A Visit with Silicon Canal

Silicon Canal is an organization here in Birmingham with a mission statement focused around promoting and growing the tech community. As I’m famously suspicious of gatekeeping and organizations which could be perceived as representing diverse tech communities, I asked on Twitter if anyone in the local tech community had seen value out of the organization. Silicon Canal reached out, asking if I would like to attend one of their meetings.

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What Silicon Canal does

At the moment, not much. But they’re working on it! They currently run a series of monthly drink ups in Birmingham and handle inbound press queries about the Birmingham tech scene. The meeting covered a range of possible future actions, including an industry awards event, developing a local jobs board and a more complete directory of technology companies in the West Midlands.

Where Silicon Canal could prove valuable

Based on their current membership and focus, Silicon Canal could be a great asset for working to drive business development for the tech industry in Birmingham through outreach with existing and upcoming traditional tech businesses, investment and policy makers. This is an area that many fledgling tech scenes fail to properly manage, so could be an incredible opportunity for Birmingham to grow.

Where Silicon Canal misses the mark

While their mission statement and ambitions cover the whole of the tech community in Birmingham, their lack of outreach into the wider community limits their ability to represent those outside their immediate networks. At one point during the meeting the phrase “This may be patronizing, but the community doesn’t always know what they want, what they need” was thrown out in response to a question about how input from the community had helped shape their actions. The members seemed to have a fairly limited perspective of the individuals and resources available throughout Birmingham, understandable in our famously decentralized tech scene.

Transparency and governance may prove an additional challenge. At one point a public bids process for some web development work was proposed to add transparency to the process. Another member suggested that it might be a good idea to accept bids from the public to garner the appearance of transparency while going forward with awarding the bid to another Silicon Canal member at the close of the process.

Can Silicon Canal represent the community?

Silicon Canal would be well placed to represent a narrow set of business interests within technology in Birmingham, which they seem to be doing capably. Given that they’ve been operating for a little more than 2 years and have thus far managed to spotlight only individuals and companies from a narrow portion of tech in Birmingham, they may not be well placed to represent the vast and disparate interests of the larger community.

My advice for Silicon Canal

I would love to see Silicon Canal better shaping their mission statement to reflect the scope of their activity to date. While I’m still looking quite critically of a Silicon Canal aiming to promote and represent the wider Birmingham tech community, I would be the biggest cheerleader of the organization presenting narrower claims of representing growth around business interests in the tech community here in the West Midlands.

My advice for the tech community in Birmingham

Silicon Canal seem like a great group of people, well suited to help support us as we grow the ecosystem. During the meeting members pointed out several times that an organization always develops to represent a tech scene. If you don’t feel like Silicon Canal is best poised to do that, it’s a good time to start your own project. Don’t worry about burning bridges, Silicon Canal members talked happily about welcoming competition in this space.

Having seen a wide range of talent, interests and passions in technologists across the West Midlands, I sincerely believe that we can create a tech scene that doesn’t mirror the often wasteful and exclusionary dynamic other cities cope with. I would love to see community driven engagement coming from our tech scene doing outreach on behalf of this same community.

My advice for tech journalists

The Birmingham tech scene is exciting, I’m glad journalists are interested in it. But Birmingham’s tech scene is wonderfully decentralized. If you’re Googling for “tech scene Birmingham” and reaching out only to the first org you find, you’re doing a bad job. Check out Birmingham.io, Impact Hub, Innovation Birmingham, FizzPop, The Black Country Atelier, BOM Lab and other resources to get a better perspective of the ecosystem.

On Meritocracy

On Meritocracy

I have a lot of feelings. Feelings about technology, the current state of our industry and the claims we make about ourselves. I feel that with such a diverse range of technology communities, employers, open source projects and creative outlets that technology is exceptionally well placed to foster, spotlight and reward talent as it emerges. As I feel pride in our drive to recognise and reward talent, I also feel discomfort when I hear these efforts or our industry described as a meritocracy.

I’ve heard technology described as a meritocracy in a range of hopeful, proud and gently boastful tones. I want so badly to believe that we’ve created a meritocracy, because I want to believe the best in our industry and the incredible people that make up technology. But I have a difficult time resolving claims of a current meritocracy with the struggles of talented people in our industry. I see incredible talent struggle to enter technology, struggle to be recognised in it and too often watch them leave, taking their talents with them.

My feelings for the use of the M-word to describe technology are indelibly tied to my concerns with the rate at which underrepresented talent leave technology. If we’ve already become an industry with solely merit-driven rewards, how is it that we fail to recognise and reward underrepresented talent and keep them working in technology?

I don’t think people declaring tech a meritocracy do so out of malice, though it may read to many as insensitive. Many incredibly talented people enter technology and on seeing their talent rewarded, wish to celebrate an industry which they found deserved success in. As they may be cheering on a system in which many were justly rewarded, those who continue to struggle hear that their failures to thrive are linked to a lack of talent. Through tying success in technology to merit alone, we tell those who are struggling that their challenges are directly connected to a lack of talent.

Because success in technology is often tied to visibility, those struggling to have their talent recognised often do so without a wider industry recognition of their challenges. The invisibility of talented people struggling within the industry is part of a cycle where those who find success are given increasing levels of visibility, which drives future success. In a cycle where success and visibility feed each other, failures to thrive result in matching difficulties spotlighting those challenges. Our eagerness to edit and rewrite the history of our industry tends to leave only tales of success.

Connecting success to merit is incredibly comforting for those who have found success. Questioning technology as a meritocracy creates tangled questions about what structural biases may have influenced our success. To hear attacks against the premise of a technical meritocracy from a position of power often sounds like an attack against your own position and deservedness of your success. I feel it’s important to frame challenges to claims of a meritocracy as a challenge to the systemic issues underpinning technology, over contesting the deservedness of an individual’s position. Similarly, I would love to see more people willing to critically examine the complex systemic issues that may have factored alongside talent to result in their success.

In an industry with highly visible players with incredible talent, it’s tempting to point to these figureheads as a proof that we’ve reached our meritocracy. They make up a tangible, visible basis on which to lay claims of a meritocracy. The talented people who fail to thrive in technology aren’t visible. We don’t know their names. In working to deconstruct the myth of a meritocratic industry we’re tasked with using the unknown, uncounted and amorphous mass of struggling talent to stand against a concept supported by the named and known presence of those who have been rewarded for their talent.

Hackathon Timesavers

I’ve been looking at tools to speed along the development process for hackathons and hackdays. When you’ve only got 24 hours to turn out a presentable project, any of these can help save precious hours. I’ve included some of my favourite tools below.

Trello: If you already have a team and idea picked going into your hackathon, you might as well be ready to hash out the features of your MVP with your teammates. Trello makes collaborating (near) painless by letting you plot your course without taking off your headphones to argue with teammates.

Gitter: Chat is a great way to pass ideas back and forth. Chat that works with Github to let you pass ideas and code back and forth in-chat and speed things along.

Bootstrap: Need to make a website? Bootstrap. A popular front end framework, Bootstrap is one of the fastest and most popular ways to get your front end sorted.

Semantic UI: Like Bootstrap but want more copying and pasting? Semantic UI does the same thing with a different workflow. Get a beautiful looking front end

Python Anywhere: If you’re developing in Python, this tool lets you skip all the environment setup and get each of your team members working with the same setup in-browser in moments.

DreamFactory: What Bootstrap and Semantic UI do for simplifying your front end, DreamFactory does for your back end. Throw your data at it (SQL, noSQL, file storage) and DreamFactory will let you create RESTful APIs to plug into your project with no fuss.

Feel free to add your own hackathon timesavers in the comments below.

12 in ’15

Everyone has a different way of coping with professional fears and insecurities. When I feel under pressure, I submit proposals for conference talks. While it’s not as glamorous as other vices, it’s far more productive than my past methods for coping with stress*.

Between starting a rewarding role last December and starting some exciting side projects, 2015 has been a bit more challenging than previous years. This has led to an increase in stress and predictably, also an increase in speaking engagements. Noticing that I’ve booked several so far, I’ve decided to see if I can keep the momentum going and do a dozen talks this year.

Preview

I’ve already been hosted by some amazing events and conferences this year (Mix-It was especially lovely!) bringing me to 4 talks for 2015. I’ll also be at PHP Tek next month, WordPress Cologne in June and Topconf Tallinn in November will bring me up to 7. If you know of any confrences coming up that need the sort of talks I give do give me a shout!

*Cake. Lots of cake.

Practical Steps to a More Diverse Meetup

I’ve just had a great series of meetings with some Birmingham based orgs and Meetups looking at ways they can make their membership more representative of the local technology community. The meetings were very different but shared some of the same items on the to-do lists I suggested. I’ve posted those points here.

  • Frame and articulate your diversity goals properly

It’s temping to want to get a community looking more diverse quickly, especially if you’ve been critiqued for having an all white male group. Be careful to work towards creating meaningful, engaged contacts who can benefit from group membership instead of trying to shoehorn members in for diversity’s sake.

I encourage people interested in running groups that better represent their community to talk about their desires and efforts. Just be sure that you’re starting a conversation around your sincere desire to run a meetup that better represents and serves the community. If you’re clumsily looking for token diversity, the conversation is unlikely to go well.

  • Get a wider perspective

We tend to limit outreach to people we already know. To be sure that you’re not limiting your group’s outreach efforts, take some time to explore who shows up to other events and why. Be sure to check out a range of events at different venues to get the best survey of what level of representation already exists in the local scene.

  • Think about venues

Venues where the focus is alcohol based can limit the ability or willingness of attendees to get to your event. Pubs and bars are great for many events but may prevent under 18s, non-drinkers and those wary of the higher risk of alcohol fuelled interactions. Getting feedback from current and potential attendees can be a great way to find out if your venue is holding you back.

  • Meet with people outside your circle and talk about their projects

If you’re already doing research into other groups and your local tech scene to better gauge how you’re doing re: relative representation, you might as well start making some contacts with some of the great people you’re meeting. Reach out to potential community members to talk about their interests and projects to create contacts who might want to hear more about your projects and events.

  • Partner with folks who are doing it right

If you have common interests and functionality, partnering with groups specifically serving groups underrepresented in tech is the easiest way to make your events available to a more representative pool of attendees.

  • CoC/Culture

If you’re aiming to have a more diverse group of attendees, be sure that your events can offer them a safe space where they feel comfortable. A clear, visible and enforced code of conduct is a great way to demonstrate to new members that their needs are being valued while letting the existing members know what is expected of them.

  • If you can’t find it, make it

You can’t present diversity when it isn’t present. If you’ve surveyed the tech scene in your area and found it lacking, think about filling the pipeline yourself. Programs like Codebar or mentoring could be great ways to start moving things in the right direction.

Trans*Code

Having recently (and justifiably) been fussed at for ignoring my blog, I thought it was time to pop by and explain what’s been keeping me so busy.

I’m delighted to announce that Naomi Ceder and I (alongside some exceptional sponsors and partners) will be running a one day workshop and hackday combo aimed at the transgender community in London on March 28th. We’re hoping to add an install party and social for the evening of Friday the 27th.TransCode_transparent

We’re looking forward to welcoming a host of transgender participants and allies but are especially eager to welcome those who will be working with code for the first time through the event. We’re running a smaller event, with a maximum of 50 attendees to better provide mentorship for those new to programming. While we’ve aimed to make this as welcoming as possible for code newbies, folks of all skill levels are welcome.

We’re polishing up a Code of Conduct and schedule and look forward to meeting participants and mentors on March 28th at the GoCardless office in central London. Many thanks to our sponsors, GitHub and GoCardless who have been incredibly warm and supportive.

Full details about the event are at trans-code.org and tickets are available via EventBrite. You can follow Trans*Code on Twitter at @trans_code or tweet about us with the hashtag trans_code. We’re also on Lanyrd. We’re just all over the place.

 

Tables in HTML

In past tutorials we’ve looked at ways to present text, images and create links in HTML. In this tutorial we’ll look at how to create a simple table to use in your web projects.

What tables look like

This is a table. It has two rows.
It has two cells in each row. We’ll look at how to create this.

Table tag

The first thing we need to do to create a table is create a table tag. Tables in HTML are elements that need to have closing tags for each opened tag, so be careful. With the table tag, we’re just telling the browser that we’re going to be starting a table when we open it and ending a table when we close it.

<table>
   <!--We need to add more tags here to make our table work--!>
</table>

This code won’t display anything yet, we’ll need to specify the number of rows and cells (data) and add content to our cells to have a proper table. The text in the middle of our table tags is a comment. We’ll be looking at HTML comments in greater detail in our next HTML Basics tutorial.

Rows

Once we have our table tags, we’ll need to nest tags to specify the number of rows we want in our table. Luckily the tags are tr, for table row, and easy to remember.

<table>
   <tr>
      <!--We'll add cells here--!>
   </tr>
   <tr>
      <!--We'll add cells here--!>
   </tr>
</table>

Cells/Data

Now we just need to add the cells into the rows of our tables and we’ll be ready to go. We’ll be nesting the table data tags inside the row tags in our table to create a working table.

<table>
   <tr>
      <td>Here's their first cell in the first row</td>
      <td>The second cell in the first row</td>
   </tr>
   <tr>
      <td>Here's their first cell in the second row</td>
      <td>The second cell in the second row</td>
   </tr> 
</table>

Once we add the cells in, our table looks like this:

Here’s their first cell in the first row The second cell in the first row
Here’s their first cell in the second row The second cell in the second row

Common problems

Don’t forget that you’ll need to close each of the tags you use to create your table. The tags also have to be nested within each other in the right order. Data tags sit inside row tags which rest inside the table tags.

Have questions about tables in HTML? Ask in the comments below or find me on Twitter.

Easy, Lazy SEO

Last Saturday I joined some incredibly talented speakers, dedicated organizers and lovely WordPressers for WordCamp Manchester. The event was hosted at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School, which is one of my favorite venues for medium sized conferences. I gave a talk on Easy, Lazy SEO.

For attendes who wanted information on blocking the referral spammer Semalt, I recommend Logorrhoea‘s how to blog post.

I’ve got to admit that this talk was a bit too basic for the WordCamp audience. I had planned for an audience of SEO newbies and was delighted to find a really intelligent audience that was well informed on SEO. I think I’m going to start bringing both my introductory level and intermediate level slides with me if I give this talk in the future. Luckily a well informed audience allowed for a really robust discussion session following the quick race through the slides.

Many thanks to organizer Jenny Wong, all the volunteers and the participants that made this event such a smashing success.

Ignite Liverpool

Last night I gave a short talk on imposter syndrome at Ignite Liverpool. They’ve got a really great group of volunteers, speakers and attendees and I can’t recommend enough that folks in the area make time for their quarterly events. I’ve included slides from my talk and a list of resources and recommended reading.

Images from Mourge File free stock images, Redditor Gabryelx created the Nyan pug and I’ve included the uncited meme image “I have no idea what I’m doing”. If anyone knows where who created this image, please do let me know.

Valarie Young’s advice on combating imposter syndrome comes from her 2010 Forbes interview.

The study first capturing the Dunning-Kreuger effect, “Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.” is available through PyschNET.

I’ll be adding the video of this talk as soon as it’s made available through the Ignite Liverpool YouTube account.

Ladies Who Code Birmingham

Monthly events aimed at programmers who identify as female are now being held in Birmingham. It doesn’t matter if you’re a professional developer or looking to learn to write your first line of code, Ladies Who Code Birmingham is open to all skill levels.

We’ll be supplying cake and good company, we’re looking for some brilliant women to provide the great ideas to make Ladies Who Code a valuable resource here in the West Midlands.

cake

The next Ladies Who Code Birmingham event will be Monday the 19th of May from 6:30pm at the Innovation Birmingham Campus. We’ll be asking for short lightning talks from participants so if you have a great project, pitch or tool you want to share with us, we’re happy to give you the stage. Don’t worry if you’re shy, we’re not planning on bullying anyone into speaking. This is only our second meeting, so we’ll also be looking for direction on what kind of events you would like to see in the future. Further details available at Meetup.com.


Have questions? Need directions? Want to request specific pastries? Drop me an email at jessica(at)closetoclever.com or shout at me on Twitter.

Can’t attend? Let us know how we can make the event more accessible in the comments below.