Faruk Ateş podcast interview: inclusion in the tech industry

Faruk Ateş

In Episode 17 of the Together London Podcast, I talk to Faruk Ateş about feminism in technology, inclusion, and using software to make positive change.

Check out Faruk’s website, his upcoming Dare Conference talk, and follow him on twitter @kurafire.

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Jonathan Kahn: I’m speaking to Faruk Ateş who’s joining me from Vancouver today. Faruk does creative things on the Web. He created Modernizr, an open source library that helps you take advantage of cutting edge features in HTML5 and CSS. Before he went independent he was a product designer at Apture. He’s also worked as a UI engineer at Apple, where he helped bring modern web development techniques to the online store and MobileMe. He has also founded a startup called Presentate, which we’re going to hear about in a second, and we’re really excited that he’s going to be presenting at the Dare Conference in London in September. So Faruk, thanks so much for taking the time to join me.

Faruk Ateş: Thank you for having me.

Jonathan: So you’ve been a web developer and designer. You created an Open Source project. You’ve worked at Apple and other Silicon Valley companies, and now you have your own startup. So how has your work changed in that time?

Faruk: When I started in this industry — and that’s going back, essentially, to the late ’90s now — I started with just some basic front-end coding skills that I taught myself to make websites. Because making websites is really cool. I can make something, put it online, and people can read it and interact with it. Then, I got a job with just those skills, essentially, in 2000, and then very shortly after, the whole dot-com crash happened. It became very clear to me, very quickly, I need to have a more comprehensive skill set. I started learning back-end programming and database design, stuff like that, so that I could build more comprehensive websites and have better job security.

Then I eventually got a job at a small agency, where I was building content-management systems for them. I was also doing the design work, because they didn’t really have people making websites. They were a hosting agency, really. I did their design for them, and I did their back-end development and I did their front-end development, so I was full-stack, all over the place with what I was doing.

I worked there for a couple years and built several content-management systems for them. Over time, I just shifted more and more towards front end and design and started exploring that more. Then I got into interaction design and really figuring out how products can work, how they should work, why certain things about products don’t work as well. That just draws you more and more towards interaction design and the user experience, of course.

Over time, I started with Apple as a front-end engineer, and then, at Apture, after Apple, I shifted over to product design, where I did prototyping and front-end technologies but also did all the visual design and really restructured the product around figuring out better ways to interact with the product.

It started involving looking at how to turn this product into a viable business, how to make money off of this product, how to create it and design it towards a place where — as I gradually shifted more and more towards interaction design and product design, that’s how I ended up deciding to do my own startup.

Jonathan: Cool. Tell us about that. It’s called Presentate, and it’s about presentations in a browser. Tell us why you’re doing it, what the product does, what your hopes are for it.

Faruk: It’s presentations in the browser. One of the things that sets us apart a little bit from the main, obvious competitors, like PowerPoint and Keynote, is that we’re a presentation software, a tool for creation, but also a sharing platform, in one. We really focus on creating Web-native presentations that work well when you share them, when you present them live. It doesn’t really matter how you share this with an audience, it should work right. It should work right on desktop browsers. It should work right on mobile browsers. It should work great inside of other apps when they open it up.

The way we solved this problem and tackled it, in a really quite unique way, is by focusing much more on your presentation as a piece of great content, high-quality, very valuable content that you’ve worked hard on to put together. We really focus the interface and the whole product around your presentation being a cohesive story that you’re telling.

That story is something that should be captured, but it shouldn’t just be captured in slides. Your slides are not your whole presentation. They are a supplemental element — guide stones through your presentation, if you will. Your slides should never stand on their own.

They should never be all that someone looks at and they know what you’re talking about in your presentation, because if you put all of that information in your slides, then your slides are way too dense and your audiences would not have a great experience as an audience.

When you’re giving it live, you’re there talking about it. You shouldn’t be reading off your slides, and there shouldn’t be too much overlap with your slides.

The way we solve this is by having what we call the narrative. Each slide really consists of just a clean, elegant slide, with some text on it but not too much, and the narrative, which is the accompanying text, which details the story that you’re telling and goes over all the key points, all the salient details that you’re talking about at that point in your presentation.

When you’re presenting live in front of an audience, you only need the slides, so we give you only the slides to go full-screen with and you present it. Then, when you share it afterwards, you share it with people, and they get the slides plus that narrative.

Now they get the full story. They get all the rich details and context that you’re talking about in your presentation, so that the slide, one single word, for instance, could be really interesting that you’re talking about. You could be having a five-minute rant about some really elegant things and some really difficult things and how you solved them, and none of that exists in the slides.

If you were to share just those slides online, people would have no idea what you’re talking about. You also don’t want to put all these interesting details in the slide for the audience to see, because that distracts them from paying attention to you as a speaker.

Jonathan: The narrative thing is trying to do your job when you’re not there, because the person’s on an iPhone…

Faruk: Exactly, yes. A really great way of thinking about it is “your slides without you.” It’s really letting you share your presentation in, by far, the best way possible to an audience online, whether it’s the world at large, anyone who comes across this link, or whether you want to share it directly with just some people. You want to share it through the Web and you don’t want to have to deal with exporting your presentation to PDF and then uploading it somewhere or putting it in Dropbox or something like that because it’s too large for email. None of that. It should just be very simple — you send someone the link and you’re done.

Jonathan: I think it’s very interesting, because what you’re dealing with there is this change that’s been created by — the reason that we need live, in-person events has changed so much since the Internet and social media, and it just reminds me of how, when I run conferences, people say, “We really want the slides. Will you make the speakers give us the slides?” I mean, speakers normally are willing to put their slides on something like SlideShare, and some speakers make a huge effort to make their slides coherent enough to work on SlideShare, but often that can even be at the expense of the talk itself.

Faruk: Exactly.

Jonathan: Trying to come up with a new way of thinking about — even if you just say the word “PowerPoint” to somebody who works in business, they just immediately have this fear of you have a terrible font that you can’t read and 57 points and just a really bad delivery and so on and everything. I think it’s really interesting that you’re trying to improve this thing that we all, in a way, hate, which is slides, and how they fit into talks, and then how we try and get the excitement around a live talk to translate into people around the world who want to know about it.

Faruk: Exactly. We’re focused on not just creating a great, compelling product that allows you to create these better presentations. We actually want to have the product help you become a better presenter. We’re going to stuff it full of advice and tips, little things to know about when it comes to presenting, to hopefully help people become more engaging and help their presentations become more engaging. We’re really aiming to kill the “death by PowerPoint” syndrome that plagues this whole space, this industry and this meta-level above so many industries.

Jonathan: It’s interesting. The other thing that it’s making me think of is, so many speakers I know think of writing their talk as creating slides. Which, actually, is not a very quick way to get to your message, because I think maybe it’s that whole writing thing, like, “Well, I should write my talk, so I should write slides.” The other thing you could do — I think I read about this from Scott Berkun. He either had a post or it was in his book about speaking, where he said, “Hang on. Why don’t you just write down five points and then talk to your webcam for 10 minutes and then listen to it back?”

Because the way we argue or we communicate verbally is so different to the way we do it written anyway. If you can go back on that and write down what you said, that can actually be a better way of workshopping your own presentation.

It has that other problem of assuming the place that you write your talk is within presentation software. That probably isn’t the quickest way to get to something real.

Faruk: It can be if you know how to do it, or if you are intimately familiar with your subject matter and you have a good understanding of the full scope of what you’re going to talk about. That is not necessarily true for a person at all times. It can be true for one talk that a person gives and not true for the next talk that that same person gives. But if you have a pretty good understanding of where you’re going and what you’re talking about, then I found one of the things that I generally do for a presentation is, I do start writing it out, not really as a blog post so much as an outline of sentences or of sentence fragments.

I go through and I create this thin red line of the story of my talk. It’s the whole talk. Then I start fleshing it out in bits and pieces in between, and then I start adding more detail to it. Essentially, what happens, what emerges, is this script. It’s not a literal script, I don’t stick to it exactly, but it is essentially the storyline woven through the whole presentation, with all the details being added here and there.

I found that to be a really useful way of getting started, because unless we do get started quickly with, “OK, five bullet points, just this small little list in a scratch document. What am I going to talk about? What are the main points?” and then you build it out. That’s a practice that works really well for me and I know it works for a lot of other people.

Writing it out even fuller, like a blog post or a comprehensive article, is something that you can do as well. What we are hoping to do and hoping to accomplish with Presentate is that, however you approach this, whether it’s the five bullet points and then talking into a webcam, the writing it out as a long-form article, or anything in between, we want to have you actually use that work to instantly turn it into a presentation.

If you are to write this outline of points, then what we can do is, we can take that and we can turn it into a presentation from those points, we can create the slides for it, and we can turn the paragraphs of text into a narrative. That allows you to just focus on your content and not think about the slides or the design so much, because that’s something that should come after your content.

The presentation that you’re giving is a presentation of information. You need to focus on getting that information right first before you focus on how you present it visually.

Jonathan: You’re talking about what I would call “outlining,” which is a stage before finished copy or finished slides.

Faruk: Right. What we’re doing is, we’re taking outlining and we’re making it much more directly applicable and useful to you in the process of creating a presentation.

Jonathan: Interesting. That sounds really interesting, so interesting that I hope I can email you and ask for an invite to have a go, because I think that sounds fab.

Faruk: I’m sure we can arrange that.

Jonathan: Yes. I’m really, really excited to see where that takes you guys, because I think it’s something that we need. We need to rethink presentations, we need to think what does a video look like, what do these slides look like, and I think how do we get more and more people to talk and present. I’m going to try and do…What do they call it on radio? A link or something. A link between that topic of getting people to present and another thing I want to talk to you about. You talked about your career so far, and one of the things you’ve done since 2011 is blogging, speaking, and writing about feminism in technology. Why did you start writing about that, and where has it taken you?

Faruk: It’s a subject that I’ve always been very interested in, a strong proponent for, or even an activist to even a smaller degree, but in 2011 it started to become clear to me how much work still had to be done and how unequal the experience was for a lot of people. Not for everyone, of course. There are people who just get unfair treatment on both sides and there are people who make it just fine without any problem whatsoever. We can’t root out any unfairness issues, but what we can root out is systemic issues and systemic problems that unfairly discriminate specifically against certain groups, whether it’s active or passive.

What I mean by that is, active discrimination would be where people just openly and consciously do things that, for instance, make women feel unwelcome, or, say, make it harder for people of color to participate, whereas passive discrimination is this much more nuanced and subtle experience where people just don’t feel welcome to participate, or they don’t feel they are valued as much.

It’s not anyone individual’s conscious doing, it’s not someone even conscious doing or saying anything that they mean to cause harm with, but it’s this systemic problem where it just happens and the result is, women get treated very differently for the exact same accomplishments than men do, for instance, or people of color, or whatever demographic you’re looking at, their experiences are just overwhelmingly different than the experience of the average straight white male in our industry.

That’s reflective of society as well, but we can work on society and we can work on our industry. I like to do both, but it is my industry that I work in, and it’s my industry that I have to work in with other people. I want to make sure that the people I work with feel comfortable, feel welcome, feel like they belong here, that they feel appreciated and valued for their contributions.

For a huge portion of our industry, that’s just not really the case. For a huge number of people who are in it, their experience is far from as nice and as pleasant as it is for someone like myself, even though, for instance, in society at large, in western cultures, my name may make me the subject of racial profiling by government agencies or what have you, whereas in tech my name doesn’t do a whole lot, but my being a white male gives me a lot of benefits.

That disparity between the experiences of people, to me, it’s just incredibly unjust that I cannot stand idly by and see it happen and not doing anything about it. What started happening in 2011 was I started realizing just how much of it was happening more than I was aware of before.

I started seeing really awful kinds of things happen like people writing things that they thought was a really smart, insightful way of looking at the world but, in reality, it was just so heavily steeped in privilege and lack of self-awareness that it actually became offensive to entire demographics.

That bothered me so I started countering that and started participating in that. From that, it was like going down the rabbit hole and discovering this much greater world of issues than I was even aware of at that point. It’s led me to this place where I now do tons and tons of research when I can and I keep up with all of these issues across the world, not just in tech but in society itself.

I constantly try and figure out ways to combat these issues and to try and educate people and inform them on why these things of diversity matter, why, for instance, a conference speaker line-up should have some diversity in it, why that matters, why it is important for us to have women in tech safe spaces and why we can also be critical of them at times or critical of other things that we may love.

It’s all very complex. There’s so much to talk about and so much to learn still. There’s so much to learn for me and I’ve spent years on this now, dedicated, almost like a university study. Dedicated amounts of time doing research, writing articles, just compiling it all.

It’s led me to a point where I’m now starting to try and come up with systems and technologies that can help address some of these issues. Just writing about it is not enough. We need to make use of technology to actually help us in this.

In some ways, that’s just writing or creating a website that educates people on these matters in a way that makes it easy for them to explore and learn that isn’t confrontational or that isn’t blaming them for whatever privileges they may have accumulated in life and enjoyed and reaped the benefits of but that gets them to acknowledge these privileges and that it has given them benefits.

They shouldn’t have to feel bad about that. It’s not about feeling guilty, it’s about acknowledging them and maybe not hammering down upon the people who do not have those privileges and benefits when those people are trying to speak up or when they are trying to do something and they are noticeably not valued or appreciated the same way.

Jonathan Kahn: I want to take you to one of the pieces you wrote which is for Dot Net magazine and it’s called, “A Primer on Sexism in the Tech Industry.” It’s a really amazing piece which if anyone listening hasn’t read it I really recommend you look at it. It’s not that long and it’s really informative and brave. You just go through a load of things that it’s quite easy to recognize in the industry but that we wouldn’t necessarily be aware of unless we were paying attention.

In that non-judgmental way it says here are all the things that we see in terms of sexism in tech. I wanted to ask you what reaction you got to that piece and what you learned in writing it.

Faruk: First of all, thank you for the kind words. I feel I took too many shortcuts in the piece and actually painted with a slightly too broad a stroke every so often. That really hurts the effectiveness of the article because this is such a subtle and nuanced set of issues. None of these are overt sexism, for instance. We’re not talking about guys grabbing women’s asses randomly or slapping them, something like that. It’s nothing like what we think of from shows like “Madmen” or the old days where this was a more common thing.

That nuanced and complicated problem also demands a very delicate way of phrasing things and there were times where I just didn’t quite do that as well as I should have. The piece got a lot of really great feedback and really huge amounts of appreciation for a lot of people, but then there were also those who were critical of it because they felt I was trying to describe all women as having the same problems or having these experiences or whatever.

The way I wrote it, there was a lot of validity to those criticisms, but what we also see a lot, and that’s true for almost any piece like this, the main negative feedback hinged on, “I haven’t experienced any of this so this is bullshit”. I don’t know if you mind me saying that. The anecdotal evidence of people’s own lives being counter to what is described is offered up as, “this hasn’t happened to me ergo this is not true”.

That is a problem in and of itself. While it may be great for all these women who work in our industry who have never experienced any of these sexist issues that they’re aware of, what isn’t great is that the vast majority of women are perfectly well aware that some of this or even all of this does happen and they’ve experienced some or even all of this themselves and these are real issues that we need to address.

It’s great that some people are now entering our industry and not experiencing this and that’s fantastic because that’s how it should be. That is the culture that we should have. One of the arguments being brought up is you’re now, by talking about this and by drawing so much attention to this, we’re scaring women away from the industry.

Jonathan: We’re bringing attention. I’ve actually had that argument before that you’re bringing attention to something, you’re glorifying this, and you’re bringing attention. That doesn’t happen here. That it’s something that is happening to a certain level so talking about it is not glorifying it. Actually, not talking about it is glorifying it and it’s legitimizing it. If you don’t talk about something that happens, even at a low level, then you legitimize it.

Faruk: It’s all about normalization. The behavior we normalize in our societies, in our communities, dictates what behavior is tolerated. If we let various forms of oppression and discrimination continue unabated then people who partake in that will just continue doing what they’re doing. Even if, for the most part, it might not be nefarious or with ill-intent, it’s still causing the problem to be perpetuated. Bringing attention to it and talking about it actually identifies it as a problem and that’s a first step. What’s shocking is that’s the first step. It really is just a first step. Only in the past couple of years have we taken this first step about a lot of these problems.

Jonathan: It’s interesting that you say that. You talk about normalization and behaviors and stuff. One of the reactions people have to this discussion, a lot of people will say obviously there is sexism and racism and things but this is a societal issue, it’s just too big for me to handle. One of the things it makes me think of is if you think about bullying, I would be surprised if most people who have been it the work force for a few years haven’t seen bullying happening in the workplace, whether or not we want to classify that as specifically being sexist, ageist, racist, who knows what “ist.”

A lot of things you’re describing, for example, in your article about sexism, you could definitely class as bullying type behavior, for example. I think the way that the culture is currently is basically you haven’t got any power, you’re the employee, and you have to live with bullying. Everyone has to. You can’t change that so why bother? It’s an argument people will use against your specific discussion here about, say, feminism or sexism.

It’s also just a generic argument about if something doesn’t seem just then there’s nothing we can do about it.

Faruk: I always find that a very cowardly position and it’s very akin to sayings like I’m not going to vote in elections because it doesn’t matter anyway. If you don’t participate then your contributions don’t matter, but those who do participate, their contributions do matter. If you see a problem and you don’t do anything about it that problem will continue to exist. If you try to do something about it, at least you have a chance of doing something and achieving something to stem that problem. Even if you don’t solve it outright, you can at least reduce it.

The thing about this is you mostly hear that argument from people who are comfortable with how their lives currently are. These people often they are in a position of privilege to some degree. Mainly what I see is quite a lot of privilege because this is generally people in tech who are doing just fine. They have a job, they have some status in our communities. They’re like everything is fine. Why change anything?

It may be fine for them, but it’s not fine for a lot of other people. What we see a lot is these people who are coming from a privileged point of view, they get defensive when what you’re talking about seems, to them, like you’re taking their “rights” away, and I use quotes around that word because they grew up with this and they’re expecting certain things from society now. Now what we’re saying is no, we’re going to take these things away from you.

They don’t have a vested interest in seeing that change or seeing these changes take place. The irony of it is painful because essentially what we’re seeing is people saying I don’t want to be discriminated against but in arguing for that they want to continue discriminating against others.

Jonathan: It’s interesting that you talk about people who are comfortable because I think there’s something here about a more general theme of change, that when you’re comfortable that’s not necessarily a very happy place to be. It’s almost a slightly depressed place to be in terms of less risk for you and less humanness and aliveness for you. I think that’s a state a lot of us are in, that we have a fantasy of comfort which is that we can prevent change from happening around us. Any type of change in, as you’re saying, the benefits I get or the benefits other people get I might try to fight against to defend my comfort. I want to try and just generalize this a bit to a question that a lot of people ask me. We are organizing the Dare Conference which is about change, basically, and how to get better at change and how to get better at people skills and messy emotional stuff.

We’re trying to make a link for people between talking about things like, for example, dealing with discrimination and inclusion, getting better at your job, or getting better outcomes for yourself or for your life.

You seem to see a link between talking about feminism and creating software to improve presentations for speakers. What is that link for you?

Faruk: That’s a good one. I do see a strong correlation there, because I had had this idea back in 2009 already, in these recent years, with talking about feminism and discrimination in our society. What really struck me was how little software actually aids in any of this. Software basically doesn’t do anything. It’s passive. It doesn’t have to be passive. If we look at educational games on the iPad, for instance, we see tons of fantastic games that combine interaction with information and education learning. One of the things that struck me most about that premise is the fact that software through itself can actually help guide things.

Where it also all came together to me was, one the one hand we have this product that we want to make that helps people get better at presenting, et cetera, and solve these presenter’s needs that I had that weren’t being catered to by any product out there. Then there’s the feminism, the social justice, and all these issues.

It was important to me that we have better ways for presenting that information to people. Making it more interactive and having it become easily shared as well is something that made sense. Then the joining with them was really in trying to figure out, can we have software help to make people become better presenters?

But at the same time, I feel like a company’s culture can represent a lot of about what it’s like to work there, what people work there, and what values are important to that company. That’s where it came together with how social justice, equality, and just improving the education of people to mesh with having a startup or having a company.

For every industry and discipline, there are educational books, you can take courses, and you can take workshops. Those are still good to do as well, but I think that our software can actually contribute to that. The software that we use can be opinionated and actually tell you, “I know you want to do this, but there are reasons why you shouldn’t, and these are the reasons why.”

Jonathan: I think it’s a great place to end the podcast, because unfortunately we’ve run out of time. It makes me think that the thing about the Web or technology is, it can do these amazing things, as we’re seeing now with all the scandals about the spying by my government and the States on everyone’s life, that there’s all this amazing positivity to, say, the Internet. You and I, we can talk to each other over the Internet, but there’s also this really evil stuff, destructive stuff that people do with it as well, like spying, invading everyone’s privacy. I think what I am really hearing from you is that software can do amazing things, and it can’t do that on its own.

We have to have software, and we have to combine that with culture, learning, teaching, and all that stuff.

Faruk: Yes, that’s where it really came together. It’s about being inclusive. If we are inclusive as a culture, as a community, then why can’t our software not be inclusive? What does it mean for our software to also be inclusive like this? There’s so much work to be done in that area.

Jonathan: Awesome. Thank you so much, Faruk. It’s been a fantastic podcast. I think people are going to get a lot from it.

Faruk: Thank you for having me.

Jonathan: I’m really looking forward to hearing you talk in London about this theme.

Faruk: I’m really looking forward being there. Coming back to England will be great. It looks like such a great conference, and I really think it’ll be a really fantastic experience.

Jonathan: Awesome. Thank you.