Thinking About Úll

Last year I attended Úll for the first time. I make no secret of the transformative effect it had on me. Thanks in part to talks by Anil Dash and Baz Scott, I began thinking about what I was really doing in the tech industry. What my role should really be. Even more important, Úll was the first conference I’d been able to attend1, because they offered a program for My Favourite Person: my 10 year old daughter, Molly.

At Úll last year, I met Neil – a father from London with two kids. He was in a similar situation to me: he was wondering what he wanted to be when he grew up and needed inspiration. A perfect candidate for a conference like Úll. Also like me, this was the first time he’d been able to get away, because he was able to take the whole family, rather than making it a selfish thing he was doing just for himself. The kids could play in the pool, do crafts, create electronics, play with Legos, and ride the ponies. His wife could enjoy the spa or relax in Killarney. The rest of the week they went sight seeing and enjoyed a mini-family holiday.

Let’s take a look at why this was my first conference in more than a decade.

If we look at the industry as a whole, we find young white men without kids at the very top, then with each adjective lost from the set (young, white, male, childless) proximity to the top diminishes. As a parent, I’ve lost a valuable adjective: childless. I lost another valuable adjective, young, some time ago. Fortunately, I still have the two most powerful adjectives white and male in my favour.

Here are two examples of how losing the adjective childless has affected me:

I interviewed with a small startup in 2009, one thing they impressed upon me was how energetic they were (translation “we work long hours”). During the course of the interview, we got to joking around and talking about personal lives and I mentioned my family. There was nothing as crass as someone saying, “Whoah, do you think you’ll be able to put in 60 hours a week with a wife and baby?”, but I heard later that was their primary concern. That I wouldn’t have the “bandwidth”. That I wouldn’t be a good “cultural fit”.

With my previous team, as a family man I could only put in 40 hours a week except during extreme crunch times. I was “dependable” but not “high bandwidth”. Therefore, I accepted less interesting work, which definitely needed to be done but which would have chafed the younger, higher bandwidth engineers. No one could fault the quality of my work. My reviews were consistently excellent, but it was clear: if I wanted to get the exciting work, I needed to be more available.2

I’m not downtrodden by any means: I have a great job; I have a great life. But if I can point out two obvious examples of ways being a parent has impacted my career, there are likely more I didn’t notice. Can you imagine how much worse it might have been were I not imbued with with the awesome power of the magical adjectives white and male?

Looking at conferences specifically, attendees are largely young, often single, and rarely have kids. I believe the reason we don’t see more attendees with families is clear: to attend a conference as a married person with kids means burdening your spouse with the care of the children while you’re away. If you’re a divorced parent, negotiating with an ex-spouse to care for the children can be excruciating. If you’re a single parent, you may simply have no child care options.

If you’re very lucky, your employer will pay for your transportation and accommodations and won’t deduct vacation days while you’re at the conference; then you’re only left with the hurdle of arranging care for your children. But what if your employer won’t pay for you to attend or requires you to use your vacation days? Can you really claim using family funds or precious vacation time to attend a conference is better than a family vacation?

When Doug and I first started talking about forming a non-profit during the late summer of 2015, one of the things we were enthusiastic about was the Kids Track at Úll. We were excited about sponsoring Úll in 2016. It was with this sense of optimism I reached out to Dermot Daily, one of the organisers of Úll, around the new year to start the process.

Dermot wrote the following in an email when he and I first started talking about the possibility of underwriting the Kids Track:

When people bring their children, it often results in them bringing their significant other. The result of this is often we manage to have people there who are a) from outside of our “tribe” and b) wouldn’t have normally come. This is a super result because it means we get to have those diverse perspectives at the conference.

The other positive side effect of having children around is I think it makes people generally be better versions of themselves. People are less likely to be crass, less likely to swear; generally I think people tend to be more polite when there’s kids around. My favourite phrase was by Guy English who said it made the conference “More Human”.

I definitely agree having kids around encourages people to be better versions of themselves. I know I strive to be the better version of myself when Molly’s around. I redouble my effort when other people’s children are around. Children energise me like nothing else.

The friends Molly and I made at Úll felt more like extended family – in large part because we connected as families. Even those friends without children or whose children weren’t there, their connection with Molly and I was as a family. They’re part of our extended family. I think they felt that. I know we did.

I’ve been looking forward to sponsoring the Kids Track at Úll for so long it seemed like a done deal, but nothing is ever certain. Although it’s a personal disappointment, our board voted to focus our attention elsewhere. I still believe having kids at conferences is a fantastic way to include people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend and it humanises a conference, which is a very good thing.

Molly and I will be going to Úll again this year. We can’t wait to see our friends. We can’t wait to meet new friends: new people from inside and outside our “tribe”. I promise to be on my best behaviour.

Will we see you there?

  1. I’ve worked and spoken at conferences, but it has always put a significant strain on my family. 

  2. I want to be clear about something: I loved working on this team and was happy enough contributing work which I believed was high quality and meaningful. I also would have enjoyed doing a bit more of the flashy work from time to time, but I understood the team dynamics well enough to settle for my role.