Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Programmer Conferences are like Games

Why are there so few women programmers? That's a big question. How about a related one that's slightly smaller: Why do so few women go to programmer conferences?

Nordic Ruby on Twitter
Nordic Ruby was clearly appreciated by many of its attendees. See tweets like this:

ronge
: #nordicruby - best conference ever, looking forward meeting you all next year ! Lots of food for thoughts. Really sad it's over.

skanev: #nordicruby was just awesome. Thank you guys

walming: Got so much inspiration. Big thanks @elabs for #nordicruby conference.

Very few Women
What I also noticed was, that of around 100 delegates, only 2 were women*.

I have to say, I go to a lot of conferences, which gives me plenty to compare it to. In addition to Nordic Ruby, in the past year I have been to: Scottish Ruby Conference, Scandinavian Developer Conference, JFokus, Smidig, Europython and XP2009. In general, I really enjoy conferences, and none of those I've mentioned had a huge proportion of females. Nordic Ruby was not exceptional in that respect. However, although I enjoyed Nordic Ruby, it does not feature in my all-time favourite list. I'll come to why in a minute. A lot of things about the conference were very good, of course. Some of the talks were excellent, and the venues, food and parties were absolutely top knotch.

The format of of the conference was 30 minute talks (all on one track) interspersed with 30-120 minute breaks. The last session of each day was open and any attendee could give a short "lightning" talk, and many people did so. Every speaker, lightning or otherwise, had a large audience, since there was nothing else on the programme.

Hampton Catlin's talk - the two kinds of Games
My favourite talk was one by Hampton Catlin, talking about how to make applications attractive to their users. He talked a bit about the different kinds of games that people prefer. Perhaps I can expand this idea to explain why I don't rate Nordic Ruby as highly as some of the other attendees clearly did.

Hampton explained that computer games lie on a scale from Male-Oriented to Female-Oriented. They are called by those names because your physical gender is a good predictor of which sort you will prefer. (He stressed that you should keep in mind that people are complex, defy easy categorization, and a given individual could have preferences anywhere on the scale.)

The Male-Oriented game will let you score points and rank yourself against opponents. The Female-Oriented game will let you build supportive social networks with collaborators, and become admired by your peers. Hampton said that most computer games are Male-Oriented. He highlighted some exceptions, including Farmville, which is a popular game on Facebook. In fact, he said Facebook itself can be seen as a Female-Oriented game.

Programmer Conferences are like Games
This got me thinking about the Nordic Ruby conference. If Facebook can be seen as a game, can you see a conference that way too? Do attendees play for "score" and "rank"? Is the programmer's conference game so Male-Oriented that most women just aren't interested in playing?

The Conference as a Male-Oriented Game
If a programmer conference is a Male-Oriented Game, it will provide you with opportunities to improve your rank and score compared to other attendees. For example, giving a talk will let you show off the cool software project(s) you have created/contributed to. You can improve your rank by criticising other people's code, and contrasting it with the beauty of your own. You can also score "geek points" by making gratuitous references to obscure programming languages, advanced mathematics and classic sci-fi films.

Your overall conference success is measured by how many people subsequently download your open source projects, and how many followers you gain on Twitter.

The Conference as a Female-Oriented Game
If a programmer conference is a Female-Oriented Game, it will provide you with opportunities to form supportive social networks and gain admiration. Lecture-style talks aren't so good for that, so the conference will schedule sessions for attendees to have conversations with each other, and collaborate. The conference programme will raise discussion topics that interest attendees, and encourage idea sharing. There may be organized group sessions where you share programming-related problems, pool your ideas and collectively come up with strategies to move forwards. You will gain admiration by being insightful, charming and subtly drawing people's attention to your open source projects, while also being admiring of others' projects.

Your overall conference success is measured by how many people subsequently contribute to your open source projects, and how many friendly messages you get on Twitter.

Who Won Nordic Ruby?
Ok, I'm stretching the analogy rather, (!) but I'd say the Nordic Ruby conference game was a little too Male-Oriented for my liking. The focus of the programme was on lecture-style talks, and, put it this way, the speakers made way too many references to Star Wars! There were long breaks, which gave many opportunities for conversation, but there were no formal network-building activities. There was lots of time for chatting, but no mechanism to draw people together around, say, a discussion topic, or a collaborative coding exercise.

The conferences I have enjoyed most have involved relatively few lecture-style talks, and largely comprised of workshops, coding dojos, tutorials, conversation corners and open space discussions. Next week I'm going to XP2010 (which will be my seventh XP conference :-D), and it's the first ever GothPyCon this Saturday. At both I am organizing coding dojo sessions - collaborative excercises in collective learning and mutual appreciation. Bring on the Female-Oriented conference games!

* There was also two other females there, but neither are programmers.

11 comments:

niclasnilsson said...

Good block post, and I do see your point. However, there is one thing I disagree on:

> You can also score "geek points" by making gratuitous references to obscure programming languages, advanced mathematics and classic sci-fi films.

While it is true that all of the above can score geek points, I still think there is a major difference between things mentioned. Two of the above are things that should be mentioned (if they matter in the context) since both can be severe competetive advantages in our business if understood and applied correctly. That message can never be mentioned too many times in my humble opinion. The other two things are things a presenter would add just for the fun, to connect with the attendees (and thereby likely also alienate some in the process), and for geek points.

But I suspect this is quite common, and not very odd? A woman I know calls her programming blog "coding is like cooking", which is a task women carried out more often by women than by men. Is that perhaps a female-oriented way to present her blog?

Also, don't forget that the whole conference was about a language still considered obscure. It's easy to forget when you're in the middle of it, but a majority of devs don't know anything about it. I think this means that the people attending cares more about their tools and approaches, and I (reluctantly) suspect that we all need to understand more math in the years to come.

Thanks for a good lightning talk!

Kind regards
Niclas

---
http://niclasnilsson.se
http://twitter.com/niclasnilsson

niclasnilsson said...

And I obviously can't count as you can see. :-) I blame whiskey.

Kind regards
Niclas

Andy said...

Just as a side note; There was a http://geekgirlmeetup.com/ on at the same time as Nordic Ruby. That might have stolen away some possible female attendees.

--
http://twitter.com/acrookston

Elliot said...

Quite possibly true, though I suspect availability bias plays a large role. Less female programmers existing inevitably is a large cause of less female programmers at conferences.

That said, 2% does seem quite low. I think current stats suggest something like 14% in most western countries.

Interestingly, the turnout for CairoCodeCamp seems to have been split 50/50 with some discussion as to why that might be here: http://www.hanselminutes.com/default.aspx?ShowID=221

The event itself doesn't seem especially different, perhaps it's something to do with Egypt?

Another aside is that CJ did try (despite us getting in the way of it) to encourage lots of dispersed conversation, though as you say they were really pick-up conversations and nothing concrete. Also I'm not sure you'd know that was the plan until you were there.

I'll do a quick headcount at Euruko on the weekend to see how that turns out, as it's a very traditionally laid out "lecture circuit" style conference.

Emily Bache said...

Niclas - you're right, there can be good reasons to talk about obscure programming languages and advanced mathematics. I'm trying to point out that sometimes people mention them purely to impress, rather to inform.

jockesara said...

Hi Emelie!

Good post on an important topic. I have some additional facts to back it up:

At Agila Sverige 2010 (a Swedish unconference on Agile/Lean methods) recently, 27 out of about 170 participants were women (~18%). They gave talks and were especially active during the Open Space sessions, I noticed. That is not great, but it's a start.

My speculation is that the open, friendly, and relational atmosphere left enough "air" for the girls to really participate. This, I believe, is in line with your own observations.

Jocke Holm

elise said...

Hi Emily,

I agree that there are too few of us :)
I also agree that we seem, in general, more inclined to collaborate than to compete.

However, I always feel a bit put out by these kind of classifications, maybe because I've always been a bit of a statistical outlier. The leap between 'women are like this' and "that's because she's a woman" is too easily made.

Difficult subject ...
But I'd come to your conference :)
You should join the devchix mailing lists, gender-related subject are a large (and interesting) part of the conversations there.

Elise

Sofia Jonsson said...

I agree that this is an interesting, but difficult subject. Like Elise, I always feel uneasy about these kinds of classifications.

Even though I'm not into typical female style games I have to agree that the female-oriented-conference does sound really interesting.

However, I was wondering what your experience from organizing coding dojo sessions is; do they tend to attract more women?

My personal experience is that very few women attend those kinds of events, even though they might be more "female-oriented". However, I suspect that's mostly due to the fact that they're seldom organized during working hours (at least not where I work), but outside of work, in user groups etc.

Which is another reflection, that very few women tend to have "their job as their hobby", i.e. spend a lot of free time learning/doing programming-related things, as a lot of male programmers do. I think this is a cultural difference, where the typical (male) "geek" has always had programming as a hobby, while most of the women I know look upon it as their job (which they're often very good at and interested in, but still).

Brian Marick said...

Emily: I sort of see the difference between "improve your rank" and "become admired by your peers" but I can't really articulate it. Can you say more? (The ending "Your overall conference success..." sentences were great, but I crave more.)

For what it's worth, in conferences where I don't already know people, I get little out of long breaks without some sort of "explicit mechanism to draw people together". But then, the same thing happens at cocktail parties and similar social events: Dawn and I cling together in a corner, whimpering softly.

Emily Bache said...

Jocke: I'm glad there were women actively participating at agila sverige, that's great. I think an agile conference is a bit different from a programmer conference though - you get more non-programmers at them. My observation is that compared with programmers, a higher proportion of project managers, business analysts, testers etc are women.

Emily Bache said...

Sofia & Elise - I understand your discomfort. You can't say "you're like this because you're a woman". You can only talk about probability and averages over a large population. People are complex.

I don't think I've had a statistically relevant amount of people at my coding dojos, and couldn't say if I get more women than you'd expect.

I do agree that holding these kinds of meetings outside office hours is probably a big factor putting off women. I don't think it's just that women have other hobbies. In our society women still bear more responsibility for childcare than men do. Nordic Ruby was all day Saturday and Sunday, which actually made it highly impractical for me to be there.