00:16 – Welcome to “Unrepentant Cyborgs” …we mean, “Greater Than Code!”
01:28 – Codeland Conference: April 21st & 22nd in New York City
02:02 – Making Conferences Accessible, Affordable, and Unintimidating for People
13:00 – Ticket Prices and Structure
15:01 – Creating an Immersive Experience and Community With and For People You Care About
25:11 – Leading by Example and Maintaining a Positive Persona
29:49 – The Importance of Money and Financial Freedom
39:52 – Ethics as Automatic Technology Scales and Capitalism
49:45 – In summary: Codeland Conference
Sam: Thank you for the book recommendation for Give and Take.
Astrid: People first.
Rein: Support worker-owned cooperative organizations. Leadership is doing things, not being given a title.
Saron: The principles and values that led to what people will experience as a really great conference.
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ASTRID: Welcome to our show today, “Unrepentant Cyborgs.” I’m Astrid Countee and I’m here today with my co-host, Rein ‘Heinrichs’.
REIN: It’s actually Henrichs.
ASTRID: I said, Henrichs. Heinrichs, Henrichs.
REIN: You said Heinrichs.
ASTRID: Heinrichs sounds so much cooler but we’ll go on anyway.
REIN: On the other hand, it’s not my name.
SAM: Picky, picky, picky.
REIN: And I’m in here with my co-host and I guess also technically your co-host, Sam Livingston-Gray.
SAM: Good morning everybody and our guest today should be familiar to those of you who may know some of us from other older podcasts. Her name is Saron Yitbarek and we had hoped that she might join us to found Greater Than Code but apparently she had cooler things to do. We’re here to talk to her about, at least one of those and not to be bitter in any way. Got it everybody? Saron, welcome to the show.
SARON: Thank you so much for having me. You know, it’s so much great to hear you read that than it was to see it. I felt all the love and the excitement. I felt all of it so thank you so much.
REIN: And also the shade.
SARON: The shade was spot on. It was very shady.
SAM: We’ve missed you, Saron.
SARON: I missed you too. It’s been a very long time.
SAM: What do we here to talk about?
SARON: Today, we’re here to talk about Codeland, which I’m super, super excited about. I think it was three years ago when I went to my very first conference and since then, I soaked all over the world and I’m on a bunch of conferences, tech conferences specifically and I’ve been keeping a running list of everything I hate about conferences and everything I love about conferences. This is my chance to really put all that to the test and see if I have any idea what I’m talking about. It’s Codeland Conference. It’s two days, it’s April 21 and 22 in New York City and it’s geared for people who have less than two years of professional experience.
SAM: I feel like that love-hate could be the whole show. Was there anything particularly you wanted to talk about or do you want to skip past the negativity and maybe talk about the people that you’re actually aiming this at?
SARON: We can do any and all of the above. It’s so funny that every time I mentioned the negative list, people like to skip the best parts of conferences. I’m like, “No, let’s take into some of the stuff that sucks because I feel like we don’t really talk about that a lot.”
SAM: Oh, yeah. I love a good rant.
SAM: Rant away please.
SARON: Okay. I totally didn’t realized this and I feel like I was very blind to this until I start organizing my own conference but one thing that we don’t often appreciate is how expensive it is to attend a conference, especially for people in our community who don’t yet have tech jobs, who are still learning, who are really self-funding their trip, it’s really expensive. New York City is not a cheap place and we’re able to get a relatively good deal with the hotel with $189 a night which is great for New York City. But if it’s three nights, travel, take a day off of work plus the ticket price, that’s $1000, at least to go attend and spend time with other people.
That’s something that if you are a working developer, if your company is paying for you, if you have an education stipend, a lot of that you just completely forget how much it costs. That’s one thing that I’ve been really thinking about is how do you make a conference like this very accessible and very doable for folks. The one thing that we’re doing to I’m really, really excited about is we have an opportunity scholarship. I know other conferences have something similar to that as well but we had 93 people raised over $12,000 which allowed us to bring 33 people, not just bring them to Codeland, to also cover their flight and cover hotel and child care and really alleviate some of those other financial burdens that, again people kind of forget about when they think about attending a conference. That’s number one on my list. It’s just the inaccessibility of something as awesome as a conference.
SAM: That’s really great. I really love the opportunity scholarship program that they do at RubyConf and RailsConf. I’ve been a guide at several times and I actually ran a program at Cascadia Ruby. One of the things that I really enjoyed personally as an attendee of RubyConf and RailsConf was the ability to be a guide and to have a conference buddy that I could show around and talk to. I was wondering if you’re going to do that or if you’re going to add other cool stuff to the program? How’s that working?
SARON: That’s a really good point. I think the big difference is instead of having an opportunity scholarship that involves like a peer buddy mentoring system, which I think you need at places like RubyConf and RailsConf because a lot of people who go aren’t necessarily beginners and not necessarily new. The people who’ve been doing it for a while. For us, everyone is new. The whole thing is one big opportunity scholarship in terms of that buddy system and that mentorship.
What we have done is I’ve tried to think really hard about what are the pieces of a conference that tend to become intimidating or that can be difficult for someone who’s new to the industry so we’ve done a few things to modify that. One thing is we have lots and lots of breaks, we have food and snacks almost at every part, we have an exhibit, we have lots of tables, we have lots of opportunities for people to engage in the hallway track. I think that’s one of the benefits of just having a smaller conference too. I think RailsConf is several thousand people. It is huge. It has to take place at a convention center. It has to take place at a really big space, which it’s really easy to feel isolated in that. I think by virtue of the space we chose then the way we thought about programming, we have lots of opportunities to interact and bump heads in a good way.
The other thing is we are creating a conference booklet. I know a lot of conference do programs but what we’re doing is for each talk, we have a cheat sheet. If you’re doing a talk on Ruby on Rails side project, you turn into a multimillion dollar company, ask someone in the audience who maybe has never done Ruby, never done Rails, doesn’t know what a gem is.
I’m over in Pythonland, I’m not familiar with these words. What we have is a little cheat sheet that says here are some of the buzzwords that might trip you up. Here are some of the terms that you may not be familiar with. It’s just one-liner just to go, “Oh, wait. What is that gem thing again? Oh, it’s just a library. Okay, cool got it,” so it’s really thinking through these different ways to make people feel like they belong and that they can follow the conversation.
ASTRID: I really like the idea of a cheat sheet because I feel like you spend so much time just trying to figure out what people are talking about before you can even know if you can be [inaudible].
SARON: Yes, exactly. One thing that I’m also doing that I’m really excited about, which is super time consuming that absolutely worth it is I personally work with each of the speakers to make sure that the content is not just good because the speakers are chosen because they’re already awesome but to make sure that it really fits in with our mission, with our touchy-feely welcoming vibes and also to make sure that our community, our attendees can follow along.
I have had a minimum of three meetings with each speaker. We work through the talk outline together. We do slide reviews, which is probably one the most important parts. Once you organize things in actual size, you get to see, “Oh, man. I didn’t really spend enough time on this point. I don’t really have a transition. I didn’t introduce this topic. I didn’t have a place to have the audience feel pain and tension.” I think having those emotional component is super, super important for a live talk. Then we do a final rehearsal where we make sure that the tone and picture and the pacing is right and those kind of thing.
By being super, super hands on with speakers and making sure that the talks are really tailored to our community, I’m helping to hopefully prevent some of the intimidation, some of the, “Oh, man. It was totally over my head.” A lot of those things that can happen for newbies attending conferences.
SAM: That’s really great. One of the things that I remember really liking about some of my favorite podcasts were when one of the hosts would interrupt another one and say, “Hey, that thing you just said might not be familiar to everybody and could you pause and unpack that for a minute.” It’s really great to have that on a sheet of paper.
SARON: Yes. That’s what I’ve been doing a lot but behind the scenes like, “No, no, no, you can’t talk about HIPAA-compliant, yet. There’s three things we have to talk about before we talk about HIPAA-compliant,” so yes, that’s exactly my job.
REIN: That sounds like it could be a great program for speaker newbies.
SARON: Totally. One other thing that I’ve learned is because our speakers are both new –we have a bunch of first time speakers — we also we have season speakers who have been doing this a long time. One of the big benefits of having the system is that it’s just really hard to get outside of your zone. It’s really hard to see the talk from outside of yourself. Especially, for more seasoned speakers, they’re generally used talking at more advanced conferences, at lingo-specific conferences, at places where people already come in with a ton of context so it’s really helpful to have someone and go, “No, no, no. you can assume that we know what spinning up servers means,” and we have to modify a lot of that so it’s not so much about, “I’m new to speaking and I haven’t done this enough to know how it works.” It’s really just about feedback and knowing that this is a new talk for a new audience. That alone makes the process really helpful.
REIN: This is what good communication is — it’s meeting the person you’re trying to reach at their level.
SARON: Yep, exactly.
ASTRID: Before we leave the topic of the conferences and the prices, I wanted to ask, now that you’ve put one together, can you better explain why conferences are so expensive? I think when you first getting started, it’s kind of a surprise that a conference can be as expensive as it is.
SARON: Sure. I’m going to preface this by saying that I have not yet paid all of the bills for the conference. Anything I say, it may totally change after the conference has happened. Honestly, that’s kind of the part that I was a little confused about too because the conference didn’t end up being as expensive as I expected but I think there’s a couple things that made it a little bit easier for me. One is I’m doing this 100% full time and I’m the primary person on this. I’ve been able to, fortunately pull people from the community to help with very specific tasks. We’ve had a programming committee of 10 people who review the talks. We’ve had a review committee of eight people who review the scholarship submissions.
I have what I call my conference advisory board, which is basically, I think is six other conference organizers who I really appreciate and I think the conferences are awesome and if any time I have a budgetary or a logistical question, I ping them and go like, “I about to spend money on this. Is this stupid? Don’t let me be stupid.” Then they kind of course correct, which is awesome. Also, I have dragged my husband into this and he’s taking care of some really boring tasks that I don’t want to do.
But for the most part, I’m doing this full time. I spend, at least 40 hours a week just on the conference. Because of that, I don’t have a whole team of employees like for a company conference that I need to pay salaries to take them off of a product to work on this. I don’t have a lot of those human resources related expenses. It’s just me trying to pay for my own time so that really helps.
I think the fact that we got the venue donated. We’re doing it at Microsoft and they’re [inaudible] the space to us for free. That takes a huge line item off of the budget. Other than that, it’s mostly been about making sure the food is good, making sure — and that’s one thing too — we pay for our speakers to travel. We cover their hotel and all of that. It generally hasn’t been as expensive.
The advice that I got from the conference advisory board that I really taken to heart is making sure that the ticket sales can, for the most part, cover the cost of the conference and then anything that you get from sponsors will essentially be the money for the six months of full time work that I spend on this. Assuming you get enough sponsors, it should work out. For now, we’ll see if it actually works out that way.
SAM: That makes sense because I would imagine that those fixed costs are the ones who have to plan for the most in advance anyway, right?
SARON: Yeah, exactly and the one thing though that I am noticing now and I’m very happy that I’ve been very, very conservative with my budget is even though we have 250 tickets to sell for the conference, you don’t really have 250 tickets to sell because you have, for example the programming committee and the review committee, I want to give free tickets to them, for them to come. The way we’ve done the ticketing is there’s a student ticket, which is the cheapest ticket and there’s the individual ticket. If you can afford it, pick that one and if you are able to, there’s the supporter ticket which is the most expensive one that kind of subsidizes the student ticket.
The assumption in the pricing is that the average ticket price would be pretty close to that individual ticket, that is totally not happen. Most people don’t pick the supporter ticket, even my general budget, even if I were to sell out all 250 tickets, it’s going to end up being a little bit lower than I anticipated. I think a lot of the potential budget issues for me anyway isn’t going to be so much from the conference being expensive. It’s going to be more likely from the revenue being less for a number of different reasons that I anticipate when I first crafted the budget.
SAM: It’s really interesting about the average ticket price and my first reaction when I heard about Codeland which was, “That sounds really cool but I probably shouldn’t go because I would be taking a seat away from somebody who the conference is more directly aimed at.” I’m the sort of person who would definitely buy a supporter ticket and probably throw in some extra on top of that. Is your marketing playing into that, do you think or what else is going on there?
SARON: Yeah, exactly what you said. I think that was me, the initial tickets that undertaking best practices from tech companies that are not specifically for newbies and assuming that it would still apply and you’re totally right. If you are a supporter, if you can afford that ticket, chances are you probably don’t need to go to the conference. Chances are you probably already have a secure dev job, you’re doing well, you know all this stuff.
We designed the tech conference so that if you are a more experienced developer, you will still love the crap out of this conference. It’s so good and the topics are so on point because they’re so awesome and I made sure to not make it too like, “This is only Junior 101 things.” That’s not really what it’s about but at the same time, it’s not designed, it’s not catered to someone with more experience. That is something that I just didn’t appreciate until it was too late, until I’d already put it out there.
The other side of it is if you’re going for people who are still learning, who don’t quite have the career that they want, you can’t really raise the ticket prices. Our ticket prices for a two-day conference are pretty good and they’re pretty affordable compared to other tech conferences. We did it on a Friday and a Saturday so that people wouldn’t be forced to take two days off of work. They can use up one of their weekends but not the full weekend. We try to think about ways to make it accessible and affordable to folks but at the end of day, we can’t really go much lower than that, to cover costs but we can’t really go higher because of the demographics. These are all the things that I’ve really started to appreciate now that it’s kind of played out and I’m seeing things. Those are all part of lessons learned.
ASTRID: Saron, you mentioned something that you don’t like about conferences but what is something that you do like that you did continue on with this Codeland Conference?
SARON: One of the things I love about conferences is the ability to create an immersive experience with and for people that you really care about. I remember talking to a friend of mine, Duane O’Brien at PayPal and when I first told him over a year ago, “I’m planning this thing for new developers and I have a rough idea of what I want to do with it,” and he gave me the best advice and he said, “You need to really, really think about what the user experience is going to be. What is the story? What is the journey?” I took that very, very seriously and I spent many hours, just sitting on a plane, sitting at restaurants or just thinking like, “How do I want people to feel from the moment they walk in, to them picking up their badge, to them picking up their swag bag, sitting in the audience, going to the bathroom? What should people feel? What should they experience at every single moment?”
Once I had a really, really clear picture of that, everything else really fell into place. It made the talks in the way the talk should feel so much clear. The idea of the conference booklet came out of that like how do I want them to feel? I never want them to feel lost. I want them to feel excited and energized and we had to remove some of those negative feelings to accomplish that. That’s when that came in. I think the conferences that are really, for me stood out and really made an impact are the ones where it was super, super clear that the organizers thought through the full experience.
One conference that I’m going to shout out is DjangoCon, which I was lucky enough to keynote last year and those people are actually on my conference advisory board. That was one of the conferences that was so impactful to me on a very emotional human level. It was also my first time really in the Python Django world. That was different but they just so clearly thought about making sure every element of it. There were bathrooms signs that said what to do if someone is in the bathroom that you don’t feel like should be because of the trans-bathroom conversation and it was like, step one, mind your business, basically.
It was awesome and it made me so happy. I was like, “Wow, you thought about that.” They had sanitary napkins and tampons stuff in both the men and the woman gendered bathrooms. They thought about that and that was one of the conferences that really set to me as being not flashy. It wasn’t a flashy conference that are like, “We have a concert and live band.” It was like, “We’re here to be a community. We’re here to talk about Django but we’re going to make sure that every moment you spend with us, you’re going to feel loved and included and heard.” Pulling from those elements and really making sure every aspect of this conference echoes, that is something I’ve taken from other conferences.
SAM: You know that example of bathroom signage and having sanitary pads in all of the bathrooms, the fact that that’s not a big flashy thing is actually even more important. I feel like it’s such a simple, basic thing that you can do that I’m astonished that all conferences don’t just do it because it makes it that much better.
SARON: Exactly. I’ve been a conferences and those have been great too that have done a lot of really cool type things. They’re awesome but when you experience them, you’re thinking, “Obviously, this isn’t going to happen at every conference.” This conference happened to have the budget or the sponsorship. It stands out because you’re probably never going to see it again but when you integrate that experience into the really small things that people use bathroom anyway so why not make it an inclusive and explicitly welcoming place. It really raises the bar. I think that it changes our expectations of how conferences should be and really how all spaces should be.
REIN: I think there’s a big difference between — not to name any names — conferences that incorporate diversity because it’s a marketing stunt, because it improves their PR and what you do if you actually want to make people feel included and welcome and the way that those bathrooms were set up is an example of the latter, where you actually ask yourself, “What do these people need?” And then you do that thing. You don’t ask yourself, “What would have look good if we set?”
SARON: Yes. I’m so glad you brought that up. That’s one of the things that I was very relieved about. Our community has always been a very diverse and inclusive community. That’s the whole point of starting it. We’re not a diversity community. It’s so funny because when people look at me, they’re like, “CodeNewbie must be for women, or must be for black people.” And I’m like, “No, we’re for everyone. I just happen to be a black woman,” like that’s just kind of how that worked out.
For many reasons, I really wanted to make sure CodeNewbie, whether it was the podcast lined up and the guest that we choose or the chat that we have, the topics we cover, the meetups that we do, I wanted to make sure that it really reflected the world and I wanted to make sure that it was diverse from race and gender but also socioeconomic status and age and coding journey.
When we did the CFP for the conference and I think about two-thirds of the speaker lineup are from the CFP and the 30% are invited speakers. When we did the CFP for it and I had my review committee take a run through first and then I made the final cut, I was so relieved to find out that we had such a great pool and it wasn’t me going like, “Hey, diverse people. You should totally apply to my stuff.” It was because we had already set up this expectation, we already had this brand of being inclusive and welcoming, that was reflected already in the pool that we have. I was really happy to be able to look at our lineup and go, “Oh, thank God.” Like we did it and we didn’t have to push it as a branding or marketing strategy to get it done.
I believe that we tell stories even when we don’t mean to. I really believe that there are all these unintentional narratives that happen whenever we make decisions on who we hire, who we give the mike to, who we give a stage to so when I think about the people that I champion and every time you select a speaker, you’re championing that person. Every time you reach with someone, you’re championing that person. Every time you pick someone as your guest, you’re championing that person. You are cosigning on, at the very least, their work. Every time I do that, I always think what is the unintentional story that goes along with that cosign.
When I think about, for example our CodeNewbie Podcast, one huge bias that I had and an unintentional story that I was telling that I didn’t mean to, was that if you are a new programmer, you should be Rubyist because all of my guests were Ruby developers. Someone called me out and someone e-mailed me and that’s because I’m Rubyist and my network is heavily biased towards Ruby developers and I go to mostly, Ruby conferences and that was an unintentional story that I was telling that I totally didn’t mean to. Now, every time I’m tempted to invite Rubyist and I’m like, “Wait a minute. How many Rubyist do I have? What’s story am I telling? What message am I sending?” I’m very, very hyper aware of that.
I really wish more people did that. I wish that more people recognize that because I hear the argument a lot of I don’t care about diversity. I’m not trying to say that people of color can’t code. I just care about the tech. That is so irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what your intentions are. What matters is what people pick up on and what people see in the decisions that you make and people will do pattern recognition. They will make assumptions about what you’re saying, even if you don’t mean. I feel like if you are in a position of power where you can pick who you select, who your champion, you should take that responsibility seriously.
ASTRID: Saron, you mentioned that when you did the call for the conference that it was a comfortable diversity of speakers because you’d already developed an inclusive community. What do you think you did different with developing CodeNewbie so that your community was inclusive, especially now that we’re hearing about a lot of issues within certain communities of there being a lot of exclusivity?
SARON: Sure. I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I think that there are a few things that have worked out toward at the end and in terms of that. I think number one is I really, really wanted everyone to be nice and I only want you to hang out in our community if you also want to be nice. If you don’t want to be nice, I don’t want you here. My goal is not to have the world’s biggest community of new developers. It’s not what it’s about. I want to have the biggest community of the nicest, warmest, kindest, most supportive people who are learning to code.
One thing that I’ve done is we start every single chat with the three rules: Be nice, be supportive, be honest and we say that at the beginning of every single chat. The idea there is really to just be very explicit about the expectations. When you walk into our space — it is not a public space, it is not for anyone and everyone — it is here for you to leverage if you agree to conduct yourself accordingly.
We’ve had a few incidents, I remember early on as we had our discourse page but early on, there was one particular comment where the guy said something about not wanting to be friends with women. It wasn’t explicitly sexist. It was just weird like, “What do you mean by that?” and the community jumped on it immediately and very nicely like, “We’re not sure what you mean by this but we don’t think that this is really the appropriate comment.” Before it even got to me, there already like three or four people who basically told this person that that is not okay and the person never came back, which is totally fine.
You know, really being explicit about those expectations and I think that a lot of times they think about code of conduct and those types of things, a lot of times in cases this happens, this is what we should do. But instead, we are pushing best behavior to the forefront and that’s almost like the first barrier to entry before you can even talk to us. I think that really has helped some degree of self-policing in the community but also really helped attract people who also want to be really nice and helpful. That’s been really, really huge.
REIN: For me this is a great example of the importance of leadership in creating the kind of culture that you want to have. It’s not just a matter of telling people how they ought to behave. It’s paving that way and leading by example.
SARON: Exactly. To that point, I’m the world’s biggest cheerleader. It’s really funny, I always wonder if people who follow both CodeNewbie and of all my personal account, how big the difference in personality is because I’m much snarkier in my personal account. I definitely drop [inaudible] than I do in CodeNewbie account and when I switch to that account, I am all butterflies and rainbows and unicorns.
I will turn any negative tweet into the most positive accomplishment in your coding career and that’s very intentional. We’ll re-tweet everything, we’ll reply with lots of, “Go Sam!” and, “We’re so proud of you,” and, “You didn’t finish the project. That’s okay. You’re moving forward. Progress is everything.” We we’re really intentionally, super, over the top happy in lots of mission points.
It was really funny because I think it was a year ago, I had inflammation of my right shoulder cap or something which meant that I couldn’t type and it became really, really painful two minutes before the chat started. My husband is there is like, “What do you want me to do?” I’m like, “We’ve never not done a Twitter chat. We are doing the Twitter chat,” and he’s like, “But you can’t type,” and I said, “All right. You’re going to have to type for me, I would dictate the tweets.” It was the funniest thing because he would tweet and I would go, “No, you need a minimum of three exclamation points. You need at least two smiley faces,” and that’s when I realized how over the top it really was dictating like there aren’t enough sunglasses, smiley faces and an exclamation point and make sure to add a heart in there just for good measure. I take that very, very seriously. I’m very serious in my positivity.
REIN: Stay on [inaudible] and honey.
SAM: You know, that brings up a little bit how awkward I feel sometimes dictating text messages to Siri. It’s like, “This number for now, period. I’m very excited, exclamation point.” And forget emoji. That’s not going to happen.
SARON: Exactly and because I’m in pain, none of these sounds happy like, “Good job. Exclamation point, exclamation point, exclamation point.” It sounds very aggressive but it looks very happy.
SAM: Yeah, if I could just teach Siri that bang means exclamation point, my text would get a lot nicer, right?
REIN: I want to just highlight a thing you said in passing there, which is that you were in pain and not feeling very good but you still made it to a point to appear positive in the tweets. I think we can all learn a lot from that, myself included. A lot of people think that congruence means saying what you feel, wearing your heart in your sleeve. For me, it’s about coming across the way you want to come across. While being true to yourself, it doesn’t just mean if you’re angry, people know you’re angry.
SARON: Yeah and I think that’s one of the harder parts, probably the hardest part about making a community your full time job. A lot of times, I don’t feel that way. A lot of times, I’m not happy. I’m really stressed out or I’m just not in a good mood and it can be really hard to shield the community from that. Someone recently said to me it kind of stuck to me for a long time and he said, “Do you have a community?” I was like, “I like to start a community and I have friends. Does that count?” He’s like, “No, no, no. Do you have a community? Do you have people that you can go to when you’re the one that needs support and you need that push?” I have friends who can do that but it’s not exactly the same thing.
When he posed that question to me, it made me realized that I created CodeNewbie because it was a thing that I wish had existed and I thought it could help people. But almost the cost of that is when I’m dealing with more meta community things, when I’m not sure about a decision I need to make, when I’m just not in a good mood, I still have to push that aside and I still have to add a little smiley faces and I still have to keep on that persona and I’m much better at that on some days than I am on others.
You can tell from Twitter the days that I’m super happy. There’s 20 times more tweets than the other day is, when I’m not having a very good day so I’m like maintaining that level of energy when you’re personally just not in that same headspace. That’s one of the hardest parts of doing this.
SAM: As you’re talking about being the community cheerleader, even when you don’t feel the cheer, it occurred to me that that is very similar to what I hear from a lot of women, especially in tech, which is that we ask women to do a lot of additional, unpaid, emotional labor. I wonder if that parallels rings true to you and maybe if the difference is that you’re doing this community voluntarily. What do you think about all that?
SARON: That’s a good question. I think I have a few advantages that shields me from a lot of that labor. One is that I work for myself so I don’t really have to put up with your [inaudible] if I don’t want to. I can choose who I work with. If I don’t like you, if we don’t get along, if we don’t share the same values, then we’re just not going to work together. I have a lot of agency in that sense. I can always walk away from a situation that I don’t really have to put up with a lot of stuff the way that if you’re at a big company. Maybe you like your boss, maybe you like most of your team because that one person that doesn’t get it or something like that.
I think I’m very fortunate to be in a position where I can work for myself. I could see myself and I don’t have that. I think that kind of speaks to and I’m hoping to write a blog post about this someday but I think that kind of speaks to this larger issue of being paid period and the importance of financial freedom. Because four years ago, where I had a job working for someone who was super sexist. Even if not a sexist, just like a bad manager, a very bad leader and just not somewhere I wanted to be and I felt very stuck. I couldn’t afford to leave, I was basically living paycheck to paycheck at that point and I was in the position where I thought, “I hate going to work every day. This is the worst ever.” No matter how many times I try to explain to my boss that his comments are inappropriate and kind of try to train him on how to behave as a manager, it’s totally not working or it works for a day and then he goes back to saying some really uncool stuff.
I thought to myself, “I can’t leave because I can’t afford to leave,” and that was the first time that I really made the connection between money and freedom. I think that a lot of it has got to talk about freedom when in the financial context it is like, “I’m free to not work,” and just hang out all day. That’s really what it is. For me, it’s freedom to always be able to walk away from a bad situation and to never be put in a situation where I have to take on that unpaid, emotional labor, I have to deal with this person saying racist, sexist things to me, I have to work terrible long hours and take a toll on my mental physical health because I can’t afford to.
After that job and I’ve eventually ended up finding another job and living then learning how to code. But after that position, I started really, really taking my finances much more seriously. I don’t want that to sound like the solution to misogyny is like everyone make more money because that’s so stupid but I do think that it’s important to advocate for your paycheck, whenever you’re given the opportunity. I feel like I spend way too much time trying to convince brilliant people that they should be paid more and it drives me nuts like I’m thinking, “Do you know people of your level get paid $20,000 to $30,000 more than you?” and they’re like, “But I don’t really need it. I’m fine.” Then they’re in situations where they can’t leave because they don’t have that financial freedom. For me, while I’m shielded from a lot of that labor, I think there’s a big connection between that choice and making sure that people don’t mess with my money because that’s how I’m able to create a situation where I don’t have to deal with your crap.
SAM: I just want to jump in real quick with a shout out to podcast episode I was listening to on my road trip this last week. It’s from Tech Done Right which is a great podcast: TechDoneRight.io and their Episode #2 about career development with Brandon Hays, touched a lot on some of the factors that go into the logarithmic curve of salary in our field and talked about salary stuff a little bit in general. If you want to go into that a little bit more, go checkout Tech Done Right #2.
REIN: I want to jump back into talking about financial freedom. There was an article that came a little while ago that talked about of these professionals that we polled, lots of them said that things other than money were more important to them than money. My response to that is once you reach a level of financial freedom, a little extra money doesn’t really change your outlook as much as getting more freedom in other areas. But if you’re not making enough money to go to a different state or move to a different job, that is severely constricting. They were talking about, “You should focus on finding happiness in your job and things like that.” Well, you need money to do that.
SARON: Yeah. That’s also one of my biggest pet peeves and that’s also kind of the thing that irritates me when people say, “I don’t really care about my salary. I really want to focus on other things.” I think what people don’t understand is that when you have more money, you can do things like quit your job to do your side project into a full time gig. You can take a year off and learn a whole new programming language, if that’s your thing before deciding to take on a job. You can really be super, super selective about what job you take on even that will takes six months and that’s fine because you can afford.
I think that this idea that finding happiness and finding passion is totally independent of how much money you have is the biggest lie ever told. That’s told by super-privileged rich people who just have so much money, they just forgot that there’s a link but — I’m going to make a terrible analogy right now — it was almost like saying if I want to build a desk, do I want a lot of nails? Nobody wants nails, obviously. Who cares about nails? But you need the nails to make a desk. I don’t know if the analogy made sense. But money is the tool that allows you to find happiness and find passion and do hobbies and do all these things.
REIN: The function where you use to place a value on money is nonlinear. What I mean by that is if you have zero dollars, $10,000 is a lot of money. If you have a million dollars, $10,000 might be your latte budget. It’s not very much money.
ASTRID: There’s a research that actually talks about that and it was discussing exactly what you were bringing up, Rein about how much money you’re making and its impact on your happiness. Basically, the research said, once you reach about $75,000 in your salary, then whatever you’re making past that is not going to be a huge increase in your ability to be happy. But if you’re making $30,000, if it can go from $30,000 to $40,000 or $50,000, it’s a huge jump. When you’re making maybe $70,000 or $90,000 or $100,000 or more, then an additional $10,000 or $20,000 is not going to change your lifestyle. It’s going to take you getting to about $350,000 and up for your lifestyle to significantly change at that point.
I think that on your point, Saron, a lot of people who have reached a higher level of satisfaction in their job and their salary have forgotten what it’s like to have a lot of potential but not have the income to be able to support, even living in a place you want to live or be able to put your kids in school that you want them to be in or to be able to buy the food that’s you want to have to eat. Those little things that people take for granted, when they already have it, they become huge obstacles to your ability to be happy or passionate or feel like you have choices because they become like little jail cells that you feel like, if I have to struggle this much, to try to leave my job to find a better environment to work in, that seems impossible, that seems like fairy tale, magical stuff that only some certain people get to do. I just can’t take that kind of risk when I know that if I don’t get the same or, at least get somewhere close to where I am, my whole world can fall apart.
SARON: Yes. I think that for people who are past that threshold — that $75,000 threshold — before that, it’s very clear that the amount of money you make, makes a direct impact on your lifestyle like you can move into a better neighborhood, a better apartment, better home like those kinds of big life decisions. But after a certain point, as a developer, if you’re making $100,000 to $130,000, your lifestyle may not change as much but what I’ve seen from friends and people I talked to is they feel the pain of not making as much as they could when they come to certain decision points. Those points might be, “I really wish I could turn this idea into a real project.”
At that point, you need — relatively at times — an infusion of cash where you need a nice nest egg in order to justify, maybe not working for a couple of months. It might be them saying, “I have this really big emergency that I wasn’t anticipating. Now, I have all these bills and I think I was going to pay.” I think what makes it really easy to forget is it’s not the difference between living in different apartments or homes when you’re past that threshold. It’s more about when you run into trouble or when you have a really cool idea or you have this thing that you want to do that’s out of the ordinary, you realize that I can’t do it, I can’t leave, I can’t try this because I didn’t push and I didn’t advocate as much as I could have.
REIN: I wish this was another podcast so that I could talk about how our dependence on a salary to survive is inherently coercive.
SAM: Why can’t make this the podcast you want?
ASTRID: We’ve changed our name every episode. It’s fine.
REIN: It also means that the employer-employee relationship is inherently coercive and fraud.
ASTRID: But I think we’re seeing a lot of that now because there’s a lot of, I guess the question of ethics coming up as some of the technologies that have scaled are starting to get to a point where if you automate them, you don’t have to employ people. What does that mean for all those people to lose their jobs? Is this a good thing? Should we be doing this? But it’s already happening so it’s not even a question of should we do it. It’s happening.
There’s a lot of concern about what are you actually going to have an option to pick from as an employee, like are you going to get a salary or are you going to get benefits? Are they going to be living wages? Are you really just going to have to go out on your own and make your own path and be pretty much self-employed in order to ensure that you have what you need? Especially in tech, there’s a lot of people who are training their replacements who are going to be cheaper and those people are going to eventually be replaced by something that’s automated.
SAM: Yeah, this is a structural thing that we’ve touched on a few times on this podcast before but just this basic idea that, Rein I think where you are going with the standard anti-capitalism right #2, which are is the story of the entire sectors of the workforce being automated out of existence. That is capitalism doing its job. It’s maximizing value under that system.
REIN: I can mix it up a bit. I could pull a little bit of #4.
SAM: Right. We also have to talk about how we balance that with other aspects of our society. Do we have a social safety net? Well you know, we’re working on dismantling that too. Yay!
REIN: One of the ways that this manifests itself is you’ll see that when people, especially newer developers, try to market themselves, they get put down pretty hard a lot of times and this is people with higher status within the community policing other people in the community for trying to make enough money to survive. It’s disgusting. Any time I see someone marketing themselves their ability of trying to make more money within this screwed up system, I am all for that and you should absolutely do that. Anyone who wants to stop that, you just take a seat.
SARON: Wow. Mike drop.
SAM: Pretty much.
REIN: You especially see it when the people who are trying to market themselves are underrepresented because now there’s a stereotype that are involved and there’s extra reasons for them to get crap on and it’s so disgusting.
SARON: Yeah. When I hear a talk about this one thing that I’ve been struggling with as a fulltime entrepreneur now is kind of realizing that the way that I understood businesses is not the way it should be. It’s the way it is because a lot of people decided that’s the way it should be. Thanks to Twitter’s general cynicism, I feel like every week I’m coming up with this new thing where I’m like, “This thing that I took for granted, this system, this belief, this understanding that I thought it was, it doesn’t need to be that way.” One thing that I really appreciate, specifically with the conference and because I control the money, I’m my only employee, I get to tell how we spend, I can splurge on something like a conference booklet, which I think it’s going to cost a couple of thousand dollars, which according to capitalism is like not the most efficient use of money and time and it’s not the most profitable way to do things and blah-blah-blah.
When I think about the way I want to use money and resources, my default and what the world ‘has taught me’ is stretch every dollar as far as it can go, make as much money as you can, be super profitable. I think part of that mentality is also me worried that I’m going to be taken advantage of. I don’t want to be the fool in the situation and that goes actually like being an immigrant and all kinds of personal childhood baggers that we don’t really need to unpack. But I have this constant feeling of being an outsider and feeling that I don’t know how the system works. Therefore, I’m very vulnerable to being taken advantage of so I tend to lean very heavily into the capitalist idea of how do I make sure I make the most money and nobody beats me in all of that.
Now that I have that agency and I can make a lot of these business decisions, I have to check myself. I have to go, “Wait a minute. Just because that’s what the system has taught you, it doesn’t mean that’s how you have to be.” You can just not do that. You can prioritize people’s happiness or you can prioritize the things you want to do over making the most money that you can. I feel like a lot of it, even for those of us who might be better intentioned is on-learning a lot of that and figuring out it’s not the way it is. It’s the way we decide it and we, as individual people, can make different decisions.
SAM: Yeah, I feel like one of the other things that people don’t really think about much is the idea that there’s a trope that you see pretty often that the US and the West is a capitalist society. That framing just says that capitalism is the dominant structural force in our society but really what it is, is capitalism is one of the many systems that we have to live in and navigate and blend together and make tradeoffs between as we live our whole lives. I really hate that framing of capitalism over our lives, right?
SARON: Yeah and it really creates this ‘us versus them’ and it’s funny because I feel like a big part of marketing and branding and PR is to convince people that it’s not ‘us versus them’ but really it is. It’s really behind the scene, it’s like how do we make the most money and get all the glory and extract all the value. That’s really what it is. It’s just marketers try to convince us that it’s not that way. For me, it just been like reminding myself that you don’t have to operate on that. You can create your own rules and that’s been really important for me.
REIN: Also, one of the best things that they can do is take ‘us versus us’ and then frame it as ‘us versus them’ so that we fight each other.
SARON: Oh, that was deep. I like that. One of the resources that has really helped me get out of that mindset that I think you might be interested in if you don’t know it. It’s called Give and Take. It’s a book, I think by Adam Grant who I believe is a professor, either MIT or Harvard. It is an awesome book and it just made me feel so much better about myself. Those are the best books, the ones that make you feel better about yourself. The book is all about this idea of givers and takers and matters. Givers are the people who tend to give, give, give. Takers, don’t give. They are very selfish and take, take, take. Then most people are matters meaning that they kind of keep score, like I’ll give you something but I’m going to call in the favor later on. First of all, have any of you read the book yet?
SAM: Just heard of it now.
SARON: Great. Awesome. In terms of who of those three groups is most likely to succeed in the world, in terms of business and career success and those types of things, which of those three do you feel like is most likely to succeed?
ASTRID: The matter.
SARON: Okay. Which one do you think is the most likely to fail, like to be the lowest of the three groups?
ASTRID: The taker.
SARON: Any other —
SAM: I would agree with both of those.
SARON: Okay. Givers are both to people who are most likely to succeed and most likely to lose because what happens is in the beginning of their career, their endeavor, the thing that they’re working on, because they’re the ones that are giving, giving, giving, giving, they actually don’t have anything. They’ve given it all away. But what they do over time — and what really is fascinating to me — is they end up basically building a personal network of people who are either also givers or also are matters. They ended up building a community of people who are really interested in giving back to them and who really buy into their giving philosophy so they’re able to get a lot of that back later on.
Also by giving, they’re able to create more value for the entire groups. They’re able to make the pie bigger, which means when it’s their turn to take their slice, they have a bigger slice. To me, this was awesome because I had always thought of business as a zero-sum game. I always thought of it as like, “If I don’t get this dollar, you get this dollar. We can’t both get a dollar. That is just ridiculous.” When I read this book, I am definitely a giver and that’s my instinct and I’m constantly trying to suppress it because I’m trying to make sure I’m not taking advantage off.
But when I read that I thought, “Oh, my goodness. This is actually an advantage,” as long as I’m aware when people actually do take advantage of me, this idea of being the person that offers up stuff is not inherently anti-capitalist or anti-profitability or anti-success. We can all win by giving and helping each other and that just really, really helped change my mindset.
SAM: Well now, I have another book to read. Thanks.
REIN: This is where I’m obligated to point out that this is a win of socialism within a capitalist system by people self-organizing the socialist in a socialist-known hierarchy.
ASTRID: I don’t know if it’s all socialism because I think part of what we forget is that part of capitalism is supposed to be this free market and the market is dictated by value and the supply and demand. Value is not only profit. Value can be a lot of different things and we only talk about money as the only exchange for whatever you’re doing but you can make something of value and that doesn’t have to be an actual product. As long as there is demand for it, then you have created a market economy.
REIN: Then that’s when I point out that capitalism and markets are orthogonal.
SAM: But money is so easy to quantify.
ASTRID: Of course but you can’t have a lot of the things you want without creating some sort of value, which is what marketing supposed to be doing. But a lot of the value has to do with what people are drawn to it. It’s more than just money. It has to do with how you make them feel and if they feel like this is something meant for them, then that requires that you have to do more than just make a cheaper, faster product.
REIN: I feel like we’ve gotten a little bit far afield here —
REIN: — Because we’re now discussing the overthrow of capitalism, which I am here for, by the way.
ASTRID: But no, we haven’t got that far because —
SAM: You’re not repenting are you, Mr Cyborg?
ASTRID: Yeah, that’s the purpose of Codeland, right Saron? That you’re trying to create a conference has a huge amount of value, not necessarily a conference where you going to make the most money?
SARON: Yes and I appreciate that full circle. It’s a very, very smart full circle. It allows me to touch on different things, which we talked about too much which is the actual program for it. We have 27 speakers and I think four or five panels. One thing that I’m really excited about and one thing that I was very aware of when making the different talks is to make sure to have a selection of talks that helps, almost reshape the way we think about technology and expand the application of tech.
I think that a lot of times when we talk about code and even just like in our daily job as coders, a lot of times it’s very capitalist-driven. It’s a lot about making a ton of money for our employer, for a company and making sure we’re as efficient as we possibly can, extracting as much value as we possibly can. A lot of the examples that we have, don’t necessarily value money and efficiency in their projects. They value things like overthrowing an oppressive regime. That is a topic that we’re going to discuss. We have topics that talk about taking vacant land that’s either been abandoned or isn’t going to be used for many years and turning it into gathering places for the community and making community gardens and playgrounds and places for free for people to engage in.
We were talking about the New York Public Library and how do you take lessons learned from the start of a community from the ‘traditional tech world’ or ‘tech companies’ and use that to create products and solutions that are free for the millions of people who use the services and resources at the public library. I really tried very hard to pick topics that are a little bit out of the norm, when we think about tech, when we think about companies that make you go, “I didn’t think about using code in that way to solve that problem, in that space for these people.”
One thing that I’m really excited about is to have an opportunity to say that Codeland in a lot of ways is a reflection of my own worldview. I think that code, like many things is just a tool and whatever we want with that tool, we can assign whatever value we want to that tool. The values that I’m assigning at Codeland is community and collaboration and really serving people who might tend to be ignored or might not be valued by a more capitalist society. A lot of the themes resonate with that.
REIN: You know what? If you’re building community-focus cooperative spaces in the real world, what you are doing weigh more than 100 Twitter socialists like me.
SARON: Yeah. There’s one woman who is amazing. I heard her speak at, it wasn’t a tech conferences, it’s more of like a politics, social change conference about a year ago. I don’t know where or how I’m going to get in contact with her but if I do anything in the future, I’m making sure that she’s part of it and she’s someone who is coming in from Bahrain. She does a lot of speaking but she doesn’t record any of her talks. She doesn’t have photography taken of her because her life is constantly in danger. This is the person that is coming to tell you how you can use Ruby on Rails to create social change and push back on oppressive government. When I heard her story, I was like, “Holy crap. I never applied my coding skills and what I know about code to something so important.” I think the more voices we can share like that, the more stories we can share, I think the better off we all be.
ASTRID: I was listening to, I want to say it was a talk with Anil Dash and he brought up something that I didn’t even think about until he said it, which was when you get a computer science degree, it’s one of the only professional degrees that you can attain without having to take an ethics course. He thinks that’s an issue because you can’t become a doctor without taking an ethics course. You can’t even get an MBA without taking an ethics course but you can learn how to make technology which you can argue is one of the biggest catalysts of change, at least right now in culture.
REIN: Also technology that literally keeps people alive and/or kills them.
ASTRID: Yes but you can do that without ever having to even consider ethical questions, which I think is a problem. That’s probably why there’s a lot of efforts to try to do something around organizing something around social justice because it’s like this little thing that we didn’t pay attention to, that has now grown into this gigantic little shop of horrors kind of plant-monster. Its tentacles are in everything and now we’re just asking the questions like, “Is that good? Should would do that? Whose decision is that?” There’s this answer of like tech is neutral, which is not true.
SAM: We would like to end the show with either a reflection or a call-to-action or something that we feel like we’ve learned from this episode. I really want to thank you, Saron for the book recommendation for Give and Take. I definitely have to repeat that. I have a talk proposal out to talk about some of the psychological research into luck, which is fascinating. But as I was working on the proposal, I realized that it lacked a satisfactory conclusion and I think that idea of give and take might be what I want to do with that. Regardless of using it for a talk or not, it sounds like something that everybody should know about too. I will definitely have that to [inaudible].
SAM: Thank you.
ASTRID: One of the things I think kept coming up, Saron was that a lot of the way that you have grown the CodeNewbie community and thought about things for the community is people first. I think that’s unfortunately kind of unique because usually when you have conversations about tech, the first thing people talk about is what you’re going to learn, how you’re going to learn it and they give you advice like go to meet ups and meet people. But they don’t really tell you things like consider how it’s going to make a person feel if you have them in this environment, which I think is something that you have talked about specifically with Codeland.
What I take from that is maybe there is a lot more opportunity to bring in some of these like ‘touchy-feely things’ to make the tech community in general just a better community overall, not just about diversity and inclusivity but also to be better at what you do, to be better at building better tech because when you start having these conversations, it introduces things into the concept of what you’re building, which will ultimately make better technology for everybody.
SARON: One thing I want to say about that is the prioritization of people’s feelings specifically is something that I got to from listening to the community, which is a different type of prioritization of the people. When I would ask people, “Why do you join the Twitter chat? Why are you part of the podcast or listen to the podcast? Why are you part of our Slack community?” The most consistent answer I got is, “You make me feel like I’m less alone. You make me feel like there are other people out there who understand me and that helps me feel like I can do it.”
That’s not the answer I thought it was going to have. I thought it was going to be like, “Because you have cool content.” Hearing that and just hearing how important that aspect is, the intimidation factor, the feeling of not belonging, the feeling like you shouldn’t do it, you can’t do it is so high that all these different resources lowers it to the point where it helps you move forward, was a huge insight that I arrived at simply because I listened and I asked and I responded. I think another thing that’s really important is making sure you’re listening to your users and figuring out not just what are they doing but also why are they doing it, how are they feeling in optimizing for that.
REIN: I hope a lot of people are wondering what they can do in their own workplace or in their own community to move towards that kind of cooperative organization of their coworkers, of their teammates, of the people within their local tech community. There are some things that you can do. You can look for and support and work for own cooperative organization, if those exist locally and if they don’t, maybe think about what it would take to start one.
Even in your own team, you can work on thinking about how the emotional labor that goes into building your product or whatever it is that you do is shared and whether that’s equitable. There are things that you can do where you work to make it less exploitative for yourself and for your teammates. You don’t have to be in a position of leadership to do those things. One of the things about leadership is that leadership is doing things. It’s not being given a title so you just got to go do those things to make things more fair for yourself and your coworkers and that’s leadership, whether you’re a team lead or a manager or not.
SARON: This conversation for me has been hugely valuable because a lot of times, I was in my own space, I’m in my own world, I’m thinking my own thoughts and there’s not a lot of feedback, there’s not a lot of validation of like, “Is this really what’s important? Is this really matter?”
I guess my reflection is more like a thank you to you all for giving me this opportunity, not just to talk about the conference or to talk about CodeNewbie but really just talk about the principles and the values that lead to what people hopefully will experience is a really great conference because it’s all of those things that I personally think about the most. When I sleep over and I think about it in the shower and all that so being able to say all those thoughts and feelings out loud and to get feedback on it and to kind of know that I’m not totally off, that other people see the value in the things I see value in, is super valuable. Thank you all for that.
SAM: We’re happy to have you and like we’ve said before, Greater Than Code is cheaper than therapy.
SARON: I’d love that so much.
SAM: Saron, this has been a wonderful conversation. I would specifically like to encourage our listeners to refer new people that they may run into to your CodeNewbies community. Can you tell us where they can find that and then maybe point people at your conference as well before we go?
SARON: Sure. You can find us everywhere. You can find us on Twitter. We actually added a new chapter of schedule so we have our normal Wednesday night at 9PM, Eastern Time with our Twitter chat that we’ve been doing for years. We also added a coding check-in that we do on Sundays at 2 PM, Eastern Time. That’s basically a half-hour of saying, “What have you done this week? What are you excited about? What are your plans?” It is like an extra opportunity for me to cheerlead the crap out of you.
Then we have our Slack community, which has I think over 9,000 members at this point. That’s a bunch of people who are just super excited to help out and be supportive and debug with you. If you want some live coding support, definitely check that out. We also do our own podcast. We’ve done 134 episodes. It’s called CodeNewbie Podcast and we interview folks at different process of their coding journey on how they got started, why they’re coding, their origin story and usually, we have a particular focus each week.
I think our most popular episode was one called Truck Driver, the story of George Moore who was a truck driver for many, many years. I think it was nine years and then slowly over many different attempts and shifts and little decisions here and there, was able to get to a point where he is now a developer. He’s actually a senior developer so his story is super inspirational.
Finally, I would love for you all to check out Codeland. We have tickets that are very close to selling out but if you go to CodelandConf.com, you should see the speakers, the line-up, all the good stuff. Hopefully, I will see you in New York City soon.
SAM: Thank you again, Saron. This has been a wonderful conversation and listeners, we’ll be back at you very shortly with another episode. Thanks, everybody.
This episode was brought to you by the panelists and Patrons of >Code. To pledge your support and to join our awesome Slack community, visit patreon.com/greaterthancode. Managed and produced by @therubyrep of DevReps, LLC.