Last Saturday, I attended AlterConf Atlanta, a conference that seeks to “provide safe opportunities for marginalized people in the tech and gaming industries” by encouraging attendees and others to “work toward a more inclusive future.”
Because I’d never attended a tech event outside of The Iron Yard (the code school I attended, and coincidentally an AlterConf sponsor), I wasn’t quite sure what to expect or the kind of people I’d meet.
More Than One Kind of Diversity
One of the things that really appealed to me about AlterConf was their emphasis on diversity and inclusion in all things: gender and gender identity, age, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, and religion.
It’s easy to believe that by eschewing the traditional pitfalls of tech conferences that we’ve created a space that feels safe and welcoming. This is simply not the case.
Real inclusivity means actively considering even the smallest details. Anything that makes a person feel different or left out is an issue, and while no conference can expect to be perfect, the importance of these details cannot be overstated.
Even before the conference officially started, AlterConf set the tone by publishing a Code of Conduct, reminding attendees to be thoughtful of their language, providing contact information for questions and concerns, and explicitly stating the accommodations provided so that attendees weren’t left wondering.
AlterConf’s emphasis on diversity extends to more than just attendees; one of the conference’s biggest differentiating factors is the list of speakers you’ll see on stage. Rather than viewing marginalized or less experienced members of the tech community as less valuable, AlterConf empowers and amplifies their voices "to create a deeper, more nuanced conversation."
AlterConf Atlanta featured 15 speakers, with each of the 12 talks presenting a number of interesting points.
A Non-Traditional Tech Degree — Michael Westbrooks II
Michael focused on understanding the importance of building, creating, and manipulating technology, and recommended teaching yourself on your own accord.
Start with the basics. Build smart; each new skill fits with those you have already mastered like the pieces of a Lego tower. Keep tinkering; keep learning; build an ecosystem and overcome the fear of needing to know everything by focusing on your MVP.
The 12 Year Old I.T. Guy — Nicholas Black
Nicholas talked about his experiences as a young entrepreneur in the industry and advised the audience not to let ageism stand in the way. Instead of seeing his age as a hindrance, Nicholas learned to look at it as a positive, suggesting that if you can’t get past a perceived barrier, you move around it.
Confidence is key. Refuse to allow a lack of confidence to hold you back; instead, believe that you can achieve success. Building your confidence slowly can enable you to propel yourself forward.
Be outspoken and friendly. Your ability to communicate what you know is more important than the kind of knowledge you possess.
Why Diversity in Video Games Matters — Imran Khan
Imran discussed the importance of being able to identify with video game characters, noting that games with relatable characters were significantly more engaging. Unfortunately, as video games get more expensive to make, the companies building these games tend to “double down” on the target audience they know (most frequently white men). One way to combat stereotypes is for members of an audience to make themselves known.
We need to stop feigning confusion. The roadmap to eliminate problems like racism already exists; we’re just afraid to walk that path. Making gains in this space is a “game of inches.” Rather than despairing over slow progress, we should acknowledge that even the most incremental steps still equate to pushing forward.
Fake Geek Girl: Trans Microaggressions in Tech — Bree Stanwyck
Bree shared her transition story, explaining that, in part because there is no model on “how to come out” or how to inform people about transitioning, coming to an understanding of herself and her identity as a woman was a gradual process. Though the stories of transgender men and women are increasingly visible in pop culture, ignorance continues to be used as a prevalent excuse, especially when asking probing questions or making snide remarks.
While we often think of oppression and marginalization as things other people do, the reality is much more ambiguous. Sometimes, the constant trickle of smaller annoyances can outweigh a handful of truly awful instances. It is for this reason that we must all take on the challenge of creating a culture that is welcoming and free of judgement.
Context for People of Color — Juwan Platt
Juwan spoke about not feeling “at home” in tech, a problem he believes is exacerbated by the limited number of people in the black community who “get” the importance of technology. He stated that no one “opened the door” for him, and suggested that we can best combat this barrier by addressing the issue in our own communities.
Providing context and culture (specifically surrounding tech) are also helpful when trying to get people interested in the content of a topic (for example, coding).
Low MISC: Why encouraging Minority Involvement in Scientific Computing is a Good Idea — Marvin K. Turner
Marvin presented several statistics, pointing out that today’s minorities will become the majority by 2040. For this reason, it is important that Americans learn to embrace economic and racial equality.
I especially enjoyed Marvin’s point that rather than a shortage of jobs, our country is facing a shortage of opportunity.
What They Didn’t Tell You About Being a Techie and New Mom (Parent) — N. Liberty White, John I. McSwain, III, Alexandra Bowers Schoen
Liberty, John, and Alexandra shared how their priorities and work-life balance changed after having children, placing special emphasis on increasing the visibility of kids and family in the tech community.
Having children (and other big life changes) really changes your perspective, making it much harder to manage expectations. You become a lot more selective in the tasks you take on and the ways in which you spend your time. Rather than a singular focus, you ask questions like, “How does this impact or improve life for my children?”
Planning and flexibility are everything. Be honest about your availability; oftentimes, setting limits and expectations up front can increase productivity. Negotiate knowing that you have a voice.
Keep your value system intact. Find an outlet; take care of yourself first. Share your experience and talk to people facing the same hurdles.
Professionally Prepared but Not Pioneer Prepared — Monica F. Cox
Monica discussed the idea of being a “pioneer” in a profession, talking about how being the first person (or kind of person) in a field presents certain challenges.
She encouraged everyone to expand their definition of mentoring to include people with different and complementary skills in addition to the “old standbys” or traditional mentors in their field. Finding people with whom you can be vulnerable is also critical.
Align your purpose with your profession, and tap into your entrepreneurial spirit.
Computer Literacy for Every Kid in the World — Natasha Dobson
Natasha spoke about the importance of computer literacy, breaking down the topic into six main themes: devices, applications, the Internet, media arts, the Web, and programming. She views programming, or the ability to sit down and write code, as a culmination of the other five skills.
Computer literacy builds self-confidence and optimism, and also serves to prepare children for future careers.
The Labors of Inclusivity — Mariam Asad & Sarah Schoemann
Mariam and Sarah reviewed the challenges they faced when organizing the Different Games conference, highlighting topics like:
- Accessibility and diversity, particularly the ways in which factors like sex, race, labor/compensation, access to higher education, wealth, age, and experience shape our perspective
- Speaking to a wide audience while still ensuring that the material presented will be interesting
- Being constantly mindful of language
- Acknowledging “failure” and being able to move forward
Job Listing Minesweeper — Pamela Vickers
Pamela engaged the audience in a game of “Job Listing Minesweeper” in which she examined how to identify and evaluate the cultural minefields commonly found in job postings. She suggests avoiding companies that seek to build a homogenous team, list rigid requirements, or simply those that raise red flags based on your own personal experience. Pamela also pointed out that when a job has a lot of filler text, it’s often an indicator that the company has very little to say about themselves.
Once you find a company you’d like to interview with, take the opportunity to bring up things from the job description and interview them.
The Experience of Access — Laurel Lawson
Laurel examined the idea of accessibility—to space, culture, education and other things—asking what it feels like to experience access. She pointed out that experiencing access is emotional; often the lack of access gives the best understanding.
The same principles of design apply to all experiences, whether digital, physical, or otherwise. Building products means building a community. Because of this, she suggests that everyone on the team should take some level of responsibility for the user’s experience (not just those of us who label ourselves as UX/UI practitioners).
Architecture should not dictate how we use our products; if we give users a choice, we cannot then dictate the options they should choose or the way in which they interact with the product.