Business of Software has long stood as a unique conference for me: while nearly every tech conference I attend focuses on the technological side of delivering a solution, Business of Software focuses on actually delivering the goods. How do you reach people? How do you know you’ve reached people? How, if you’ve reached people, do you turn that into profit so that you can keep making people’s lives better?
These are insanely important questions, and ones that are far too easily glossed over in the debate of what database software to use, or what language has the easiest hires, and that’s a huge part of why so few start-ups actually manage to get anywhere.
Business of Software, as a conference, is a world apart. I meet amazing developers at the conference, true. But the main people I meet are people who get stuff done: that forgotten part of the “Smart And Gets Things Done” duet, without which you end up with academic projects that, while amazing, and possibly theoretically world-changing, will never reach more than the three developers who programmed it.
As a rule, people who attend Business of Software both have brilliant ideas, and know how to package that idea into something people will actually pay for. Some idealistic part of me may wish that this last part weren’t necessary, but at the moment, it definitely is: you can invent a literal best-thing-in-the-world, but if you don’t know how to reach the people who want it, you will fade into obscurity.
Maybe it’s because of how different Business of Software feels from other conferences I’ve attended that I was caught so completely off-guard by the last speech of the day, delivered by Noah Kagan. But I’d like to believe that I’d be insanely offended hearing his speech at any conference.
Noah had a point. I think. I think it was that you need to do what you enjoy doing in order to succeed. The reason I’m unclear if that was his point is that I got so angry at a remark he made that I forgot most of the talk.
Noah’s speech was highly entertaining to the audience in large part due to being obscene. Partially in the classic sense—there was certainly no shortage of fucks, shits, and the like—but also in content. Calling out the thinnest person in the room? Uncomfortable. Calling out the heaviest person in the room? Inappropriate. Making the audience recite “Will you sleep with me” one word at a time? No swear words, but insanely bad taste.
But the coup, for me, was something he mentioned in passing, as an afterthought: he identified the Three "P"s of entrepreneurship:
“Profits, people and…you can figure it out.”
[Muttering amongst the audience.]
“Women. People, profits, and women. Or men. Whatever. People, profits, and women.”
Are you saying women aren’t people? Or are you saying that the only reason you care about women is the sex? Because your phrasing has left you only those two options.
I’ve read about the sexism that’s happened at Ruby conferences, and thought, Yeah, but my communities would never do that. And I’ve read about the sexism that’s happened at overseas Microsoft venues, and thought, Yeah, but my communities would never do that.
But my community did just do that.
And no one seemed to care. At tonight’s mixer, I talked to at least a half dozen people about Noah’s talk, and the general sentiment was, “Eh, it was offensive, but it was funny. Who cares?”
I expect better than that from this conference. Partially because of the constituency, but also partly because, in the past, Fog Creek was directly associated with it. It isn’t now, and it hasn’t been for some time, and I want to make that very clear. But I still feel a professional attachment to Business of Software that was violated today.
It’s just not that hard, fellas. Obscene jokes are fine—in the right context. Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve got a strong Michael Scott joke pattern in me—in an appropriate context.
A professional conference is emphatically not an appropriate context.
I am so tired of hearing that there are no women in tech companies because there are no women in CS programs. You know why there are no women in CS programs? Because they see shit like this (yes, this conference is live-streamed) that contain men making an obscenely hostile environment for women. So you know what? Of course they opt to pursue some other discipline. I would, if I were them. Would you really want to be in a career where a keynote speaker at a major conference referred to your gender by its genitals, while other disciplines treated you like a person? Because I know I’ve got more respect for myself than that, as do 100% of my female friends.
If I were a woman, there might be a bitquabit, but I can promise you it wouldn’t be in tech if this were the norm for conference talks.
We need to fix this, immediately.
First, despite any association I might have with Business of Software, I’m going to treat them with the same attitude I’d treat any other conference that did this: admit you screwed up, apologize, and tell me how you’ll prevent this in the future. I think it’s extremely important that computing feel safe to everyone, regardless of their gender, and I think that Monday’s concluding talk completely failed to do so.
Second, I really want speakers, at all tech conferences, to start thinking of computing as a professional discipline, instead of a boy’s club. If you make comments like the ones I’m complaining about, you know what you’re doing? Well, remember when you were picked on in middle school and/or high school? Congratulations: you’re doing that now. To literally half the people on the planet. Ever felt like certain disciplines looked down on you because of your background? You’re doing the same. Ever felt you were pigeonholed because of how you look? Now it’s you who’s pigeonholing.
Third, I think all tech conferences should start behaving in a gender-friendly manner. The Geek Feminism Wiki has a great write-up of how to make conferences friendly to women that can be used as a ground level, but I won’t exactly complain if conferences the caliber of Business of Software manage to do even better.
We’re better than this. Act like it. Treat your fellow developers with the same respect you’d treat someone you met on the street: basic, common courtesy. It’s not exactly asking a lot, so quit making it seem so hard to attain.
I hate reading and writing posts like this. Please never give me, or anyone else, an excuse to do so again.
This is a very close paraphrase I verified with other attendees, but, because I don’t have a recording available, it is probably not a verbatim transcript. When the recording of this session goes live, I’ll update it with the exact transcript. ↩︎