Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Programmer Conferences are like Games

Why are there so few women programmers? That's a big question. How about a related one that's slightly smaller: Why do so few women go to programmer conferences?

Nordic Ruby on Twitter
Nordic Ruby was clearly appreciated by many of its attendees. See tweets like this:

: #nordicruby - best conference ever, looking forward meeting you all next year ! Lots of food for thoughts. Really sad it's over.

skanev: #nordicruby was just awesome. Thank you guys

walming: Got so much inspiration. Big thanks @elabs for #nordicruby conference.

Very few Women
What I also noticed was, that of around 100 delegates, only 2 were women*.

I have to say, I go to a lot of conferences, which gives me plenty to compare it to. In addition to Nordic Ruby, in the past year I have been to: Scottish Ruby Conference, Scandinavian Developer Conference, JFokus, Smidig, Europython and XP2009. In general, I really enjoy conferences, and none of those I've mentioned had a huge proportion of females. Nordic Ruby was not exceptional in that respect. However, although I enjoyed Nordic Ruby, it does not feature in my all-time favourite list. I'll come to why in a minute. A lot of things about the conference were very good, of course. Some of the talks were excellent, and the venues, food and parties were absolutely top knotch.

The format of of the conference was 30 minute talks (all on one track) interspersed with 30-120 minute breaks. The last session of each day was open and any attendee could give a short "lightning" talk, and many people did so. Every speaker, lightning or otherwise, had a large audience, since there was nothing else on the programme.

Hampton Catlin's talk - the two kinds of Games
My favourite talk was one by Hampton Catlin, talking about how to make applications attractive to their users. He talked a bit about the different kinds of games that people prefer. Perhaps I can expand this idea to explain why I don't rate Nordic Ruby as highly as some of the other attendees clearly did.

Hampton explained that computer games lie on a scale from Male-Oriented to Female-Oriented. They are called by those names because your physical gender is a good predictor of which sort you will prefer. (He stressed that you should keep in mind that people are complex, defy easy categorization, and a given individual could have preferences anywhere on the scale.)

The Male-Oriented game will let you score points and rank yourself against opponents. The Female-Oriented game will let you build supportive social networks with collaborators, and become admired by your peers. Hampton said that most computer games are Male-Oriented. He highlighted some exceptions, including Farmville, which is a popular game on Facebook. In fact, he said Facebook itself can be seen as a Female-Oriented game.

Programmer Conferences are like Games
This got me thinking about the Nordic Ruby conference. If Facebook can be seen as a game, can you see a conference that way too? Do attendees play for "score" and "rank"? Is the programmer's conference game so Male-Oriented that most women just aren't interested in playing?

The Conference as a Male-Oriented Game
If a programmer conference is a Male-Oriented Game, it will provide you with opportunities to improve your rank and score compared to other attendees. For example, giving a talk will let you show off the cool software project(s) you have created/contributed to. You can improve your rank by criticising other people's code, and contrasting it with the beauty of your own. You can also score "geek points" by making gratuitous references to obscure programming languages, advanced mathematics and classic sci-fi films.

Your overall conference success is measured by how many people subsequently download your open source projects, and how many followers you gain on Twitter.

The Conference as a Female-Oriented Game
If a programmer conference is a Female-Oriented Game, it will provide you with opportunities to form supportive social networks and gain admiration. Lecture-style talks aren't so good for that, so the conference will schedule sessions for attendees to have conversations with each other, and collaborate. The conference programme will raise discussion topics that interest attendees, and encourage idea sharing. There may be organized group sessions where you share programming-related problems, pool your ideas and collectively come up with strategies to move forwards. You will gain admiration by being insightful, charming and subtly drawing people's attention to your open source projects, while also being admiring of others' projects.

Your overall conference success is measured by how many people subsequently contribute to your open source projects, and how many friendly messages you get on Twitter.

Who Won Nordic Ruby?
Ok, I'm stretching the analogy rather, (!) but I'd say the Nordic Ruby conference game was a little too Male-Oriented for my liking. The focus of the programme was on lecture-style talks, and, put it this way, the speakers made way too many references to Star Wars! There were long breaks, which gave many opportunities for conversation, but there were no formal network-building activities. There was lots of time for chatting, but no mechanism to draw people together around, say, a discussion topic, or a collaborative coding exercise.

The conferences I have enjoyed most have involved relatively few lecture-style talks, and largely comprised of workshops, coding dojos, tutorials, conversation corners and open space discussions. Next week I'm going to XP2010 (which will be my seventh XP conference :-D), and it's the first ever GothPyCon this Saturday. At both I am organizing coding dojo sessions - collaborative excercises in collective learning and mutual appreciation. Bring on the Female-Oriented conference games!

* There was also two other females there, but neither are programmers.