Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the 5th Annual Lesbians Who Tech Summit in San Francisco, the largest LGBTQ+ professional event in the world. The three-day summit was held in the historic Castro Theatre and was jam-packed with more than 100 sessions and 5,000+ attendees. Notable speakers included former U.S. CTO Megan Smith, music duo Tegan and Sara, CNN commentator and author Sally Kohn, and many others.
While the conference focused on LGBTQ+ and women’s issues, the topics discussed and issues raised would have resonated with anyone working in technology today—from the challenges of making the tech industry more inclusive to efforts to “democratize” technology to solve critical problems facing the world.
Here are five things that will stick with me long after the event:
1. It’s important to bring your whole, authentic self to work
One of my favorite event sessions was an interview between Lesbians Who Tech founder Leanne Pittsford and Uber Chief Brand Officer Bozoma Saint John. “Boz” talked about her work trying to redefine Silicon Valley culture, and the important role workplace authenticity played in those efforts. “I don’t see myself as six people—there’s only one me; I don’t leave any part of me behind,” she told Leanne. Boz stressed that “all the power and ideas and confidence and empathy and all the other things that are required to be a good human being requires that all of your experiences come with you.”
Boz said that bringing your authentic self to work from the very beginning was crucial, because you can’t just change who you are once you reach the C-Suite. “I’ve been asked frequently, ‘Once you reach a certain position in a company, can you do whatever you want?’ No, that’s not true,” she said. You don’t just wake up one day and get to be your whole self, she explained. Even worse, you may no longer be able to. “You’re so used to showing the fake you, that you don’t know the real you when the time comes.”
Boz then delivered this parting message for everyone: “Wherever you are where you can’t be accepted as who you are is not the place you want to be.”
2. Diversity in tech isn’t a pipeline issue—it’s an attitude issue
Another powerful moment came during the session featuring Kara Swisher, co-founder and executive editor of Recode, and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Kara and Sheryl discussed the importance of making technology accessible to all, including initiatives to introduce computer science to children earlier on.
Clearly there are diverse populations interested in technology as a career (Lesbians Who Tech alone has more than 35,000 members around the world), but Kara said that in order to achieve a fully representative and inclusive tech industry, an “attitude shift” is needed. Everyone in the industry—underrepresented minorities and allies included— needs to be a force for change and ready to embrace diversity in both people and ideas.
3. You can (and should) use a DevOps mentality in your daily life
Many of us know about the benefits of DevOps for improving efficiency and driving alignment between software development and IT operations teams in the workplace. As crazy as it might sound, a breakout session titled “Continuous Integration: DevOps Your Project and Your Life” taught attendees how to apply a DevOps mindset to almost anything in their daily lives.
Microsoft engineer Sweekriti Satpathy illustrated this by explaining her DevOps approach to implementing a new skincare routine. First, she built out all the steps needed to have a successful skincare routine. How many times a day should she execute? Should the morning routine differ from the evening routine? She then had to gather the necessary items: toner, cleanser, moisturizer, the whole shebang. She then made sure to test out the routine to prepare for any problems or roadblocks she might encounter. What if the moisturizer she bought irritated her skin? It’s good to test these things before rolling them out to production!
After everything was tested, Sweekriti was finally ready to “deploy” her routine. She made sure to log her results daily to track her success and identify potential problems (such as running out of lotion). After following her routine for four months, she analyzed her process to see what she could improve, and used this knowledge to make the process smoother and more efficient. DevOps skincare! (SkinOps?)
4. We’re on the brink of a revolution with automation and robots
You can’t talk about modern technology these days without mentioning robots, so I was excited to see a session called “Robots vs. Humans” on the agenda. I was expecting a dystopian discussion about robots taking over the world (I’ve been re-watching HBO’s Westworld lately), so I was pleasantly surprised when Cynthia Yeung, “robot evangelist” at SoftBank Robotics, instead showed us robots could make the future brighter than we expect.
Cynthia illustrated three types of jobs related to robotics that we will see in the future: dangerous jobs for which robots will replace human workers; jobs in which robots will assist human workers; and new, human-only jobs focused on building and maintaining these new robots.
Much like the cultural backlash against the factory machinery that replaced workers during the Industrial Revolution, there is today a widespread fear that advances in robotics could mean that human beings will soon no longer be needed to do many jobs. But modern society has greatly benefited from the advances of the Industrial Revolution (including the introduction of child labor laws), and instead of fighting these changes, society should embrace them. Of course, this also means we need to come up with creative solutions to help those whose work lives will be impacted.
A good modern-day example of this is the Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) Initiative launched under President Obama. While POWER focuses specifically on helping workers such as coal miners who have been displaced by changes in the energy sector, Cynthia sees how similar legislation could be developed to retrain people whose jobs have been impacted by the “robot revolution.” It seems inevitable that robots will become part of our daily lives; we best be ready to make peace with our new metal friends.
5. Many positive cultural changes have happened in Silicon Valley, but we must do better
In the past year, especially, we’ve seen more and more Silicon Valley companies invest heavily in diversity and inclusion programs. As positive as these changes have been, there’s still a lot more work to do. As many presenters emphasized to their audiences, “The time for change is now!” As Sheryl Sandberg put it, “We need a world where women don’t get sexually harassed. But—this is important—that’s not enough. We need a world where women—and women of color particularly—get equal opportunity. It is not enough to not harass us. That’s good, necessary, but not sufficient.”
As Bozoma Saint John said: “We have to get tough. … It takes us making the noise and pushing, and never taking no for an answer.”
Celebrating different ways of thinking
I think the most important thing I learned at this conference was the difference between equality and diversity, something too many conversations about diversity and inclusion seem to miss. The push for equal opportunity in the tech industry shouldn’t be conflated with the notion of making everyone equal; that is, the same. Instead, diversity initiatives need to help employees recognize and celebrate their differences.
That is exactly what we did at the Lesbians Who Tech conference—we gathered to celebrate our uniqueness by learning the stories of hundreds of different successful LGBTQ+ professionals, and to embrace and encourage our diversity in how we think, lead, and innovate. As the marquee outside the event proclaimed: “The future is queer, inclusive, and badass!”
Photos by Natalie Wiser.