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The Advantages of Networking Offline

by Audrey Eschright
09/26/2007

Audrey Eschright is an independent programmer/designer/publisher in Portland, OR.

A somewhat indirect path led me back to software development after several detours. I taught myself Perl (and then Ruby) in my free time, but I didn't know anyone who was doing the kind of work I wanted to do, and I didn't know how to become employable in those areas. Even with blogs and a huge array of social networking tools, it was difficult to get started. I started attending user group meetings about a year and a half ago to address this. Getting out of the house to meet my fellow geeks has been one of the most useful choices I've made, and I want to encourage other women (and men) who work in technical fields to do the same.

The first benefit I noticed from user groups was seeing other people's projects and code. This gave me an idea of the current landscape for the languages in which I was interested, in addition to specific tools and techniques people were using. At first, large parts of the discussion went over my head, but that improved as I gained experience. Now I've picked up knowledge on all sorts of areas of programming that I wouldn't have thought to look into on my own.

Getting involved with local technology groups has also helped reduce my sense of isolation. People who work from home often feel the most disconnected, though even office workers find benefits to meeting people outside their own company. It can be a huge relief to talk to people who do similar work elsewhere—not just to share technical information, but also to talk about the interpersonal and financial aspects of what we do. We talk about how to get open source technologies into the enterprise, setting up as an independent contractor, and recent events in our field; we also talk about beer (Portland is a microbrew-lover's town), movies, and bicycling. I've gained a huge wealth of contacts, not only from showing up at meetings and events, but by offering to help organize them as well. I now know who to ask to find out more about database optimization or writing a DSL. I pass on job leads when I hear of them, and other people have done the same for me. I try to network with people online, too, but almost all of the people I talk to and share information with regularly—on Twitter, Facebook, and other sites—are those whom I've met in person. A quick chat at an event has helped jump-start conversations with people who had been silent online contacts for a while. Even geeks often connect best in person.

Women, in particular, have something to gain by taking interactions offline. I've rarely encountered overt sexism in the tech industry when face-to-face, but online? Oh, yes. People feel much more free in front of a computer (another variant of this is that the Internet turns people into assholes; you can take your pick). Want to see this in action? Compare the IRC backchannel conversations at a conference with what people actually say out loud. The backchannel talk, when contrasted with people's behavior at panels and in the halls, can almost make the conference seem like two different events. In-person interactions often create a friendlier environment.

Women are still in the minority at all of the events I attend (with the exception of a new geek women's lunch group, and something else called Code 'n Splode, a meetup for women programmers that's just getting started). Even groups that actively want to increase their diversity may not have a good sense of why certain people do or don't attend. I don't think anyone has a complete answer to the problem, but here are at least a few things that you—as a leader or member of the group—can consider as a starting point to solving this:

People need to know your group or event exists. Word of mouth is good, but it can also create a very homogeneous set of participants. Have a web page. Have a mailing list. Check out sites such as Upcoming or Craigslist. Make it easy to find out who you are and what you do.

Outsiders need to feel welcome. There are plenty of tips for how to accomplish this elsewhere online, but a friendly mailing list is one place to start. People often lurk for a while before showing up in person.

Include everyone equally. Minority participants are more likely to stick around if there doesn't seem to be a big red arrow hanging over their head. Gawking at women is still (amazingly) common in online spaces, ranging from "What, there are women in this IRC channel?" to "Show us pics!" This can make even the bravest of us a little reluctant to meet people at events. I've also read some interesting research on what's called the "cohort effect." This study came out of colleges' attempts to recruit more minority students and faculty. Schools found that their retention rate was higher when the focus shifted from attracting individual minority members to an entire cohort group. I think this is very applicable to any organization that currently has a low level of diversity in its membership. Encouraging a whole group of women or other under-represented sorts to participate will have long-term benefits.

Reconsider beer and pizza. This is a problem that I've found harder to observe and fix. Often the default sort of event for tech groups is some kind of beer and/or pizza night during the week (perhaps with a presentation or two thrown in). While it appeals to me, I have found that this is a complete turn-off for many women who don't have any existing social contacts within these groups. They may have other commitments that interfere with attending weeknight events, or they may be uninterested in drinking with people with whom they don't normally socialize. Because these people aren't participating in the first place, you won't hear about it unless you ask someone who's been reluctant to check out the user group meeting why they don't go. I've been trying to come up with ways to structure events that work for a wider variety of people. Maybe it means changing the time and place (meeting at lunchtime or on a weekend afternoon) or changing the venue completely (having a family-friendly picnic). I encourage group organizers and event planners to think about trying something different.

In Portland, we're blessed with a huge range of groups to check out. At last count, the wiki I set up to index them listed 41 different events and organizations, and it's probably still missing a few. But maybe your local area doesn't seem to have anything interesting or accessible. So, what can you do as an individual? Here are some suggestions:

Don't be afraid to start something on your own. Even if it's just a few people meeting for lunch once a month or a show-and-tell session after-hours for some of your coworkers. Tara Hunt has said that she thought there were no geeks to talk to in Toronto, until they had a BarCamp and suddenly all sorts of people came out. BarCamp and other open space events can be a great opportunity for collecting people with similar interests, because the content of each event is determined by the participants.

Look for ways to make allies across groups. Locally, I've discovered a lot of crossover between people who work with PHP, Java, and Ruby, so there could be interesting opportunities to talk about topics that are relevant to all of us (such as testing or the future of software on the Web).

Don't feel like you have to do it all alone. If you meet someone else who seems excited about having a weekend hardware hackers lunch, enlist their help in setting it up. Spreading work around will get more people involved and keep you sane.

So get out there. Meet people. Collaborate. Share the fun.


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