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My Path Into Tech + An Ode to Monktoberfest

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My path into tech was a bit circuitous. I started my career as a financial analyst and a numbers cruncher. I moved into a database administration role when my company lost their DBA, and they thought it would be preferable to teach someone who knew finance how to run the financial system rather than teach someone with a systems background how to appreciate the nuanced implications of the data they’d be handling.

I didn’t know if my career ambition was in finance or systems at that point, but I knew that I had just about reached the top of the finance career ladder without having an advanced degree. I went back to school for an MBA with a Business Intelligence focus; I figured that would help prepare me for either path. (Advice to students: it did! School was great, but know that the curriculum alone is not always sufficient. Teaching myself R on the side was one of the best things I learned in my time at school.)

The analyst role at RedMonk opened as I was graduating. At that point, I’d been attending Monktoberfest since it’s inception; I had gained a deep appreciation for the company over the years, so I applied. It was intimidating to jump to an entirely new industry, and it was the steepest learning curve I’ve ever climbed. It’s also the most fun I’ve ever had in my career. I just had my two year anniversary, and I still routinely celebrate my good fortune of being able to work at RedMonk. (If this sounds interesting to you, come be my co-worker – we’re hiring!)

The aspect of this journey that I think deserves a little more focus was the fact that I started attending Monktoberfest long before I was involved in tech in any capacity. The first time I attended Monktoberfest, I was still squarely in the finance world and at that point did not have any intention of doing anything else with my career. I didn’t really know much about the conference itself and I didn’t expect the topic to have an impact on my job. I didn’t know Steve or James, and I had never seen any of RedMonk’s work.

I went to that first Monktoberfest for two reasons:

  • Our friend Alex knew Steve, and Alex was excited about the conference. Alex recruited a group of people from Denver to attend, including my husband. I figured if nothing else it would be a fun group to spend a weekend with, even if I was dubious about the value of the conference itself.
  • I had seen a filmstrip in the 3rd grade about New England foliage in the fall. There was no way I was missing my chance to finally see the leaves in person.

That’s it. Attending that first Monktoberfest was one of the events that in retrospect proved to be crucial to my current career path, and the things that motivated me were the excitement of a lobster dinner with friends and the grainy promise of natural beauty from an elementary school slideshow.

I showed up expecting Monktoberfest to match my previous experience with tech conferences I’d attended with my husband: intimidating and tedious, completely over my head and out of my league. My original game plan was to stop by the library in the morning just to see what it was all about, with the full intention of heading out to do my own sightseeing once I got bored.

Except I never got bored. The conference’s theme was (and remains) “where social meet technology.” Steve curated talks to explore how technology impacts people, and vice versa, how our humanity impacts how we build technology. There was discussion around specific technological trends, but talks were explicitly designed not to go deep in a single subject matter. Instead, the goal was to allow technologists to step back and examine the world around them and their role in it.

One of the pieces of advice I’ve seen RedMonk give clients most frequently over these past two years is not to over-extend their messaging. Typically, trying to use the same material to meet the needs of many audiences results in none of the audiences being served particularly well. It’s rare to find content that can transcend ability levels and professional roles.

You may think that a single-track conference about broad technological themes would fall into this trap, but it doesn’t. For the most part, Monktoberfest (and its sister events in London) are exceptions to the rule.

Attendees at the conference ranged from developers to business partners with skill levels ranging from pre-beginners (🙋‍♀️) to those with renowned careers, but everyone I spoke with enjoyed the show and had things to take away. For those who were more established, it was an opportunity to create a more holistic view of the technology landscape by reflecting on how seemingly disparate themes and ideas tie together. For those at the beginning of the journey, it was a chance to sample from a lot of new concepts in an approachable way.

For someone not expecting to even stay at the show, I thoroughly enjoyed the talks. However, the part of the event that most exceeded my expectations is hidden up there in the “everyone I spoke with” comment. Because people talked to me! As much as I thought the talks would be out of my league, I expected the people to be even less approachable.

I attended that first Monktoberfest as a tag-along spouse with no technical ambitions, and I expected those realities to unduly influence how a room full of technologists would interact with me. I’d been to enough of these types of events over the years to know the pattern of ‘someone introduces themselves, realizes you have no immediate benefits to offer them, and then they scramble to extract themselves from the conversation as quickly as possible so they can talk to someone more prestigious.’ That’s what I was prepared for at the attendee dinner.

Instead, the group was lovely to me. People were willing to talk to me even though they could have easily been spending their time networking with someone way more important. People were willing to let me ask questions and non-condescendingly explain parts of talks I didn’t understand. But what impressed me most is that people asked me questions back. People were interested in what I did even though it had nothing to do with tech; they cared about the world I lived in and treated my thoughts as equally interesting.

I was floored, and I was hooked. I attended every subsequent Monktoberfest, except the one that immediately followed an abdominal surgery and the one that immediately preceded going into labor.

And this is why I believe so strongly in the Diversity and Inclusion programs we run at our conferences. Monktoberfest was one of my primary paths into this industry. I know from personal experience that a single event can make a difference in a person’s career trajectory, and I am personally invested in building the program that can help bring more people with disparate backgrounds to our events.

I would love if other people had a chance for Monktoberfest to serve as their first exposure to the tech community. Or for people embarking upon their career to come sample the possibilities before them. Or for someone who is weary and suffering from burnout to come have a respite with some people who support them. Because the people at Monktoberfest are pretty fantastic.

Perhaps I’m biased, but I’ve been to a lot of conferences at this point and I’ve yet to encounter a group of people quite as welcoming and warm as a RedMonk crowd. In an industry that deservedly receives a lot of negative press about how it treats underrepresented groups, I think Monktoberfest (and Monki Gras and ThingMonk) stand out as an example of what the tech community could and should be.

At one point our team was evaluating Monktoberfest’s market perception, and my comment was, “We talk about the event’s talk curation and food curation and drink curation. We don’t talk about community curation (probably because it’d be weird…) but I wish we did. The group of people you’ve assembled around RedMonk is wonderful; I think the people that attend Monktoberfest are one of the conference’s strongest assets.”

So if you know someone who should be at Monktoberfest, send them our way. We’d love to get them set up with tickets and travel stipends, thanks to our sponsors DigitalOcean and MongoDB. Let’s spread the Monktoberfest magic.

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