When SendGrid landed itself on the wrong side of a debate about sexism in the tech industry, I was shocked.
I live in Colorado and know the folks at SendGrid. SendGrid is the anchor of Boulder’s warm-and-fuzzy startup community, one of the most successful companies to come out of incubator TechStars.
The story goes: A little over a week ago, SendGrid fired developer evangelist Adria Richards after she tweeted a photo of two men cracking sexual innuendo jokes at the PyCon conference. One of the jokers was fired and the Internet erupted in outrage, spewing vitriol at Richards and launching a DDoS attack on SendGrid.
Then SendGrid fired Richards, the woman who had complained about the sexual jokes.
By firing her, SendGrid came off as a company that wouldn’t defend a woman for speaking up against sexist behaviour.
It didn’t make sense.
SendGrid’s CEO Jim Franklin, is a Boulder icon. Boulder is an extremely liberal/progressive city and like most Boulder residents, Franklin is the furthest thing from a sexist neanderthal. His wife has a PhD in science and he’s the dad of an eight-year-old girl. He’s an advisor to many startups, and liked by everyone.
As a tech company, SendGrid has done its typical fair share for women, hiring women for key positions, and sponsoring things like the National centre for Women & Information Technology and LadyCoders Bootcamp.
There’s no way this man and this company would have fired a woman for complaining about sexist behaviour at a conference.
So I called Franklin and asked him to tell me what happened. He invited me to the SendGrid office on Friday and we had a candid conversation. While he never shared confidential information about Adria Richards, he did guide me to publicly available info that tells the real story, as he sees it.
Richards was fired because she couldn’t do the job of Developer Evangelist. She “strongly divided the same community she was supposed to unite,” the company flatly explained in a blog post.
But it wasn’t the first time she was involved in controversy, SendGrid knew.
Richards is someone who is easily offended in order to turn those offenses into big public dramas, according to tech conference organiser Amanda Blum.
Blum told the story of how Richards grew upset that the word “porn” was used in a joking manner in a conference session write-up. Richards was a speaker at the same conference. Richards used the reference to the word porn to publicaly rail against the conference organisers on her podcast and during her speaking session, Blum says.
On the other hand, Richards isn’t above making a public sexual-innuendo joke herself. On March 14, while attending the same PyCon conference where she complained about dongle jokes, she tweeted this:
@skwashd you should put something in your pants next time…like a bunch of socks inside one…large…sock.TSA agent faint
— Adria Richards (@adriarichards) March 14, 2013
Richards has every right to complain about inappropriate sexual comments at a tech conference. There is a sad sexist subculture at many tech conferences and women everywhere are getting fed up. The way to change it is to speak up.
And she couldn’t have known how this would blow up.
But SendGrid, which is a progressive open-minded company, didn’t bring this on itself either.