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Madison’s mobile development conference welcomes diverse speakers and new developers

Snow*Mobile 2014 kicked off on Friday morning with a talk entitled “Drinking from the Fire Hose.” Presented by Glynnis Ritchie, a relatively new design developer and renaissance woman at bendyworks, the talk offered advice to those new to the profession—and to those mentoring them. By memorably starting in French, expecting responses from the audience, and sticking with it just to the point of discomfort for attendees, Ritchie reminded everyone how challenging it can be to jump into the programming deep end. Learners grapple with a lack of context and a lack of vocabulary, she said, which can leave them feeling like Lucy Ricardo in the iconic candy factory conveyor belt scene.

Fortunately, help is available. Shay Howe, a developer for BellyCard in Chicago, gave a compelling talk about how setting constraints early on in the design and development process can lead to growth and better results. He advised getting started by creating boundaries, and invoked MacGyver, the king of working well under constraints.

Ritchie offered valuable advice gleaned from her own journey: “Call out your co-worker on their rambling. Take breaks. Get to know people who are learning at the same level you are, and build a support network.” One of the best ways to do this is to attend conferences like Snow*Mobile, which is building a reputation for its warm vibe and welcoming attitude toward newcomers.

“Maybe it’s because I’m pretty new to tech conferences,” said Snow*Mobile attendee Weien Wang, a developer in Chicago, “but I keep wanting to understand what makes developers tick. The conference structure made it easy to hear someone get up and speak for a half-hour, and then catch them during one of the (generously-long) breaks (or meals) and ask them why they chose the topic, do open source work, have certain values, etc. Those conversations have been really valuable, and I think the conference was an effective vessel for them.”

Janie Clayton-Hasz, who was part of the 2014 Snow*Mobile speaker line-up, attended Snow*Mobile 2013—her first tech conference ever. She reflected on what got her out of her comfort zone and onto the stage: “At my first conference, the videographer invited me to join their group for lunch. At this conference, I saw a person kind of hanging back not talking to anyone and I went out of my way to go and get him involved with meeting other people because last year someone did that for me and it made all the difference.

“Jen and Jim lead by example,” Clayton-Hasz continued. “Madison is a very liberal city and the speaker line-ups for all of their conferences are highly represented by women, members of the gay community, and persons with disabilities. They are very inclusive and I don’t think it is a coincidence that their conferences have so much diversity in a culture notorious for lack thereof.”

To ensure a diverse and interesting array of speakers, the Snow*Mobile conference organizers put out a call for talks. As proposals come in, the Remsiks remove information about the speakers’ identities. They also remove gendered pronouns and other information that is likely to bias talk reviewers (consciously or not). Their reviewers, who weigh in on what topics pique their interests the most, are a group of people who represent their ideal audience. “How likely am I to choose content that would encourage participation by someone who is very different from me?” asks Jim Remsik. “Younger folks, different genders, races, even sexual orientations, or even physical capacities?” This system gives the conferences a varied flavor, while honing in on what’s important to developers right now.

“I appreciate all the work that Jen and Jim put into making sure everyone has a great time and that everyone feels accepted and included,” Clayton-Hasz says. “I believe if they didn’t do these conferences the community would wither away. I am so grateful to them for putting all this work into things so that we can have this vibrant, thriving developer community.”