Adria Richards, PyCon, and How We All Lost

Let me get this out of the way:  I don’t like Adria Richards. I think I have good reason to not like Adria Richards. So I should be feeling some major Schadenfreude right now. Instead, though, I think what’s unfolded in the developer community in recent days has been a tragedy. Here’s why.

  • Adria Richards was an attendee at PyCon, a tech conference, as part of her job as a developer evangelist at Sendgrid, a tech company that manages emails.
  • She took offense to a conversation two men, also developers for a company called Play Haven, were having behind her during the conference, in which they referenced “dongles” and “forking”. Both of these are tech terms, they were construed to be used sexually on Adria’s part.
  • Without ever mentioning her offense to the men, she took their picture, posted it to twitter and asked PyCon to do something about it.
  • Play Haven fired one of the developers.
  • Then the internet blew up.

An Established Pattern of Action

Why don’t I enjoy Adria? I met her in New York some years ago at a conference and invited her to speak at a conference I was organizing in Boston. She was a very good speaker and I wanted her to help our beginners. She’s not an easy person- she didn’t like the title of her talk, she didn’t like her time slot, etc.  Two weeks before the conference, we got a few emails from attendees that she had just threatened on her podcast to boycott our conference because one of our speakers, Danielle Morrill was giving a lightning talk about how to use screencasting software called “Getting the Money Shot”.


She’d never told us she was offended, she’d never told Danielle- she told her podcasting audience and blog readers that we were promoting porn.  In the end, after great drama, she attended and deep sixed her talk, instead lecturing the attendees about how porn wasn’t acceptable at conferences. The beginners in her class were less than amused and ultimately, deprived of the opportunity to learn from her.

At the time I was really angry and frustrated. We were unpaid volunteers organizing this event, and she never gave us the opportunity to try and solve the problem and was about to leave us in the lurch. By the time it blew up (an explosion created entirely by her) we felt cornered and blackmailed.

The following year, she took offense to a t shirt created for WordCamp SF, pictured below.

XKCD generously allowed their comic to be used. Instead of contacting Jane Wells , who was in charge of the project and is easily reachable, she made the situation immediately public and rallied her troops.

To be clear, I believe the tech industry, of which I am a part, is rampantly sexist. It runs so deep and so organic to the industry that even men who would see it in other places don’t recognize it in our insulated world. So rampant, often females don’t even see it-it usually happens quietly- a lack of female speakers, a male praised for something a female said earlier, unnoticed.  But at the Boston conference, great strides were made to have a strong female presence. Almost 40% of attendees at Boston were female, almost 40% of speakers (at the time these numbers were VERY high), there were multiple women (including myself) on the organizing committee.  Jane Wells has long sought to inject opportunities for women into WordCamps and the tech community at large. Danielle Morrill was a highly regarded female in the startup arena, at the time the first employee at Twilio who spoke frequently at conferences. Unequivocally, each of us would have been very receptive to Adria if she’d just approached us instead of attacked us.

What We Can Learn from Overreaction

There is some small part of me that appreciated the backlash she received this week, something I’m ashamed to admit, because I’ve long viewed her as a bully who uses these instances to her personal gain, driving traffic to her blog. But people were missing the point.

Within 24 hours, Adria was being attacked with the vile words people use only when attacking women. They called her a man hater (this was the nicest thing they said) who robbed a father of three of his livelihood. Then the threats began- on twitter, on her blog, on facebook. She should get raped, she should be fired, she should be killed, she should kill herself.  A petition was started and people threatened SendGrid’s business. The company itself suffered a DDOS attack. All this ridiculousness made Adria look reasonable in comparison.

She didn’t get the developer in question fired… Play Haven did that and there are probably details of that transaction we aren’t privy to. It is a tragedy, but one that isn’t her fault. She committed one single offense: not approaching the men like an adult and saying “hey. guys- cmon, that’s offensive to me.”.  On her own blog, she states “it only takes three words: ‘That’s not cool‘”, which I agree with. She should have said them to the developers in question. If she was that uncomfortable doing so in a full room, she could have contacted PyCon officials privately, there were certainly channels to do so. Its important to note Adria’s entire job was conversing with developers. There were multiple steps she could have taken before she once again dropped a public bomb on twitter and her blog.  In her own take on the situation, Adria claims to have considered many things like the size of the room and the audience. All she had to consider was “what outcome am I looking for?”. If the outcome is “change the way these men are speaking” she’d have taken a different route. If “make as big a deal of this as humanly possible with no thought to consequence” was her outcome, she chose right.

I emailed SendGrid via friends who worked there to inform them of the pattern: when Adria is offended, she doesn’t work within the community to resolve the problem, and how ultimately,it actually harms female developers because it forms the perception that we are to be feared, we are humorless, that we are hard to work with. I suggested that SendGrid had the resources to retrain her and teach her better techniques and that I hoped they would choose that path instead of penalty to her. This morning, they went the other way, SendGrid posted that she was no longer with the company.

How did we lose?

The last 24 hours have been some of the ugliest on the internet. The tech community, especially the Open Source community is built on respect for others. There’s a gentleman’s code for privacy (taking a picture w/o permission is not ok; spamming someone a virtual crime) and procedure dictates even security leaks to be reported privately.  Trolls aside, if you don’t believe there is misogyny in the tech world, this will absolve you of that belief. There was little reasonable chatter, instead she was attacked not as a person or developer but as a female- a bitch.

SendGrid lost – they had an opportunity to build toward a positive resolution and they instead lost business, lost a good employee (Adria is a smart, educated teacher and speaker) and lost respect first for doing nothing and then doing too much. They couldn’t seem to win this one. They didn’t respond fast enough yesterday, when they should have insisted that Adria apologize for not dealing with her offense in a more mature manner. They could have immediately seized control of the situation and turned it into a productive conversation about men and women in this space. SendGrid is a fabulous company turning out a great product, employing many great people, some of whom I know, and its gotta be a very hard day there.

Adria didn’t win. I’m not sure she’s employable as a Dev Evangelist, which has been her role. Those who know her in the way I do believe she’ll use this as a platform, but I hope instead she learns from it. This wasn’t about feminism, and she shouldn’t be allowed to sit her perch on the issue. This was about the way humans relate to each other. Either way, the past 24 hours must have been terrifying for her and for that, I’m sad.

The developer in question didn’t win. He posted a very classy apology very early in this situation, surprisingly supportive of Adria and asking what most reasonable people are: why didn’t she handle it differently?  Based exclusively on the conference code of conduct he was in the wrong and he admits that. Was there a less caustic way for him to reach the same realization?

Most importantly, women didn’t win. The ugliness I’ve seen in the last week shocks me, I didn’t know it could sink to such depths. Adria reinforced the idea of us as threats to men, as unreasonable, as hard to work with… as bitches. Her firing in some way sanctifies the ugly things said to her as effective- the social terrorism won.  It doesn’t heal the divide, it slices it deeper.

By that default, men lost too.

How it Could Have Gone

I am surrounded by great geeky men in my life, and they are smart and sensitive and protective and funny. Many are far, far more sensitive than I am. And as with all communities, a fraction of them are douches. When women in this industry are hurt, we’re all hurt.  We have issues to be worked on, but I see the women and men around me working on them. At every happy hour, conference, event, roundtable, lunch.. we have rational and intelligent discussions about the topic.  Many more are to be had, and they all start with one simple action: talk to eachother. Assume people are reasonable until they are not.

I imagine in an alternate future, Adria just turned around, smiled and whispered, “Hey.  No offense, but I’m not all that interested in hearing about your dongle, you know?’. The men would have become momentarily embarrassed, and then reflexively defensive before letting their rational neurons fire in that crowded room and say, “yeah, dude, no problem”.  Maybe one of them would have approached Adria later in the day and pulled her aside to say “hey, I really didn’t mean to offend you, I’m sorry. Hope there’s no hard feelings.” In this alternate future, at a future conference that developer quietly steers a conversation amongst friends away from this territory, without making a big deal of it.

In that future, we all won.

Thank you all for your (mostly) incredibly lucid, thought out, rational responses. For the internet, this was a particularly kind and supportive group both of myself and each other, and for that, you all win the internet today. Comments, as promised, have been closed. I’d hoped to have a conclusion of some kind to post right now, and I don’t, but I am working on it with the help of many other diverse voices. That post will likely be the last one this blog ever has. Until then, and hopefully after, continue the conversation, and I mean, conversation. Talk to eachother, respecting everyone’s right to an opinion while being open to listening. Good luck and best wishes.