I’ve recently started a web development course, and stumbled across the Women Who Code collective in my search for a community. I signed up for the newsletter, excited to learn about what is going on in the tech world, and specifically how us ladies are so important to the community.
I think it was in the second newsletter I received in my email that I saw a contest to win a ticket to the Percona Live MySQL conference in Amsterdam. Amsterdam is quite a tech hub at the moment, with so much activity in the Startup sector. I’ve seen so many conferences popping up here and there that I would like to attend, but being in a weird transition in my life (and unemployed on top of everything else) it’s simply impossible for me to afford to attend. So I entered in the contest to win a ticket to the Percona conference and within 48 hours I received a congratulatory email. Wow! I thought: I sign up for so many contests and never expect to win... and usually that’s for a book or a ticket to a concert. Here I am, new to the tech world and feeling like a fish out of water, and I’ve won this ticket to what turned out to be an incredible experience for me.
To be honest, going into it, I had no idea what MySQL was... to be honest I’m still a bit confused. What I learned, essentially, is that it’s all about databases and back-end stuff which is actually a lot more mathematical than I ever would have expected. And while it was a bit advanced for my level (read: no knowledge or experience), I found myself enthralled by the talks I attended and laughing at the techy jokes the speakers were making.
There has always been a part of me that dreamed of being some kind of computer nerd, for lack of better words, and throughout the Percona conference I felt like just that. Sure, I couldn’t really follow when the talks moved to implementation of products in the workplace because, well, I’ve never worked in tech. But there were two talks that I sat through, understood, and really felt like “wow, I get this, maybe I can get my foot in the door of this sea of tech”.
I noticed a few things about conference that really baffled my mind.
1) The minimal number of females.
In the first keynote, we were informed that the conference had been sold out (400 tickets) and yet I noticed that there were maybe 10 ladies. Outside of those ladies, it was the organizing staff that was female. There is something so wrong about this. Maybe it is my experience and the fact that I am actively seeking other women in IT, but I know so many women who work in tech! I never would have expected that this notion of “not many women” actually exists. To me, it has always just felt like a story. I worked as a blogger for a telecommunications company for about a year, and our staff was almost entirely female. We were a small group, but other than my boss, the only other male on our team was our customer experience and technical service support lead.
2) Dresscode does not seem to apply to men at tech conferences.
I’ve always thought that a conference, no matter its context, is a business casual environment. You know, decent shoes, slacks, nice shirts for the men, and the same for women, with the occasional dress. This is not what I encountered. A large number of men were wearing either punny tech tshirts and hoodies, with the occasional nice, button down shirt here and there, and mostly in jean. Sometimes with fully scuffed bottoms that you would expect from a teenage boy. I was baffled. I noticed that the women took on the business casual attire I had expected, and so did I. On the first day of the conference I wore a semi-casual dress, one I would wear to the office if I were employed, and a nice wool cardigan. Most of the other ladies were dressed similarly, I saw a few skirts and nice shirts. I took a moment and said to myself “I dressed nicely because I wanted to, but I don’t have to”. This lead to me wearing a long sleeved jersey shirt with jeans for day 2 of the conference - up yours, dress code!
3) Stereotypes exist for a reason.
I have this predisposed notion of how men in tech look: either long beards and ponytails like those who worked for our software developer at my first job, or older and bald like the high school teachers in our tech and design departments. At this conference, these personalities lived strong. So many ponytails, so many shiny heads. I also have this predisposed notion that ladies are either very business casual or have a bit of a punk vibe to them. I was not disappointed. The ladies I saw were either dressed very smartly (as the English would say), or what you would expect from a punk teenaged girl.
*So how did this affect my experience with the conference and my vision of a life in tech? *
What I discovered from being one of the few women at this conference was an intense feeling, a need if you must, to shatter this view of the tech community. Not all tech is made for men. Not all women are made for organizational/other duties in the tech industry. Not all women are overly intellectual and dressed smartly, or sloppy like a teenager. You hear so many stories about women in tech who are shattering the glass ceiling in high performing, high paid positions. But what about the rest of us?
Me? I’m a 25 year old young adult female just trying to find my way in the tech world. Maybe one day I’ll stay on the path to becoming a front end developer, maybe I’ll go back to school and become a great programmer, or software engineer. Maybe my path won’t get me on the Forbes 500, but I’ll be damn well good at what I do because I love it. I love logic, I love solving problems, I love learning things that I never thought my brain could handle because of ideas (and realities) that have been fed to me my whole life.