Boldlife Episode 9
On this 9th episode of BoldLife, MikeDemo is joined by Liz Brown. We will talk about design, awwwards San Francisco and how to be more inclusive in the tech community.
Mike “demo” Demopoulos
host & boldgrid evangelist
A longtime lover of Open Source Software, Mike “Demo” Demopoulos currently works at BoldGrid (a WordPress Site Builder) as an Evangelist. He has spoken at numerous open source events around the world. Mike is also a contributor to Huffington Post as well as other publications. In addition, he volunteers as Treasurer for Open Source Matters.
Liz is founder of Design Jawn, a creative studio focused on helping startups, nonprofits, and enterprises harness the power of design thinking. She formerly served as Co-CEO and Head of Design at Webjunto, a user-experience-focused design and development company based in Philadelphia. Liz has a passion for both research and design. Over the past 15 years, she has worked on a wide range of projects including research on motivation theory, cognitive learning theory, and user experience.
After more than 10 years of taking on side gigs as a web designer and front-end developer, she earned a master’s degree in information design and technology from SUNY Polytechnic Institute and went on to cofound Webjunto. Prior to starting Webjunto, Liz received a master’s degree in urban planning from the School of Architecture and Planning at SUNY Buffalo, and practiced as an urban planner specializing in urban revitalization. Liz continues to do work in the community as a civic hacking enthusiast, event organizer, and public speaker.
MikeDemo: Hello, and welcome to the ninth episode of The Bold Grid Bold Life Facebook Life Show. My name is Mike Demo and it’s my pleasure to be your host, and joined by Liz Brown.
How’s it going, Liz?
Liz Brown: Hey, I’m good. How are you doing, man?
MikeDemo: Good. We actually met at the Awwwards Conference in San Francisco, if I’m correct, right?
Liz Brown: Yes, yes. That was just a few weeks ago.
MikeDemo: Yeah, not too long ago.
Liz Brown: Time’s flying.
MikeDemo: For those of you that don’t know, can you share a quick recap of what you do and how you got in to the industry?
Liz Brown: Sure. How I got in to the industry is really interesting. I don’t know why I’m starting backwards. What I do is, I have a company called Design Jawn. I do everything from discovery to development.
I’ve been working with startups and entrepreneurs for the past … really for the past five years, on and off, and even before that, but more consistently, for the past five years, doing development of MVP applications.
My new company … or, my past company was called Webjunto, so a lot of people know me from that. We were doing software applications for startups. We’ve worked with over a 100 startups, globally.
I’m kind of continuing that, but now having a mission, more focused on diversity and inclusion, and being a driving force for inclusive innovation.
The way that I got [crosstalk 00:01:41] yeah.
Liz Brown: Yeah.
MikeDemo: What were you gonna say though? Sorry.
Liz Brown: Oh, sorry. That’s all right. The way that I got in to it is I’ve just been … I’ve been coding as a side gig and as a hobby since I was a teenager. I just have always done it as a freelance thing, and when I lost my job working as a city employee I ended up starting my company Webjunto. And so, I’ve never gotten out of the tech community since.
MikeDemo: Excellent. What were you doing with the city before you started your agency?
Liz Brown: I was actually working as an urban planner. My first master’s is in urban planning and community development, so I was creating programs in West Philly for the neighborhood. They have a thing called Block Captains and things like that here, where it’s just like the representative from the neighborhood that’s kind of going out. They’re like the neighborhood mayor.
I was working with them and doing a bunch of different events, creating block parties and teaching people how to save money or how to get grants from the city for their small businesses and things like that.
MikeDemo: Excellent. So it’s been a decent jump going from urban planning to the interactive space and development. How has that transition been?
Liz Brown: It’s actually been smoother than it sounds. Because when I was working as neighborhood planner I was organizing community meetings where … in urban planning we call it a charrette. But it’s the same thing that I do as a UX designer and from a [dove 00:03:24], running a tech focused company and we do discovery with all of our clients, and we run in a very collaborative nature. So it’s very similar, actually, oddly similar, and it was a really smooth transition. The only difference is my focus has shifted towards startups rather than just the community, but even Webjunto and Design Jawn are both very much tied in to giving back to the community, overall, so I try to use my urban planning knowledge for that.
MikeDemo: Excellent, and you touched on it a little bit on your intro but you talked about accessibility and inclusion. How did that become a passion of yours and how do you touch on that in your work that you do?
Liz Brown: Oh, man. Well, diversity and inclusion are something that is very personal for me because when I first graduated with the second masters, I did a second master’s in information design and tech, and I couldn’t get a job in the tech field. So I found it really interesting that I was highly qualified but yet I couldn’t find a position for me.
And I grew up being super-active in my community. My dad was a city councilman so I’ve always done things that have to do with building community and, by nature, building community means being inclusive of everybody that’s a part of that community. I feel like if you’re a good community builder then you should be including everybody, and that’s what I want to do in all the work that I do.
MikeDemo: Excellent. So, in the tech space, what do you spend most of your time going to? Like for events and conferences, do you do a lot of Angular stuff, or CMS stuff or, what events do you usually find yourself at?
MikeDemo: Excellent. And in those events, and in the tech space, in general, how do you think the industry as a whole, on a broad level, is doing for inclusiveness and diversity in the different fields?
Liz Brown: Oh, man. I think it depends on where you go and what the event is. So, there are a lot of people out here right now that are … I’ll give a shout-out to Kim [Crayton 00:06:01]. I hope I said her last name properly at #causeascene. She’s been calling out different conferences on whether or not they’re truly being inclusive and diverse. And I think that there’s been a movement towards calling people out, publicly through Twitter and other social media like Instagram.
I think that some events are doing really well. I’ll also give a shout-out to JS Kongress out in Germany, in Munich. I spoke at that event in November and they allowed me to open the event and focus my talk on diversity and inclusion but the thing that’s really interesting and I think that a lot of people don’t touch on is, diversity and inclusion mean different things in different places, be it city to city, or country to country, so I’ve been learning a lot about how these different places handle it, and I think that’s a really important thing to touch on.
But I’ve never really seen anybody quite deal with diversity and inclusion the way that Johannes does with JS Kongress. It’s something that’s … it’s something that they really think about. They put it at the beginning of their thought process. That, and also Angular [q 00:07:19], which is, his name is David [Pitch 00:07:24]. They both really care. I haven’t really seen any other events do it the way they do. I don’t know if you’re familiar with either of those events. Are you?
MikeDemo: Yeah. JS Kongress for sure. I have a lot of friends in Germany that go to that one, from my work in the different CMSs, and that are also involved in CMS Garden which is also based in Germany.
Liz Brown: Oh. That’s cool.
MikeDemo: So let’s touch on what you said, that diversity and inclusion means different things in different areas and to different groups of people. Could you expand on that a little bit?
Liz Brown: Sure. I think that a lot of people often focus on color. And they make it an argument about black and white, but there’s so much more if you want to be fully inclusive you have to think of everyone, women, LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, somebody that has dyslexia. I think that that’s really, really important to think about the full range of inclusivity rather than just focusing on black and white issues of color because it is race, class, gender.
There’s a ton of different issues tied in and it’s what in urban planning we call a wicked problem. So, a wicked problem is something that’s more complex than just one thing. It’s got a ton of stuff tied in to it and I think that’s what we’re dealing with when we’re talking about inclusion, a wicked problem.
MikeDemo: That’s very interesting. John [Neubauer 00:08:55] the former director of the [Joomla 00:08:58] World Conference wrote a blog post a few years ago talking about accessibility for people with physical disabilities, you know, using wheel chairs and things, and he ran an event in Mexico, and he was like, everything was accessible by wheel chair, and he thought that was fine going in, and then they had some attendees that needed those services, and that venue, to be able to go to the main hall, you had to go through the staff kitchen, to get to main hall because that’s where the ramps and stuff were.
Liz Brown: Oh wow.
MikeDemo: And he never thought about it, right? Because maybe he didn’t have an event where that was an issue before or maybe he was more used to western facilities that it was not an issue, so he was saying that his next event that he did, when he was looking at India, he made a big deal to think about these things because … I don’t think events deliberately try to exclude any party, but it’s interesting when I talk to people from these different groups how the little things can send messages that, I honestly don’t think the organizer intended to. They maybe just didn’t think of it.
Liz Brown: Oh, it’s so true. And that’s why I had mentioned JS Kongress because I really … It was one of the first times I ever saw somebody, as far as organizers, really go out of their way to try to be accommodating and try to imagine the journey of others. Because my background is user experience, so I’m always thinking, okay, if I want to have an event, I want everyone to have a good experience.
I don’t want people to have to go through a kitchen to get in to the venue, and I think that’s an issue that a lot of people really aren’t thinking about. Part of it is because they’re not pulling together the right group of organizers. I think every group of organizers actually should have a user experienced person or experienced designer to really think about what is the journey of everyone, because there’s a developer, a female developer, that I keep hearing about.
Everywhere I go I hear about this woman. I still haven’t found out her name so if anyone knows her name hit me up and let me know. But she’s deaf and she speaks on development topics. But a lot of the conference that she applies to, it’s not clear that she’s deaf until after they accept her proposal, and then they can’t find anybody to do sign language.
A lot of organizations don’t have the extra funding to be able to hire someone to come on-site during the conference and sign. And I think that’s also interesting, because they’re getting sponsorships, so why not make an accessibility sponsorship?
MikeDemo: Yeah, in that same vein, or at least, doing the live CART captioning, which I’ve seen a lot of events start to do–
Liz Brown: Oh yeah.
MikeDemo: Where the screen does the CART captioning. Or even international events. I was on an organizing team in Italy last year and we … English was the official language of the conference, but we wanted to be accessible to, obviously, the local community, so we did simultaneous translation. You know, have the person in the booth, and the people get the head sets, and we recorded both tracks for the video stream so that you could listen to it in English, or Italian.
Obviously that doesn’t service very possibly, but considering we were in Italy, it kind of made sense. So there are things like that that organizers can do, and sometimes, it’s a cost thing, and other times, I think it just didn’t come up. What I hear a lot, and I was talking about this with an organizer, and I was saying, hey, have you thought about having accessible bathrooms, like all-gender bathrooms? Make one bathroom all-gender, just as an option. And they immediately said–
Liz Brown: Oh yeah.
MikeDemo: Oh, well, we have no one in our community, that would serve. And I’m like–
Liz Brown: How do they know?
MikeDemo: And I’m like A, you’re not sure, and B, I don’t think that’s the point, right? And, so, what was cool about it was one of these events was like well, we never thought about it, so let’s ask the venue, and now that venue is thinking about installing permanent all-gender bathroom options in that venue …
It was a college, actually, so, just by asking these questions, because these organizers are volunteers a lot of the time. I don’t think there’s any mal-intent, it’s just, maybe they didn’t think of it, and if it doesn’t affect you personally, unless you make a really concerted effort, it’s really hard to think about all of these situations, because, you know, I am only what I am–
Liz Brown: Yeah. You can’t blame people for not thinking of everything. We’re not out here trying to be in a battle or to solve every problem [inaudible 00:14:05]. I wonder if making a universal checklist or something and throwing it out to the community would be helpful at all, but I do feel that if you want to call yourself a leader, you shouldn’t have to wait for other people to self-identify. I had a conversation with somebody else about this recently, about transgender people and things like all-gender bathrooms. And someone commented back to me, well, that person didn’t self-identify so how would I have known?
I think it’s an interesting discussion to have. How do you … When you do a survey before an event or people buy their tickets on line, is there a preferred pronoun section on the document that could be optional, so that you do know whether or not to expect these things, because I feel that as a good leader, you should be looking for ways to deal with these issues before they come up, but again, there’s not a universal checklist or anything like that, so, how do we educate other organizers to be better?
MikeDemo: Well actually, good idea with universal checklist, because let’s be honest, every code of conduct at all of these events has on their website, is copied from another event, you see, and this code of conduct was influenced by this event, and that event’s code of conduct was influenced by another. It might not be a bad idea to start a GitHub project or something, and just have all of these event organizers talk about situations they’ve encountered, and things that they now think about, because there are so many different situations.
Drupal Camp in Nashville, a couple of months ago, they had different stickers for the name badges if you wanted to be approached for discussions or networking. So, if you’re maybe more an introvert, or you didn’t really want to be super-active or engage with people, or maybe it was your first public event, you had that ability to control your event experience. And we just want to have these events, and have our software, open source, in general, be accessible to as many people as possible.
Liz Brown: Oh, yeah. Exactly.
MikeDemo: So, speaking of code of conduct. What do you think about these code of conduct policies that events are putting on their websites? Do you think they are helpful? Do you think they’re kind of boiler plate now and don’t really have much action, or do you think it all depends on how the events respond to different situations?
Liz Brown: I think that what you were saying about … some people are sharing so in some ways they are kind of boiler plate right now, but on the same note, I think that a lot of people are really missing something when … Think about [EULA 00:17:13] right? Think about a EULA agreement, first off, and how no one reads the EULA. Who is reading the code of conduct?
That’s what I want to know, are … I’ve been to some events where they don’t even mention it. I remember when we first met we had talked about, oh, do they have a code of conduct for the Awwwards event? They had it on their website but they didn’t announce it or anything like that at the opening of the event.
I think that is one thing I have noticed about tech focused events, developer focused events, I guess, in comparison to designer focused events, is that a lot more developer conferences mention code of conduct at the opening of their conference than any other events I’ve gone to. I think that they are kind of generic, and no one really reads them, but there’s a way to do it where if you present it at the beginning, I think it’s good.
And some people laugh at it, so I don’t know if it’s an issue of the code of conduct not being taken seriously or what, but I’ve been to conferences where people just completely ignore it.
MikeDemo: Yeah. And unfortunately, you know, that’s always the case and then, the code of conduct usually talks about, oh, if you have questions, or if you have a situation, contact a staff member or send this email or whatever the case is. And then I guess it depends on how that conference responds to those things that are brought up, and what I always tell people is, you don’t have to be the person the action’s directed at to let staff know if you see something. Now, for the most part–
Liz Brown: That’s true. Good point.
MikeDemo: Yeah. You don’t have to be the target to say, hey, I noticed this, just FYI, you know, whatever. But I go to dozens and dozens of events a year. I would say 98 percent of the people I encounter are amazing people and no issues. But, one bad experience, as rare as it may be, compared to everybody that’s there, at all these events, it could really turn off somebody from coming back, or, even worse, it could have other consequences. If people have depression or things like that, and all the great work that open source in mental illness is doing to help talk about developers and mental health and things. So I think it’s important to be all inclusive–
Liz Brown: Oh yeah.
MikeDemo: As much as we can and we can always do better. All of us can.
Liz Brown: Yeah, and probably also to be open minded to the fact that not everybody has the … not everyone has appropriate language for every situation. So, I went to an event where someone was trying to tell a story in support of transgender people but because he didn’t have the proper language he used the wrong pronouns when he was telling the story, and a lot of people got really upset about it, even though he was trying to be supportive.
So, I think that you’ve got to be a little bit flexible and willing to see from both sides sometimes and have those hard discussions. But I’ve also been to other events where … We went to one event where somebody said a joke about black people in the first 24 hours that we were there and it turned in to an entire debacle and I had to see where I stood as a leader having brought two of my team members with me to another country.
And how was I going to handle that? Was I going to pull my sponsorship? Was I going to write a letter to the other sponsors and let them know? And I had to react very quickly, without any real preparation for it. Because these are things that you don’t think about, but … I’ve actually had a lot of … I’ve had, maybe, at least one incident at every event I’ve gone to, as far as developer events. It’s pretty unfortunate.
MikeDemo: Yeah, that is. I spend most of my time at WordPress events and I can only think of one WordPress event where there was a situation that had to get reported based on their code of conduct–
Liz Brown: Oh yeah. I feel like it’s a good community, the WordPress community.
MikeDemo: For sure. And they do a good job trying … They teach these … They have a group in the WordPress project that will teach people how to find diverse speakers for your conferences because a lot of times people, you know your little inner circle, and you might not know very many women or people of color or LGBTQ community members, and it’s not that you’re trying to exclude people, it’s, you know, oh, I’m doing this conference, hey, Joe, sign up, hey Bill, sign up, and those ways, to engage with that.
With that question, as a woman in the tech community, do you think that there is still a gender divide?
Liz Brown: Yeah. Of course.
MikeDemo: And what do you think that we can do as an open source community to try to pull in these different people and also be welcoming?
Liz Brown: Sure, well, one way that we’ve done it, because we were running the official Ionic meetup in Philadelphia, and what we would do is, we would always have women from our team show up at the meetup, this way if another woman showed up, even if only one woman came to our meetup outside of our company, we would always have someone there to play a supportive role.
Even if it just means looking across the room and seeing somebody else like you. And the same thing for making sure that we always had a person of color in the room, because I think that there’s this discomfort that people feel when they walk in and they notice that they’re the only one. They’re the only woman, they’re the only person of color, they’re the only LGBTQ person. I think it’s really important to make sure you’re thinking ahead as an organizer and plan to plant some people, so that when people come in they have somebody. That’s at least been my method. [crosstalk 00:24:26].
MikeDemo: Yeah it’s good to try to have people that people can connect with and identify with and start conversations and usually if, you know, I kind of make it akin to, like, if you go to a new church the first time, they have their welcome wagon, it’s like, oh, hey, how’s it going? It’s always helpful if you connect with that person, and, in some situations, if that person is the same gender, race, sexual orientation, it adds some comfort level so that when they introduce you to other people and they can start conversations and really enjoy the event and not feel self-conscious or like an outsider, and get the most out of the content. Because a lot of times you’re paying a good amount of money to go to these things.
Liz Brown: Oh yeah. And also to bring it up and not shy away from it. You know, like I think at a lot of events they don’t want to talk about the numbers and the representation at an event. But I remember when I opened JS Kongress last year talking about diversity, I wasn’t planning on being the opening speaker, I was planning on speaking like later in the day or the second day of the event, and they shifted me to be opening speaker, and afterwards, I had people come up to me and say that it had been the first conference that they felt comfortable at. One woman said she hadn’t been to a conference that she felt comfortable at in over 10 years. But she was pretty excited that she had heard us talk about diversity at the opening. She had never experienced that before.
MikeDemo: Awesome. So last question because we’re running out of our half hour here. What [crosstalk 00:26:09] can everybody do as just an attendee, or a speaker or a leader do to help push the line in the right direction so we can all be pulling the rope the same way, because I think a lot of people, especially attendees, they’re like, well, I don’t know what I can do or how I can help, you know, even though they are an ally.
Liz Brown: Sure. I think two things stand clear to me, first if you see something say something. It doesn’t have to be you. It doesn’t have to be you in the situation. If you see somebody else in a moment of discomfort or anything like that then step in and try to be supportive of them or go tell somebody else and ask for help.
And then the other thing is, feedback. Feedback is everything. If you don’t give feedback to these event organizers, whether it’s before or after the event, then what do you expect to happen? You can’t just wait for change to happen. Sometimes you have to be the catalyst for change, the driving force for change, and don’t be afraid to be that person. You can do it anonymously. You don’t have to throw yourself out there and throw, hashtag cause a scene, [#causeascene 00:27:29], or anything like that on it, but I do think it’s important to step up and speak out.
MikeDemo: Excellent. And I’m just kind of going to end this with something that I talk about whenever I give my diversity talk at different conferences is, open source is an international thing. These projects have people from every country, race, religion, creed, gender, sexual orientation, all over. And it’s impossible for everybody to agree with everyone, especially with politics and religious views and everything else, and that’s okay.
I feel like a lot of people feel that inclusiveness means they need to change their firmly held beliefs, and maybe they will, but when we come to these events and we come to these projects to help, I feel like we can all agree that we can be civil and be polite and be human to each other because there’s no way that everyone’s going to agree about everything, especially in today’s landscape with all the politics and everything going on.
But when we come to these open source projects and events amazing stuff happens when we just focus on the code or the design and the humans behind everything. And I think that’s really magical, and that’s what I try to remind people of when people are like, well, I have religious disagreements against that. Okay, I get that. But when we’re here, we’re here for the event and we’re here for the conference and we’re here for each other.
Liz Brown: Yeah. Exactly. And as long as you’re trying to be mindful, as long as you’re actively listening and actively trying to be mindful, a lot of wonderful things can happen. I completely agree with what you just said there. I think that you do have to be mindful that you’re working across cultures and language barriers and things like that, and I would recommend that people take the time to learn a little bit more about places before they go to an event in another country and also just keep an open mind.
That’s the number one thing is keep an open mind and treat people the way you want to be treated, and respect other people’s … You can agree to disagree and be respectful about it.
MikeDemo: Yeah. Have an open mind. A mind works like a parachute. It’s better when open.
Liz Brown: Yeah. Exactly.
MikeDemo: Awesome. Well, while we’re wrapping up, how can people follow you on-line? What networks are you on? Your Twitter is below your video, right now, so people can follow you at Twitter.
Liz Brown: It’s pretty much, it’s @lizbrownsays everywhere. I’m on Instagram, Twitter. You can find me on LinkedIn, too, and I’m trying to put out some Facebook stuff, too, and see where that goes, but everything is under the same user name and my new company is called Design Jawn, J, A, W, N. So you can find me on Twitter with that. And I’m going to be posting some templates and things like that and maybe I’ll try out this universal checklist idea and see where I can go with that.
MikeDemo: That would be great. Just want to remind everyone to go to boldgrid.com. You can follow me on Twitter at @mpmike, my Twitter is below my video, and please join us next week when we do some special Bold Life episodes from Belgrade, Serbia at the Word Camp EU Conference.
Liz Brown: Wow.
MikeDemo: Thanks so much for joining us today, Liz. I appreciate it.
Liz Brown: Yeah. Thanks for having me.
MikeDemo: Bye, bye.
Liz Brown: See ya.