So I called out a stranger for being sexist on the internet today

Memorial for women who fought and aided in the Vietnam War
Memorial for women who fought–and aided others–in the Vietnam War

I’ve been learning a lot about low-level sexism in the workplace. I don’t think any of us men in the tech sector wake up in the morning and say “I’m gonna be misogynistic at work today!” Yet sexism still continues in such a pervasive manner that it’s almost impossible to root out of tech culture unless you’re actively searching for it.

My eyes have been opened up to this over the past year or two, from teaching and working with students and graduates from Ada Developers Academy. For all the mentoring, onboarding, and skills-development I do for my team, I think it’s fair to say that the my team has taught me more than I’ve taught them.

For instance, it wasn’t until a few months ago that I heard about the concept of “microaggressions“, little sexist things that people do/say without thinking about them and certainly without intending any harm. Things that individually are meaningless, but in aggregate determine the culture of a group.

Here’s a list of a few of them…recognize anything you do?

After reading that article, I vowed to stop doing #13 on the list: Staying quiet when other men do these things. Today I was put to the test in an online forum I visit, filled with tech industry leaders. It went a little like this:

tim*: we use for some light videoconferencing

joe: That’s a sexist product name

tim: they are a bunch of dudes

joe: They can be dudes, girls, or goldfish. And as individuals, I bet they’re not sexist people. Doesn’t change the fact that the product name is sexist.

tim: I dunno. It’s not the most enlightened name, but it’s not actively discriminating either.

joe: Tim, are we talking about the same thing? “Hi Guys” is discriminating in its very name. Might want to brush up on “microaggressions”

tim: If I’m reading that right, it needs to be unintentional to be a microaggression, right? i.e. Don Draper’s aggressions aren’t terribly “micro” (I’d like to state for the record that I’m not approving of the name)

joe: First off, I have to admit that I’m way out of my league at this point in the discussion. I’m pretty new to the “women in tech” issue and just trying to do my part (e.g. by following guideline #13 in that article). I think that doing something sexist doesn’t make you a sexist person, but it still makes what you did a sexist thing. So it’s a microaggression regardless of intent.

tim: joe, so it sounds like we agree on quite a bit, from my perspective, this is a rather minor semantics discussion (and therefore utterly unproductive)

joe: Tim, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one, b/c I think this gets to the core of the issue: having an inclusive culture so you can hire the best talent. Earlier, I noticed you asked “How do I avoid making female candidates feel excluded/unwelcome?” Perhaps you’re a bit closer to the answer now, if you stop to think about it.

* Totally Tim’s real name because fuck you Tim! Just kidding, not his real name and the transcript was cleaned up for concision and to remove anything identifying.

I would NEVER have done that a year ago. I would have either chuckled at the product name; thought to myself “that’s gonna turn some people off but the free-market will decide”; or thought “I hope someone else calls him on that.”

Ironically, its my dominant position in the industry that gives me the freedom to go out on a limb for others like this. I’m a white male with a great job, a huge professional network, and over a decade of industry experience. I’m practically drowning in my own privilege.

BTW, I don’t consider myself a hero. In 2012, I took issue with how long Obama waited to make a public stance in support of gay marriage. He literally waited until the day after 50% of the voting public approved of it in political polling. Now I did something similar by going most of my career without speaking up for what I think is right. I can only apologize for my past cowardice, and use my ungodly levels of privilege to keep on following Rule #13.


Ada Developers Academy is now accepting applications for their Fall class. Please pass this on to every woman you know. In talking to current and former Ada students, the one thing I hear over and over is “I was always interested in technology but when I was growing up, nobody ever told me that I could be an engineer.” And these are super-intelligent people with grit and an aptitude for learning. So even if you don’t pass the news along to anybody, please do me one small favor. Find a girl in your life that you love and say this to her: “Know what? You can be an engineer or scientist if you want to!” Imagine how many more engineers we’ll have in 10 years, inventing the technology that will power the future.

How to run a great Sprint Demo

What: Once a sprint, we have a company-wide Sprint Demo, where engineers can show off the work they’ve done in the previous sprint. It’s pretty casual. No powerpoints or vaporware allowed, just live demos of working product (which could be new user-facing functionality, or a command-line tool for internal usage).

Just as sprints deliver small iterations of work, there’s no feature too small to demo. We’ve had engineers show off everything from “I got a new server up… see, you can hit this URL and it gives you a Welcome page!” to “We finally put the finishing touches on this huge multi-month project”…and both receive the same thunderous applause and kudos from the company.

Who: Invite the entire company. It’s essential for Senior Management to attend and participate, to show that this is a valuable use of everyone’s time (which it is… See “Why” below). Our CEO has a running bit where he says “This is awesome!! When can we fucking sell this?” at least once per sprint.

How/Where: Ours are in the lunchroom right after lunch (we have free catered lunch every day…and we’re hiring). If we weren’t already getting fed, I’d bring some snacks or drinks. Any common area where the entire company can gather, with a monitor large enough for all to see what’s going on. It’ll depend on the size of your company. We’ve needed to add more A/V as we’ve grown: larger monitor, Hangouts for remote folks, wireless microphones for participants to ask questions, etc. But it started with just a few people around a monitor, so don’t let A/V scare you off.

Why: It’s really about recognizing the hard work that the dev team puts in, sprint after sprint. One downside of iterative development is that it’s rare when a huge chunk of work is pulled out of the oven, unlike in sales where they go dark for months and then land a huge deal with champagne and liquid shrimp. When devs present their work, they can show off what they’ve accomplished and get recognized by the rest of the team. It’s so simple and light-weight that few people realize it’s a fortnightly venue for dev recognition! Also, it’s a low-pressure way for devs to practice public-speaking skills (see below).

More general best-practices:

Here are a few other things I’ve learned that will make the demo run more smoothly…

  • Create a sign up sheet accessible to all, and have folks sign up ahead of time. Then you’ll know the agenda.
  • Coach your teammates on how to prepare for giving a demo (especially the introverts). A lot of this is public-speaking best-practices, but few devs have exposure to these skills…
    • Have them practice the demo
    • Have URLs ready so they can walk up to the demo laptop and type them in
    • If applicable, get on the Google Hangout (if presenting remotely or from their own computer)
    • Increase their font size, until it seems ridiculous
    • Speak up
    • Repeat audience questions to make sure everyone heard them
    • Before going into the demo itself, address the Whys: “Why was this built?”, “What customer (or internal) pain-point does this solve?”
  • The person giving the demo has the floor, so as MC it’s your job to maintain order. It rarely happens, but sometimes audience members are really excited to jump in with a question/anecdote/etc.
  • Other best-practices for meetings apply too: take longer discussions offline, keep things positive and constructive, etc.


Hope this helps! Let me know if you have any questions. It’s a great investment of one hour per sprint, and a fun tradition.