10 minute read

After a few years of volunteer organizing DevOpsDays Boston and other local tech events, I found that there were some things I wanted to work out personally in other sandboxes, but still drive myself to “provide more value than I consume”. Specifically, I want to put my money where my mouth is regarding under-representation and white privilege in the tech industry. So I did, with a lot of help from others.

This year I can report that $21,000 from DevOpsDays Boston and around $17,000 from o11yfest have been donated to a combination of Resilient Coders, KodeConnect, YearUp, Black Girls CODE, Stop AAPI Hate, COVID Relief Fund for India, and Trans Lifeline. Some in combined effort, some with heavy personal effort, but every dollar here bears the organizing groups’ willingness and effort to go above and beyond.

How Did We Arrive Here?

If I were to retroactively reconstruct my general thinking, it has been:

  1. I didn’t set out to help to drive white privilege, but once I realized how bad it is, I can’t ignore my responsibility to do something meaningful about it
  2. I want to bring other voices and perspectives to the table, so the less I talk/speak/present and the more I can help under-represented folks do that, the better off we all are
  3. Moving into primarily organizing role(s), another layer of privilege, this helps with the above but should also inherit the same motion to “step up by stepping aside” in the long-term
  4. The ideas and hypotheses about how to do this stuff must be informed by those who are under-represented, not just my empathy or inclusion assumptions
  5. Some motions and approaches need trial-and-learning cycles before expecting them to work in the broader context of the DevOpsDays Boston event organizer’s group

Ultimately, after countless organizing and board meetings, policy discussions, delayed emails, and other legitimate but frustratingly complex dialogs, I realized that I could run outside experiments myself, find what works and what doesn’t there, and then synthesize that back in to the bigger groups I work with.

Why Money, Isn’t That Just Another Tech Bro Handout?

I don’t think of myself as a ‘tech bro’. I don’t:

  • like to hang out with people who just look, sound, think, or act like me or agree with me
  • have every day of the week available to just stay ‘in the city’ for a late meetup
  • constantly try to advance my career by stepping on others
  • go around trying to fix people simply because I can code
  • talk or shout people down, like, ever
  • assume that I will by default own things (or matter) in the future

I do:

  • err on the side of self-less
  • make mistakes and look to correct them when identified
  • care about the well-being of others, usually more than my own :(
  • everything I can think of to encourage non-white-non-bros to elevate and be treated equitably, both in my full-time job and in my volunteer groups
  • read, listen, and absorb as much as I can possibly take about:
    • historical inequities
    • unconscious bias
    • gender equality
    • non-binary and gender-neutral identity
  • bear a HUGE debt of guilt for the racism that is the entire history of the United States of America

In short, I’m learning and taking responsibility for what I can and should do to enable and accelerate others to help change the equations. It’s more than I can say for some, but still never enough for the size of what I feel.

In 2019 (remember the days of old), some of the ‘best thinking’ in the group was to offer free ‘under-represented’ tickets. This never sat well with me, though as one of the group willing to try things, I did my part to visit various meetups and asked the organizers if/how it would be possible to encourage people to take them. We had tracking by code so we know that even after many of the 50 tickets were given out locally, this didn’t really compel people to come to some local tech event. And not to mention, this was putting organizers in a place of power over ‘who to give them to’, how ‘under-represented’ do you have to be to deserve one, etc. Blech. That model was firmly in ‘handout’ territory and disappeared quickly.

Then COVID crashed the world and 2020’s event went virtual, which actually freed us up to offer tickets at a sliding scale, including a free option. The fear from others was that we would get people who would have otherwise paid getting free tickets instead. This was exacerbated by using Hopin, a ticketing + virtual event platform, which at that time (and since last I checked in May 2021) had no way to set defaults and sort order on how different ticket types appeared for people. Either way, the tech world was only starting to realize at that time that all events would be virtual indefinitely. So though it wasn’t perfect, 2020 ticketing aired on the side of inclusive (defaulting to ‘free’), and no one had to get in the middle of ‘who deserves a free ticket’, which itself was a huge improvement.

So fast forward from ‘free tickets’ to directly generating $17,000 for important causes, no, this money isn’t a handout. I consider it the first repeatable model for what reparations and preparations are due other folks and communities, more than I can personally afford any other way. And in some small way, it’s my own way of dealing with guilt and the need for rightly-human recompense about things like this:

From "They Called Us Enemy" p.24-25 - George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, Harmony Becker

From “They Called Us Enemy” p.24-25 - George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, Harmony Becker

Also, two of the three good causes have already reached back out to us to personally thank us AND to figure out how we can collaborate together in 2022! This is already part of my charter as part of the Boston DevOps Network board who underwrites the DevOpsDays Boston event, and I’m excited to develop this interest into action and tangible positive impact moving forward.

The Breakdown: How Did This Work?

Conferences, virtual or otherwise, require capital to start and complete. Vendors in a virtual conference are online platforms (like Restream, Ti.to Ticketing, Vito.Community, Live Captioning persons, Otter.ai for alternative Transcripts, Zoom Pro for breakouts, etc.) and logistics (like A/V, Graphic Recording, creatives artistry, swag/distribution, MoneyOps/AR/AP). This stuff costs real money. I was able to do it with about $15k all told. At times I had to shift personal money into my LLC account as CapEx to cover one or two things before receiving sponsor money. I only ever wanted to break even, and mostly focus on how to turn interest (attendee tickets and sponsorship overflow) directly into donations to good causes.

So that’s why (at least for virtual o11yfest), I only needed three ‘premiere sponsors’ (total $21k). Then I can encourage attendees as much as possible from their hearts to donate, with a default of $30, but also provide a free ticket option to include those that really couldn’t afford it otherwise. The rest of the tech companies who inquired about sponsorship after the premiere spots were gone, I was able to encourage to ‘go directly donate a minimum of $2k to one of these good causes, just forward me the email proof of donation, and you get gold level perks’. Five startups took me up on this, an easy way to attach their names and logos to a community-driven event, generating a total of $10k in donations (which I didn’t have to accounts-receivable for, less to do and get fees taken from). Finally, more than 2/3rds of the attendees opted to donate something, many the default of $30 or more per ticket, totaling about ~$5,400 in net ticket sales (minus the platform percentage) which was all by definition earmarked for donations.

What Worked Well

A lot, surprisingly, and many because of the group perspective, group effort, and virtuous individuals.

  • heavy emphasis on inclusivity, from the organizing groups to the expectations to premiere sponsors, the graphics and the content/presentations; I’m grateful and proud of what we accomplished here
  • having an ‘entourage’ of organizers; even if I did a lot of the General Manager stuff, it always comes down to a team effort at the actual end of the day
  • paying for one of my favorite independent musical artist to do a special COVID-remote show for us, aside from supporting them financially, it put FUN on the menu and lots of great feedback about it afterward
  • commissioning a young local graphical artist to come up with ‘mascot’ art; lots of little and different robots that could be used in everything from digital platform themes to cards to hoodies and gift boxes to fridge magnet sets. they were everywhere and clearly identified how unique o11yfest would be and was.

What Didn’t Work As Well

Oh there were so many things, but here are the ones worth sharing:

  • Don’t bother with virtual swag bags/boxes mailed to people, the costs and logistics are are not work the ‘cutsie’ effect (I only did this because it helped people not feel so disconnected during COVID)
  • Hoodies…rather than commissioning, storing, distributing centrally through a vendor, there are plenty of online self-service options where attendees who want to buy their own can pay and keep their address and PII to themselves. The only hoodies I did were 30, for speakers and volunteers, and that was exhausting to deal with, but then I got to hand-write unique thank you notes to each of them :)
  • Paying lots of money for dedicated server for ‘the afterparty’ platform (gather.town); I needed to make sure people weren’t denied access in a free account, but like 30 people showed up and I budgeted for 300.

The Final Distribution and Tallies

From To How Much Why
DevOpsDays Boston YearUp $7,000 organizers disbursal
DevOpsDays Boston KodeConnect $7,000 organizers disbursal
DevOpsDays Boston Resilient Coders $7,000 organizers disbursal
DevSecOps Days Boston - synopsys Resilient Coders $2,000 contributor sponsorship
o11yfest - Harness.io Stop AAPI Hate $2,000 contributor sponsorship
o11yfest - Chronosphere Stop AAPI Hate $2,000 contributor sponsorship
o11yfest - attendees Stop AAPI Hate $500 balance of net ticket sales
o11yfest - attendees Trans Lifeline $4,500 balance of net ticket sales
o11yfest - StackPulse Black Girls CODE $2,000 contributor sponsorship
o11yfest - FireHydrant Black Girls CODE $2,000 contributor sponsorship
o11yfest - SLOConf/Nobl9 Black Girls CODE $2,000 contributor sponsorship
DevSecOps Days Boston COVID Relief Fund for India $672.35 100% of net ticket sales from DevSecOps Days Boston

Shout-outs and Contributors

A special thanks to Liz Fong-Jones who was my co-chair of o11yfest, notwithstanding all the other things she had to do this summer. Gracious, patient, concise, and hella-connected. Thank you for your meaningful guidance and support!

Michael Thomas Clark, another volunteer core organizer from DevOpsDays Boston, was my financial email “plus ones” person, and a regular at our organizing weekly check-ins. Kind of my conspirator on the donations thing, we are of the same spirit that serious donation strategy should be part of the ethics of every tech event, at least the ones we’re volunteering with.

Kate Ruh, who helped with DevSecOps Days on a whim, and then totally came through and is now one of the DevOpsDays Boston organizers! So insightful, effective, efficient, and generative.

Amelia Mango, for the second year in a row, prompted me to get off my ass and do something! Not only a proven good actor in the OTel and API spaces around intelligent marketing, she also helped a lot with ideation, logistics and just keeping the ball rolling on tactical work as bigger general management things started to take all my time up. Always interested in working with Amelia about, well, anything.

Ruth Lennon, a wise and fearless leader in the standards and higher ed technology space. Ruth was co-chair of DevSecOps Days Boston, which generated ~$2,672 in donations as a first-year virtual conference. Her insight and guidance on topics and presentations for this event was instrumental to putting on a top-quality event.

It Really Takes a Village

Again, none of this would have happened without a lot of peoples’ concerted efforts, off-hours and completely volunteer. If you’re interested in helping with these events or even just becoming part of the Boston DevOps or o11yfest communities, please reach out to me via LinkedIn and let’s chat!