Over the past few days there has been a Tweetstorm around Agilia Conference 2016 that is being held April 4-8 in Olomouc, Czech Republic. I’ve decided to call this Agiliagate as every “scandal” these days seems to named in honour of the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon in the 1970s. The scandal started with a tweet from Samantha (Sam) Laing. For those of you who don’t know her, Sam is an agile coach based out of Cape Town South Africa. She has co-authored several excellent books and is a regular speaker at conferences worldwide. I’ve known and respected her for several years now and was lucky enough to take a coaching workshop with her a few years ago at the Agile conference in the U.S. Her tweet was:
wow @agiliaconf really? 2 out of 27 speakers are woman? You couldn’t find any more?
Then Things Spun Out of Control
Sam made a perfectly valid observation. Sadly, the initial response to Sam’s question was very, very unfortunate. @agiliaconf responded with:
@samlaing Why we shoud worry? We do not play feminist games here nor politics. Whoever pass our extensive screenening, he may come.
Yikes. Just yikes. Sam then maturely responded:
@agiliaconf not a feminist game, just shocked at lack of diversity and now, lack of caring about diversity. It’s ok, just my opinion.
A very fair and level-headed response in my opinion. Digging their hole even deeper, @agiliaconf responded with:
@samlaing Yes, as I said, we are not political party. Go to EU in Bruxelles, they love to engineer diversity games. Our focus is different.
That response clearly didn’t help. By this point the Tweetstorm was in full swing, although @agiliaconf chose to make matters even worse by tweeting:
You have enemies? Good. It means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.- Sir Winston Churchill – short rep to todays attack
@Agiliaconf’s first tweet could be chalked up as an unfortunate mistake. Their second one was highly questionable, but the third one spectacularly stupid. Dozens of people from all over the world, many of them important contributors in the agile community, were actively criticizing the conference organizers for the lack of gender diversity at the event. Some people were also choosing to try to publicly shame several of the speakers, including myself, for being involved with the conference. Some people tried to bully speakers to drop out of participating in the conference. Others started going after the vendors who were sponsoring the conference. Villains had been clearly identified and the forces of righteous indignation were out for blood.
Out of the Mess, Some Very Good Suggestions
The good news is that during all of this several good suggestions came out of the cacophony. These suggestions included:
- Invite more female speakers. Clearly a great idea for future events, but considering this conference was less than a week away it wasn’t a viable consideration to address the immediate problem.
- People should only speak at conferences that support diversity. That’s also a great idea, and I’ll going start asking about this in the future, so lesson learned for me.
- Invite a woman to co-present at the conference. This is also a great idea. I’ve co-presented with many people in the past and that works very well and is a great way to shepherd people to become public speakers.
- Invite one or more women to be involved with the conference committee. This is a great idea for future events. Having been involved with many conference committees over the years my experience is that the more diverse your conference committee then generally the more diverse, and interesting, your speaker line-up will be.
Let’s Add Some Context
As we like to say at my company, context counts. Had the people involved taken a few minutes to pause and consider the situation, I suspect they would have identified some important contextual factors:
- This happened over a low-fidelity communication medium. Communication via electronic text, and in particularly the 140-character messages of Twitter, is problematic at best (see my article Agile Communication for some detailed thoughts on this topic). It is very difficult to have meaningful conversations via Twitter, and it takes people to be a bit more careful in the way that they word things and thoughtful in how they react. This clearly wasn’t happening.
- Organizing a conference is a lot of hard, stressful work. It’s particularly stressful in the days leading up the the conference, which is the period when all of this happened. @Agiliaconf was very likely dealing with a fair bit of stress at the time that Sam’s tweet came in. Some of the people critical of @Agiliaconf may not have much, if any experience, with how conferences are run so I can see them being unaware of this. However, several of the detractors are regular conference speakers and should have been a lot more empathetic.
- There are cultural differences. Aguarra, the organization running the conference, is based in the Czech Republic. The Czechs have their own unique culture, just like the Canadians do, the Brits, the Germans, the South Africans, and so on. There are some great similarities between all of these cultures, but important nuances too. When people from different cultures are interacting with one another it often requires a bit more patience and latitude.
The point is that instead of responding with a knee-jerk reaction I decided to act in a respectful manner and contact the Agilia folks and see what they had to say for themselves.
Agilia’s Side of the Story
I had a email conversation with Michal, one of the two organizers of event. Here’s a few things that I learned in the conversation:
- Their native language isn’t English. In hindsight this is clear given the wording of some of their tweets. It’s hard enough to have a conversation on Twitter, but doing so in a language that isn’t your first one is very difficult.
- They’re fairly new to Twitter. Since joining Twitter they’ve sent less than 250 tweets, many of which are focused on advertising presentations at conferences. As you can see from their tweets they perceived Sam’s initial tweet as an attack coming from a complete stranger, and with just a bit of empathy I think it’s pretty easy to see how this would be the case. Furthermore, they honestly thought that their first response was sarcastic and would be taken as such. I explained that sarcasm is an incredibly bad idea on Twitter at the best of times, and that they really needed to avoid it in the future.
- Half of the conference organizers are female. Granted, there are only two conference organizers, a man and a woman. As you can see from the link, this information is fairly easy to discover yet none of their critics bothered to look into this (or if they did they certainly didn’t tweet about it).
- The critics are from outside of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). The conference organizers did some analysis of where the critical tweets were coming from, and for the most part it was from outside of the CEE. This is a reflection of my earlier point about cultural differences between the people involved. When this happens everyone needs to be more patient and understanding.
- The critics didn’t bother to reach out to the Agilia organizers. Because I didn’t know what was going on behind the scenes, I asked if any of the critics had bothered to reach out to the Agilia organizers to get their side of the story. Here was the response: “From speakers, only Ben Linders and Olli Pietikainen. From people, who posted some articles about this situation, nobody. From most visible twitter screamers such as [NAMES WITHHELD BY ME] nobody. From other twitter people – nobody.” Given that the agile community preaches values such as respect, communication, and collaboration many of our more prominent people have clearly failed to fulfill these ideals in the “AgiliaGate” situation. I am embarrassed for us.
- Their responses reflect their culture. When I pointed out to them that their responses to Sam were inappropriate, something that many others pointed out via Twitter, here was their response: “I will appreciate, if I could get more detailed info of what has happened as seen from other side. In our cultural environment, there is general dissagreement in society about attempts to impose quotas on anything, including number of women or minorities or anything. Asking for it might be interpreted as an assalt, which I did.” Yes, many of us may not agree with that but this is the cultural environment in which the Agilia conference is operating. Asked about what they were thinking with their second tweet, they responded “I responded with lite sarcasm, true, that we praise meritocracy here. In second tweet the my message was – go to elsewhere, we do not want you here. I have reffered to Bruxelles, because this place is in CEE region seen as source of such ideas on regulation.” OK, that message certainly didn’t come across at all but it does reflect the cultural environment that the organizers exist in.
- There’s a surprising amount of support for the Agilia organizers. You only need to look at @Agiliaconf’s Twitter feed to see this. A lot of this support is coming from people in the CEE (whom the conference is targeted at) and in some cases even coming from…. you guessed it… women. The point is that this gender diversity concern, and it is an important concern, is coming from outsiders who have a different cultural context than that of the target audience of the conference. Once again, we’re seeing cultural differences get in the way of mutual understanding.
- Acceptance of talk proposals from women was 100%. One of the things that I asked the conference organizers was to provide some stats around their proposal process. They received one talk proposal from a woman for this event and they accepted it. Furthermore they reached out to another lady to give a talk at the conference. Apparently she had been scheduled at a previous event but had to drop out due to personal reasons, so for this event they reached out to her again and invited her to speak at the Olomouc conference.
So, by choosing to have more respectful interactions with the conference organizers I easily discovered that they aren’t the evil, misogynistic bastards that some people want to portray them to be. They are clearly guilty of having poor Twitter skills, imperfect English, and a culture that is different from that of their critics. I’m not sure that we should vilify them for that. With a bit of investigation I discovered that they have a gender diverse conference committee, had not only accepted all of the proposals from women but had gone out of their way to invite another female speaker. Could they have invited more women? You bet.
We Need to Do Better
The organizer’s of the Agilia conference certainly made some serious mistakes. But so did many of the people criticizing them. Yes, the Agilia people reacted poorly, but that didn’t mean we needed to respond in kind by trying to publicly shame or in some cases bully anyone involved with the conference.
If I may be so bold, here are a few suggestions to consider in the future:
- Let’s strive for respectful communication over indignant posing.
- When we see questionable behaviour, let’s investigate first so that we can avoid jumping to conclusions.
- Contact people privately to discuss and understand the situation before attacking them in public (particularly when you might not understand the full picture).
- Just because others have jumped on a bandwagon, that doesn’t mean that you need to do so too. Or, at least if you do, make sure you understand what’s actually going on first.
- If you honestly believe that future Agilia conferences could do with a more diverse group of speakers, then take the opportunity to submit a proposal or point someone whom you think would be a great speaker to this link.
- When someone is behaving in a way that offends you, for whatever reason, try to see it from their point of view first. Yes, that means you’ll likely need to have a conversation with them rather than simply join the stone-throwing crowd.
In short, if you believe it’s appropriate to vilify someone, then at least have the integrity to make sure that they’re actually a villain before doing so.