OddBird

Diversity. Inclusion. Tech.

Refactr.tech 2019 aims to solve tech’s diversity problem

As we readied our seats for the first ever Refactr.tech Conference, I pondered the question: What would a technical conference look like if its organizers were intentional about inclusiveness but still centered on tech?

Why this matters.

For three days, technologists from many parts of the country gathered in Atlanta GA – a melting pot of human experience in itself – to realize just that. Refactr.tech showcased growing and powerful voices of underrepresented professionals in tech and their allies; with a focus on technology and creating a safe space to have conversations around diversity, inclusion, and intersectionality in tech.

I knew I was in the right place as I met so many people I already follow on Twitter.

First, I’d like to thank the awesome women of Vue Vixens for sponsoring my ticket for the conference. Refactr.tech is a re-branding of sorts of We RISE, a conference organized by Women Who Code Atlanta, that has for the last few years provided a space to grow and showcase the work of women in technology.

With the inauguration of Refactr.tech, that experience has been expanded to not just women, but all underrepresented technologists and their allies. This was great because we don’t have the luxury of just working with women in our everyday lives, and everyone needs to be in on the conversation to really get a well-rounded perspective on what D&I is and how we can build better workplace cultures around this idea.

Of course, women-focused events have their place, though some miss the mark on acknowledging intersectionality and understanding the unique challenges that say, queer and minority women face in the workplace. D&I is much more nuanced than just “we need more women.”

We know that diversity makes good business sense and that companies that work towards gender, racial and ethnic diversity see financial gains above industry medians; but I love how the organizers of this conference took the conversation further than just its economic benefits.

Here’s a recap.

There were the familiar formats for attendees to learn and make connections. Day one hosted full-day workshops on things like GraphQL, Flutter, Gatsby and more. There was a Vue Skulk, where I assume there were foxy Vue things going on. I’m sad to have missed the first day for mom things, but ran into an old co-worker who attended the Flutter workshop. It was his first experience with it, and in short-order he discovered that Flutter is indeed fun and easy to work with.

Day two and three were dedicated to the standard keynotes and track sessions. Tracy Lee of This Dot Labs was on brand delivering the first keynote on how D&I makes good business sense, all while donning a prom dress. Day Two’s keynote took a more personal tone with Dr. Kortney Ziegler explaining how embracing his story has helped him find purpose in his endeavors at ZaMLabs.

Track sessions included Front-End Engineering, Software Engineering, Product & UX, Cool Sh!t, Career & Leadership, and Social Impact. I tried my best to get in on talks from each track. Speakers with various pathways into technology and levels of experience brought their own voices to present their passions, ideas, and tips and tricks.

Mike Harington from the Ionic team went beyond the basics of what makes a website a progressive web app and demonstrated through code and personal experience which of the big three JavaScript frameworks offers the most support out of the box.

Tae’lur Alexis of codeeveryday.io gave us the tea on her newfound passion with accessibility. The inspiration for her talk just might have been divine providence as she’s been apparently working through issues with her eyesight.

I got to sit in on perhaps the most diverse panel of technologists I’ve ever seen giving clutch information on what it’s like betting on yourself through entrepreneurship, building your community, and funding your ideas in a world where venture-capitalists may overlook you for being a woman or a minority.

Sangeeta Nori from GM demystified quantum computing for us and demonstrated how companies are leveraging this very complicated technology to solve problems of today and tomorrow. My immediate thought was: How can this be used to tackle climate change, perhaps the most pressing issue of our time? It was fun to chat her up while playing Uno during happy hour, to learn that she is struggling to learn Angular during her day job, just like me.

I sat in on a panel with A* members of /dev/color from Netflix on being authentic leading teams while black in Silicon Valley  –  showing there is strength in a shared experience and knowing that you’re not alone.

Alexandra Millatmal of Newsela channeled her personal “othered” experience in her talk, “Mentoring the way to diversity and inclusion”. It was a call-to-action for companies to make cultural shifts in how they hire, onboard and mold upcoming talent; talent that perhaps have less-than-conventional paths to get where they are – and how mentoring junior engineers and bolstering D&I efforts work hand-in-hand.

Nick Caldwell, Chief Product Officer at Looker (now Google) talked about his career journey from engineer to VP and some leadership principles he’s developed on the way that allowed him to grow successful teams for companies like Microsoft and Reddit.

I even learned something from the not-so-good talks (there were a couple). But for someone like me – an up-and-coming developer with her own goals to join the conference circuit – it’s refreshing to know that not everyone is a rock star and that there is space for me to one day present my ideas and experiences to my peers.

Final Thoughts.

All in all, the two days I spent there were inspiring and readied me to go back to work and do great things. Working with companies that value diversity and inclusion (especially) is a high priority for me. By working with people from different backgrounds and with different experiences and working styles, we learn and get another view. Diverse views make for better decisions that benefit the heterogeneous nature of end users, and drive a high-performance culture.

I’m pleased to work with people who know the value of making connections at these types of events. I also feel gratitude towards Vue Vixens for their part in helping create the experience for this OddBird.

Erica Mitchell is a front end developer, veteran, and advocate for users.


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