Morena Fiore-Kirby

Morena Fiore-Kirby is an Italian London based Web developer. She hates sitting still so she's constantly looking for new endevours from organising hack days to hosting conferences. She's been a co-organiser of London Web Standards since 2008 and has been helping at other mini conferences and barcamps. Last year with a bunch of friends, she put together the Agile Hackaton, a hackathon with a unique agile concept with changing requirements.

When Morena is not geeking out, she spends her time with her energetic puppy who is keeping her as busy as ever.

You can find her on Twitter @mfujica where she mainly shares her love for food and Starbucks.

Published Thoughts

Going up the career ladder

“Going up the ladder” is definitely one of the most interesting sayings in the English language for me. We don’t have that in Italian (and that’s another story) and maybe, I’ve started to think, for some very good reasons.

When you start your career, you start hearing this expression “Getting up the ladder” and it’s all a bit of blur, a bit of a dream. The ladder seems magic-beans-in-the-cloud-style and you are looking at it from the bottom up. It just looks like this vertically infinite thing, but it also seems like it could actually be an interesting journey for you.

So you start climbing while looking around, still not sure what’s going on.

The first few years go by, and you slowly work your way through promotions or (more likely) salary increases by just jumping from job to job (a trick nobody told you at career’s fairs!) until you look down and you’ve gone a long way up and you are small-medium management, firmly holding onto the ladder.

Instead I took a detour.

After a few years working in agencies as a web developer, I soon grew tired of companies “not doing the right thing”. I decided to take a bit of a break from suffering from other people’s wrong decisions and started contracting.

I guess this step could be seen as a long term relationship break. It can go two ways: you will just jump into a series of other serious(ish) relationships, or you can just have a series of no-strings-attached flings.

Despite being more inclined to choose the first option romantically speaking, I chose the latter in real life even if not so consciously. I spent two years of absolute “don’t give a damn what they’ve decided, I’m just going to do my bit and not worry about the rest” - and it has been so far, from a career input/output point of view, my best time ever.

I do recognise this might not be the same for everyone else, but where I am trying to get to is that, while contracting, the ladder for me (and I am sure it would prove to be this way for many others), turned into a bit more of a fairly large series of well-connected fire escape ladders on the side of a New York building: whenever there was a fire (within the company I would be contracting for), I could clearly see these ladders going up or down as a very handy fire escape, just by looking outside the window of yet another “rustic canteen” looking startup I had been offering my services at.

And if that analogy was not enough, contracting for me has been like having the emergency seat in a Ryanair plane: you might have to put all your bags away, but you have the emergency exit right there for you AND you get plenty of legroom! I knew at any given crisis time that I could escape fairly easily. Some contracts had 1 week notice (from either part), some others just 1 day. Hey, a day never made such a difference to my life!

Funnily enough though (and I’ve love for a psychologist to get in touch and explain the reasoning behind this), no matter how much I knew those stairs were there for me, I stayed in contracts way longer than I probably would have bet on! I “lasted longer” because I knew it was not forever, because I could quit any time. It’s like my brain would give myself a mini 1 day/week extension every time I felt like I should do a runner and somehow I stayed for months longer than I expected. Bear in mind, I was never in horrible situations, but the idea of having a possibly even better alternative was always there.

I stopped caring about what was happening around me and managed to work in startups I would have not believed in for 1 week as a permanent employee. Somehow knowing in a week or month I would be somewhere else, made it more bearable. I wonder if the same could apply to a prisoner – if they got to move around from prison to prison every few weeks, would they find it a bit more bearable?

When contracting though, I got told, you don’t always get time to do any training or any room to learn. You just get hired to do what you know best. So technically, I was not going upwards on the ladder any longer, especially from a “getting into management” point of view, or getting into roles with more and more responsibilities.

Well, if you hear just that (possibly from a recruiter trying to stick you on a permanent post), don’t believe in it: I was learning (by taking risky projects and learning on the job), I was more confident to experiment in my spare time, and I know a very good friend of mine has been getting contracts with huge responsibilities and even managing a team of supposed minions!

For this reason, I never felt like I was just going down the ladder, but rather slightly downwards, then upwards again and even walking on a completely horizontal bit of floor and mixed those up quite a bit, on this imaginary NY brick building. What I would find from ladder to ladder is just more money and a new skill I picked up on the way. By the end of my brief experience, my journey on the “untraditional ladder” was still worth a very special fuzzy but quite high up space on the “traditional” ladder.

I then found somewhere I really liked and I could not imagine myself anywhere else. And the building I had reached suddenly had another one of those upwards into the clouds single-direction ladder and I thought I was OK with it.

I realised it was expected of me to climb this one-way ladder, that it would get bumpy, and that I would even be given a bit of a load to take up with me. This load would of course increase as I got higher. I was still picking up new skills, although at a bit of a slower pace, but I was not finding money as easily as I had done on the “non traditional” ladder.

I am currently holding a very small load, but I can tell you, it has not been fun. I’m sweating, I had to switch hands a few times and almost fell over and I had to take on stuff others passed me on their way down. Not fun.

So I am questioning it, is this traditional ladder really worth it? I might extend my staying for a little bit longer to find out the answer, but I am conscious that the fire exit is not as close to my desk as before…

Me and my new BFF Assertiveness

Up until a year go I barely knew the meaning of the word "assertiveness", and now it has become my personal goal. But like a diet, or training for a marathon, it’s proving very hard for me. It’s constant work I have to “put in” every day.

I’m going to list some tips for becoming more assertive and talk about how much I am enjoying the best change in my life, but I hope this can me more than a “10 steps to be more assertive” kind of article. I hope it can help you see things a little bit differently, or understand you’re not alone in this journey.

Being unassertive

I would start justifying why I am not a very assertive person by blaming my Catholic upbringing, but it would be a lie. My parents are not really that religious and I was not brought up “in fear of God”. But I think somehow some of the values that have been instilled in me were not quite right: we seemed to always “have to put up with it” or “have to do it because it’s your duty” or (the most damaging one I think) “you can’t say that because it will spark a family war”. Since I finally moved away from my home town, I have started seeing this in a slightly different perspective. I understand that while we were keeping quiet the rest of the family would always get their way and me, my mum and my dad ended up accumulating a lot of anger and resentment, not only towards my relatives, but also towards each other. Probably because we were frustrated by the impossibility of being assertive.

Growing up I applied unassertiveness to pretty much everyone I met. I managed to start relationships which made me very uncomfortable, just because I could not express my disagreement or discomfort about even simple things like “we always meet at your house rather than alternating a bit”.

I got to the point where I had (and still have, but with a much quieter voice now) a full blown accusation lawyer in my head stopping me from saying most things, because it would sound “too childish”, or “too stupid”, or “too nasty”, or “[fill the gap with anything you can imagine]”. The end result was that I would never speak up.

I ended up in situations I really hated, developing a sense of anger (which really was anger towards myself) and unhappiness, pretty much always ending up being fed up with the other person or job. I felt like the whole situation was so beyond repair (as I had kept all my disagreements quiet, they had piled up immensely) and the only way out was...out.

On my journey to Assertiveness Land, I also have met a few pretty obnoxious people I had absolutely no idea how to handle. I always compared them to the big monster at the end of a video game level.

If this sounds like you, then you’ve got a friend. So I'll try and help.

Two types of people

First of all I need to explain couple of basic concepts. Just discovering those has changed my life.

What is assertiveness? It’s expressing our thoughts and opinions in a firm and appropriate way without being aggressive, respecting the other person’s point of view and needs but still keeping our priorities in mind, and by saying NO without feeling guilty.

Easy, right?

It will become easier when you start changing the way you see others. That big monster at the end of the level is instead just being aggressive: they might speak so strongly, you feel like you won’t be able to object; it’s either their way or no way; they are implying they are better than you.

And how about that very annoying person who is not being very direct, but implying so very subtly that they are right and you’re wrong, or much better than you? This is my least favourite (as if the aggressive behaviour was any better!). You feel like “you can’t quite put your finger on it”, you’re not too sure he meant to offend you or he’s “just saying” so I still don’t know how to react… Well this person is clearly being passive aggressive.

I have not yet mastered how to manage either type of people, but I started by shifting the focus slightly. I saw every comment they would make as a personal “attack” and started really getting worked up while trying to work out “what had I done to get that person to say/do that to me!” Well the answer is quite often “nothing”, because that’s just how that person is and that person is most likely never going to change.

The biggest mistake I was (and still keep on) making was to assume that if I could change the way I behaved, the other person would change too. Maybe I can make them an extra cup of tea, maybe I can do a bit of their job for them, maybe I can buy them a little present. Well that never went well. I had usually a positive reaction there and then: a smile! A compliment! Followed by the same old bullshit after not very long. What was going on?

When I realised that’s how that person is and that she’s never going to change, the whole world started to shift slightly for me. You start thinking “well, if that’s not going to change, then I’m not wrong in trying to say X or do Y, so I’ll better just say it/do it and if they won’t react well, well, it’s their problem”. By shifting this responsibility, I have had a huge weight getting off my shoulders. I honestly feel like a much lighter, serene person. I am beside myself with joy at the results of just a simple epiphany.

So being assertive is right in the middle between the two behaviours (aggressive and passive aggressive) and it’s where we need to take ourselves.

Let’s communicate assertively

The key is how we communicate our ideas.

  • Don’t be afraid of what the consequences of what you want to say might be. Start by disagreeing slightly (even if you don’t feel strong about it) with somebody about something simple, like where to eat for dinner, and start watching for reactions. You’ll find out most of them will be quite relaxed and you’ll find people agreeing with you quicker than you can say “Assertiveness”. I also think that by practicing assertiveness and therefore sometimes disagreeing with somebody more and more, they will get used to you being open to this type of interaction. They will be more likely to expect it from you in the future, so it will get easier and easier.
  • Worrying about what others might think of us (my biggest blocker) will make it very hard to be assertive. Don’t let it trick you!
  • “I” is better than “you” to communicate assertively: try and say “When you do ##something## I feel angry/upset because ###”. By stating the reasons why you are feeling a certain way and the scenario, just stating facts without exaggerating, you can make sure that the person you are talking to will understand everything and you don’t become aggressive.
  • Stay calm but firm – this is like the nirvana of assertiveness because I find it very hard to recognise that the other person is being either aggressive or passive aggressive. I just get caught up in the moment, by either digging my own grave or not really knowing what to say in particular towards passive aggressiveness. I guess it would help to take a minute and really question what is going on before answering or ignoring the situation.

But as I said, I am still really working through this list and trying to put all these tips in practice. There are times when the “alert” bells ring and I can recognise this as an opportunity to express what I want and to be assertive. And when I do react in an assertive way, I feel amazing. The fear of what people would say is completely overshadowed by the joy of being able to say what I think, and that there are not going to be hours and hours afterwards of me moaning with myself about not having expressed my feelings or having said yes when I wanted to say no. I am suddenly lighter and free!

I have managed to start relationships where I am free to say what I feel and the other person is getting more and more used to me expressing my feelings.

I’ve realised it’s mainly what gets left unsaid that causes the most trouble and anxiety in me. Once a thought is out in the open and you have explained the whole situation, you have made the other person aware of exactly what you feel and why and you have given them an opportunity to do the same with you. There’s no room for doubts, or unspoken truths, so there will be no resentment or unfinished business.

This might sound unbelievable, but I now have a bit more spare time as a result of not constantly worrying about what others are going to say or about unresolved (in my head) situations. I also feel less anxious and I can enjoy life more .On top of this, while “practicing” I have often found that when I said what I thought, the other person would actually say “Oh sorry that was my fault”. What an expected surprise!

I have had plenty of positive assertiveness experiences so far, but the big monsters are still out there, or, even worse, the people who are abusing our un-assertive behaviour and are used to us never speaking up. I would say that this, combined with a passive aggressive behaviour, still makes a perfect confrontation bomb for me.

Cutting off dry branches

As part of my journey to assertiveness I had to re-assess the all the relationships I had. I tried to imagine how I could tell them what I really think and how I could consistently stay assertive with them. But where I had accepted fundamentally wrong behaviours like somebody constantly wanting to argue backwards and forwards, or letting other relatives control me through my parents, I realised change was going to be quite impossible, especially with people of older age, set in their ways and family dynamics I really could not find the skills in me to break.

So I had to end it. As sad as this is (admitting to myself I actually still can’t be that assertive to just deal with any situation or person), there are just some relationships that have gone way beyond repair. Even where the other person had communicated to me that they had changed, I still felt that going back, meant going back to that person I was that I don’t want to be anymore.

Post confrontation

Somehow though I am still very scared and unsure about the next phase: the moving forward. Sure it’s easy enough to be assertive about a food/restaurant choice, or a “let’s meet my part of town rather than yours”, but when it comes to big messages I am still scared.

If I'm talking with a person I might have offended when she said #that#, I can’t see myself having a relaxed relationship after that, like nothing happened.

Well, this is as far as I have gotten, I am afraid. I hope to be practicing a lot more assertiveness and to be able to cross the “what is there post confrontation?” bridge soon. I hope by sharing my experience I have given you some courage and inspiration. If you are to take a lesson from this very long article, I hope it is that you just need to stop and look at things differently (in particular why people are saying/doing something – are they just being aggressive because that’s how they are?). Say what you want to say, be the person you want to be, because it really is going to be like trying to make it through a crowded passage: as much as people might nudge you as you go past, they will make space for you and let you through and you might end up realising it was easier than you expected...

Contracting & Fatboy Slim

I’ve just spent the whole evening (while at a friend’s birthday party) trying to convince a fellow Italian web developer to make the big jump into contracting. He’s probably been the toughest one to convince, having left his wife and two kids in the (not so so prolific) Sicily, while he settles here. I tell him how much an average day rate for his Front End skills could be and how easy it always has been for me to find work. I have no doubts he will be able to give his wife and kids a much better life here.

He’s not really buying it fully though, probably because I’ve just told him I’ve recently done the opposite, left the happy, highly paid life of a contractor to join a company as permanent staff.

By the end of the evening he’s looking at me like a child would look at a magician who just had to repeat a trick because it did not work the first time around. While air kissing him goodbye, I try and repeat to him once more “do it, you won’t regret it, trust me!” and hope he will give it a go…

After so much convincing, I have left feeling unsure myself that I have made the right choice. Have I?

More and more web developers are moving to contracting. Of course the main and first reason is the huge instant pay rise, then comes the freedom of just moving on when things get nasty (which has been a big reason for me, I managed to bypass huge team shuffling and pivoting!) and of going on holiday whenever and for as long as wanted.

And I have just given all that up. But I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my career.

I really did not want to write this post, because I am scared that by admitting how happy I am, it would mean I’ve just reached the top of a ride and that we’re suddenly going to start going downhill. And then I would look back at this post and feel sad because the happy time would now be far behind me. But I’ve realised something quite important and I think it would still be good to share it. I am ready to risk it!

The reason I went into contracting was that I lost confidence in companies. My first months as a contractor confirmed that feeling over and over. Business is a tough mine field and no workplace was as idyllic as I wanted it. I quickly realised that our industry is ever-changing and nobody has got it figured out just yet, so I’ve been at places where not even the people in charge were quite sure if what they were doing was the right thing. Or was that them taking risks? I sometimes felt that I could see clearly that they had taken the wrong decision, but I never felt I had the skills to help a company going towards the right direction. So frustration got the best of me, and I moved on, or while contracting, simply shrugged and said to myself “none of my business”.

The relief of having that emergency door seemed to be doing miracles for me. I simply stopped caring if things around me were going wrong. I knew I could stay somewhere as much as I wanted (or as long as my contract was for) or leave when I had enough. Somehow not having to worry about my employers “doing it all wrong” made me a much happier person and I was able to experience a different me, definitely less stressed.

Then one day in March two years ago I started contracting at a company where from the minute I stepped into the room, I could only find nice, polite people. After having put up with some horrible people, I felt in heaven! I contracted there for about a year on and off, learned lots and worked on really interesting projects. But most of all I become really good friends with a few of the permies there.

By the time my contract came to what seemed to be THE END last July, I felt pretty much addicted to this company. I really could not see myself anywhere else. I was very lucky that at the same time, they had realised they wanted me to stay too, so I did the big jump backwards.

A few of my high flier contractor friends were surprised when I announced the news, and going back to tonight so is my compatriot I’ve been trying to convince. But the more I think about the “whys”, the more I feel secure and happy in my decision.

While my lifestyle is slowly changing to try and adapt to my new reduced salary (and trust me, it’s very hard), I’ve realised that I am the happiest I’ve ever been and I’ve started to realise why…

First of all, I’m finally in a company where the web developers’ team is actually valued as much as I think it should be - we are the core of the company and, like you would in a factory, I think it’s important that the focus be on making everything work as smoothly as possible so that us developers can do our job as easily as possible. I think it’s important to have frequent reviews, not only of structure and employees but also processes and relationships between departments. I’ve found a company that has a strong focus on these things (as well as having of course the focus on the client); I feel like I have a say in how things can be improved and that my opinion will be taken in consideration.

But what has really made the difference for me is the company culture and the attitude pretty much everyone seemed to have. I have met the sweetest, caring, generous and understanding colleagues I’ve ever met. They’ve accepted me as part of the team with (what feels like) pride and respect, naturally balancing the fact that I am not a man, while still including me in non-girly conversations or jokes, without missing out on some girly conversations I might initiate.

It’s been refreshing and nurturing, I have been feeling able to express myself fully and grow because they believe in me.

I feel lucky, because I think it’s one in a million, but at the same time I feel like the main character of a Disney movie just before her beloved friend is about to walk away because they’re having a row.

I know the day when either some of my colleagues will move on, or the company culture will change might arrive. As I expected at the beginning of this post, after writing this, I already feel the ride has started to go back downhill.

But if there’s one thing contracting and Fatboy Slim have taught me, Right Here, Right Now is where we are and it’s the best of times, better than yesterday and than tomorrow. Tomorrow will bring a different Front End Framework and we’ll have to shuffle our cards. So for now I’m the happiest I’ve ever been, and I’ll try and be it a little bit longer.

How did I get into web development? It’s a question I get asked often and it’s a story I am really proud of. It’s my very own journey that I crafted, even if involuntarily, from my early teens. It is also quite unconventional for the very same reason: I did not go to university and I learned quite a lot of what I know on my own.

More and more though, this seems to be less unconventional, as many get into web development as self-taught. I just wanted to tell my story and encourage those who are wondering if getting into web development could be possible by studying on their own, but also highlight that, although it’s an amazing experience, it has been a bit of a double-edged sword for me.

Today I was reading an article on how the number of young Italians emigrating increases substantially every year. In Italian we call it “fuga di cervelli”. It translates into “brain drain” but literally means “runaway brains”, and that’s exactly what I did.

I saw Italian university as a playground for moody professors, a complete lottery mark-wise and I, an extremely excited technologist, found ridiculous how, 34 years after the invention of the internet, the main activity seemed to be memorising huge books on which exams would be based on, rather than working on practical projects.

So, looking for a better life, straight after high school, I moved to London. But after a few months here I realised my goal in life had been to move to London, but I had no plans for my future in this new city.

It took me pretty much a year and a half to understand the dynamics of the city, then around four more years to realise that what I wanted to do in my life had been my hobby all along!

I never thought that what I had learned because of boredom and curiosity could one day be my career, so I started to wonder how, with no qualifications whatsoever, could I become a Web Developer?

It all goes back to how I got to learn about HTML & CSSS: I am a single child and I was so bored during the Italian early afternoons, when kids are not allowed outside before 4pm, that I started to explore any possible feature of Windows XP and I started to tinker with any possible software available, including Poser and even created custom IRC themes (with custom sounds!)!
I did a lot of PowerPoint presentations and Photoshop photomontages; fonts were my best friends, I used to have thousands installed! Somehow though, my interest did not grow towards the design aspect, but more towards how were web pages made.

I can’t remember which one was my first website, if it was the one I did for my favourite football player Nicola Ventola, or the TV show Dawson’s Creek (oh I wish I still had a copy on a floppy somewhere…). All I know is that they were static and that my design skills were very poor.

When I came to London, I already knew enough English, so instead I chose to do Digital Media A levels. That’s when I fell in love at first sight with PHP. I also came to the conclusion that me and JavaScript were just never going to be good friends (and look at us now!). Instead I really enjoyed messing about with Flash, with which you could still get away with something quite impressive, without having to dive in code that much.

This was the first sign that I was picking and choosing what I was learning, rather than possibly learning everything there was there to know. That I was developing a selective learning habit, which could have seriously damaged my future (well not really, but kind of).

The course only gave me a basic introduction to PHP, so I started picking up books, but they did not go as far as I wanted them to. They all seemed to offer some sort of path to follow, including a project to develop, but somehow I always had bigger ideas for what I wanted to build.
I probably own 6 PHP books, of which I have likely managed to read only the first 2 chapters. The ones that cover the basics that you feel quite confident about, before losing interest or getting to the more difficult stuff and giving up, or just moving to the next newer book.

I also find reading an article very difficult. I tend to either try to find and pick the answer I need, or only read what I think is “enough”. I wish I really valued reading a whole article to also absorb all the arguments or pros and cons around one or more solutions, to be able to then use these myself while trying to explain why I’ve applied a particular fix.

This habit has become my worst enemy, but together with my “selective learning” method, I’ve also developed a “learn by practice” habit. Because most of the time I can be so pressed for time (especially while I was freelancing), I would research the answer to my problem, find a potential solution, try it out without really making sure I have understood or memorised what the fix does; or out of let’s say six problems, my brain would select only one or two solutions for which I’d actually learn the fix, or it would only learn the very first introductory part of a fix but not the whole story.

So sometimes if somebody asks me why I applied a certain fix, I can’t explain myself.

And because of these many experiences, my self confidence has gone lower and lower: I do recognise I am not learning in a methodical way, almost in some sort of survival mode. Therefore I recognise that my knowledge is patchy and something might stick in my head only if I do it enough times for my brain to actually keep it in and understand it.

It’s very frustrating and I always feel less than other people, like the holes in my knowledge would definitely not be there if I had studied programming properly, at uni maybe, where I believe I would have experienced a more solid learning method, rather than my crazy patchy selective “Japanese survival game show” style method.

Although especially in our industry, self teaching is a really great way to make progress and even change career. I also think it takes a lot of consistency and sternness to actually succeed. I’ve seen lots of people really thriving as self-taught, so maybe it’s more a question of personality, how quickly we need to learn something, and how crucial it is that we acquire that knowledge.

I also think it would be great for a self-taught person to in turn teach what she is learning to somebody else, that way she will be able to solidify the knowledge just acquired.

All in all I am happy, though. I am very proud of how far I’ve come from the land of table-layout CSS, and I have to say, I think I have developed a versatile and quick learning attitude. Together with a hunger for learning more (and what I often think I lack knowledge in, like good logic and programming foundations), it pushes me in new directions every day.

I am confused about women in tech

Hi,

I’m a woman in tech and I am SO confused. What am I doing wrong in trying to get more women in tech?

I grew up in a family that not only supported my use of technology (without making any fuss or a point about it...technology was always available to me, no questions asked — I might talk about my history with computers another time) but made it feel second nature to me; I grew up in a biggish town in Southern Italy where one important meeting point for our generation was the #Bitonto IRC channel. I have been online dating since I was old enough to know what a date is (and yes, I can hear your surprise sounds, considering I did not grow up in London or Rome, but in a 60,000 citizen town in Southern Italy!).

So to me and to the people surrounding me, being a geek girl has been quite normal. To the less techy people, I was just the “technologic” one.

Then I came to London. Slowly I came out of my “computers are my hobby” shell and decided to make it my career, and slowly I started receiving lots of “wow, you are a web developer?”

I started to go to lots of community-run events with the intent of learning more, staying up-to-date with new technologies and meeting other people who do the same job as me to inspire me and share stories with. This included London Web Standards, a monthly meetup and a yearly conference I still help organise. I suddenly found myself being one of the very few women there, so I instinctively started to chat with the other women there. A bit because I was curious about the other members of what started to seem like a “rare species”, and a bit because it felt natural to group with other girls. Nonetheless, luckily, thanks to my social nature and because I had started to get used to work and therefore interact with more boys than girls, I tried to socialise with as many people as possible and I have met some of my closest friends until now, boys and girls.

I accepted that maybe there were more boys in the web development industry than girls or that at least, there always seemed to be more boys at community events than girls. Fine.

But then I went a step further and started volunteering at Ladies Who Code, a monthly meetup aimed at girls who are already web developers or are studying to become web developers or would like to do the jump. And while volunteering there I got a lot of “Why do you need a women-only event? What if we did a men-only event, we’d be completely slashed by the entire Web Dev community, so why can you girls do it?”

I was stunned.

I never thought I was doing something wrong. I still have not worked out the women in tech issue and I am still confused.

So I tried in my mind to analyse what the situation is.

“We don’t have enough women in tech”.

Some of the solutions suggested:

  1. starting from schools, encourage women to take up computing or coding courses
  2. encourage women to submit talks to conferences where most of the time, the line-up tends to be male-dominated
  3. support women and encourage them to pursue a career in web development

I still have not managed to do n.1, maybe this could be my new year resolution. I have made a start at 2 and 3, but this only confused me more.

A good conference is a conference where there’s a good percentage of female attendees and speakers. Great. Except it’s such hard work, if not close to impossible. Forget the big conferences, a big budget can allow the organisers to fly in female speakers from all over the world. How hard is it in Europe when you have a tiny budget and can barely pay the speakers back for their Eurostar and hotel stay? VERY.

Let me put together a possible scenario. I speak of what I have read on Twitter happening to speakers and organisers, and my experience at London Web Standards, a volunteer-run 100+ monthly event and a yearly conference with 400 attendees, so that you can understand where we are compared to much bigger conferences. And we are volunteers.

The first year you get in touch with the big names out there in the UK, male and female and think this is going to be really good for your conference, but the results won’t always be the best: some of them will be too busy speaking around the world and won’t be able to make your conference. The ones who might be free might bring a talk they’ve already presented at possibly at least one of the big conferences. This is fine for most attendees of our conferences who can’t afford the big conferences, but some of the most “travelled” conference attendees would say they have already seen the talk couple of times. The conference goes quite well anyway, but some of the feedback still seems to be “Good, but it would be good to see some new faces next year” or “It would be good to see more female speakers”. (At London Web Standards we also had the issue where we needed browser representatives for our first State of the Browser conferences (we have widened the scope now) and we could not help the fact that the representatives happened to be male).

So you need to up your game in the second year. The feedback shouts loud and clear: you need to find more female speakers and new speakers with fresh material!

And this is where I get really confused again.

I’ve read of female speakers complaining they had been approached by conference organisers because they were told they were looking for more female speakers. They were offended.

Sure, you contact a speaker for her content and talent, not just because she is female. You have a few options here:

  • you network at conferences and meet new speakers, either among the attendees or among the current speakers, but these might be existing biggish names
  • you browse lanyrd.com or follow RTs and mentioned of possible female speakers in your twitter stream and sometimes find a possible candidate
  • you can follow blogs
  • But most of these names might have already started presenting at a few conferences.

    But it gets even harder: we are supposed to find “new faces” every year. How is it possible to find potential female speakers who have never or almost never spoken at a conference before?

    Luckily there is some guidance offered by Anna Shipman in her article “How to get women speakers”, but I am still baffled. I have been finding it extremely hard to find new female speakers.

    There are so many female web developers out there, I am confident about that, but not many of them blog or say what they are working on or what interesting discoveries they might have done. So sometimes all you can go by is a very slim Twitter bio and no blog.

    How am I to know that that person can’t possibly have anything interesting to share? How can I not offend somebody who clearly has not published anything whatsoever hinting to the fact that she might be interested in speaking when I email her and ask if she would be interested in submitting a talk?

    Surely some of these people might think “oh she’s just contacted me because I am a woman” — how about the truth: I am trying to make sure this conference can be more diverse this year, as requested by the community. I am trying to encourage people who might not have considered speaking at a conference before, maybe just because nobody ever asked them? And I am asking you because you work in this field and you might have something interesting to share (I personally think most of us do, otherwise for example this project would not exist)?

    But how am I going to be able to get closer to a less male-dominated lineup if I don’t try and approach as many women as I can, even if sometimes I could approach the wrong person? Surely trial and error is one of the best way to get results? What is wrong with that? As I said, I am still very confused about how we can go and get more women to speak. In the meantime, I will still try and wander in the dark, and hopefully not really offend anybody.

    Let me tell you instead about my experience in trying to support women and encourage them to pursue a career in web development and what still confuses me about it. Ladies Who Code seemed to me the natural scenario for this. My idea of this group was not of a place where we can complain about how horrible life is in a male-dominated environment, as some people might think. My idea of the group instead was to inform and encourage other women to attend other community-led events on web development, where they could learn tons more, meet new friends and make the connections they might need to start working in this field. I have recommended London Web Standards and other user groups to women who never had heard of them, and encouraged them by saying “Don’t worry if you don’t know anybody, I’ll be there and I can introduce you to lots of other friendly faces”.

    I have shared my story with lots of women, being self taught and still able to make it. I thought it could inspire lots of women who are not sure they can change their career and jump into Web Development. I wanted to always shout loud and clear my message “You can make it!”. I have shared online resources, connected people, in particular people looking for work with recruiters or potential companies who might hire a Web Developer.

    But what I welcomed the most, as a person who already had some experience in the field, was that fresh feeling of somebody starting from zero, that willingness to learn and the endless possibilities for them that suddenly made me fall in love with Web Development once again.

    I also welcomed non-web-development-related conversations, which, let’s be honest, I can rarely have with my male colleagues: where did you buy that jumper, how do you make a good Dutch Apple Pie, where in London can you find size 2.5 shoes, and does anybody like my new dress? This especially I miss in my work day (although that has not stopped me from sharing some girly stuff and bless those colleagues who have listened to me and sometimes chatted back about it. You know who you are and thank you for that). And it’s a real shame that sometimes there might not be at least a couple of colleagues we could share some more girly personal facts with, which might be too geeky for some of our girlfriends but too girly for our male colleagues. So this is when a women-only meetup can come in handy!

    And yet, somebody was still telling me what I was doing was not correct. It made me sad and angry and as I said, still confuses me. I have left Ladies Who Code, and since then in London a few more community events directed to girls have sprung up, like Rails Girls and Codebar.io. I still think it’s a great idea. I would love to know if they have received similar negative comments and what they think about it. I have not been strong enough to carry on on a large scale, mainly scared by the comments I have received, but I am still nurturing my relationship with fellow girl developers I have met. I still try to meet new ones when I go to events, because deep down I think I have been doing nothing wrong, if not the opposite.

    Why can’t we all acknowledge and agree we have a problem: we need a more mixed environment. All we are trying to do is to encourage as many women as possible to join these careers, to join the social side of it and the educational side of it. I think once everybody starts helping out without complaining that “this activity is excluding men” or “I’ve only being involved because I am a woman and they need more women” and starts just getting on with it, by sharing their knowledge and encouraging everybody and anybody, maybe we’ll actually get somewhere.

    Maybe we just have to admit it’s a slow journey to get on board as many women as there are men, because historically have not even been allowed to join some fields. The percentage of women in our field is growing every minute, and if we just helped rather than complain, we’d get there quicker.