(Photo by Yowei Shaw)
It’s a summer morning three years ago, my first time at the University City Science Center.
I’m there because a vintage Philly startup called Infonautics is having a reunion and I’m supposed to write about it. It’s my second day on the job as Technical.ly Philly’s lead reporter and I’m overwhelmed. The panel of former Infonautics staffers (they keep calling themselves Infonauts and I’m like, “What?”) talk about run rate, valuation and cloud-based infrastructure and when I get back to our office to write the story, I’m frantically scanning Wikipedia trying to understand what any of it means. I read the entry for dot-com bubble at least three times.
I finally finished the story, but I was worried. If it was this hard now, how was I going to write about these things every day? What if my boss realized he made a mistake by hiring someone who didn’t know anything about tech?
That was when I felt most excluded from the tech scene, at the very beginning. Even though, as a woman of color, I was something of an anomaly at tech events, I never felt excluded because of that. It was hardest for me when I was an outsider, when it seemed like everyone in Philly tech was talking in a foreign language, one that I had to pretend to know.
- Editor’s note: We performed this essay, accompanied by dancers Marcel Williams Foster and Kemar Jewel, as part of our first-ever live podcast recording last week. Listen to the podcast here or subscribe to the Technical.ly Podcast on iTunes or Stitcher. It’s also available via this RSS feed.
Fortunately for me, because of my job, that changed fast. I stopped getting nervous and sweaty every time it was my turn to introduce myself at a tech meetup. I started to feel a little more like I belonged. That one big moment came when a story subject, upset at how I had covered his story, questioned my ethics on that pinnacle of local startup talk, the thousand-person strong Philly Startup Leaders listserv. I was watching my team, the Braves, (sorry, Phillies fans) in the playoffs alone at a bar when I saw it: more than a dozen responses to the thread bearing my name. And everyone was defending me. The Braves lost that night but I was glowing. They liked me! More importantly: They didn’t think I was a hack.
But as I found my way in to the tech scene, I started to realize that not everyone felt the way I did. I wrote stories about projects like LadyHacks, a hackathon for women, and Digital Service Fellows, which trained Philly public school students in tech support, and I realized that entrance to a tech community wasn’t always as straightforward as mine was.
To get a sense of what I’m talking about, we asked our Twitter followers: What does an inclusive tech scene look like to you?
Some of the tweets talked about the inclusivity of physical spaces:
@TechnicallyBMR accessibility, accessibility, accessibility. Imagine using a wheelchair, crutches, etc in the scene from your pic.
— George Keeney (@GLKeeney) March 18, 2015
@TechnicallyPHL Social events hosted someplace besides a bar.
— Chris Thompson (@eagleApex) March 18, 2015
Another person (via Slack) talked about how a tech scene could make you feel:
We also asked: When was a time that you felt excluded by the tech scene? We heard from women who felt excluded by the culture of their workplace:
@juliana_f_reyes group lunches at work – but not with me, bc there are other guys there and they might "talk about sports"
— LisaWalkoszMigliacio (@MissFacetious) March 19, 2015
@juliana_f_reyes the lab I worked in was mostly women techs, but half the supervisors were male, and men were clearly being groomed
— Crazed_Lizetta (@Crazed_Lizetta) March 19, 2015
Reading these tweets and others we got made me to see how many different ways you can think about tech inclusivity — it’s not just gender or race or class. There are so many things that can affect a person’s experience and let them in or keep them out. I started to see that through my reporting, and how some people are kept out while others overlook what seems like little things, like having a diverse lineup of speakers at events or instating a fair maternity leave policy or not only describing company culture as foosball and kegerators.
I started to get kind of angry.
It was like, the mainstream culture of tech is so skewed toward one type of person — how can we talk about changing the world, how can we live up to the promise of technology if we’re leaving all these people out? And was there anything I could do about it?
Then it hit me. Duh. I’m a tech reporter. People read what I write. Which means that I have some power to shape the tech scene. I mean, if I write about it, it becomes part of the tech scene. So I could write about the young black technologist who wants to build a flying car or the dance troupe that wants to help gay youth use dating apps safely and I could open people’s eyes to what else the tech scene could be. I also realized that as a reporter, I had the power to ask hard questions and hold people accountable. So if a big tech conference had a pathetic percentage of women speakers? I would ask them why. (And I did.)
So, I’m sure that sounds great, but here’s the reality: it’s not that easy to write stories like that all the time. In fact, it’s usually harder to do those types of stories, to find them, to write them. It takes more time. And sometimes I’m just trying to get the daily stuff done, just trying to handle my inbox.
I think that’s something we all struggle with: balancing the day-to-day with the bigger picture, juggling your everyday responsibilities and the social responsibilities that you strive to fulfill, those things that are worth fighting for, the ones that are really important to you.
David Dylan Thomas’ new book examines ways to solve cognitive bias issues in design
Temple prof Timothy Welbeck has ideas for how companies can support Black employees during and after this moment
Diversity in the workplace: If you’re going to talk the talk, you need to walk the walk
3 things company leaders should understand about race, protests and the workplace
Sign-up for daily news updates from Technical.ly Philadelphia