The bullshit I had to go through while organizing a software conference

This time I am not writing an interview or a technical post. I am writing about a series of events that took place in the context of the…

The bullshit I had to go through while organizing a software conference

This time I am not writing an interview or a technical post. I am writing about a series of events that took place in the context of the conference organization which exposed me to a situation that is now out of control despite my efforts to avoid conflict. The impact these events are having oblige me to write this article as a tool to clarify what happened.

I expect this specific case illustrates the type of things that might happen to anyone out there trying to create something for the community. I hope the article it is not too boring, I want to give more precise information but I can’t yet. In the end, the truth comes out and people show their true colors.

Teammates and I in last year’s conference

Why organize a conference?

Organizing a conference involves a great expenditure of time and money. True, sponsors make up for a big part of financing, and ticket sales help. Still, conferences tend to net to a loss.

Then why do we do it? Because they are also an enormous source of satisfaction. For a couple of days, conferences generate a vibrant community, where people have the opportunity to grow and learn together, renew passion for their work and create relationships that will evolve in new projects that will last far beyond the scope of the conference.

What are the usual problems that appear while organizing a conference?

Anyone that has organized an event of this scale knows how hard it is to sell tickets, publicise, organize logistics, get sponsors, look for accomodation, buy airfare tickets, coordinate catering, pay for insurance, arrange stands and manage audio and video recording. Also, differences within the organizing team and diverse points of view will most likely appear. Basically, “whatever can go wrong, will go wrong”, and this is quite a challenge during the preproduction and during the conference itself.

What has been our experience so far?

Until now, my team and I have organized several meetups and participated in lots of conferences; but only last year we took the plunge and organized our first software conference, called BuzzConf. This will be the second time we started a new telecommunication conference called Zruput.

We learned how to deal with the unexpected: flights were cancelled, the catering messed up the gluten-free food, the cell phone of one of our speakers went missing during the conference, the audio and video recording of the talks failed and some sponsors paid months after the conference. Despite these inconveniences, which are normal, it was an incredible experience and we enjoyed it greatly.

We were able to bring people who develop Linux’s kernel, who are part of the Rust language core team, who make important contributions to distributed systems, people who launch satellites, among other things. The people we met and the things we learned broadened our horizons. This year we are expecting computer scientists that were involved in the design of Haskell, that created an amazing package managers and that implemented Python packages, used by hedge funds, for statistical modeling. We know we are privileged.

What happened this year?

My team and I were contacted by different people to warn us that they were uncomfortable with the participation of a speaker and her boyfriend in our conference. Sadly, I can’t go into details until the legal issue is over. This communication took us by surprise since we had performed a basic background check on the chosen speakers to avoid these kinds of issues. Like many of you who are reading this article, I am skeptical of what people I don’t know say over the Internet. I initially hesitated to do something based upon these comments when my team and I discussed the matter.

When you are in a difficult situation, the most reasonable thing to do is to search for the help of those who can provide knowledge and experience, so we consulted on what we should do with different people on what to do. Several people who knew both of them confirmed that they had had problems with them in the past. We also talked with the organizers of other conferences and with dev that are part of gender groups focalized in technology and all of them recommended us to take distance from them.

This was how we finally decided that the best thing to do was to inform the speaker she wasn’t going to be a member of the conference. It was a difficult decision in which we prioritized the participation of the public that had reached out to us while also knowing that many people, especially women, wouldn’t come to the conference if we did nothing about this situation. Neither I nor the rest of the organization wanted to create a problematic situation, we were just trying to solve a difficult conflict in the best possible way.

Therefore, on April 25, 2019, I, along with an employee of my company, communicated to her our decision in a meeting held in a place of her choice. She took it badly. We knew it was hard news to take on. Nevertheless, we didn’t expect a threatening reaction followed by several emails, Twitter DMs, persistent phone calls and Whatsapp messages. She even texted my girlfriend, one of the organizers of the conference, whose telephone number is not public and wasn’t given to her at any moment. At the same time, she started contacting other speakers of the conference.

Problems escalate

A few hours later, I was contacted via Whatsapp by a person who told me he needed to meet me to talk about the conference because he had a big problem which could be solved by talking. That person identified himself. I didn’t know who he was and I replied that I had no problem speaking but I didn’t know how I could help him.

At around the same time I got a message from an employee of my company who told me that the same person had contacted a speaker of our conference and requested a meeting with him. The speaker confirmed this to me and told me he had felt uncomfortable with the way in which this person had written to him. When this happened, I asked around and acquaintances of mine told me that this person was the boyfriend of the speaker we had decided wouldn’t be a part of the conference.

At this point I found out this man is an internationally renowned information security specialist. He found vulnerabilities in known operating systems and privacy-oriented messaging platforms. I was learning all this in the spur of the moment.

It was late in the day, but before I went to sleep I found an anonymous threat which stated private information about me would be published. I can’t confirm who the author was, as it was anonymous.

Conference encounter

Two days later on April 27th, a software conference took place that has no relationship with the conference I am organizing. I went there to meet two acquaintances. After meeting with them I decided to tour around and see the different stands of the conference. At that precise moment I saw the former speaker. She was calling the security of the event and using her cellphone to record me. She yelling that I was at the conference to stalk her, and that I was harassing her and following her. I never thought something like this could ever happen. It is worth noting that, at this point, I had only talked over the phone with her once, met her in person also once and, as I stated before, I had received several persistent communications from her. Now she was accusing me of following her to her work, to a conference and of being a stalker. One of the organizers of this conference intervened and let her yell at me instead of trying to solve the issue. A few days after I learned he was a close friend of her and her partner.

I had to leave the conference, depressed by the whole situation. Luckily, my girlfriend and other friends were there to help me. I was just attending a conference and was subjected, along with my acquaintances, to a very unpleasant moment by being unfairly accused by a person I didn’t know.

They went public

After this incident, a friend gave me a heads up that the boyfriend of this person had taken to Twitter to post that I was harassing and threatening his girlfriend. He even suggested that I was personally attacking him through his girlfriend. He later deleted this tweet but I managed to save screenshots.

After this I felt powerless and despaired. I never imagined that telling someone she would not speak at the conference would expose me and my team to this sort of situation. Several people contacted us to ask what was going on and why I was being accused of harassing a woman. I had to give explanations to our sponsors. Being accused like that caused me harm. He had already gone public with his version, so I decided to tell my side of the story on Twitter too. I needed people to know the facts: we had contacted a speaker to tell her she was no longer a part of the conference, we were harassed and I was the victim of a false accusation that had a commercial impact for me. I had to talk with clients, sponsors and employees to explain what was happening. Due to all of this, I decided to file the corresponding lawsuits.

While I was sleeping, early morning May 4th, my phone began to ring incessantly for minutes with notifications. It was an employee’s phone sending messages via Signal, for several minutes. I called him to ask what was going on. He said he hadn’t touched his phone. I asked him to turn off his phone, but the messages kept coming. At the same time, another employee called me to tell me he was getting those messages too and wanted to know what was happening. To be clear, I don’t think in any way somebody exploited a vulnerability of Signal, but it was used. In the years I have been using Signal, this never happened to me nor do I know of similar cases, but I have talked with security specialists that pointed me to how this might have happened.

This is just one of many similar issues I had to go through since then, but this article would become long and boring if I listed them all, and I think you already get the idea.

What is the best way to act in these cases?

Sometimes, our initial reaction to this type of situation is keeping quiet and hope it goes away. As soon as you start talking you start being judged and getting deep into even a bigger problem. These are the reasons why we hesitated within my team to make this situation public. We didn’t want to waste time, energy and resources on this affair. Generally, the best scenario is to talk with the involved parties, to cooperate and to seek a solution that doesn’t make the problem bigger. This isn’t always possible. In this case they went public and accused me and I had to explain what happened. I had to explain to sponsors, clients, employees and other members of the community what happened.

What’s the legal status of the conflict?

I’m currently analyzing with different attorneys and advisers the steps to take next. One of the pieces of advice they gave me were not to give any names to avoid escalating the situation even further. It pains me to do so, because I feel I need to warn the community so that this doesn’t happen to more people. But I understand this is the way things work and right now I need to trust that the justice system in my country will do its work. Therefore, I will take the necessary legal actions to bring light to this situation, and I will request the legal system to publish all necessary documents to prove I acted with integrity at all times.

Why is it important to create safe and diverse cooperation spaces?

Some people consider that software conferences are focusing too much on inclusion and diversity. What they want is for conferences to be exclusively technical. This makes sense only in abstract. The problem with this is that they aren’t taking into account that many people can’t partake in the way they could and would like to. There is no way of making a technical conference if some people feel insecure or uncomfortable. This is why inclusion and diversity are essential in these kinds of events, as well as the participation of the groups that promote these values.

We know that hostile environments are often generated where harassment and uncomfortable situations make women and minorities step aside. It is important to generate a space where everybody, no matter what gender, ethnicity, religion or ideology, is able to share knowledge in a friendly, pleasant environment with a collaboration spirit. There are several ways to achieve this. One of them is to work along gender and minority technology groups, which are doing an excellent work in promoting bigger diversity, and cooperate with them. Giving discounts to those minorities that have less resources is another way. It is also necessary to be attentive towards potential conflict situations that may occur so we can solve them by following a code of conduct.

This year, only 2 of the 9 speakers in our conference will be women. The conference is still really behind its gender equality goals in this sense. We are working with different women’s groups to improve. I am sure that we will do better in the following years.

How will we move forward?

Today, we are working to leave all this behind us, but since there are legal complaints, this will probably take more time, more money and more energy.

Being involved in situations like this is part of the risk one takes when organizing a conference and facing a greater deal of public exposure. It was probably naive of me not to consider these kind of things could happen. I actually believed that the hard part of organizing a conference was the logistics, but I learned that sometimes the hardest part is the human factor.

The best way to face this type of situation is to always be faithful to the code of conduct, not give in to undue pressure and consult groups dedicated to ethics, gender and minorities in technology because they know the most about these issues. Also, to lay things out in the open, speak up and not let there be a taboo is essential to prevent other people to go through the same ordeal.

Finally, I would like to thank everybody that contacted us. In times like these, those gestures are worth a lot.