AlterConf SF/Oakland

A few weeks ago I attended AlterConf SF/Oakland, a conference focusing on diversity-related issues in the tech industry. The dozen or so talks were extremely varied both in topics and in style, but nearly all of them had a story.

I should note that I am a non-marginalized developer and a person with a lot of privilege, including being white, cis, and male. These are not my stories and not issues I have to struggle with on a day-to-day basis, and therefore my interpretation and commentary may have large holes or something dangerously wrong. Nevertheless, these are my impressions and opinions, and I both support every speaker being able to have a voice and agreed with nearly all of them.

EDIT: The AlterConf site now has a summary of all the talks, with quotes and photos.

This post was originally going to be the same sort of “list of all the talks” with my impressions of each one, but that turned into far too much verbiage and not enough benefit. Instead, I want to pull out some common themes, the first one being conforming to succeed. This was the title of Marco Rogers’ talk, with a focus on people of color and himself in particular, but it came up again and again: Amy Wibowo’s “Coding Like a Girl” (femininity), Mia Lipner’s “We Can’t See You, So You Don’t See Us” (blindness and other disabilities), Davida Small’s “Unconscious Racism” (black culture vs. dominant white culture), and Xandir O’Cando and Kevin Simpson’s “Disability in Games” (disability in games).

So what is this “conforming to succeed”? It’s pretty much exactly what you expect: if you want opportunities, you have to fit in—and if you don’t fit in, you’re passed over, assumed to be less skilled or competent, and left feeling isolated. You have a choice: “act like you belong” and adjust as best you can, or live with fewer opportunities and less respect from the dominant culture, maybe even being forced to leave. Small passionately summarized this as “[continually] jumping through a lot of hoops that I’m really bored of jumping through”.

There is a lot of nuance here; none of the five talks I mentioned are covering the same material. But it does feel like variations on the same theme, and Rogers explained how his alternate title—“how to become one of the good ones”—is really a threat: if you don’t hold up your end as “one of the good ones”, you’re out. And of course it’s the current, dominant culture that decides what makes you “one of the good ones”.

(Imagine being the only one with your background, culture, perspective in a particular group. Think of a real experience, if you’ve had one. Would you want to work in that environment for an extended period of time?)

“Okay, so what? Do I need to match some ‘diversity quota’ now? That’s BS.”

Well, no! This was another major theme of the evening: diversity is not a numbers game. Rogers, Lipner, and Mattie Brice all mentioned this fairly explicitly, but it was the very first speaker, Shola Oyedele, who pointed out the right way to see diversity: an opportunity, even a necessary opportunity. Oyedele’s talk, “Increasing Diversity – The Billion Dollar Opportunity”, talked about two different kinds of diversity:

  • Different consumers have different needs, which means you have a chance to capture that part of the market. (Oyedele offered Bevel as a prime example.)

  • In terms of engineers (and other employees), diversity is valuable not just because studies have shown that more diverse groups do better work but because the industry is currently driving away talented people (which I can attest to with anecdata). By implicitly not hiring them or making them unwelcome you are artifically limiting your talent pool, which is just foolish.

This idea was backed up by Dimas Guardado, who pointed out that if you get the same perspective on a problem every time you look at it, you’re not adding information. It also appeared in the game-themed talks of the evening, by Brice, Izzy Iqbal, and Porpentine. Taking a mainstream game and tinting the skin color of the main character isn’t really making games more diverse; it’s not expanding the field or offering new opportunities. This, too, is an opportunity.

Of the three, Porpentine’s talk was most surreal, winding its way between game development and the incredible hardships that many many trans people face today. “The issue at hand is disarmament, not diversity; where we are today is someone waving a gun saying ‘Don’t worry, I won’t shoot you.’” And, poignantly, “I don’t want to be strong. I want to be happy,” eliciting a chorus of snaps from the room.

Pain and frustration were common enough throughout the evening—after all, this was a conference deliberately by and for marginalized people in the tech industry, and that’s not a happy position. Besides everyone mentioned so far, Kitty Stryker talked about the discrimination and catch-22s facing sex workers like herself, and Harlan Kelloway shared a few stories from his upcoming anthology trans_. There was one story that ended happily, though: Madalyn Rose Parker’s “Overcoming Mental Health Hurdles at Work”. Parker was initially hesitant to admit her mental health issues to her manager, but eventually decided to do so…and was met with acceptance, flexibility, and an internal presentation to the rest of the company about mental health. (“Mental health issues should be treated like any other illness, because they are.”)

Finally, Carvell Wallace talked about “Why There’s No Such Thing As Tech”. After working in both social nonprofits and in tech, he’s found that there’s not too much of a difference between the two: they’re both following the basic economics of “exchanging money for product”. The tech industry is great at problem-solving, but it’s focused on solving its own problems. Nonprofits, on the other hand, are really selling to governments and philanthropists; the people and communities actually affected by the program aren’t the ones paying for it. Both cases demonstrate that problems are best solved by the people who have them.

I put Wallace’s talk last even though it was in the middle of the conference because it feels like a closing piece. All of these talks are about problems in the tech industry, but the tech industry isn’t anything special or sacred. As Wallace says, we can stop calling it “tech”; it’s just “work”.

AFAIK the plan is still to post recordings and transcripts of the talks, so here are some “tracks” for you for when they go up:

Meanwhile, some semi-actionable takeaways I got from these talks:

  • Diversity is not a numbers game. (many people)
  • Current culture ignores valuable talent. Fixing this requires getting the people you’re trying to include. (Oyedele)
  • Accomodating differences is good for company culture. And for the employees. (Parker)
  • Accessibility means accounting for people who don’t interact with your software in the default way. (Lipner, O’Cando, Simpson)
  • Accessibility needs to be there from the start. (Lipner)
  • “Mental health issues should be treated like any other illness, because they are.” (Parker)
  • “The scene with the biggest problems is the scene that says it has no problems.” (Porpentine)
  • Examine your cultural assumptions; they may be exclusionary. (Small)
  • Reconsider policies that harm others. (Stryker)
  • Assume people you meet are as or more qualified than you are. Even when presenting as feminine. (Wibowo)
  • Stop claiming expertise over experiences you haven’t had and methods you haven’t used. (Guardado)
  • Problems are best solved by the people who have them. (Wallace)
  • Diversity is an opportunity. (Oyedele)

And here are some links on related topics that I thought of during the talks or while writing this post:

  • Parker’s experiences of mental health issues reminded me of Christine Miserandino’s “Spoon Theory”. As someone who has neither a mental illness nor a physical disability, I can’t speak to how accurate this is, but it feels like a useful analogy.
  • O’Cando and Simpson pointed to the AbleGamers Foundation at
  • And Brice mentioned games where the player doesn’t necessarily have a strong effect on the outcome, so I’m going to link to Nicky Case’s Coming Out Simulator 2014.

So, what now?

I don’t know the answer for this yet, but I do think AlterConf is worthwhile, and that my attending it was likewise worthwhile. (Thanks to organizer Ashe Dryden and everyone who helped to put it on!)

I want to help make things better, and listening and learning feels like a good first step.

I just need to figure out what to do next.