Community and empathy


Sarah Novotny

Sarah Novotny


Tamao: I’m very, very excited to have our first keynote speaker, and all of our keynotes, and all of our speakers for today, our opening day at DevRelCon Earth. I’m sure many of you know Sarah Novotny, yay, it’s really good to see you, who’s been at Google and now at Microsoft and has just been such an amazing leader in the open-source space.

And so we had already…I think if any of you followed DevRelCon SF, she was already one of our keynote speakers that we selected. And as I mentioned earlier, we had a little exchange about how I’m just so glad that we have her as a speaker, anyway, because, you know, we are in this place where we keep talking about the importance of empathy, and community management and working with the community and having it be a shared common experience.

So I’m really glad that you’ll be opening up this event, and we’ll be hearing about that, and how we can contemplate those in the situation that we are in today. So I will…

Sarah: I’m super excited myself.

Tamao: Yes. Excited. So with that, I will hand it over. And as I mentioned, please, yeah, don’t be shy. Go in our Slack channel, ask as many questions as possible, because we’ll have a live Q&A. And if we run out of time, we’ll continue to do Q&A on Slack. So with that, I will hand over your slides.

Sarah: Good morning, good afternoon, good evening, good local time to you. As Tamao said, I have been working in and around open-source communities for a very long time and have distilled some enduring lessons from them, but I think that even, particularly around 2020, that we need to think about the world in terms of these enduring lessons as well.

So, everybody, take a big inhale and a great big exhale because 2020 is half over today. It’s not been the most predictable year by any stretch, and it is been a year around the globe that has had a heightened awareness of our humanity and what that means, but it also has had a heightened awareness of all the differences between us as individuals, and then, unfortunately, all the differences that exist between us as nationalities or as groups on a particular island body of continent that we are.

And that’s, we’ve been really, really unfortunate. But we’re half over with 2020, and I’m totally down with that. I don’t think at this point that we can think of 2020 as a whole lot more than a collection of things that have added to our collective anxiety. DevRel, particularly, has had their entire world changed by this.

So let’s take a moment, since this is a tech event, although DevRelCon, I know that we are speaking to a friendly crowd here who wants to talk about humans, but I love the way Myles referred to this and said, and reminded us that the technology that we work in is very cyclical.

It has lifecycles. It has hype cycles. But being a human is not. Being a human is not part of a hype cycle. We will always be human, and we will always need to figure out better ways to engage with each other. So I mentioned that the world has changed all in 2020, and the global pandemic that we’ve seen with COVID-19 is only one of those pieces.

Everyone, especially DevRel being affected by this one, seems to be doing less travel to other places for events like this. We no longer currently have events, and possibly going forward, depending on what we learn over the next year to 18 months about this particular COVID virus, and then also what is happening with the world and how we are able to collect and gather together, because that looks very different now.

We’re here on video as a way to gather as opposed to gathering in person. Does make me really wish for the hallway tracks again. And then there’s, of course, the added complexity of the fact that the U.S. is struggling right now with a heightened visibility of our racist history, and that is a really poignant moment for many people who thought that they were doing what needed and thought that maybe this problem had come to an end, but it really hasn’t.

And that, that has been very much brought into stark relief that the experience of the majority of white people is completely different in the United States from the experience of someone who is black or part of the African-American community. And that is super important to consider as we’re going through this. So I have looked to my DevRel friends, I have looked to the internet, I have looked to open-source communities for help, support, advice and guidance, of course.

And that is the model that we really need to use in order to engage with people and engage with them in all the new ways that are being either forced upon us through the changes or the new ways that we’re choosing to engage with. Seeking new perspectives is a huge part of this, making sure that we are spending time understanding the experience of others.

I’ve read in the last three weeks more books on the U.S. history that is not written from the position of white leaders than I have ever read in my entire life which is a vulnerable thing to mention and a horrible thing to have be true.

I have learned more in the last three weeks about my fellow Americans’ experiences in a society that is still divided, and that is enlightening and is definitely making some of the challenges that we see more clear and more approachable for me.

And it means that I end up asking my peers to do less heavy lifting for me, and I’m better able to advocate for their positions and their experiences. There’s learning, and growing and teaching, of course, because this is DevRel, so we need to make sure that we’re always out engaging, and learning and growing.

And then, with that, we go out, and make sure that we are teaching and sharing our experiences. And that shared experience that we have with the people that we’re working with is the experience that connects us as humans and makes for those amazing networks and those fantastic conversations with like-minded people and with differently minded people.

And that is super important. So to touch on the metrics thing because, of course, metrics is important and metrics was the topic here, is I found in communities, we really have to measure what matters. And it’s trite to say, but it’s right there, up with my, one of my other favorite topics we’ll talk about later.

But making sure that we know what we want to do, and then measure the outcomes that we want to connect with that measurement, making sure that we are engaging with the outcome as well as the path between here and there. Building new skills.

I have recently learned how to Twitch stream. This is fascinating to me and new and not something that I’ve ever done before. But this new situation and this new engagement model and the fact that we all collect together from our own homes, which, to be fair, as I’m an introvert, is a wonderful thing to do, we need, in fact, to keep building these new skills and growing because that is one of the very, very human things that we have an ability to do.

Listening. This community is particularly primed and particularly central to listening to the broader tech industry around technology trends, around social trends, around fear that is existing, around political trends, making sure that we are listening, engaging with, and understanding.

And then taking all of that, that we’re learning and synthesizing it to make our world a better place, to make our companies more successful, to make ourselves better and more of what we possibly can, taking that opportunity to grow and learn from this listening, from engaging with people.

This continues over, and over and over, and wraps right back up to community, in all the different forms that community takes. And then, of course, I find this slide funny, empathize. Empathize is super important. I was going to use the metaphor of walking in someone else’s shoes, but I think, for many of us in the U.S., we haven’t been in shoes in a while.

Some of the other countries may have had shoes on more recently, but I know that I’m sort of in the shoes a couple times a week mode at this point as opposed to shoes every day. So making sure that as you empathize, you are really living with, and understanding and trying to put yourself in that other person’s position, making sure that you think through how that person is experiencing everything around them, or how a whole community is experiencing things around them.

And make sure that, that is super clear and that you have that time and that energy to empathize. Because we’ve all sat behind a computer, and usually my word bubble has more swear words in it, going, “Who wrote that? What is the importance of that? I can’t believe what…why would they say that?”

Or, “I can’t believe they replied that. Maybe I did something wrong.” Text is a horrible way to convey tone, and we know that. We’ve known that for years working in text. And that is one of the reasons that we need to always take a moment, and say, “Okay, everyone’s under a lot of stress right now. Maybe that was a little bit shorter than they intended. Maybe that was.”

But also recognizing that you can return that email with a, “Hey, I want to check something. I want to understand what your tone is here.” I interpreted this. Be a bit vulnerable. It allows for deeper connections, and it offers an opportunity for reciprocation. Regardless of where you are right now, and what you are experiencing, whether it’s positive or negative, recognize that the global pandemic is affecting all of us, and all of the work that we are doing is dramatically changed.

There is a great scale that is used in psychology to talk about stress levels and their impact on health. And that doesn’t have global pandemic on it, just for the record, it didn’t say, “Global pandemic, you get 250 points,” but it did have many of the secondary effects that we’re experiencing listed on it.

So a change in job, change in financial status, more time with a partner, less time with a partner, changes in relationship, changes in health, and all of these different numbers add up within that scale to show us that, right now, we are living under some extraordinary stress.

And that is the biggest reason for all of us to empathize, and to remember that there’s a human at the other end of whatever we’re engaging with and that, that human can be having a bad day or can be impacted by our message or our engagement with them in a positive or negative way.

Another of my favorite words, phrases, I guess, within communities is chopping wood and carrying water, and that shorthands very cleanly for the need that we have to do work that is boring, do work that is necessary, and do work that is unglamorous as we say in the Kubernetes community.

The DevOps community also use this and use this phrase extensively, making sure that this is the group, and we are the people who are standing up and offering the work that needs to be done to make things better and easier for everyone around us.

This isn’t the work that makes me famous. This isn’t the work that, you know, puts my name ahead of someone else’s. This is the work that everyone needs to do, and the work that everyone needs to contribute to, to just make the situation or make the world as we’re engaging with it, or the community we’re in better and more effective, more efficient.

So doing that work, regardless of the glory to you or yourself, is super important. You want to reward the behaviors that you want to see. So when you are engaging with the community or when you are working in any group, you want to make sure that you’re making positive engagement when something happens that you want to see more of.

There’s psychological research that says, “One negative interaction takes five positive ones to overcome.” And yet we expect that occasionally thanking someone, in a lot of cases, is enough, but instead, I recommend that we are constantly engaging with the humans around us, and saying thank you, and recognizing, and responding to and engaging with the positive things that others do in our community.

Even just saying thank you when something happens is a huge start. But beyond that, you can particularly do things to make sure that you are engaging the community with positive reinforcement. I found thank-you notes, just a handwritten thank-you note, to be incredibly effective, and it doesn’t have to say much.

It can say something as simple as, you know, “Thank you for all you do.” In a world where we are together and all connected physically, and all connected digitally and all connected in our heads and our minds through our social connections, we have to make sure that this is still perceived as a good thing.

Engaging with other people is what makes us human, is what really, really underlies our ability and reinforces our ability to make positive change in the world. There’s a flip side of this that’s particularly important in technology, and that this contact tracing, this social network, this graph of connectors is both a benefit and a drawback.

It is the same method or the same vectors through which we see the spread of the coronavirus. It is the same method that we see the spread of information and disinformation on the internet.

And it is the same way that we may get out of the global pandemic challenge through things like contact tracing. So as we look at communities, and as we look at the way we engage with them and the way we build technology around them, we have to be sure that we’re respecting privacy.

That privacy is paramount to our ability to interact as humans, have individual dignity, and show respect for that human dignity. Private spaces, even in open-source, are strongly encouraged. Generally, that is the space where the work that someone is asking and needing can be handled around a delicate topic, or a topic that needs to be worked through more broadly before it can be addressed specifically.

And this focus and attention to privacy and private spaces in order to make sure that we can engage again in our lives out in the world happily, in large groups, at conferences, going back to that hallway track, is going to be a delicate balance between understanding how the human race is affected by the issues going on today.

As well as determining how to use the technologies that we have in a meaningful way to help fight and change the challenges we have ahead of us as opposed to using them to promote the existing status quo or to respond and restrict people through a lack of privacy.

These are all super important things. So here, we have 2020, and I want to say, since we started with the first half of 2020, I want to say, in the second half of 2020, all of these things, many of which you have some great understanding of, you work in DevRel, you’re interested in DevRel, you’re interested in the humans and technology, so in the second half of 2020, remember that you too are under great stress.

Your job has changed dramatically in the last year. You may be spending way more time with your family, or your partner, or your friends or your roommates than you did before. And that empathy can also be used to help you and to recognize that you need to be protected, and looked after and taken care of as well in this.

Because without that attention to yourself in managing your own internal self-community, it means if you aren’t able to pay attention and take care of yourself, you won’t be able to take care of the community around you.

We’ve had lots of talks on burnout in previous years, and this is a really fraught time for that risk of burnout. So please, I want you all, in the second half of 2020, to consider this permission to take care of yourself and to do the things that you need to do, including working with people, taking time away, reaching out to your support network when you need it, reaching out, making new friends, adding novelty to your life, because there’s not a lot of novelty for those of us who used to fly, you know, twice or three times a month.

There’s not a lot of novelty right now. But seek out the things that you need, and make sure that you’re taking care of you in the second half of 2020, because this is not a short game. The world needs to change. The world is being changed. And I didn’t even touch on climate as an issue, but that’s another whole issue.

We need you all to take care of yourselves, to be the best human you can be, and then to go out and make change in your communities. Thank you.

Tamao: Excellent. Thank you so much. All right. Let me move your slide. Excellent. Well, thank you so much for that. I will now be switching into gears where I have one eyeball looking at the Slack channel.

Sarah: Please do.

Tamao: But I have also a ton of questions for myself. Well, I have a ton of questions, but let’s start with some of the ones that we’ve seen through the Slack stream. So many great points. Again, you know, for those of us, we have such a wide audience here of people who have DevRel jobs, or open-source or may have a job title that you might normally not consider as part of community or DevRel, but they are starting to understand the value of that, so they’re taking on those roles.

So one of the questions we have is, so how can we think about all these great things that you talked about in terms of how you would define a good open-source maintainer? Obviously, this is your world. Yeah, well, we can talk another hour on this…

Sarah: Oh, another hour at least.

Tamao: Yeah. Some of the highlights of, like, kind of reflecting on the things that you talked about, within the context of, yeah, an open-source maintainer.

Sarah: An open-source maintainer. There are a number of things. I think all of those are traits and points that the whole of humanity needs to think through when they’re interacting with everyone else. For maintainers, I think there’s a couple of things that are specific in that. Empathizing is super important.

We’ve seen this in open-source projects, and historically, that they’ve been hard to join projects. You put in your first pull request, and you’re so proud, and you are so scared about it, and then somebody comes back and says, “Where’s the man cage?” And that’s all they say. And you’re like, “Okay, so I did screw it up.” So understanding the impact that you have as a maintainer on the community around you is paramount, because you are seen as a leader, and you are seen as someone who has power and status, and any interaction reflects that far more than you might imagine, especially for someone who is a newcomer to a community.

But even beyond the newcomers, showing how someone might be able to move along in a progression from their first pull request to maintainer, that needs to be supported by people who can lead, and model good behavior and engagement and empathy, and all of these things that I have been chatting about.

Tamao: Yes, absolutely. And we also have another question about your comment about sort of text engagement and tone. And with that, as well, yeah, I really like the point because I do feel like there are people we know in person, and they’re really fantastic. And then you go on text communication, and I’ve had several conversations where they’re…not to make overarching statements, but a lot of people in tech communities have experienced feeling like they can’t ask a dumb question, right.

They ask their first question and they get shot down, or they get a snarky remark and all that. It’s an ongoing thing. It exists in communities, and it exists within companies, and we try to manage that. And I have definitely had engagements where I’ll talk to the individual, and I’ll say, “Hey, you know, you made a comment,” and that person doesn’t even realize that it was snarky in tone.

They just thought they were kind of giving a quick remark or whatever. You know, we keep working on that. So, yeah, we have a question around that. What are ways, do you think, that we could help…like, doing more video meetings, meeting more face-to-face, what are the ways to manage the tone problem that continues to exist?

Sarah: So I do a lot of travel, or I did a lot of travel. I haven’t gone anywhere in months. I did a lot of travel. And so I used this with my family as well. I did a lot of text communications with them. And I have always recommended that if you think there’s a misunderstanding, if you are concerned about someone’s tone, if you are making a series of presumptions about that tone and how it’s impacting the engagement that you’re having, stop and ask, or stop and ask for a voice call because you can hear stress and engagement so much more in a voice than you can in text tone.

But especially for those of us who may be, say, more on the anxious side, I’m going to recommend that the narrative in your head is not the narrative in everyone else’s head. You don’t have to believe everything you think.

Just because you got an email back that said, “Yep, we’ll follow-up later,” didn’t mean that you had done something horrible and now you’re going to need to be chided. It could just mean don’t have time. It means, you know, want to follow-up later. So I think the key in that is use communication, and, you know, text is hard.

If you don’t have a way to do a voice chat with someone, I have responded back in the past and gone, “Hey, just checking. This message seemed a little short. This message, you know, I don’t want to read tone into this, but it’s hard not to, or maybe this is, you know, my internal dialogue.” But going and offering that person an opportunity to give you context because it could just be that they were having a shitty day.

Am I allowed to say shitty?

Tamao: We’re in tech.

Sarah: Great.

Tamao: So there’s an added comment about, you know, I have concerns about, “Oh, am I overreacting and such?” And so I would also add as part of this conversation, I think there are those of us who are also text-based because, in some ways, I guess, it’s good to reveal if you have concerns, but you also feel like, “Well, I don’t want to also say something in video or in person.”

But then I later wish I had, right? Like, I can take a breath, I can walk away, I can, you know, can post my text. So there are all these different benefits as well if you also feel like you are the one that’s really upset about something. So, I mean, I’m just adding a comment. I don’t know if there’s any solutions to that and balancing the two.

But I’d say, my personal part, one of the things that you talked about was…like you said, like, “Oh, I can’t believe they reacted that way,” or “I can’t believe they said that,” or, “I can’t believe they don’t understand this.” So I’m one of those people. I’ve worked with a life coach for a long time, my partner and I. And, you know, the common thing she brings is, like, you own your own reaction.

You own…you know, it’s very easy to forget that what’s stirring up is stirring up here. Instead, we’re always like, “What’s going on over there? I don’t like what I see over there. I don’t understand what’s going on over there,” and, you know, worked on these practices. Where I was, like, in fact, the more stirred up I am, the more it’s a possibility to say like, “Why am I so upset about this? It must be because I’m making a lot of wrong assumptions. Am I asking a lot of questions?”

Like, let me step back and ask questions versus, like, “I’m really upset with what I’m perceiving with you.”

Sarah: Yep. Because what you perceive is different from what they intend every time. And it’s actually one of the reasons I brought up the Holmes-Rahe stress index, which I had forgotten the names at the moment when I was talking. So now we have the Holmes-Rahe stress index in case any of you want to look it up. That is one of the reason that I brought that up is because you are perceiving things through this lens of a baseline of weird stuff going on in the world, and that means that it only takes this much to tip you over to be, “What is going on?” when in fact, it’s global pandemic, and did the groceries get delivered, and who is in charge of making sure school assignments got put in.

Like, in the world, at the moment, there’s so much else in complexity going on in every communication that you really have to both give the benefit of the doubt, and then further communicate to find out what is underlying it and then also if there’s something that may be more endemic that you do need to address.

Because this isn’t the moment to say, “Okay, I can’t believe that person said that because that sounds so inappropriate.” And that’s not the moment to say, “Okay, I’ll just let it go because maybe they’re having a rough day.” It’s the time to have that conversation, and say, “Here’s what I heard. I don’t know if that’s how you intended it, but that is, you know, one interpretation of it. And now let’s talk about what you may have intended, or what you may have been trying to convey.”

Tamao: Yeah, definitely. I think, also, judgment and, like, people who feel insulted, that’s a perfect way to shut down a potential conversation to understand each other than, you know… I’m not saying I’m perfect at that either. I’m constantly monitoring my own moments with that.

Sarah: Lifelong learning.

Tamao: Yes. And to add to that, I opened by saying, you know, “We’re in DevRel and community. We talk about empathy and listening.” And I’m glad that you brought those up. I also wrote a note to myself that, you know, assume that we are not perfect at this either. Some of the most challenging people are the people like, “I’m a great listener.” I’m like, “Are you really?”

Sarah: Tell me what I just said.

Tamao: Yeah. Exactly. I was just watching a great TED Talk on how…you know, they talk about, like, all the body language that you can do and all these things to show that you’re listening. And this person was like, “If you’re actually listening, you don’t have to do all these things to prove that you’re listening.” It was just, like, that’s a great, great reminder. I know we’re a little over time, but we started a little bit late.

I just want to make sure I address… I really appreciate that you are willing to share that you’re in a vulnerable place to say that, like, in the last weeks and months, you know, so many of us, we’ve been looking at the anti-racism for beginners and all these resources, and yeah, I really appreciate that you were willing to share that like… For me, one of the ones was the white fragility.

Sarah: Mm-hmm. Robin DiAngelo.

Tamao: Yes, she’s fantastic. And she shares… I think we’re getting keyed up. She shares, like, at the end of the talk…and to everybody, if you haven’t seen it, for me, there’s just so much to learn, and at the end, she ends with, when people ask, “Well, what can I do?” she said, “Well, the first question to ask yourself is, why have you gone this long not having to think about these things?” and that’s where you’ll find your answer and I just…

You know, I still keep contemplating that one, or I’ll bring it up many times during these couple weeks. But yeah, I just thought if you had any additional things to add there.

Sarah: I do. I actually have a different book to recommend to everyone because this is the one recently that I have had the most profound takeaway from, which is called Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism by James Loewen.

And that, for me, since I grew up in the rural Midwest, that, for me, hit home astonishingly close, because literally, the names of towns that this gentleman goes through and talks about and the long-time impact of the racial segregation or the, “We’re not segregated, but don’t let the sun come down on you in this town,” because that’s where sundown town comes from, that I lived in those suburbs.

I grew up in those suburbs, my step-parents and my parents lived in those suburbs during the time that they’re talking about. And that, for me, framed so much of my experience, and then also my just ignorance of…of course, it’s fixed, we don’t talk about it, right, because talking about it would be rude.

That all happened in 1968, right?

Tamao: Wow. That’s amazing.

Sarah: Yeah. So I highly recommend “Sundown Towns…”because that really framed it, for me, very personally. So anyone who has a history in the Midwest and, you know, wants to understand how, while the Midwest was part of the north in the Civil War and was not part of slavery directly, we still did an enormous amount to perpetuate the inequity that we’re seeing today and responding to today.

Tamao: Yeah. Well, thank you so much for the recommendation, and thank you so much for such a wonderful keynote. We’ll have more questions in the chat. So if anything pops up, we’ll make sure that we bring it up. Because as I mentioned, I ran a GitOps Days event earlier, and we continue to chat in Slack even, like, days later, and maybe in this case, weeks later.

Sarah: And I will confess that I need to sign up for it.

Tamao: No problem.

Sarah: So don’t anybody try and tag me yet. Give me 15 minutes.

Tamao: Sure, no problem. Well, thank you again.

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