Raising awareness: using your platform for social good


April Speight

April Speight

April Speight argues that developer advocates have an unspoken responsibility to raise awareness and share credible information in discourse around social causes. In this talk she shares what it means to have a platform in the new normal.


Thank you very much. And thanks, again, everyone for joining us today for the closing keynote, “Raising Awareness: Using Your Platform for Social Good.” In case you missed the introduction, my name is April Speight, and I am a Cloud Advocate at Microsoft with the Spatial computing team.

Like many folks who work in advocacy, most of my time is spent creating technical content and engaging with the developer community. Now, I personally chose this profession for two reasons. First, I spent years behind the scenes as a project manager and a program manager. I felt it was time to engage with users directly as a larger part of my day-to-day activities.

Second, I care a lot about beginners, and I wanted to ensure that they felt both seen as well as welcome and included and content created around teaching folks how to create experiences and extended reality. Pre advocacy, I grew the audience on my social media platforms purely from a place of learning in public and providing tech career transition advice for those coming from non-tech backgrounds.

Like most of my audience, I came from an industry where tech wasn’t necessarily a skill set sought after. I worked in luxury fashion as both a menswear stylist and a visual merchandiser. Creativity and a sense of style were a priority. Connecting with customers held comparable weight. Using APIs and merging GitHub PRs, not so much.

Now because I came from a non-technical background, a lot of my initial content like the focus on technical know-how. Rather, I talked about things that mattered most to me, what it meant to be a woman in this world that we live in, advocating on behalf of the LGBTQIA community, advocating on behalf of domestic violence victims as I myself, I’m a domestic violence survivor, diversity and inclusion, and, of course, one of my most favorite topics, space exploration.

I never once felt that a social cause was too taboo to address on my platform, and I didn’t hold back in support of organizations such as Planned Parenthood. I’ve spoken on behalf of what it means to be black in this industry without even batting an eye. Now, when I look around the developer relations community, this is what I see, a diverse group of individuals.

Although I may not be involved in every conversation that’s trending around the community, I do keep track of how we’re engaging with the community. And while I would be ignorant to believe that everyone else in DevRel uses their platform in a similar manner to myself, I was disappointed in recent weeks to observe so many folks reluctant to address some of the larger social issues that are being elevated in this moment.

I found friends, acquaintances, and colleagues conflicted as to whether they should postpone their technical content to make space for Black Lives Matter. Although I figured it was a no brainer, there was something around the stigma of Matt talking about tech that caused an air of confusion for folks who are responsible for sharing technical content on a day-to-day basis. Why did we need permission from our employers to address social issues such as racial injustice on our social platforms?

Why did so few lack autonomy to make that decision on their own before deciding to follow the crowd? This is something I’m struggling to come to terms with as I continue to observe this behavior to this day. When did our platforms become a place where it’s only okay to discuss tech and avoid raising awareness that could result in engaging in social good?

I’m going to unpack this a bit, and then I’ll share ways you could use your platform social good. First and foremost, we all come from different walks of life. There will be social causes that either directly impacts our own livelihood or those within our respective communities. We’re not tech content robots, rather, we’re human.

We have emotion, we can express empathy, and more importantly, we have a voice in which we could use to make a difference. Be respectful of other folks’ journey and recognize that just because something doesn’t directly affect you, it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be addressed or talked about.

Now, one thing I’ve learned as my own audience grew is that there are unspoken rules to having a platform. Most of us here are familiar with the concept of influencers or can identify a well-known celebrity. And in some way, shape, or form, we’ve experienced instances where this particular subset of individuals received backlash for staying quiet and not bringing light to the latest issue impacting our lives.

There seems to be some mythical rulebook that you’re obligated to follow once you reach a particular social level. For us in advocacy, this sometimes translate to our number of followers or metrics around our content engagement. Regardless, once you have a large platform, the rules of how you use your platform change, and it almost seems as though we have to abide by these unwritten rules in which the developer community has created for us.

And, of course, there’s no guidebook that’s handed out once you become a who’s who in tech. So many of us walk into these situations blindly. We’re left to our own devices. We sometimes stay in our narrow tech lane and only talk about tech as that’s what seems to be safe.

If someone in our community brings up politics, we dodge that bullet and we share a link to the latest project we built with JavaScript. Someone shares a bad experience of working for a tech company, we bypass the conversation and tell folks to tune in to our upcoming Twitch stream. Someone asks the community to sign a petition to ban individuals from a platform or event who’ve demonstrated misogynistic behavior, we look the other way and “I thought you’d check out our latest blog posts on Kubernetes.”

It’s almost as though diverting from technical content is the number one thing most try to avoid doing. And guess where that leave you when a social issue is trending around the community? You are deemed complicit, your silence demonstrates complicity. Your lack of addressing the issues which matter most to your audience leaves a million eyes on you and your lack of empathy.

And when the social issue doesn’t directly impact you and you’re hearing information from a million resources, some of that information heavily contradicts itself and you’re sitting at home wondering whether you should say something, or maybe carefully curate a message so that you get it right on the first try. It can all leave you confused.

And you know what, it’s okay to be confused. No one is expecting you to have all the answers. However, what is not okay is to choose to remain ignorant. Do the research, find credible resources, listen to the voices of those who are impacted by the matter at hand. And finally, express support and solidarity, raise awareness, and take action.

After a few weeks of observing interactions on Twitter, I’ve continuously seen the same tweet from various individuals who I’m assuming are publicly addressing racism for the first time. That tweet essentially called attention to the fact that they were losing followers. And nothing baffles me more than the notion that folks determine their own value or self-worth based on such insignificant metrics.

Point-blank, your value is not measured in engagement. If you’re reluctant to use your platform for social good and fear that you’ll begin to lose some of your audience, it may be time for you to take a look at who your audience actually is. Don’t let the number of likes, follows, subscribes, retweets, or comments determine how much value you have in this industry, and more important as a human in this world.

Now, as nice as it is to see that many of the folks within DevRel have stood in solidarity over the past month or so to support the Black Lives Matter movement and the advocacy of the LGBTQIA community through the observance of pride, it has become evident that some of the support being given is performative.

I have seen instances of folks who share Tweet to sign a petition and then crickets after that. It’s almost as though supporting a social cause was something they scheduled into their content strategy. And that once they either shared a link to a GoFundMe or posted a black box, they reached their quota of the attention they’re willing to give to a social cause on their platform.

Please be aware that such action does not go unnoticed. Social good is not a once-every-few-months thing. Engaging in such behavior it comes off as being disingenuous. Putting on a I care about this now, but will never address it later again face doesn’t mesh well with everyone.

But for those who may be wondering, “Well, April, what else can I add to the conversation? Everyone is saying the same thing. I don’t want to be repetitive.” My answer to you is that your voice matters. Yes, your particular voice matters. It’s like when I was a kid, my mom always told me that I had to hear from someone else to finally listen to something she constantly told me to do over and over again.

Sometimes as humans, we truly just need to hear a particular message from the right person. We may hear or see the same message passed around from one person to the next. But once we hear it from that one individual, it’s like it finally clicks. Consider the fact that someone in your audience is waiting to hear a message of support, solidarity, or action from you before realizing that a social issue is truly an issue.

Again, your voice matters. So where do we go from here? First things first, find a cause to support. What is something you truly, deeply care about? What is something that your friends and family care about? What are social issues impacting your own audience?

There’s essentially a never-ending list of causes to support. As I mentioned in the beginning of this keynote, I personally support increasing the diversity in our industry, advocating on behalf of domestic violence victims, Black Lives Matter, the LGBTQIA community, Planned Parenthood, and space exploration.

And that’s not an exhaustive list of every social cause I personally support. However, these are the causes, you can often hear me making noise around in some way, shape, or form. When considering a cause to support, keep in mind that it’s not necessarily always only about the issues which directly impact you. Think about others.

Consider how you can help make the lives of others better by advocating on their behalf. And once you find a cause to support, there’s two things that you can do. The first is to raise awareness. Bringing an issue to the forefront doesn’t require a grand gesture. There’s no need for a huge announcement or for you to publish a 20-minute long YouTube video about a social issue.

But of course, if that’s your preferred method of communication, then, by all means, have at it. However, raising awareness can look like bringing up a topic during a community meetup and having an open discussion or mentioning a social issue during a live stream. You could also consider amplifying the voice of others by sharing their messages to your respective audiences.

The point I’m trying to make here is that raising awareness does not require a long, overthought strategy. When the world began to protest about Black Lives Matter, I found myself wanting to share my perspective on what it’s like being black in this world we live in. Two friends of mine within DevRel from another company decided to do a live stream to discuss that very topic.

When I saw the tweet about the stream, I immediately reached out and asked if I could join in on the live conversation The following day, Nathaniel and Quinoa and Corey Weathers of Twilio and I of Microsoft held a candid discussion on color live on Nathaniel’s “Baby Developer Show.” I went into this conversation of hopes or raising awareness around the racism we experience in this country.

I wanted to make others aware of how folks they work with on a day-to-day basis are treated and feel. l wanted to make others aware of how they themselves may be complicit and in return negatively impact folks they work alongside here in this tech industry. So why was this important?

It was important because I’ve seen time and time again the same response of, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t know. I had no idea.” And that’s right. You had no clue because you weren’t made aware. Just last week, I gave a talk at the HoloLens and Mixed Reality meetup on creating educational experiences and mixed reality.

Towards the beginning of my presentation, I highlighted examples of how people and companies are using extended reality to create educational experiences. I extended this platform I was given to shine a light on the work of a friend who was working towards making VR accessible for children through her platform, Kai XR. I personally dedicated space in my presentation to share with attendees the work that Kai is currently doing so that they are aware of such ventures being taken in our space.

Not to mention Kai have been fundraising to raise money to continue to build out her platform for children. Not only did I introduce something new to folks who may have never heard of Kai, I set the stage for others to help out by donating towards her GoFundMe. The purpose of raising awareness is to help generate buzz so that people are talking, but more important that folks are progressing to the second step, which is taking action.

Taking action looks different for everyone. For some, that may be a matter of participating in protests. For others that may be donating their time or money towards engaging in social good. For example, I feel deeply about helping young women transition into tech careers. So last year, I became a mentor with the organization built by girls.

I donated by giving my time to mentor an early career riser. This mentorship gave way to taking action towards addressing the larger issue at hand, which is a lack of diversity in our industry. As I mentioned, sometimes taking action can be monetary. When I was an undergrad, I took collisions in space course because I thought astronomy was cool.

To date, I don’t remember much about that course. But what I do remember is my professor standing in front of the class one day almost in tears over the fact that funding for space exploration had been cut. For whatever reason, I felt so connected to the hurt she felt that I felt compelled to do something about it.

Today, I am a donating member of The Planetary Society. And furthermore, I take additional action throughout the year by creating content that uses NASA’s APIs in hopes that others take an interest in space, and also want to support the efforts being made towards space exploration. Now, of course, you don’t have to be a mentor or donate money to take action.

However, getting involved to help overcome an issue in any way, shape, or form is essentially taking action. Developer relations as a whole is a pretty sizable community. So many of us are doing mind-blowing things with technology, and we’re engaging with various diverse communities.

When it comes to using your platform for social good. Always remember that you don’t have to do it alone. We should all work together in collaboration to both raise awareness and take action. That doesn’t mean that we only need to stay within the confines of other folks in DevRel within our own companies.

Feel free to reach out beyond your own company. Reach out to others that may be at competitor companies. The point is, we’re infinitely stronger in numbers, and can help bring an end or dismantle some of the issues we face today as a society. Thank you all, and I appreciate your time.

Feel free to connect with me on Twitter, YouTube, Twitch, and Instagram, @VogueandCode. You can find me on LinkedIn by searching for April Speight. And finally, I manage and write blog posts on my personal website, vogueandcode.com. Thank you.

Tamao: Thank you so much. That is really really fantastic. I appreciate it so much. Lots of food for thought. Reminder, everybody. I’ll be keeping an eyeball here on Slack, so please post your questions here. So many things.

I think I’ll start around the DevRel. We talk so much about impostor syndrome as being this common topic. I don’t know how many imposter syndrome-related abstracts we get every time we do a CFP. So, given that that’s already kind of an key area of discomfort, how would you help people to then reach out and…you know, they’re new to certain causes, they’re new in this particular case and do feel emotional about it, but they feel, “I’m not an expert on race, I’m not an expert on biases and all these things, but I do feel concerned and I started reading a little bit.”

How would you guide them through those emotions as you’re recommending to use your voice that someone in your network would find valuable? How would you guide them through that?

April: So the one thing that I found myself saying to a lot of folks recently who do want to say something but they’re not sure what to say, or they’re afraid that they’re going to get it wrong, I like to start up by reminding people that it’s okay to make mistakes, not malicious mistakes, but it’s okay not to know everything.

It’s a learning opportunity right now for so many people, and I always try to take the path to normalize that we’re all learning. And I feel that for some reason, there’s this notion that we wake up in know everything around all these social issue, and that’s not the case. The more that we see people willing to admit that they are learning and that they are making an effort.

I think that begins to help others feel comfortable with understanding that they might not have all the pieces to the puzzle correct right now, but they still have value in whatever it is that they want to say. And then also just to be aware of the fact that if something comes out and it’s incorrect, yes, there may be people who do chime in and correct whatever statements that might be made, but to keep in mind that it’s nothing that you should take personal.

I think, when it comes to having imposter syndrome, just in general, when someone tries to correct us or course-correct us, we take it so personal and we feel like we’re being attacked, and it’s not always that that’s the case. And I think if we get out of our own heads of having this fear of just doing something wrong, it really helps open the door to feeling more comfortable to be able to address things.

And I know that is easier said than done for some people, but really, as we continue to normalize learning in general, and when I say normalize, normalize learning, I don’t necessarily just mean learning things related to tech but just normalize learning about life, I think people will start to feel more comfortable with being able to want to say something and to accept when something is misstated and then making those corrections once they’ve learned.

And even just honestly before I joined you all, I was looking through my Twitter feed and an ally had shared some information about something that had recently occurred around, I believe it was like sex trafficking. And someone had chimed in and said, “These weren’t…”

Because the individual that shared it said that these were young women, someone chimed in and said, “These weren’t young women, these were girls.” And so that individual said, “Oh, thank you for correcting it, I’ll fix my statement.” So being able to accept those corrections and that feedback from others also makes a big difference.

But I would say when it comes to facing imposter syndrome and wanting to speak up, don’t focus so much on people ripping you apart for what you have to say. Say what it is that you want to say and be able and open and willing to learn if you do make a mistake because I don’t always say the right things, you know?

Tamao: Yeah.

April: Yeah. So, that’s how I would start at least and hopefully, that would help out.

Tamao; Absolutely. Now, to just to add a comment. There are definitely people thanking you for the talk here. So to follow up here, I have mentioned the “White Fragility” book because I’m going down my list and it’s the thing that’s kind of most present right now. And the professor who wrote the book had a teachable moment, shares about the teachable moment.

And the person was asking, “The next time I give you feedback, do you want it in public or in private?” And she says, “I want it in public.” That’s not something we can ask of everybody. Your talk was a lot about, you know, the social aspect and using social platforms. Yeah, how would you feel about that?

April: Yeah, so honestly, I am of the… If I notice that someone takes an action or says something that might be inappropriate for the moment or whatever the nature is at hand, I’m personally a…I’ll pull you to the side, and I’ll discuss it with you. I know that everyone takes that stance on addressing issues that are going on.

And that’s because we’re all unique individuals. We handle things however way we want to handle it. Personally, I can fight for both sides of addressing issues publicly or privately because I can understand where there might be benefit for one over the other. But what I think personally bothers me is a time attacking.

When the individual who may have made the mistake, if there was no malice and what they’ve said, for example, if it was something that was truly genuinely something that they were unaware of, for example, I have a problem when it’s just head on attacking of this person.

Because I think that then, especially on places like social media, that then leads to a swarm of people coming in also attacking that person when it may have been an innocent mistake. Now, are there instances where the individual knew what they were doing for a fact and they knew that it was wrong? Yes, that does happen.

And then does attacking happening in that case? Yes, it happens often and I see it often. Is it right or wrong? I can’t tell people whether or not their action towards addressing that person is right or wrong. I know how I would personally handle it, and especially if it’s someone that I personally know and they’ve done something on social media that probably didn’t come across or land the way that they wanted it to land.

I go to them first, especially if I know that individual. But if it is a complete stranger though, that is something, again, I’ve have at times either pulled them to the side. But if I do address it publicly, I try to be mindful of the tone that I have.

I know when we’re communicating through writing, it’s hard to understand how things are coming off. So in that case, I try to be mindful of the words that I’m using so that I don’t come across as me being like mad at someone about something. But I think overall, that’s what makes social media such an interesting place to have discourse because it’s really hard to see who’s yelling and who’s doing this and then things resort to name-calling, which is like one of my least favorite things.

So it’s relative to the individual, it’s relative to the person, but I strive to take the one-on-one path. But if it is something that they are doing, and they are intentionally doing wrong, then I think at that point addressing it publicly, it does come into play then at that point and I can make a difference.

Tamao: Yeah. And we’ve talked about this with DevRel community to always assume best intentions, ask questions first, right?

April: Yeah, yes. Really important.

Tamao: I have the impression that you were trying to say x and then that person has an opportunity say, “Oh, I wasn’t aware of that.” That was the type of tone that was coming across. So at least give that opportunity first before even addressing, right? Try to do that.

April: Yeah.

Tamao: So yeah, on that note, too, I was wondering, you mentioned people getting angry as their first response. So, therefore, once they haven’t asked. And secondly, they’ve often made assumptions, and I’m growing and learning on this path, but we’ve talked about making assumptions that you should be woke.

Back to what you mentioned, you said, like, you know, you might not think this affects you. Well, maybe as a starting point, we’re not aware…we’re kind of in a system that’s helping certain people feel like they’re not affected, even though we all are  and hopefully we come out of the situation in a good way.

Like, all the anti-racism work is that if you are not anti-racist, you are complicit, I’m complicit. You know, we’re learning about the ways that we are. So, from there, some people look at me, “Oh, you’re from the Bay Area. You went to Berkeley, you should be woke. You should have known better than that stupid thing.” I’m gonna say stupid things because, on a daily basis, I am trained to think in some way, right?

So many of us are reinforced these ideologies, whatever you want to say, that makes, “I’m not affected by it.” There’s definitely that part of it. So I’ve done some of that with gender. What about you? Have you sort of tried to unravel that part just like, “Well,…” Like as you said, we’re all gonna say dumb things.

We’re all trained daily. How do you build that into your co-workers, your communities? How do you build that into how you engage?

April: It’s a tough thing because I would say for me personally, growing up where I grew up, I started in preschool at a predominantly all-black preschool. So learning black history and a lot of the information that folks today are starting to learn in their later adult years, I have known since preschool, you know, and that was because of the environment that I was in.

And then once I entered public school, that’s when the children around me started changing. There were more colors that were being brought into the picture of what I saw on a day-to-day basis. So that also meant that my friendship circles started to become more diverse. And I am thankful for that because I was able to see how other people live outside of the people that I was used to being around.

I was able to learn about cultures that I had never known about because so many of my friends, they were essentially a rainbow of cultures and people. So, I got to have an idea of that understanding. And then once I got to college, I went to University of Maryland, College Park. And even there I was introduced to even more cultures and different walks of life. So I say that because for me when it comes to understanding why people behave the way they behave and why they act the way they act, a lot of my understanding comes from the fact that I’ve been able to grow a diverse group of people that I’ve been able to be around to be exposed to.

And so understanding that when someone makes a comment nowadays, I really have to take a step back and think about where they’re coming from. Maybe it might be the case that they didn’t know about X, Y, Z. And I’m going to be honest, and I hate to say it, but it’s not 100% their fault that they don’t know about X, Y, Z because if they were never placed into a situation to learn about it, then there was no way to ensure that they would have known about that.

And you can look at that from a lot of what people are learning now about just the history of racism, for example, that there were a lot of things that were kept away from us in our own education systems where it’s a lot of history that was just dropped.

And not just necessarily black history. There’s so many different, you know, races and cultures of history that we just aren’t taught in school, and you really don’t have that opportunity to learn more about it unless you either go to higher education and you take electives where you learn about different cultures, or you take the initiative on your own to learn more about different cultures. And I think it’s kind of hard to just expect certain things to certain people, especially if, you know, we don’t all share the same personalities and all the same curiosities, just want to know more.

And so when I do come across comments that are made around, “Well, why are we talking about this?” Or, “This doesn’t impact me,” and, “Oh, I never see this happening where I live,” I try to think about where this individual is coming from, what walks of life they have and haven’t experienced and that presents an opportunity to educate.

Rather than brushing it off and saying, “Okay, oh, well, they don’t know anything about it, I’m not gonna worry about it,” that opens the floor to provide some education around why it matters, the history of whatever X, Y, Z is, for example. But for me, it is that matter of just really understanding that we all come from different places and not to take offense when certain things are said.

But of course, there are some things that do come across offensive, and those things do hurt. And when that happens, I’m human, I get upset because my natural response to something that’s coming across offensive is to be upset. But then it’s the actions that I take after that is what makes all the difference.

And again, it’s a matter of if it’s like work-related, for example, which, fortunately, I haven’t run into that in my current place of where I work. But if something like that were to happen, finding someone in management that I trust that I can go to about that particular issue, that would be my first step because what you don’t want to run into is a yelling battle back and forth with someone over something that you disagree about.

Because I’m just going to be 100% honest, just historically, for someone being black to have to raise an issue about an issue that they’re having with the co-worker, unless you have solid proof, sometimes it just doesn’t get resolved the way you want it to be resolved. So that’s why for me having an individual such as a manager or someone that’s close to that level that I can trust, that can also advocate on my behalf is super important too.

But just overall, it’s an iffy subject, but having that understanding that we all didn’t wake up in the same environment and upbringing is something that I would say has kept me level headed when addressing different issues.

Tamao: I know we’re slightly over, but I did want to close out with knowledge diversity, which was our theme last year. And I know you’re very dedicated to junior developers and providing new onboarding materials. Any thoughts on that and how we can be measuring ourselves as we run DevRel community and ways that reach out better around knowledge diversity as opposed to, “Oh, these students or these Junior devs, they’re not going to influence the buyers. We can’t justify it.”

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

April: Yeah, I am a really big advocate for believing that everyone adds value to the conversation. It’s not just certain individuals that we should speak to. For me personally, as I mentioned in the beginning, I love beginners. I love anyone who has no clue what something is in tech because I feel as though they are capable of learning and in return making a difference in the different technology that we create here in this industry.

So I feel that when it comes to engaging in social good or even just sharing knowledge around things, it doesn’t benefit to leave out any particular group. It actually helps to make sure that we’re addressing different audiences and really ensuring that we are bringing everyone in on the conversation.

When it comes to just within DevRel and the different sort of like ways we create content and such, make sure that you’re looking out for all levels. I think that’s super important too. Now, even though like I personally cater to beginners, that doesn’t mean that I can’t speak to someone that’s above that. But it’s just that I feel like that particular group, whether you want to refer to them as beginners or juniors, I feel like they’re left out so much for whatever reasons people come up with, but I feel like they are equally important and not to mention we all started out there.

No one woke up and just knew everything. So we have to look out for those individuals, especially right now. With as many individuals have lost their jobs just due to COVID, we really have to understand that people are looking for new opportunities when it comes to work and learning and sometimes for some folks, that means coming in the tech.

That’s a really large group of individuals who will need help trying to onboard in just understanding programming, for example, if that’s like the path you’re taking. And so make them feel welcome, make them feel like they’re capable because the worst thing that we can do is push an increase and getting more people on board within working in the area programming and then not having the proper environment for them to come into.

I think that’s one of the worst things that you can do. So, hopefully, that answered your question, I sometimes talk around.

Tamao: Yes, absolutely. Thank you so much. It was such a great keynote. Really, really appreciate it. It’s really rounded out a fantastic first week of DevRelCon Earth.

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