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Dongle jokes and a tweet lead to firings, threats, DDoS attacks

A developer tweets her objection to jokes told at a conference, leading to the dismissal of one of the men -- and herself as well.

The man on the left was fired by his company for telling jokes that offended the woman who took this photo, who was also subsequently fired.
Adria Richards/Twitter

What started as a handful of off-color jokes by two men at a developer conference has led to cyberattacks, death threats, and the firing of two people, including the woman who originally reported the incident.

It all started Sunday at the PyCon event in Santa Clara, Calif., when Adria Richards, a developer evangelist for e-mail vendor SendGrid, overheard some jokes being told by two men seated immediately behind her at the conference, which is for people working on the Python programming language. The two allegedly made jokes about "forking" in a sexual manner and "big dongles."

Offended by the comments, Richards turned around in her seat and snapped a photo of the men, which she proceeded to tweet, with the message: "Not Cool. Jokes about forking repo's in a sexual way and big dongles. Right behind me #pycon."

In a blog post in which she details the encounter at the conference, Richards writes that she "was going to let it go... but like Popeye, I couldn't 'stands it no more' because of what happened."

Richards said that she was moved to act by a photo on the stage of a young girl who had been in the conference's Young Coders workshop, at which Richards said she volunteered.

"I realized I had to do something or she would never have the chance to learn and love programming because the ass clowns behind me would make it impossible for her to do so," she wrote in her blog.

After tweeting the photo, she sent a followup tweet that said "Can someone talk to these guys about their conduct? I'm in lightning talks, top right near stage, 10 rows back #pycon."

She notes on her blog that the conference's code of conduct states that "offensive jokes are not appropriate for PyCon."

Richards concluded her blog by saying she was taking a stand for the next generation of coders.

"Yesterday the future of programming was on the line and I made myself heard," she wrote

The man on the left side of the image was subsequently fired by PlayHaven, one of the sponsors of the conference. His dismissal was confirmed by PlayHaven CEO Andy Yang in a blog post today.

PlayHaven had an employee who was identified as making inappropriate comments at PyCon, and 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.

The other man in the photo has been identified as Alex Reid, whom Yang said was "still with the company and a valued employee."

In an apology posted to Hacker News, the man who was fired presented his side of the story.

Hi, I'm the guy who made a comment about big dongles. First of all I'd like to say I'm sorry. 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.

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

That last statement probably has the greatest resonance now for Richards; she was fired today by SendGrid, which apparently feared for its public image in the wake of the incident at the conference. The Colorado-based cloud e-mail delivery company announced the dismissal in a Facebook post:

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 has since become the target of Internet scorn. The company's Web site was inaccessible for much of the day, presumably the result of a distributed-denial-of service attack.

The hacktivist collective Anonymous claimed responsibility, saying it had "reviewed the situation and rendered judgment using their collective wisdom and experience."

Richards' own blog was also reportedly hit with a DDoS attack, and she was the target of death and rape threats on Twitter, according to VentureBeat, although those tweets seem to have been deleted.

Some that remain demand that she commit suicide, saying "@adriarichards you need to kill youself tranny what you did was wrong." Another said: "@adriarichards You give women everywhere a bad name with your whiny bullshit. I sincerely hope that you kill yourself."

Also the target of many critical comments on her blog, Richards was apparently unaware that SendGrid was abandoning her. One of her posts from yesterday says: "@SendGrid supports me."

Updated at 9:30 a.m. PT with link to additional comment from SendGrid on the incident.