin shooting happened she began writing about social justice issues. Her audience grew quickly online and she began getting TV speaking engagements — all while still working a day job in Telecom. She also runs the site “i believe you | it’s not your fault” where people can post anonymous letters about being sexually harassed, raped, and abused in other ways, and receive encouragement and advice.
Next we heard from Elaine Nelson on “Establishing Your Core Values”, and making your values part of your work. Her web development team at The Evergreen State College worked together to figure out four core values that could guide their work. This came in very useful as they have worked to iteratively update the college website. I think if more teams and companies focused on their personal core values, they could deliver better products and have a more fulfilling work experience.
Donte Parks told us about “Breaking Down Diversity in Tech One Company At a Time”. Donte is VP of Culture at Substantial, where he launched a program called Spectrum which is helping the company become a more diverse and inclusive place to work. He explained an 8 step process for launching a diversity initiative at your company. These steps are (highly abbreviated): 1) State your intention; 2) Build a coalition; 3) Listen; 4) It might be uncomfortable — that’s ok; 5) Start Small; 6) Think holistically; 7) Make everyone winners; 8) Be realistic. You can read a more substantial explanation on Substantial’s blog. I think this is a helpful framework and I hope people can use to improve their workplaces.
Whitney Levis talked about “Updated Spoon Theory for the Tech Industry”. I had heard of Spoon Theory before but never really looked into it. It is a fascinating concept of managing your personal capacities by thinking of them as a limited number of spoons you can use per day. Whitney explained how Spoon Theory has helped her manage her Autism and Lupus, especially in her career in tech. She talked about how her employer, NIRD, pays her hourly and provides really flexible working arrangements. This flexibility helps her take the time she needs to manage her symptoms and still contribute to her team’s goals. This talk really got me thinking about how people with different needs can be accommodated in the workplace, and how many employers currently are far too rigid.
Kevin Stewart gave a talk titled “Managing While Black”. He started off by talking about police interactions with people of color, focusing on the experience of getting pulled over for no good reason. He then connected this to career advancement in the workplace, and how similar bias comes into play. He talked about the inequity of the current system of hiring, which centers on leveraging networks that marginalized people often don’t have access to. He explained how in-person interviews can magnify bias, and promoted blind interviews as an alternative. I need to learn more about these problems and what I can do to help fix them.
This was a fantastic event. I learned a lot and met so many great people. I highly recommend attending AlterConf the next time it comes to your city. For more great reasons to attend you can read this blog post “AlterConf Sessions Are Awesome and You Should Go“. You can also donate to or sponsor AlterConf to show your support.
Thanks to all the speakers, organizers and volunteers that made it possible! Also thank you to Adobe, who hosted the event at their beautiful Seattle office. Finally and especially I want to thank Ashe Dryden for her tireless work on this conference — especially because she doesn’t make a dime off it herself. I think she is really changing the world with her work, and I personally appreciate her leadership and all she has taught me (via Twitter) over the last year.