How do you convince introverts to chat up a room of strangers? Or a shy person to speak in front of a crowd?
I’ve been to tons of conferences and tech events. There’s the typical lecture format where you usually have a happy hour / networking event and a vast convention floor to navigate. Don’t get me wrong, I love conferences — I’m always thrilled to learn new tech, meet new colleagues, and grab a little swag. But, I have to say — the event I attended last Saturday was a game-changer.
Write/Speak/Code is a community aimed at getting women and non-binary techies more engaged in the tech landscape. Most conferences will be swamped with applications when a CFP is announced, but the stats on who feels confident enough to give a presentation is still very lopsided. Acknowledging this fact is a first step, but what the heck can you do to change it?
I showed up at Slack’s offices in San Francisco on Saturday morning, not sure what to expect. I’m still very new to tech, having graduated from a bootcamp last year. I’ve never even thought of submitting a CFP or writing a blog of my own so I was looking forward to learning about how to get started and what resources are available to someone like me.
But passive learning was not on the table. Rebecca Miller-Webster, founder of Write/Speak/Code, started off by laying out some guidelines and reminding the crowd of over 150 individuals of some basic communication concepts. Remember, don’t interrupt. How to give constructive feedback. How to receive criticism. For many of us, this was our first time attending one of these workshops so, for me at least, it was an unusual start that left me nervous and curious as to how this day would go. We would be given a broad topic, a few minutes to brainstorm, then find a partner (never the same person twice) to discuss what we came up with. Huh?
The first prompt was to think of a movie/show/book you like, and why you like it. The film geek in me jumped for joy and I started filling my notebook with all the reasons Fury Road is amazing! Then, they called time and we all grabbed a stranger to pair with. A room full of a fair amount of introverts, mostly strangers, who had gotten up early on a Saturday for this. “Talk to a stranger” is a rather cruel directive most of the time, but I was abuzz to tell someone ALL THE THINGS about Fury Road. Which I did, and then she told me all about Brothers Bloom, and just as we were in thick of it, time was called.
And then we began again — pick a character you identify with. A new stranger. TIME. After a few cycles, the whole room was starting to hit their stride. The process of finding a new stranger moved much more quickly. After each round, we were invited to share with the room any amazing ideas that came forward in our chat, which bubbled up all sorts of cool/funny insights.
What does any of this have to do with tech? They kept us so busy, I didn’t get to think about that much. But slowly, imperceptibly, the topics shifted from broad, safe ideas, to more personal, and then finally to career focused. But, by then, the room was an efficient machine, eagerly cycling through each new iteration. I’m still amazed at the genius of this process. By the end of the day, we were all exuberantly declaring our career goals to one another.
I’ve never attended an event that invested so much time in getting you comfortable. Or where the organizers had put so much thought into reaching every single person in the room. It seemed so odd (but fun!) while it was happening, but in the afternoon, when it was time to breakout into a workshop, all that groundwork had the entire room raring to go. The agonized complaints were “these are all so fabulous I can’t decide!” rather than “eh, I guess I have to pick a session.” Everyone had their own notebook exploding with stories, ideas, goals, and gleaned wisdom; ready to get to work.
The second half of the day was filled with the sort of content one would expect; under the banners of Write, Speak or Code, various mentors presented a specific topic: how to break into open source, how to write a CFP they want to accept, intermediate Git (hello!). The theme of the event was Own your expertise, and the context of everything we had worked through in the morning brought a completely new level of energy and engagement to it than I’ve ever experienced at a workshop. I very much hope their work will help change the stats of women and non-binary coders submitting CFPs, but I’m also impressed at how they got introverts, newbies, quiet types, and those feeling less-than-confident, to really engage with others and share their ideas. I would be excited to see how this approach could impact other settings in tech.
Bugsnag was happy to sponsor the event’s childcare services to make it accessible to more individuals. The author of this post attended the event independent of the sponsorship.