Well, Ela Conf 2016 is over and done. It’s been just over a week since I attended - time to write up some musings from the event!
Ela Conf is very much about non-technical topics for technical women. Their tag line is “Empowering more women to be leaders in tech.” But the topics are fairly generic - accepting negative feedback is something everyone has to deal with. The lessons on leadership would apply to any company. That’s not to say the talks were too generic to be useful, but I think it’s an interesting question if this kind of conference should continue to market itself as “for technical women” or if they should be for any woman wanting a leadership role or perhaps for anyone wanting to be a leader.
Personally, I valued the shared language and community that this conference offered. A speaker could reference making a commit, fixing a bug, or the head-baning frustration of feeling completely stuck on a problem. We could all relate. When I introduced myself I could say that I’m a frontender at Atlassian, rather than I’m a programmer at a tech company.
On the flip side, I was surprisingly disappointed by the lack of technical topics. I knew none of the talks were going to be technical going in, but somehow with so many technical people around I felt something was missing without the technical talks. Uncomfortably, having so many technical women and not having any technical talks felt as though we were admitting that we weren’t technical enough, that women are more interested in feelings and “soft topics” than Real Programming. Of course, I know this isn’t the case, and that the goals of this conference aren’t around Real Programming.
I’m making massive assumptions in this section because I don’t know the demographic details of the attendees.
Attendees’s average age seemed to be around my own, but there was a reasonably sized spread. We had mom’s with teen-aged kids, and students from uni. I’m sure it tended towards younger, but it made me happy to see so many moms and long-time programmers there.
Many people had switched careers, so there was a lot of diversity in experience. It was great to hear about people’s past in their talks, and to get some history about how they got into programming.
A lot of people came from bootcamps or were self taught. I’m pretty sure I was in the minority of people who did uni degrees in CS. I don’t see that as a bad thing, but it was unusual for a tech conference. I’m curious why more women with CS degrees didn’t attend. Is it because there aren’t as many of them or they don’t feel they would benefit as much? Something else?
Oh man, so many feels! Certainly a great conference to go to if you need some girl power in your life. But more than that, I loved how the speakers nomalised the “woman experience.” Typical tech talks don’t mention musicals or baking, but these both came up at Ela Conf. Women generally don’t say “babies are really boring,” but this came up too. It felt like everyone had agreed to “this is a safe place to say things you wouldn’t normally - don’t hold back” and massive props to the organisers for creating and encouraging that vibe.
I’m not a great networker. I put a lot of things into place so I don’t need to talk about the weather with strangers. Being at Ela Conf was a bit isolating, and I didn’t do anything to stop that. I knew I was only in Philadelphia for the weekend, and that I was incredibly unlikely to bump into any of the attendees again. So I didn’t bother to connect with many of them. For their part, they didn’t do much to welcome me. Many of the attendees know each other from other Philly meetups and were excited to spend time together. I’m not grudging them that time - I certainly do it at my Sydney meetings.
Sum it up
All in all, I‘m really glad I attended and I’m grateful Atlassian made it possible for me to go. Would I do it again? Well, I won’t fly from Sydney to Philly to attend next year, but if there was one at home I’d certainly join in. Would I change anything? For what the organisers wanted, I believe they made exactly the right event. If I ran an event for technical women, I’d want something a little difference and I‘d make some changes.
Big props to the organisers for all of the hard work they’ve done over the past year - it was a beautiful event!