Dear MVPs

The MVP site says that the “Microsoft MVP Award recognizes exceptional community leadership”. Now I don’t have much of an idea about what gets classified as ‘exceptional’, and ‘leadership’ is a whole nother matter again, and while I wince a little at the ‘zee’ in ‘recognizes’, I do feel comfortable with what we mean by ‘community’. So I’m going to write about that for a bit.

To me, the community that we MVPs are involved in caters for anyone who is interested in similar technologies to us. We’re generally involved in a number of communities – online, local in-person, the people gathered at an event that we’re at, as well as non-technical communities such as the people who live near us. Quite possibly we don’t even know many of the people in our communities but that doesn’t stop them being a community. The people that find blog posts of mine are part of a community that I continue to reach, even if that blog post is more than ten years old. The people that sit on the bus with you in the morning form a kind of community even though you may never have even spoken to them.

Community suggests we have something in common with these people – a common interest or common culture or common behaviour – and the differences start to matter somewhat less. Hopefully it doesn’t matter to the people in my user group that I’m 6’4” with glasses and a beard, because that doesn’t describe any of them. It shouldn’t matter that none of them are part of the community of parents from my daughter’s school. We celebrate what we have in common, not our differences.

In fact, it’s the differences within a community that make it stronger. If everyone in my user group were 6’4” with glasses and a beard, it would probably mean that a new attendee with 20/20 vision might feel out of place. As much as I’d say “No, please, you’re more than welcome to stay”, they would probably count the number of eyes in the room and feel like they weren’t contributing enough. If you don’t feel like you have anything in common with anyone, it’s harder to establish community, and we have a great starting place in technology – but we have to understand that the differences matter.

Diversity matters.

I’m not going to pretend I have the faintest clue about discrimination. I’m a tall, straight, white, English-speaking male. The few occasions when I’ve been different to those around me don’t even begin to compare to people who face unjust discrimination on a daily basis. I think back to being the only dad doing the school pickup, not knowing whether I was welcome in that little community of mums. Some seemed overly friendly, some made me feel like I was being defined purely by my gender, and I didn’t always appreciate the kind of attention that some of them seemed like they were interested in giving me. What I wanted was to feel accepted (normal) and to focus on the commonality of the group. I didn’t want to feel different. But this group was hardly a significant part of my life. It wasn’t a daily battle.

When I worked as a “checkout chick” at Ringwood Coles nearly thirty years ago, I was the only male checkout person there. On the late shifts, my colleagues would gather at the service desk and chat about boys and clothes and whatever else, and I definitely wasn’t made to feel welcome. They had a community. I was not part of it. But this glimpse doesn’t help me understand what it must be like long-term, in the same way that someone who’s had a slipped disc doesn’t understand exhausting chronic back pain. This wasn’t a lifelong career I was fighting my way through. I really have no stories.

I have no idea about the people that come to my blog. I figure that they’re a pretty diverse crowd. The only barrier to entry I can think of would be that it’s in English. I don’t think my words alienate any of the readers. There’s certainly no aggressive atmosphere when someone finds an article about SQL query tuning or about developing a culture around data, no matter who the reader is.

And yet when it’s a crowd of people, there are those that are put off by what’s in the room.

When a group is almost entirely female, the men might feel out of place unless there is an effort to make them feel like they’re not out of place. Like they’re normal. The same. In our male-dominated technical communities, it’s the women who will feel out of place. We know this, and hopefully we’re even used to spotting it and making an effort to be inclusive of women.

But perhaps we’re not as used to people who look noticeably different. The person who belongs to a very different culture, perhaps very obviously because of the hijab they’re wearing, or because of the colour of their skin. Perhaps it’s someone whose personality is just a bit too ‘out-there’. Perhaps it’s a transgender person, identifying as a different gender to the last time they visited the group.

The way that we make these people feel welcome is to respect who they are. To remember that our community is stronger because of the differences, but that we have similarities with these people.

The SQL Server community recently got it wrong at some events. Jennifer Jones wrote about how unwelcome she was feeling at some events and that she had decided to leave the community. Because of the way that people refused to accept her, she has opted out. None of us want this. The voices making her feel welcome needed to be stronger than those that made her feel unwelcome.

We needed to do better. And still do.

As community ‘leaders’, we need to be champions of diversity. We need to stand up against harassment. We need to make sure that people understand we will not tolerate harassment at our events. We need to make sure that we help anyone who feels like the victim of harassment. Never devalue what they’re going through. Understand that they’re going through stuff that many of us have never experienced.

I don’t care what kind of harassment it is. It could be a woman finding that she’s drawn the attention of an amorous man. It could be that someone is being insulted because of a speech impediment. We need it to stop.

We need to educate our communities. We need to make everyone feel truly welcome. That’s what exceptional leadership is.

@rob_farley

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