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Generosity Gives Back - RubyConf 2014

December 2014 - Grand Rapids

I was failing at RubyConf. I was one of “those guys”: white dude in jeans, t-shirt and hoodie, walking down the middle of the hallway staring at my phone in order to avoid eye contact.

I knew I was failing. The voice in my head screamed at me “you’re blowing it!” every time a took a step, which made me feel more like a loser and less able to step outside my comfort zone and really get some benefit from this conference I’d flown the width of the country to attend.

The “hallway track” is the one part of a tech conference you can’t watch online from home. It’s the place for cross-pollination, where you meet people from different places with different problems and skillsets and backgrounds and interests. People that aren’t exactly like you. The ones that can expand your mind and make you think about things in a novel way. The ones that remind you that your world isn’t the whole world.

Outside My Comfort Zone

Long before the conf, in the comfort of my cubicle, I’d decided to be bold. To stretch outside my comfort zone and not just take from the conference: I wanted to contribute. I’d been to RubyConf in 2012, so this time I needed to level up and submit a talk. I picked a subject near and dear to my heart, poured all my energy into putting together what I thought was a kick-ass proposal and sent it off, heart pounding in my chest.

It was rejected. Which sucked. I knew there was only an outside chance my first talk submission would be accepted, but it stung. More importantly, it meant I needed to find some other way to contribute.

A few weeks before the conf, I signed-up to be a Guide for one of the Opportunity Scholars the conf sponsored. As a friendly face to talk to and answer questions, I could make a first-time attendee feel welcome. It would be a win-win: I can be much more confident and outgoing if it’s to someone else’s benefit instead of my own.

In the end, that didn’t work out either, because I never got to meet my Scholar. I missed the “meet and greet” event due to a delayed flight, and they apparently decided they were fine facing the conf on their own.

Strike two.


When I thought I’d be guiding a newbie through the conf, I figured the “Beginner Track” would be the most beneficial to my Scholar. This worked out great, because it was the track I was most interested in anyway.

It was terrific. I’m not a beginner, but the topics on that track had broad utility outside that narrow definition. Kerri Miller’s “Five Things” talk and Abraham Sangha’s “TDD For Your Soul” in particular should be required watching for every developer.

And though it wasn’t technically on the “Beginner Track”, “Good Luck With That: Tag Teaming Civic Data” from Hsing-Hui Hsu and Liz Rush was possibly the most inspiring conf talk I’ve ever seen. These two “novices” exemplify everything a world-class developer should be: tenacious, creative, cooperative, learning-focused and dedicated to helping people with tech. My notes from that talk are one word: wow.

Birds of a Feather (BOF)

During her talk, Kerri challenged all of us to think of a lightning talk to give at the end of Day 2, and said she would help us any way she could, even offering up her super-duper remote control if we needed it. Lightning talks are five-minute mini-talks on any topic the presenter likes. They’re a great on-ramp to giving a full-length talk in the future.

I considered doing an abbreviated version of my talk – and in retrospect missed a golden opportunity to talk about Saron Yitbarek’s fantastic CodeNewbie project – but instead decided to stretch in a different direction and host a “Birds of a Feather” session.

BOFs are evening sessions anyone can host on any subject they like. I picked “Pair Programming” because I wanted an activity that would help people engage in the very way I’d failed to the first day of the conf. With a common goal to occupy our minds, we could forget we were shy and drowning in impostor syndrome.

I want to emphasize that I didn’t pick this topic because I’m an expert in pair programming: I’m not. I’ve done a few hours of it, but my main goal was to draw in people who do it all day, every day and match them with people like myself who want to do it more but lack the practical experience.

That’s how I pitched it to everyone I met on Day 2: come help me, because I don’t know what I’m doing. In fact, knowing that I needed people to come to my session – I couldn’t pair by myself – helped me talk to way more people on Day 2. The “social distraction” theory proved itself: my goal of recruiting helped me forget that I wasn’t comfortable talking to strangers.

The session itself was a mixed-bag: there was a lot I could have done better. But I accomplished my overall goal of drawing in coders with extensive pairing experience – Sam Livingston-Gray and Kane Baccigalupi – and picking their brains about how to do pairing better. Several other newbies like myself came and benefited as well, so I’d call the session my first actual success of the conf.

Hallway Track My Way

Once I’d “opened the floodgates” hosting the BOF, I finally started to come out of my shell and had several amazing conversations with developers from radically-different environments.

I talked until the wee hours of the morning with Yunlei, a dev from California whose heavily-structured corporate world is the polar opposite of my experience in nearly every way.

I actually left the BOF for a few minutes to help Hugo – a dev from Sao Paolo, Brazil – who was having trouble finding the session he was looking for. We had a long conversation that ended with him recruiting me to come give my talk in Brazil! I doubt my boss would foot the bill for that, but it was certainly a tempting offer.

Even though I never actually met my Scholar, I went to the “retrospective” lunch on Day 3 anyway and ended up sitting next to Kerri Miller. I took the opportunity to gush about how great her talk was and raved about the “Good Luck With That” talk, since both presenters had come through Ada Developers Academy, where Kerri teaches. Top-notch students plus top-notch instruction is a potent combination.

I met a lot of nice people at RubyConf – I’d say the percentage was at least 95% – but Kerri really stands out. She has a gentle grace and encouraging nature that makes anything seem possible. It comes through in her talk, but was even more pronounced in one-on-one conversation. She asked about my conf talk and said the magic words “Let me know when you give that talk. I’d really like to see it.”

Generosity-Driven Development

I’ve mentioned my talk proposal several times, so I should probably tell you the topic: Generosity-Driven Development.

I believe it’s human nature to get caught up in what we need. How will these blogs/talks/confs/people help me? Will they help me get a better job or a promotion? Will they help me solve a problem I’m struggling with? Will they help me be happy? Turning inward appeals to our intellects, but doesn’t help us be the best versions of ourselves.

Being generous means turning outward: how can we contribute, whose problems can we help solve, what pain can we ease? Software development is a service industry and putting service at the forefront of our minds maximizes the positive impact we can have on our team, our community and our world.

Generosity Gives Back

My talk focused on the importance of benefiting others, but there’s a secret I wanted to save until last: generosity gives back.

My RubyConf story bears this out. When I arrived, walking the halls and staring at my phone, I was obsessed with all the personal benefits I was missing by not “networking” with all these “resources”.

But once Kerri’s talk helped me turn my attention outward again – to hosting the pairing session with an intent to help others – it brought me out of my shell. I talked to the people I couldn’t talk to before, because I wanted to ensure that anyone else as shy as me would have a safe opportunity to make a connection with other developers and become part of the Ruby community.

Volunteering as a guide is what got me to the lunch where I spoke to Kerri. Helping search for the other BOF session got me talking to Hugo. Hosting the BOF got me talking to Sam and Kane. Wanting to make sure my Scholar got useful information from the sessions got me onto the beginner track, where I saw my favorite talks.

In the end, almost everything good that happened to me in San Diego came as a result of something I did to try and help others with no thought of how it would benefit me.

Hmm. I guess I really should give that talk.