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Creating Safe Spaces in Tech

This Pride Month, we were lucky enough to sit down with seasoned Drupal developer at Lullabot and passionate community builder April Sides to discuss what it means to build a more inclusive tech community. 

 

Interview with April Sides, Senior Developer at Lullabot and Passionate Community Builder

“At the time, our logo was the Drupal drop with glasses and a beard, so it was a bit dude-ish, if you know what I mean? A hipster dude is what it was, and it was pretty much all guys in the meetup anyways, so they all had beards. So then I was like, ‘What if we had a different logo that wasn't so gendered?’”

- April Sides, reflecting on her first time participating in the local Drupal community 

Omar Muhyar:

Would you like to first tell me a little bit about yourself and your professional passions, as well as how you got into being a web developer, especially in the Drupal space? 

April Sides:

In college, I was interested in 3D animation. That's when Pixar was really cool. And I wanted to primarily do that. But after taking some classes, I was like, ‘Yeah, I don't have the patience for this,’ seeing it’s a very tedious job. 

That’s when I learned about web development, web design, and other stuff along those lines. This was around the time when you had limited colors and pixels per monitor. I was thinking, ‘I don't want to design for every monitor, I'm going to go into print design.’ And so, my senior project included a print portfolio because I went to school for multimedia arts and sciences, which is a very broad study. 

So, after this I started working part time at the local community college, named A-B Tech, and I started doing print design, mostly like newsletter stuff, but also doing a little front-end web design stuff at the same time. 

I eventually became a graphic web designer there (at A-B Tech). Looking back, myself and another graphic web designer were looking to replace the use of Microsoft FrontPage 2003, back in 2006. I don't remember exactly why Drupal was the answer. But that's how we discovered Drupal. 

And then a guy in the local community, Matthew Connerton, started Drupal Camp Asheville, and he held the first one at A-B Tech where I worked — meaning the employees could go for free. 

We checked it out and got involved from there on out. He was doing meetups locally — he had a small shop downtown, where we would do these meetups. 

So, that’s how I got involved with the local Drupal community and learned some things. And then at some point, I was like, ‘I want to be a Drupal developer.’ I was so burned out on the design portion of things. A position opened up at the college, but it ended up being concentrated around SharePoint. I was like, ‘No, I don't want to do SharePoint. I want to do Drupal.’ 

That was when an obscure job posting came through monster.com — that ended up being a federal contractor position in Asheville. I was doing climate-based websites, working on the National Climate Assessment Technical Support Unit. We actually interfaced more with USGCRP, which is an interagency group that's tasked with doing the National Climate Assessment stuff in conjunction with the White House and related stuff like that. 

Once we released the climate assessment, I was able to go to my first DrupalCon. And I think it was in Austin. When I came back from Austin, I was like, ‘I want to help with the organization of Drupal Camp Asheville. I wanted to be really involved — not just doing the event planning.’ 

At the time, our logo was the Drupal drop with glasses and a beard, so it was a bit dude-ish, if you know what I mean? A hipster dude is what it was, and it was pretty much all guys in the meetup anyways, so they all had beards. So then I was like, ‘What if we had a different logo that wasn't so gendered?’

OM: 

Were you able to change that logo — with the glasses and beard — into something else?

AS:

After attending DrupalCon in Austin, I saw they made the Drupal drop into the bat. So I was like, ‘Is there an animal locally that we could do something with?’ We have this high urban black bear population here in Asheville, so I turned it into a bear. And with some tweaks from the group, we have a bear logo, now we are the Drupal bear in Asheville.

OM:

That sounds like a cool logo. Certainly way better than just a guy with a beard.

AS:

So it's actually our 10th anniversary this year for DrupalCamp Asheville. I need to start digging through a bunch of the old stuff and be like, ‘Oh, remember this?’ And, I think I've been to every DrupalCon since Austin. I wanted to go and be a part of the community. And then I started going to other camps too — it’s like the Drupal community are my friends now. Like I see everyone there as my friends. 

“As you know, we aren't developing tech in a vacuum. So anything that we make affects other people. And the more diverse the people who are making the tech are, the more perspectives you get on the design and development ends. And that will mean that the tech we build works for more people and appeals to more people.” 

- April speaking to the end-user benefits of creating a more inclusive, welcoming space in tech for people of diverse backgrounds. 

OM:

That's awesome. Yeah, I've just joined Pantheon about nine months ago. So I attended my first DrupalCon strictly from a computer, but I've heard in-person is definitely the way to go. 

AS:

It’s way different in-person, that’s for sure. I'm ready to get back to in-person events.

OM:

You already kind of answered this, but was that [Drupal Asheville] logo change kind of the initial driving force for your passion — in creating safe, inclusive spaces in tech? Or did it stem from other areas you saw that were especially lacking? 

AS: 

It was a pivotal first step, because the guys running the group, honestly, were receptive to that change. Like, it wasn't something that they even considered when they initially made it. 

And so I was like, ‘You know, maybe we should think about this, and we should do better,’ and they were receptive and let me participate in that way too. And I'm so thankful for that.

Branding is the first impression people get before they get to know the people involved with the camp, or who really participates in the camp. And so I feel like that did kick off more participation and diversity from our speakers. And it just really sets a tone, you know?

OM: 

Definitely. That branding persona is the first thing people see, right? So it's really important to get that right. Otherwise, it's going to turn off a lot of potential people that would want to be involved in that community. 

That's really cool you were able to get involved and just say, ‘Hey, let's rebrand this to be a little bit more inclusive for people that don't look like hipster bros, you know?’ 

Moving on, I want to talk about some themes in general in tech, and play off your expertise and see where you think things are going. Is it just to me, or does it seem like the stereotypical “tech bro” is slowly but surely changing — as more and more people with diverse backgrounds become interested and involved in tech? And how do you see this increased diversity in tech affecting the end products and services it produces?

AS:

As you know, we aren't developing tech in a vacuum. So anything that we make affects other people. And the more diverse the people who are making the tech are, the more perspectives you get on the design and development ends. And that will mean that the tech we build works for more people and appeals to more people. And so definitely, that is the main benefit of having more diversity in tech teams and developing things.

OM:

That makes a lot of sense, and it’s definitely a big positive to see a wider range of people becoming involved in the industry. One other thing I’d like to ask is, do you see yourself as a facilitator or enabler of this transformational change we’re witnessing right now in the tech world?

“I think for a newcomer into the community, seeing yourself in the speaker, seeing yourself in the organizers and leaders within the community is really important. 

It’s like, ‘So here's someone who's like me, and they are accepted and welcomed, and they're able to thrive and do great things in the community.’” 

- April on welcoming newcomers into the Drupal space by leading with more diverse speakers.

AS:

So with Drupal Camp Asheville, we really do try to encourage people to do their first session and prioritize first-time speakers. And a lot of these first-time speakers are underrepresented people who are not so sure about speaking in a larger event. We typically have something like 120 people at our camp, so it's pretty laid back and welcoming to new people. 

And we praise them for just even attempting the session, because we want them to keep learning, growing, and sharing their knowledge. And so, we've prioritized first-time speakers — creating as diverse a lineup as we can and really not turn anyone away from speaking. 

It's really awesome to see people feel comfortable speaking at our events and representing their communities. Because I think for a newcomer into the community, seeing yourself in the speaker, seeing yourself in the organizers and leaders within the community is really important. 

It’s like, ‘So here's someone who's like me, and they are accepted and welcomed, and they're able to thrive and do great things in the community.’ 

Allowing other people to represent their communities and their people is very important. And then continuing to challenge myself is as well, as I'm actually a very shy person, which is kind of funny. 

People in the Drupal community don't think that I'm shy, and it's because I feel comfortable in the community, I feel welcomed. And I've challenged myself to start representing, trying to be that person that someone else connects with. It just creates a ripple effect that makes people more comfortable — to just be present and create that safe environment for people to excel.

OM:

Yeah, for sure. And I think that ripple effect is really powerful too. Because if you don't see people that look like you, you're less likely to become involved and as a whole that creates a better end result. 

Like you said, having a more diverse tech community is producing better websites, better software. It's producing better everything, right? 

So, I have one final question for you, April. Is there one thing that you'd like people of more privileged backgrounds in tech to consider when working alongside those that aren't necessarily as supported or celebrated as they should be?

AS:

Yeah, it's really hard to recognize your privilege. I mean, we all have levels of privilege, even people within underrepresented communities still have privilege in various ways. 

So recognizing that you do have privilege, and using that privilege to keep the environment safe. Like if somebody were to make a joke that is insensitive to someone else in the group, or maybe not even in the group, just creates this group thought, and it's okay to say, ‘Hey, you know, that that was kind of a weird joke. That wasn't a good thing to say.’ 

You don't have to confront people in a fighting situation, you can just give them something to think about, like, ‘Do you think that was okay to say?’ 

So just knowing there are ways to spread the culture that we want — the more welcoming, inclusive culture — without creating a lot of internal conflict. There are ways to be considerate of others. Take them aside, things like that. There are definitely ways to protect the culture that you're in if you hold privilege.

OM:

So, essentially using our privilege to squash bad dynamics. And then also, I think the second takeaway is you can stop these things from happening without necessarily having to assassinate someone's character, right?

AS:

Yeah, for sure. And I think it's also more receptive when it's coming from people who would say they're similar, with similar levels of privilege. It's more receptive than feeling like they're being attacked by somebody that they're not. And then it becomes sort of that culture war.

OM:

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers, April?

AS:

I’m a part of the Drupal community working group, Community Health team. And I work to promote these Code of Conduct Contact trainings — in order to have more Drupal events that have people who can deal with incidents in consistent ways, creating a safe environment. 

If people don't know how to do that, these training sessions definitely help with that. We're trying to make it visible on the Drupal events page that when an event has trained contacts, it says that they're trained. 

I think for people to see, okay, ‘So I know that these people at least know what they're doing.’ 

It makes you feel safer, knowing that there's someone that's gonna create this environment and make sure that if there are violations of the code of conduct, they will be handled properly. 

And we also have a code of conduct template that we offer to camps, that they can just insert their camp name, and they have an official code of conduct. They don't have to do all that research upfront — to know all the things they should be covering. We try to give them a template that they can just work from and create a safe space around.



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Topics Drupal