Instagram x #Developer: Speaking in Real Life
Up until a couple of months ago, being asked to speak at an event is something that I only expected to happen within the context of organizations I was already a member of in real-life: scholarship events, internal company presentations, usually by people who know I’m “that person” who likes talking in front of groups of people.
As a part of the loss of privacy that comes with putting pieces of your life online, I’ve become a part of a much, much, wider community than I could ever keep up with in the flesh and blood world; this is something I’ll touch on later, but for the sake of this blog post it’s sufficed to say that as your notoriety increases, the line between “digital community” and “real-world community” seems to get a lot thinner.
In late January I was invited by the director of Women Who Code in North Dallas to speak at a new monthly event they’re starting called “Code and Connect”. We’d chatted briefly before online insomuch as that I knew she was a developer in the Dallas area and we ran into each other at a recruiting event last fall (it was only after the event that I realized we’d interacted before and messaged her to connect the dots).
Between theatrical performances, work presentations, and giving talks at various scholarship events I’m used to speaking to a crowd, so I was beyond excited to have the chance to come up with a talk that was about something I’m passionate about instead of words that other people want me to say.
Choosing a Topic and Developing the Talk
Immediately, the panic set in about what I would actually speak about. I debated whether to do a hard-skill talk on a technology I’m familiar with, but settled on a soft-skill topic because that’s largely what I’ve been exploring through my Instagram experiments and also the reason why I was asked to speak in the first place.
I settled on: The Advice We Have Been Given
Over the course of the next few weeks I developed it further, focusing on the advice I’ve been given in my career specifically about being a woman in technology (as opposed to the advice I’ve been given completely unrelated to my gender). In case you’re not a woman in technology, let me tell you that the gender-based advice women receive is often either disheartening or incredibly ambiguous.
I focused the talk into three sections: Some examples of the advice women are/have been getting from both men and women, the reason why advice matters (lots of statistics), and my personal gender-based strategies for success (things based on genuine differences between the genders that aren’t superficial or sexist).
While everyone I talked to (parents, boyfriend, friends, the bathroom mirror) was excited about the topic, I couldn’t help but feel doubtful about it. I thought it was important, but would anyone else? Would it resonate with an audience I’d never met before? Am I the only one who’s had these weird experiences?
A week before the event, the page was updated to include my name and the topic.
Full disclosure: My mum and I debated for an hour over the description, trying to find something that was strong but didn’t sound like I was going to stand up and be hating on men for 20 minutes (which isn’t what it was about at all). We probably went over 10-15 different variations changing small pieces of the vocabulary and sentence-structure until the message was appropriately worded. This was not a simple process.
At this point there was no going back. My name was on the page, I was expected to post it on social media, this thing was ready to go.
Posting on LinkedIn was almost as stressful as coming up with a description for the event for a couple of reasons:
- I’ve never actually posted on LinkedIn before
- It meant that there would be an intersection of my online persona and my professional one (while a handful of my coworkers do follow me on Instagram I usually downplay the social media stuff at work because either people don’t know/care about what it is, or they won’t stop using the phrase “insta-famous”)
If there was no going back before, there was really no going back now. Pressing the “Post” button made me feel anxious in the same way that talking about politics at your significant other’s family dinner generates anxiety – where you know everyone has an opinion but you aren’t sure if they’ll appreciate your point of view.
Interestingly, I did get a lot of positive attention from it (judging from other coworker’s posts I looked at, 22 likes is pretty solid in my network). Also interestingly, the vast majority of the attention was from women despite the fact that my network is largely guys. This pattern makes sense since it was for a women’s event, but it was also interesting to see which of the men from my work went out of their way to click the “like” button.
I stressed the whole day of the event because despite the fact that I’d been working on this for a month, there were certain phrases I wanted to say that weren’t embedded in my memory because I’d been work-shopping the script up until the very last-minute (and I’m used to giving slightly more off-the-cuff speeches).
My mother sent me an encouraging email the morning of, because mom’s are great and no matter how old you are they will always be older and wiser. Since I’ve been getting into the world of Women in Technology, she and my father have also started reading up on the subject.
After driving through a flood to get to the event, I found myself in a room with twenty other women (sixty had RSVP’d, but even I would have skipped if my name hadn’t been on the description). The women’s ages and experiences varied: from women who were still in school to those who’d been in the industry for 15+ years, from front-end developers to those with embedded system expertise.
Armed with my notecards, I was by far the most dressed up in the room in my little black interview-dress, black tights, and black heels.
To be candid, I also felt pretty badass.
After a few minutes of small talk I was introduced to the group, stood up in front of the room, glanced at my notecards once or twice, and then didn’t look at them again until 20 minutes later as I was sitting back down. So much for all of that stress.
When I sat down I had two questions I wanted to ask (and did):
“Have you ever heard some of the advice I described at the beginning of the talk?”
Hands raised and my heart-felt both full and sad (because some of it was truly awful advice). We started talking. We talked about how frustrating some of the advice is, how it affects women’s perception of the industry, and how there are bits of truth in some of it but it’s not a truth that anyone wants to be reality.
One of the women, one of the one’s who’d been in the industry for over a decade, referenced one of the pieces of advice that’s generally considered some of the “better” advice that tells women to act more like men. She said that when she sees people naturally engaging in that specific behavior she sees them as dishonest – so why would we tell women to intentionally engage in dishonest behavior?
“Were you familiar with the statistics I talked about?”
For a little context, one of the statistics I referenced is that 56% of women in computer occupations leave the industry after 10-20 years. That’s almost 3x the number of women in non-STEM occupations that leave after twice the amount of time (30 years).
The answer was “Yes and No” – “Yes” everyone was aware that the industry is something of a leaky bucket, but “No” they didn’t know that it was less of a leak, and more of a gaping hole.
We ended up talking for the next hour and a half about our experiences, the psychology, and what we could do to be more ourselves in the workplace.
One woman shared that her (female) boss was working with her to “be less emotional” while the men at her work were the ones who encouraged her and seemed to understand her. Another shared about the challenging dynamics her husband faces as one of the only male-nurses in a female-dominated workspace.
Sitting in that room, with those women, having that conversation, and knowing that I started it is absolutely one of the highlights of my career and Instagram experiments so far. For as much as I was anxious about putting myself out there and what people at my workplace would think, none of that anxiety mattered when people started opening up about the challenges they were facing in their own lives. I am excited to have more of those conversations.
I was asked to speak at Women Who Code event and decided to speak on the topic of advice that women are getting as they enter the tech industry. While I was incredibly anxious about the topic and how it would be received by both coworkers and the women in the room, it ended up being a phenomenal experience and I’ll be continuing to workshop the talk and looking for other opportunities to give it.
Also, if you’ve ever been interested in Women Who Code but are nervous about meeting people or the quality of the group: go check them out. It was an awesome experience from a networking perspective and I’ll definitely be going again.