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.

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.


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.

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.

Birmingham Open Code

From April the 8th there will be a weekly event for collaborative programming study sessions in Birmingham. We’ll be meeting in the Woodman Pub from 6 pm.

Birmingham Open Code is designed to provide a peer supported, mixed level learning environment. Programmers and aspiring programmers working in any language are welcome. The weekly schedule is designed to create a casual environment where learners can drop in for social learning as needed, without feeling the need to make every event. We’re looking to keep these study sessions as inclusive as possible. You’re welcome no matter your skill level, level of education, age, gender, race, sexual identity, or sexual orientation.

If you’re an established programmer bring your laptop and be ready to help out newbies while socializing with your peers. If you’ve never programmed before and want to start, bring some great questions to get you started in the right direction.

There are also a number of hands on workshops in a range of technologies and experience levels in the pipeline. These may be added as monthly events to supplement the Open Code study sessions. Currently workshops in introductory and advanced Python, technical writing and Ruby have been proposed. To lead your own workshop, get in touch at jessica(at)closetoclever.com.

The space is handicap accessible and close to both Birmingham’s Moor Street and New Street stations.

Tone in Documentation

Here are the slides from my presentation on the use of Tone in technical documentation at Write the Docs EU 2014.

For additional context, Andrew Spittle has put together a great summary of my talk. I’ll be posting more content as it becomes available. Bryan Villarin also has notes available.

March 2014 Events

With winter finally over, I’m back to a manic schedule at work and study. Here are some of the events I’ll be attending in the coming month:

March 8: Women’s Techmakers: London. An event geared towards building community visibility for women in tech. There will be career planning advice and group sessions as well as traditional speaker presentations. Free tickets available through EventBrite.

March 16: Brum Codejo: Birmingham. Free kata meetup for a new programming group in town. Always excited to attend tech events close to home, especially excited to have hands on activities nearby!

March 31-April 1: Write the Docs: Budapest. I’ll be giving a talk on the use of tone in documentation. Tickets are available here and include special student pricing options.

Campus Party Europe, Day 1

I’ve been lazy about blogging as I’ve been manically busy taking in the sights and sounds of Campus Party Europe. I opted to stay in their indoor camping option for the week’s accommodation, which may have been a mistake. After the worst night’s sleep I’ve had in a decade, I’ve been trying to take in as much of the conference as possible.

I was briefly introduced to Neelie Kroes, a Vice President of the European Commission and filmed a short interview on my project and the state of technological innovation with her crew.

Mozilla has a great set of interactive displays and projects on at building 6. I highly recommend speaking to Tef at the Code Club booth to talk about volunteering to teach programming to primary school students as well as take part in some of the hands on activities offered by Mozilla.

I’ve escaped this afternoon to attend a Ladies Who Code event and prepare to launch the Birmingham chapter in coming weeks.

If you’re at Campus Party this week, come say hi!

September Events

I’ve been a bit more slack posting than I would have hoped to be. In my defense, I’m gearing up for a pretty busy month. Through this busy month I’m still just as interested in meeting clever and interesting people in my travels. If you’ll (or someone delightful you think I should chat to) be at the locations or events listed below, stop by and say hello!

  • August 31 and September 1: Hackfrence Brum: Birmingham, UK. I’ll not be able to make the great conference portion on Aug 30th but look forward to some hands on programming work for the weekend Hackathon.
  • September 2-6: Campus Party: London, UK. I’ll be attending all week and presenting a Barcamp talk on inclusive individuals in tech on Thursday, the 5th at 11 am
  • September 12-13: Brighton SEO: Brighton, UK. I’ll be attending with the Majestic SEO team. If you’re interested in search (or want to snag some of our very impressive secret promo items) stop by our booth and say hello!
  • September 16-18: SES Hong Kong. I’ll be manning the Majestic SEO stand in lovely Hong Kong. Stop by and be dazzled by the exciting backlink intelligence data.
  • September 28-29: Rails Girls Glasgow. I’m up in my favorite Scottish city for a two day workshop on Ruby on Rails.
  • If you want to get in touche with me before any of these events you’re welcome to reach me at jessica@closetoclever.com or via twitter.