Q&A with MVP Andy Mallon: 'I’m never going to make everyone happy, but I'd like to make as many groups of people happy as possible.'
Meet Data Platform MVP Andy Mallon. He’s the founder of BostonSQL, and the co-organizer of SQL Saturday Boston. And while he’s certainly an SQL expert, that’s not all: he also knows his fair share about holding inclusive events.
Last year, he organized an LGBT meet-up at PASS Summit that raised more than $3000 for the Trevor Project - an organization that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ youth. In fact, according to CPM Betsy Weber, all Andy’s events are ‘wonderfully inclusive.’ We spoke to Andy about why LGBT events are important in the tech industry, and exactly what he keeps in mind when organizing an inclusive event.
1) Can you tell us about the LGBT event you organized at PASS Summit 2016?
Last year was my second time at PASS Summit. My first time going I noticed there was women in technology event, but there was no LGBT event - not even an informal one, where people met up for drinks or anything. PASS Summit is held at the Washington State convention center, which is right adjacent to the gay neighborhood in Seattle. So, about a month before my second time at PASS Summit, I had a thought that maybe I could pull together some informal thing. I tweeted out asking if people were interested, and I immediately got at least 12 people that replied. I put up an Eventbrite page, and just had a free event to get people together.
The SQL Server [community] is a great family to be in. There were lots of people that weren’t just LGBT, but also allies who helped advertise the event and get the word out. PASS listed me on the official, unofficial page of events and we ended up having about 50 people who came. We were all there for the tech conference, so we all had one thing in common already. [Then it was about] providing a safe place for people to come and relax, let their hair down, and meet someone from a personal perspective.
At work events, you know lots of people from their work personae. But you don’t necessarily know if they’re going to be accepting of you outside of that, with some of the personal things. Whether you’re LGBT or perhaps have a friend or family member who is, [you might not know] what the reaction will be. So, the event was really a place where people could go and either be themselves, or have those conversations and not have to worry that they might offend a professional contact, or end up in an uncomfortable situation.
2) Why else is it particularly important to host LGBT events in the technology space?
It’s an important outlet in general for people to find those non-work groups where you have sort of affiliation with other people. In technology groups there’s a tendency to be [all about] work, [but then] you start thinking about the larger sense of the community.
As a gay man, I wouldn’t want to work in an office where I can’t feel comfortable being myself when I’m out of the office. I want to bring my husband with me to events at work, and similarly when I go to tech conference I want to be comfortable taking my husband with me to a speaker dinner. For me, I do feel comfortable doing that. But I know not everyone does. So, having events like this really helps people build that comfort level - of either being accepting, or being accepted. And that builds a sense of community for everyone.
I think that’s a super important part of the tech community. I’m a gay man from Boston. It’s a lot easier for me here than in other parts… People might not have the same experience that I have.
3) The tech industry is often spoken about as having a ‘bro culture’ and that this is unfriendly to women. Do you believe it’s unfriendly toward LGBT people?
I think it certainly can be. For the same reason that bro culture can be uncomfortable to women, I think it can be uncomfortable to LGBT people as well. Bro culture can sometimes be intimidating, because there’s that macho aspect to it. It can cloud your perspective of whether you think someone will be accepting or not. You don’t necessarily know whether you can be yourself. It can get in the way of whether you feel like you can talk about show tunes or project runway, in an office where people are talking about the football game and beer.
4) What do you always keep in mind when developing diverse events?
Regardless of what under-represented group you are part of, I think seeing a diverse group of attendees and a diverse group of speakers makes you feel more comfortable - even if it’s not your face you’re seeing.
When we organize technology events in Boston, we look for speakers who are diverse. If we don’t get a lot of women [to] submit, we talk to the women who have submitted, and we talk to the women we know to try to get more of them to submit to speak. I think with under-represented groups, sometimes you do have to go solicit people. But then once you do, you can have a more diverse event.
[When] we pick out sessions that we’re going to have at the event, we pick speakers we know are great speakers without looking at topics they’ve submitted. And we look at topics that look like great topics, without looking at who’s submitted them. By driving diverse speakers at the front of the room, [those people] then advertise they’re going to be at the event. And by having diverse people at the front of the room, advertising to their diverse group of people, it helps to bring people in from their diverse circles.
[We try to be] mindful of the fact that we have a diverse crowd, and that we want to help them all feel accepted. So, something as simple as at the venue where we hold our SQL Saturday events in Boston, there’s the main men’s room and women’s room, and there’s a smaller handicap restroom. [It’s] leaving that [space] available for someone who needs additional privacy or needs additional space - whether it’s because of their physical abilities, or anything else. If you’re a trans [person you’ll know] it will be available when you need it because people are leaving it for you. It’s something seemingly quite small, but to the person that needs that restroom it can be a big deal.
With our food, we try to avoid that whole pizza and beer thing. We have a local bakery and cafe that we have a great relationship with that does sandwiches. I’m never going to make everyone happy, but I'd like to make as many groups of people happy as possible. So, if you keep halal, or you’re vegetarian or vegan, there’s a little bit of everything there for you so you can feel you’re comfortable.
Doing as many small things as you have the bandwidth to do...really makes a big difference in getting people to come back to your next event and getting people to notice it.