Women in tech panel at ATO2014

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Never have I wished I could be in so many places at one time. 

That was the thought I kept having throughout the All Things Open (ATO2014) Conference at Raleigh’s convention center last week (Oct. 22-23, 2014). With up to nine sessions to choose from at any given time and keynotes from nationally renowned speakers, the only thing in scarcity was time. With so many sessions to choose from, each attendee’s experience likely differed from the next. With that said, I've rounded up my five key takeaways from the conference. 

1.  The diversity problem is multifaceted and affects everyone.

DeLisa Alexander of Red Hat both delivered a keynote and led a panel discussion about the issues that arise from a lack of gender and ethnic diversity in both the open source field and tech sector overall. During her keynote, she said “Red Hat has identified the lack of diversity to be a risk factor to the future of innovation” and that she loses sleep over the fact that Red Hat, “can’t find enough talent to solve ours and our client’s problems.” She then wondered aloud, “how much faster could we solve the world’s problems if we engaged the other half of the population?” 

Alexander also moderated a panel discussion with five high-powered women in the tech sector. The panelists were author and speaker Estelle Weyl, Karen Sandler of Software Freedom Conservancy, Elizabeth Joseph of HP, Erica Stanley from Acire Studios and Dr. Megan Squire from Elon University. The discussion ranged from stories of discrimination—one panelist recalled entering a conference and seeing pornography displayed everywhere— to advice for both men and women about how to encourage women to enter and stay in the tech sector. The panelists agreed there is no one factor that keeps women out of the industry, but the problem as a whole should be taken seriously and as we study the issue, the problem should be “given the respect it deserves.” 

The women also reminded the audience that improving diversity is not just about getting more women in the door—it is about fostering a welcoming environment they will want to remain in and grow. They also reminded the crowd that diversity is not just about women. It’s about getting people of all ages, backgrounds, colors and genders into the sector so everyone can benefit from the diversity of their backgrounds, opinions and ideas. 

2.  Open source is here to stay and on the rise.

MongoDB founder Dwight Merriman predicted technologies would be mostly built on open source code in the future. And a quick glance around the conference revealed a bevy of companies like GitHub and Red Hat, eager to accelerate that trend. After detailing 
how Facebook has been committed to open source since its inception, James Pearce, Facebook’s head of open source, discussed the challenges it has faced in continuing and managing the use of open source within the company. 

To address these challenges and create best practices, Facebook has joined 10 other companies to form the new organization “Talk Openly Develop Openly” or TODO. With companies like DropboxTwitter, GitHub, and Google working together on open source issues, it’s likely the technology’s reach and capacity will only increase.  

3.  Other sectors can learn from the open movement

One session led by GitHub’s Arfon Smith, a former astronaut, focused on how academia could learn and benefit from open source style collaboration. Smith pointed out the inherent inefficiencies the academic model established centuries ago fosters—the lack of knowledge sharing and duplication of efforts chief among them. As an illustration, Smith detailed the process astronomers undergo to clean light pixel data. Although a time intensive process, astronomers do not share the clean data with each other. Thus, each scientist redoes the same work, which if added together, would be the equivalent of 13 years of human effort spent completing one task. 

If scientists and academics were incentivized to collaborate more, major efficiencies would be realized, he argued.  While Smith primarily referenced hard science fields in his session, the same argument could be made for all academic sectors. For instance, how much further along could research on open government best practices be if researchers weren’t incentivized to always produce novel results but were encouraged to build upon their previous research in collaboration with other researchers? The answer is: probably much further along.  

4.  The open movement can learn from other sectors.

While open source companies and the open movement have many lessons to contribute to other sectors, they also can greatly benefit from lessons learned in other sectors. For example, Steven Vaughan-Nichols, a renowned tech journalist who’s written for CBS, ZDNet, and Computer World, offered this advice, “your open source project may contain the best code in the world, but if you don’t market it and no one knows about it, it won’t matter.” He reminded attendees that branding, messaging, and marketing in general are all important to making an open source project successful.

He also reminded the audience the importance of simplifying the message and speaking in plain English when speaking with reporters or potential clients. And that if you can't simplify or condense your message, the reporters won't be able to either and will move on to the next story.

5.  Open is more than open source, open data, and open government.

Todd Lewis and Dwight Merriman at ATO2014
Todd Lewis introduces Dwight Merriman at ATO2014
Possibly the most important lesson I gleaned from the conference, was that the ‘open movement’ hinges on more than just open source code, open data, or open governance. It is a characteristic embedded into the culture of each organization and person in the movement. It’s the complete willingness of a crazy successful serial entrepreneur to sit down and chat with an unknown reporter. It’s the openness of ATO2014 conference organizers to share knowledge and insights about the industry and conference. It’s the audacity of a corporate company to buck tradition and collaborate with competitors to create a better open source community and so much more. Open source code, data and government are almost byproducts of this intangible spirit of community and openness.

After ATO2014, I’d say the answer to my question—is ‘all things open’ a conference or a movement, is that it is a movement, but a fledgling one that is at an important crossroads. If I had to bet, most of the 1,000 ATO2014 attendees would say ‘all things open’ the movement is going strong, and will continue picking up steam until it pervades every industry.

But, without instigation and resources, it’s still unclear what chance the movement has to spread beyond the metropolitan areas in North Carolina and to rural areas throughout the US and world. We have to remember not every town has a Red Hat in its backyard (or downtown). And with national focus and discussions centered on privacy and security—there is currently a tug of war between open advocates and those who want to move back towards a more closed society. The open movement will need to address these issues head-on if it wants to gain traction and truly become mainstream. I heard very little discussion or acknowledgement of these issues at ATO2014, so hope they will be addressed at next year’s conference. 

It will be interesting to see what progress (or lack of it) has been made a year from now. Until then, I look forward to following and keeping tabs on, “all things open.”