This week, I spent 2 days at the Digital City Festival in Manchester.
I was invited to be part of the Tech Community Village, organised by Amy Newton of Inclusively Tech. This was in a room off the main concourse, and was designed to be a space where people could come, have some quiet time or go to a workshop, and find out about the various tech meet-ups that happen around Manchester.
I haven’t actually asked Amy why she invited me, but I think it’s because I am neurodiverse and have experience with mental illness, so I have a good understanding of what people need.
Wednesday morning and my workshop
When I turned up on Wednesday morning (late as usual), I was really impressed by what she’d done. There were beanbags, drinks, snacks and a really welcoming vibe. I met some of the sponsors who were there, including MJR Recruitment, Assenty, Spike 95, Agile Automations (who sponsored the super comfy beanbags) and Digital Interruption, plus community people from Infosec Hoppers, FemaleTechFounder and MancSpirit.
There were a couple of people whom I’d met after my Ministry of Test talk last month. One was Lauren from MoneySupermarket and the other was Darryl Kennedy, who is a director at Spike 95. Both of them had been incredibly lovely to me after that talk, so I was glad to see some friendly faces, even though my prosopagnosia means I don’t always recognise them. Thank God for name tags!
I got set up for my workshop while Amy and Lauren went out into the main bit of the expo to tell people to come to it. Jay Harris (who I know from an InfoSec Hoppers workshop I went to last year) went and fetched me a coffee, which I was really grateful for, not because I needed it, but because I was quite nervous about my workshop and having someone look out for me helps calm me down.
People trickled in as I got all my props and bits of wire set up. I ended up with a good crowd in the end (I was worried no-one would come), and I was lucky they were all really engaged and interested.
My workshop was called “What is neurodiversity and why should you care about it?” It’s a half-hour version of the 2-hour and half-day ones I do for companies – like a taster session. I try to get people to understand what it’s like to be neurodiverse (through various activities) and show that people like me have a lot to offer. We’re not just a problem to be managed because some consultant says your company needs to look like it cares about people.
Afterwards, people talked to me for a long time. They always do that, they like telling me about their own experience, or what they liked about the workshop or whatever. I find it really useful because it helps build the picture of what neurodiverse people experience every day, which is more than a Wikipedia list of “symptoms”.
I spoke to Chi-Chi Ekweozor who told me about FemaleTechFounder, and Ronak Halani (who asked really good questions). Rick, who runs Dot Net North was interested in me coming to give a talk. I was also very excited to meet Ben Halfpenny [LinkedIn link], because I’ve connected with him on LinkedIn. He is a neurodiverse recruiter so already knew a lot of what I was talking about (my workshop is an introductory one), but told me he’d come to give support. Which was lovely of him as I’d never met him in real life before.
Then my mum (who is a web developer) and I went to Wagamama’s for lunch and both had the hirata buns. I ate a bowl of edamame too. My mum is currently volunteering for Code Your Future, which is a charity that trains refugees in software development, and she told me a bit about that. She brought some flyers to the expo which Amy put out for her.
I went over my evaluation forms and discovered that everyone who came rated the workshop “good” or “excellent”. So I was really pleased.
Schmoozing in the afternoon
In the afternoon, I did some schmoozing and ran into the directors from Inevitable, who I’ve been working with (I can recognise Sean O’Mahoney because of his impressive beard). Their CEO, Ben Grubert, told me I’d missed his panel discussion on diversity and inclusion, which I was disappointed about. Obviously because it’s a subject close to my heart, but also because I’d seen Ben on panels before (I did a Q&A with him myself once, in fact), and he’s a very engaging speaker.
My friend Rizwana, who is a lawyer, turned up to join me in a bit of networking. She’s a legal director specialising in employment law, and significantly better at talking to people than me. I think half the expo left with her business card!
Then the two of us returned to the Tech Community Village to watch Jay Harris from Digital Interruption give a talk on cyber security and hacking. I thought it might be a bit over my head but I’ve seen Jay speak before so I wanted to give it a shot. It was really accessible and interesting – he gave real world examples of how you can stalk people online, find out all sorts of information from something as simple as a single photo or Reddit post, and how you can trick people into giving you their information.
There was a lady in front of me asking loads of really interesting questions and I realised it was Naomi Timperley of rradar, who I have been stalking on Twitter for some time. She was one of those people whom I had heard a lot of good things about but never actually met. But I didn’t get a chance to speak to her then because I had to leave.
I am a working parent and I had to go and pick up my kids from school. So I took the tram back to Didsbury, fetched the kids, and went home to make dinosaur cookies. I normally work in the evenings but all the talking had worn me out so I just read and went to bed early.
Day 2 – more flyers!
I rocked up a bit earlier on Day 2, because I didn’t have to check my bag 86 times before I left the house. (It’s so important to me to make the workshops good for the people who come, that I tend to fuss over having all my kit together).
I ran into Dan Sodergren at the door. He’s another person I’ve been stalking on Twitter, and about the only person I could recognise from their profile picture. My face blindness means I tend to recognise people mainly by their hair and… well, you can see why I could spot him. He told me about some of the panels he was chairing that day – again, that I had to miss because of my own workshop.
In the Tech Community Village, I found a stack of flyers promoting both my workshop and Jay’s, so I scooped them up and went around the expo handing them out to anyone I could find. Especially the ones who looked like they have autism, because autistics can recognise each other. We’re like the Masons.
My second workshop
I had a bit of an “oh no” moment when I said I didn’t know if anyone there was dyslexic, and 3 people put up their hands (it wasn’t a question but they obviously wanted me to know!). Dyslexia is something I’m a bit less comfortable talking about, because – unlike ADHD and autism – I don’t have it. I don’t have that first-hand experience. Having been on the receiving end of people telling me what I am like when they don’t really know, I am keen to avoid imposing that sort of attitude on others.
I think I got it right though, because several dyslexics told me my dyslexia characteristics slide was bang on, and they could relate to everything in it. I strive to get first-person accounts of what it’s actually like living with dyslexia – I got a lot of help from LinkedIn, in fact, where people have been honest and open in sharing their experience with me. And, as with the other conditions, I try to highlight the strengths of dyslexia and how valuable those skills are.
After the workshop, I spent a long time talking to some of the attendees, as Amy welcomed more visitors to the village. One of them was very open about his experience of being neurodiverse and black, which is something I was keen to learn a bit more about. Partly to ensure my work is inclusive, but also because I’m fully aware that the neurodiverse experience is different (ie worse) for people of colour, especially black men and boys. And I’m keen to learn more about it so I can explore ways of tackling their specific issues.
I got a text from my dad saying he was in town, even though I’d told him to stay at home. He invited me to lunch though, so I headed out to meet him at Yuzu in Chinatown. On my way, I ran into Gem Hill outside the library. She was on her way to the expo to do her keynote talk on mental health. I have a lot of time for Gem, and a lot of respect too. She’s using her experience with mental illness to help others, and she does it in a way which I find quite humbling.
I found Dad at Yuzu and we settled down to eat. I had the salmon don (raw salmon on rice, with miso soup and pickles) and he had the chicken katsu. He had the normal green tea and I had the houja, which is a roasted green tea. It tastes of earth and calmness. I love it.
I went over my evaluation forms over lunch and found that everyone had rated the workshop “good” or “excellent” again. I really appreciate people taking the time to give me feedback. Especially the dyslexics, because I know that filling in forms can be quite difficult for them!
I headed back to the tech village, after giving Dad stern instructions not to go near anyone, ever. He assured me he’d “be careful” then tootled off to a concert hall which was doubtlessly full of old sneezy people.
While I was standing around, pondering what to do next, a stranger suddenly rushed up and hugged and kissed me. I was quite taken aback, but I like any kind of attention, so I didn’t say anything. She told me that Amy had been telling her about me, and as she talked, I caught sight of her name tag. It was Saskia Coplans, who I had heard a great deal about but I don’t think I’d ever met her in real life before. I was really pleased, because everyone speaks so highly of her, and she seemed to like me.
I realised I needed a bit of chill time before heading back out into the fray. So I wrapped myself in a fluffy pink blanket, grabbed a brownie (they were amazing by the way), and squashed myself into a beanbag. I talked to Paul Kilty [LinkedIn link] and Jay about vitamin supplements, the Irish, and a photo of a Chinese person who wasn’t Chinese. The room was fairly busy but still quiet, as people sat around chatting. You know, I always pretend I don’t need stuff like this – a quiet space and a soft blanket – because I have spent so long acting like I’m normal, but I really do.
Refreshed, I picked up a pile of leaflets and prepared to head back out into the expo to encourage people to come to Jay’s workshop. I did a bit of schmoozing on my own behalf as well.
I went over to the boohoo stand (I was wearing one of their dresses the day before) and they said I could have my picture taken. I really struggle with this. I never talk about it, but I used to have body dysmorphic disorder and it was so serious that… well, I’m not going to go into that now. But part of my mental health recovery has been facing up to stuff, so I went to have my photo taken. The photographer (I think he was called Chris) was amazing. I told him not to make me look old or like a prat and… well, he managed it! At least, the not looking old part – he’s not a magician after all. I haven’t been sent the photo yet but I’ll share it when I get it.
Before I left, I tried to get a glimpse of Gem doing her keynote but they were running a bit late and I had to leave, so I missed it. Missing stuff I wanted to see turned out to be kind of a theme of my time at Digital City!
I headed off to pick up the kids again, this time to take them to their swimming lessons. On the tram home, I had a look at LinkedIn and found that Jay had posted a couple of pictures of me doing my workshops, with the following comment: “Rachel Morgan-Trimmer‘s neurodiversity workshop is hands down one of the best workshops I’ve ever attended (on any topic).”
Blimey, I had not expected that! What a review. I might even get it printed on a t-shirt!
I was exhausted by the evening. Talking to people I don’t know is so hard for an autistic like me, and the ADHD means I do a load of stuff then I tend to crash and burn. But wow, I was so pleased to have the Tech Community Village and all those wonderfully supportive people around both days. People to work with, collaborate with, learn from or just chat. It’s the first time I’ve been to an event like this and not felt like an imposter, or that I was alone, or that I had to wear my adult face all day.
There was a new teacher at the swimming lessons. He was trying to get my 4-year-old to swim on his back, and my kid was struggling to stay afloat, even as the teacher gently held his head in the water. But then he started to relax as the teacher leaned towards him and softly said:
“I’ve got you.”