Beyond the Code: Not Your Average Tech Conference

View outside the Ottawa Convention Centre, the location of Beyond the Code.

This past Friday, September 19th, I attended the first ever Beyond the Code conference in Ottawa, Ontario, sponsored by Shopify. The event was absolutely wonderful.

Every detail of the event, from the speaker’s topics, to the workshops, the healthy lunch, delicious coffee and snacks came together to show the organizer’s attention to detail and passion for creating an accessible, amazing day. The affordable ticket ($75 – 100 – including any workshop) cost ensured a wide variety of people were able to attend.

Beyond the Code was different than any other tech conference I’ve attended or even heard of. The most obvious difference?

All fifteen speakers and panelists at Beyond the Code were women.

Was happy to meet @alambzz, the brain behind @beyondthecode14. It’s an ALL women speaker lineup. Other conference organizers: take note!

— Pearl Chen (@PearlChen) September 19, 2014

A Different Kind of Tech Conference:
Focused on Diversity, Inclusivity and Empathy

Anna Lambert from Shopify organized the event and her efforts to create a diverse, inclusive environment were amazingly successful. She kicked off the day and discussed how three major issues at tech conferences motivated her to organize and create Beyond the Code.

The issues:

  1. Women are underrepresented
  2. You need to be technical to understand and participate
  3. They are intimidating because topics are often extremely specific

These systemic issues put together create a difficult environment for those simply looking to learn, connect with others, or find out more about opportunities and careers in the tech industry. I completely identified with these issues, and couldn’t be more pleased that someone took action.

When Anna closed her introduction by saying “Beyond the Code is about promoting diversity, inclusivity and empathy in the workplace” and “badass women“, I knew Beyond the Code was going to be amazing.

The Best Part: Real Discussion of Solutions to Issues

Speakers such as Kronda Adair, Sabrina Majeed, Katherine Daniels, Ellen Chisa and many more discussed problems in the tech industry, and the workplace AND shared ideas for solutions.

It’s easy enough to discuss a problem, but you need to take action to make a difference. Throughout the day, speakers discussed common barriers to entry, and shared solutions for personal and systematic changes.

Highlights of the Talks at Beyond the Code

Kronda Adair: Expanding Your Empathy

Kronda Adair giving her Expanding Your Empathy Talk at Beyond the Code

Kronda Adair during her amazing Expanding Empathy talk at Beyond the Code

I’ve been a fan of Kronda Adair’s writing ever since I read her blog post titled Why I Don’t Use GoDaddy (And You Shouldn’t Either). I loved her honest yet assertive way of explaining why no one should use GoDaddy.

Her talk, Expanding Your Empathy, was the first talk of the day and it set the tone for the entire conference. Throughout the talk, Kronda combined stories and powerful metaphors to communicate her message. I love her definition of empathy:

#Empathy, in case you don’t remember, is ‘giving a shit about someone besides yourself.’ Thats’ a rough translation but you get the idea. — Kronda (@kronda) August 20, 2014

Privilege & Web Browsers

While discussing how privilege affects your perspective of the world, Kronda compared privilege to web browsers. Depending on your level of privilege or the browser you’re using, you may have a very different experience accessing information. Using the latest version of Google Chrome? Equivalent to a white male’s experience in life. A middle class black lesbian like Kronda? Experiences life a lot more like IE7. You still view the same content, but you might have to try harder to access it, or it might be a little wonky.

The tech industry is in a feedback loop that looks like this. We need to break it. #BTCempathy #beyondthecode
— Kronda (@kronda) September 19, 2014

Kronda’s talk was powerful. I don’t want to repeat everything she said here. You can check out her from the Expanding Your Empathy talk, or her blog post titled Diversity 101 to read more about her advice on empathy and social justice.

The most important take-away from Kronda’s talk was to take action. She shared advice on dealing with common issues like derailing, tone policing, and splaining. Her method on responding if you have offended someone:

  1. Stop & take a breath
  2. Listen
  3. Apologize – do not get defensive

Further Reading: Articles on Social Justice, Racism & Empathy

Sabrina Majeed: Design is for Everyone

Throughout Sabrina‘s design career, she has worked in the entertainment and financial sectors. Currently at Buzzfeed, she discussed the design industry as a whole, its strengths and its faults.

Sabrina discussed the recent tragic event in Ferguson, Missouri where an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown was fatally shot by a white police officer. Soon after the shooting, high school students in Georgia created an iOS and Android app called FiveO. The app allows users to document interactions with police and share experiences amongst one another.

FiveO was inspired by the students’ own experiences. We all experience life differently and naturally come up with solutions to our own experiences. This is one of the reasons why the design industry needs a diverse workforce. We need to develop solutions to issues that all people face – not just the white upper middle class.

the farther you are from white privileged male (in terms of diversity), the more tech needs you #beyondthecode
— vicki saunders (@vickis) September 19, 2014

The Future of Beyond the Code?

This was the first Beyond the Code conference, and I hope it will become an annual event. I chatted and connected with more people than I have at any other conference. I often leave conferences feeling overwhelmed with how much I still need to learn. At Beyond the Code, I left feeling excited and empowered by all the knowledge I gained from the fantastic speakers and panelists.

Links: Talks & Resources from Beyond the Code

  1. Laure Cohen

    Melissa,I owe you one for allowing me to relive my unforgettable experience last week at Beyondthe code. You’be done an outstanding job at summarizing the day and the unique ambiance. Thank you!

    • Melissa Jean Clark

      Thank you for the kind words Laure & for the follow on Twitter! It really was a great day, I hope it happens again next year.


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