She's Geeky tech unconference (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing, Science, and Nature.

Tue, 23 Oct 2007

She's Geeky tech unconference

I just got back from She's Geeky. What a rush! It'll take me a while to wind down from this fabulous all-women meeting.

I have to admit, I was initially dubious. A conference for geeky women sounded great, but it struck me as kind of expensive -- $175 (with a $125 early-bird rate). That's very cheap as tech conferences go, but for a two-day "unconference", it was enough to turn off most local techie women I know: nearly all of them knew about She's Geeky and said "I'd love to go but I can't afford it." Full disclosure: I said the same thing, and wouldn't have gone myself had I not gotten a "scholarship", for which I am immensely grateful. (In retrospect, considering how well run it was, it probably would have been worth the early-bird price. But that's not easy to tell ahead of time.)

Monday consisted of lunch and informal discussion followed by two sessions of scheduled talks. I particularly liked the afternoon schedule, which included two different sessions of speaker training: the theory being that one factor holding women back in technology jobs is that we don't make ourselves visible by public speaking as much as we could. I went to the "Lightening (sic) Talks" session, headed by Danese Cooper. It didn't make me lighter, but we got some great advice at giving conference talks (lightning and otherwise) plus two rounds of practice at three minute talks. I'm not sure what I enjoyed more, the practice and useful feedback or the chance to listen to so many great short talks on disparate and interesting subjects.

Tuesday started way before normal geek time, with bagels and espresso and an explanation by conference organizer Kaliya Hamlin on how we'd use the Open Space process. Sessions would be an hour long, and we had eight rooms to work with, all charted on a huge grid on the wall. Anyone could run a session (or several). Write it (and your name) on a card, get up and tell the group about it, then find a time and space for it and tape it on the grid. Rules for sessions were few. For session leaders, Whoever comes to your session is the right audience, and whatever happens is what should have happened. For people attending a session there's the Rule of Two Feet: if you're not getting anything out of the session you're in, you should get up and get yourself to somewhere where you're contributing and/or learning. Not hard when there are seven other sessions to choose from.

This all worked exactly as described. Whatever hesitance many women may feel toward public speaking, there was no lack of volunteer session leaders on a wide variety of topics, both technical and social. I signed up to give a GIMP session before lunch; then in a morning session on server and firewall configuration given by fellow LinuxChix Gloria W. and Gaba, I noticed a few people having a lot of general Linux questions, in particular command-line questions, so I ran back to the wall grid and added an afternoon session on "Understanding the Linux command line".

Easily my favorite session of the conference was the Google Maps API talk by Pamela Fox of Google. I've been meaning to experiment with Google Maps and KML for a long time. I even have books on it sitting on my shelf. But I never seem to get over the hump: find a project and a specific task, then go RTFM and figure out how to write a KML file from scratch to do something fun and useful. Pamela got me over that in a hurry -- she showed us the "My Maps" tab in Google Maps (you have to be signed on to a Google account to use it). It includes tools for generating some starter KML interactively, and it even has a polygon editor, all implemented in AJAX (Javascript) and running in a browser. Wow! What a great way to get a running start on map mashups. There's also a whole open source Javascript API and set of libraries for writing creative web mapping apps. I'm sure I'll be experimenting with this a lot more and writing about it separately. Just this talk alone made the conference worthwhile, even without all the other great sessions.

But I didn't get a chance to experiment right away with any of that cool mapping stuff, because right after that session was one by speaker and comedian Heather Gold. Heather had given Saturday night's evening entertainment, and I am very sorry to have had to miss the show to go to a night class. The session was on self confidence, getting over fear of speaking, and connecting with the audience. Since the allotted space was noisy (the same one I'd ended up with for my GIMP talk, and the noise was definitely a problem), Heather led our small group out onto the balcony to enjoy the warm weather. The group was diverse and included women at very different levels of speaking, but Heather had great tips for all of us. She has great presence and a lot of useful things to say, and she's funny -- I'd love to see her on stage.

Everybody had a really positive attitude. At the Lightning Talks session on Saturday, Danese stressed "No whinging" as a general rule to follow (in talks or anywhere else), and I'd say the whole conference followed it. While we heard about lots of serious topics women face, I didn't hear any whining or "men are keeping us down" or that sort of negativism. There were some bad experiences shared as well as good ones, but the point was in finding solutions and making progress, not dwelling on problems. This was a group of women doing things.

There are only two changes I can think of that could have improved the conference at all. First, I already mentioned the cost. While it was fair considering the fantastic organization, great people, plus catered meals, it still lets out some of the women who could have benefitted the most: students and the un- and under-employed. A few of us LinuxChix talked about how much we'd love to see a similar conference held at a cheaper facility, without the handouts or the catered meals. Maybe some day we'll be able to make it happen.

Second (and this is a very minor point), it might have been helpful to have runners reminding people when sessions were ending, and perhaps making the sessions 55 minutes instead of an hour to encourage getting to the next session and starting on promptly.

Even without that, people mostly stuck to the schedule and Tuesday finished right on time: pretty amazing for a conference whose agenda had been made that morning with cardboard, tape and marking pens. I've seen unconferences before, and they're usually a disorganized mess. This one ran better than most scheduled conferences. Kaliya and her fellow organizers clearly know how to make this process work.

We all pitched in to clean up the room, and I braved the rush-hour freeway. And arrived home to find that my husband had cooked dinner and it was just about ready. What a nice ending to the day!

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