Episode 12 - Transcript

About Inclusive Events with Joanna and Beren

00:00 // Benjamin

So welcome to the CTO Coffee podcast about humans in technology. And today I’m talking to Joanna and barren. Both are from, Isle of IT, a small human-centered company that’s rooted deeply in the testing community in Europe. And they’re also organizing events such as the ITMatters conference areas. Today I want to talk to them about this, but also about lots of other stuff that’s going on at the moment, and , so, hi, both of you. And maybe you want to tell the listeners about yourself?

00:32 // Joanna


00:32 // Beren


00:33 // Benjamin

Welcome to maybe you want to tell the listeners a little bit about yourself.

00:40 // Joanna

Okay. Maybe  I’ll start. So as you said, we are both from Isle of IT where I am responsible for organizing conferences and meetups. Well, my background is organizing, testing events and testing conferences. Right now we are trying to do something together with Beren that is slightly different. We’ll talk about it a little bit more. I think that’s, that’s it for now. I think. I’m an organizer. My name is Joanna. My job is being an organizer. I’ve been doing this for the last couple of years and it’s just something I love doing. It’s my passion. And,I’d like to tell you a little bit more about our projects later.

01:41 // Beren

Hi, I’m Beren. I’m from Belgium and I’ve been a consultant for a reasonably big company for, well, quite a long time. Up until the point. It’s two years ago that I decided that these big kinds of companies are not really for me. And I got frustrated quite a bit. That was a point in my life where I jumped on my bike, started traveling, and also the point where I started as a freelancer and that small quest, let’s say, started or is a journey that is now somewhere, in building a micro organization, something small where people can be themselves, where people like working with the people that they work with or interact with. And where people really are at the center. And I’m still on that journey. We haven’t arrived yet. and it’s, it’s pretty interesting.

02:42 // Benjamin

So, great stories to be had there. And right now there’s this, this elephant in the room. We’re recording this episode at the end of March 2020, and right now it is like this pandemic sweeping across the globe. So, I don’t know when you will listen to this, dear listeners, but this is the context we’re in right now. So we got to know each other over, our shared passion for organizing events, let’s say it that way. Me trying  to put on #humansconf with others and Joanna and Beren putting on ITMatters. And these kinds of plans got like, shuffled around quite a bit. So much that he and confront now is, simply not happening as it was planned at end of may. It’s cancelled for now.

03:48 // Beren

I was so looking forward to that.

03:51 // Benjamin

Me too. Yes, yes, very much. But, it is how it is at the moment. And, but I mean, you folks are organizing events like. Also in a way for a living, and not just for fun in a way not like I did for #humansconf, but also for a living. So this is probably quite a hard time for you.

04:19 // Joanna

And yes, it is. Well, we are, I think we are still processing the, the, the, the new situation because it was so sudden, and it’s changed our everyday life so dramatically over just a few days. Suddenly, it was just, when we announced dates for our three events, that we are planning to do, we’re still planning to do in the autumn. So there is a bit of, a bit, a lot of uncertainty around our plans and around our projects at the moment. And we will see what happens next. But obviously we are worried to see all these amazing events be cancelled. We feel really sorry for other organizers. Organizing events is such hard work and quite a lot of time put together. So it is a hard time for us for sure, and for the community as well, because these events are something that bring people together and. I’m sure that people really would miss that and will miss more in it in the upcoming weeks.

05:57 // Beren

Exactly, so it’s very difficult to organize these things. I mean, getting sponsors to support us, getting people to commit to coming to such an event, even if it might be canceled, getting speakers to commit to coming to another country. At this point, everything is super uncertain. But Joanna and I were talking about this, like how should we go about this like, Should we go digital? Should we cancel? At this point, I think we both agreed that we’re going to be brave. We’re going to go on, even if we, as you said, our income depends on it, but even if it’s going to make a loss, I think we should still do it.Because it’s more than just money that comes out of these events. It’s a community. It’s people. It’s a place where people talk to each other, support each other, better, understand the hardships that we go through. And that still needs to happen now, especially more than any, anytime.

07:13 // Benjamin

So Joanna, you were saying early on, nothing does this totally true that organizing events, putting them on is like hard work, very hard work. if I may add that one word there. Especially in the current times, of course, but it’s already hard as it is to organize events, but also to make them like great events to make them really great to be there. Let’s maybe not put too much say there, but like, what’s in your experience goes into making a great event in the sense of like. What is a great event? Maybe what is a great conference from your point of view, of course. But also how to create that, then that would be very interesting.

08:09 // Joanna

Well I can say what we are trying to do with ITMatters as an example. It only happened once. So, well we hope we can continue to do that the way we want to. But ITMatters is an event created for people to just feel safe and feel welcome, feel included. And at the same time, learn and gain new skills. The conference is rather small, because we are not doing a huge event. It’s for about a hundred, 150 people. But this is the kind of way we want to do it. And I think people really appreciate that as well. And because they can talk to each other they can really connect. They can’t, they are not, anonymous.

They are creating this little community, during this, during the day of the conference. And because we are talking about the things that are not easy to talk about. Because it’s about, not only diversity and inclusion and all the struggles that come with the subjects, but also we talk a lot about mental health, for example. And it was a big thing we tackled in Warsaw. We did not expect people to be so committed to that. Topic, but it turned out to be very, very relatable.

You could see that actually people need that conversation to be present. This is what I’m particularly proud about, when organizing this particular event that we’ve been successful in giving people a space where they can be so open and feel safe, to talk about things that are not easy to talk about, sometimes very personal. This is something that it’s very important for us, I think, when organizing ITMatters. To create that, that space that’s. It’s not existing. I’ve many big conferences that have other purposes, of course. But this is something that we are trying to do.

11:01 // Benjamin

So how do you create that space then? Because I mean, it doesn’t happen just, you don’t say, okay, cool, let’s talk about mental health. But in a way it is just like that.

11:14 // Joanna

I think that it’s thanks to our speakers and people involved in the project in general because they are not creating a distance between them and the listeners. It’s more about, you know. Some sort of like peer to peer conversation. We are more about exchanging ideas rather than, you know, just giving them to people and asking them to listen. So this is something we are trying to do, and that’s due to our speakers that it’s happened in Warsaw. And I think we managed to do that.

I think this might be the silly thing as well. But finding the right venue is also important. We decided to do it in a smaller venue where we didn’t have a huge open space with sponsors’ stands. Where people could get kind of lost. We were all together all the time, so we could say we forced people to talk to each other, but it actually worked.Because they had nowhere to hide, and while they. They were just part of something, you know, they couldn’t just go somewhere for a coffee, and just talk to their friends. It was all about being together. So the right venue also helped. 

13:08 // Beren

Absolutely. And when we, when we went to the venue in Amsterdam, we had several options. The first one that we visited. We felt so much at home, it was a small place. So, and, that regardless of exactly what we’re looking for. But we entered, people were smiling at us. They were giving us coffee immediately. Oh, have a seat. You’re some coffee or some biscuits. Let’s have a talk first and then we’ll show you the place. And we felt immediately at home. And I think that’s the kind of atmosphere that we want to create as well. and to having the right speakers there. One of the best tech conferences that I ever went to there was this one keynote speaker and she started right off the bat. So everyone was there. Everyone listened to her. She started talking, and she had a stutter.

So, she was sometimes difficult to understand. At the beginning because you have to do a custom to that. But it sets such a precedent for the old conference that it’s okay. She addressed that let’s say  weakness, m, immediately. And she was so honest about this and she said, this is what I am dealing with. This is my challenge. But Hey, I’m on stage. I’m tackling this. I am honest about this and I open up about this. And within those first 10 minutes, the whole atmosphere for the conference was set. And that was such a strong moment for me that I knew this is how conferences need to be. How conferences need to be kicked off.

14:09 // Benjamin

So it’s leading by example in a way like asking, of course, you as organized, leading by example, like setting, setting the example by showing hospitality to your participants, but also the speakers. If, if there are speakers for at the conference, if there is like a fixed schedule and there are speakers. Them also setting examples in a way showing vulnerability, I think then that makes a lot of sense. So how do we do this in the current times then I’m, he already kind of like, hinted at that, that you have, have some ideas.

Also, while talking, while you talked in the beginning Beren, maybe I have naive idea, but this thought that maybe as an event, the organizing team can also show vulnerability in the current times as in like, okay, this is what we’re at. This is not working out at the moment, and this is kind of critical for us as a small company. Like me, myself, of course. But speaking with your voice.

So, and kind of maybe asking for, for help in,terms of, I don’t know, crowdsourcing or like small sponsorships without asking for something in return. Like a lot of people are suggesting at the moment, like for it, in order to support your local restaurants like buy vouchers from them, support them in this kind of way.

So, just, just as an idea, you don’t have to like comment on that right now. But, many words for it. The question is, okay, what are the strategies I use at the moment? How are you, how are you coping? How are you thinking about this?

17:31 // Beren

It’s less of a question of strategy. I would say it’s more of an ideology. It might also be the wrong word. But, I can’t say that it’s really deliberate working or very strategic work right now. I didn’t expect to start a small company as I have in a couple of years. We would be headed by something so tremendous as right now. And you can see, I mean, LinkedIn and also social media are overflowing with how you should handle this, how to do crisis communication, how to do remote work. And everyone’s sharing these positive thoughts, let’s say. But it doesn’t feel super earnest to be honest. So I tried to create a space also for the people I’m working with where they feel secure. I also tried to build our company that way, that we have the secure base to start off so we can bridge the next couple of months and even longer if necessary with our financials.

I told them that they will not lose their jobs. I told them even though they suggested that they wanted to be paid less, if that will make things easier. but I think as an employer it’s your responsibility to at least have a minimum. Well I consider this the minimum  that you pay the people that work for you, what you promised them. And this isn’t meant of that companies like McDonald’s are big airlines are laying off people in it, maybe temporarily, maybe permanently.

That only shows that they’ve been taking risks for far too long, that they can’t. I can imagine that this keeps up for a couple of months. More companies will follow a benefit in the first weeks already. You say, I’ll pay you then you’ve been taking risks for far too long and far too many risks and that’s what I don’t want to do with our company.

Maybe it’s easy to say with a small company, but still. So that’s on the financial parts and other big topics. And then the financial part supports that. But this is the mental health of people. So there’s people I work with who are very easy to share their feelings and how they are doing. And there’s people who don’t, and getting people to want to say that something is not going well.

If that’s the case, it’s a difficult thing to do. So as a leader. I share when it’s not okay for me. I showed my, or I tried to show my vulnerability as well. I woke up on Sunday morning. I said even though everything still seems to be going right, I was feeling very anxious. I was mostly arresting myself and trying to cope with that, but it was difficult.

So I shared this with the team and I hope that showing this vulnerability frome also gives them a platform to share what they are feeling.

21:04 // Joanna

Well, what else we’re trying to do is, because we feel like the topics around the conference are becoming even more relevant at the moment. So we feel like it’s actually really important to continue to do this, not just as our jobs, but there’s like a bigger purpose for that.

We feel like it’s really important too, and it’s going to be important after this all is finished. and we are back to maybe back to the other reality because it’s not going to be the same reality as we had before that Coronavirus outbreak. For sure. Some things will change.

We think that there would be a place for events like it, mothers, because they are talking about the things that will be very, very important, and are very important at the moment. When I think about our, our small company and I think about how we are doing things, how, how Beren is contacting with us.

I see some sort of example of a different type of leadership, a different type of, communicating with, with your, with your employees, I think it’s very important to talk about the things that are so much into the human and factor of our work at the moment. It’s now more than ever. People would ask you, their leaders and questions that are really difficult or just to talk about things that is really difficult for them. So leaders will be hearing all these questions like, you know, what’s happening with our company? Will I loose my job? What’s happening with the economy and sales? How long it’s gonna take. Or are they just going to say something like I cannot concentrate. I cannot work because I’m too stressed. I’m really worried about my family. I’m really worried that they might be sick or I might get sick. So, this is the moment that, you know, if you’re not having this human centric approach it’s going to be really, really difficult for you to lead a successful team.

And this is one of the topics we are Interested in at ITMatters. To encourage leaders to not only focus on, on the technical side of their jobs and their employees and their skills, but also about this hand factor. You know, to see that not everyone is dealing with the crisis situation in the same way. That uh, you need to kind of be empathetic and understanding towards people that they might react differently, that sometimes their reactions might be something that we don’t really know how to deal with, but we have to, because we rely on each other. So I think this is the time for leaders to be really brave and to be very human.

Things will not be the same again after, after this is done. And, some ways of leadership, will not work anymore. So I think it’s important for us to continue to spread the message and to, you know, to talk about it. And hopefully we will be able to do that in autumn. If not, we will do it a little later.

And we are also trying to do some things online, although we can see it’s not the same. It’s not perfect. but still it’s the necessity at the moment. This is the only thing we can do, and it’s better to do that than do nothing. So we’re trying to also do some, some sort of online meetings. We had one, last week where we talked a lot about dealing with the crisis situation.

I know Beren said before that he’s a bit skeptic about it. I personally think it’s very important to talk about it and to at least try to find a way to help ourselves. And there are actually ways to do that, sometimes they are very simple. But we are just not looking into them. We were talking a lot about mindfulness and, you know just trying to understand how your brain works.

And that, that can also have a lot about, with the anxiety, and I’m very happy to see that even the big companies are picking it up. Like sending their employees some sort of advice, like how to relax by breathing correctly and deciding just simple, simple things that can help people. But also, you know, once you receive a message like that, you can see that your company do care about you. Like you are not just a number, you are a human being. And we, cannot forget about that during these difficult times where, you know, it’s hard for all of us, but, if it’s getting hard, we can also help ourselves by helping others. This is also, you know, a great way to deal with stress and anxiety. Just do something good. And be useful for others as well.

25:45 // Beren

I think the important thing about these online events is that we,  also give the opportunity for people to share their inputs. They have a chance to speak. And that actually while you were, you were introducing what you would like to do. I was wondering if there is an online collaboration tool where you first sit in a room like me are doing right now, all three of us together. And then you can break out in smaller groups like, like what we see in open spaces as in #humansconf what the idea was, right. But then virtually. So that you, you have a presenter, you present a topic, you as a, as a group, then the decide, what do you want to talk about in different smaller rooms and then you break out. I think that would be a very interesting way of dealing with this.

26:35 // Benjamin

Funny enough, just yesterday evening, there was a virtual open space experiment. Took place, it was organized by some people of the liberating structures online community, and that was very interesting. And people share it like very much insightful things and are already just attending that already was also very much, a learning experience. So, there are ways to do that. It’s certainly everything. Very much in the beginning there and people are still figuring out the tools and all, all tools have some kind of hiccups. And do you run into let’s say unexpected limitations.

But, there is a way. And just like I said yesterday when I attended that experiment, that online experiment, I also found it like a super amazing how each open space that I’ve experienced/ Most of them were kind of like Socrates events. What I’ve found most magical was that no matter how many new people were there, they picked up the energy and to kind of like implicit expectation and the implicit how to interact with the crowd and what to expect from them. And new people, new joiners picked that up like so fast, that the energy of the room, even if it’s 200 people. It was amazing to see that.

And I’ve found it very great to see that this also happens online. Like I think it’s also, again, like a topic or influenced by the people who organize it and kind of like are the first to speak and are the ones where others kind of like look towards for how to act, how to interact. And yesterday’s virtual open space experiment, like they had  great hosts. Birgit Nieschalk and Ruben Clerkx I think was his name. Sorry if I pronounced that incorrectly. And they had an amazing energy and showed that to the room, and it really worked out.

There were a hundred people online. Everybody hit the camera on. So many smiles and so many waving hands to the camera and, and showing appreciation. And also breakouts happening and then pause, all that. So there was a way to transport that. But of course, it has, has so often with them. These kinds of things. You cannot literally translate everything like one-to-one.

But I’ve also wanted to go, to one thing in that you partly answered that already, Joanna, in that, like, the reason why you’re putting on all of these kinds of events and how you are structuring them or how are you, the kind of like atmosphere that you’re trying to create and that it’s important to step forward and still organize these events like, or trying to put on these events in the, in the current times is even like, especially important.

So what you’re doing there again, is leading by example, right? I mean, you’re being. Even if you don’t use that word, maybe for yourself, you’re being a role model for other other organizers and for the industry it’s itself. And I would be very interested to hear a little bit more both of your, of course, both of your views on what kind of world, what kind of industry would you like to see? So what? What is the world that you’re trying to steer towards with your events? What are you trying to be role models for?

33:40 // Joanna

it’s, it is a very hard question and a very easy question at the same time, right. Because, we all, have this. Vision right, of the world. We would like to live in the workplace where we would like to work. The team we would like to be. The reality is not always as we would like it to be. But we, we all have that vision of, what we would like to be, Well, it’s hard to answer this question because, as I said before, I truly believe that some things will change for good.

We don’t really know exactly how the world will change. It depends on, you know, how long it’s gonna take for us to go through that difficult time. But I’m pretty sure that it’s already done. Like, we’re not coming back to where we were before. And I don’t want to say that because when we were talking before this before this, recording, one of you said that, you know, lots of people bring this positive message that, you know, the chain that difficult time would be, something that brings, change positive change.

32:00 // Benjamin

You can still say that. Sorry if I’m making this harder for you.

35:19 // Joanna

You might’ve made it harder for me. But I tried to say it this way because this is how we people, grow. We grow through difficult times. And honestly, I don’t think there’s any other way, to really grow and, you know, become more aware of things, be more self aware, become more resilient, then to go through difficult times and to go through challenges.

So I really hope that it’s going to be a good change, at least on some levels. Maybe it’s just me trying to be the optimist now at the moment, and not to bring anybody, anybody down.

But, with ITMatters. Well, the world that we want to present is a world of people communicating with each other, like a true communication, like a real connection. Embracing that we are all different. The spectrum  of our differences are so big, but it’s so beautiful as well. And anyone by, you know, just being themselves and embracing who they are can bring something good into the lives of others, into their team, into their organization, and into their business as well. We are not really talking about, you know having a strategy of diversity and inclusion in their organization.

There are people who do this who are experts in that. This is not our thing. We are showing this small change. But small changes in our everyday life that really matter.

So,  we’ll talk about, you know, how to communicate with your team members that have different cultural backgrounds, how to improve your communication with them and how to understand  them better.

We will talk about how to understand ourselves, how to understand the, you know how our brain works and how we can change the certain things, we, how we think about certain things and, and just make our life better and the life life of people around us.

We will also talk about how having, for example, a person who is never neurotypical. So for example, with the Asperger syndrome, how this can benefit your team, and your organizations. And so just, just to know things. You do and how to do it at the same time and can make a big difference. All you need to do is kind of open your mind and want to bring that change. There are certain things we cannot change.

We are not all big, we don’t have the big influence of everything we do. Again now more than ever, we experienced that, that does so many things that are we can not do anything about. We just have to accept them. And I think it’s the same on the smaller level as well. Like we, we will not change certain things in our organizations, but we can change something in our team, for example.

So just, you know, this small area of influence. So just being as I would a conference, we are not a huge conference. We will not probably bring our message to the masses, but if we change everyday work life on one team, personally, I would be happy. Like, you know, it’s a success because this is the small, the small scale of the big change, you know? And then it’s just, as you said, it’s like living by example.

If there’s this one team within the organization that brings some, some positive changes and people are just really happy and not only happy, but also like, you know, just work efficiently by being happy, being more productive. That can also show an example to the others or just the leaders or the hire to change something. So I think this is our goal. and where we are with what we are trying to do.

37:27 // Beren

  For me it’s, it’s kind of similar. I don’t really want to change the world. I’ll leave that for the people in San Francisco, the startups there. What brings me a weird kind of joy maybe is. That when I tell people how I live, how I see things, how I see the company evolving, that they frown and they start thinking like, Oh, so you can do things differently and it does work, and that makes me so happy. So I tried to be more minimalistic and when it comes to my life, I tried to fit everything that I need into a bag, and that’s it. I try not to have a fixed place where I live and people wonder, they go, is this something that I could do?

Maybe not. Maybe it is, but at least they’re wondering. So I’m up to do the same with the company. I don’t want to grow up past six people. Because I think then you need to have some kind of politics or some hierarchy or it evolves naturally. Even if you don’t put it there, it’s going to evolve anyway. It’s going to get too many communication levels and I don’t enjoy that at all. I want to work with people that want to work with each other, that respect each other, that can learn from each other, that are diverse. To keep people interested and engaged and learn from each other again. And also I, the last person that we hired which is number four the first three of us, we sat together and we made a final decision saying, okay, if we were a team of superheroes who all have a different talent, one of us can fly.

The other one is elastic, whatever. What is this fourth person, the fourth member of our superhero team, do we want her to be part of this?  Can she add to the team? And that opened up a discussion of how she was different from us and how she would fit into the team and how we could profit from that because we could learn from that because she would add, she would be different than she would in superhero terms defeat other villains in different ways. And that was, that was an interesting way to look at it. So, we’re working towards our six people. We want to have everything completely transparent.

Everyone has as how do you say this for everyone’s the same. We’re on the same power level, let’s say.  I’m lacking words. but where everyone’s saying nobody’s, in a higher hierarchy or whatever, just people having different tasks and roles. That’s what I enjoy when I explain this to people. They wonder and why aren’t you so focused on growth or profit or whatever? No. We just want to have a good time, learn and move forward at our own pace that we think is sustainable.

44:06 // Benjamin

Great answers. And I’m sorry again, Joanna for making the heart of, for you by saying earlier that, I think what I wanted to say when I said that sometimes I’ve, at the moment I find it hard. Or to see all of these messages that try to be super positive, and see a chance in every crisis and so on. And that’s of course, totally true. Similar to what you said, but at the same time. There’s always like, like in so many other areas, there’s always a balance to be found between being super optimistic and disregarding all challenges or seeing every challenge as having this as an opportunity for growth and so on. That’s true. That’s true. But at the same time, it’s also important too, to recognize, and I don’t think you see that in any different way, but it’s important to recognize that.

But sometimes it’s hard and sometimes it’s exhausting and especially in the current times. it’s, it’s hard to, to cope with all this stuff. and that’s fine to just leave it as it is and to just leave it standing like that. and we don’t have to find a chance in every moment and every opportunity and every challenge, but just like feel shitty for a moment.

42:05 // Joanna

Of course, but like, you know, acknowledging that, you know, as, as you said. I’m not judging the situation. Accepting, that’s a huge step as well. Like it’s really hard to find that balance between, you know kind of trying to reject reality and like, no, it’s not happening. We’re gonna be back to normal soon. And nothing is going to change to you know, someone who’s like, I’ve already tried to find out how we can make a profit. Right? How can we use that situation too, you can see that as well.

Like when you are just on social media or whatever, just looking at people’s reactions are very different. But that also proves that, you know, we are very diverse and even though the topic we’re talking about is our webinar. There’s this primal thing in us that, you know, we just feel fear and we want to survive. If something like that happens, and this is something that’s been with us since forever, and we are made for survival, as a species. But there are different, different ways of dealing with that when we are, you know, some people, you know, will be just laughing, laughing and putting silly memes on, the internet because this is what makes them feel better, and others well, you know, try to go closer to, there spiritual parts. That’s also okay. And others, we do some, some vital stuff because they’re in a panic. That may not have been too good.

But also we need to have that empathy, understand those people. And, we are just really very, very different, but we have a lot of things in common as well. And once we find these things that we have in common, it’s, it’s way easier to understand each other and to be, you know, more empathetic towards each other. And now more than ever, we have to, we have to work as a team right? This is like a huge teamwork task. The Corona virus it not something we can do by ourselves. We have to really rely on people that we don’t know. Personally, even though we care much, mostly about our family and, about our cousins. But no, it’s not working that way. Right. And it’s, it’s bigger than that, and it’s a bit like Teamwork is like being at work. Like some, there are people in your team that you really care about. Some people you probably care less, but you still have to work together for success. And I think it’s, maybe it’s a silly metaphor, but this is the way I see it. It’s a great task for teamwork.

45:30 // Benjamin

And that’s like the great parting words, to be honest. Right? I mean, highlighting the need for, for empathy and embracing. All our differences.and recognizing that it’s all about teamwork.  So thank you, both of you for your time, to do this, to have the set with me to do this recording and , hope we see each other soon and take care.

45:50 // Beren

Absolutely. Thank you very much.

45:50 // Joanna


45:53 // Beren

Was it a wonderful experience?

45:53 // Joanna

Thank you very much.