De-mystifying the Tech Conference Experience for Women

pinktilesThose of us who attend tech conferences regularly know the secret – it’s not just about knowledge and learning… it’s also about networking. You spend the day becoming a better professional in your trade by listening to the talks and attending the workshops, but just as importantly, you spend the evenings and breaks meeting other people in your profession and expanding your circle of acquaintances.

This is one of the big reasons why I like to encourage women to get out from behind their desks and be part of the bigger conversation. Watching the livestream of a conference is a step in the right direction from a learning perspective, but you don’t get the real benefit of the conference if you don’t chat casually with them over drinks and food. I come away from every conference with new perspectives and, more importantly, new connections.

It’s one of the reasons women need to show up at these events. We tend to shy away because we are intimidated by the sheer maleness of the events – most of the speakers are men, many of the vendors are men, and certainly most of the attendees are men – men who are sharing their wisdom with each other and building their networks at the same time. We bemoan the “boys’ network” but then we don’t take the necessary steps to be part of that network. They know each other because… well, they know each other. You gotta show up to the dance if you want to lindy.

So, imagine my delight this year, when I was able to partner with Per Scholas and O’Reilly Media to get a group of women from the Per Scholas technical training classes into the Velocity conference at no cost. My hope is that by bringing them into tech conferences while they are still students, it de-mystifies the experience and they learn that there is nothing scary about conferences or the men who attend them.

The Per Scholas Women at Velocity NY 2013O’Reilly did more than just supply some free tickets to the conference, though. They also threw in a spot in their Ignite! talks for Plinio Ayala, President of Per Scholas to talk about their program, they encouraged registrants to donate money to the organization, and they arranged for conference speakers and IT professionals to sit with the student during lunch. For Suzanne Axtell, who manages Diversity Outreach for O’Reilly Media, it was a valuable experience. “Our partnership with Per Scholas was a truly rewarding experience,” Axtell says. “O’Reilly was able to contribute to a very worthy organization educationally as well as financially. Having the students attend Velocity was a great way to introduce women to the tech community. It also allowed attendees who donated to Per Scholas when they registered to see firsthand what their gift makes possible. Given the growing need for STEM workers, the partnership was a good opportunity to expose Velocity attendees and companies to new talent pipelines like Per Scholas.”

The women themselves knew they were being given an invaluable opportunity and they made the most of it. They attended the talks, roamed the vendor booths, introduced themselves to everyone, and talked to the speakers during the breaks. “I didnt want to leave the conference rooms and booths, “ says Elizabeth Luciany. Another student attendee, Kiesha Quaishe, made the observation that the conference “was a very good insight to what occurs in the technology world. It opened and expanded our minds to think outside the box and see what else is in the field beyond what we already know.” Exactly. When we stay within the boundaries of our office environment, we miss out on the opportunity to learn what other people are doing and what’s important to the industry as a whole, rather than just the company we currently work for.

For me, there was only one thing I wanted to result from this opportunity – a new generation of female conference attendees for whom the intimidation factor has been removed. And I got that. When Monique Young said, “if I had the chance I would attend another one so I could be in the know about the growing changes,” I got my wish.

Thank you to Per Scholas for humoring me and my passion for “Women In Line” and to Mary Thengvall and Suzanne Axtell of O’Reilly Media for giving more than we asked for and planting a seed that can do nothing but grow.