5 lessons on leadership from Ela Conf, the not-just-for-coders tech conference - Generocity Philly

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Oct. 31, 2017 2:27 pm

5 lessons on leadership from Ela Conf, the not-just-for-coders tech conference

Thoughts on diversity, inclusion and failure from the annual conference for women-identifying people, trans men and genderqueer folks from all walks of the tech ecosystem.

Ela Conf organizers (L-R) Katy DeCorah, Arti Walker-Peddakotla, LeeAnn Kinney, Shanise Barona and Joni Trythall.

(Photo via twitter.com/_leekinney)

Editor's note: The language about mental health has been updated. (11/1, 10:08 a.m.)
I have to admit, I was nervous walking into Ela Conf on Friday night.

Sure, I’d heard it’s very intentionally not your typical tech conference, a place where non-technologists could learn some things, too.

But on most days I feel my job is tech-adjacent at best by virtue of editing the occasional technology story and working at a place called Technically Media. What could such a conference have to offer someone from the social impact community?

Turns out, a bunch. I needn’t have worried in the first place.

Billed as a “safe, inclusive tech leadership conference and community for adult (18+) women (cis and trans), trans men, and genderqueer people to connect with and empower one another,” Ela Conf is intentional about welcoming people from around the country who don’t work in traditional tech careers or aren’t coders.

“Look, I’m not a developer, but I run product management for the company I work for, and I think it’s important for us to stop saying, ‘You’re in tech or you’re out of tech,'” said co-organizer Arti Walker-Peddakotla. “If you work at a tech company or do anything related to it, you’re in tech.”

Attendees run the professional gamut, and many are career changers dipping toes into the tech scene for the first time — Walker-Peddakotla is one herself, as a former scientist and Army vet.

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Efforts to make the conference accessible include scholarships and a detailed code of conduct displayed on the website and on slides through the conference. More broadly, though, most of the conference’s session didn’t cover tech-exclusive topics, but leadership and professional development for all women-identifying people, trans men and genderqueer folks.

“We really wanted to make sure we talked about the topics that aren’t talked about in the workplace, like how to recognize a toxic workplace and how to deal with stress,” Walker-Peddakotla said. “I think all of these topics are really, really important as we try and rise up the leadership ladders. If you don’t have this knowledge that we’re talking about today, it’s really hard to keep sustaining yourself as you move on.”

Here are five lessons on leadership and community building from Ela Conf.

Lesson #1: Diversity cannot be just a buzzword.

“The myth in tech is that there’s a pipeline problem,” Walker-Peddakotla said — that is, that there aren’t enough women or minorities to make up a truly diverse tech ecosystem. “That’s just a flat-out lie. They exist, we exist. You see them here.”

Keynote speaker Zalyndria Crosby addressed feeling isolated in tech as the only women of color at her first job.

“We’ve all been there: that your experience doesn’t resonate with anyone else’s,” she said during her talk. “It’s easy to disregard, but that everyday otherness grinds on you, wears you down, makes you question yourself. It is exhausting.”

To counter that, Crosby started the Providence, R.I., chapter of Girl Develop It, where she can foster the next generation of tech leaders and build solidarity with other women who feel like outsiders in their professions.

And Philly project manager Charmel Sippio made a succinct argument for diversity in her lighting talk: It’s better for your bottom line.

Lesson #2: Trans-inclusive design doesn’t need to be complicated.

Something like 3 percent of the population is transgender, but design patterns are often cis-centric (that is, most ideal for users whose gender identities match the sex assigned to them as birth).

UX designer Rachel McGrane spoke about the importance of gender inclusivity in design. For example, it’s a problem when surveys offer only two options for gender, male and female, or web account welcome screens require users to enter their given names rather than their preferred names.

To counter trans-exclusivity, McGrane suggested designers — which can include anyone managing a website or digital communications — implement non-binary pronouns and non-gendered user icons and to not include questions about gender unless directly beneficial to the user.

“Remember: Your users aren’t just men and women,” she said.

Check out her slides here.

Lesson #3: Self-care is putting on your oxygen mask before helping others.

Self-care is essential to productivity and countering stress. Researcher Nitya Narasimhan’s quick tips for not getting overburdened by responsibilities and others’ expectations of us included practicing the phrases “Yes” (to leadership roles), “No” (to emotional labor) and “I” when you did all the work and others are sharing credit.

Check out her slides here.

Lesson #4: Failure is OK. So is talking about it.

Repeat this as many times as needed, from systems analyst Jessica Salinas: “Your failures and mistakes are not you. They’re mistakes.”

Panelists Salinas, Sarah Zero and Lisa Ghisolf (with Jen Dionisio as moderator) discussed moving forward after failure and recommended normalizing a culture of failure in the workplace — that is, making space for challenge, which will, at times, lead to failure.

“If you’re not failing , you’re not learning,” said Salinas, a self-identified huge BrenĂ© Brown fan. “I feel like my whole career is based on failure because I learned and I grew. It’s normal, it happens, and the more we talk about it, the less shameful it will feel.”

Lesson #5: You are more than your job.

We all need to hear this sometimes. Code for Philly organizer Dawn McDougall said during her talk closing the conference that the question of “Who are you, really?” is often taken for granted, but answering it will make us better humans (plus, yes, better professionals).

McDougall said that to figure it out, try these: Set boundaries around your time. Practice authenticity. Meditate. And be honest with yourself. What outdated assumptions do you hold about yourself?

That earlier feeling I had of not belonging at Ela Conf, or in the technology world? It came full circle for me during the conference’s very last moments: The organizers opened the floor to anyone who wanted to speak, and an attendee from Boston got up to thank the Ela community for celebrating the importance of so-called “soft skills.”

“I want to say thank you to the people in tech who actually fall underneath the umbrella of care workers who are in our marketing positions and our technical communication positions and all these others that we don’t [usually] think of as ‘the tech ecosystem,'” she said. (Like journalism?) “There’s just not very many spaces that take [our work] into consideration.”

Space, found.

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