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Sci Tech    H2'ed 3/30/13

The Day Adria Richards Said 'Not This Time!'

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Sometimes a story breaks that touches so many issues that one is left with mouth agape. The recent news involving technology "evangelist" Adria Richards is one such story and it's burning across all kinds of media and cutting an intense divide within the techie community. It's about sexism, racism, techie culture, corporate "hide-from-accountability" amorality and the lack of job protection that jostles the ground under most techies' feet.

Adria Richards is a prominent writer and consultant within the technology industry. She's not a household name in the wider world but she's known within that demi-universe that works for technology companies, attends conferences and workshops, and posts on message boards.

It was at a conference that this controversy began.

Richards, working for an email service company called SendGrid, was attending PyCon, a huge conference dedicated to the programming language Python and to issues and matters related to it. Python is one of several computer coding languages people use to tell software what to do. It's a mature, powerful and challenging language and so the people who attended this conference were heavy-duty techies and folks who, usually for business reasons, need to reach them.
Adria Richards (r) and the Photo She Took
Adria Richards (r) and the Photo She Took
(Image by Adria Richards)
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The short version of the story is that during a plenary session she was attending Richards overheard what she thought were sexual jokes being made by some men sitting behind her. By all accounts, they were silly "double entendre" jokes about "dongles" and "forking the repo" -- widely used technical terms for a device (a dongle) and the development of slightly different code in a program (forking). The jokes, however, sounded offensively sexual to Richards, so she took the two guys' picture and posted it on Twitter with a tweet asking that something be done about their offensive behavior. Conference officials were on the scene immediately. At their request, she pointed the fellows out to them and the conference organizers quietly asked the men, one by one, to come out to the hallway for a chat.

It could easily have ended there and I wouldn't be writing this. But one of the men, who worked for a game marketing and "community-building" company called Playhaven, was fired soon after the conference.

The techie community went bonkers with thousands of message board posts, many of them denouncing Richards' actions: Why didn't she simply ask these guys to stop before tweeting about them? Is this kind of joke really that offensive? Don't women make sexually tinged jokes? How could she live with herself after getting people fired?

Richards' website was hacked, the SendGrid website was hacked (allegedly by activists from Anonymous) and Richards received several death threats (one accompanied by a grotesque tweet with a picture of a decapitated woman on a bed).

That surge of public debate (and there were plenty who defended her, by the way) led to an announcement last Friday that Adria Richards had herself been fired.

Firings, hirings and job changes are everyday occurences in the technology industry so, to understand why this is special, we need a bit of context.

The conference announced, with great pride, that 20 percent of its participants were women and, to be fair, that's a huge percentage for a techie gathering. But it's also revealing in a less than flattering way because the absense of women is one of the things that defines this industry's culture, where locker- room libido and juvenile jerkiness is all too frequent. And having one woman to every four men in attendance is not going to change things.

In the difficult dialectic of a community, sexism in a culture prevents or at least dissuades women from joining it, and that absence of women perpetuates that sexism. Based on what we read in Adria Richards' blog, she doesn't see herself as a feminist or even a warrior against sexism. But there's an undeniable fact: there was a moment, the kind of moment women often quietly suffer through, when she stood up and she pushed back, in effect saying "Not this time!"

The community's reaction -- including the digital version of a lynch mob -- wasn't really triggered by what she did. It was triggered by the fact that the guy got fired. His company claims it did a "thorough investigation" of the incident and then dumped him. It's reported that the fired guy has a family and this firing is going to hurt him. Somebody claiming to be him posted on a message board apologizing for the dongle joke, insisting that the "forking" comment wasn't a sexual joke. In a remarkable statement about the "lesson" he has learned, he also warned others to "watch who you talk to" when you go to conferences.

It appears this chap hasn't emerged from the bruising with much raised consciousness.

SendGrid issued a statement that makes Playhaven sound reasonable. The statement begins by insisting that SendGrid doesn't condone sexually offensive comments. But...

"A SendGrid developer evangelist's responsibility is to build and strengthen our Developer Community across the globe. In light of the events over the last 48+ hours, it has become obvious that [Richard's] actions have strongly divided the same community she was supposed to unite. As a result, she can no longer be effective in her role at SendGrid."

To explain, a "developer evangelist" is a kind of promoter. While they do lots of different things, technology evangelists go to conferences like this to network with developers about the products their companies are offering, since most computer software gains its market by being used and recommended by developers. They are super-marketers and when SendGrid talks about strengthening "our Developer Community across the globe", they're talking about convincing developers to use and recommend their products.

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Alfredo Lopez is a member of the This Can't Be Happening on-line publication collective where he covers technology and Co-Chair of the Leadership Committee of May First/People Link.
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