Learning at All Things Open

October 31, 2014

“Everyone here is empowered to be the ambassador for open source.” 
Ben Balter in his talk “Software development as a civic service”

Last week I had the opportunity to attend All Things Open in Raleigh, NC. I returned home energized and inspired, and ready to find a way to contribute. It was great being surrounded by more than 1,000 people who believe they can change the world, and feeling like I had a place at the table.

As a first (if small) step, I wanted to share some of the highlights for me and things that I found particularly interesting.

  1. Culture is important, but it may not be what you think it is

Culture is a big selling point for many companies, and there is often a focus on fun perks as differentiators – rock walls, beer kegs in the company kitchen, ping pong tables, etc. What I found interesting about Pamela Vickers’ talk titled “Your Company Culture is “Awesome” (But is company culture a lie?)” ( is that she highlighted that what really seems to matter isn’t necessarily the shiny fun perks, but the underlying values that drive people to work somewhere. She referenced Martin Seligman’s PERMA acronym: Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Achievement,” and discussed how positive emotions usually come from from meaningful, engaging work (there was a lot of letter math – her slides are available if you want to take a look).

Focusing on good communication, appropriate tools or resources (including possible timelines), and interesting and engaging projects that have value are what drive a good company culture. While these will be different at each company, how a company defines these points sets a foundation to build their culture on. And maintaining a culture is work; it’s something that needs to be actively cultivated, rather than defined once in a mission statement and calling it done.

If there can be rock walls or ping pong tables on top of the other stuff that really matters, well that’s icing on the cake.

  1. When there’s real conversation, panels are excellent!

On Thursday, there was a gender diversity panel that featured honest conversation about women in technology. The panel included DeLisa Alexander (host), Dr. Megan Squire, Elizabeth K. Joseph, Erica Stanley, Estelle Weyl, and Karen M. Sandler. Others have done a better job at highlighting the panel (see Jen Wike Huger’s blog post), but I wanted to share two points that I personally found interesting:

I believe it was Elizabeth Joseph who brought up that women in technology often get funneled into diversity efforts (this is not a bad thing!). As women’s careers in the technology field progress, contributing to “women-in-tech efforts” (for lack of a better label) can become more prominent, but this then creates a new demand on an already limited resource: time. There is then the choice on how to spend time and effort: on the technical work that (presumably) originally drew women to the field or working on efforts to bring more women into tech and level playing field. Both roles – technical and community development – are necessary. We need more women in tech and tech needs to be a better place for women to be, but being there also means the opportunity to do cool, technical work. I find it interesting that simply by being a woman in the field, it becomes an additional role you must choose whether to participate in.

In addition to choices made once in the field, Erica Stanley talked about choices that lead to getting into the field in the first place. I really liked her observation that for many women (not all), the path into a technology career is much more zig zagged for women than it is for men. In her experience, many of the women in technology that she knows have followed a non-linear trajectory into technology.

  1. Walking the Walk  – Open is inclusive

Kudos to the ATO team and everyone there for creating an event that not only focused on all things open, but actually created an environment that embodied those values. As a non-developer in a technical world, when I’m at certain events or conferences, I sometimes feel that I have to justify being somewhere or part of a conversation; that my contributions  matter, but maybe not quite as much as if I wrote in C++ or JavaScript, rather than plain old English. But the ATO crowd got it absoutely right – it was inclusive and everyone there participated and contributed. ATO was a space where participants were encouraged to share with the community, and bring their gifts to the conversation, to see how we could all move open source forward. It felt like a physical manifestation of the ideals of open source.

The ATO organizers packed a ton into a two-day event, and these thoughts are just the tip of the iceberg. The socials provided a great opportunity to meet so many new people, and the talks stretched my mind and broadened my perspective (links to the talks I attended below). My best advice for truly appreciating ATO: attend next year, October 18-20. It’s already on my calendar.

Talks I attended:

Ben Balter – Software Development as a Civic Service
Jeffrey Hammond -Open Source by the Numbers
Arfon Smith – What Academia Can Learn from Open Source
Leslie Hawthorn – What Does Big Data Really Mean For Your Business?
Bob Young – So You Want to Start an Open Source Company?
Steven Vaughan-Nichols – Open Source, Marketing, and Using the Press
Panel: the Culture of Open Source
Erin Richey – Bringing Design Thinking to Open Source
Pamela Vickers – Your Company Culture is Awesome (But is Company Culture a Lie?)

6 comments to Learning at All Things Open

  1. It was a great conference, filled with interesting people. I won’t take it personally that you skipped my presentation, you helped a lot with the first talk I did of this kind last year at TEDxAlbany. Great conference, I am glad you got so much out of it. The panels were great, and it was also nice to meet people in real life who I follow online.

  2. Katie,
    How diverse was the audience for the gender diversity panel? I am concerned about the lack of gender diversity in science and engineering: especially computer science. In the early days of computing I saw a decent gender distribution. My first job, our small computing group was about 60/40 male/female. At GE Research, in my early days, we had about the same ratio. The percentage of females declined over the years. When I retired in 2007 my group had 1 female.


  3. Bill,

    The audience for the gender diversity panel appeared to be relatively balanced, probably around 60/40. However, the conference as a whole wasn’t nearly that balanced, based on the keynotes when they got most of the attendees in the room.


  4. Katie,

    60/40 for that panel is encouraging. Do you know if the panel was recorded and if it is “opening” available?



  5. Bill,

    I believe they recorded the panel (among many of the other talks), but the videos are not posted yet. @AllThingsOpen on Twitter keeps updating folks. I’m looking forward to the videos to watch some of the talks I wasn’t able to see.

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