Backlash over fake female speakers shuts down developer conference

After an event organizer, Eduards Sizovs, was accused of making up fake female speakers to attract high-profile speakers to an online developer conference called DevTernity, several of the event’s top-billed speakers promptly withdrew.

“You are charging attendees money and they might be making their purchasing decision based on the list of speakers shown to them on the conference website,” wrote former Google developer advocate Kelsey Hightower in a post on the social media platform X confirming that he can no longer participate. “This is misleading at best.”

On Monday, Sizovs confirmed that the conference, DevTernity—which sold tickets for as much as $870 a pop and anticipated 1,300 attendees—was cancelled.

The controversy arose after Gergely Orosz, the author of a popular tech newsletter called Pragmatic Engineering, first posted the allegations on X on Friday. Orosz alleged that out of three women—Kristine Howard, Julia Krisina, and Anna Boyko—scheduled to speak at DevTernity, Krisina and Boyko were fake profiles created by the event organizers to make the event look diverse in order to “successfully attract some of the most heavy-hitter men speakers in tech.”

“To spell it out why this conference generated fake women speakers,” Orosz alleges, it was “because the organizer wants big names and it probably seemed like an easy way to address their diversity concerns. Incredibly lazy.”

Howard—Amazon Web Services’ head of developer relations and the only woman still scheduled to speak at DevTernity—told Ars that the situation is “baffling,” confirming that she has not heard from Sizovs since he emailed her to verify that the event was cancelled.

Sizovs claimed that Boyko, “a demo persona from our test website version,” was added to DevTernity’s speaker list “by mistake” after two real women cancelled their conference appearances due to “reasons out of our control at the worst possible time.” He said that he “noticed the issue in October” but failed to fix it because “it was not a quick fix” and it was “better to have that demo persona while I am searching for the replacement speakers.”

Boyko’s speaker profile has since been removed from the conference website (which, as of this writing, appears to be down). According to Sizovs, Orosz intended to “cancel” him by revealing the fake profile on X rather than asking Sizovs directly about what Sizovs considered “a bug.”

“The amount of hate and lynching I keep receiving is as if I would have scammed or killed someone,” Sizovs posted on X. “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.”

That post has a community note—X’s fact-checking method—that says, “Sizovs has been shown creating fake female speaker profiles for his conferences. He is claiming one of them was a test/bug, but investigation uncovered he’s done this for multiple years with multiple fake speakers. This presented a fraudulent focus on diversity.”

Coding Unicorn suspected “sock puppet”

Orosz alleged that DevTernity’s addition of Boyko to the lineup was “not a one-off.” He posted what he said is evidence from past years of more fake speakers that were advertised at both DevTernity and other events organized by Sizovs, and 404 Media also claims that a hugely popular female tech influencer Instagram account called Coding Unicorn may have been secretly managed by Sizovs.

According to 404 Media, Coding Unicorn bills itself as the “most popular coding account on Instagram.” It’s allegedly managed by a real woman named Julia Kirsina, but 404 Media found that IP logs, a YouTube video, social media posts, and other evidence seems to suggest Sizovs controls the account.

Perhaps most glaringly obvious, coders revealed to 404 Media that “some of Kirsina’s Instagram posts are word-for-word copies of Sizovs’ LinkedIn posts, sometimes published more than a year later.” In addition, “some of the images [Kirsina] posted on Instagram show computer monitors with code that show her logged in under Sizovs’ name.” But perhaps most striking is the fact that an administrator told 404 Media that both Sizovs’ and Kirsina’s accounts were banned “multiple times” by the Lobst.ers coding forum for “sockpuppeting”—using a false identity to deceive others—in 2019 and 2020.

“At a minimum,” 404 Media concluded that Sizovs has been “heavily influencing” Coding Unicorn’s posts and seemingly had access to at least one of Kirsina’s accounts.

Kirsina was also one of the other billed 2023 female speakers who allegedly dropped out of DevTernity at the last minute.

Whether or not Kirsina is a completely fake persona remains unclear because her photos are real. But, in addition to Boyko, Orosz alleged that DevTernity also advertised fake speaker profiles for Natalie Stadler—supposedly from Coinbase—and Alina Prokhoda—supposedly from WhatsApp. Prokhoda, Orosz said, “was also fake on the JDKon website scheduled in May 2024,” which is run “by the same organizers.” (JDKon’s website also appears to be down as of this writing.)

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