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Tech Culture

Meet ‘Anna Boyko’: How a Fake Speaker Blew up DevTernity

A conference organizer is accused of making up women engineers scheduled to speak at his event. Now the conference is canceled. What does this say about the status of women in tech?
Nov 28th, 2023 11:24am by
Featued image for: Meet ‘Anna Boyko’: How a Fake Speaker Blew up DevTernity
Image from DevTernity.

A conference has come under fire — and eventually canceled — for publishing a speaker list that features women who don’t exist.

Thanks to some detective work from Gergely Orosz, writer of the Pragmatic Engineer newsletter, DevTernity — an online conference set to take place in early December — now finds itself enmeshed in a controversy that has drawn in a number of influential figures from software engineering.

In an X/Twitter thread that began on Friday, Orosz identified that one of the speakers — Anna Boyko, ostensibly a staff engineer at Coinbase and Ethereum contributor — did not exist. The following day, that profile had disappeared from the DevTernity website (which has now gone dark).

However, Orosz had scratched beneath the surface to find that this wasn’t just a one-off: DevTernity had used fake profiles — always of female speakers — before. Another profile of a female Coinbase engineer, accessed by Orosz using the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, featured on the speaker page of the 2022 edition of DevTernity.

That’s all strange enough, but the story took an even weirder turn when it also emerged that another profile wasn’t just fake but was, in fact, a fully-realized catfish, styled as an Instagram tech influencer called “Julia Kirsina,” working under the moniker “the Coding Unicorn.”

The Coding Unicorn has amassed an impressive 115,000 followers on Instagram in five years — the account appears to be promoting the organization running DevTernity, dev.events.

In a post on LinkedIn, Liz Fong-Jones, field CTO at Honeycomb.io, emphasized that the creation of the Coding Unicorn represented an even more egregious step beyond using fake profiles for a conference.

“If someone is dishonest with regard to conference diversity, they shouldn’t hold future conferences,” she wrote. “If a man is dishonest to the point of trying to infiltrate women in tech communities and doing the shitty trope of ‘flash skin for extra reach/views,’ they should be ejected from our industry entirely.”

Reaction from the Industry

Reaction to Orosz’s thread has been swift and the conference organizers widely condemned. Many have viewed it as an attempt to entice big-name speakers to the event that may have particular stipulations about speaker diversity before they agree to participate.

As Scott Hanselman, vice president of developer community at Microsoft (who was scheduled to speak at DevTernity) wrote on X, “speakers like myself, when invited to a conf will immediately say ‘who alls gonna be there?’ I’ve my rules for participation posted on my site — including an inclusive lineup — for years.”

Hanselman was one of many speakers who dropped out of the event.

David Heineman Hansson, creator of Ruby on Rails and founder of Basecamp, posted on X that he had withdrawn (“Never seen anything like this in decades of speaking at conferences,” he wrote), as did Daniel Terhorst-North and Ian Cooper.

Despite withdrawing from the event, their names remained listed on the speaker page — alongside “Julia Kirsina” over the weekend. They were visible on the site on Monday; however, the site was completely unavailable the following day.

The story has had an impact on other developer events. Replying to one of Orosz’s posts, Vlad Mihalcea — scheduled to speak at JDKon in May 2024 — wrote “I was supposed to talk at JDkon, but that’s not going to happen.” The website for JDKon, a Java developer event, is now also unavailable.

Organizer Addresses Allegations

The organizer who runs DevTernity and JDKon, Eduards Sizovs, addressed the allegations on X. “I’ve been deeply concerned about inclusion and diversity, and I’ve been working very hard to make DevTernity inclusive for everyone,” he wrote.

Attempting to explain the inclusion of “Anna Boyko” on the DevTernity speakers’ list, he wrote: “This year, despite our attempts, we’ve achieved a worse-than-expected level of diversity of speakers. It’s far from what we wanted to achieve, and there is a lot to improve. There have been 1000s of events chasing the same small sub-group of female speakers.”

He also noted that two speakers had dropped out — one of these was software engineer Sandi Metz, an actual person who had to drop out due to medical issues (as reported by 404 Media); the other, however, was Coding Unicorn Julia, who, he said “switched to helping with the organization [of the event].”

This meant, he went on, that DevTernity ended up with only one female speaker – Kristine  Howard, of Amazon Web Services — an actual person who has also now withdrawn, as reported by Fortune.

“So, while I was looking for a last-minute replacement, hoping I’d find it, Sandi, and Julia were still mentioned on the website.” Sizovs wrote.

He also noted that one of the profiles was “a demo persona from our test website version” that he had forgotten to amend. “The wrong conclusion has been made: we’ve done that to ‘boost diversity.’ And that’s a big and wrong ouch,” he wrote.

Hours later, he followed up with a more assertive post: “The amount of hate and lynching I keep receiving is as if I would have scammed or killed someone. But I won’t defend myself because I don’t feel guilty. I did nothing terrible that I need to apologize for. The conference has always delivered on its promise. It’s an awesome, inclusive event.”

Sizovs has been contacted by The New Stack to comment but has not yet responded.

Despite widespread condemnation, there was one source of support. Robert Martin, a software training consultant more commonly known as “Uncle Bob” (also a scheduled speaker at this year’s DevTernity) posted on X, “You know it’s cancel culture when they turn and come for you for noticing.”

‘A Whole New Low’

The widespread condemnation of Sizovs’ actions is encouraging, but the pockets of support highlight that deep-rooted resentments remain a not insignificant part of the technology industry.

“This is utterly ridiculous, duplicitous, and dispicable [sic] FAKING WOMEN SPEAKERS IS A WHOLE NEW LOW,” Layla Porter, a .NET developer advocate at VMware, wrote on X.

Sizov’s comment about “1000s of events chasing the same small sub-group of female speakers” is particularly egregious — as many pointed out, there is a wealth of female speakers that can be found with very little effort.

“I remind all tech conference organizers that there are THOUSANDS of speakers of all walks of life, genders, ages, and backgrounds,” Hanselmann wrote on X, linking to his own podcast.

This was a point made by engineer Charles Humble, a New Stack reporter and engineer who has helped organize conferences for InfoQ and Container Solutions, a cloud transformation consultancy.

“The speaker talent pool has never been wider,” Humble told The New Stack.

He added, “I can’t think of any reason why any conference should have to resort to making up female speakers other than, at best, laziness.”

Some individuals called Sizovs’ actions fraudulent, given that the organizer misled both the speakers who had agreed to contribute and people who had paid money to attend.

Others took a more wry view. Rachel Coldicutt, a researcher and civil society leader, wrote on X: “I’m actually totally fine with terrible conferences remaining terrible, and being filled with men and made-up women. Imagine a world in which no actual real women needed to be bother [sic] with tedious tech bro fests of pointlessness and we let them carry on till it all imploded.”

As far as DevTernity is concerned, it appears that has happened already.

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TNS owner Insight Partners is an investor in: Honeycomb.io.
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