Rejuvenating My Developer Identity at AndConf

One of Atomic Object’s great benefits for employees is support for professional development, including sponsorship to attend tech conferences. This August, I went to AndConf.

I expected to learn a lot and meet people doing cool things with tech. I didn’t expect it to help me reconnect my “software developer” identity with my sense of myself. (As my colleague Drew noted in his recent post, becoming a full-time professional can change one’s relationship with writing code.) This post is about what made AndConf work for me and everyone else there.

About 90 people in a group outside, all facing the camera at AndConf

Attendees at AndConf 2016

Rethinking Norms and Structures

Different set-ups and norms work for different groups of people. Here are some of the structural things and shared norms that shaped AndConf:

Pairing on real live code

A full day of AndConf is spent pairing on Conway’s Game of Life. Every 45 minutes, we switched pairs and started over. This structure isn’t the best for making long-lasting software, but it’s fantastic for quickly sharing knowledge and building relationships with other programmers. Actually writing software with people helped me pick up Ruby tricks and pairing techniques and test strategies much faster than listening to someone talk and going home to try it out.

We all came to the conference with a wide variety of experience–some people went to school, others, to bootcamps. Some have been writing software since the ’70s or ’80s, others for just a few months. What people do on the daily ranges from PHP to Elm, from front-end JS to dev-ops. No matter who I paired with, I had something to teach and something to learn.

Ninety-second lightning talks

That’s right. Ninety seconds, with a hard stop signaled by everyone clapping. Ninety seconds is enough to share a whole idea with some preparation, and enough to introduce an idea on the fly. One in three people at the conference (including me) gave a lightning talk, and I was never bored.

Conversations in place of prepared talks

We had conversations on topics that we proposed and chose by vote. The conversations were structured with one person facilitating (someone who did not have much to say on the topic), one person making sure everyone who had something to say said it, and one person keeping time.

In a couple of conversations, we had a minute or two of silence for people to collect their thoughts, or we went around the circle. People like me who tend to talk a lot made a real effort to not talk much. I appreciated this format because I learned a ton from what people had to say. It was very much a “no one knows everything, but together we know a lot” sort of experience.

Pronouns on nametags and in introductions

My world includes people who are genderqueer and/or trans. This little bit of structure made the conference a reasonable place for genderqueer and trans people to be, which gave me some time doing software in a group that felt like home for me.*

Low conference costs and lots of scholarships and stipends

We slept in dormitories, and there was almost no Wi-Fi. But a full-price ticket was $325 per person, including food, lodging, and transportation from downtown San Francisco. AndConf doesn’t get a ton of funding because it’s small and does not include recruiting time (although sponsors quickly become attractive to attendees). The low cost means that the scholarship budget can get more people there, and include money for travel and dependent-care stipends. This in turn gets even more people there who otherwise wouldn’t have come.

Low alcohol consumption

For a couple of hours one evening, alcohol was served, along with equally attractive (like, actually equally attractive) non-alcoholic beverages. Having a ton of quality down time without alcohol–and having unlimited Izzy sodas next to the beer–was a fantastic treat for me. It also meant that people who need to limit their access to alcohol could attend the conference, and I got to meet them.

Rejuvenating My Developer Identity

So what does this laundry list of a conference format have to do with me reconnecting my “software developer” identity with my sense of myself?

Widening representation

First, it brought together a lot of people who were different from each other in a place where we were able to talk about it. AndConf prioritizes groups who are often less visible in tech conferences that have different structures and norms.

Some people spoke Spanish over breakfast. There were people who were trans and genderqueer and cis-gendered. People attended from Canada, the US, and Mexico. People were Asian, Latin@, Black, white, Middle Eastern, Pacific Islander, native, mixed, etc. There were people responsible mostly for themselves and people with lots of care-giving responsibilities. People traveled in from downtown San Francisco and tiny Midwestern towns. Some came from families of professionals and others were the only professionals in their families. Some people came into tech in the ’70s and ’80s, and others in just the last few months.

Connecting distinct experiences to development

Second, it created a place where I personally was totally relaxed and fully myself while writing code and talking about topics like devops, where functional meets object-oriented, virtual reality for space exploration, training data for machine learning, and other wholly computer science nerd topics.

The first person I met happened to work with a small queer liberation non-profit that I work with. I had conversations with people about how computer science connects with our faith. I learned how to use Apple’s recycling and refurbishing programs to minimize the need for new electronics. We talked about money: the confusion of suddenly having enough money, and how many of us have close friends or family struggling to pay for the basics like rent and groceries. We talked about how and where we give money we don’t need. We had very frank conversations about the nitty-gritty hard stuff about doing software with small non-profits. We talked about how our experiences in dance, music, teaching, non-profit work, real estate, and all kinds of other parts of our lives connect with software.

AndConf: A New Community

Having all of these conversations with the same people in the same place was unimaginable to me before AndConf. A diversity of conferences in tech, with different sorts of structures and activities, helps us have a diversity of people in tech. I don’t expect or need this kind of community all the time, but having this kind of place to go in person for a long weekend lets me come back to my day-to-day more whole, energetic, and happy. The organizers of the conference pour in hundreds of unpaid hours to make it happen because they know how important it is.

Atomic Object strives to be a place where anyone can be their full self, and getting me to AndConf is just one of the concrete ways Atomic Object realizes that aspiration. I am immensely grateful to Atomic Object for sponsoring my attendance, and to companies that sponsored AndConf.

* On the general topic of queer-friendly places, Atomic Object is a good place for me and growing as an LBGTQ-friendly workplace.