“Where is the woman who just spoke? Can you introduce us?”
It was WordCamp Vancouver 2015. A jovial CTO, was approaching me.
“Kirsten? Sure. Did you like her talk?”
“I love what she presented about designers working with developers. We need that at our agency. I want to find her and hire her!”
There is an interesting backstory that led to this conversation. Let’s rewind to three months earlier:
Kirsten confided in me that she had been thinking about starting to attend our Vancouver WordPress meetups more and maybe even give a talk. She knew a lot, had been working with the web since the 90s and was a successful and talented freelance developer, but yet she didn’t think she had anything worthwhile to share. What topics would people even want to hear from her? She admitted, “I’m sort of a generalist. It’s not like there’s some big thing I’ve done that people will get excited about, or one specialty I know better than anyone else.”
That’s the kind of thing I had been hearing a lot from folks from underrepresented groups. “I wouldn’t know what to talk about,” or “I’m not an expert in anything.” It was because of this that I lead a team in Vancouver who created a new workshop in 2014 called the “Diverse Speaker Workshop.”
“Do you think I’ll get anything out of the workshop?”
“Yes,” I said. “Do it. You’ll get a topic and more.”
She attended our full afternoon workshop on a Saturday afternoon in Spring 2015, the second year that we ran it, and she loved it. She told me after that she realized that she’d been vastly underestimating her experience and perspective, in a pretty classic case of imposter syndrome. That afternoon she developed several topic ideas that she felt would actually be of interest to others, and she gained a solid confidence and comfort – and even a passion! – to bring her ideas to the WordPress community.
When it came time for the WordCamp speaker applications, life had worked out such that she hadn’t yet spoken at our local meetup group. We recommend that folks start speaking at smaller events before applying to WordCamps in order to build up confidence and skills, but there’s no reason not to just jump right in. Many do!
Thanks to our workshop she was determined to get in. She submitted proposals for two talks.
That year was quite a year for strong and competitive applications. I was on the speaker selection committee, and she wound up as our first-choice backup speaker. As luck would have it, she was called in. Unfortunately it was with just two weeks’ notice. She jumped at the chance!
She worked so hard those two weeks writing her talk, and asked me for input frequently. The day before, she had not yet had the opportunity to rehearse in front of anyone. I know that rehearsing in front of others at least once is critical. So I invited myself over and watched her do it twice, the second time with edits.
The next day on stage, she gave a fantastic talk. The audience loved it. That CTO of the agency who came to me looking for her especially loved it.
Kirsten became that agency’s first female developer and then quickly became their senior developer and team lead. Not only that, she also grew the number of female developers on the team by bringing in talented developers from her own network.
As for our meetup? She did in fact become a regular attendee. She even started contributing at Vancouver and Seattle Contributor days.
Since then, the reach of our life-changing speaker workshop has grown exponentially. Now I lead a group on the WordPress Community Team that promotes and trains the workshop all over the world. The 21 chapter meetups in 9 countries who have run it so far have started at 10% or less speakers of underrepresented groups, and within months, most had 50% diverse speakers or more. Can you imagine? This is incredible! We are hearing more stories just like Kirsten’s all over the world.
I have also started taking this powerful work to other tech conferences and companies outside of WordPress. In fact, two of the communities I’ve worked with are also PHP techs. At their first workshops earlier in 2019, Magento’s participants reported a 47% increase in public speaking confidence, and Drupal reported 66%!
When we have more diversity on stage, or even in meetings, more people’s needs get included, and there are fresh ideas that benefit everyone. It changes technologies. It changes companies. It has the power to change the world.
This is isn’t just about getting more speakers of different types. It’s what happens when you give different voices a voice.