2019 marked the fifth straight year of attending the famed #MSIgnite conference, once again in sunny Orlando, FL. For years, I thought that this conference was merely focused on technology announcements, learning how to use technology to solve some of the world’s most demanding problems, securing the organization’s resources from the “bad people”, and attempting to bend ears on feature requests that you seemingly only got attention on when hounding the product teams in person. I had attended the event to bring back to the business technical ideas and innovations that would help deliver business value.
I don’t admit this easily (as people close to me know well), but I could have never been more wrong about what the MSIgnite experience should truly be. Here’s my #MSIgnite 2019 story to prove why #MSIgnite is a community first event, and why Microsoft is setting the pace for being inclusive and diverse in both thoughts and experiences, while embracing one of my own personal missions in life!
One day in late May, I refreshed my Twitter feed and noticed a call to action for the opportunity to talk about Neurodiversity as a Superpower at one of the largest tech conferences in the world. The tweet was sent by the driven Dona Sarkar and Shona Bang as part of Microsoft’s commitment to a Diversity and Inclusion called #HumansofIT. I paused for a second to reflect, and moments later found myself agreeing to and signing up for something that would normally set off alarms within my brain and even cause panic…
I had never spoken before about my own neurodiversities, not even within my own family. I was diagnosed with ADHD as a child, and later in life with Anxiety (GAD). Growing up, I was told that “it was normal behavior for boys” and that “everyone has these types of issues with not being able to sit still, or focus on one thing for a while”. I had never shared this information at work or even with friends – in my mind, I had no performance/social issues, and didn’t want those managing my workload or hanging out with me to look down on me or treat my neurodiversity as a weakness. I tried many medications over the years, but I never felt that any of the medications really addressed the issues. I wanted to be me. People truly enjoyed the real me, the good and the bad. I didn’t like “medicated” me – not in the least.
Early June, I found myself and another “VolunTOLD” tribe member added to a DM group, asking for contact information to begin planning for the Neurodiversity as a Superpower session. Not even remotely sure what I had signed up for, I thought “this is my opportunity to tell MY story, in the hopes of helping others who may be struggling with similar feelings, thoughts, and experiences”. Was I wrong all this time? Was my neurodiversity really truly what made me successful in life, and really helped me to exceed all expectations? How did a kid (still “5 years old, with 35 years of experience”) from a Central Pennsylvania coal mining town get a chance to be on a stage in front of 380 people? What better way to kick the “Imposter Syndrome” to the curb than to push myself (with help from Dona and others) to expand my brand, share raw stories, and give back to the community with what I have learned over the years, right?!?
September marked the launch of my Configuring Clouds blog at https://cfgcloud.io. Initial social stories of 140 characters or less about my neurodiversities were shared, and responses from the social and work communities soon started coming in. Discussions were had between friends, newfound friends, inquisitive coworkers, and family members. 40 days of MSIgnite tips and tricks were flowing from my Twitter account on a daily basis, merely as a fun little exercise to help first timers to reduce the stresses of attending MSIgnite. Little did I know then that the time between June and a week in Orlando, FL would absolutely change my life, as well as the lives of others along the way.
Saturday night before the conference marked the first steps of a renewed beginning, starting with a quick meet and greet between fellow Azure MVPs and Azure Stack gurus Gregor Suttie, Richard Hooper, Kenny Lowe, Ben Thomas, Daniel Apps, and many others. Some awesomely good Greek food from Taverna Opa, and off to bed after studying a bit for two Microsoft certification exams (to take the pressure off of the talk the next day).
Pre-Day Conference Talk
The big day. An early trip to the Diversity and Inclusion conference room just to ease the nerves and meet a few new awesome humans. A 9:30 AM meeting with the former “Head NinjaCat” Dona Sarkar (now #PowerAddicts Advocate), the witty Jess Dodson, the elusive Brandon LeBlanc and Glenn McClellan, and the humble yet brave Paul Warren and Kristine Zwick. Grilled cheese (don’t knock it) and fruit bowls for pretty much everyone, a quick meet and greet, and into the speaker prep room to finish slides – a true whirlwind of a morning surrounded by excellent community stewards! Engaging conversations were had, immediate friendships were made (which, to be honest, is almost damn near impossible when meeting Twitter friends for the first time), and thus the humble beginnings of a “Superpowers” tribe. I had no expectations going into this day, other than to deliver information to a room filled with people who are looking to either make a difference, or learn from other’s experience on a number of subjects.
The facilities and the panel session were FANTASTIC, as were the attendees for the session! Once we began the panel discussion, anxiety was thrown out of the window, we were all supportive of each other, and had a fantastic time with a true round-table/panel discussion that allowed each of us to share our thoughts in the following approach:
- Sharing our “Superpowers” – Mine were:
- Works well under pressure
- Super inquisitive
- Sharing the “Kryptonite” tendencies, so that they are not taken advantage of:
- Overly Ambitious
- Difficult time saying “no” (used one of my favorite mantras “Not every problem is yours to fix”)
- Obsessive Perfectionist
- A call to action, or a personal mantra that has made you successful (what I call the “SMILE” technique, with the caveat that you don’t need to change, but you DO need to embrace your neurodiverse superpowers):
Overall, the panel session was well received, and there were lines of attendees wanting to talk to each of us to share stories, ask questions, and simply have a human conversation on how to embrace your superpowers to do better, and deliver a more diverse solution in both work and life in general. So very humbling, and so very powerful – I had to keep myself from not getting too emotional! Friendships made that first day led into building an even larger community of friends that all shared a similar desire to be more diverse and more inclusive in life.
A week of MSIgnite
Monday marked the start of another awesome year of tech and networking, but I promised myself that I would hit the reset button this year, and do something I normally wouldn’t do. I took every single opportunity I was given to interact with everyone I met: have real, raw, human conversations that don’t necessarily have to be about technology. What I found was that each of us really craved real human interactions, and not the “Hey, I know you’re an expert on X, so could you help me with this issue I have in my organization”. The more real conversations I had, the more people I met – not even kidding here, I got to meet awesome human after awesome human this year with most of the interactions starting at a “come with me, you need to meet this person, and this person, and this whole team of advocates”…
Some of my most favorite sessions from this year are as follows (and if you haven’t already seen or attended these, the sessions will truly help expand your brain, and help you along your career path):
- Jess Dodson: Hidden stories of the tech trenches, and how *YOU* can help
- Rob Tougher: Threddy and the dinosaurs: A software engineer’s tale about how a visit to a paint studio changed his career and life
- Ann Johnson moderated, with Scott Hanselman, Donovan Brown and guests panel: Futureproofing against bias in tech
- Ned Pyle: Accelerating your IT career (IMHO, not just IT, but ANY career)
- Paul Warren: How raising diverse children positively changed my life (and my career)
- Sonia Cuff: An introvert’s guide to the IT industry
- Dona Sarkar: Imposter Syndrome banishing spell
- Ryan Yates:
Let me just say this – I was woefully unprepared for the outpouring of support, questions, and requests for VolunTOLD responsibilities. Whether it is another speaking engagement or sharing another 40/40 set of supporting details to embrace and grow the newfound community, I’m looking simply to create awareness and continue the fire of my personal mission to empower everyone to be more diverse, inclusive, and enthusiastic in life and in the workplace. Conversations both online and in-person are becoming more natural for me, all because of a welcoming and supportive newfound “tribe of friends”.
Making lifelong friendships along the way was an added bonus this year, of which I am SO very grateful for! I was absolutely honored to be chosen by Shona Bang to represent the #HumansofIT community this year, and hope that I can do this again very soon (though I have been told that once you’re in the VolunTOLD Army, there’s no way out)! I was hopeful to have maybe one mentor coming out of MSIgnite this year, and I feel as though I walked away with at least three mentors (I feel very fortunate, and for those helping me along the way, I am forever indebted to you for your willingness to share your knowledge, experience, and willpower to do better and foster that fire within others)!
I have come back to my home base, bringing a sense of happiness that I thought I had lost, a renewed sense of excitement and promise for what this Tech Community can truly do not only in the Tech sector, but real change in the world! I can’t wait to see what the next few months and even year bring, in concert to what I can offer the community!
Key Takeaway and Conclusion
My one key takeaway from this year is to keep doing what I’m doing, in the hopes of sustaining or topping what I call “one of the best weeks of my life” next year at this time…or even sooner! If I can #DoTheThing, so can you!!!