Imagine for a moment that you went to the gym, and everyone there was really fit. Muscular and tone. You look around for cameras because you think you might be at a photo shoot. How would that make you feel? You might be excited because you are in the right place to improve. Or you might be like me and worry about fitting in, worry about annoying folks, worry that your goal of being a little bit healthier is too small.
That’s how YouTube is for me. I look at Guy in a Cube, and SQLBI, and Curbal; and I feel inferior. I think I’ll never charge those rates, I’ll never have that many subscribers, I’ll never reach that pinnacle. It’s demoralizing. It’s also utter horsecrap. I’m pretty sure they all see me as a peer.
Imagine again that in that gym you go to talk to one of the instructors and they say “If you want to become an Olympic level athlete, you will have to train for YEARS. If you want to be the best of the best you need 10,000 hours of dedicated practice. You may have to spend 20, 40, or 60 hours per week training to reach that level!”
Would you feel pumped up? Would you feel inspired? Would you feel excited?
Personally, I would leave that gym. And I would never come back, because it wasn’t a place where I belonged.
The problem with hustle culture
Hustle culture, like most cultures, has some admirable values. Grit, determination, and self-reliance are positive virtues. But taken to an extreme, it places all on the onus on the individual to “work” their way through any problem. In the past, I’ve hurt myself and others because of this mindset.
I worked at my last job far longer than I should have, because I thought if I just worked harder and more hours, I could fix it all. I thought I just needed to get better, faster, smarter. In reality, the kindest things I did for everyone was quit my job.
I’m painfully German, so the way I show love is through acts of service, not kind words, not quality time. My German grandpa showed me love by having me pour concrete. I’m not sure if he ever said “I love you”. And in my marriage, I thought I was only of value if I was “doing” things. I didn’t value just being present, and that led to some bumps the first few years of our marriage. I always thought I had to be “doing” something to earn my place.
Hustle culture places all of the responsibility on the individual. It ignores the role of community and society. It blames the individual for all of their problems. We as a community can do more than that. We can take on each other’s challenges.
I hope you will forgive the religious reference that follows, but I believe that if you take the Christian faith seriously, truly seriously, then you have to believe that every single person is important. Every single person is made in the image of God and deserving of respect. Regardless of how many hours they work or their career aspirations.
It’s good to inspire greatness, but it’s better to remind people that they are already great.
And if you continue to take that faith seriously, then you have to be willing to meet people wherever they are, in whatever circumstances they are in, and be present. Be present and witness their suffering. See the single parent that is trying to manage parenting and a job at the same time. See the woman whom everyone assumes that she works in marketing or HR, and see her struggles and anger. See the person with depression or anxiety that struggles to get out of bed, much less make it through the work day.
To welcome everyone, we have to see everyone. And to see everyone, we have to tolerate their pain and suffering, and bear part of it ourselves.
Taking care of yourself
People making proclamations about what you should do or must do, they don’t know your life circumstances. They physically can’t. You know your limits and you should respect them. And even that inner voice in my head that compares myself to people on YouTube often forgets the full picture.
I spent last Sunday bringing my mom over to my house so we could bury her dog. It was sad, and it was human, and it was the best way I could have spent that Sunday. Better than anything work could provide.
How I think about safety at the events has changed dramatically over the past 10 years. When I was young and unmarried, I didn’t think about it at all. I’m 6’2”, heavy set, and broad shouldered; no one is going to mess with me. And regarding emotional safety, I may have had worries or concerns about fitting in or being accepted, but I never thought of it as safety.
That has changed over time, as I learn that other people’s lived experiences were dramatically different than mine. It changed when my female-presenting spouse was harassed at a SQL Saturday speaker’s dinner. I had made a joke to a speaker I just met that “my spouse only wears dresses 3 times per year, and one was at our wedding.” He made a joke in kind that would have been appropriate if we were friends for years. We had just met. Later that night when he made another comment, I had to quickly shut it down.
My appreciation for safety again changed when my husband came out as transgender. We’ve thankfully never had an issue at any event, and everyone we’ve talked to has been warm and welcoming. But now what was once background noise for me is something I pay close attention to, hoping I don’t hear sirens.
How should we think about safety?
The way many lucky people like myself normally think about the word safety is unhelpful in this context. 10 years ago, I would hear the word and think about muggings and stabbings. Now, I think a better analogy is food safety.
Think about how you evaluate leftovers in your fridge to see if they have gone bad. You think about how old they are, you give them a look, and a sniff. I can count the number of times I’ve had food poisoning on one hand, I will regularly eat undercooked food. I am privileged in that regard. But many of us have had bad experiences with old food. We’ve found mold or had food poisoning. One bad experience and you start just throwing it out instead of risking it.
Think about how you evaluate restaurants. Do you look at the inspection notices? If your friend says they had food poisoning there once, how does that change your evaluation? You might write it off as bad luck. What if three of your friends have had food poisoning at a restaurant? You’d probably never go there and would tell others to avoid it as well. It’s rarely a binary decision.
For some people, food safety is deadly serious. If you have a peanut allergy, one thoughtless mistake could kill you. For me, I’m a diabetic and I learned the hard way that IHOP puts pancake batter in their scrambled eggs. What the heck! If I hadn’t tasted something was off, that could have sent me to the hospital. And that’s often the issue, I can eat peanuts thoughtlessly and safely. But for others it could harm them or kill them.
How I evaluate safety at conferences
So coming back to our topic, imagine if at every single restaurant you didn’t know how fresh the food was, and no one could tell you. What would you do? You would inspect it. You’d check for mold or hairs, you would give it a sniff. You might give it a small taste. Or maybe you’d provide your own food because of too many past incidents.
Based on my own personal lived experiences and what I’ve heard from others, I believe this is what it’s like to be a woman or queer in IT. You always have to inspect and sniff the food. And unsurprisingly, the chef is likely to take this personally as an insult. “I would never serve bad food!”. Well, maybe not intentionally you wouldn’t. But I can’t afford to assume that.
In the book, The Speed of Trust, trust comes down 2 things at the end of the day: character and competence. As a speaker and an attendee, I’m constantly sniffing out these two things out at every single event I attend, all while trying not to offend the chef.
Character in this case is your ability to acknowledge and understand these issues. If your conference does not have a Code of Conduct, maybe you don’t understand the benefits of one, or you need help writing it thoughtfully. If your conference is adamantly unwilling to have a code conduct, that’s like denying food inspectors into your establishment because your chefs are “well-trained”. In which case, I have no interest in attending or supporting your event. You could send me to the hospital.
Competence is your ability to execute on your character. You may have the best of intentions here. But if you espouse a commitment to diversity or new speakers at your conference, but have a very short CFS or 100% blind submissions, that sends mixed messages. While I can’t determine the cause, I will assume that either your values are false or that there is a challenge in your ability to execute on them. Sometimes it’s totally innocent reasons, but if I have a peanut allergy I don’t give a damn about whether it was an accident that my meal included peanuts. I simply can’t afford to ignore it, for my own safety.
So what can you do to signal safety?
Simply put, talk the talk and walk the walk.
Have a code of conduct, have a policy for harassment. But more than that, think about how you support unrelated marginalized groups. If a conference provides child support, I will see that as a “smell” of good character and competence even if I don’t have a child. Conversely, if they put pronouns in the bios but have 0 other DEI initiatives, I will read that as virtue signaling. I could be wrong in either case, but all I have are sniffs and tastes.
So, for 2023 I’ve decided that I want to learn Azure Synapse. I want to be able to make training content on it by the end of the year. I’d like to be able to consult on it in two years. And right now, I am absolutely banging my head against the learning curve. Let’s talk about why.
The integration problem
Occasionally, I’ll describe Power BI as “3 raccoons in a trench coat: PowerQuery, DAX, and visuals”. What I mean by that is it is 3 separate products masquerading as a single, perfectly cohesive product. Each of those pieces started out as separate Excel add-ins, and then were later combined into a single product. And it shows.
The team at Microsoft have done a great job of smoothing out the rough edges, but you still occasionally run into situations where the integration isn’t perfect. A simple example is where should I create my date tables in Power BI? Should I use M or DAX? The answer is either! Both of them have good tooling for it. Because these tools evolved separately, there’s going to be some overlap and there’s going to be some gaps.
Azure in general (and Synapse in particular) has this problem. If Power BI is 3 raccoons in a trench coat, Synapse is 10 of them wobbling from side to side. The power of the cloud is that Microsoft can quickly iterate and provide targeted tooling for specific needs. If a tool is unpopular or unsuccessful, like Azure Data Catalog, Microsoft can build a replacement, like Azure Purview.
But this makes learning difficult. Gone are the days of a monolithic SQL Server product where, in theory, all of the parts (SSRS/SSIS/SSAS) are designed to fit cohesively into a single product. Instead, Microsoft and us data professionals must provide the glue after the fact, after these products have evolved and taken shape. Unfortunately, this means understanding not only how these pieces fit together but when in practice they don’t.
This is the curse of the modern cloud professional. We are all generalists now.
The alternatives problem
The other big problem is just like the issue with M and DAX, there are multiple tools available to do the same job. And while M and DAX compete on the borders or on the joints, Azure Synapse has tools that are direct competitors. The most prominent example is the querying engines.
From what I understand, Azure Synapse has 3 main ways to access and process data: dedicated SQL pools , dedicated Spark pools, and SQL Serverless. Imagine if I told you that you had 3 ways to cut things: a scalpel, a butter knife, and a wood saw. These all cut things, it’s true. But then imagine if I immediately dived into what type of metal we use for our butter knives, that our saws have 60 teeth on them, etc.
It would be a little disorienting. It would be a little frustrating.
You might wonder how we ended up with 3 different tools that do similar things. You might wonder when you should use which. You might wonder when you shouldn’t use one of them especially. Giving your learners the general shape and parameters of a tool is a big deal.
Imagine if a course on Azure ButterKnife™ instead started with “This is Azure ButterKnife™, it is ideal for cutting food especially soft food. It shouldn’t be used on anything harder than a crispy piece of toast. It originally started as a way to spread butter on toast.” It would take 20 seconds to orient the learner, and if they were looking for a way to cut lumber, they could quickly move on.
The expertise problem
When I was doing a course on ksqlDB for Kafka, I ran into a particular problem. Because ksqlDB was a thin layer of SQL on top of a well-known Kafka infrastructure, so much of the content assumed you were experienced and entrenched in the Kafka ecosystem. It quickly covered terms and ideas that made sense in that world, but no sense if you were coming from the relational database world.
And a thing I would keep asking, to no one in particular, was “How did we end up here?”. What was the pain point that caused people to create an event stream technology and then put a SQL querying language on top instead of just using a relational database. I talk about this more on a podcast episode with the company that made ksqlDB.
Azure Synapse has a similar problem. It is an iteration on various technologies over the past decade. And it’s designed to support large datasets (multi-terabyte) and complex enterprise scenarios. And so a lot of the content out there assumes a certain level of expertise, in part because the people interested in it and the people training on it are both experts.
The challenge this presents is twofold. First, the more of an expert you are, the harder it is to empathize with a new learner. Often the best teacher is someone who learned a technology a year ago, and remembers all the stumbling blocks. This is a challenge I struggle with regularly myself.
The other issue is that the content often pre-supposes the learner knows what the foundational technologies are and why they are important. It might assume the learner Knows what delta lake is, and what parquet is, and um, why are we storing all our data in flat files to begin with???
That’s not to say that every course needs to be a 9 hour foundations course. But there are ways to briefly remind the viewer why something is important, what pain point it solves, and why they should care. And if they are totally new, this helps orient them quickly.
For example, a course could say “Here we are using the delta lake approach. This allows us to enhance the efficient column storage of parquet files with ACID compliance that we usually lose out on when using a data lake.” This explains to new learners why we are here and reminds seasoned learners why they should care. This can be done quickly and deftly, without feeling like you are talking down to experienced learners.
So now what?
I’m hoping this will help folks who make content in this area. If nothing else, I hope it will be a reminder to me a year from now, when I’ve forgotten what a pain this was. In the next blog post, I’ll write about the instructional design techniques people can use to get around these issues.
2022 was my best year financially and probably my worst year personally. This was the year that we achieved financial independence. We had 6-12 months of expenses in the bank and the royalties were covering our living expenses. It was also the year that I found that a relaxing weekend off wasn’t enough any more, that bouncing back wasn’t working anymore.
Too much, all at once
2021 was very quiet year as far as my consulting was concerned, about 10% of my revenue was consulting and the other 90% was royalties and completion payments. In 2022 that changed, however.
There was about 3 months where I was billing 20-30 hours per week on top of signing up for a new course near the end of it. Because the royalties were covering my expenses, this all went right into savings and we ended up with 6-12 months of savings. This is a consultant’s dream.
Unfortunately, life was occurring at the same time.
My husband had an elective surgery that we were planning for months. It went great and he’s completely recovered. What this meant, though, is that I was tasked as nurse for 2 weeks and janitor for 3 months. I was suddenly doing all the chores that I had taken for granted, while also working 40-50 hours per week.
Near the end of this my mom started having issues as well. The isolation of Covid was finally taking it’s toll and she was having more issues. She was clearly lonely and bored and only really got out of her apartment every other week.
This also has been largely resolved, but for a while I was bribing myself with Magic the Gathering boosters to call her every day and check up on her. We’ve increased the services that she’s receiving, and she gets out twice a week now, but during the summer it was a really challenging time.
When your body stops working
I think many would describe what I went through as burnout. I’m not sure of the right term, but stuff just stopped working. More coffee didn’t help. I would schedule a weekend to catch up on a course and get nothing done. I would take a few extra days off, to no lasting effect.
Realizing I needed something more, I schedule 2 weeks off at the end of the year. As a consultant it’s difficult to take time off unless you plan it far in advance. It’s even more difficult if you feel like you are always behind on projects. I only made 2 courses this year and the second one was 3 months late, horrifically overdue.
I’m one week in and I think this was 100% the right choice, I needed a deeper rest to catch up from the last 3 years.
A gut punch from Pluralsight
A couple of years ago, Pluralsight was purchased by private equity. I was cautiously optimistic at the time that this might enable them to get away from the quarterly cycle of the stock market. The results were mixed, with them making a very large acquisition of A Cloud Guru, which is still resolving.
But in December this year, the company had 20% layoffs essentially firing 400 employees. There were also changes for authors, and while I can’t get into the details, I’m expecting my royalties to go down 25%. This will put me below sustainability, with royalties no longer covering 100% of my living expenses.
So now what
For now I’ve been focusing on enjoying my vacation, recovering from 2022, and not worrying about the short term. I’ve also been reaching out to colleagues and peers, asking for advice.
I no longer see PS as a sustainable career, which means looking into doing more consulting or selling my content elsewhere. I could also get a regular W-2 job, but I would lose much of the flexibility that helps me take care of my mom.
In the end, I think I’ll be fine. But I have no idea what I’ll be doing for a living by the end of 2023.
If I would write a book on becoming a technical presenter, chapter 0 would be on deciding to actually do it. This is the biggest hurdle for folks, they seem to always come up with reasons why they shouldn’t. This is totally understandable! I was practically shaking when I gave my first presentation, but if I had never taken that first step, I would never be able to making training content for a living.
So in this blog post, I’m going to try to help people get past step 0. Some of the reasons are altruistic and some of them are more selfish, but I think there are plenty of reasons why you should do it.
1. Learners have a unique perspective
I think the biggest issue is folks feeling like they have to be experts, like they have to be perfect. That simply isn’t true. I do think it’s important to preface the beginning of a talk with your experience level, to set expectations. But beyond that, you are golden. Often times in my line of work, I have to learn a new piece of technology in two months and then make a course on it.
To emphasize the previous point a bit more, people who are just learning a technology or are new in a field have a unique perspective that is difficult to find. Good teaching involves an aggressive sense of empathy for your audience, for the learner. And the longer you have been working with a technology, the harder that becomes. Very quickly you forget how hard it is to get a development environment up and running. Very quickly you forget how unintuitive some of the technical terms are.
Learners are going to have a greater sense of empathy with their audience and can warn people about the roadblocks with getting started. This is a rare resource.
2. The community needs new speakers and fresh faces
I know when I was helping run the local Power BI user group, it was a challenge to find speakers. I gave probably a third of our presentations the first year we got started, jsut to try to fill the slots. I think the biggest challenge of running a user group is finding speakers, and user group leaders are always grateful when someone volunteers to speak, regardless of their skill level.
But beyond local groups, the broader community needs new and different speakers. Because of the amount of effort and resources speaking requires, and because of the bias towards “expertise”, you tend to have the same handful of speakers talking about a given subject.
These folks can often be opinionated or set in their ways. It can be value to have other folks who have a fresh perspective, who can help identify different ways of doing things. This is especially true in areas like business intelligence, where it is less about best practices and more about the context of the business you are working in.
3. Sharing content is the best way to learn
Ultimately, to learn well we need something that challenges our assumptions and identifies gaps in what we know. Reading blogs or watching videos usually doesn’t do this because there are two layers of bias going on.
First, it only includes what the author thought was important to include. This often doesn’t include gotchas, edge cases, or things the author assumes everyone knows already. Second, there’s your own bias. When we are doing just-in-time learning, we are often focused on solving a specific problem and will learn just enough to feel comfortable solving that problem. Rarely do we ask “Okay, what am I missing? What could go wrong?”.
But when you try to do something in your homelab, you often find all the setup tasks that weren’t mentioned in the tutorial. You find the things that could (and do) go wrong. When you give a presentation, you think through all the questions someone might ask and so you are forced to learn a subject more deeply.
And as you present multiple times, you run into different questions and develop and intuition for the kinds of things someone might ask you. Giving a presentation with demos is often the best of both worlds, because you have to test it and anticipate whatever questions people might have.
4. Becoming a good speaker takes time and practice
Becoming a good presenter takes time, there’s just no way around it. Even if you are naturally good speaker, there are a set of skills you can only get from practice. One of the biggest one is pacing. When I started speaking, I would either get nervous and speed through my content, or I would get too excited and go over on time.
Being able to stay focused, manage your time, and handle questions or interruptions are all things you have to learn through practice. If you wait until you are an expert speaker to start speaking, this will never happen. Depending on your experience, you might have to present a dozen times to really find your voice and pace.
5. Speaking is good for your career
Presenting is, in my opinion, great for your career. No one should feel obligated to speak as part of their career growth, but it provides a chance to practice a bunch of skills that may not come up normally in your day to day work. In my experience, if you can get comfortable speaking to 70 strangers, it become much easier to talk with 2 of your coworkers. By practicing refining your content, your communication in general become more clear and crisp. But anticipating questions in your presentations, you anticipate things that could go wrong in a project.
It’s also a chance to develop peer relationships that will help you throughout your career. When I go to events these days, the thing I cherish the most is sitting in the speaker’s room and just hearing people chat. I’ve been able to build connections and get my name out there, which has been tremendously helpful for my career. And as a result, when I need help with something, I’ve been able to reach out to those speakers for help and vice versa.
In summary, speaking can both provide a unique perspective for your audience, and help you grow both as a presenter and as a technical expert. Local user groups and virtual groups are often grateful to have new speakers and can provide a low-risk environment to work on your skills and grow. As time goes on, it can open up opportunities such as consulting that depend on having those communication skills.
There’s some valuable discussion going on regarding diversity and conferences. I wrote about it last year. I’d like to write more of my thoughts on the subject, but so far I’ve been overwhelmed with my day job and I have some older posts I owe people. That said, I figured this would be a quick way to add some context and something useful to the dialogue.
Below is a blog post I wrote in July 2019 in response to some frustration to the selection process that year. For each section, I’ve added a “What this really meant” section to add some background context. I hope this makes some of the conversations more fruitful.
A peek inside the program selection process
As one of the program managers for PASS Summit, I always wish that people knew more about all of the steps involved in selecting the community sessions each year. The difficulty of balancing all of the tradeoffs and constraints is an incredibly challenging and rewarding task. I personally like to think of it as a high stakes game of Sudoku, and in fact I will be using that analogy to help explain the process.
In this blog post, we will take a high-level look at the different stages of the PASS Summit selection process, as well as a few of the factors that we try to balance as a team.
What this really meant
Back in March of that same year, there was some particular controversy. I forget the exact details, but I recall writing a long Twitter thread about “hey we are human beings, not some shadowy cabal.” Given the regular lack of transparency about the the selection process in general, any conclusions people jumped to were entirely understandable. My hope was to help change that as much as I was able to.
Simply put, if you don’t communicate your process, people will assume the worst.
As a team, we had hoped that each one of us could write a blog post about the process and perhaps give some better insight and transparency. Unfortunately being a program manager was essentially a 50-75 hour per year commitment, where the only financial compensation was entry to conference and maybe some speaker swag. It was difficult to make the time for going beyond that task.
A year later, in the dying days of PASS, I wrote about the difficulties about improving transparency. I think the organization had gotten into a bit of a doom loop, but it’s questionable how much of a difference I could have made alone. Many of the issues stemmed from decisions outside of my control.
The very first step is when the PASS Board sets the overall strategic vision, which we, as the program team, then work within. This year, for example, we saw the introduction of the architecture, data management, and analytics streams. One top of that, the spotlight topics for 2019 are Security, AI, and Cloud – which means we need to make sure those topics are well-represented in each stream. So, before we even begin, we already have two constraints to consider in our game of Sudoku.
Next, call for speakers opens up. Without our speakers, we wouldn’t have a conference, full stop. I especially appreciate all of the new speakers who have submitted. I know, for me personally, it was an emotional rollercoaster when I submitted back in 2016 and 2017. I would worry, for a long time, about getting selected or not and then be a nervous wreck if I did get selected!
Once the call for speakers closes, the abstracts need to be reviewed. Each year, we select about 20 volunteers to join the program committee. This team does the bulk of the work, spending hundreds of hours reviewing hundreds of abstracts, over 6-8 weeks. We simply could not get through the hundreds of sessions each year without the help of all of these volunteers.
Once all the abstracts have been reviewed, the program management team drafts the initial community line-up. The program management team consists of 4 volunteers, myself included. We take all the feedback from the program committee and align it to the vision and direction from the PASS Board in order to draft the initial lineup. This combines the community sessions with any targeted sessions that have already been published. Oh, and did I forget to mention that while this process is happening, the PASS Board educational content group works with us and PASS HQ to target initial waves of content? This is based on industry trends, thought leader feedback, session evaluations, and so much more! Just one more set of constraints to add to the board
Next, we reach out to community thought leaders and the PASS Board for ongoing feedback and gap analysis. Thought leaders are a wide-range of people from the community and industry that we reach out to get their perspectives on key topics, trends, and gaps they see in educational offerings. There are a lot of cooks in this kitchen to help make sure we don’t miss anything. The community program is then completed by the program management team with final approval from the PASS Board educational content working group. Overall, this portion takes just over a month, with the community lineup announced in early-mid July, and any final sessions announced in August. In the next section, we will go into detail regarding the selection process.
What this really meant
What I wanted to communicate with all of this is that the process was complicated. We often would have high level scheduling constraints set by some combination of the board and C&C. This generally came in the form of high level themes or content goals, such as learning paths. There were a lot of constraints being added and sometimes we didn’t have as much time available as other years. When we had less time, we screwed things up and made mistakes.
A recurring theme as well was that we needed outside opinions to avoid screwing up. A lot of the balancing process was a series of spot checks, and it was easy to forget one. It was also easy to lose touch with the community and how they might respond. We knew our process, we knew the challenges we were facing, and we knew we had good motivations. It was very easy to lose touch with how others might interpret things. It was easy to forget what it was like to be a speaker, nervously hoping to get in.
Whenever you play a game of Sudoku, there are very few numbers on the board, so almost any choice you make will fit within the existing constraints.
The same flexibility applies with choosing sessions. Some of the session slots are already filled with invited speakers, but generally we have a lot of flexibility at this stage. So, the first thing we do is take all of the sessions and sort them by their abstract review score. The idea is to start with the highest quality sessions and have the cream rise to the top.
Once we start filling in the slots, however, we then need to consider a number of factors. This is like being near the end of a game of Sudoku, it gets harder and harder to meet all of the constraints and this is where the game, and our job, gets really tricky.
Here are just a few specific examples of factors we review:
Sessions by audience
The first thing we have to consider is how do our sessions balance in terms of content and level. Do we have 15 sessions on Power BI but nothing on SSIS? If we look at the line up by individual audiences are we serving everyone? Do we have any gaps? How much 400/500 level content do we have? Whenever we survey our members, they consistently request in-depth content, but for 2019, only 0.5% of the submitted sessions were at the 500 level. This can present challenges for us.
I could go on and on about all the factors we consider, but I hope that this gives you better insight into the selection process.
The sessions have now been announced, and it is a great feeling to see it all come together. I look forward to seeing all of you at PASS Summit in the fall.
What this really meant
What I really hoped to communicate was that we were juggling a large number of constraints, and the more that got added or the less time and resources we had, the more likely we would fail one of those constraints.
I also was happy to mention diversity as a consideration. I would have loved to have go into more detail at the time, but there was a worry that it was a sensitive subject and that being honest about it might cause controversy. So it was resigned to a bullet point at the end of the list.
Diversity for us was a regular spot check for us. While the main goal was to produce a schedule that would sell well and that people would like to attend, we knew very well that we had to work towards diversity. It would have been easy to just selected the most well known speakers or just selected the best sounding abstracts, but this would have created a schedule that wasn’t reflective our speaker pool and definitely not reflective of the average IT worker.
We knew for a fact that if we let an all male panel slip through, we would get roasted, and rightfully so. We knew that the televised sessions and precons put a spotlight on the speakers, and if we ended up with line up full of white guys like myself, that was a failure.
One final thing, I want to acknowledge that conferences today have a harder time than we did. It was easier when we have lots and lots of submissions both for precons and general sessions. I fully believe that post pandemic, conferences are likely starting with much less diverse of a speaker pool.
Being a program manager in 2022 is a difficult job. But just like how expectations for speaker compensation are rising, so are expectations for a diverse schedule. Ultimately more resources have to be allocated to the task as it gets more difficult.
I think if you aren’t already on-board with it, the whole pronouns thing can seem weird. I remember when people started to adding pronouns to their Twitter profiles and started asking everyone to do the same, and I just didn’t get it. Never in the history of ever has anyone confused me for a woman. I am 6’2″, broad-shouldered, and have an over-abundance of facial hair. It made no sense to me why I should add my pronouns to my Twitter Bio and then later on, my PowerPoint slides. There simply wasn’t a need.
And then, a couple of years later, I found out the person I was married to was a transgender man. We both did really. And suddenly, a subject that I would rather have just muted on Twitter and ignored was now a quintessential part of my life. My hope with the rest of the blog post is that I can explain why I appreciate when folks share their pronouns, and potentially encourage you to do the same.
Small courtesies are how we show people they are important
In my early twenties, I used to be very bad at people skills. I was oblivious, didn’t like small talk, and didn’t understand a lot of social norms. One of the books that really helped me is called “How to have Confidence and Power in Dealing with People” by Les Giblin. It’s a weird title that sounds like a 1950s sales pitch, but so much of the book is about being considerate to other people. One part that sticks with me today is about the importance of small courtesies.
In the book, Les says, “All of us not only need to feel important — We need to feel that other people recognize and acknowledge our importance.” The way that we do this is through small courtesies, small acts of extra effort. When we show up 5 minutes early to a meeting, we show people they are of value. When we make the effort to use someone’s preferred name, we show that they are important. In my mind, if you share your pronouns and don’t need to, that is a small courtesy, and I appreciate it.
Why is it a courtesy?
I remember a friend of mine asking “Why would I add my pronouns to my presentations? That’s a personal part of my identity.” And that’s true, it felt weird for me the first time I did it, and I still feel awkward when I say it out loud. As I said, no one has ever mistaken me for a woman, it’s never been in question. So why do it?
Well, in some ways that’s the point. It is a shared discomfort, it is a shared vulnerability. There is always a risk that by sharing that information you open yourself to mockery or cruelness. I regularly see in Twitter people suggesting that pronouns in your bio means you are partisan and unreasonable. I certainly hope that doesn’t describe me!
For some people, like my husband, sharing his pronouns isn’t as optional as it is for me. For him, to be referred to as “she” or by his old name, it’s a source of unease or discomfort. Just like how if your name is Matthew, you might not like it if people call you Matt. But it becomes a no-win situation for people like my husband. Does he ignore it and suffer recurring discomfort or does he share his information and risk verbal abuse or worse?
I worry about his safety regularly. I still quietly flinch when I tell people strangers that I have a husband. Thankfully no one has ever been a jerk to either one of us about it, but I still worry. Just like in my blog post about Codes of Conduct, when I see that people have worked to make our situation feel normal, I feel safer and more at ease.
It allows me to show you a small courtesy
Whenever I put together my newsletter, I will copy someone’s name directly from LinkedIn or Twitter. It’s very important to me that I get people name right. I feel the same way about people’s pronouns. I try not to just assume any more, given the situation in my own marriage. And I absolutely hate guessing, if I can easily avoid it.
I understand that there are situations where it doesn’t make sense for folks, such as cultures where pronouns are non-gendered or folks that don’t feel safe being out as trans. But when it does make sense, please help me demonstrate you are important and worthy of value, by getting your details correct.
This month marks my 3 year anniversary of working for myself. I think it was undoubtedly the right decision, but it doesn’t quite feel firm and real. Here are some lessons learned as I enter my third year.
Learn how to work, or fail
I think the hardest lesson for me is that the biggest challenge has not been the technical piece. I know how to do that, and I’d like to think I do it well. I even have somewhat of a grasp on the sales and marketing piece. The hardest part is the daily art of working.
I’ve said it many times before, but there is so much scaffolding that comes from having a workplace, co-workers, and a boss telling you what to do. You expect to just be able to get stuff done when you work for yourself, and that’s just not the case. It’s frustratingly difficult.
In reality, there is a whole suite of skills that need to be learned to work for yourself, to work from home, etc. for example:
Switching between strategy and execution
Setting boundaries at home
Identifying what’s profitable and drives the business forward
Tolerating financial and career uncertainty
My biggest regret has been not focusing on these things from day one. My biggest struggle right now is the art of daily working and daily success.
Invest in your environment
Related to that, in the last 5 months, my royalties have been at an all time high. That this feels real and stable, and has caused me to reinvest in my environment. I think that is also something I wish I had done earlier.
When I first started, I was using the same laptop for both leisure and work, and this quickly lead to a poor work-life balance and everything feeling like a blur. For the longest time I used a $100 desk from Staples.
More recently, I purchased a standing desk and it has been wonderful. I bought three 27″ monitors. I bought a streamdeck and use it for time tracking launching applications. I purchased $400 headphones, which feels utterly decadent. But I’m realizing it’s all worth it.
Ultimately, not investing in my environment for so long is a kind of stubbornness. I keep expecting to just be able to work, but this depends on some reservoir of willpower and focus, which is always more limited that I expect. Too often I indulge in “should” thinking.
How much money do you need?
One thing that has been a point of frustration is that my top line revenue for the past 3 years has been fairly flat. And sometimes I wonder if I’ve made a mistake. But just looking at top line revenue doesn’t tell the whole story.
First, if you look at where that revenue came from, there’s been a huge shift over time. That first year, 80% of my income was consulting and 20% was royalties. And much of that consulting was work I didn’t want to do, but did to pay the bills. By year three, that ratio has flipped. Covid tanked a lot of consulting but doubled my viewership.
One big benefit of that is now my income, while not higher, has become more stable and predictable. Not once during the pandemic did we have to worry about paying the mortgage. In contrast, I know a couple consultant friends who had to go back to getting a job.
Another benefit has been supreme flexibility. It comes with frustrations, as mentioned above, but I’ve been able to just take a day off, whenever I want. I can take my mom to a bird fair, and it’s fine. I think a lot about folks who get promoted, make an extra $20k but are working 50 hours per week and are miserable. I try to remind myself that I’ve take the reverse choice.
So what’s next?
I plan to continue doing consulting on Power BI and the Azure data platform. I think it’s essential as an instructor to stay grounded and relevant. And I enjoy it! But I’m accepting that my main job is to be a perpetual newbie, having to constantly learn technology and package it up for others. This means focusing on instructional design and, more importantly, how to get work done on a daily basis.
In the short term, I’m working on 3 Power BI courses for Q4 and then hopefully taking the last 6 weeks off for 2021!
I believe having a Code of Conduct is valuable and that every conference should have one. I wrote before about my thoughts on diversity in conferences, and I think a good code of conduct is a way to potentially have a more diverse speaker and attendee pool. It is a way to make more marginalized folks feel safer and, ideally, make a better experience for everyone.
Shouldn’t people know better?
I’ve seen the argument that a Code of Conduct ignores that fact most people are decent. That the majority of folks who do cause harm, they don’t intend it. The concern is that by writing down a list of banned behavior, we at best state the obvious and at worst imply that the average person is indecent.
In short, shouldn’t it go without saying, “Don’t be a jerk?”.
I’m willing to concede that most people are decent and mean no harm. I find that following Hanlon’s Razor makes me a less miserable and more open-minded person. In an ideal world, there would never be a need for a Code of Conduct. Everyone would be on the same page about what is appropriate behavior, and how to report inappropriate behavior. People would perfectly tune their jokes and comments to the sensitivities of their audience.
When in your life has that been the case? I was not blessed with common sense when I was born. I have spent so many years putting my foot in my mouth. In particular, I remember the time a coworker told me she was in sales and I said “Oh, so you work in recruiting.” because up to that point I had figured sales a was male-dominated, pushy profession and recruiting was more soft-skills oriented. Ooof.
Intention and impact are separate
When I made that recruiting comment, not an ounce of harm or malice was meant. But what these arguments seem to miss sometimes is that we have to look at intention AND impact. My words still could have been discouraging or frustrating for the receiver. What really solidified this for me was an example from the book Crucial Conversations:
Imagine someone is drunk and decides to drive home. During the drive they blow through a stoplight and hit someone. Did they intend to cause harm? No. Did they cause harm? Yes. No one ever drives drunk thinking “I hope I hurt someone tonight”. If we only looked at intentions we’d never be able to stop that sort of behavior.
The truth of the matter is we are all drunk drivers when it comes to social interactions, to some degree. Some of it is obliviousness, misspeaking, or a lack of natural grace. And for those folks, there should be room for gentle correction and growth. But others choose not to grow or change their behaviors.
What a Code of Conduct does is help separate the two groups more quickly. If you read the code, agreed to it, and still violated it, it is much more likely that you simply don’t care. It still may have been an honest mistake, and there is room there for that person apologizing and improving. But it is infinitely easier to identify repeat offenders when the rules are clear.
Isn’t this virtue signaling?
Another argument I’ve seen is the concern about virtue signaling. I.E. are folks creating these things not out of genuine consideration, but for the applause of their peers. That the folks pushing for these things don’t care about the results.
To me this is such a strange criticism, because it’s a criticism of intention. This is often from the same folks who feel that we should be giving the benefit of the doubt to people like me who accidentally say unkind or offensive things. Why is the benefit of the doubt not given to organizers as well? I don’t like accusing folks of virtue signaling because that implies I can accurately assess other folks’ goals and motivations. I simply can’t and it’s likely you can’t either.
Again, we should try to separate intention from impact. A poorly written code of conduct, without proper enforcement mechanisms is harmful. Totally agreed, but I personally think on average they are beneficial.
Potential benefits of a code
So what are the some potential benefits of having a code of conduct?
First, it has the debate happen before the incident. When my husband and I got married, we started a budget for our finances. This was important, because if we are going to argue about how much money was appropriate to spend on restaurants, I’d rather have the argument before the money was spent. The same is true of a community hashing out what behavior is appropriate. You don’t want to have to figure out those lines right after an incident occurs.
Second, it empowers bystanders. In The Checklist Manifesto, they talk about how checklists can help deal with a power differential. Specifically, it gave nurses more space to call out surgeons when they skipped critical safety steps before a surgery. Many of us are conflict averse, and having something clear cut to point to can help us avoid getting caught in the bystander effect.
Third, it signals care and safety. When my husband came out as trans, I started having pervasive concerns about our safety. I’m 6’2″ and 280 lbs, my personal concerns about physical violence are almost nil. But I still often flinch when I tell people I have a husband, anticipating the possibility of someone being a jerk to one of us. Thankfully this has yet to be an issue for us.
When I see that an event organizer has put in the time to call out bad behavior ahead of time, it helps me let my hair down, so to speak. It shows that they went out of their way to think about these things and that I’d likely be successful reporting any issues. I don’t have to constantly keep my guard up.
I think it’s reasonable to have concerns about folks trying to enumerate bad behaviors and potentially doing so unskillfully or thoughtlessly. But the truth of matter is you already have a default code of conduct at events, it’s just unwritten and often contradictory. It’s whatever folks can get away with. I know for me personally, I feel safer at an event when they have been clear about what behavior is unacceptable.
Today there has been some discussion on Twitter about diversity in tech conferences. I’m not going to link to the discussion directly, because this isn’t about the specific conference that spurred the conversation. I’m not here to name and shame anyone.
I volunteered for 3 years as program manager for PASS Summit, so I will be speaking from experience. I have written before that diversity is important, and I think the bar for that is raising for tech conferences. So where should that bar be?
What is your target goal?
First, I think every single tech conference needs some kind of target goal for diversity. It doesn’t have to be a a hard numerical goal and it doesn’t have to be a quota, but diversity should be somewhere in the thought process, every step along the way. If you are not intentional about this, you will trend towards the default, which is a very homogenous speaker pool.
So what kinds of goals are there? In my mind I see 4 easily defined ones:
No goal. No consideration given to diversity. This is unacceptable in 2021.
Attendee demographics. Aiming for parity with the diversity of your audience
Speaker demographics. Aiming for parity with your speaker pool
Regional/Global demographics. Aiming for parity with the general population.
I personally believe the bar today should be set at #2 & #3, whichever is more difficult. In my experience, there are concrete steps you can do to improve the diversity of your speaker pool, such as encouraging folks to submit, or setting aside a certain number of invitation slots. If the your selected speakers aren’t at least as representative as your submitted speakers, then you aren’t trying hard enough.
When I was working on PASS Summit, diversity was a secondary concern, but it was a consistent one, and we took steps when there were issues. We didn’t have any hard targets, but if we felt there was an imbalance, we would go out of our way to juggle the schedule or intentionally invite speakers. There was plenty of room for improvement, however, especially with decisions outside of the selection process.
Where does diversity matter most?
It is not enough to say that your total pool of selected speakers has diversity. Diversity is most important where there is an implied endorsement or there is money involved. You don’t get to shine a spotlight and then ignore your responsibility.
If a conference is placing emphasis on a subset of speakers, the bar for diversity is even higher there for two reasons. First, there is where a conference has the most discretion. It is much easier to get it right with a dozen speakers than a hundred. And if they are promoting a specific set of speakers, they have much more control over who they are promoting and why.
The other reason is any time you elevate a subset of speakers, you are making a statement, even if it’s an unintentional one. Let’s say that hypothetically your conference had 25% females speakers, but not a single female precon speaker. That would send strong implied message, because precons are lucrative, highly coveted, and a strong endorsement of the speaker. These kinds of implied messages can be immensely discouraging.
For us at PASS, this applied to two areas main areas. First was the televised sessions, because these sessions had a broader reach and there was an implied endorsement of quality. It also applied to precon trainings. If folks saw the same old faces for precons, we would get roasted, and rightfully so. Lastly, it was also an issue in some of the marketing of the early invited speakers, and sometimes that presented a tension between marketing process and the selection process.
One other area where it matters are panels. In the year 2021, there is no reason to ever have an all male panel, ever, ever, ever. On a panel of 4-5 speakers, it does not take that much work to for you to find at least one female speaker. If you can’t, you should cancel the panel and look into the deeper issues with your selection process. Even if it is completely accidental, a “manel” comes across as lazy at best.
What can conference organizers do?
Generally speaking, conference organizers have a wide variety of tools to improve diversity if they are willing to get creative and especially if they have a budget to work with. PASS was notoriously stingy, which forced us to depend on the former.
Ideally, it should start during the call for speakers. If the speaker pool seems lopsided, the conference organizers should be taking steps to encourage new and diverse speakers. Any conference integrated into the community is likely going to have connections that can amplify those messages. Even better, if a conference is willing to pay speakers, that opens up a much broader pool instead of the most privileged folks. In some cases, conferences can also set aside a certain number of slots for invited speakers and use those to improve diversity.
During the selection process, a lot of it comes down to mindfulness. A conference should be spot checking things all along the way, even better if they can get folks from outside the team to help. Again, having a certain number of reserved slots and being willing to invite and pay people can go a long way here.
Finally, there are indirect steps the conference can take. First, what are you doing to encourage new or low-profile speakers? Things like feedback on abstracts or speaker mentoring can increase the breadth of speakers available to you. As a new speaker in 2017, I felt discouraged about submitting to big conferences and I’m sure under-represented folks feel the same way.
Additionally you can take steps like having a clear code of conduct, having sessions on diversity, and providing support for underrepresented groups. Signs that a conference is safe and fair to underrepresented groups will encourage more of those folks to submit.
Improving diversity in a conference is hard work, and the average call for speakers is often an unbalanced starting point. However, conference organizers have a number of tools available to them, especially for large paid conferences.
In 2021, there is never an excuse for an all male panel, and any elevated subset of speakers, such as paid precon speakers, should come under heightened scrutiny. Every tech conference should at least be aiming to match the demographics of their submitted speakers and their attendees. To me these all feel like a reasonable starting point.