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RWDevCon 2017 Inspiration Talk: Creating Community by Sarah Olson

The Director of Women Who Code Twin Cities, Sarah Olson, shares what she’s learned about building communities that are inclusive and welcoming.

Note from Ray: At our 2017 RWDevCon tutorial conference, in addition to hands-on tutorials, we also had a number of “inspiration talks” – non-technical talks with the goal of giving you a new idea or some battle-won advice, and leaving you excited and energized.

We recorded these talks so that you could enjoy them even if you didn’t get to attend the conference. Here’s one of the inspiration talks from RWDevCon 2017: “Creating Community” by Sarah Olson. I hope you enjoy it!


When I attend a tech event, one of the first things I do—and I don’t know that I really even think about it—is I count the number of women I see in the audience. Usually I can count them on my two hands. I’ve noticed at this conference I had to use my feet too, which was great, but it’s still nowhere near where we should be.

I wonder to you guys if you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to be a woman in tech, to walk in to a conference room and immediately feel out of place, not sure if you’re welcome or if anyone’s going to talk to you. It’s alienating to be different, to look around the room and wonder why there’s no one there that looks like you or comes from your background.

What Does Different Feel Like?

It’s a really hard feeling to describe. I think most people have had those moments, maybe your first day of school or college. It’s hard to put that into words, but the fact is: 41% of women leave tech within 10 years. That’s almost half.

I’ve nearly doubled that with my career, but I have to tell you there were times that I almost left. Multiple times. I get so excited when I see other women developers because it’s really rare—especially, I’ve noticed, in iOS—and it’s actually getting worse. I probably worked with twice as many female developers when I started my career than I do now.

When I tell people about the issues women face they’re usually shocked and they’re very concerned, and they want to know how to fix it. But it’s not a problem that’s easy to fix. It’s little things here and there, death by a thousand cuts. There are lots of seemingly insignificant signals and choices and language that can create a culture that feels hostile and unwelcoming.

It doesn’t feel like my kind of space. Do I belong here?

I’ve moved around from corporate to startups, from small companies to large companies, and I’ve struggled to find a place where I felt like I really belonged. I’ve been searching for my community.

Finding a Community

Now my story here today begins with a conference.

Two years ago, Apple opened up their WWDC scholarship program to marginalized groups in tech. Previously, this had only been available for students, but now they were opening it up to developers with experience. They listed a group of diversity organizations that would qualify you to apply for a scholarship. I looked at this list and I’d never heard of any of them, but I didn’t actually know these groups existed. They didn’t have these kinds of things around when I started.

I was fairly new to iOS development at this time. I spent most of my career on backend Java, database, middleware. A few years prior, I had started at a software development shop that was technology agnostic and when they ran out of work in Java, they would say, “Well, what do you want to learn now?” And I said, “Well, iOS sounds fun.”

I would do an iOS project and then they were like, “Well, no, we don’t have those. How about Android?” So I do some Android and I did WordPress sites for friends, so they had me do some WordPress. It was great, but I was the jack-of-all-trades and master of none. You can’t keep up in all those different technologies and I’ve always felt like I was struggling to stay up to date.

I felt like if I got into WWDC, it would give me a whole week full of really great technical expertise that I could go back to my employer and say, “Look, I can do this full time. Make me a primary member of the iOS team and not the person who flits around between projects and technologies.”

I wanted to apply for a scholarship, but I wasn’t actually a member of these groups yet, so I looked through them and there were two that looked promising that I could qualify for. One was Women Who Code and the other was Girl Develop It, which goes by GDI typically these days. GDI was the only one that was in my area at the time.

Girl Develop It

GDI is a group that offers coding classes to adult women. They do it on nights and weekends so more women can attend. They’re very inexpensive, and it’s a great group that’s helping bring more women into tech.

This particular group in Minneapolis already had a pretty large leadership team, which I joined, but I struggled to find my place within their group. I couldn’t figure out what exactly I could give them to help them with their mission, but I loved helping women find a passion for technology.

Now GDI, like many of the other diversity groups out there, focuses on the pipeline.

They want to bring more women into tech. They especially want girls to become interested in tech. There’s a lot of science and research out there that shows that especially in middle school, girls lose interest in STEM. There are a lot of reasons for that, but there are also many programs out there to help them. Plus, kids (especially my kids) love their iPads and iPhones, and anything they can do to play with them. They’re so excited.

It always felt to me like this is a little easier of a problem to solve. They already love technology. It’s just letting them know that they can do it. Fixing retention, keeping women in tech—that’s super hard, but it didn’t seem like anybody was actually tackling that problem, that death by a thousand cuts. We are just handing out band-aids. That’s not helping.

Women face so many problems with culture and benefits, flexibility, promotion. Sexism is systemic and it’s everywhere, and it’s hard to address all these things that are coming at you from so many different places. But what good is fixing the pipeline if it just ends up in a sewer?

Not a great place to end up.

Back to WWDC. I won a scholarship. Yay!

It was great. We flew out to go to Moscone, and they had the scholarship program the day before with events and some of the leaders talking. It was a little strange. I don’t think people really knew what to do with the experienced developers in the room. It was mostly high school students, so we felt really out of place, but I’m like, “Well, free ticket, WWDC. I can’t complain.”

While I was there, though, I met with a bunch of different leaders from Women Who Code and they shared my vision of, “Let’s fix retention. Let’s work on those problems that are really hard. That’s what we need to solve.”

Women Who Code

Women Who Code is a global non-profit dedicated to helping women excel in their technology careers, whether that’s technical expertise or getting them into leadership positions. We’re trying to help them create the career that they want.

I applied to start a network in the Twin Cities and I became a director. Creating a community was completely new to me and I had no idea how to do it. Do I just throw an event out there and hope people show up?

I decided to look at some of the other organizations that were already in our area and I found a ton of other groups that were doing this work, and I had no idea they were even there.

Most of them at this time were actually focused on gender. They were all reaching out to women, and I was a little sad that there weren’t any groups out there reaching out to other marginalized communities in tech, based on race or sexual orientation or gender identity, disability, anything else. Thankfully, that has changed in the last year and we now have some of those groups, but at the time, there were a lot that were trying to help women.

I reached out to all their leadership teams and said, you know, “Hey, I want to find out more about you. What is it that you are doing that’s unique? What kind of events are you holding? Who are you specifically focused on?”

Once I talked to them I realized that they didn’t really know that other groups existed either. They didn’t really talk to anyone else. They didn’t collaborate at all and they weren’t really interested in collaborating. They mostly just wanted to do their thing, so I had to find out what their thing was.

Once I had clarity on who they were and what their mission was, I could then see where the gaps were, so now I knew what was missing from our tech community.

One of the great things about joining an existing organization is that a lot of things were kind of given to me that I didn’t have to worry about, so they already had branding and logos, and they had a website that I could point people to for more information. They took care of all the taxes and finances that go along with being a non-profit. They had an online donation page all ready for me so people could help fund our new network. They also had a person who helped get us press, which was huge.

Most importantly, they had a vision and mission, so it was very easy for us to know what we should be doing in the community.

In August of 2015, I created our first event in Meetup. Originally I had booked a room for 25 people, and I really thought that would be more than enough. I thought two or three people would show up and that would make me really, really happy, but two weeks before the event, I had to go find a larger venue, which was great. It’s a really awesome problem to have.

We ended up having, I think, 34 people show up. Women Who Code also had some guidelines on the sort of events to have, and one of those is called a Hack Night, which is what we did for our first event. It’s just a night where women can come in and connect with other women. They can ask questions, they can work on projects, and it’s a safe space.

Safe Spaces

Ash yesterday talked about psychological safety and that’s exactly what we’re doing here. We’re trying to provide a place for women to go and not be afraid to fail or to look stupid. Sometimes these women, they’re the only women on their development team. They’re alone and that can feel really isolating and lonely.

One of the things mentioned yesterday was these series of tweets in which developers were kind of owning up to when they were stupid. There were a series of tweets from women talking about how they didn’t feel comfortable being that vocal on Twitter, that people might use this against them, because it already happens to women a lot.

I thought that was really important to highlight: not everyone has the ability to look stupid. Women feel a lot of pressure to be perfect all the time, so it’s really important for us to provide a safe space.

We also want to reach out beyond that, so we have lots of different types of events. One event we did that I thought was really helpful was a talk about how to deal with sexism and harassment at professional events, because unfortunately that happens a lot.

Things we talked about included does this or that conference have a code of conduct, and if it doesn’t, do you want to go? Maybe you shouldn’t. What if something happens to you and you report it? Lots of women face backlash for reporting things; is it worth it to you?

We talked about some horror stories, things like Gamergate, things that have happened in other communities, and gave advice and information to make decisions.

Another thing that we do is coding with your kids, where members bring their children in. It kind of seems like we’re trying to address the pipeline issue by doing that, but what we’re really doing is giving women the ability to attend meetings if they can’t find childcare. A lot of women struggled to make events on evenings and weekends because they’d say, “What am I going to do with my kids?”

Recently, we did a series of events on emerging technology, so we toured a 3D printing factory and I used some of the funds that were donated to buy a 3D printer (a very, very cheap one) and let our members play around with it and see how it works.

We also did a meet-up on virtual reality just before the PlayStation 4 VR came out, and we had all the different VR companies come in and show off their technology. We had a member talk about a game that she created on the Samsung Gear VR platform.

Next week we’re doing a screening of a new documentary called She Started It, which talks about some of the problems women face as entrepreneurs, and we’re having a local panel of female entrepreneurs talk at the event about some of their experiences as well.

What I’ve Learned About Building Community

Throughout all of this, what have I learned?

There might already be communities you don’t even know about, so it’s really important to do some research and figure out who’s out there. Think about the communities you’re already involved in, and what you like and dislike about them.

The best way to figure out what you want from a community is to see what’s out there and go, “Mm, I like that thing, but I don’t like that.” Think outside the box a little bit. For example, here’s my family on our trip to Florida:

We were like a tiny, little community. We have lots of great feelings attached to that community, love and inclusion, and feeling welcome. Can I extend those feelings to my other community somehow?

There are a lot of really strange communities out there. One I found out about last week on Reddit is a subforum called Birds with Arms where people Photoshop arms on to birds.

It’s amazing and you should go look at it.

Even with all these communities out there, sometimes you can’t find what you’re looking for and you need to create it yourself.

One of the events I attended last year was Collision Conference and they offered free tickets to women in technology, but they didn’t have any way for us to actually connect once we were there, so it still felt really isolating. So we made our own event. We basically flagged down any women we could find at the conference and said, “Hey, we’re meeting at this time.”

We actually made an activity where we put up boards with post-its and said, “Okay, how can we help improve this in the future?” We gave that to the organizers at the end of the conference. Then someone actually wrote up something on Huffington Post about us going rogue.

When you’re creating your own community, it’s really important to be deliberate about what you’re doing. Really think about your mission and your vision. Think about who is included in your community, but most importantly who is excluded.

With Women Who Code, you can kind of tell from the name that we’re focusing on women, not not-women. Then we’re focusing on people who code, but we wanted to make sure that we were being very inclusive with the term women, so we had to put some language in our meet-ups to make sure that anyone who identifies as a woman felt comfortable and welcome attending. We really wanted to make sure that that was as inclusive as possible.

Sometimes members contact us and they’re like, “Well, I don’t know how to code yet.” We’re very open about that too, so sometimes those names can get in the way, but it’s really important to put that out there as, “Yes, please. You’re included as well.” Still, you have to draw a line somewhere. Someone is going to get excluded from your community, so think about the language you use.

Think about the location that you’re meeting in. Are there transit options so people can get to your meeting if you’re doing something in person? Is there access for people in wheelchairs? What ages are you targeting? We’re only looking at adults, but there are lots of groups for girls too. What experience level? We get lots of questions on that.

As a leader, it’s really important to keep things manageable. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. There’s a lot of work (or there can be) to being a leader, so grow slowly to make sure you can keep up with things. I have tons of ideas and I get really excited about them, but I have to keep in mind that I really can only commit to one a month.

Eventually, you’re going to have to grow your leadership team if your community is successful. I’ve recently added another leader to help me out with a lot of the work that I’m doing.

It’s important to know when to ask for help, but it’s also important to be careful about who you’re adding to your team. Lots of leaders or potential leaders have reached out and said, “I’m really excited about doing this,” but they never actually attended an event, or they’ll show up once and then not come back, but still really want to be a leader. It seems like some people are more interested in the title than actually doing the work, so it’s important to vet people. Find leaders with strengths where you have weaknesses. Make sure you’ve got everything covered.

Alignment is very critical. Having a shared vision and a plan forward will help save you a lot of drama. I’ve seen this happen in other groups where they’ve got a huge leadership team and no one can agree on what they should do or where they should go, and it’s really difficult to get anything done.

Community is about sharing. I mean, that’s the whole point. A community has a common goal or interest and you want to share that with other people, so it’s important that if you see another community that your members would benefit from, even if it kind of overlaps with yours, tell them about it.

Don’t be territorial. You’re trying to help people find a place where they feel like they belong, so give that to them. Collaborate with other communities when you can. I try to do as many events with other groups as I can to try and offer a larger community and make a bigger impact.

Remember that diversity makes you stronger. Even though you have this shared common interest, make sure that you’re getting differing opinions in there. You don’t want to focus it too small and miss out on some of the great diversity you could have in our group. Being inclusive is really hard work. There are lots of different opinions on how you should do things and the right terms you should use, and it can feel really daunting to misspeak or use the wrong term. Just focus on being respectful and listen to people when they point things out, and apologize if you did something wrong.

Everyone messes up. It’s okay.

An important thing to think about is what you’re going to offer your members. If you look at the Hierarchy of Needs:

At the bottom, you’re pretty sure most of your community has food and water and shelter. Hopefully you don’t have to worry about that; maybe you do, but at our community the next level up is about safety. That’s something I’m already pretty concerned about, so the first thing I care about is making sure we have a safe space.

One of the things I’ve done is to ask recruiters not to attend our events because it can make some people uneasy, and I’m doing all I can to make sure people feel comfortable attending.

It’s also important to think about your own needs. What are you getting out of this? Is it making you happy? Are you fulfilled?

The one thing I struggle with most is feedback. People don’t want to tell me anything, so it’s like pulling teeth. “Is this good? Do you like this? Would you like something else?” People don’t really know. They know what they don’t like, but it’s really hard to schedule around that, so we’ve had to come up with some creative ways of gathering feedback.

One of the things we’re doing this year is we have a challenge, like New Year’s resolutions. As in, do all these things and earn points, and at the end of the year we’ll give out really cool prizes. Part of the challenge is when they submit the entry to get points, we ask a few questions like, “Did you like this event? What more could you see?” We’re starting to get a little bit more feedback that way. It seems like the more you ask, after a while people will finally start offering up little tidbits.

The most important thing to me is: how do you want your community to feel?

How do you want your members to feel? As Ash said, feelings matter. How would it feel to be a new member, and walk in the door and not know anybody? Maybe you’re brand new to coding or maybe you’re really experienced. How do all of those different members feel?

Try and put yourself in their shoes.

This Maya Angelou quote really stands out to me. “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

This, I think, is why feelings are really so important.

I’ve got a lot I could talk about on this subject and I just have a short time today, so if you want to talk any more about it or have any other questions, feel free to contact me. My Twitter is @saraheolson, and then Women Who Code Twin Cities is @WWCodeTC.

Thank you.

Note from Ray: If you enjoyed this talk, you should join us at the next RWDevCon! We’ve sold out in previous years, so don’t miss your chance.




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