FlowCon 2013 Wrap-Up, With Some Hard Data on Gender Diversity in Tech Conferences.

Published 26 December 2013

Thanks to all of you who came along to FlowCon! If you weren’t able to make it, you can watch the videos for free thanks to BMC and ThoughtWorks Studios. The slides are also available for downloading.

Let me first express my thanks to our producers: Geeta Schmidt and Niley Barros of Trifork and Rebecca Phillips of ThoughtWorks Studios. I also want to thank my fellow PC members Lane Halley, Elisabeth Hendrickson, Gene Kim and John Esser; our fabulous speakers; our generous sponsors; and everyone who came along.

The Program

The goal of the program committee was to create a conference that represents our industry as we want it to look, not as it is right now. That’s an ambitious goal that involves changing the way we think about everything from leadership and governance through product development and design, to IT operations. Not only did our speakers cover all these topics; they also provided real examples of how these changes, along with the cultural changes necessary to support them, have been achieved at enterprise scale.

Thus we attacked one of the main objections we hear time and time again -- “that sounds great, but it couldn’t work here”. Part of our vision was to provide a platform for people to speak about gnarly, real-life examples that demonstrate that, with sufficient hard work and ingenuity, ideas like continuous delivery, devops, and lean product development can provide significant competitive advantage through higher quality, cost savings, and happier customers, even in traditionally slow-moving and highly-regulated industries with large, complex, heterogeneous systems.

Two talks that I am particularly happy to have on record are Gary Gruver’s talk on doing continuous delivery for printer firmware at HP, and John Kordyback’s talk on doing continuous delivery with mainframes in the financial services industry. Alternatively, if you want a vision of the state of the art of continuous delivery, it would be hard to beat Adrian Cockcroft’s opening keynote (the most highly rated talk of the conference) on how Netflix approach building and running systems.

Overall, both the individual quality of the talks and the vision they present in concert was incredibly inspiring. Gene Kim comments, “The FlowCon program was amazing. In my mind, what was presented at FlowCon is what every IT practitioner will be required to know in 10 years time.” Thank you again to all of our speakers.

Data on Gender Diversity

Part of representing the industry as we want it to look is changing its composition. Thus another personal goal for me was to gather data to support my hypothesis that taking steps to increase diversity at conferences doesn’t mean reducing quality. FlowCon, like the excellent GOTO conferences that Trifork produces, records feedback from participants. Everybody leaving a session can give feedback on whether they thought the talk was good, mediocre or poor by tapping a red, amber or green rectangle on an iPhone on their way out. We then calculate overall satisfaction as follows: satisfaction = (green votes) / (total votes).

When we got back all the data, the first thing I did is look at the average (mean) satisfaction for male speakers versus female speakers. It turns out that in both cases the average is between 71% and 72%. First of all, this demonstrates that there was no statistically significant difference in satisfaction between male and female speakers. This is important because it means our steps to increase diversity -- including reaching out to a wide network to ensure that 50% of our invited speakers were women -- didn’t “lower the bar”.

There is also a deeper implication: any claim that the all-white-male conference programs that are so depressingly common in the tech industry are the result of some meritocratic process is BS. They are, rather, the result of not putting in enough effort to seek out high quality speakers from historically discriminated against groups.

If our industry were truly meritocratic, the speaker line-up and attendees would resemble the wider population, because we know that there is no biological explanation for the overwhelming proportion of white dudes in our industry. So let’s not fool ourselves any more with claims that taking steps to improve diversity is “reverse discrimination”. Any time we don’t take concrete, systematic steps forward we are silently complicit in perpetuating the status quo -- which is why it’s not good enough when leaders in the tech community ignore the problem. If you ignore the problem, you’re part of the problem.

Finally, I want to emphasize that what the program committee achieved was not very hard, once we spent some time thinking the problem through, and also that it was insufficient. We had a reasonable level of gender diversity, but the speakers were still overwhelmingly white. I don’t have data for the diversity of our audience, but based on observation, there were more white guys than I would see if I walked out of the door onto the streets (and this is in San Francisco, which is far from being representative of the wider population).

If you want to educate yourself further on these issues, I suggest watching Ashe Dryden’s talk on programming diversity. And if you’d like to become more effective at creating change, check out Linda Rising's closing keynote. Here’s to taking small steps every day to make 2014 a marginally, incrementally, better year than 2013.