A Dongle Joke That Spiraled Way Out Of Control

In an age of blogs, tweets, Hacker News, Reddit and Anonymous, an off-the-cuff joke can spin wildly out of control.

At least it appears that’s what happened with PyCon this week when a sexual joke led to some very public firings, a virulent debate about women in technology, another virulent debate about public shaming, and now, a DDOS attack.

So here’s what happened:

1) While sitting in the 10th row of a Python programming conference, a developer who used to work for mobile monetization startup Playhaven apparently made a joke about “big” dongles and “forking someone’s repo.”

2) Adria Richards, a developer evangelist sitting in front of them, called them out on Twitter and in a blog post for making the conference environment unwelcoming toward women. PyCon then escorted them out to the hallway.

“Women in technology need consistant [sic] messaging from birth through retirement they are welcome, competent and valued in the industry,” she explained in a blog post.

3) Shortly afterward, Playhaven said it had fired the developer. CEO Andy Yang explained, “As a company that is dedicated to gender equality and values honorable behavior, we conducted a thorough investigation. The result of this investigation led to the unfortunate outcome of having to let this employee go.” He added that the employee wasn’t Alex Reid, who is the guy looking straight at the camera in Richards’ tweeted photo. Reid still works for Playhaven.

4) The unnamed fired employee showed up on Hacker News by the name of “mr-hank” and apologized for the joke.

I really did not mean to offend anyone and I really do regret the comment and how it made Adria feel. She had every right to report me to staff, and I defend her position. However, there is another side to this story. While I did make a big dongle joke about a fictional piece hardware that identified as male, no sexual jokes were made about forking. My friends and I had decided forking someone’s repo is a new form of flattery (the highest form being implementation) and we were excited about one of the presenters projects; a friend said “I would fork that guys repo” The sexual context was applied by Adria, and not us.

My second comment is this, Adria has an audience and is a successful person of the media. Just check out her web page linked in her twitter account, her hard work and social activism speaks for itself. With that great power and reach comes responsibility. As a result of the picture she took I was let go from my job today. Which sucks because I have 3 kids and I really liked that job.

She gave me no warning, she smiled while she snapped the pic and sealed my fate. Let this serve as a message to everyone, our actions and words, big or small, can have a serious impact.

5) After news that the developer was let go came out, Richards said on Hacker News that she didn’t intend for the developer to get fired. She then started getting some incredibly degrading criticism on her Facebook page and on Twitter. I won’t re-print it here, but you can just read the link. It’s awful.

6) PyCon is still discussing how to change its code of conduct around reporting incidents like this one.

7) Someone claiming to know plans of the hacker group Anonymous posted a note this morning saying that it had acquired SendGrid’s client list and was going to attack the company’s infrastructure if the startup didn’t fire Richards.

Adria Richards engaged in malicious conduct to destroy the another individual’s professional career due to what she perceived as an affront to her own extremist views from a comment that was not directed at her, not meant for her to hear, and certainly not for her to provide unwarranted input on. As such, she should have her professional career destroyed just like her victim in order for justice to be rendered and balance restored to the universe. The hivemind’s judgement is final and there is no appeal. No forgiveness, no forgetting remember?

8) SendGrid acknowledged that they had suffered a DDOS, or distributed denial of service, attack today.

9) And now, just hours ago, SendGrid’s Facebook and Twitter accounts plus their company blog posted that Richards has been terminated:

Effective immediately, SendGrid has terminated the employment of Adria Richards. While we generally are sensitive and confidential with respect to employee matters, the situation has taken on a public nature. We have taken action that we believe is in the overall best interests of SendGrid, its employees, and our customers. As we continue to process the vast amount of information, we will post something more comprehensive.

SendGrid’s CEO just posted the company’s rationale for firing her. Basically they disagree with how she handled responding to the joke so publicly and say that she’s no longer going to be effective in her role at the company. He didn’t say whether the company could have offered her a different role.

A SendGrid developer evangelist’s responsibility is to build and strengthen our Developer Community across the globe. In light of the events over the last 48+ hours, it has become obvious that her actions have strongly divided the same community she was supposed to unite. As a result, she can no longer be effective in her role at SendGrid.

In the end, the consequences that resulted from how she reported the conduct put our business in danger. Our commitment to our 130 employees, their families, our community members and our more than 130,000 valued customers is our primary concern.

Hold on. Wait, what? Did this even really need to happen?

Mix a single tasteless joke with the wrath of the Internet, and this is what you get.

It’s incredibly out of control. None of this had to happen. I can’t speculate about the firings, because they’re often complex decisions that factor in more than a single joke or a blog post.

But it’s important to be conscientious about off-color jokes in public or in a workplace.

Secondly, don’t publicly shame people before discussing it with them in a more direct way — whether that has to be facilitated by a third-party like PyCon or not. This is not to undermine the very real concern that the tech industry hasn’t always been that comfortable for women.

I was reading Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography this weekend (really) and he wrote: “We win justice quickest by rendering justice to the other party.”

Furthermore, as a tech journalist who has covered many conflicts between companies, going public is always the strategy of last resort. Otherwise, you risk instigating the unpredictable and fickle behavior of the Internet masses.

Then the third thing that’s sad is the lopsided nature of Internet fury, which is largely directed at Richards’ employer, not Playhaven for firing the developer. If you read the tweets and comments that are coming Adria Richards’ way, it is some of the foulest kind of hate that the web harbors. Far worse than a dongle joke.

Indeed, this firestorm is a classic example of how the distance between people on the web can sometimes make us less understanding and empathetic to each other, not more.