I’ll remember Grace Hopper 2016 for rest of my life.

Before I can break down the why of this event’s staggering impact on me, I’ll need to establish a little more context about the baggage I hauled onto the plane - and I’m not referring to my carry-on tote.

First, let’s quickly reflect on how people become who they are. You represent the sum total of a complicated and unique series of addends: your experiences. All of us might occupy similar present space, but the expressions through which we arrive at that summand are our uniquly our own.

“Everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else.”
David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

In a professional setting, by design, teams share common goals. We want to arrive at the same ends, and need each other to do so. However, each individual will naturally traverse a different path towards shared objectives. Keeping many perspectives in sync requires practice and constant care. Often, it’s necessary to introduce new processes that guide team members in engaging with contrasting points of view.

Homogenous teams

  • Make decisions in lockstep, better coordination
  • Spend less energy interpreting each other
  • Low interpersonal friction
  • Less innovation [1]

Heterogeneous teams

  • Must cultivate openness to opposing opinions
  • Spend more energy interpreting each other
  • High potential for interpersonal friction
  • Complimentary intelligences

Dearth of inclusive practices

What happens if we are not proactive about solidifying inclusive policies? What are the consequences of opaque or ad-hoc processes? Kate Heddleston delivered a diversity talk at Pycon 2015, which introduces the concept of aNull Process:

When people say they don't want process, what they're really saying is they don't want formalized process. There is really no such thing as "no process." A process is simply the steps it takes to complete a task, so if a task is completed then by definition a process was used. Without formalized process everyone does things their own way. This informal, undocumented process can have major implications for a company.

It is almost impossible to evaluate bias in a null process. Everyone has unconscious biases and expectations, whether we mean to or not, and these biases can harm our perception of people's credibility. Unconscious biases are thought to be the source of a lot of the gender and race discrimination that happens at companies.

Policies need not be unwieldy. Tremendous progress can be made by publishing and normalizing recruiting practices. NPM provides a great example of how to make hiring process more accessible, paying attention to language in recruitment materials. I cringe every time a recruiting manager calls me a unicorn or a job description targets rock star engineers.

Avoid forcing minorities to become their own ambassadors and champions, unless they have specifically asked for that role. It's not the job of your first minority hires to single-handedly tear down or navigate the environmental blockages in your company. By implementing inclusive directives before a catastrophic event, your company demonstrates your commitment and buy-in to solving a tough problem.

Major implications: information passdown

When processes are unstructured, they take on an ad-hoc, social flavor. Employees must gather data about performance expectations, peer perception, and their tech stack through osmosis. Without a framework, onboarding and passdown can become an act of assimilation rather than guided instruction.

If there is any friction or communication breakdown between team members, ad-hoc processes might grind to a halt and leave individuals without the resources needed to be performant in their roles. Be proactive about scaffolding support and communication systems between team members and teams. Listen to concerns about inadquate processes and do not attribute environmental problems to individuals. It is everyone's responsibility to propagate a healthly, inclusive setting. It is not a waste of time to trial (just try!) process-building to help individuals be more successful.

For everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in a given group and to participate in its activities the structure must be explicit, not implicit. The rules of decision-making must be open and available to everyone, and this can happen only if they are formalized.

The Tyranny of Structurelessness, Jo Freeman

Major implications: non-constructive feedback

Second only to biased hiring pipelines, receiving quality feedback is an area where minorities suffer in the workplace. Two years ago, Kieran Snyder ran a small study comparing the rate at which men and women in technology receive critical feedback in performance reviews.

“You can come across as abrasive sometimes. I know you don’t mean to, but you need to pay attention to your tone.”

“Your peers sometimes feel that you don’t leave them enough room. Sometimes you need to step back to let others shine.”

Samples of negative personality criticism targeted towards women in performance reviews

This subject is a close and personal one. Over the years, I've received critical feedback indicating I:

  • Need to speak up more
  • Need to speak up less
  • Hijack projects
  • Use an abrasive tone
  • Speak too authoratively
  • Need to be more gentle, less negative
  • Intimidate team members
  • Should focus on letting team mates shine
Some of these critiques are fair, some are not, and none are helpful in building an empowering environment for everyone.

What does all of this have to do with attending Grace Hoppper?

My personal exeriences became epistemic. Every woman I spoke to - and I talked myself hoarse - could tell stories eerily similar to mine. It's one thing to be statistically aware of a problem. It's another witness every single woman in a session hall to raise her had and confess "Yeah, I get that a lot too - here's how to start a conversation about it." GHC melted years of compounded isolation in three days.

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"

“Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.

David Foster Wallace, "This is Water", 2005 Kenyon commencement speech

I spent eight months living in Galesburg, Illinois, a nexus of railroad freight. "A train rolls through every 7 minutes, 365 days a year" was a factoid touted by locals [CITATION NEEDED]. After two weeks, I stopped waking up each time a train whistle puctured the otherwise-silent rural nights. After a month, I stopped noticing the earthquake rumblings and hydraulic shrieks altogether.

We compose a mental default that tunes out and accepts our surroundings. We adapt to and are molded by our environments. We frame our experiences to stay happy, sane, and healthy. Starting a conversation about the mental acrobatics we do daily is not easy, but it is important. How else can we start accomodating each other a little more, every day?

15,000 attendees! Warning: loud, choppy audio

Closing: photo highlights :)

"Role models: my mother. She thought that educating yourself was the way to go. If you educated yourself, you never had to worry about anything." - Jeanette Epps
Yeah, we took a lot of selfies.
Temporary tats @ the Red Hat booth
Hacker competition: capture the flag
Giant. Lite. Bright.