CodeNewbie put on their first meatspace conference, CodeLand 2017, in New York at the end of April. It was fantastic. If it weren’t for the fact that Saron Yitbarek, CodeNewbie founder and conference chair, mentioned that it was their first conference, I never would have known. It was as polished and interesting as any veteran conference I’ve attended. CodeLand’s target audience is people who have less than two years experience working in the tech industry, but I don’t know anyone of any experience level who wouldn’t have gained something just by being in the room with so many passionate, talented individuals.
I had the privilege of running a workshop for the first year of CodeLand. I’d never run a workshop before but Saron was super supportive every step of the way. She convinced me that I could turn my 15 minute talk proposal into an engaging and informative 3 hour interactive workshop. Running a workshop is something I might not have attempted for another two years if Saron hadn’t seen that potential. And she provided this same support and inspiration for over 40 speakers, workshop leaders, and panelists of all experience levels and backgrounds. It’s truly inspiring to see the work and love that Saron puts into the community she created.
Things that set CodeLand 2017 apart
Diversity was not the headline…
It was by far the most diverse conference I’ve been to, both the attendance and lineup. Even before the conference, people took notice and called out the amazing job the CodeLand staff was doing.
Increasingly, I see two kinds of events in tech. Those who think it’s impossible to have a diverse lineup, & those who know that’s bullshit. https://t.co/fR3fh4d3CU
Increasingly, I see two kinds of events in tech. Those who think it’s impossible to have a diverse lineup, & those who know that’s bullshit. @jensimmons
However, in her closing address to the conference, Saron pulled out this tweet and commented that this is not a congratulatory or happy tweet. It’s a sad reflection of the way we tokenize people with diverse backgrounds in our industry. It calls out the mindset that we need to fight against.
…but Inclusion was.
CodeLand wasn’t flashy about including people from all walks of life. In fact, it’s central to CodeNewbie’s mission. Anyone can learn to code. Anyone can use programming as a tool to change their lives. This ethos permeated the way the conference was run, how speakers were selected, and the way they talked about and took pride in their own work.
There are a couple specific things that made this conference special. CodeLand 2017 included folks in a way that’s subtle but powerful.
The conversation happened live on Twitter (not later at the bar)
This means that so many more people were included. Religious individuals who choose not to drink. Parents who brought their kids with them to town and couldn’t stay late at the bar. Anyone else who might not appreciate getting sloshed as a prerequisite for networking. Diversity might not have been the headline, but inclusion certainly was. Everyone was welcome and encouraged to participate, and this could only happen because the community made a conscious choice to engage in a way that doesn’t leave people out.
Marginalized people were invited to speak for themselves
One of the most memorable speakers at CodeLand 2017 was @ealshafei, a coder and activist living in Bahrain under an oppressive regime. She shared with us some of the technology she has helped create that specifically addresses the problems unique to living in the Middle East. We heard about how presumptive it is for self-appointed American tech gurus to export their solutions and tools and claim credit for the work that is done with those tools. She told us that they bristle in Bahrain when people in the West refer to political movements on Twitter in the Middle East as a “Twitter Revolution.” We might as well call it a “Shoe Revolution” while we’re at it, since they wore shoes while doing it too.
We need to stop erasing the contributions and innovation that comes from communities serving their own needs. CodeLand showed this over and over again. Queer closeted individuals need to build their own tools because only they understand the problems they need to solve for. Community spaces need to be organized by the people who will tend to that community. Not by “disrupters” who will exit and leave their community in a lurch.
Overall, we were reminded repeatedly that code is not its own end. We use it to improve ourselves, our lives, and each other.
“Technology is a means to an end, and that end is people.”
“Technology is a means to an end, and that end is people.”
Key Takeaways and Themes
Everyone loves a side hustle
Many employers look to side projects as a sign that you are engaged with the work you do. Your Github profile is a prime destination for people who are considering interviewing you. It shows that you are invested in learning new things, trying things out, and aren’t afraid of failure. If you have the courage to work on side projects and release them out into the wild, you have the gumption to make a great developer.
Not only that, but several CodeLand 2017 speakers mentioned how small side projects morphed into life changing pursuits. Maurice Rogers talked about how a small side project he started is now a large and growing project helping to standardize student information in Belize. (Maurice also snuck in so many beautiful photos of Belize that I’m not totally sure he wasn’t a plant from Belize’s tourism board.) Eric Brelsford is transforming the way that vacant public land in New York is being used after starting up a side project working with open mapping data. The Progressive Coders Network started out as some coders working for Bernie and now they’re creating large scale tools to facilitate the development of grassroots movements across the country.
Pick a side hustle and stick to it. It might land you a job. Or it might reshape your life.
“Real Developer” is a BS term
This is what a developer looks like.
Really, anyone who tells you that you need to follow a specific path or do a specific thing is full of it. The panel of open source developers agreed that Open Source is not necessary for a successful life and career as a dev. Not working in #FOSS doesn’t make you less of a real developer.
Everyone held one another accountable for not using language to demean ourselves. After one of the speakers demurred about not really being a programmer, the community rallied around, telling her that she solves problems through code. We have unique paths but we all share a love of solving problems. Code is our common tool. And that makes us all real developers.
What you really need is a strong community
Many people think that what they’re looking for is mentorship, or a promotion, or some other random thing that will grant them the perfect career and the perfect life. What they really need is a supportive community to inspire, support, and heal them. Mental health issues are pervasive in the tech industry. There’s institutional knowledge locked away that seems like we can only access through the approval of gatekeepers. And sometimes life just gets hard. But that’s why we need to invest in building communities. This is how we will break past the invisible barriers that make tech seem so inaccessible. Strong communities form a path in and a path up.
This is what CodeNewbie is at its core. It’s a community we look to support and uplift one another.
One of the biggest barriers to finding your community when you break into tech can be the high ticket price for conferences. That’s why CodeLand 2017 offered ticket and lodging scholarships that were funded directly by the community. 90 people donated about $12,000. CodeLand accepted 55 scholarship recipients who would otherwise have been unable to go.
I’d like to point out again that this is a first year conference. The outpouring from the CodeNewbie community is incredible, especially given that this conference was not a known quantity. But when you make a concerted effort to include people and make them feel welcome in your community, they will pay it forward to invite more people in.
How can you get in on this?
Conferences can’t happen without support. Keep an eye out for the next conference, and when they call for sponsors, ask your company for their support.
Community work is hard and takes money. Vote with your dollars for keeping this community alive and sustainable by donating to their Patreon page.
Apply to Speak
Conferences can’t happen unless there’s content to present. And you (yes you!) have something to say about your journey that has never been said before. Embrace that, and use it to help out an audience who would benefit from your perspective.
CodeNewbie live chats are the hottest thing I’ve been missing out on. They happen every Wednesday at 9PM EST (8PM for me out here in Chicago) using the hashtag #CodeNewbie. There are questions, discussions, and generally thoughtful commentary on a new topic every week. Twitter Families are born here, and I can’t believe I never knew about this until now. Come talk to me. I’ll definitely be taking part on Wednesdays from now on.