I admit it’s been kind of a bubble. My Flatiron crew is kind, curious, and we have the common thread of being (relatively) new to this whole programming thing. And in that community is a huge sense of comfort, a cushion, a warmth.
In contrast, everything I’ve heard about non-Flatiron programmers has been pretty awful. We had a whole lecture about not being an asshole, which implies some sort of asshole-epidemic that we had to guard ourselves from once we entered the “real programming world”. The prevailing sexism and racism that seems to plague every tech event I see on Twitter certainly doesn’t help. I can’t open my feed without reading about yet another thing that happened in the tech community. And as an Ethiopian woman, that’s not exactly the welcome I was hoping for when I decided to be a programmer.
And so when my talk for RailsConf was accepted, these were the thoughts that consumed me -- that I was finally going to see the racist, sexist, assholery of the tech community on full display. I had this image of standing on a dark stage alone, removed from my Flatiron home, trying to convince an angry crowd of asshole white men to take me seriously. The added pressure of being a first-time speaker and a first time tech-conference attendee didn’t help. The usual pressure of me being a perfectionist certainly didn’t.
My first interaction with RailsConf programmers was at the Speaker Dinner. I happened to walk in at the same time as another female speaker, and I decided then and there that she was my new best friend. And by best friend, I mean that I wasn’t leaving her side until the dinner was over. I don’t think she was aware of our best-friendship.
I counted the number of women. Three that I could see so far (there would later be more). Then the number of black people. One. Me. Sigh.
I hoped that everyone would just leave me alone and let me sip my free beer in peace. But of course, people just have to talk to you and be all friendly and shit. And so I met Sean. He told me about his bees, and the work he was doing helping researchers save collapsing beehives with an app he built. We talked for awhile. He was fuckin awesome.
We sat for dinner.
Fancy steak and an incredible panna cotta with some crazy combination of things that I would never think to put on panna cotta. But I’ve never made panna cotta, so that’s not saying very much. I sat with Rosie and Sonja, who went to Flatiron with me, and four other men. I braced myself, trying to focus on my food and avoid all eye contact. But these fuckers just had to start a conversation.
We went around the table and introduced ourselves. Where are you from, what do you do, what’s your talk about. Everyone at the table sounded impressive. They’d been programming for years, doing crazy sounding shit I can’t even recall.
When we told them we’d all recently graduated from a three-month programming bootcamp, I expected a few scoffs, especially given all the criticism that bootcamps have gotten. But they seemed genuinely happy for us and our programming journey. Two had given lots of talks before, and gave us advice on how to prepare for our big day. They made me laugh. They made me feel welcome. It was all so very confused.
My confusion persisted the next day when I attended one of the talks. A speaker used the male pronoun in his talk, and actually apologized for it. “I’ve been trying to use gender neutral pronouns, but it’s really hard. I’m sorry,” he said in his talk, his voice filled with guilt.
And my confusion grew when someone gave a talk called Software Development Lessons from the Apollo Program. He told a story about how the first NASA software engineers were women because the men thought programming was too simple and wasn’t worth their time. Only when they realized how complex it was did they decided to take it back. Julian ended by saying that if anyone in the audience thought women shouldn’t be programmers, to think again, because women were some of the first.
I ended up running into him at a rooftop bar afterwards, and told him I appreciated that story. “You know, I just felt like I had this great opportunity, this platform to say something meaningful,” he said. And so he chose that.
I met a number of incredibly warm people. Men who mentored women, who worked with Rails Girls, who cared about diversity in tech. Men who were curious about my journey, my story, and wished me luck before my talk.
But I hadn’t been on stage yet, so I was sure this was all a huge ruse. Once I got on stage, the floodgates of assholery would certainly burst open and bury me and my little cartoons.
My slides appeared on the screen and the clock began its countdown. I started speaking. The lights were blinding. I couldn’t see much of the audience, but I was sure they were glaring at me.
I forgot how much we rely on feedback in a conversation. You can test the waters, try a joke, see if they laugh, drop an f-bomb, see if they cringe. You can adjust how you speak, how you act, to better connect with the person you’re speaking to. But on a stage, there was little to no feedback. The occasional laugh when I wasn’t expecting it threw me off, and the silence that remained was uncomfortable. At some point, I caught the nodding face of Farrah, one of the keynote speakers, and focused my attention on her. That helped a lot.
And when I walked off stage and saw a small crowd waiting to talk and ask me questions, I felt hugely reassured. They seemed to have to enjoyed it. They wanted to learn more.
I ended up meeting some of the most wonderful people that week. And in those conversations, no one seemed to care what I looked like.
I’m still waiting for the floodgates of assholery. But I’m glad I haven’t come across them yet. To everyone who’s been kind, and encouraging, and supportive and who’s made my programming journey so much less terrifying than it could’ve been, you know who you are. From the bottom of my heart, thank you so very fucking much.