DevTernity conference collapses amid claims women speakers were faked
Anna? Oh, she was just a demo persona, says organizer
Presenters at the DevTernity software developer conference have been told the gig, scheduled to begin December 7, has been canceled after allegations emerged that one or more fake profiles had been added to the speaker list.
The cancellation of the coding conference – designated "sold out" despite being online and not having any apparent space limitations – follows allegations that two events organized by Eduards Sizovs – DevTernity and JDKon – included fake women presenters to make the conference speaker lists appear to be more diverse than the actual lineup. He denies that's the case and any wrongdoing.
The suspected fake profiles were flagged up by Gergely Orosz, author of The Pragmatic Engineer newsletter, who raised the issue in a thread on the social media service once called Twitter and now called X.
In a post on Friday, Orosz said two women listed as speakers on Sizovs's DevTernity and JDKon conferences were invented. JDKon is due to take place in May next year; DevTernity is, as we said, now off. There are currently 20 male names on the DevTernity speaker list, including the likes of video game designer John Romero and Ruby-on-Rails creator David Heinemeier Hansson; there were four female names, and now three.
One of the suspected fake speakers is Anna Boyko, purportedly a staff engineer at Coinbase and Ethereum core contributor, who was billed to appear at DevTernity next month. Her name was removed from the site on Friday evening. "She doesn’t exist," said Orosz. "Except as a listed speaker at a prominent online conference."
Asked to confirm that no such person is employed at Coinbase, a spokesperson for the cryptocurrency exchange told The Register: "We’re not aware of any Coinbase employees speaking at the conference."
The other dubious profile, Alina Prokhoda, is said to be a Microsoft MVP and WhatsApp senior engineer. She was supposed to appear at JDKon, and her name also vanished from the event's homepage in the past few days. Meta did not immediately respond to a request to confirm no such person works for its WhatsApp subsidiary. We couldn't find a trace of her online.
Oh what a tangled web...
Meanwhile, in a LinkedIn post, Liz Fong-Jones, field CTO at Honeycomb.io, pointed out posts attributed to an influencer called Julia Kirsina, aka Julija Kirsina, who has the popular Coding Unicorn account on Instagram, pretty much mirror internet posts made by Sizovs. Kirsina was supposed to speak at DevTernity as well as JDKon, too.
"The photographs on Instagram are racy or softcore, use laptops and screens with code or tech t-shirts as props, and mix sex appeal and business," Fong-Jones, referring to Kirsina's online snaps, noted.
The Register emailed Sizovs, whose business is registered in Estonia, to comment on the allegations, and we've not yet heard back. Tickets for DevTernity were priced from $435, discounted from $635.
Robert Martin, aka Uncle Bob, who was scheduled to speak at the conference, confirmed he had been told the event had been canceled.
Martin told The Register he had seen the allegations about the fake profiles and asked Sizovs about the situation. Sizovs, he said, replied to say that the conference had been canceled because "somebody who wasn't invited was upset." Martin said he had corresponded with other invited speakers who confirmed the conference was no longer happening.
"Our industry not a very diverse industry and we've been trying to fix that," said Martin, who argued it's difficult to come up with a diverse set of presenters. "If you're going to build a diverse conference you're going to have a tough time."
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Scott Hanselman, a programmer, speaker, and teacher who works on the Web Platform Team at Microsoft, was planning to speak at the now-scrapped conference. But he withdrew when made aware of the problematic profiles "in order to make space for other qualified speakers."
"The whole thing has been hugely disappointing," he told The Register, and referred to online posts he made addressing the situation, notably one disputing the assertion that it's difficult to book diverse speakers.
"I remind all tech conference organizers that there are THOUSANDS of speakers of all walks of life, genders, ages, and backgrounds," Hanselman wrote on X. "I respectfully offer 920 here for you to invite to your conferences."
Kelsey Hightower, a software engineer and a doyen of Kubernetes and cloud engineering, said he too was pulling out as a speaker as a result of the drama, and wished to be removed from the program.
Martin, meanwhile, expressed skepticism about how the situation played out on social media, calling X/Twitter "a cesspool."
"I'm very concerned this is more of a reputation assassination than a real thing," he said, echoing observations posted online.
'I did nothing terrible that I need to apologize for'
Sizovs himself made this argument in a social post on Saturday, in which he admitted he had made "a mistake."
"The amount of hate and lynching I keep receiving is as if I would have scammed or killed someone," he complained in a tweet. "But I won't defend myself because I don't feel guilty. I did nothing terrible that I need to apologize for."
In a prior post that same day, he did defend himself, however. "The wrong conclusion has been made: we’ve done that to 'boost diversity.' And that’s a big and wrong ouch," he wrote.
The wrong conclusion has been made: we’ve done that to 'boost diversity'
Sizovs acknowledged being aware of Orosz's accusations, insisted he was "deeply concerned about inclusion and diversity," and said he was dismayed two of the three women DevTernity speakers had to drop out at the last minute.
He confirmed there was at least one fake DevTernity presenter profile, which he characterized as an oversight. That made-up profile appears to be Anna Boyko, which Sizovs said was a "demo persona" and wasn't part of any actual talks.
According to Sizovs, Julia Kirsina – the mystery one with the Instagram – was ultimately unable to speak at DevTernity because she was now said to be involved in helping organize the event. He also said Sandi Metz – a programmer and Ruby book author who is very real – had to drop out for personal reasons. And that left one of the three women: Kristine Howard, a developer relations boss at AWS who again is very real.
Despite all that, somehow Anna Boyko, one of the suspected fakes and seemingly the "demo persona," made it onto the live DevTernity homepage. According to Sizovs, it was "not a quick fix" to remove her, and that it was "better to have that demo persona while I am searching for the replacement speakers."
"The problem is that, together with Sandi and Julia, who were intended to speak, there was also a demo persona from our test website version," Sizovs wrote. "It should not be there, as it’s gotten there by mistake (it’s auto-generated, with a random title, random Twitter handle, random picture)."
He went on, promising there won't be a repeat of this PR disaster:
I fixed the code and redeployed websites as soon as I received an email from one of our speakers. It’s fixed now, and it won’t happen again. I wrote a test for it. I’ll ensure a safe and inclusive environment at the event, like it's always been. No doubt about that. I’ll increase efforts 10x to make sure that next year, if one of our ladies drops out, we have a fallback plan. I also want to say sorry to any speaker who has been confused.
Various skeptics have expressed their doubts about Sizovs's claim it was too much of a faff to remove Boyko earlier in the year when it would be just a matter of deleting a few lines of code. Indeed, it took a simple Git commit to remove Boyko and Prokhoda from the event websites by the weekend when this was all blowing up.
What's more, it's clear from the debut of Anna Boyko on January 21, 2023, in the conference's website code repo, who gained a different image two days later, that fake profiles were not a recent innovation. Fong-Jones and others said the YAML file appears to have been hand-crafted and not auto-generated as claimed.
"It's really tragic when something like this happens," said Fong-Jones in an interview with The Register.
"This just makes the struggle of women in tech so much worse." ®