Good morning, and happy holidays! And if you celebrate it: Merry Christmas! I’m not religious myself, but I still really enjoy this holiday because of the many fond memories I have from my time growing up in The Netherlands and Germany. In The Netherlands, as children, we get our gifts from Sinterklaas on December 5th, so Christmas was always chiefly a time to spend with family, eating delicious meals and listening to or singing carols. Since the “rules” for gift-giving on Christmas in Holland are somewhat fuzzy, my family created their own tradition, which was to gift each other a book. We’d then spend most of the holidays snuggling up by the tree with our books and a hot beverage of choice. In Germany, we lived in a small town just outside Munich, and my most vivid recollections are of the Münchner Christkindlmarkt (Christmas market), specifically the unmistakable scents of Gebrannte Mandeln and Glühwein. (They say that olfactory memory is one of the strongest types of memory, and it’s definitely true for me in this case.)
Aside from delicious food and books and Christmas markets and Glühwein, though, the thing I associate this holiday with the most is the idea of giving back. So when Andreas asked me to write something for this blog, I knew it should be easy, because giving back to the PHP community is something that is on my mind often. Of course, once I finally started writing, it turned out to be harder than I expected, because suddenly I felt this pressure to say something profound. But I’ve kept reminding myself to just write from the heart and stay true to my authentic self. In that spirit, I’ll share a few thoughts; forgive me if I get a bit rambly in places.
On giving back
If we’ve met before, it was likely at a conference. Despite being an extremely shy introvert, I love conferences because I recognize how vital they are for sustaining and improving developer communities, and I decided in early 2016 that I wanted to try my hand at conference speaking. I did this not because I love public speaking (I don’t) or thought I would be particularly good at it, but because I didn’t want to be a leech on the tech community anymore. I realized that I am able to do my job (and do it well) because of the thousands of contributions by other developers, especially things like technical blog posts, conference talks, and of course the open source libraries and frameworks that I use every day. I decided that the best way to give back was to start doing one of those things myself. I wanted to pick something that I could do at least partially within work hours, and that would challenge me and encourage me to grow both as an engineer and as a human. Unfortunately, my employer doesn’t give us much time or support for contributing to open source, so the thing I picked was conference speaking.
The very first conference I spoke at was Lone Star PHP 2016, and it’s been a rollercoaster ride of an experience since then, but definitely a rewarding one. It’s been satisfying to become a member of the PHP community (which was extremely welcoming), to meet and chat with the folks building and maintaining the open source software I use all the time, to hear everyone’s diverse ideas and perspectives, and to feel like I’m contributing something (in the form of my talks) that others find useful. It’s also been fun and gratifying to be able to observe my own growth – to realize that while I’m still far from a great public speaker, I’m getting better all the time; every talk is better than the last.
My hope in sharing this story about my own experiences is to encourage you to think about your own avenue for giving back to the community, if you aren’t doing so already – and that it might not be the most obvious one, and you might not be great at it at first, but you’ll grow into it. I also want to emphasize the point I made about wanting something I could mostly do within work hours; the days when I’m at conferences count as regular work days (i.e. I don’t have to take personal leave for them), and I can use work hours to prepare for my talks, too, which I realize is a privilege not everyone has. The reason why this was an important factor for me in deciding how to give back is that even though I love my job, I still consider this type of work to be part of my job, and I don’t want to do it when I get home. I want to spend my time outside of work with my loved ones and engaging in my hobbies, not coding or preparing talks for conferences. At the end of the day, I think this actually makes me a better developer – because I’m multidimensional, interested in many things, able to empathize with people from all backgrounds, and I practice self-care. (More on that later.)
If I were somehow given Aladdin’s lamp and were granted three wishes for the PHP community in 2019, the first thing I’d wish for is an acknowledgement by companies just how much they gain from tech communities and open source, coupled with a more concerted effort to give back at the organizational level. We often talk about how much we as individual developers gain from the community, but ultimately, the ones who benefit the most are the companies we lease our labor to. In the nightmare scenario where we all wake up one day and all of the open source maintainers have decided to shut down their projects, everyone has stopped contributing to StackOverflow and writing technical blog posts, and all conferences and meetups are canceled henceforth, how would companies be affected? At minimum, most of them would have to spend a lot more money hiring many more developers to make up for the essentially free labor that has been lost. Of course, this is a straw man argument that is unlikely to ever come to pass, but I think it’s still a good way to illustrate just how much we all reap the benefits of this ecosystem – and how imperative it is that we give back, whether financially (most open source projects accept donations, for example) or with our own contributions. If this were to happen at the company level instead of just at the individual level (and to be fair, some companies do do this, although only a very small fraction of all those who benefit from the system), the open source community would be healthier and much more sustainable.
So if you’re in a position to advocate for this within your company, please do. If you’re not – and most of us aren’t – then the best you can do is start with yourself and hope that your actions inspire others to follow suit, which can eventually spark organizational change. This is what I’m trying to do within my own organization. After I started speaking at conferences regularly, about half a dozen other folks expressed interest, and we now have a semi-formalized Tech Conference Speakers Club at work. You may have spotted one of our members, Ijeoma, on the PHP conference circuit this past year. Public speaking is now something that’s recognized on our career ladder, not as a requirement, but at least something that can net you bonus points, which is a start. We now have a technical blog, though it isn’t very active. Also, we’ve managed to release a few open source packages, and there’s a small discussion group of passionate folks who want to try to fit more open source contributions into our day-to-day work. While it isn’t overwhelming progress, it’s still progress. Cultural changes like this don’t happen overnight.
In your case, if you’re not already contributing to the community and would like to start, the key is to begin with something appropriate to your experience and prior involvement. If you’ve only just begun your tech career and/or are starting to use PHP, make one of your 2019 goals attending your first conference. Get a feel for the community and the people who sustain it. Follow those people on Twitter and get a sense of what they’re thinking and talking about. Attend a meetup to get a handle on your local tech community and meet the organizers.
If you’ve done those things and have been around for a while but have been more of a wallflower in the community, challenge yourself to take it to the next level. Speak at your local meetup – even if it’s just a lightning talk. Try to attend meetings regularly, because many meetups struggle with maintaining enough regular attendance to make continuing to organize it worthwhile. Bring a friend or co-worker. Go to more conferences. Maybe even volunteer at a conference, which is a great way to get to know the most active folks in the community. Start answering questions on StackOverflow. Add thoroughly-documented GitHub issues to the open source projects you use every day.
And then, of course, there’s what I consider the “holy grail” level, which consists of writing technical blog posts, speaking regularly at conferences and meetups, creating and maintaining open source libraries and frameworks, and organizing meetups and conferences. These have the biggest tangible impact on the community, though I don’t want to lessen any of the other aforementioned contributions, which still provide us all with a ton of value.
But I do want to hammer home the idea that no one should have to do these things outside of work hours unless they want to. If you have other obligations or simply other things you want to do, that is perfectly acceptable. I am privileged to work at a company where most of these things count as work, but I realize not everyone is as lucky. Still, I’d like to believe that there’s always something you can do to give back. Even if it’s just, for example, offering to mentor the next intern or junior developer, or helping start an internship program if you don’t have one. Someone probably did that for you, so challenge yourself to be that person for someone else. And even if you didn’t have that kind of a mentor, wouldn’t it be great if you could help smooth the path into tech for just one person?
Which segues nicely into something else I want to discuss…
On standing up for those with less privilege
The one other reason why I started speaking at conferences was because I’d grown tired of seeing so few fellow women up on stage, and I decided to, just as Birgit wrote in her post a few days ago, be the change I wished to see in the world. I’m happy to have witnessed progress in just the 3 years I’ve been a speaker, with a few of the conferences I’ve spoken at over the past year having close to 50% women speakers. We’ve still got a ways to go until every event is equitable, but progress is progress, and I’ll give credit where credit is due: many thanks to all the conference and meetup organizers everywhere who are taking this issue seriously.
However, gender identity is just one type of representation, and while, as a woman in tech, I count as underrepresented, I still have a ton of privilege, mainly because of the color of my skin. I’ve sometimes heard a joke at PHP conferences that goes something like: “We’re diverse! Look at how many shades of light pink our skintones are.” To be clear, the ones who tell the joke don’t intend it to be perceived as funny – it’s calling us out, because most of the time, it’s true. I’m glad we’re self-aware enough to know that this is an issue, but the second thing I’d wish for the PHP community in 2019 using Aladdin’s lamp is more deliberate action to address our shortcomings when it comes to diversity and inclusion. If you’ve got 50% female speakers at your conference but everyone is white, that isn’t enough. That isn’t diversity. This is what we mean when we say that our goals and actions must be intersectional.
Of course, skin color is not the only other factor besides gender indicating underrepresentation or even marginalization. Other identities that suggest a lack of privilege and that deserve recognition and support include, for example, being LGBTQ+ or having a disability (visible or invisible), or more specific to tech, being a junior developer or having started a tech career late and/or via a nontraditional path (e.g. coding bootcamp). We need to make sure that our community and the events that we put on are equitable for folks from any and all of these backgrounds, especially because people who identify as one or more of these tend to already carry heavier burdens than those of us who are straight and white and able-bodied and established in our tech careers. For one thing, people from marginalized groups often feel they have to over-perform at work and in the community (to counteract the myth of “the bar had to be lowered to allow you into tech”), which leads to increased stress and a greater likelihood of burnout.
And on that note, there’s one final thing I want to talk about…
On taking care of yourself
Many of you know me from the volunteer work that I do for Open Sourcing Mental Illness, an organization that has its roots here in the PHP community. For those who aren’t familiar, OSMI is a volunteer-based, distributed, non-profit organization that is trying to change how we talk about mental health in the tech community. I got involved in late 2016, after one of my best friends, who was a developer at a startup in the Bay Area, committed suicide. I’m one of the few volunteers who isn’t living with mental illness themselves but instead is trying to be a good ally, which means I spend a lot of time listening and learning and thinking about what someone like me can do to help.
One thing I’ve learned during my time with OSMI is just how tough the holidays can be for those living with depression and other forms of mental illness. The commercialization of Christmas has led us to be inundated with ads and other imagery of happy families where everyone feels love and warmth and general good cheer. The contrast between that imagery and the depression-induced thoughts that you’re worthless and no one loves you and you’ll never be happy again can often feel like it’s just too much to bear. If you live in the northern hemisphere, this also tends to be coupled with fewer hours of daylight and gray, cold weather, leading to symptoms associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
In short, despite the images of warmth and good cheer that we like to conjure up, this is a really tough time for a lot of people. If you are one of the folks who is struggling, know that you are not alone, there is hope, and despite what your brain is telling you, you are loved. Please reach out; we’re here for you. If you’re one of the folks who is doing all right but you have a friend or loved one who is struggling, acknowledge their struggle – don’t trivialize it – and be there for them. One of the best ways to help someone with mental illness is to offer to do chores for them, like cooking, cleaning, and laundry, and I would highly recommend something like that rather than buying gifts. And while they would probably benefit from going outside (especially if the sun’s out), they might not be ready to spend a lot of time in a space with a lot of happy-looking people enjoying seasonal activities like holiday shopping, concerts, dinners, and parties. Maybe just offer to go for a walk with them somewhere low-key, like the most nondescript park in the area. Above all, just be willing to lend a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on, and don’t diminish what they’re going through or make it about you.
I also want to talk about mental health in the context of the community contributions that I wrote about toward the beginning of my post. Burnout is real and can happen to anyone, and if you engage wholeheartedly in this community work, it can be very easy to overextend yourself, especially if you find yourself doing these things outside of work hours. Please take care of yourself. Put down some boundaries before you allow yourself to get into burnout territory. I like to quote a saying we’ve all heard before: “put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.” Obviously, it’s a metaphor, but I assume you get the idea. You are (hopefully) doing this work because you want to help others, but you can’t do that if you don’t take care of yourself first and foremost.
And so it’s not hard to guess what my third and final wish for the PHP community in 2019 using Aladdin’s lamp would be: that you’ll always put your own health and wellbeing first, even if that means not giving back to the community for a while. Take a break. Spend more time offline. Spend time with loved ones. Get some good rest. Try to sleep at least 7-8 hours a night if you can. Drink lots of water. Breathe. And above all, try not to feel too much guilt over everything you’re not doing. Remember that you must help yourself first in order to help others.
Many thanks and much love to everyone in the PHPamily for a great 2018, and to everyone not yet part of the community: I hope you’ll join us in 2019. Let’s make it even better. Happy New Year!