FOWA 2009: Politically Correct Speaker Ratios

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At approximately 12:10pm after Kristina Halvorson from Brain Traffic gave her speech at the Future of Web Apps Miami 2009.  Right after this we were blindsided with an impromptu sit down session between Kristina, Ryan Carson (the founder of the FOWA event) and Chris Messina  This session consisted of Kristina mentioning that there are not enough women presenters at tech conferences, and that as an audience we are responsible to get the word out.  Let me preface my next comments by saying I respect Ryan Carson tremendously (especially after how he handled our whole models with stickers thing), and that FOWA is something I never plan on missing, I am just not sure I agree with what transpired.  They appear to think that by forcing women and minorities to give speeches it will somehow benefit the community.  Personally I am vehemently opposed to any such type of fixed quota speeches.  Whether if you are a woman, or an African American, should have zero relevance to whether or not you should be speaking at these sort of tech events.  I do not come to these events to find a politically correct line up, set with a certain amount of speakers to fulfill a quota.  I am not attending these speeches to be told what is and is not acceptable to listen to at these gatherings.  It is the job of the organizers and not the audience.  The audience decides whether or not they like the line up with their dollars, when they choose to attend any events or conferences.

In my personal opinion, it is getting tiresome seeing the same few speakers at each tech engagement I attend.  There is only so many times I can listen to speeches about Open Social and how a wine business can help me learn about the future of technology.  In recent times, the only speeches I remember as being note worthy, were Blaine Cook (check out www.wheresblaine.com for fun if you have a Blaine spotting) when he was discussing twitter and the benefits of using Ruby on Rails for its scalability, only to find out that twitter went down about a minute later and he had to leave the stage in a hurry to get it fixed.  The other one was given during SXSW 2008 by Jared M. Spool named Magic and Mental Models: Using Illusion to Simplify Designs.  Jared did his presentation in a fun, captivating way and included audience participation.  Outside of that, everything just seems like either a shameless plug, or something I already am familiar with.  The Future of Web Apps should be about just that….the future of web apps.  Not the future of wine, nor the future of selecting an exact number of men:women speaker ratio.  The future is about Mozilla’s Ubiquity (Aza Raskin – not a “white boy”) , and about 280North’s Atlas.  The very lady who was requesting more women speakers was one of my least liked panels.  Looking back, I kind of wished I had walked out of her talk and never even heard what happened after.

So the issue here is not whether or not we need less “white boys”, (this is actually how the people up on stage during this discussion categorized these well educated, incredibly innovative, heads of the amazing companies we use), or if we need more women. “White boys” shouldn’t be penalized from speaking because there are too many of them. The real issue is why aren’t the event organizers turning to newer start ups, and inviting them to speak? They could be Chinese, Greek, Latin or any persuasion….it doesn’t matter!  There are thousands of incredibly talented people inside thousands of under funded companies, that would love their chance on stage to speak.  Instead of asking your audience to help you find women and minorities, ask yourself as an event organizer “what am I doing to find new blood?”.  A question and answer period would also be somewhat helpful, especially after this impromptu stunt.

If you haven’t attended a FOWA or FOWD event, it is well worth attending.  Even though this specific incident annoyed me, some of the other content is a shame to miss.


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