An organizer of an upcoming software and developer conference called DevTernity has been accused of cooking up fake women speakers featured on the event's website — AI-generated headshots and all.
It looks a lot like a horrifically misfired attempt to pad out the apparent diversity in a heavily male-dominated space, a hypothesis the event's organizer Eduards Sizovs has since forcefully denied.
The bizarre development triggered a resounding outcry, leading to high-profile engineering leaders from the likes of Microsoft and Google to bow out of the conference.
Shortly afterward, the event's organizer Eduards Sizovs confirmed in an email to Bloomberg that the entire conference had been axed.
"It looks like someone really wanted to deliberately damage the conference," he wrote. (We can't imagine who might be responsible.)
Despite being caught inventing fake speakers over several years, Sizovs has no regrets and is blaming "cancel culture" for the blowback.
In a rambling statement on X, he admitted to having "auto-generated" a woman's profile after a different speaker had dropped out.
"But I won't defend myself because I don't feel guilty," he added. "I did nothing terrible that I need to apologize for. The conference has always delivered on its promise."
Last week, software engineer and writer Gergely Orosz discovered that the conference "lists fake (invented) Coinbase & Meta engineers as speakers on 4 conferences in 2021, 2022, and 2023."
The profiles of the exclusively female speakers featured made-up names, titles, and even AI-generated headshots.
"There are maybe a dozen core Ethereum contributors in the world, and I have not heard any of them work at Coinbase," Orosz told Skift.
"I reached out to friends at Coinbase and was told she is not an employee," he added, referring to a speaker named "Anna Boyle," who was listed as a core Ethereum contributor and Coinbase staff engineer. "I researched on Ethereum and found no one."
"In tech, never have I observed fake speakers with AI-generated images and associated with publicly traded companies listed on any conference website, large or small," Orosz told Skift.
And it doesn't just end at fake conference speakers. Sizovs has also admitted to running an Instagram account that features over a thousand photos of a woman called "Julia Kirsina." On his LinkedIn, Sizovs boasts about "growing" the account.
In his X post responding to the controversy, Sizovs mentioned a "Julia" who "switched to helping with the organization."
But it's unclear if Julia is simply serving as the conference's public-facing spokesperson — or even a real person at all.
"She posts the same content he does with a time delay," engineer and workplace activist Liz Fong-Jones told Skift. "He is catfishing, using her image, as she is his female mouthpiece."
According to 404 Media, IP logs show that the account is seemingly run by Sizovs. Some of the account's captions are also word-for-word copies of Sizovs' LinkedIn posts.
"I remember being creeped out by the effort involved and choice to use Instagram glamour shots," Peter Bhat Harkins, an administrator of the invite-only Lobst.ers coding forum, told 404 Media. "It was just the one profile when I saw him and I'm kind of stunned that he's not just continued but multiplied his efforts."
In short, the evidence is pretty damning. And given Sizovs' own comments, it's not exactly far-fetched to assume he was trying to pad out the diversity of his since-cancelled conference by inventing fake speakers.
In his defiant post on X, Sizovs claimed that "despite our attempts, we've achieved a worse-than-expected level of diversity of speakers."
"There have been 1,000s of events chasing the same small sub-group of female speakers," he added.
Sizovs argued the fake female profiles were the result of a "bug" backfiring and that it wasn't done to "boost diversity."
But the damage was clearly already done.
"This whole conference debacle is so disappointing," tweeted Microsoft executive Scott Hanselman, who declined to participate in the event.
"I have my rules for participation posted on my site — including an inclusive lineup — for years," he added. "I was duped by the fake speakers also."
"This is damaging to all women in tech, even the ones that have nothing to do with the conference," Fong-Jones told Bloomberg. "Because now we’re going to get asked, even more often, all these questions about our authenticity."
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