Alterconf — Building a better tech, one conference at a time

I had the pleasure and privilege to attend AlterConf last weekend here in Seattle in the capacity of one of their freelance bloggers. Before AlterConf I had only attended one tech related conference before, one that was well, very white male dominated and a bit above my head given I am still what I would consider a beginner.

AlterConf had none of that feeling. From the moment I walked in and saw a diverse set of conference attenders and organizers I realized it was fundamentally a different kind of conference that what I had previously envisioned all tech conferences would be like. From the careful consideration to accessibility to the very well thought out interaction cards I received with my badge it was clear this was going to be a different kind of experience.

The Seattle AlterConf was put on by Ashe Dryden and Lynn Cyrin. The venue was completely wheelchair accessible, and the talks all had a sign language interpreter as well as live captioning.

The talks ranged in topics from building community to self care and self advocacy.

Creating an Inclusive Tech for Users

Renee Gittin‘s opened with an excellent talk on preventing abuse in VR. She identified two types of abuse; abuse perpetrated by developers and abuse perpetrated within VR communities. VR can be an amazing tool, but it can also be intense and unintentionally triggering for the users. And given the abuse that happens in online communities, it’s no surprise that VR community abuse is already an issue in networked spaces. Gittin offered several tools to combat both these kinds of abuse. If you’re making VR experiences, make sure to not only inform your users of any potentially scary material, but also give them an easy way to escape or stop the experience at any point. And from a community stand point empowering the users to block, mute or become invisible can all be utilized to help users control how they interact with people in a multi user space.

Ivy Krislow also had a insightful talk on making products that are mindful of all users with tips on how to build inclusive user profiles. User profiles can be a great tool to help us create products that are more empathetic and human centered. It’s especially important to make a wide variety of profiles that fit many different kinds of people. Krislow also made a terrific point for creating a good user experience for the maximum amount of people: Design for the person who doesn’t have a mental model at all.

Beyond building more inclusive tech for all users, Sai Timmerman had a talk specifically on nonbinary representation in game. They had one quote that particularly stood out to me. Games are a medium fluid enough for this (nonbinary) representation. And they showed how it wasn’t difficult to create games that everyone could see themselves in, by implementing things as simple as not locking styles to a certain gender, or allowing custom gender input when a game starts.

Creating Community

Mikena Wood had a powerful talk on centering community rather than code. Focusing on people increases second time contributions and helps bring new contributors into your project. She also had a absolutely terrific quote that I had surrounded by exclamation points in my notes. A project built by the community it serves will serve its community. She used her own app that she maintains, Refuge Restrooms, as an illustration for the idea that creating something by and for the community it serves ultimately results in more engagement and better code.

There was also a talk on the idea of the digital commons. Using the tragedy of the commons as a starting off point, Dr. Tyron Grandison leveraged his experience in the world of open data in a great talk about how the foundation of many businesses rely on projects that were designed to be open, and how they don’t give back to these community resources.

Self Advocacy

There were several talks relating to advocating for yourself in tech. Brendan Gramer has a moving talk of his own experience of identifying as Deaf, and how he’s learned to advocate for himself and his own needs within the tech industry. Gramer gave several strategies for self advocacy within the workplace, from self declaring your story to creating allies within the workplace through understanding. Susie Lee had another talk on protecting yourself as a minority in tech. Diversity hires are often presented as “part of the club” until something goes wrong. This leads to what Lee refers to as “corporate exile”. When the club is threatened, who closes rank, and who is left out? This is the question Susie Lee explores in her talk. The takeaway: build a strong support network of allies who can help you and advocate for you.

The final talk was also about self advocacy. An emergency vet turned events planner turned junior developer, Heather Harrington had to go through the process of being a beginner later in life once she started at Ada Developers Academy, a nonprofit school that teaches women and people of nonbinary gender the skills to become junior developers. Currently in the internship phase of the program, her talk was about how to successfully advocate for yourself as a junior developer. The biggest piece of advice? Ask questions, ask them constantly, and don’t be afraid to speak up if you don’t know something.

Mental Health

Two talks centered on mental health, more specifically on mental health while being black in tech. Brianna Ellis had a sobering talk on the problem of African American burnout in tech, and how societal pressures for black Americans to overachieve in order to reach a baseline of being thought “worthy” led to to stress related health issues within the community. She offered several ways in which to manage stress. She pointed out the importance for self care (I particularly appreciated her slide which simply said Self care is more than yoga), including yourself when making decisions, and the need to maintain emotional integrity at the workplace.

Carter Morgan had a similar talk, centered more around ADHD, how it was formed, and how it affected black communities in particular. He spoke to his own experience of being diagnosed with ADHD later in life, and as someone who is also part of a group of people who are traditionally under diagnosed with ADHD, I found his talk particularly relevant to my own experiences.

Towards a Better Future

I only scratched the surface of each of these talks. Each one was thought provoking, poignant and deeply relevant to problems in tech today. As someone who is soon to be in the tech industry I think often of how to navigate entering a world with so many issues.  Thanks to AlterConf, I now have at least some more ideas, some more tools, and some more questions to bring with me.

AC Gillette is a current student at Ada Developers Academy, a non-profit school helping diversify the tech industry. They’re into digital storytelling, scifi, and open source software. When they’re not coding you can usually find them yelling about issues in tech.