Ela Conf 2016

So, I went to Ela Conf in Philadelphia, PA this past weekend, and, like, I don’t even know.  I don’t even know what happened.  I’m going to try and write a blog post, but I’m also sure there’s no way to put the experience into words that properly express how amazing the weekend was.

First, some disclosure.  I knew I wanted to go to a conference, but every time I heard about one I could even think of going to, it was impossible–either registration had closed, or going would have cost me a thousand dollars, or both (usually both).  Even though I make sweet, sweet developer money now, I’m still a single mom with bills and a crapload of debt, so let’s be real: if it’s gonna cost more than a few hundred bucks to go to something, I’m not going.  I’ve heard from other people that a $400 conference ticket is “so cheap”, that the associated $800+ hotel stay is “reasonable for the venue”, and it’s totally okay to do things like fly across the country and eat $100 hotel-restaurant meals in the name of networking.  Maybe that’s true for people who aren’t nine months into their first real jobs and don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, but for me?  Networking doesn’t keep my lights on and my kid fed.  (I guess I could set all the business cards I’d collect on fire for warmth, but that seems impractical.)

Here’s the first amazing thing about Ela: through sponsorship, they were able to pay stipends for speaker travel and childcare, and provide grants for ticket cost to any woman who applied.  In case you can’t figure out where this is going, my broke self got a ticket grant, which left me enough money to book a motel in New Jersey and buy gasoline to drive back and forth from Cleveland.

Takeaway: if a small, second-year conference in Philadelphia can get sponsorship enough to do this, why the hell can’t conferences with much more name recognition and/or budget do it, too?

On Thursday morning, I dropped my kid off at school (a special treat, since usually I have to be at work by then), packed up the car and made the 7.5-hour drive to Philadelphia.  This was pretty special, too–I’d never done a solo road-trip before, and now my life goal is to do 2,935,734 more solo road-trips.  Here’s some photos from the drive on Thursday:

Since Ela Conf didn’t start until 6:00 PM on Friday, I had some time to kill in Philadelphia and decided to go to the art museum (of course).  Unfortunately, the big public transit union in Philly is on strike, and I had planned to get around with public transport.  Regional rail was still running, so I parked my car way out in a suburb (for $1!) and travelled in on that instead of taking the train from New Jersey and transferring to the subway.  It actually wasn’t too bad, however, it also meant a walk to art museum from the 30th Street Amtrak Station where I got off the train, but it turns out there is a nice scenic trail along the Schuylkill River and the hike wasn’t bad at all.  The Philadelphia Museum of Art is absolutely wonderful, and I need to visit Philly again so I can explore the entire thing… six hours wasn’t enough time for half of the main museum, let alone the sculpture gardens and Rodin House!

At 4:30 PM, I made the decision to walk to UArts, as it didn’t seem to be worth walking back to the Amtrak station just to wait for a train to the next regional station.  About three miles later, I got there early at 5:30 PM!  This was kind of a blessing, actually, since only a handful of other ladies were there and I had no choice but to engage instead of trying to hide in a corner.  (Introvert powers, activate!)  

At 6:00 PM, there were snacks.  They were good snacks, too, including a freakin’ wheel of baked brie.  The best part of all this was that I was in a room full of women unabashedly stuffing themselves with really great appetizers and commenting on how much they loved food–although the realization that a room full of lady-types results in no one policing themselves on public eating was a little sad, too, because cheese is amazing, and no one should ever feel bad for eating as much of it as possible.

Talks started about 7:00 PM, and I really regret not taking more photos.  I had left my laptop at the hotel because I hadn’t wanted to carry a backpack around Philly, but I really wish I had been able to take notes on the talks Friday night.  I very highly recommend going through the Storify that Ela Conf put together to see some of the reactions–very talented women spoke about community, self-management, and self-empowerment.  The night ended with a talk by Alex Qin entitled, “Shaving My Head Made Me A Better Programmer,” in which she spoke about how men’s perception of her abilities as a developer shifted when she shaved her head, dressed more androgynously, and appeared less traditionally feminine.

I made my way to Suburban Station around 9:00 PM, just in time to miss the train I wanted.  So I had to wait on a train.  A very large man on a bench had catcalled me, and then, after realizing how grumpy I was, offered to help me figure out the best way to get back to my car. I ended up sitting and talking to him until it was time to get to the platform and get on the train (disclaimer: I am from Cleveland, late-night public transit people don’t faze me, do not try this at home), and he turned out to be a pretty alright guy, although he needs to stop telling strange ladies to smile.  I got back to the hotel just before 11:00 PM, fully aware of how early I had to get up the next morning since Ela started back up at 8:00 AM.

I got up at 6:30 AM, packed my bags, and checked out of the motel since I was going to spend Saturday night at my BFF Terri’s place, about 2.5 hours from Philadelphia.  While in the car, I made the YOLO decision to just drive into the city and find a parking garage, because I didn’t want to bother with the train again.  This went surprisingly well, except that I ended up paying $21 to park on the roof of a garage, in the last parking spot left, which was a weird parallel park spot that I’m pretty sure shouldn’t have existed.  In Cleveland, you can buy a whole car for $21 and you won’t have to park it somewhere that looks like a tow-away zone, so it was kind of a culture shock.

After a bit of breakfast, during which a couple of very kind ladies took pity on me for my pathetic, exhausted Twitter post about getting to the motel at 11 PM, talks started back up.  Once again, wow.  The programming at Ela was absolutely top-notch; the speakers tackled topics that are 1000% relevant to being a woman in tech with poise and eloquence, even (especially) the hard stuff.

If I copy-paste all my notes here, this post will go on forever.  So here’s some highlights…

The #tiberiusmethod of salary/benefit negotiation, from Tiberius “Tibs” Hefflin, in a nutshell:

  1. Do your research, know your qualifications, know your budget, and decide what you’re worth & what you want.
  2. Start negotiation at 10% higher than what you want.
  3. Let them make the first offer; use cooperative language, but don’t be afraid to make them sweat… and walk away from insulting numbers.

From “The Respect Effect” by Timirah James: 

Respect is a verb; people interact with you according to your expectations and what you allow.  Know your worth, know your stuff (but don’t be scared to learn what you don’t know).  Be supportive (but be careful of giving people more credit than deserved).  Have consistency, trust your gut, practice what you preach, hold people accountable, be transparent, speak with clarity, never be afraid to say no, don’t settle for less.  In order to get respect, you have to give respect.  When you don’t feel respected, say so (and steer people in the right direction on how to treat you)!

Seven-ish reasons Saying “I Don’t Know” is great, courtesy of Elise Wei: 

  1. You learn to be okay with it – f*ck imposter syndrome, the world doesn’t end when you show vulnerability.  Vulnerability makes us human!
  2. Honesty builds credibility – don’t waste time pretending, be authentic, it’s better to say you don’t know now than get caught later.
  3. Learn to trust yourself — give it your best guess, go with your gut, explain your reasoning and then check your answer.
  4. Practice the research process – problem-solving is a skill, ask someone HOW they would find the answer, not what the answer is (ask for resources, thought process, how to test solution).
  5. Involve your team – how would people solve this differently? Is there an opportunity to introduce standards? An opportunity for documentation?
  6. Learn something – “see one, do one, teach one”  – see it done, try it yourself, teach someone else.
  7. Revel in the lively field of tech – there is tons to know, change is the only constant!
  8. Build a culture of learning – get to love the process of learning and educating, sharing, opportunity – learning is arguably our purpose on Earth – frame not knowing something as an exciting opportunity to learn it.

It’s Not You, It’s Them — Now What?  by Ruthie Floats

Being right doesn’t matter, just like salary doesn’t matter – how you feel about your salary/being right does – do you have enough for everything you want? Do have enough but you know you’re worth more? What if someone less experienced/qualified makes more? What if you’re the highest paid person in your job title and the company is struggling?

Determine your feeling + determine the cause + determine an action to take.

Take serious criticism from serious people seriously… and take unserious criticism from unserious people unseriously.

I also went to two breakout sessions: The Benefits of Technical Blogging, a blogging workshop hosted by Vaidehi Joshi, and WERK MAMA/The Third Shift, talks and discussion by/with Julia Elman, Lead Front-End Designer at 18F, and Swati Vauthrin, Director of Engineering at Buzzfeed.  Not that Vaidehi’s workshop wasn’t totally rad, but I really just want to geek out about the fact that a technology conference had a breakout session for moms.  I know, I know, it’s a women’s technology conference, so it makes sense, but it was just so great.  My son is one of the reasons I went into tech; my job makes it possible for us to have a house where he gets his own bedroom with his own bed and PAW Patrol sheets, no more sleeping on the futon at my parents’ house.

Possibly my favorite part was when one of the women in the room stated that, when interviewing for startups, she was routinely (!!!) asked if she had kids.  The collective gasp, followed by the outburst of “that’s illegal!”… that was an amazing, visceral reaction.  The guys interviewing her probably didn’t think it was a big deal to ask, much less think it was illegal–and yet women still get asked this, so they can be rejected from jobs for the idiot reason that they might actually want to have children and/or spend time with their children.  Do men not want to spend time with their children?!  As a Girl Scout volunteer, I love  when dads want to help out, and the girls do too–I really, really wish that more dads spent as much time with their kids as the kids’ moms do.  In that same vein, Julia’s talk really resonated with me as well–I grew up with my Fulbright-scholar mom working full-time, and my mom is a freaking amazing lady who showed me that you can have a killer career + awesome kids + the life you want, if you’re willing to WERK, MAMA.

The last talk of the day came too soon, and basically I think everyone cried at least a little bit.  Honestly, I don’t even remember parts of the talk because I was too busy trying to manage my feelings and not ugly-cry all of my makeup off.  I wasn’t the only one, either–the Twitter feed was filling up with “is anyone else crying right now?” and “omg all of my feels”, which I bet might not happen at a conference with men….

Takeaway: I’m so, so glad I went to Ela.  I met amazing women and had a great time, the pressure was off, no performance anxiety, everyone was refreshingly real and relatable.  It was so nice to meet other women in tech, en masse, all of whom were there to lift each other up.  Ela is an amazing community, and I’d like to give massive thanks to the organizers for doing such a fantastic job putting on the event.  I didn’t want to leave at 5:30 PM, which is why I ended up deciding to go to the networking event/afterparty instead of heading straight out!  I’m really glad I did that, too, because I got to meet even more amazing women… but alas, around 7:00 PM, I faced reality and decided that I really did have to leave if I was going to make it to Terri’s at a decent time.  (I am also really glad that I went to the afterparty because I got to take a selfie with a cat on the street, but that’s kind of irrelevant.)

I made it to Terri’s place about two minutes before she made it home that night, around 11:00 PM, and we talked a bit before I crashed out on her couch.  In the morning, we slept in, got Bob Evan’s for breakfast, and I was on the road again at 1:00 PM… I almost ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania, but very, very luckily, I just made it to a service station.  That was the scariest part of the trip, since I no longer have AAA… so, y’know, public transit people, new people, weekend full of interacting with strangers, strange city, no problem–but running out of gas in PA… terrifying.  😉

Turns out that my gas got turned off (because I had never actually had it turned it on, oops) while I was gone, and my kiddo came down with a cold, so I took Monday (today) off to deal with those things.  I’ll go back to work tomorrow after the gas company person comes to relight the pilots on my water tank and furnace, and I’m really looking forward to carrying forward all the love and energy I felt at Ela in my work life and personal life.  Onward and upward, my tech-lady #squad!