Saturday March 6th

Happy Birthday to Me! (and Fairness)

It’s my birthday!

  • I’m pretty excited because it’s my birthday! It’s been great! I’ve had everything from LinkedIn messages, a Matcha tea set shipped to me! (Thank you so much!!!!) a gift card, several digital cards, and a virtual party on Discord happening! It’s been swell! I really appreciate all the messages, audio, vidoe, and photos and warm wishes! I’m a little overwhelmed so I’m making my way through everything slowly but surely!

Look at this!

  • My parents made a video for my for my birthday, with a title card and credits :) Omgggg I love them!!!

This week

  • This week, one of the things that has bothering me is the centralization within groups. I keep running into situations where a group will be formed to provide access to opportunity and really good intentions, but then it is inevitable that a sort of structure or hierarchy of power forms, and some individuals get substantially more opportunities out of the group than others. It brought me back to Kim’s (I’ve listened to a few of her podcasts in the past, and while I know she is controversial and I’m aware not everyone agrees with things she says and that’s okay, that phrase of “prioritize the most marginalized” rings true). Coincidentally, Kim was one of the first persons I met when I first started in tech, at a Clojure conference, of all places, almost a decade ago.
  • I’d like to talk specifically about the fact that what inevitably happens is that the intention of the group is supposed to be shared opportunities, and what inevitably happens is that some persons within the groups end up receiving significantly more opportunities than others, in a way that hurts the ones who are not as aggressive about chasing these opportunities, or even know those opportunities exist. I’ve been thinking about how we can make this better.

Imagine a Conference

  • If you are an organizer of a conference, do the regulars, who show up every year as die-hards, have as good a time as the ones for whom this is their first time?
  • I know that there is significant controversy around this other conference (I am putting this here because I know some people rolled their eyes at the first link so I’m putting this here as a neutralizer. I’m also aware of on the other side lol), but this is another space where even as a newcomer, I equally had as good a time as when I had attended the conference not as a newcomer. So in many ways, I think they did a great job with this and in making people feel welcome regardless. Things like an ahead of time “things you should know” or “things to join” may be helpful in navigation for a new-comer, or as I’ve seen in other communities, a veteran conference-goer could be a mentor. My first tech conference, Clojure Conj 2016, did this quite well! They paired me with a veteran of that community, and that person invited me out to lunch with their friends. We’re still in touch, but what that did was that I met a bunch of people from the first day, and funnily enough, by the last day, I had to decline because I had met new friends and wanted to spend time with them and overall had a fantastic time at that conference. They prioritized people who were new as they knew the veterans already knew their way around.
  • I remember those moments as a newcomer, and how people went out of their way to make sure I felt like people were thinking of me, and involved, and I want that for newcomers always. I want them to make sure they are heard, and to have a good time, too, regardless of any community they want to join. It’s really important to me. I’ve seen people I’ve invited to Meetups end up leading sessions and get jobs writing in those languages, and it makes me happy to connect people to opportunities.

Prioritizing those most affected

  • I’ve left groups (I call it cleaning house) that I’ve felt I would have liked to be a part of first because they had good intentions, but I kept seeing the same people being held up, while others weren’t given the opportunity or chance to also be given opportunities. Not everyone is as aggressive or has the same levels of confidence. So it becomes a bit of a mini mafia, where publicly these groups are advertised as spaces that are “communities”, but they are really run by a centralized group of people.
  • You see these in various capacities, for example, in Meetups, in Research groups promising to be collaborative, or open source, or even in so-called decentralized systems, where inevitably people with more compute power or stake have more influence on the outcome. One of the ways we might want to think about changing this is by shuffling power. The book “Can this Elephant Curtsey on Cue” by Weinstock talks a bit about this, where she exchanges her position for that of the lowest person on the totem pole for a week.
  • Another way that I’ve seen to be effective in a recent Meetup I’ve been attending regularly is that they make everyone present chapters of a book we’re going through. I mention this because I was one of those who came into the group telling the person leading that “I wasn’t sure I was the best person to lead a session.” Instead of accepting this, the organizer said that he would admit me, and that maybe over time, I would feel comfortable to present. I signed up for a slot shortly after that and did actually lead a group. The environment was one that made it possible to share opportunities leading. But that meant that the organizer had to give up a degree of power to let others lead, and they had to give the person leading the benefit of the doubt (ie delegate responsibility and expect competence).
  • I’d like to point out that this is rare; often, what happens is that you see those that would not benefit from an aggregation of more resources continue to take advantage of that person’s lack of confidence to lead. So how can we make this better, and what are the effects? Shuffling might indeed be a solution.

The effects of prioritizing those most affected

  • I think that it is a special kind of person and a particular kind of empathy that an organizer must have to notice these kinds of inequities in power. When you are running a group or organization, especially as it scales and is particularly large, it’s very difficult but it’s very worthwhile to continue to look for those with potential, even if they don’t even see it in themselves, and to train them up. Stop going for the low-hanging fruit of those who puff up their chests and already have experience in a way that wouldn’t benefit them if they receive one more opportunity. I would say that a better thing to do is to make those persons practice empathy and learn how to mentor others; another skill worth learning as a leader (Make those people mentor someone else and have that mentored new person evaluate their (the senior person’s) mentorship abilities and give them feedback). Take a new person into your group who you think may have the talent and potential, but doesn’t have the self-confidence, and help them see it for themselves. It’s easy to take someone who is already a star or known brand, already known, and just continue to give them opportunities. But I’d say that we’re missing out on a lot of talent by not ALSO looking for persons for whom that may not be as obvious, and this is part of being a visionary leader. It’s okay to ask someone “would you like to try? I think you’d be good at this” and train them up. I’d like to say that hate or love her, Timnit is fantastic at this, and you will often see this if you interact with her in any of her groups (disclosure: she is a friend). This is also a part of why so many people are supporters of her in my opinion; she has mentored people up. In my interactions with her, she has a knack for spotting people who may be shy and have things to contribute, and putting them in a position where the group has an opportunity to listen. I was telling my advisor about this, because it blew my mind that she was able to do this with such ease. Typically, as someone rises in stature, they become less accessible to those on the lower ranks. I’ve seen this personally on film sets. It’s almost like in chess, how as a pawn you just can’t check mate the most valuable pieces on the board. People at the higher levels create a shield that obscures the concerns or knowledge that flows on the lower level of organizations from those at the top. This also gives them power because they are (or hold) the access to power at the top (and sometimes they even weaponize it against others with less power). The effects can be disastrous because everything can spiral out of control, leaving the people at the top asking “what happened and why didn’t we know about this?”. But being able to keep in touch with what is on the ground while being on an organization level / higher up is the sign of a good leader, for all it’s worth.
  • I’ve seen the effects of this kind of prioritization, and it truly changes the perspectives of and even the trajectory of someone who may not have believed in their own capacities. And these people also come with valuable, unique perspectives we may not have even considered. It’s important, in a room full of people, especially a room full of outspoken, confident people, to ask the person who is quiet what they think. What is their opinion? They might (and often will) surprise you.

These thoughts

  • These thoughts have been in my mind because I’ve been in these groups, and I’ve often left disheartened that they just couldn’t see how they were leaving out certain individuals, and marginalizing their points of view in favour of giving the loudest people the speaking floor yet again. It’s been swimming around in my head as to how we can do better with respect to that. I remember at SFPC, one of the things they would say is if you find yourself talking a lot, stop and give space to other people. In many organizations, communities and groups, we often don’t do this. And then these people leave, believing once again that “no one cares”. I have friends of various kinds; some are very shy and only open up to some kinds of people, and others are quite assertive and well-known. Years ago, one of my mentors in theatre lighting said “not everyone is a go-getter like you”. That stuck. It’s something to think about and over the years I’ve tried to work on myself at being better about this and giving the floor to other people, but I see it painfully happen all the time. It’s something I’ve been thinking about, but I don’t know what these solutions are. Maybe the convergence of groups is inevitably a centralization of power by a few, and there are no solutions. I’m hopeful that there are other solutions, though.

And that’s it

Written on March 6, 2021