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Enriching the conversation

My side of a twitter debate between myself (@KevinTrethewey) and Aslam Khan (@AslamKhn)

On the 14th of December 2013 (last Saturday at the time of writing this) I facilitated the Johannesburg instance of Coderetreat, as part of the “Global Day of Coderetreat”. These are free events for people who already know how to write software. The team at Driven Software (my company) organises, facilitates, sponsors and arranges co-sponsorship. This event was our 12th.

During the first session I took a photo of the group who attendended and tweeted it, as a way of letting the rest of the world know that Johannesburg is on the map. Aslam Khan responded from (I assume) his home in Cape Town. A twitter converstation ensued which he then broke down on his blog, giving various opinions of the content and of me personally.

On reading the blog I was deeply hurt at the way I was portrayed. My first reaction was to not respond. People are welcome to their opinions and I have other priorities. When I took a look at the people who replied or retweeted the blog post and saw that some of them were people I respect very much (eg Kent Beck), I felt I should tell my side of the story.

Not only will this give me side of the debate, I think this is also a fascinating study in context, assumption and judgement for those who take the time to unpack it.

Rather than respond to the blog post what I will do is provide some context to the overall discussion which is not generally available, and then give my internal monologue that drove me to tweet the messages that I did. My hope is that in providing this context it will enrich and deepen the discussion, and that new insights that can be gained.

I omit all judgement and opinion from this post. What I state here is 100% factual. Other people added their opinion to the twitter discussion, but their views are their own.

First, some context:

Aslam and I are not strangers, we’ve known each other for some time. We both live in South Africa, I’m in Johannesburg and he’s in Cape Town, the two largest cities in the country.

# I’ve attended several of Aslam’s talks and workshops and I recall him being at at least two of mine. # We had breakfast several times a few years ago. Aslam was trying to get a local branch of Factor10 going and was interested in me joining him. I decided to pursue my own interests. No formal employment offer was ever made and I understand Aslam has subsequently left that company. # Aslam is South African Indian, I am a white person born in Zimbabwe but living in South Africa for many years (since 1988, I’m 36). # I’ve been married to a South African Indian for 6 years (together for 8!), we have two kids. # I’ve published my personal philophical approach to life here StayEmpty.com. It is very much a work in progress (as am I!). This is the first time I have publicly linked myself to the site.

That’s some background.

Next, here is the thinking behind my twitter responses (my internal thoughts in italics). Bear in mind that I was facilitating a Coderetreat at the time, so my thinking was fairly “shallow”. Given more time I would no doubt have had different responses. I still stand behind everything I said though.

It all started with my photo…

Aslam then responded with:

Misrepresentation? The wrong people are here? That’s not fair on me or the people that chose to come. What does he mean by this? I don’t like comments like this, they are polarising. Everyone here is a human who shares a passion for coding. I should point that out! But make a joke about it, lets not be too serious this is supposed to be a fun day [1]

Whoa, ok, that didn’t go like I expected. I think he thinks I was being defensive. Was I? Maybe I was. What he heard is not what I meant though, let me be more clear.

I should engage the content of his messages. Lets unpack it a bit. Safe to assume by demographic he means race [2]. What is the data, let me check the registration sheet. Out of 36 RSVPs, 21 are pale males. Hang on, thats less that 60%. That’s a bit less than I expected, and not what the photo shows or what I see in the room. Well, we have a bunch of no shows and the Zimbos arrived late. Typical Zimbos [3]. Should I point that out? No, that’s going going to go down a route I don’t want to take the conversation. What could be the reason more non-white people aren’t here? The only people we directly invite are at clients [4]. There’s a mix of races there and as professional developers they all have the means to be here. I should point that out.

Ok, this is going a bit deep and I need to focus on the Coderetreat. I’m actually a bit bugged that he is sitting at home and telling me, as I give up my Saturday with my family, that the wrong people are here. I don’t choose who I help based on their race!

I’ve heard you talk about this a bunch of times and I’ve yet to see you do anything. You have such a high standing in the community, if you did something people would get behind it and support you. With Driven’s resources and relationships, together we could make serious change. Put your effort where your mouth is!

Arg. Knee jerk alert! I shouldn’t be having this conversation right now, that should have stayed in my head. But seriously, lets do something!

Awesome. That’s something I would like to know about, lets get together. Also, try lighten the mood a bit, he made a pitchfork comment the last time I saw him in Cape Town, let me mention it to rebond a little [5]

Ok, that’s a positive outcome, time to focus on this Coderetreat.


Notes [1] We ran an event in Potchefstroom a short while ago. One of the turkeys in question. [2] Based on what I know about Aslam [3] I swear my dad will be late for his own funeral [4] Predominantly large corporates [5] I can’t for the life of me remember the context of that discussion