Making tech communities welcoming

March 2010

After dev8d there were some blog post discussions about how to attract more women to such events, and how as women we need to try and articulate what it is that might make a difference.

So this is an attempt of sorts. I am going to talk about communities more generally rather than events, with some of the following more relevant to real-life communities and other parts to online communities. As I mentioned in one of my comments, my own experience at dev8d itself was entirely positive, so this is much broader and not specific to dev8d at all.

I want to make it clear that I can only speak for myself and not for women more generally and that I don't feel any sense of entitlement here. Communities have the right to be whatever sort of community they want to be. I also can't claim to have always followed my own guidance without fail, although I aspire to!

So those caveats over, here is my advice if you are interested in making a community more welcoming to people like me:

Say hello to newcomers

At least in smaller groups, if you're an established member of a community, make an effort to go and say hello to anybody new, chat to them and introduce them to people. Sure if I'm new, I can go and say hello to folk myself, but it feels so much nicer if people come and say hello to me, and if I approach folk at random, I may not pick the right folk to get a good first impression. It's still rare enough that it'll make your community stand out. I remember it happening at the London Girl Geek Dinners, but I'm stretching my brain to think of other instances.

Thank and compliment people

This improves the atmosphere all round. You don't need to go over the top, but do actively look out for things that you can thank people for. If somebody's given a good presentation, tell them. Say nice things about other people generally.

Don't criticise in public

If you are intelligent, you are constantly spotting ways things that could be improved and analysing what exactly is wrong with things. It's an easy thing to slip into and I've certainly been guilty myself.

However, if like many tech communities, your community has a culture of 'competitive criticism', then I'm instantly turned off. It doesn't matter that it's not me that you are criticising, I'll notice and feel like I don't want to belong.

This is also about giving people the benefit of the doubt. A particular case in point here is code. Every programmer has written rubbish code at some point in their life. You can't tell from code the context in which it was written. You don't know whether somebody was given an impossible-to-meet deadline that day or had a family crisis. Plus we were all newbies once. If you don't look back on your old code and cringe, then it probably means that you're not learning anything.

Critical feedback can certainly be useful to people, but the right place for it is almost always privately. The fact that lots of communities pride themselves on their openess does not override this. There will be exceptions such as with open code review processes, in which case say what you need to say, but make sure you say it coming from a place of kindness rather than of irritation.

Another option if you want to give constructive criticism, is to either target it broadly rather than specifically, or to instead of criticising, praise the people who are doing the opposite. That I guess is what I'm trying to do here. It'd be very easy for me to pick on particular communities and examples and it would make this post far more colourful, but I don't want to do that.

Value people for more than just their technical prowess

Yes, I join communities because I want other people with whom to discuss technical things, but I want to belong to a community were relationships about more than just that, and people care in some small way about eachother beyond that. I can understand that this isn't the case with everybody, but for me I can't just divorce the technical from normal human relationships.

I think tied in with this is not worshipping certain members of a community as 'gurus'. I have to confess for me that as soon as community refers to people in it as gurus, I find the community immediately unattractive. I can't quite put my finger on why, but I think it's because it says that the community doesn't value anything other than the technical.

Give people a way to save face

Everybody has the occasional mental block. If somebody says something patently daft, there are ways to correct them in a face-saving way. Use them. Likewise if somebody asks a daft question, don't reply with questions such as 'why didn't you do such-and-such?' that make them look stupid. If somebody said they struggled over something, don't turn around and say that you did it in five minutes and can't see why it would take anybody any longer.

Don't ignore the behaviour of poisonous people

If the community you are in is stuck with somebody poisonous for whatever reason, then at least do your best to temper the effects. I remember the Moodle community once being fantastic when somebody ripped into something I posted in unnecessarily vitriolic language. Within the hour, I had various people defending me and apologising for that person's behaviour, and it really helped to neutralise the effect.

On a smaller scale, discourage snarkiness. Lots of clever people are snarky, but there are plenty of clever folk just are interesting to talk to that aren't. Choose their company instead.

Don't give 'RTFM' responses

Sure, I know how it feels to hear the same question for the 100th time. Yet if when I first glance at a community and see even a few RTFM responses, especially if the questions were reasonably intelligently phrased, it feels like somewhere that doesn't welcome questions. It doesn't take much more effort to politely give somebody a link to the documentation and if it happens repeatedly, it's probably a sign to look at the usability of your documentation.

By the way, I don't have any problem with super-concise answers online. I don't expect lots of smalltalk and niceties, but there's a difference between concise and making the person asking the question feel unwelcome.