Uncomfortable

This is not a post about sexism or misogyny. It's not a post about diversity or how to get more women in tech. It's a post about being uncomfortable.

Most people who know me would say I'm a friendly person. I like to meet new people, I like to hear about what cool project they're working on. I like to talk about geeky movies, and music, and books, and all the other things that come up in friendly conversation. And I high-five, a lot. I also watch Archer and adore Louis CK, and I don't mind a good that's-what-she-said joke.

Sometimes, when people figure out I'm friendly, they assume they can talk to me as if I was an old friend of theirs. And sometimes, jokes get told to me that flat out make me uncomfortable. I can hear an off-color, suggestive joke from a close friend and think it's hilarious. I can also hear the same thing from someone I met 5 minutes ago, and feel like I want to run the hell away (in fight or flight, I'm definitely a flight). When I mention that, and I get an "it's just a joke, relax" reply, it makes me feel invalidated, insecure, and even more uncomfortable. So am I defective for feeling like that? Do I not have a sense of humor? Am I overreacting? Am I a prude? What is wrong with me? Everybody else seemed to be fine with it, so it *must* be me, right? What if I don't even really know why it made me feel uncomfortable, just that it did?

Fortunately for me, I am not the only one who struggles with this. I'll get back to this in a minute.

We all know that everything humans do revolves around context, but let me say it again. Context is everything. Sometimes, here in the Land of Open Source, we forget that. We hang out in our jeans and t-shirts, and chat on IRC, and go to conferences to meet up with old friends and have a beer. We recruit our friends to work on our projects with us, and we bitch about stuff on Twitter, or Hacker News, or Reddit. Lost in our own bubble of protection from mainstream society and grownups, *we* make the rules. This is Open Source! We value freedom, and openness, and we defy the status quo! We keep the context of the LoOS nice and tidy and all wrapped up with a little bow, same as it ever was.

And then come new additions to the LoOS. We dub them Newbies and drop them in the middle of it; a sort of trial-by-fire. Sink or swim. Either you fit in as one of Our People, or you don't. This is the way we behave; either you like it or you don't. These are the expectations; either you agree with them and fit in, or you don't. Chances are if you aren't comfortable with anything in this LoOS society, and you want to change it, then you have a long road ahead of you. Because we are free to do as we want, and this is what we've chosen, it will be difficult to convince us otherwise. We're not giving up that freedom to behave the way we want just to placate *you* of all people. And we've always been fine with it, so it must just be you. You should get over it, or you know, there's the door. Some of us have been here a long time, and you just got here.

Hmm, you just got here. Unfortunately for you, history creates context, so any new people coming in essentially have none. Inside jokes, social norms, insider information: these things are all taken at face value by a new person entering any group, without any context whatsoever. This is another piece that I will get back to in a moment.

There's a grocery store near my house that I don't like. It's small, dark, and dirty, and it just makes me uncomfortable. So I never go there. It doesn't make me angry, it doesn't offend me, it doesn't push me down and take my lunch money or call me fat. It's just not a place I want to be; there are other grocery stores around that I like better. It's not worth my energy to try and change the place.

I also joined a gym once. It was full of bodybuilders and supermodels who were all very interested in each other. It made me uncomfortable, so I never went back. I paid the money and I never went back. You may think that's a very silly thing, and they certainly weren't offending me or making me angry. It just was not a place I wanted to be, at all. I've since found a gym that is more open and welcoming and has people of all ages and shapes and sizes, and I feel comfortable there. They send me emails to see how I'm doing. It's nice.

The same is true for our personal relationships. When we say and do things that make the people around us uncomfortable, they are less likely to want to keep hanging around us. They may not be angry or offended, they just make other choices. And they may not even say anything about it because of the internal struggle I mentioned before. Sometimes it's easier to walk away than to spend the energy defending or explaining the way something makes you feel, especially if you know the other party is not particularly receptive to your point of view. I'll get back to this in a minute, too.

Yesterday, I posted this picture on Twitter and asked people to simply tell me if it made them uncomfortable. My goal was just to get honest answers, and not to judge anybody for their reaction (and I hope you can do the same). The results were fascinating.

102 of you replied with a reaction.
3 said no it didn't make you uncomfortable, and gave a lol.
14 said no
42 said no, but thought it was poor taste/didn't want to see it at a conference/made them judge the wearer poorly
37 yes it made them uncomfortable/wow I can't believe that
3 said it made them angry
3 made jokes about the code itself (I love you guys)

The most interesting thing about it was that the results were also quite mixed with regard to gender and location (best I could tell from Twitter). Men and women said it made them angry, men and women said the joke made them laugh. There was a wide array of people expressing widely different opinions. I think the only exception to that is that 4 of you also mentioned a concern with personal safety in being around that person, and you were all women. The majority of you would likely agree that something like that was not appropriate for a professional conference.

Hmm, professional conference. What do those words mean in the LoOS? It seems like an oxymoron in a sense. I mean, we're rebels! We do what we want! We wear jeans to our conferences! We have beer and stuff! And we act just like we always have because we're among Our People.

But look at Your People. Your People have a wide array of widely different opinions about how something makes them feel, and for some, those feelings are pretty strong. Your People do not agree. What's happening here?! And for those who say we should all just act based on "common sense," well, you can see that our sense is not entirely common.

Oh, and remember that thing about context I talked about earlier? Several of you pointed out that the code on the shirt is a very old Linux joke that has been around for years. Those of you with context were not upset at all by the shirt. UPDATE: I did have one more person say that even though they knew of the joke's origin, it still made them feel uncomfortable.

And wait, some of Your People may not mind acting like a professional. They may not mind treating this LoOS as more than just a Google hangout IRL. In fact, for some of you, this is a career and an industry just like any other, and settings where we all come together for this purpose should have different expectations.

So let's get back to what's really important here: me. So I'm feeling uncomfortable because I'm in a weird social situation, and expressing myself makes the weird social situation even weirder. Maybe I'm one of those 36 people who are uncomfortable with the shirt. What do I do? What if there were 10 people with that shirt on? What if there were 300? Do I say anything? Or do I just shut up and sit down?

Elizabeth, it sounds like you're telling me I can't wear what I want or say what I want because "somebody somewhere might be made to feel uncomfortable." No, I'm not saying that at all. Do whatever you want that is authentic to you. That is your right. If you're a company, you absolutely have the right to market yourselves any way that you choose. What I will ask is that you consider the possibility that everything you do and say has a direct effect on those around you. And I will ask you to consider the possibility that if others around you *are* being made uncomfortable in some way, that you ask yourself if that's ok. If the answer is yes, then go for it. If the answer is no, then maybe having a discussion about it is a worthwhile venture. And I will ask that you keep in mind that how you make people feel directly ties into their perceptions about you.

We can talk all day and night about whether something is sexist, or offensive, or inappropriate. What I'm concerned about is that we're judging each other based on where our lines of appropriateness are drawn, and we're not considering the fact that somebody else's lines might not match up with our own. We just get angry at the other side because they can't see our point of view. Worse still, we trivialize and discount serious concerns of others because we don't feel like changing.

In my opinion, there is no right or wrong when it comes to how something makes you feel, deep down in your gut. As I said before, what is hurtful for someone isn't for another. What's a huge deal to some is trivial to others. That doesn't make it any less of a big deal.

If we don't respect Our People, and the new people coming in to our community enough to afford them the freedom to express what they feel without penalty, then this community will be lost. If we don't afford them the common courtesy of compromise and understanding, then this community will be lost. And lastly, if we don't learn to change with a changing tide, and remember that the face of Our People looks very different than it did 10 years ago, then this community will be lost.

For a person to leave our community, or at the very least be much less a part of it, they don't even need to be offended, angry, afraid, or upset. All they need to be is uncomfortable.

Speaking at Dutch PHP Conference

I'm thrilled that I'll be speaking at the 2010 edition of the Dutch PHP Conference. I've not attended or spoken at this conference before; in fact I've never been to Europe so this will definitely be a new adventure. I'm quite excited.

I'll be speaking on the topics of Technical Debt and Technical Writing, both of which I find fascinating and enjoy talking about. If you're around at the conference, I hope you are able to pop in and say hello.

My thanks to the selection committee and I really look forward to seeing friends old and new!

It's Really Not That Difficult.

I thought the topic of offensive presentations at professional tech conferences was beat to death before, but apparently there are still some out there who don't get it. Recently, the GoGaRuCo incident stirred up controversy, and now this monstrosity has occurred.

In a nutshell, the keynote speaker at Flashbelt, Hoss Gifford, gave a presentation that included actions and images that would make even Howard Stern do a double-take. The highlights of the talk, according to Courtney Remes, as recounted here, are:

  • He opens his keynote with one of those "Ignite"-esque presentations — where you have 5-minutes and 20 slides to tell a story — and the first and last are a close-up of a woman's lower half, her legs spread (wearing stilettos, of course) and her shaved vagina visible through some see-thru panties that say "drink me," with Hoss's Photoshopped, upward-looking face placed below it.
  • He later demos a drawing tool he has created (admittedly with someone else's code) and invites a woman to come up to try it. After she sits back down, he points out that in her doodles she's drawn a "cock."
  • Then he decides he wants to give a try at using the tool to draw a "cock" (he loves this word) — and draws a face, then a giant dick (he redraws it three times) that ultimately cums all over the face.
  • A multitude of references to penises and lots of swearing — and also "If you are easily offended, fuck you!"
  • And then, to top it off, a self-made flash movie of an animated woman's face, positioned as if she's having sex with you, who gradually orgasms based on the speed of your mouse movement on the page.
Yeah, seriously. WTF, indeed.

Funny, the synopsis of his talk doesn't indicate anything beyond cursing that could be offensive:
Hoss exploits this shared narrative in his work to great effect, and will use his inaugural Flashbelt presentation to analyze a series of projects that build on each other's successes and failures to deliver increasingly rich experiences. And he'll say ` F**k ' a lot.

His idea of "increasingly rich experiences" differs from mine, apparently.

Interestingly enough, it was his response and the response of his supporters that reveals the deeper issues. There are still so many out there who think that they are entitled to act like douchebags because they *can,* and that everybody else should let it go. Get over yourselves, I say. You're nowhere near as cool as you'd like to think you are. And you shrugging it off and alienating a good portion of your audience (men and women alike) is like me building a website that requires IE8 only.

I applaud the collaborative efforts and professionalism of the well thought out response by the conference organizers and the geek girls -- they are truly making progress, I think. In a way, though, it really saddens me. It saddens me that this conversation and effort even has to take place.

I think that idiots like Mr. Gifford do not represent a good portion of male techies in the world, and certainly he represents none of the men I know in the PHP world. So basically, I know I'm preaching to the choir on this one, but for those gentlemen out there that don't get it, IT'S REALLY NOT THAT DIFFICULT.

In case you're not sure where the "appropriate" line for your professional presentation is, here are a few pointers to help you decide.

1- Witty, pertinent content: GOOD. Pictures of naked women, or really anything sexually charged: BAD.
2- If you would feel uncomfortable giving the presentation to your little sister or Aunt Linda, CHANGE IT.
3- The audience and the conference organizers are your CLIENTS. They're paying you good money to educate and share your knowledge. Offending and embarrassing them and yourself is a BAD IDEA.
4- EDGY does not mean PORN.
5- You obviously have intelligence and something interesting to say. DON'T HIDE BEHIND BULLSHIT.
6- It's called EMPATHY. LOOK IT UP.

If you *still* don't get it, and you're not sure if your presentation is questionable, approach some women in tech with your presentation and get their opinion. We are out there, trust me. No, we won't chastise you for being ignorant. We will appreciate the fact that you cared enough to ask.

A Few Observations from php|tek 2009

We've just successfully wrapped up another edition of php|tek. Yet again, I was reminded of the significance of bringing together PHP developers, core dev members, and those in industry and related technologies. Our conferences are always a lot of fun-- we work hard and play hard, and we hope everyone comes away with something besides a postcard that says "wish you were here!" or a t-shirt from Shoeless Joe's.

I won't bore you with the tales of "Geeks Gone Wild" or recap the speakers' presentations; for all that, you can check out the 800+ pics on Flickr and the slides on Slideshare. You can also read other people's wrap-ups if you're really interested.

For those who weren't there (or those who were, but missed out), we at MTA made a few surprise announcements:

  • CodeWorks is our exciting fall conference this year. It's a traveling roadshow of PHP experts and we will be hitting 7 cities in 14 days! Check out the site to see if we'll be near a city near you, and be sure to take advantage of our early-bird pricing! Prices start at just $99, so make sure you check it out.
  • Attendees at the conference also got a sneak peek at our new line of PHP t-shirts. We have 5 different designs and will be selling them on our site shortly, so keep an eye out for these. We will also be adding new designs all the time.

I also wanted to mention some of the things that happened in the "Hallway Track" as we call it; that time between times when cool things arise out of nowhere: unplanned, unscheduled, and off-the-cuff.

  • an impromptu interview by Microsoft's Brian Gorbett, where he asked a few of the PHPWomen about our organization and what we'd like to achieve. The video is kind of long at almost 24 minutes, but if you're interested in PHPWomen, give it a look. Thanks Brian!
  • a meeting with some of the heads of high-profile PHP projects, including Symfony, CakePHP, ZF, PEAR, and others to discuss coding standards across the board. As Stefan Koopmanschap stated,
    The second conference day started with a meeting with quite a few people from the PHP frameworks world, on introducing certain advised standards for PHP libraries and frameworks. These standards should make it easier for people to include and use libraries. We had a great 2-hour discussion on namespaces and naming, exception naming and handling, and some slightly related off-topic discussions. All in all, a great meeting, which resulted in the start of a new PHP mailinglist.
    I'm very interested to see what comes of this, and I think it's great they got the ball rolling!
  • a compact little framework was written for fun by Travis Swicegood (of git fame) and Nate Abele (head CakePHP dev) in between sessions. It's amazing what you can accomplish when you're face to face with someone. I'm sure there are other examples of projects that were worked on while at the conference, and if so- let me know!

Other interesting things that were going on during the conference:

  • the Hackathon, which resulted in much code being written and much pizza being inhaled. Projects worked on included IRC Bot Phergie, ZF, Solar, and PEAR.
  • the Testfest, which resulted in improved test coverage for core PHP, by 19 tests. Not too shabby for a few hours late in the afternoon/evening - good job, guys!
  • the PHPWomen Craft Hour, which was scheduled as a part of the unconference.. and which also turned into a MakerFaire of sorts. For something that was so far off the beaten PHP path, a large group of us (men and women alike) had a great time crafting it up. A cool new remote controlled multi-car was also fashioned by some talented individuals.
  • Keith Casey did quite a few 4-5 minute interviews of speakers/attendees at the conference, on a variety of topics. You should really take the time to check them out; he did a fabulous job!

Add all this in with a few days of excellent sessions and tutorials, along with some very fun social events, and you have the makings of a fantastic conference. My personal thanks go out to all those who pitched in and/or offered their help (you know who you are ;) ), our fantastic speakers, and Marco and Arbi. Also want to thank Keith Casey for coordinating a stellar unconference, for being our emcee, and for assisting me with obtaining the proper AV equipment (duuuuuude.) :).

We're also very interested in getting your feedback from the conference, so if you have comments or suggestions, please send them to me at elizabeth.at.phparch.com. Looking forward to seeing you all next year!

PHP Appalachia Wrap-Up

I stopped writing conference wrap-ups a while ago, mostly because conferences are pretty much all the same. You go, listen to some smart people talk about PHP, eat-drink-be-merry with friends and fellow PHP geeks, then you go home.

However, imagine sticking roughly 25 geeks together in a house in the mountains for 4 days and see what comes of it. Cooking together, hacking together, talking PHP together, playing some video games together and of course drinking together. I think everyone would agree that it's worth the $15 plus travel and the cost of the cabin.

We came from 9 different states and 2 different countries (yay Paul!) and we all had different backgrounds and working environments. We all had differing opinions on quite a lot of things from politics to IDE usage to just about everything else. There were some great discussions, some great meals, and some *awesome* impromptu presentations. The PHP Trivia was a hoot also, although I realized much to my chagrin the answers I knew revolved around spelling people's names or drunken escapades by PHPers at past conferences. Oh well. Despite crappy Internet connectivity, a toxic hot tub, a visit to the emergency room (poor Cal) and a visit from the Pigeon Forge Fire Department, the whole conference went off without a hitch.

What I found most interesting is the group bonding that occurred (note, I said bondING). Everybody pitched in to cook, and clean, and present, and discuss, and participate. I feel like we all met some new friends and had a lot of fun with the old ones. But it wasn't just about having fun, it was about the exchange of information which so readily happens when you're stuck with people for 4 days straight.

Don't get me wrong, large, more formal conferences obviously have their place, and I really look forward to those too, but for a different reason. The nature of a large conference definitely allows for broader networking, more presentations, and sometimes a bit of formality is a good thing. A small uncon like this basically takes all the great things about a conference and compiles it into one nice neat little package. Kind of like the top of the muffin. Tastes awesome, but might not entirely fill you up like a whole muffin would.

So, anyway after all is said and done, I think I can consider this a success and something I'll definitely be up for helping to plan again. A very special thanks to:

  • Whitney Turland for cooking authentic Louisiana gumbo for the entire crew (and even a special veggie batch just for yours truly!)
  • Sara Golemon and Maggie Nelson for cooking breakfast for the crew
  • Keith Casey for completely planning the uncon schedule
  • Paul Reinheimer for keeping us entertained the entire time
  • Cal Evans for enduring 13 stitches despite being one of the few sober ones at the time
  • all those that took the time to present (they were great, guys.. seriously)
  • Joe LeBlanc for disarming the fire alarm multiple times
  • and of course our sponsors, who really did help us make the event a success (php|architect, NuSphere, Cool Blue Interactive, and ServerGrove Networks. Many, many thanks to you.)

We've also begun talking about next year's PHP Appalachia, so if you think it sounds like fun, be sure to keep your eyes and ears open. :)

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