If you cannot change, you cannot grow

Back in 2013 I presented for the very first time at the MVP Global Summit. I was terrified.

At this point I had been working for Microsoft for five years. I’d been an MVP before joining Microsoft as an employee and I had been a regular public speaker for many years – but this presentation felt different. MVPs are some of the most technical, most vocal, and most skilled people I know, and as a general rule they are talented presenters and communicators. I was very nervous, and I wanted to break the ice, both to help myself relax and to set an open and conversational tone for the session.

So I started my presentation like this:

2020-07-01-15-36-56-716--POWERPNT

A warning before we proceed: This post is likely to have more coarse language than I usually use. If you’re offended by swearing you may want to consider skipping this one, but I hope you’ll read on. I’m writing the warning before I write any swears, so maybe I’ll find another approach by the time I get there.

As the initial icebreaker I used the cover of Madonna’s 1984 album “Like a Virgin.” This was my first MVP Summit presentation, and I wanted to remind everyone that even though I might be a familiar face, this was my first time… or close enough.

The next slide represented the transition from the intro into the technical content of the session. I wanted to emphasize how we were talking about internal Microsoft processes and planning[1], and that the session would share these details that are typically not shared with anyone not on the product team… so I used the title “opening the kimono[2]” and as a family-safe but slightly risqué visual joke I used a “no image found” placeholder for the slide body.

The session went better than I could have hoped. People laughed where I wanted them to laugh, and shared deep technical feedback and constructive criticism were I wanted them to share deep technical feedback and constructive criticism. I was very happy.

Until later in the day, when someone came up to me to let me know that there were complaints. That someone had been offended, that someone hadn’t liked my choice of slides and sexually charged metaphors and images.

I was shocked.

The MVP who was reporting the news let me know that he wasn’t at all offended, and that the complaint came from someone who was always complaining anyway. “You know who,” he said to me, knowingly. I didn’t know who, and I never tried to find out who[3].

Instead, I thought about how my actions had a negative impact on someone in a way I didn’t plan, intend, or desire, but which was real nonetheless. That process was painful, and even now – almost seven years later – it is still uncomfortable to write about. I’m worried that someone might comment “you should have known better, you were an adult and 2013 wasn’t 1984” because criticism is difficult, and maybe they were right. Maybe I should have known better, but I didn’t, and because I didn’t I caused problems for someone who didn’t need me causing problems for her.

And I didn’t do it again. I messed up, I learned about my error, and I did my best to correct it. I made a choice, and I chose to change and grow.

That was 2013. Now let’s fast-forward to 2020.

Last week one of my data platform community heroes, Jen Stirrup, stepped down as a Microsoft MVP because the MVP program has not chosen to change and grow.

I want to unpack that last sentence before I proceed. Please bear with me, because this is important.

Jen is one of my heroes. She’s deeply technical – she’s one of those people who knows more things about more things than anyone could ever be expected to know. She works with some of the biggest companies in the world, helping them deliver global scale data solutions using a huge range of technologies. She can hold her own standing with the best of the best because she’s that good. She’s also an effective communicator who freely and selflessly shares what she knows. She’s soft-spoken, but when she’s speaking it’s worth leaning in and listening to what she has to say.

But that’s not the only reason she’s a hero. Jen is compassionate and tireless, and speaks the hard truths where so many others would chose the easy path and remain silent. Jen consistently chooses the right thing even though she knows it is also the hard thing.

And Jen chose to give up her status as an MVP. If you know anything about the program, you’ll know that this is a big deal. The MVP program comes with significant benefits and access to information that is invaluable to someone in her profession. I remember being an MVP and I know that I could not have done what she did. I am in awe.

The final thing I want to unpack is community – I called Jen a data platform community hero. The context of a community carries some baggage that may not be obvious, and I want to look at it a little bit here. Every community is defined by the behaviors it tolerates. If a community tolerates abusive behavior, that abusive behavior will thrive and will become the norm. People who can’t tolerate the abusive behavior will leave, and they won’t return. People who are made uncomfortable by the abusive behavior will engage less, and contribute less. And people who appreciate the abusive behavior will recognize that it is allowed, and they will repeat and amplify it. This is how communities work – not just technical communities.

Weeding out the “bad apples” isn’t enough. Successful communities need to define what they want to be, and to do it deliberately. I don’t know of any technical communities that do this[4], but I know one in another part of my life: Valkyrie Western Martial Arts Assembly. Valkyrie is a martial arts school in Vancouver, BC that saw the abusive behavior in the North American HEMA[5] community and decided to be something different. In this awesome blog post, Valkyrie co-owner Kaja Sadowski describes how she did what she did, and why. Please read the whole post (it’s much shorter than this one) but for now, please read this bit:

If a female student is worried about whether the guy she’s partnered with is going to hit on her again, or “accidentally” grab her breast, or refuse to hit her in drills, she can’t focus on her training. If an Asian student feels like he has to prove he’s not a bookish stereotype, or has to put up with constant shitty Kung Fu jokes, he can’t focus on his training. If a queer student is anxious about how their fellow students will react when their partner comes to pick them up after class, or a transgender student is stuck worrying they’ll be called out for using the “wrong” bathroom or misgendered by their training partner, they can’t focus on their training. All of these students end up in a position where their learning suffers, because they can’t put 100% of their energy and effort into their training and instead have to deal with the background noise of harassment and discrimination. If I put them in that position, I have failed them as an instructor.

Kaja decided that inclusion and diversity was important, so she decided to be aggressively inclusive.

Aggressively. Inclusive.

And the results are fantastic. I’m a middle-aged straight white guy. I’m tall and reasonably fit and reasonably good and I expect I would be welcome in any club. I have never felt more welcome than I am at Valkyrie. I visit Valkyrie for events, and am delighted when they come down to my club in Seattle for our events. They built a community that is aggressively inclusive for the people who might feel unwelcome in a traditional martial arts school, and along the way they built a community that includes everyone.

That’s how inclusion works.[6]

I’m not done. There’s one more thing I need to call out here – both because it’s important and because it is central to Jen’s decision – and that is the #MeToo movement.

Some of you might be saying “MeToo is so 2017, is that still a thing?” I hope not, because that is likely to get the swearing started, and I’ve done so well so far.

MeToo has the name that it does because women have put up with sexual harassment and sexual abuse that men don’t experience, and often men don’t see. Women are literally saying “me too – I have also suffered the thing that you are talking about” because for far too long they’ve been told everything but this.  Most[7] of the women you work with have been harassed and abused at every step of their careers, and they’ve tolerated it as best they could.

This is important, and this goes back to my personal story from 2013.

My choice of slides may not have been a big deal. On their own, they may not have been worth mentioning, even for someone who would rather I chose different images and phrases. But they weren’t on their own – they were part of a lifetime of challenges and indignities large and small. Despite my lack of malice, they were another straw on the back of someone who didn’t need one more person telling her she wasn’t welcome, and I was that person. Casual sexism doesn’t need to be intentional to be hurtful.

In 2013 the only person who mentioned that complaint was the guy telling me it was no big deal.

In 2016 a small martial arts school decided to build a welcoming and inclusive place for everyone, and their results speak for themselves.

In 2020 one of my heroes left the MVP program.

I suspect that in 2020 there are young women and brilliant people from other underrepresented groups who are questioning if the MVP program has a place for them.

Communities are defined by the behaviors they tolerate.

One community in this story chose to make diversion and inclusivity a true priority, and one apparently did not. One invested time and money and careful thought in “actively and aggressively building… a safe space for all,” and the other one apparently did not.

I hope the MVP program will recognize this moment for the wake-up call it is. I hope the MVP program will choose to change and grow.

But it needs to be a choice.

Hey, look – no swearing after all. Good on me[8].


[1] The MVP Summit is an NDA event, which is one of the things that makes is to much fun.

[2] If this phrase feels immediately inappropriate as you read this today, I would like to share this MacMillan Dictionary post from the general timeframe of this event that calls this phrase “a vividly effective metaphor for conveying transparency and frankness” which nicely sums up my intent.

[3] The same brain that made it hard for me to know who might have been offended by my presentation also makes it hard for me to remember the male MVP who let me know about the complaint. Faces and names have always been hard for me.

[4] Not to say that they don’t exist – there’s a universe of stuff out there I don’t know about. If you know of a vibrant and inclusive technical community, please tell me.

[5] HEMA stands for Historical European Martial Arts, which is a blanket term for the modern swordplay practice I love so much. The HEMA community has enough “bad apples” to drive away many people who would love it as much as I do, including sexism, racism, and more. That community is starting to change and grow, and Valkyrie is part of the reason. There are some other delightful folks in this community who take no bullshit, and I love them too. If you want to imagine what the abusive behavior looks like, watch Karate Kid, but give the Cobra Kai dudes swords.

[6] If you don’t believe me, check out this great presentation from Jasmine Orange on “Designing for the ten percent.”

[7] Look it up yourself – do a little legwork on this one, bro.

[8] This was a rough post to write – it’s difficult to talk about hurtful mistakes even if they’re years in the past. I like to think I am a better person than I was a year or a decade ago, but I still make mistakes. I still act thoughtlessly and carelessly, and I still fail to live up to the moderately lazy standards I set for myself. But I’m trying, and the people in my life are forgiving.

8 thoughts on “If you cannot change, you cannot grow

  1. Laura Cardinal

    I really appreciate the thought and self-examination that went into this article. The phrase, “Communities are defined by the behavior they tolerate,” will stick with me. Your elaborations on what it means to be aggressively inclusive are actionable by all. We all are parts of communities and we all play a role. Thank you, Matthew.

    Like

    1. Thank you, Laura!

      It’s very easy for me to stand at a distance and tell stories, but the work of building inclusive communities is HARD. The feedback I’ve received already suggests there are lots of people who want to be part of the solution…

      Like

  2. Chuy Varela

    I cannot say I know Jen as well as you do, but I follow her on Twitter and she accepted my LinkedIn invitation some time ago. I do see Jen’s genuine interest on helping and making sure the community can grow in knowledge, and that is something I always appreciate from anyone. Same as Laura, the statement that resonates the most in me from your post is “Communities are defined by the behaviors they tolerate”, I think we can certainly apply it to any aspect where people interaction happens. Paying attention to the fine details is something that I appreciate from anyone, and in this particular case, Thank you for sharing your experience and for speaking up on what matters!

    Take care, Matthew!

    Like

  3. Great post, and good on you for being willing to share your fails, not just your wins. What I found interesting is that you referred to the person who objected to your metaphors as ‘she’. I am curious–do you known that for a fact? I 100% agree that it is LIKELY to be a woman, but I am delighted to say that there ARE men who would also object to those metaphors, and there ARE women who wouldn’t care. I agree it takes discipline and creativity to give a captivating presentation without resorting to ‘eye opening’ metaphors and imagery, something I struggle with. Just like I struggle with not swearing, even in day to day conversation. But my husband? He could go his whole working life without using a swear word or even the most slightly suggestive imagery, because he is THAT private. We should all strive to have a firewall between our physical human side (that we use in our intimate relationships) and our intellectual human side (that we use at work). Utopia? Finding that balance without losing our humanity!

    Like

    1. Hi Jessica. As stated in the post, I don’t know who objected back in 2013. The person who let me know about the complaints referred to the person complaining using female pronouns. That’s the extent of what I can say with certainty.

      Like

  4. Pingback: Representation and visibility – BI Polar

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