Neil Kandalgaonkar

hacker, maker of things

Less represented and loving it

XOXO at The Redd - interior panorama by Sam Beebe, Ecotrust

For the first time, XOXOfest has shaped its attendance to be more diverse. Thanks to a simple question on the registration form, it’s reportedly gone from over 80% white male dudes to 60%.

XOXO isn’t over yet, and the ultimate arbiter of whether this experiment is successful is of course the under-represented groups themselves. But, speaking as someone who now looks around the room and now sees fewer people like himself: it’s been awesome.

There are probably tremendous benefits to the people in those under-represented demographics. First of all, they get to go. And to talk about their issues with a critical mass of attendees, and make them a central focus, at least from time to time.

But I’ll let them tell those stories. Instead I want to talk about what benefits there were for me.

No loss of quality

As the “On Diversity” blog post pointed out, XOXO isn’t solely a technology conference, it’s about independent spirit in the arts and in technology. But, there are lots of technologists here, and I do look to have discussions with people in my tribe. And now, sometimes I’m having them with awesome developers, who just happen to be female. (I made one assumption that a particular woman was a designer, because of her handmade dress and sophisticated opinions about typography, but it turned out she was an iOS dev.)

Filter for success versus filter for interesting

But I’m also getting some things I didn’t get before. Even if you accept the thesis that if you shape attendance in this way, you get less experienced techies, I now see that this doesn’t matter very much in practice. Less experienced != less interesting. One talk this year was by Rachel Binx (full disclosure: a friend) and she’s only been coding a few years. But that just means she was talking about what it’s like to start out at the bottom of the industry. She’s just as intelligent, and is certainly as good a presenter as any we saw that day, with a particular flair for playing the text off the visuals.

We also had a talk by John Gruber of Daring Fireball who has a longer history, and can now be said to have figured out this whole independent-voice-on-the-internet thing. All respect to John, but I realized how much more limiting it would be if everyone we heard from was like him. Filtering for success gets you talented and wise people, but that often unintentionally filters for people who were playing on the lowest difficulty setting. You miss out on the struggles and uncertainties of everyone who’s not at the top. Their stories are not only more interesting from a diversity angle; they have different strategies and goals and it’s absolutely worth hearing about.

Even if you’re a straight white male, you’re probably not at the top of your industry either.

I didn’t leave planet Earth

Like alien worlds in early Star Trek, tech conferences happen on a planet where every inhabitant is of the same gender. Monocultures warp your thinking. I’m not against spaces where one gender predominates, but I’ve certainly had more than my fill of male dominated spaces in the tech world. It matters when we have, in the room, full participants who are more like the audience that will use or critique our tech projects or your art.

Now, XOXO is still on planet privilege, regardless of gender. For instance, I have no numbers, but I would guess that it still is a far whiter and richer demographic than the North American average. And, just to talk about doing tech or art at all implies a certain level of privilege or access to resources. But any progress in the right direction is welcome.