Not the post

— April 29, 2009 at 10:30 PDT

This is not the post I wanted to write. The post that I wanted to write, that I in fact have mostly written and would have posted days ago if not for this distraction, was about what a great success Golden Gate Ruby Conference was and how proud we are of putting on a top-notch conference that raised the bar in many ways. But I'm the person who is responsible for the technical program at the conference, and with the astounding level of distress over the presentation Matt Aimonetti gave at my conference, it's clear I need to do something.

First off, I want to apologize. The technical program at GoGaRuCo was my responsibility. I could have done a better job and prevented this from happening. Everyone had the best of intentions and there are good reasons why things happened the way they did, but that doesn't excuse the lapse. As a first-time conference organizer there was a lot that I had to learn as I went, and this is definitely an important lesson. I haven't yet figured out the best way to prevent this from happening again, but I'm determined to find a way to do better next time.

And to be clear, I don't think Matt's talk was appropriate for a professional conference. If an employee of Google or Apple or Microsoft gave that presentation at a company event, he likely would be fired. I know that many people found the talk informative, creative and entertaining, and I'm not arguing against that. But there were people who found the sexual imagery in the talk objectionable or felt alienated by the atmosphere it created, and that's not okay. I think there are ways a talk with that title could have been given that would have worked, but the talk that was delivered didn't.

The most commonly used word to describe people's negative reactions to Matt's talk that I've read in online discussions is "offended". From what I know, this is not accurate. I haven't spoken to any conference attendee who said they were offended by the talk. I've heard that people felt insulted, alienated, threatened or unwelcome. I don't know if that makes a difference to people's arguments, but I think it is a distinction that matters.

This all has been particularly frustrating to me because we specifically tried to make GoGaRuCo a conference that would be welcoming to women. I looked for women speakers for the program to make the conference more women-friendly, and was so pleased to get Jacqui Maher, who gave one of the highest rated talks of the conference. When we announced Jacqui was speaking, we had several women register right away. We also made arrangements so that a nursing mother had a private space to use her breast pump. Leah and I talked about the number of women who registered often, and did our best to talk to women and get them to attend. And I don't think doing any of what we did deserves any kind of special credit - I think it should be just part of what you do if you want a quality conference.

3% attendance by women may seem low (and it is), but compared to most other regional Ruby conferences we were way ahead. One of the other regional conf organizers said how he wished he could have more than 1% women at his conference. But after all that, we end up known as the conf with the sexist pr0n talk. Sigh.

There's no way I'm going to make this go away, defuse the issue, or correct all the wrong assumptions about what really happened and why. But it might help to know more about how this happened.

I've mentioned before that we tried an experiment putting together the program. Half the speakers were invited directly. I contacted people I knew could give a great talk, and asked them to do one for GoGaRuCo. Each of those conversations had some back-and-forth about the talk and what I wanted to see at the conference. There were no proposals for me to read or evaluate, so these conversations were important. Then there were talks that were selected by attendee voting. We asked for talk proposals, put the proposals up on a website, and registered attendees voted for the talks they wanted to see. Matt's talk was selected by this voting process. There was some amount of conversation I had with the selected presenters, but not as much as with the invited talks. After all, I had descriptions of the talks in the proposals so didn't feel I needed to do anything. I also wanted to respect the results of the voting process. The whole point was for there to be content accepted that I wouldn't have necessarily chosen myself.

Matt's original proposal did not include very much detail about the technical content of the talk. I worked with him to expand the proposal to include sufficient detail to include it in the set of proposals. As a sometime editor with some experience with professional detachment, I tried to keep out of the business of telling him what he should be proposing and focused on getting a proposal that would help voters make their choice. I could have refused to post the proposal, or told Matt to clean up the "pr0n" spin if he wanted to have it included, but I didn't consider that the actual talk would go over the line. To compound things, Matt has told me that the talks we had over grooming his proposal gave him the impression that I was approving doing a talk that included the porn theme. I had a long talk with Matt last night about this, and I can see how he would see our conversations as approval of the content of his talk. That doesn't mean I think Matt's talk was the right talk to give or let him off the hook for what he did, but if nothing else did, this makes my role in the matter clear. It also shows where I need to do better.

I have been to many conferences, spoken at a few, and been on program committees. I've never known any conference to pre-screen presentations or give speakers guidelines about what content is acceptable. We all assume people know what is appropriate and usually that's the case. There have certainly been inappropriate talks given before, and I expect there will continue to be so in the future. But we make the same decision over and over, to let speakers express themselves in their own way, and to use their creativity and passion to communicate in a way that is engaging. Usually that gives us good results. Sometimes it doesn't. I don't think that censoring presentations or imposing content guidelines would help much, if at all, and I don't think it would be worth the potential loss of creativity and quality. It's certainly worth looking at how to improve things, but there don't appear to be any easy answers.

People are getting really upset over this, and that's completely understandable. There has been a lot of anger and name calling and finger pointing and arguing in general. I've gotten angry myself too. But I think most people are coming at this with good intentions and are representing what they believe in. Maybe that's naive, I don't know. I do think that this has turned into an important conversation about women in our technical communities, and I have to hope that something good will come of it in the end.

I'm pretty overwhelmed by this issue and have spent way more time on it than I have to spare right now, but if there's something you to have to say to me, I want to hear it. I don't know how soon I'll be able to respond, but I'll do my best.

Update: I realize those without some previous knowledge of the Golden Gate Ruby Conference might not realize that the awesome Leah Silber was co-organizer of the conf with me. She did most of the heavy lifting on the logistics and stuff, but the technical program was my responsibility. Just wanted to make sure Leah gets the credit she deserves.

56 commentsgogaruco

  1. Tim Connor2009-04-29 10:58:18

    It WAS a great conference Josh, even counting in this furor. I'm one of the people who has serious problems with the sexist backlash to objections to Matt's talk "this is the problem with women in the workplace" or "they deserve it for making our school life hell," "we (white males) are okay with it, so why won't they be okay with it already" but I still think the conference rocked.

    Just because I am personally uncomfortable due to the straight male locker room vibe of the community sometimes and see a pattern between these sort of things, and that, doesn't mean I don't think you did a great job. I'm eagerly attending next year, even the same fucking sorta thing happens. I'll just object to and excoriate the "get over it" brigade strenuously then too. ;)

    All in it was a great conference!

  2. Mike Moore2009-04-29 10:58:32

    Thank you for this post Josh. I know how much time and energy and thought and love you put into GoGaRuCo. You organized by all measures a very successful conference. I have no words to express how sorry I am this has hijacked your conference's good name.

    I don't think anyone seriously considers censorship a viable response. I would hate to see that happen, and I am certainly not in favor of it.

  3. Coda Hale2009-04-29 11:05:42

    Thanks, Josh. I'm sad to see such a cool, innovative conference get dragged into the general mire of this issue. I think it takes a lot of guts to be openly self-critical about something you've put so much work into, and I applaud that. I'd also like to thank you for the general advocacy you've done for the Ruby community's diversity -- if more conferences had diversity policies (or even appeared to take it into consideration when planning) we'd all be a lot better off.

    Hopefully the Ruby community can turn this flashpoint into a dialogue. :(

  4. Mike Gunderloy2009-04-29 11:06:23

    Thanks for posting this, Josh, and for the thought that clearly went into it. I have spoken at conferences where talks were screened, when I was back in Microsoft-land. It's less fun, and I wouldn't like to see the Ruby world head in that direction.

    And thanks also for your part in putting on what was by all accounts a great conference. With any luck , by the time the next GoGaRuCo rolls around, the awesome will be remembered, and the Rails and Ruby communities will be healthier thanks to people of good will working together to address some of the issues that the conference inadvertently raised.

  5. Danny Burkes2009-04-29 11:34:31

    Josh, you did a wonderful job with GoGaRuCo- I don't want that fact, which I know many many people agree with, to get lost in this. When the signup page for GoGaRuCo 2010 is posted, I'll be one of the first in line.

    In terms of being "offended", "insulted", or whatever- no one with any sense of empathy is ever comfortable when their actions, even unintentionally, cause someone else to feel discomfort. But clearly your intentions were admirable, and your openness in explaining the process that led up to Matt's talk demonstrates that. So I hope that whatever anger there may be is directed at Matt rather than you.

    Again, thanks for a great conference. If one of next year's presenters can come up with slides that make a straight white male feel uncomfortable, I'll take my lumps and sit through it.

  6. James H2009-04-29 12:11:46

    Thank you for showing those watching this situation unfold that there is professionalism in the Ruby community.

  7. Rob Bazinet2009-04-29 12:31:51

    Josh, I don't think for a minute anyone will ever want to conference speakers to be screened or censored. Speakers should be allowed to present their thoughts freely and with good taste. I think Matt went overboard a bit with his use of questionable material but the bigger concern should be over the reaction at the top of the Rails community over the use of the material.

    I don't think you should be beaten up over this at all.

  8. Austin Ziegler2009-04-29 12:44:49

    This may not be the post you wanted to write, but it is the post you needed to write, and you wrote it very well. Very professional, and indicative of someone whose conference I would want to attend in the future.

  9. Ted Henry2009-04-29 12:46:55

    Great post, Josh. Your trust in others to behave professionally in a professional setting is the sign of a true professional.

  10. Erik Ostrom2009-04-29 12:47:49

    For what it's worth, I was one of those who thought the talk was inappropriate, but until I read this post it never occurred to me to think of GoGaRuCo as "the conf with the sexist pr0n talk". I had a problem with the talk, not the conference; with the speaker, not the organizers.

    It was a good conference; it deserves to be known for its high points more than its low point.

  11. Reg Braithwaite2009-04-29 13:01:09

    Well done, Josh.

  12. Francis Hwang2009-04-29 14:08:19

    Keep your head up, Josh. By pretty much everything I've heard GoGaRuCo was pretty phenomenal, Matt's talk notwithstanding. It sounds like there's a lot that you and Leah can be proud of.

    I've said this in less public venues and I'm happy to say it again here: I'm not sure there's a lot that you guys could have or should have done differently. Ruby conferences do this sort of thing pretty casually, without a lot of vetting or hand-holding, and I think that's a good thing. And speakers can in fact show up on the day of and give a talk that's drastically different from what they proposed. Happens pretty frequently actually.

    I guess you could say, from the point of view of a conference organizer, that maybe you could've sounded a note of caution. Like, maybe you guys could've told Matt to watch it, but it sounds like he did watch it a bit and misfired anyway. (I'm one of those who believes the talk went over the line, for the record.) And what if you do that to a speaker who was selected (either by a panel or by an open vote) and that speaker says "I'm doing the talk I want anyway and if people get upset they can fuck off"? I mean, we've got some opinionated people in the Ruby world. Is it a conference organizer's job to stop that talk from happening? I'm not sure on the right answer but I'm leaning towards no, you let the speaker give the talk and let him (or her) take the lumps. The subtleties matter, so it's a tough call.

    I'm trying to be optimistic with you: I think there is a lot of useful discussion coming out of this. Hopefully we can keep our edge and be more accommodating to different styles of communicating in the future. Of course, there's a fine line separating rock star and asshole, so it's going to take a couple of go-arounds I think.

  13. Joe O'Brien2009-04-29 14:09:08

    Well done Josh. Personal preferences or anything else aside, it was what was needed. Thank you for showing an extraordinary amount of class.

    I'm sorry that the GoGaRuCo name has been dragged into the discussion that is going around. From everything we have heard it sounded awesome and from a fellow organizer, I am a bit jealous.

  14. Mark Kuhne2009-04-29 14:24:08

    This is the first apology I've seen on this issue that sounded sincere to me.

    Thank you.

  15. Chad Fowler2009-04-29 14:56:31

    Nicely said, Josh. Sorry that what was by all accounts a really great (first!) event had to be overshadowed by this ugliness. I know from personal conversations with you and your reputation for doing things well that you poured everything into this and I hope you can still feel the pleasure of a job well done. Looking forward to hopefully attending the next GoGaRuCo.

  16. Patrick Ewing2009-04-29 15:08:33

    I'd also like to weigh in and say that the overall feel of the conference was great, and that most people I've spoken with agreed. I do feel that the talk crossed a line, and moreover that it wasn't worth the journey (i.e. the porn metaphor wasn't sufficiently funny or appropriate to the subject matter to justify the risk). But I think your apology will be received as sincere and heartfelt, and that the community doesn't fault you for the content of this one talk to begin with.

    In hindsight, I feel like all the talks selected by popular vote feel as if they had a lower signal/noise ratio than the ones you selected yourself. The value of a curator with good taste, responsible for keeping things tasteful (and tasty!), is one of many things I'll take away from GoGaRuCo.

  17. David Mathers2009-04-29 15:32:44

    "People are getting really upset over this, and that's completely understandable."

    Just keep in mind that it's not the talk itself that people are getting upset over. So Matt made a mistake. Not a big deal. People make mistakes every day. If you apologize and move on then there's no problem and maybe it provokes some healthy and interesting discussion.

    The parts people are getting upset about are responses like "I'm sorry that you're so oversensitive." and "Your feelings don't matter because Rails is all about being an unprofessional rockstar."

    And none of that has anything to do with you or the conference.

  18. _why2009-04-29 15:54:12

    Good on you. It'd be rough to do all that work and feel like you just got smeared.

    Like others here, I think this'll ultimately turn out well. Had you not gone through the effort to coax women to attend (as you say in your 5th paragraph,) the outcome of the conference would certainly have been different. Instead, it proved to be a catalyst that I think will have a long, worthwhile effect. At least, I hope so.

  19. planetmcd2009-04-29 16:47:06

    Mr. Susser, David Mathers summed up my sense quite well. The only point I would add is that though no doubt painful to write, to me it shows character, respect, leadership, and honor.

  20. Jay Levitt2009-04-29 17:43:10

    To amplify Austin and Mark K: This is the post that needed to be written. I think that if every response to the outcry had been so insightful, nuanced, and respectful... there wouldn't still be an outcry.

  21. ab5tract2009-04-29 18:23:35

    It was at about 4 pm today that I decided I would overcome the negativity that the dialog of the past two days has brewed inside me by focusing on the positive nature of what has happened here.

    As several have already pointed out, the reason this is still being discussed is because of the dismissal of marginalized concerns by males speaking from insularized spaces of privilege (who apparently have never been called on it before). That a huge number of people rejected that dismissal and have spoken out so eloquently, well, I decided I can't have my insides eating each other over the ignorance in so many comments. This will be positive in the long run. It sparked dialog. It has shown women in our community that, while there is still a lot of mysogyny that doesn't seem to want to own up to itself, the number of community members who will not tolerate such a dismissal of concerns is Big. By focusing on the real and potential positive impacts, I was able to kill the demons gnawing my stomach in twain.

    And as _why pointed out, GoGaRuCo's evangelism to bring more women to the conference just may be the catalyst for a discussion of gender issues in IT and OSS that actually changes things. Certainly with just this single post you have shown your character, and it is one worthy of respect. Thank you for taking your time to address the issue. Now, if you could just get some other folks embroiled in this mess to understand that it the outrage is about their dismissal of concerns and not a "prudish distaste for pr0n," then you are truly a superhero :)

  22. Giles Bowkett2009-04-29 18:49:56

    Sorry to say it but I think this works very well as an indictment of the voting process. I think I've even advocated that same voting idea, on Twitter or in some random conversation or something. But it turns out that what makes a talk proposal stand out to people voting on a Web site is not the same thing as what makes a talk proposal stand out to people who have something to lose if the talk goes badly.

    Groups aren't really very good judges of what they're going to like. Individuals are great at it, groups suck at it. And of course people who have less at stake put less thought and effort into their decisions.

    If you want a really stinging indictment of the voting idea, read The Wisdom Of Crowds. To leverage group intelligence, every individual needs to have something at stake, and to be competing against other individuals in the group. That's not what happens with conf talk proposal voting, so you won't be able to get the group intelligence involved. And when you have group action without group intelligence, you have mobs.

    I hate to say it but this is all the aftermath of letting a mob make a decision. Of course there are some other factors that took things spiralling out of control, but there's a neat kind of symmetry to it. The giant online mob came into being because a smaller online mob made a decision which should not have been theirs to make.

    Awesome to see the clarity about "offended." A lot of people have failed when it comes to keeping clarity in the discussion.

    Kudos for taking responsibility too. It would be good to see more of that. I haven't actually heard one word of criticism directed at GoGaRuCo over this (although I did hear something about it having a crazy name).

  23. cjb2009-04-29 18:56:02

    I think Why's statement is exactly the right way to look at it. If you hadn't made the effort to invite women, we might have stayed mystified about why women often get turned off by the Ruby community and why they weren't there to attend the conference and hear the talk (and then complain) in the first place. Your work helped to get enough women in the room that we can have a productive conversation with them about what things turned them off and what we should change for the future -- this sounds like progress. Now we just need to make good on having the changes happen. :)

  24. Josh Susser2009-04-29 20:48:58

    Wow. Thanks for all the great comments, folks. I'm glad people took this in the spirit in which it was given, and I appreciate how understanding you all are. I did have to delete 2 troll comments, but that's not a bad ratio, considering. I got some very nice emails too, and I'll try to get responses out to them tomorrow.

    Giles, I agree the voting experiment had some mixed results and was a lot of work and I don't know if we got better talks, but we did get talks that we probably wouldn't have had otherwise. I'd still like to be able to have some openness about selecting talks, but I'm not sure that I'd want to do the voting the same way again. At least I have a little while until I have to worry about it again. By the way, thanks for your voice of maniacal reason in this. It's definitely helped, me at least.

  25. Luke Chadwick2009-04-29 21:04:32

    I'm of the opinion that Matt made a mistake, but not one that should have been punished with smearing and sensationalism that has followed. This is backed up by the voting process pushing it across the line. If people voted for the presentation, then that would seem to be approval for the presentation to move forward.

    Some of the subsequent posts by people such as DHH have undoubtedly whipped this from a minor storm into a hurricane. Your post shows calm clear logic and reason in the face of adversity (something you should be proud of).

    The problem with putting the 3% women attendees together with voting on presentations, is that even if they'd actively opposed picking the topic, they couldn't have had a majority. So if future conferences include voting maybe you could do weighted voting or something.

  26. Chris2009-04-29 21:40:23

    Giles is right - crowds don't have much to lose and don't put much thoughts into public votes. I was one who voted for Matt's talk - it sounded edgy and I was just starting to dab into doc-based dbs. Unfortunately, the images made me cringe and detracted from his presentation. It detracted so much from his presentation that I can't even remember if the content was good or not - I just remember the TnA. This wasn't edgy, it was just amateur.

    IMO, Matt should apologize for giving a bad talk and for wasting an hour of my life. If I wanted to see TnA, the last place I'd be would be a RubyConf.

  27. Matt D. Bauer2009-04-30 00:28:47

    Josh, thanks for saying what needed to be said in exactly the way it needed to be said. Matt could stand to learn a bit about what a real apology sounds like from your second paragraph. I elaborated more on my blog about what I mean to avoid further threadjacking here.

    As for the voting system being the problem, I'm not sure that's the issue, so much as voters with incomplete information. People like Chris who assumed that perhaps the title was as far as it might go. If I had voted, I feel like I would have ended up acting and feeling a lot like Chris.

    As for solutions to that, well, that's the hard part as usual. Requiring completed slides to be voted on would be obviously overly burdensome, as would laying out a specific list of guidelines and/or what guidelines the talk proposed to break. I guess it comes down to, what do you know, common sense on the part of the presenters specifically, with perhaps a helping hand from conference organizers ("are you really sure this is a good idea?"). But I do think the ultimate responsibility lies with the presenter and not the organizer.

  28. Amy Newell2009-04-30 04:53:44

    Just repeating what others have said, but I suspect it doesn't hurt you right now to hear it over, and over, and over, and also over: nice post, great apology, I don't think anyone is going to hold this against you or Gogaruco, censorship is not the answer, sensitivity and responsibility when you go over the line IS. I like what you say about the responses people had to the content not being about being offended: "I've heard that people felt insulted, alienated, threatened or unwelcome." That's about how I felt looking at the slides, which I wouldn't have even known about if certain people hadn't decided to tweet about them in approval. I think I have used, in passing, the word 'offensive', but your words are better, and the fact that you came up with them shows that you are really hearing what people have said. We likesess the listening, we do.

    thx again @amynewell

  29. Cary FitzHugh2009-04-30 07:31:19

    Hey josh - just wanted to say how impressed I've been every time I come to your blog. Great rails posts - and then this. Not only do you have great technical insights - but you spoke to this delicate issue so well - it speaks to your character.
    So - looks like I'm echoing most of the other posts. But - like Bebo Norman says "It's all been said before, but I'll say it again."

    Keep up the good work.

  30. Michael Niessner2009-04-30 08:25:16

    "To leverage group intelligence, every individual needs to have something at stake." Wasn't proposal voting limited to people who had registered for the conference? Wouldn't every individual have their time at stake? I would be very interested in hearing details about why you think the voting idea/implementation was less successful than you had anticipated.

  31. Tim Connor2009-04-30 08:25:28

    "Some of the subsequent posts by people such as DHH have undoubtedly whipped this from a minor storm into a hurricane."

    Luke, keep in mind DHH has had a lot of success by becoming a media darling for being faux outrageous. It's a bit of Dvorak'ing in action. The bigger the fuss, the more his name and the name of 37signals gets outside of our world into the mainstream.

  32. Rev. Dan2009-04-30 08:57:44

    One of the things that I've really enjoyed about the Ruby community is that it's filled with a bunch of misfits, contrarians, and renegades. Matz himself seems to me to be a revolutionary status-quo-bucker. (Making programming fun?!? Code is art?! Programming is empowerment?!? What kind of insane craziness is THAT!?)

    It's inevitable that there's going to be conflict, and over the past few years there certainly has been varied controversies in both the Ruby and Rails communities. Opinionated individuals periodically cross the line into arrogance (or at least are perceived as being arrogant). What matters at the end of the day though, is not that there was conflict, but how that conflict was managed and resolved.

    We've seen a lot of ugly comments related to the CouchDB presentation. I'm certain Matt's intention was to deliver an interesting and informative presentation. I'm certain that GoGaRuCo organizers intended to create a positive conference experience. I'm certain that the people who were uncomfortable with the presentation intended to express their discomfort in a manner that would make their point without causing a shitstorm. As it goes in this awesomely crazy mixed-up diverse world, we sometimes pave a road to hell for others with our good intentions. Should we then become ill-intentioned? Certainly NOT.

    Matt did vet his presentation... he asked several folks to review its content, including his wife, who helped him collect images for it. It appears that maybe he didn't get a wide-enough sampling of opinions/perspectives to enable him to make the best decision. It's interesting that the conference topic selection might well have had a similar problem, though in that case the sampling was too large.

    I have certainly read a number of comments about the complex set of issues raised that have made me throw up in my mouth, more than a little. I've also read a number of comments which have capably demonstrated some maturity and compassion, of which this post is certainly a member.

    In terms of the conference organizer's responsibility for the attendees and the presenters, I think I've only ever seen excellence and good intent. At RailsConf two years ago, I heard about a project someone (or a group, I'm not 100% sure) had made which was essentially a directory of all the female conference attendees. That was truly offensive but there wasn't the sort of backlash that this incident has spawned. Did it reflect poorly upon RubyCentral or the community as a whole? No. It reflected poorly upon a small set of individuals who demonstrated, in that case, extremely poor taste and a lack of empathy for other people. My point in mentioning this is that the GoGaRuCo conference cannot be pointed at as being the first place where an insensitivity was demonstrated within our communities, nor can GoGaRuCo be faulted for advocacy of insensitivity. In this case, it was an error, and one I'm willing to bet won't be made again.

    I muse aloud that perhaps instead of worrying about the percentage of a particular demographic represented that perhaps we should focus on demonstrating and replicating the mature, responsible leadership that a number of folks in the community have striven towards and follow their leadership-by-example. Ruby is, to me, is about more than just syntactically-sweet awesomeness, it's about empowerment and excellence.

    Off of the top of my head, I can think of a good dozen or more folks who are the "cream of the Ruby/Rails crop" who have consistently demonstrated leadership and mutual respect. Last year's clarification from David Chelimsky about comments from the "Great Test Framework Danceoff" presentation at RailsConf and Josh's response to it is actually a brilliant example of leadership-by-example. That could have been ugly, but the two folks involved in the discussion treated each other with mutual respect.

    I've also seen numerous examples of "newbies" asking questions that would have earned them an RTFM-style smackdown in other communities being answered by folks who are "at the top." Instead of talking down, many of our "leaders" reach their hand out to help elevate others up. That, to my mind, is the essence of the definition of BADASS.

    From the things I've read it appears that a majority of the principals involved in this current "controversy" have extended themselves to try to resolve the underlying issues the best that they can. The rest of us are just contributing our punditry and should probably STFU.

    One of my personal takeaways from this is that I need to be slow to react and choose instead to respond after some thoughtful reflection.

    I'm really glad to be a Rubyist and am proud to be able to point to a larger-than-average number of true leaders who demonstrate and prioritize humility, reason, and maturity... it warms my cold, black, shriveled heart. :)

    I'm proud to have a "tattoo" of Josh Susser on my arm. ;)

  33. Jacqui Maher2009-04-30 10:08:45

    Excellent, well-written and thought out post, Josh. I think that you and Leah did an awesome job organizing and running the conference.

    There were many compelling and instructional talks at GoGaRuCo. While I - female, programmer, early adopter, conference attendee and in this case speaker - definitely think that the subject of gender discrepancy in the technology field is worthy of discussion, I am dismayed that so much attention has been paid to this talk in particular, and more so, for the reasons why. Since GoGaRuCo was such a success as a technical conference, with its high quality and variety of presentations, I feel it is a shame that there is any chance of it being equated with "that pr0n presentation."

    I wanted to post a comment despite my aversion to shining more attention on the controversy. I wanted to be sure to point out that I think you did an amazing job, that I don't see how you could have prevented a controversial talk from being given (for many reasons), and to reiterate that I think people should try looking into some of the other talks given at GoGaRuCo while they are focusing their attention on it.

    Hopefully, the discussion about gender discrepancy that has been sparked by Matt's presentation will have a positive impact, as well.

  34. Wyatt Greene2009-04-30 11:46:58

    Josh, thanks so much for this sensible post.

    David Mathers, I couldn't have said it better myself.

  35. pate2009-04-30 12:10:54

    Josh, I'd like to echo what so many have said here, and said so well. This was an excellent and much needed post. You've shown an incredible amount of class.

    Thank you for writing and posting this. Thank you for putting on what seems to have been an incredible conference. And especially, thank you in advance for continuing to be a big part of the Ruby community.

  36. Sheila Rogers2009-04-30 12:47:34

    I honestly think people over-reacted.

    I'm a woman and I was not offended, threatened or alienated by this content. To be honest, I am more offended by the people who are offended! Come on folks - it really wasnt as bad as you're making it out to be. Granted Matt definitely stretched the joke more than he should have, but to me that's just an offense if you are a comedian.

  37. Wyatt Greene2009-04-30 13:10:49

    I just wanted to set the record straight about admitting mistakes. Apparently Matt does admit it was a mistake. Refer to:

    DHH, on the other hand, has a different take:

    I think DHH's position doesn't scale. It might work with a small group of friends (if you don't like what I do, then go away), but this sort of attitude scaled-up to a large world-wide community may cause unnecessary divisiveness the community. I think DHH's intentions are good. He's just trying to be himself and be genuine, which are laudable ideals. I just think he's framing the situation incorrectly (wearing a mask vs. being genuine instead of sensitivity vs. insensitivity or the many other ways this could be framed).

  38. Josh Susser2009-04-30 13:21:39

    Sheila, you are certainly not the only woman who didn't find the slides objectionable, and I think assuming all women will react the same way is probably a bit sexist anyway. That trope has been argued around as part of this issue already. I'll refer you to Martin Fowler's cogent post MartinFowler:SmutOnRails about why saying that people shouldn't be bothered isn't a constructive argument to resolve a situation like this. Also, I have to say that viewing the slides online (which had several images removed) was a different experience from being in the room watching the talk delivered.

    I don't think dismissing someone's reaction as an over-reaction is ever helpful in resolving a problem in communication. I agree that reactions to reactions compounded things to a surprising level of uproar, but each person was honestly reacting to the things that naturally upset them. Dismissing that reaction just makes things worse.

  39. Derek Neighbors2009-04-30 14:05:37

    Solid conference. As someone who actually attended (and sponsored), we plan to be back next year. The content with or without this "incident" made this one of the best if not the best regional conference put on this year.

    I refuse to comment on the "incident" and instead just want to encourage you to PLEASE not let this prevent you from organizing another event next year. Do NOT let this over shadow the AWESOME that was GoGaRuCo.

  40. dude2009-04-30 14:06:30

    Why are photos of the female (or male) body somehow objectionable? I still fail to see why anyone has brought this up as anything other than a unique presentation. Such controversy over absolutely nothing.

  41. Jeremy Lightsmith2009-04-30 14:08:37

    Thanks for your post, Josh. Sincere and hopefully a little bit healing.

  42. Josh Susser2009-04-30 16:59:44

    "dude", just because you fail to see why people might object to something doesn't mean there aren't reasons for them to object to it. You don't get to vote on what other people find objectionable. I'm sure there are things that you object to that other people would think were just fine. Respecting someone's perspective even when it's different from your own is what lets us get along and not kill each other.

    I'd rather not re-hash all the arguments of the last week on this post. That way lies madness. But I did feel this comment was worth a response, since it's such a commonly expressed sentiment.

  43. Sarah Allen2009-04-30 22:30:51


    Thank you for organizing an awesome conference. I'm very glad I was there and I learned so much about Ruby! I also really appreciate your writing this thoughtful post. I do think the distinction between offended and alienated, threatened or unwelcome is an important one.

    I'm also really glad you pointed out "that viewing the slides online (which had several images removed) was a different experience from being in the room watching the talk delivered." It is unfortunate that so many people who weren't there (and a few who were) feel entitled to be dismissive of the experience, but I am encouraged that most responses I've read have been thoughtful and well-reasoned.

    I'm really glad to see you taking a strong leadership role in the community.


  44. George Feil2009-05-01 07:49:28

    Thanks to the extraordinary efforts by you and Leah, we had a very successful first of hopefully many GoGaRuCo's.

    It's very sad that this affair has overshadowed what was otherwise an excellent conference. However, it does provide us an opportunity to confront the very serious problem of sexual bias in the technical industry. I appreciate the open, frank, and serious discussion of this matter in the blogosphere. I believe that it will help to make our community a stronger and more gender balanced one.

    Although I am in the camp that abhors kowtowing to political correctness at the expense of self expression, I agree that Matt's presentation was not appropriate. It failed not because the content was offensive to some. Rather, it failed because it distracted everyone from the very subject it was intended to present. [How many folks have remarked in their postings that this was a CouchDB presentation?]

    I'm reminded about the line from Spiderman borrowed by presenter at a Ruby conference years ago: "With great power comes great responsibility." All of us should take that to heart whenever we take the spokesman or leadership role for Ruby, Rails, or any other cause.

    The lesson here is not for presenters to do everything possible to avoid offense. The lesson is to acknowledge and take responsibility for the offense made, own it, apologize, and move on. There is a lot to be learned from the resulting social refactoring.

    I love the offbeat and occasionally edgy nature of the presentations I see at Ruby and Rails conferences, and I hope to continue to see more of this next week at RailsConf. But let's remember that we're all professionals here. If it's not safe for work, it's not safe for presentations either.

  45. Chuck2009-05-01 12:05:32

    OK, you guys go be "professional" and "appropriate" at each other and I'll be over here making Ruby software.

    Honestly, the Ruby community used to have a sense of fun and niceness and not taking things too seriously. When did it get invaded by so many people who seem to want nothing more than to call a meeting where they can set the agenda of a meeting to decide the most cost-effective way of crucifying Matt?

    Have fun, people! Ruby is fun!

  46. Tony2009-05-01 16:14:17

    Hey Josh,

    I am curious if you guys are still planning on posting videos of the talks (I have been eager to view them since the day after!). Is this controversy keeping you from posting them, so that you don't have to make the call to post Matt's talk or not, or are they just not ready yet?

    "Videos for all technical sessions will be available shortly after the conference."


  47. siannopollo2009-05-02 10:36:56

    @joshsusser: "I agree that reactions to reactions compounded things to a surprising level of uproar, but each person was honestly reacting to the things that naturally upset them. Dismissing that reaction just makes things worse."

    I think that nails it. People are reacting to reactions, and blowing this thing up larger than it really should be. Most of what I have read about this "incident" is how upset people are that

    • other people don't find this offensive
    • the non-offended people think the offended people are overreacting

    Although, this "incident" does do a lot to expose how others in the Ruby community view the world through their own rose-colored glasses. Like @chuck said, "the Ruby community used to have a sense of fun and niceness and not taking things too seriously". Why can't we just put this (whatever this has become) behind us and go to the task at hand: building great software and advancing the technology. Becoming offended never seems to do anything constructive.

  48. Jennifer2009-05-02 15:16:28

    I appreciated this post.

    I could say more, but you probably have enough to read :-)

  49. Liz Keogh2009-05-03 04:16:11

    Josh, that's the classiest apology I've ever seen. Kudos. I shall bear it in mind for when I need that extra bit of courage to apologise myself.

    I'll be remembering this as the conference that made me decide I really need to go away and learn some more Ruby. I hear that overall it was a great experience, and I'm obviously missing out.

  50. Tim Connor2009-05-03 10:13:01

    @siannopollo "Becoming offended never seems to do anything constructive."

    You don't think every struggle for equality had some element of being offended at it's core? You don't think women were offended by not being able to vote, and that helped drive them to gain it? What is so wrong with being offended at things we see wrong in the world, especially if it causes enough disruption to start changes.

  51. Alex Chaffee2009-05-03 10:59:09

    Josh, you are my hero.

    Giles, I think the voting thing is a red herring. The proposal didn't say, "Oh, and BTW there'll be some naughty PG images that will spark a weeks-long conflagration threatening to destroy the Ruby and Rails communities," so it's not like this was a fair experiment, and the talk's technical content indeed did live up to its billing (except for those for whom the pr0n was a distraction, whether welcome or unwelcome), as did all the other talks selected by the voting process (with one amusing exception).

    Moreover, since voting was only open to attendees, everyone involved did have something to lose, namely their precious time and attention during the talk. So I'd heartily endorse doing voting again next time, or even doing further experiments like an Open Space track or time slot to further leverage "mob rule."

    Back to the main issue... having just read through a mountain blog posts and comments, and as the dust settles, I am completely impressed by how mature this discussion of immaturity has become. I see some kneejerk macho defensiveness from some anonymous trolls (and a few non-anonymous community leaders... sigh), but the responses from many of the men, and every single one of the women, have been thoughtful, nuanced, sympathetic, varied, and show a deep well of reflective self-knowledge and a desire to both understand and be understood... in short, as I said before, mature.

    Well done, Ruby community!

  52. Deirdre Saoirse Moen2009-05-03 18:37:08

    I can't say whether I'd be offended, but I'd probably have been at least annoyed.

    Wyatt Greene's comment about DHH's position is especially worth mention: he's right, it doesn't scale. Thank you for making that point; it's useful to me (about me) in another context.

    Josh (and Leah), thank you for all your hard work on this. Mistakes do happen at conferences. The best you can do is try to make different mistakes next year -- hopefully ones that people care about less.

  53. ss2009-05-04 18:20:58

    A reasoned and well thought out discussion. I have a response to one commment, however.

    @dude "Why are photos of the female (or male) body somehow objectionable?"

    That's a straw-woman argument. But speaking of women... Menstruation is not "objectionable" but graphic displays of it would make some men uncomfortable. if I was at a podium, I wouldn't pull out a used tampon and relate an entire discussion of code development to menstrual processes, e.g. the "development cycle" or "going with the flow."

    Imagine yourself as one of two men in a room full of women laughing and talking about menstruation.

    But it is beyond that. Because I'm guessing you aren't a tampon.

  54. kb2009-05-04 19:17:55

    SS - that's the first comment on this whole discussion that actually made me laugh.

    Josh, far from reflecting poorly on the conference, this apology might actually prompt me to attend next year (I didn't this time around). To see a sincere apology for the talk, especially coming from someone who, as pointed out above, is not directly (or arguably, at all) responsible for it, goes a long way towards making me think this conference would be one where I wouldn't feel marginalized.

    Many thanks to the other posters on the thread who have addressed this issue more eloquently (and calmly) than I, but just to reiterate: It's not about the images in the talk. They were a misguided attempt at humor that had the unintended side effect of alienating some of the audience. Had Matt simply owned up to that and apologized with half the grace that Josh's post exhibited, there would have been no shitstorm. The total lack of a sincere apology ('I'm sorry you're a pansy' is not a sincere apology) was what aggravated the situation.

    Fortunately, anyone who got the perception that the Ruby/Rails community is hostile to women should be set right by reading this post/thread.

  55. Wyatt2009-05-05 11:13:09

    Rails Doesn't Scale!

    @kb You're right that it's not about the images in the talk. Ultimately, it's about scaling. The Rails community is experiencing scaling problems.

    This is what I mean by scaling: you've solved a problem X with solution Y. Problem X starts to grow in some way, so you grow solution Y. At some point in the growth of problem X, new concerns start to emerge and the problem morphs into problem Z. If you try to solve this with problem Y, you fail. This applies to any engineering problem, not just software. You're simply going to have a different set of concerns if you are building a 2,000-foot skyscraper versus a treehouse for your kids.

    One of the strategies we use to help systems scale is to separate out orthogonal concerns. Tight coupling may be an asset while you are small, but it becomes a liability when you are big.

    Matt's talk exhibited tight coupling. The unrelated concerns of "being comfortable with pornography" and "wanting to know more about CouchDB" were coupled. This works if you are giving a presentation to a group of your Ruby buddies that you know well, but it doesn't scale to the thousands of members of the Rails community.

    DHH's blog post "I'm an R-rated Individual" ( ) exhibited unnecessary tight coupling. He apparently prefers not to separate "my opinions as an individual" and "what I express as a spokesperson of Rails". David, this is a great strategy for a small company or a tiny community, but it doesn't scale!

    Matt, David, and other leaders in the Rails community: you are good. Not just good, you are awesome. So awesomely good, that you are now experiencing the problems of success. It's time to retire the shared-hosting model and scale up!

    Josh, thanks for taking the lead in pushing the Rails community toward a more fault-tolerant and higher-availability Rails community architecture. :)

  56. Jacinta Richardson2009-05-14 01:56:52

    I've been in this situation before. In 2006 our conference accepted lightning talks (short 5 minute fairly ad-hoc presentations) on the day - as well as the organised program. You just put your name on the board, and you had a slot; no screening or prior discussion at all!

    So one of the lightning talks included some soft-core porn. One 5 minute talk out of 3 days with some 90-odd full length talks (several streams going at once). Ruined the whole thing. Controversy, and very similar discussions as to what you're seeing. After a month our speaker apologised formally and without reservation; seems he understood.

    Our new solution is to admit, that yes, speakers have to self-censor. So in the speaker guidelines they're given, speakers are reminded not to use offensive images of any kind. Reminded that we have a diverse audience. We still accept lighting talks, but an organiser is there ready to end the talk the moment the speaker strays outside the rules. It hasn't happened again and I trust it won't.

Sorry, comments for this article are closed.