Losing Igal

Yesterday evening, as I was wrapping up my workday, I learned that a beloved friend and peer in the Portland tech community, Igal Koshevoy, had taken his own life.

Stumptown Syndicate made the official announcement for the tech community, and Rick Turoczy has also done a great job of capturing the community sentiment about this loss on Silicon Florist.  I encourage any of my friends and peers who did not know Igal to check the comments on the Stumptown Syndicate announcement; I can’t think of any one individual in this community who has touched more people than Igal has.

The feelings that the loss of Igal has brought about for me are complex and somewhat frustrating.  I suspect I’m still in some degree of shock and denial, and it has been quite comforting to see the community reacting in an open and heartfelt way; this has really helped me scaffold my own emotional response to this tragedy when I otherwise wouldn’t be certain how to start.  I am comforted that our grief exists on a community level, and that we are sharing it with each other, and normalizing the assorted responses that come when something this heartbreaking occurs.  Please keep doing this, everyone.  Reading Twitter last night, and retweeting the sentiments about Igal that really spoke to me (most of them), was a very soothing way to start this painful process of grieving.

Grief is messy and strange and can inspire people to behave in frustrating ways, and for that and many reasons I’ve felt reticent about trying to capture my own feelings, for fear that I’m “responding incorrectly”.  But I’ve also been so comforted by others’ willingness to share their own responses that I do feel like capturing mine – at least as it looks thus far – would be helpful for this larger community grieving process, and for maturing my relationship with the public expression of grief.  So I’ll make an attempt to capture what is on my heart right now.

I met Igal sometime in late 2008, when I was making my first timid toe-dips into the Portland technical community.  I don’t actually know the precise time I formally met him, but I was attending monthly Code N Splode meetings at Cubespace and Igal was a constant fixture during these initial meetings, either in the background (as a constant fixture at Cubespace), or more actively during our CNS meetings and post-meeting ‘Splodes.

Part of why this news is so complex for me is because I started involving myself in Portland tech immediately following the darkest depressive episode in my own life.  It was summer of 2008 and everything hit so quickly: all of a sudden I was changing jobs, ending a romantic relationship that had meant the world to me, and otherwise having my life completely upended.  What I knew at that time was that I couldn’t afford to ever get that dark again, and I set out to start making positive changes in my life.  Finding support in the technical community was a huge part of this, and it’s strange to admit now how scary that once was for me.  It has felt like home for a long time at this point. Igal was one of the first people who made me feel like I was going to be okay, that I was welcome and safe and valued in this new community.  He, and the others who I got to know in those first few months, had a direct hand in helping me lift myself out of my own most disastrous bout with depression, simply by virtue of making tech community the supportive and welcoming place I so needed at that time.

It was not long after I’d gotten to know Igal that he really stepped up for me as a friend.  I was in a situation at work that turned abusive, and my manager at the time made some inflammatory comments about me in a community context.  Igal stuck up for me, and let me know what was happening so I could escalate the situation appropriately at the office.  I spent my first Open Source Bridge in the midst of this situation, and my manager was trying to keep me from enjoying the event by demanding I finish some extremely time-consuming work by the end of the conference.  Igal passed on some vim tips so I could get the work done more easily.  His support during that time was incredibly valuable; I suspect my manager would have succeeded in his efforts to alienate me from the tech community were it not for Igal.

Two years ago, when I emerged intact from another abusive supervisory relationship, I was starting to critically examine hypervigilance and other symptoms of complex PTSD as they were showing up in my working life.  I was thinking through an assortment of issues that would eventually lead me to trauma frameworks – and I’m closer now than I ever was before in being ready to talk about those things publicly.  During this time, I had a very involved email exchange with Igal relating to the concept of “safety”, and how it can shift in meaning based on many different factors, from social and cultural context to common turns of phrase to gender socialization.  He really took the time to critically engage with me despite the fact that I was more or less just dealing with post-traumatic jumpiness, and I still regularly think of those insightful and thought-provoking e-mails we shared.  He stepped up and met me where I was, even though he didn’t need to, and his efforts made moving on from a traumatic experience much easier.

Early last year, while reeling from being laid off at Gilt, Igal noticed my hair color change (from red to black) and nodded along with a sorrowful bemusement as I explained it as a statement of grief.  We discussed a meetup to vent about the ways tech had broken our hearts.

I have made some very good friends in the technical community over the years, and the community response shows that Igal has been a very good friend to so many of us, often in exactly the way we needed at the time.  There aren’t many people who are able to respond to a person feeling such regular and severe pain over their choice of profession  with consistent empathy and kindness.  Most people need to shut down to some extent.  Igal never did that to me.  He was always present with me when providing that sort of empathy and support.  The fact that he understood the myriad ways in which one’s love affair with tech and tech community can be heartbreaking has always been obvious to me because of the ways he has stepped up as a friend – but that ease in understanding was also the first thing that came to mind when I heard the news yesterday.

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There are certain people in my life who I feel an attachment to that is out of proportion to how often I see them, how emotionally close I am to them, how well I actually know them etc.. They enrich my life so much just by existing and being exactly who they are.  Since I’m such an intense person sometimes, I often keep such sentiments about these people to myself, since I don’t want to overwhelm them, freak them out, or otherwise commit some sort of boundary violation.  Symbolic value like that is a hard thing to capture in words and actions without saying or doing the wrong thing.  When people are like that for me, I feel like the best I can do is let them know that I appreciate them, as regularly as I can.  I felt this way about Igal, and appreciated him at every opportunity I got.  After getting this news, I am definitely spending some time checking in with how I show appreciation and whether or not I should modify my behavior in this realm in the future.  There are no easy answers.

Over the years, I’ve come to see Igal as a “kindred spirit”.  Others’ reflections on Igal show that he cared about this community at a level that is difficult for most people to come close to.  You could argue he “cared too much”. That’s a phrase I’m familiar with.  Every time I saw an especially unique example of that in him, it filled me with such happiness.  He regularly threw the energy of five or more people into the things that really mattered to him.  And everything in the technical community seemed to matter to him.

I remember my first “Train Porn” presentation.  Igal did many of these over the years, each time deep-diving on a topic that was of geeky interest to him, and sharing his findings with the rest of the group. “Plane Porn” and “Things That Hover” were the other two I saw over the years, and I know I missed out on many more and feel a definite sense of loss at that right now.  These presentations were an incredible mix of visual imagery, geeky trivia, and hilarious mishaps in Engineering and Design.  As an audience member, it was normal to oscillate rapidly between enthralled and laughing one’s sides sore.  I’ve never been a person who is inherently geeky about trains or planes, but during these presentations Igal always did a good job of capturing what I was missing out on and inspiring me to dig deeper.  We so often focus on engineering successes in these areas, but he took special delight in sharing the engineering failures with us, the ludicrous resort buses of the future and the plane designs that would lead to certain death.  The amount of depth and research that Igal must have done to prepare these presentations is somewhat exhausting to comprehend.  There was always more to share than time to share it, and he had a hilarious dry wit about the content.  It was the kind of humor that was incredibly reaffirming for a person who hasn’t always felt at home in the tech community – but this was so deeply geeky, and so perfect, that I always knew I was right at home.  I think I’ll miss these presentations of his the most.

This far-above-the-norm devotion to things was everywhere, though.  When we were planning the curriculum for an introductory programming workshop for women a few summers ago, Igal really did his homework in preparation for the event.  He had a strong opinion on every pre-existing Ruby on Rails curricula for new programmers that was out there at the time, and that knowledge inspired a stirring and tense debate about how to best teach, and not scare away, new programmers.  It’s strange to feel such joy at watching a group of peers and friends get into a strained and drawn-out argument like we did when planning the curricula for that workshop.  I felt that joy because that meeting was turning into such a big deal because it turned out we all cared about accomplishing the nigh impossible at that programming workshop that much.  Igal cared that much.  And seeing him pull that attitude out of others in the group, and everybody putting their hearts out like that – to make programming a more welcoming and exciting thing for newcomers – well, that’s one of those gifts that keeps me going when sticking it out as a woman in tech feels discouraging.  That’s one of those things that reminds me it’s worth it, that I’m not the only one who cares about these things so much.  I’m not even the one who cares about these things the most.

By last Spring, when I was helping out with the Open Source Bridge selection committee, I wasn’t surprised when Igal was the committee member who had the most well-formed feedback on each proposal we reviewed.  He didn’t just read these proposals and take the content seriously, he’d also research the speakers and their passions, and he’d seek out any other details that might help us find the “diamonds in the rough” presentation-wise.  I was especially in awe of this effort as a fellow committee member, because reading through that many proposals in a short period of time is exhausting and it takes a considerable amount of effort to stay engaged and positive, and to treat each proposal with the respect and enthusiasm it deserves.  It was definitely one of those experiences where he was a role model for me as a member of the tech community.  I want to throw my heart and energy into things at that level, but can’t even come close at this point in time.

I treasured these aspects of Igal because I am also a person who “cares too much”.  It’s one of those things that happens automatically when something matters; it’s not always a conscious choice to throw your heart and soul into something like that.  It is, quite frankly, a trait that I have worked very hard over the last 15 years to temper and otherwise minimize in myself.

Caring about things at a level that is out of proportion to the rest of the group can be a very isolating experience.  Even if most people appreciate it, the folks who don’t understand or find it weird can get under the skin.  It can feel very vulnerable and awkward to have your passion on display like that and not matched by anybody else.  That’s why I really value it when I see it in others, and try to let them know that, whenever I see it.  But I also know that most of the people I’ve known who care about things that much have paid some sort of personal cost for it as well.  They can’t not care, and many times it brings them great joy – but the times that it brings about pain, heartbreak and sadness are very intense and hard to weather.

When I learned about Igal’s passing yesterday, it came as a complete shock: I hadn’t known he was depressed, and I hadn’t known he was vulnerable in this way.  That said, now that I have this information it fits what I knew of him and could empathize with.  It’s interwoven into all of my recollections.  Of course he could show such perfect understanding, support and compassion when my own struggles with depression touched my interactions with the technical community.  Of course caring as intensely as he did would come with some sort of personal consequence.  So even though I was shocked by the news, it doesn’t surprise me at all in retrospect.  And I am not surprised that he couldn’t bring himself burden anybody with this terrible final decision before he made it.  It is still an incredible tragedy.

Igal is the first friend I’ve lost to suicide, and the feelings that are coming up for me are very strange and not necessarily the ones I expected.  There’s an emotional numbness that is out of proportion to the loss I am feeling and how much he meant to me.  But as a person who has had a long and complicated history with depression, I don’t find myself grappling with the “What could I have done differently” as much as others may be.  I feel bad that the last time I saw Igal – sometime last summer – I didn’t know it would be the last time I would see him.  It feels strange that it’s been that long since I saw him, but I know I have been using that period of withdrawal from the technical community for a legitimate purpose – addressing my own history with depression and trauma, and prioritizing self-care.

Earlier this year, after Aaron Swartz died, Valerie Aurora wrote a great piece that best captures my sentiments about how we respond to suicidality in others as friends, peers, community and society.  I feel like her piece captures most of my thoughts on how we can help vulnerable people in the long term.  It’s easy to turn ourselves in circles with “what ifs” with regards to the days and hours leading up to these fateful decisions, but ultimately depression is complicated and just as there’s no one thing that brings a person to that place, it’s hard to imagine that there’s one immediate thing that can be done to prevent it when a person reaches that point.  I suspect the imagining is normal and inevitable nonetheless.  We would rewrite this history if we could.

I’m in agreement with Valerie that if we want to help we need to “do things that lessen the suffering and illness that cause suicide.”  This is a systemic, society-wide effort.  For me personally, I view Igal’s passing with the same sentiment I would another tragic accident that isn’t so overtly self-inflicted.  Depression has that sort of power; a one-person “natural disaster” that somatizes so much of pain of the world around us.  The nature of this tragedy is an issue that I will need to grapple with more, but like most people with a history of depression I am reminded right now of the incredible value of self-care and keeping with the work I am already doing.

The fact remains that I have lost, and the community has lost, an incredibly special person, and regardless of the role that depression played in this, and the questions we ask after a suicide, the main thing I’m still grappling with is that Igal is gone.  I suspect it’s really going to take a lot of time to sink in; there’s so much that he did for this community that I know I took for granted and his missing presence is likely to be a lot more obvious in the coming weeks, months, and years.  All I can say right now is that I am incredibly glad to have known him and called him friend, and thankful for the positive influence he had on my life.  I’m really hoping I can figure out the right way to properly honor him without it feeling self-important or trite.

I don’t feel like a post like this even begins to capture everything I’m feeling – and I don’t think it captures it right, either.  But I figure sharing is preferable to silence in this instance.  The community’s expressions of grief have been comforting for me, and I want to contribute to that in my way.

He truly was one-of-a-kind, and I miss him and will miss him.

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The Ladycoders Project, Interviewing and Career Advice

Last fall, I attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) and had a transformative experience. Over those two days of sessions and networking, I felt like I reconnected with every aspect of myself that has existed throughout my 12 years writing code, and this had a way of healing some old career wounds in a way nothing else really has. GHC is interesting because it brings together women from all stages of the computing pipeline – academics, industry veterans and novices alike, and students – so many students.

Many of the conference’s sessions focused on career development, and rightly so. Many of the students in attendance were on the cusp of starting their careers in industry, and the conference provided some crucial guidance. Some sessions were tuned to issues female developers tend to grapple with more than male developers – Impostor Syndrome and other crises of low confidence, for instance. In one of the most personally powerful moments of the conference, the woman who was my only female teammate on a team of 30+ men in my first job out of college sat down next to me during a “Confidence Building Tricks” session. This woman has been my role model both personally and professionally in the six years since I met her, and this was the first time I’d seen her since leaving that job. At the behest of the workshop organizers, she turned to me and bragged, “I run the Internet” (and she does!) in her best Schwarzenegger voice, and I felt elated.

The final session I attended at GHC involved an informal, rotating panel of women in industry giving career advice to women just about to launch their careers. Everybody had different stories, and the hour of discussion that followed was really eye-opening. I learned that I hadn’t been the only person who’d cried during my first job interview. I learned that I wasn’t the only person to find my college’s career center training to be mostly insufficient when it came to technical interviewing, because technical interviews often reduce a person to their skills and can feel very dehumanizing when you’ve been trained to expect something entirely different. I heard about a variety of industry experiences very different from my own, and reconnected with the nervousness that is standing on the cusp of the unknown as a college graduate-to-be.

After the session, one of the college-age women pulled me aside and said she wanted more advice about interviewing, specifically technical interviews. I reiterated that she should take traditional interview training with a grain of salt, because technical interviews rely so heavily on problem-solving and proving technical skill. I recommended that she investigate the wide array of websites that post sample technical interview questions and problems to solve, and to practice working through the solutions to those problems not only on her own but out loud and with others – to get comfortable “working on the whiteboard”. I told her that the technical content in interviews varies substantially depending on the company – and even the interviewer!, and that she should expect to occasionally deal with problems that are intentionally difficult and not easy to solve. I wrapped up by telling her that it’s easy to feel discouraged and frustrated with oneself after dealing with the rigor of some technical interviews, but that’s a normal response and to not think she wasn’t cut out for this if she has a bad interview or practice session. Once you get the hang of it, I said, technical interviews can actually be a lot of fun.

One of the most difficult aspects of the Grace Hopper conference was interacting with women who approached the “gender in tech” issue from a different angle than me. Many of the goodies in the Expo Hall celebrated being a coder in the same breath as stereotypical girliness in a way that I find quite problematic. But I also saw college women who loved the problematic swag and was reminded that, a decade ago, seizing upon my girliness as part of my identity as developer was an act of rebellion.

I squirmed when women – especially industry women, and especially those on stage, in panels – made gender essentialist claims (implying that women were superior in certain skilled areas). I wished these women wouldn’t make such claims in front of a room full of students who looked to them as authorities, but I also remembered the times in my past where cheap gender essentialism helped me feel a lot better during times of low confidence.

When I explored the discomfort that surfaced while witnessing others coping with the women-in-tech issue in ways I found problematic, I saw so much of my younger, less experienced self. I empathized strongly with the coping mechanisms we all employ to make the difficult journey as a female or other minority developer. Like all coping mechanisms, some work better than others. One of the big questions I grappled with in light of this, and still grapple with, is this: being well-versed in women-in-tech issues is something that requires education and lived experience just like any other specialty. As we’re learning, we’re going to accidentally hurt people along the way. How do we correct problematic behavior when we see it, without alienating? How do we learn, and encourage participation, along all steps of our journey, and cope with the inevitable cases where someone says something that isn’t quite clueful and steps on some toes?

I’m reminded of all of this thanks to a discussion popping up in several of my social circles lately regarding the Ladycoders Project, a (now fully-funded) Kickstarter campaign and upcoming career-development seminar for women in technical careers. After learning about this project, most of the women in tech that I know were initially jazzed: we all love the idea of empowering women to succeed in an industry that doesn’t make it easy. Every female developer has a thing or two she’s learned the hard way that she would have preferred to see in a seminar like this one. Most of the initial discussion I saw was overwhelmingly enthusiastic.

It didn’t take long, though, before some folks started investigating the Ladycoders site and found some content that disturbed them. That “good” and “bad” mock interview in the Kickstarter video didn’t sit right. The seminar opens with a session called “Skin Deep”, which focuses specifically on appearance. The outline to the “Certifications and Skills” session includes a bullet point on “why you have to be qualitatively better” (presumably, than your male peers). There’s language in the Kickstarter’s FAQ which has made LGBTQ individuals – who face many of the same issues (and more!) in industry as cisgendered women – uneasy. But the session that sticks out the most (and the worst) is “Men Aren’t the Enemy”, which posits:

Men don’t deliberately keep us out; it’s our job (for now) to be easily integrated into an all-male team, nonthreatening, and hyperskilled

This statement has (rightly) made many women in industry quite angry, myself included. Geek Feminism’s Timeline of Incidents catalogs an ever-growing list of sexist events across communities. People have (and will continue to) say that these exclusionary practices aren’t a “deliberate” attempt to keep women out, but anybody who has experienced the isolating chill of exclusionary behavior understands that it is harmful, whether or not it is deliberate, and it does keep women out. (Further reading: Intent is Not Magic.) The rest of the sentence suggests a path of least resistance that relies heavily on performing stereotypical gendered behavior; I’m not the only person who detects a strong whiff of victim blaming in all of it.

Many of us who have been discussing this project feel incredibly torn here: we have serious problems with some of the content on the Ladycoders site, but we also think the project has an excellent goal. There’s a lot of good advice in the session outlines as well – in particular, I liked seeing bits about “the myth of the one-page resume” and building up a public code repository on a site like GitHub. There’s also emphasis on practicing whiteboard exercises and mock technical interviews. Since this project is just getting off the ground – the seminar hasn’t happened yet – we don’t know how the problematic stuff in the session outlines will translate to in-person education; the only information we can go from is what’s provided by the website and the Kickstarter. The problematic content inspires far more questions than answers.

Some of us are also torn because of a discussion a few weeks ago following a post called “The Dark Side of Geek Feminism”; Skud’s post summarizes the scope of the discussion quite well. We’re still grappling with some difficult questions: if our feminism really isn’t about setting rules or hoops to jump through, how do we skillfully engage with problematic content? How do we take a stance on something when we all come from different perspectives, opinions, and backgrounds? How do we call out ignorant or hurtful statements while still showing compassion? While Ladycoders doesn’t explicitly state that it’s a feminist project, its goals (to increase the participation and representation of women in industry) match those of [geek] feminists. As individuals, we all draw our lines in different places when it comes to problematic content and behavior.

I can only speak for myself here. I think the problematic content in the Ladycoders outline has the potential to do tremendous harm, and ultimately drive women away from industry by delivering misleading information. That’s my beef with it.

Circling back to Grace Hopper here for a moment, I had the same feeling when I came out of Sheryl Sandberg’s keynote address. As I’ve said before, I really have trouble with Sandberg’s “inspiring” speeches to women because she places so much emphasis on women’s ambition and hard work, as if every obstacle constructed by institutional sexism can be overcome just by working a little harder or shedding a bit more blood. As a young person it is enormously empowering to feel like what’s possible is solely within the realm of one’s imagination and willpower. And there is some truth to that. But there are also so many systems at play, and when it comes to being a minority in any field, those systems can work very strongly against us.

The problem with not acknowledging the oppressive influence of the system in one’s approach is that it can be utterly heartbreaking once the system gets in the way. If I’ve been taught that my success in industry just comes down to my agreeability, my ambition, my skillfulness in not threatening my male peers – what happens when the problems that such behavior meant to solve arise anyhow? How do I cope in that situation – do I blame myself? Do I decide I’m just not cut out for this, and quit? What information could I have received about these inevitable obstacles that could have fostered resilience?

This is what I’m worried about when I hear Sandberg speak, or read about Ladycoders encouraging me to do all the work to integrate with my all-male team. It just doesn’t match up with the reality that I’ve lived. In fact, it would require an inhuman amount of energy and the emotional fortitude of a robot. One approach does not fit all situations.

I’d like to pivot back to the advice I gave that college student back at GHC, and some general sentiments about my own experience with interviewing and otherwise getting by in industry. There’s a lot we can do as developers to better ourselves – to make ourselves better candidates for a job, and outstanding employees once we’re on the job. But the onus shouldn’t just be on us. The tech industry is very young, and there are a lot of things it’s not doing well either. I have major criticisms about the general trend of software companies hiring for a very specific set of skills and experience rather than aptitude, and being unwilling to invest significant resources in training: I firmly believe this is damaging for all parties, and allows for the continued glorification of the stereotypical hacker type who spends all of their time on code, disadvantaging developers who prefer more balance. Peter Cappelli has been writing some great pieces about the skills gap myth that tie into his book “Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It“. It encourages me to see a voice putting pressure on institutions instead of individuals for once. Needless to say, I have the same opinions about organizations with gender diversity issues: it is the organization’s job to proactively make themselves appealing to people of all identities; if the responsibility has been placed on the token person in that diverse group to point out what you’re doing wrong, you’re not doing it right. We absolutely need to work on improving ourselves as candidates and employees, but the pressure on systems and institutions to fix themselves up could be so much stronger, and that’s where my passion lies.

Personally, I love talking about interviews and general career advice. There’s a lot of things I’ve gotten right and many more I’ve gotten wrong. I’m an excellent interviewer, and getting a job has never been difficult for me. I’ve still had some interviews that I would have conducted differently if given the chance to do them again. On the job, things have been a bit more challenging for me – I’ve spent more time as a “new employee” than not, and one of the things I’ve learned is that I’m not very good at being “new”. I’m not very good at asking lots of questions in lieu of reading documentation, motivating myself to jump into a foreign code base, or warming up to a new development team. I’d like to be a more focused and organized worker, and I’d like to spend more time on skill development than I currently do. So I have plenty that I’m still working on.

I asked some other female developers about their experiences interviewing women, and learned some interesting things. I want to wrap this up by passing on some advice I think is useful and trends women-or-minority-specific, but a bit more constructive than the problematic bits in the Ladycoders outline.

  • Learn about terms like Impostor Syndrome, Stereotype Threat, and microaggressions as soon as possible. It’s normal to encounter one, if not all, of these at some point. Being able to put a name to that uncomfortable feeling will help you feel less alone in your experience, and will help you communicate your needs more precisely.
  • The most important component of a technical interview is being able to problem-solve on your feet. Try doing this with both easy and hard problems; examine the way you react when you don’t know how to solve a problem, and consider more constructive ways to engage with it. Asking for clarification or additional information is totally okay. Give as much information as possible while you’re thinking through an answer; it’s okay to say “I know this isn’t the optimal solution, but here’s the first thing that comes to mind.” Technical interviews can actually be a whole lot of fun once you get the hang of these things.
  • One of the benefits of switching jobs regularly is more frequent interview experience. If you’re looking for a new job after a few years away from interviewing, realize that you’ll probably be a bit less polished. Take some time to review potential interview questions and practice with a friend. I know some people that regularly interview between jobs even if they aren’t actually looking; this doesn’t work for everybody, but it does help the practice stay fresh.
  • Appearance and personality mean so much less during a technical interview than they do any other interview, and this can be disorienting for people who have been trained on non-technical interviews. I typically interview in jeans and a sweater (and also a nose ring and candy-colored hair – YMMV, but this hasn’t been a problem for me), and I incorporate things like my motivations and values into my narrative about my career history, technologies I’ve worked on, etc. With time, you’ll find ways to make responses to questions about past experience both informative and personally insightful.
  • Yes, women tend to express less confidence and more doubt in their abilities. I am absolutely one of those folks. At the same time, I’ve found most interviewers find it refreshing that I’m admitting what I don’t know instead of pretending that I have everything figured out, since so many other interviews can feel like trying to smoke out the candidates who are faking their expertise (an unfortunate side effect of this industry’s stereotypically hyper-masculine culture: braggadocio). I try to reframe my deficits in a positive way: “I haven’t worked with that – but I’d like to learn it,” or “That’s not in my skillset, but given my experience with x, I’m sure I’ll pick it up in no time.” There is a way to be honest about one’s limitations while avoiding self-deprecation.
  • Being personable in a technical interview is really about showing excitement and passion for a particular technical topic or field of study; figure out what you’re enthusiastic about ahead of time and feeling engaged with your interviewer will be a lot easier. When you’re researching the company you’re interviewing, what aspects of their work seem the most interesting to you?
  • Interviews are a two-way street. You are always interviewing the company, too. If they do something that doesn’t impress you, that’s important data and shouldn’t be ignored. Don’t be so fixated on your own performance that you miss warning signs. Think about what you’ve liked and didn’t like about past jobs you’ve worked, and questions you could have asked to get information about those components of the job in the interview. Sometimes your mind will go blank when an interviewer asks if you have any questions – if you know this happens to you, come with a list!
  • Curate your online presence. If you have a unique-to-the-Internet full name like me, this is a lesson you learned a long time ago – we of the unique names are really easy to find on Google (right down to the Tamagotchi haiku I wrote as a 13-year-old that wasn’t really a haiku). Make sure you have a web presence that conveys an accurate picture of who you are both as a developer and an individual. Personally, it’s important to me that my web presence is authentic and not sterile – think of how you want to present yourself to someone doing a web search on your name in a variety of career contexts (future employer, future coworker, collaborator on an open source project, peer in your local tech community, etc.), and decide what you can do to get yourself to that point. (This was a big topic at GHC and I think it’s going to become increasingly important. You can use your presence on the Internet to your advantage!)
  • Talking about past negative experiences is a tricky road, but if you avoid the issue altogether in interviews, don’t be surprised if those issues re-emerge after you get the job. This is the one I’m doing the most work with right now. I’ve been harassed and bullied on the job, so now I ask about company harassment policies in interviews; I’ve had neglectful managers and a void of performance feedback, so I ask about the frequency of performance reviews, one-on-one meetings, and the organization’s managerial philosophy. The big one that I’ve just started doing – and it scares me a lot – is being public about my priorities as a geek feminist and my interest in improving experiences for minorities in tech while I’m in an interview. I’ve realized that I’m no longer willing to work for companies that haven’t even done the most basic research on the issues facing women in tech, so if they react poorly to my disclosure, that’s important data. Yes, this has terrified me, but so far it’s led to positive results.  I’m still figuring out the right questions to ask in that department, and I’m learning as I go.

Want to read more on this topic? Here are some links that have emerged while my peers have been discussing Ladycoders and constructive career advice for tech minorities.

Feel free to keep engaging with this issue in the comments – I feel like there’s so much more to discuss here.  Note that comments will be moderated, and I generally follow the same guidelines as Geek Feminism’s comment policy.

Posted in Anecdotes, Code Culture, The Opiner | 10 Comments

When Geeks Have Empathy Problems

Over the past few days, I’ve been tipped off to an incident on the Planet Mozilla blog, an aggregator of the personal blogs of Mozilla community members. Mozillans can choose which entries make the feed and which don’t, but non-work-related content is part of the point, to reveal an insight into the actual people driving the process. This makes sense in theory, but I get that it’s a situation waiting for a bit of a “turd in the punchbowl” moment.

And so it goes. The Mozillans that I know are LGBTQ-identified. And I agree with them that a post in this aggregator, voicing opposition to the rights of LGBTQ folk to marry, is hate speech, even if that’s a more severe term than we’re used to hearing in a media climate that insists on giving airtime to “both sides of the argument” under the guise of impartiality, even if one side’s view is odious. In a couple of decades the majority of the population is going to look back on the gay marriage discussion and see opposition to it as unequivocal hate speech, not unlike the majority of us do for those who oppose interracial marriage these days. In the future I have no doubt that people who are defending the folks who are making these statements are going to feel sorry for doing so. But in the meantime they’re making fools of themselves.

I’ve seen enough of these discussions play out on the Internet, given that some guy does something wildly inappropriate at a technical conference (post sexualized content, talk in terms that make female attendees feel marginalized and invisible, sexually assault a fellow attendee, etc.) about once a month. I feel like Geek Feminism doesn’t even keep a comprehensive list of all these “incidents” anymore because they’ve become so common. The nice thing is that a lot of guys are noticing this trend too and getting equally sick of it; regardless, in almost every incident, the predictable surge of geeky individuals steps up and defends the offender in what they think are extremely logical, clever and original terms.

A clear pattern has emerged, and I feel compelled to summarize it briefly instead of ranting about it loudly to my housemate (a form of preaching to the choir that she’s kind of sick of at this point, too.)

Here goes: geeks, technical people, programmers, engineers, etc. – are highly logical individuals, and it’s totally normal to start thinking about ourselves in terms of logical systems, because the way we interact with the world on a daily basis is distinctly different from the rest of the population. I, too, often encounter communities or aspects of pop culture that are totally foreign to me as a result of my logical orientation, although I think this is an experience that isn’t unique to geeky folks; everybody runs into individuals that they just don’t “get”. But here’s the thing a lot of geeky people seem to forget as they bond more and more tightly to their identity as logical individuals: geeks are still, first and foremost, human, and as a result, will still experience human emotions on a regular basis, even if they’re interpreted through a logical filter. In my experience, geeky folks have just as many emotional responses as a non-geeky individual in any given circumstance, but the geeky folks are a lot more likely to be totally clueless about the fact that it’s actually a human emotion that’s driving what seems to them like a highly logical argument.

If someone posts something odious to a news aggregator – that makes people in marginalized groups feel hurt, unsafe, threatened, etc. (note that I omit the word “offense” – it’s abused too often to retain any useful meaning in these discussions) – and you have never been in a marginalized group, or cared deeply for someone in a marginalized group, or felt unsafe at work – then I totally understand why you’re more likely to want to defend the person saying the odious stuff. It’s called empathy. And what you’re doing when you’re defending that person is actually an act of empathy: you realize you’re far more likely to accidentally say something hurtful on a news aggregator (or other public forum) than you are to be the target of that sort of language, and if you were ever to do that, you’d want guys like yourself to be able to understand your perspective. You know what? That’s a totally reasonable, and utterly human, response, and nobody’s going to judge you for that. But it’s also completely inappropriate to share in a larger space and frame as a logical argument. It’s not. It’s empathy polluting a comment feed and for people who are used to seeing this play out over and over, that “original” argument is tired and frankly embarrassing.

Geeks who make these empathic arguments and think they’re contributing something new to the discussion look really, really foolish to those of us who get it. I’d feel sorry for them if they weren’t making me so angry by actively hurting people I care about (and often me, as a female programmer – in the case of “incidents” at tech conferences.)

Let me give an example from my own life. Over the past year I have done some really silly things that have revealed my socioeconomic, white, straight, and cissexual privilege. I have even said some things that have revealed my privilege as a person who has not suffered from domestic abuse. Since certain things aren’t in my range of experiences, it’s totally reasonable for me to be ignorant and occasionally make mistakes. But I do see it as my responsibility to learn from those mistakes when they’re pointed out, and do my best not to make them again. I have no doubt that I’m probably still doing stuff like that all the time, but that the people who I’m accidentally hurting by saying those things just don’t feel comfortable pointing it out. I know this because I can empathize with parallel situations where people have done this to me, in parts of my life where I am not so privileged.

If I did one of these things in a public forum – like on a blog, or at a conference – and it became a subject for public discussion – I, too, would have the impulse that a lot of people in these situations do, which is to defend my inherent goodness as a person. Because my emotional response when being told that I’ve messed up – by, or in front of, individuals that I’d like to think highly of me – is to try to convince them to keep thinking highly of me. Denial and defensiveness is a pretty instinctive first response. But I really try to move past that, and swallow the discomfort and shame I’m feeling, and do the right thing, which is to acknowledge the hurt I’ve caused. And honestly? A sincere acknowledgement – and taking the simple steps to amend the wrong – kills the controversy almost immediately. Unfortunately, when that happens, it doesn’t cause nearly as much attention as the trainwreck that occurs when people give in to their impulses instead and dig in their heels. Then people flock to the trainwreck, respond with empathy, don’t realize they’re responding with empathy, and the disaster grows. It’s a headache, but like most individuals sucked into these situations, I nonetheless can’t look away.

Honestly, it’s encouraging to see that geeky individuals feel such strong amounts of empathy and compassion. What saddens me is how many of them have no clue that they feel such emotions – all the time! What a great capacity for positive change and collaboration we’re completely misusing. Emotions can be incredibly powerful in tandem with logical thinking, when used mindfully.

That said, as a person who has felt some degree of threat (i.e. stereotype threat) at the workplace as a default status, but has also felt legitimately unsafe in rare contexts, it’s completely unacceptable to defend an individual who is making members of a community feel unsafe and unwelcome in that community. This is my empathy speaking up here: as a person who has felt unsafe in the workplace and in communities, I am well aware of the intense pain that these defenses are causing. It is so much worse, and so much more debilitating, than the discomfort of brief embarrassment or shame from making a mistake. Please, stop. This sort of pain keeps brilliant, capable people from doing their jobs. And if you really care about the strength of a community on its technical merits, you’ll want everybody to feel safe and welcome above all else, even if it means coping with the discomfort of feeling chagrined once in awhile.

Posted in Code Culture, The Opiner | Tagged , , , , | 28 Comments

The best-laid plans…

This is an entry that’s never going to feel appropriate to write but needs to be written before I can move on with more useful blogging topics.  I had a really hefty year-end-summary post that was in the works that is now scrapped because it is forever tainted by the present.  So it goes.

Twelve days ago I went to work and reported as usual during the usual team scrum stand-up about my work on that week’s “red hot engineer” (the first Google result on this is the best, and MAY IT ALWAYS BE) tasks, i.e. I was dealing with any production issues that came up so the rest of the team could focus on our actual sprint work. It’s a great rotating role that we had just finished sequencing through as an entire team, and it allowed us to share a layer of knowledge and responsibility in a way that kept the group engaged. As an augment to the traditional scrum team model I only have good things to say about it, and it must go by other names elsewhere if the current Google results are that silly.

Immediately following the morning’s report I had a 1:1 with a higher-level manager who had been visiting for the week. At that meeting I learned that my position had been eliminated; I was one of the dreaded 10 percent of employees who faced the chopping block.

The day before this happened I had this most amazing shadowing experience with a Customer Service agent for about 2.5 hours. This was part of a larger team effort to, as a technical team, better understand the CS team that shared an office with us, and figure out ways we could help them (and customers) with the part of the product that we managed. Very cool! I was totally wowed by the professionalism, efficiency, and smarts of the agent I was shadowing, and I was reaffirmed to see that my company really did treat their customers well. To top it off, these folks managed to handle an epic harrowing final call with an impeccable grace (I would have caved and made an embarrassment of myself, no doubt).

This same week there were also some good reconnections with New York coworkers who were in town and a lot of conversations about the year that lay ahead, our team’s values, and other discussions that are nice to have at the start of a new year. The company had downplayed the severity of layoff rumors, and my team didn’t look short for work (or overburdened with too many heads). I don’t think I could have been more forward-looking and engaged with my team, my role, and the company at the time this all happened.

Needless to say, the news came as a complete and utter surprise. I was downright optimistic, excited for the future and the work we’d take on after the amazing ups and downs we’d gone through in the past 10 months. We’d built a well-functioning team that embodied software development values I really believed in and consistently delivered a reliable end product.

I’m an experience junkie; while I hope to never become Justin from Parks and Recreation (season 2) and just be a person who “collects stories”, I knew “my first layoff” is something of an important milestone and was going to happen eventually. For that reason alone I’m coping OK; I just really wasn’t expecting such news at this time, in this context. What I learned from my own “layoff story” (and I still haven’t watched “Up In the Air” yet, but probably need to) is that I don’t really emotionally react at all to this news in the moment. I guess this isn’t a big surprise. I’ve learned that my emotional reactions are a bit of a thunderclap – happening reliably on delay from the actual event causing the response – and I have a bit of working time for my rational self to take over and do the work it needs to get out of the way first. So I got out of there and home safely before the emotional side kicked in.

Beyond that first hour I don’t think it’s fair for me to fully reflect on this experience of being laid off and being able to claim unemployment and all of those “worker drone rites of passage” that I’m getting to participate in just yet. (Several more paragraphs lay ahead for your ingestion nonetheless.) I’m still very much in the moment with this experience, and it’s evolving (emotionally) day-by-day. Right now, I’m really just sneaking in a moment of post-karaoke relative stability to reflect at as dispassionate a stance I can take at this point. I know these moments are still fleeting.

That said, I can say without a doubt that in the case of this particular layoff / transition / what-have-you, my first and most gutteral response was heartbreak. I was heartbroken because I had lost my team. Per my opening, it was a particularly good week at work for feeling smitten with my team and pumped for what we were going to do collectively in the future. That had not been an easy place, personally, to get to. After years of mostly working in isolation, that much teamwork was initially scary, and I had to grit my teeth through so much of it. I had trouble believing my (more experienced – overall and with the tech we were working with) teammates really respected me and saw me as an equal and this made me especially sensitive to occasional unconscious slights that communicated a lack of trust in my intelligence and perspective. Those slights had formed a bit of a discouraging, silencing pattern for awhile, but thanks to some hard work and great management we’d gotten past that. I could finally stop feeling like the god what’s her problem lead weight who seemed to be the only one visibly struggling in an environment that was constantly shifting, and I cannot tell you how happy it made me to finally feel safe in the assertion that I belonged. It is heartbreaking to lose that, so close to finally feeling certain in it for the very first time since we’d embarked on an agile approach.

I spent the first days after being laid off grieving. Not freaking out over money or what would come next – that will be figured out in the weeks to come – nor even much of feeling angry or resentful (not that such feelings have been absent.) I wasn’t grieving over the loss of a company I really believed in or now-forever-shelved trips to New York, but the loss of my team and the work we had ahead of us. That loss was felt deeply, only comparative to the times I have (for various reasons) lost close friends or partners. The rest of the processing of this sudden change has been downright simple in comparison, and I suppose that’s been reassuring.

There’s more to come but for now I’m still in transition: the place I worked was far from perfect, but its imperfections were either a.) interesting or b.) symptoms of a systemic issue, not a company issue, and I was by no means ready or interested in leaving or moving on to other work.  In the face of needing to look for other work, my current mindset is “how can I keep doing what I was doing (in a technical sense).” It’s the same attitude I had when buying my house, which is less than a mile away from my final rental property: “I like this neighborhood, and even if I have to move, as little else should change as possible, because I didn’t welcome this transition in the first place.” (Keen minds will point out that the transition was nonetheless for the better.) I’m guessing my interests will probably evolve a bit more than that in the coming weeks.  I have absolutely no idea what my opinion of my now-former employer will look like in a few months; that’s been a very interesting relationship to track with my other former employers.  (I have more former employers than I’d prefer at this point, but far more interesting experience than the average person 5.5 years in, so I will live with the lot I’ve drawn.)  Working with other fascinating and smart people, engaging with different exciting opportunities, etc. has not yet become a “perk” of this transition just yet, but I’m optimistic it will be.

I was a dedicated employee and customer who believed in the company and its business model and pretty much love everything I bought there (and I bought so much; far more than was really reasonable.)  I leave with a fresh pile of More Wonderful Winter Coats Than I Could Possibly Need and the world’s two best Free People cardigans, acquired with my last batch of employee credits.  The wonderfulness of the coats (and cardigans, which I wore as I burrowed in bed those first harrowing days) is not really much solace for the loss of everything else, but it’s a contrast nonetheless, and I think it maps out the complicated relationship I’m likely to have with this particular job in the future.  There are no simple answers or summaries here; I learned so much and had the most productive 10 months of my career – I loved my work and had such a thrill out of being able to see that it was impactful – I had the first truly productive technical managerial relationship of my career – I finally worked closely with a team and despite the initial and numerous growing pains I really came to love working within that team unit.  At the same time, and these were pre-existing feelings that the layoff cemented, I leave so much less confident in myself (by way of having such outstanding peers to compare to and very little positive individual feedback), legitimately worried that I cannot be successful in this industry even though it’s only for cultural reasons, seriously wondering if I should start to think ahead to a career “escape hatch” that is not software engineering for the first time ever, and more fighting mad about women-in-tech issues than I have ever been.  I suspect that it’s going to take a strong shift in focus away from this current loss and onto future opportunities before those two competing forces balance themselves out.

In the meantime I would like to extend my deepest gratitude to my personal and professional communities for really stepping up and providing me the best support I’ve ever received in light of one of these transitions, as well as the coworkers who accepted and supported me despite my stubborn feminist engineerness often overruling other engineering identi-forms as the safest and most self-protective option. My friends have been incredible and my network within the Portland tech community has never been more rewarding. I owe the Portland tech community so much and am reminded of that every day.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

About Sheryl Sandberg

I feel so conflicted about Sheryl Sandberg.

She’s speaking in the keynote at the 2011 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, which I’m happy to be attending this year.  But I already have a pretty good idea of the gist of whatever message she’ll deliver, and I suspect it’s going to get under my skin a bit.  My fellow Code-N-Sploder Christie has similar reservations, so we may be sitting together during the keynote to ease the tension a bit.

Sandberg, currently the COO of Facebook, was my first boss (up a few levels in the chain of command) out of college, as the head of Online Sales and Operations (OSO) at Google. As a figurehead for that division, she definitely made a positive impression, and her talent for management is immediately noticeable.  But as an engineer embedded in OSO, I always felt isolated and out-of-place – most of the engineers were in the Engineering division, not OSO, so few people around me spoke my language – and by the time I was on my way out, a Sandberg speech tended to amplify that lack of connection more than anything else.  But my experience at Google was unique and weird in a lot of ways (quite typical in others, as I’ve learned from other alumnae), and I left with a tremendous amount of respect for her and the company nonetheless.

I thought my disillusionment with Sandberg’s speeches was specific to that experience until I watched her TED talk on Women in Leadership when it was circulating the feeds of some of my friends early this year.   I felt a familiar unsettled feeling returning, one that has come back again and again, as the issue of women in tech appears to be Sandberg’s pet cause, reappearing in most interviews I’ve seen with her since then.  I read the New Yorker’s excellent profile of her on a flight back from New York this summer; TechCrunch has a piece on her today.  The message has been similar in all contexts: the onus is on women if they want to increase their representation in the highest tiers of business; the shared responsibility of the systems that help perpetuate these inequalities are always acknowledged, but are never the focus.  This boils my blood every time I hear it.

TechCrunch’s piece today throws it out there the most brazenly via its headline: “Sheryl Sandberg: ‘Until Women are as Ambitious as Men, They’re Not Going to Achieve as Much.”  Ironically, I read this just hours after reading part of the Catalyst study “The Myth of the Ideal Worker: Does Doing All the Right Things Really Get Women Ahead?” (short answer: not as much as you think.)

According to the Catalyst study, women are already as ambitious as men, but it’s not paying off:

We found that women were less satisfied with their careers than men, which suggests that they aren’t intentionally seeking slower career tracks. If they were, we’d expect them to be as satisfied as men with their advancement and compensation growth.

…Women were also less satisfied than men with their salary and rate of compensation growth. …This suggests that women likely were not seeking out lower-paying career tracks and, therefore, accepting of and satisfied with their lower compensation. Rather, they likely were less satisfied with their salary and compensation growth when they compared themselves to others in their field and at their level.

July’s New Yorker piece did an excellent job of covering Sandberg’s rise to the top, and while I have no doubts about her qualifications, she had so many doors opened for her thanks to her connections with mentor Lawrence Summers (former Harvard president, as well as former member of the Clinton and Obama administrations).  Now that she’s at the top, Sandberg is clearly eager to bring more women up with her – and I love that about her.  It’s really great to see a woman at the top being so open about this issue; my concern is that her messaging hurts more than it helps when it puts so much of the responsibility for changing things on ambitious women who are already stretched to their limits and not reaping the rewards.

The two key critiques of Sandberg’s messaging, nicely covered in the New Yorker piece, are that she does not give enough credit to the value of her connections (Larry Summers as a mentor) in providing opportunities that equally qualified, but less-connected women simply aren’t being offered.  She also diminishes the impact of the institutions which keep women from moving ahead, acknowledging their existence but choosing to step aside from the topic pretty quickly.  Maybe it’s a matter of not biting the hand that feeds her (since I can’t imagine Sandberg hasn’t been exposed to a ridiculous amount of sexism in her time at the top of the boys’ club, but perhaps her world has really been that extraordinarily privileged), but we’re setting women up for so much frustration and grief when we don’t acknowledge the big picture.  The Occupy Wall Street movement has also  contained elements of that frustration and grief on a broader scale: ambitious individuals (male and female) who have been told they’re in a meritocracy and have made sacrifices and followed all the rules, but to little avail. Sandberg’s overall message feels disingenuous and unrealistic, and like many of the OWSers I’m left feeling jaded.

My time at Google exposed me briefly to the world of the ultra-privileged, and I can say pretty confidently that the people at the company were just as talented and ambitious as they thought they were.  But there was a sense of entitlement (versus gratitude) among so many of them; it was such a weird bubble of elitism and privilege that didn’t acknowledge all of the institutional barriers that can keep driven people from the so-called promised land.  My brief contact with the ultra-elite continues to color my perceptions of the people who have “made it”, and there aren’t many people who really give adequate emphasis to the systemic factors that allowed them opportunities to prove themselves.

Of course, I also know that I’m probably not in Sandberg’s intended audience – I don’t want to climb to the top of the corporate ladder.  I consider myself an ambitious person in recovery, and have been since the start of my college years. I (anecdotally) suspect manypeople with the level of ambition to get to the level Sandberg’s at to have some degree of personality or other emotional disorder, as has been the case for most of the really ambitious people I’ve been close to (including myself), and the rewards for that level of ambition just don’t seem worth the health risk.  So my career goals aren’t about ascending the corporate ladder; I’m more interested in passion and making impactful change regardless of rank, and while that probably will include taking on more responsibilities at some point, maintaining a healthy balance is always going to matter more to me.  That said, I’m probably still outside of the standard deviation when it comes to ambition; I am a single woman in her late 20′s who doesn’t see starting a family as a higher priority than my career at present, and I’ve been the most ambitious person in many of my social groups (but not professional groups) for most of my life.

I understand that “It’s not your fault” is far less actionable and motivating than “You can do it,” but I really wouldn’t mind a bit more of the former from Sandberg, because she’s such an incredible woman and I think her end goal for women in leadership deserves the attention it’s getting.  I just hope her perspective will change over time: she’s an outstanding public speaker and I think she’s capable of acknowledging the wounds ambitious women have suffered under the status quo while still inspiring action. My dream Sandberg speech would provide equal parts acknowledgement / healing with motivation / calls to personal accountability, and maybe someday we’ll see it.

Posted in The Opiner | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Growth Spurts and Growing Pains

For the last month or so, I’ve been meaning to write about my professional experiences – on the job and otherwise – during my first six months as a software engineer slash platform engineer at Gilt Groupe.  It’s been an incredibly hectic six months: a whirlwind mix of glamour, stress, excitement, fear, novelty, pain, and gratitude.  From that frothy brew has come a staggering amount of technical growth, something I quite frankly don’t give myself credit for in the midst of my day-to-day frustrations.  It will be personally useful to document some of the aspects of that growth here, as a reminder of the less obvious things I’ve accomplished, on those (many) days where I’m spinning my wheels and feeling discouraged.

I meant to write so many other entries in these last six months, starting with a rundown of my impressions of the job search and a summary of the reasons why Gilt was ultimately the right choice for me.  Those quickly became distant memories as I encountered new experience after new experience on the job (and corresponding inspiration for even more blog posts).  By September, while enjoying some excellent reflective time at Burning Man, I decided the six-month mark would really be the best jumping-off point for more productive future blogging.  But I can really only allow myself a half hour at a time or so to sit down and write; when I mind-mapped the things I wanted to cover in even a “brief six-month summary”, it quickly became a monster of its own.  I’d like to be blogging more often, so let’s try a different tack and slice that six-month beast into little pieces.

* * * *

As part of my six-month reflective mind-mapping exercise, I outlined the things I really loved about my new job and the things that were problematic, and was really heartened by how quickly the few “needs improvement” bits were dwarfed by the stuff that’s really fantastic.  That’s easy to miss in the midst of day-to-day ups and downs, and the anchoring sentiment in all of my reflections.  I’m in the place I want to be; making the most of it is really up to me at this point.

At the start of this year I had a pretty good sense of where I wanted to go next career-wise, but I wasn’t sure if I could find all of that in one job; I’ve been “surprised and delighted”, to use a Gilt catch-phrase, by the ways this position has met my needs, often without any actual intervention on my part.  That’s a wide-ranging satisfaction that has often extended beyond the scope of the tech team.  It’s all been refreshingly positive, and quite a bit of fun.

Here are the core bits that I wanted from a job back when I was interviewing, and that Gilt has provided:

  • A product that I can get excited about, and can explain / promote to friends and family
  • Engineering work involving a diverse set of tools and technologies – a nice mix of proven, well-tested tech and the cutting-edge.
  • Opportunities to work more with software methodologies like scrum, pair programming, and test-driven development
  • Frequent opportunities to learn new technologies and increase mastery over those I already know
  • A say in the direction of the culture of the organization and within the external community as a representative of the organization (specifically, the Portland engineering team)
  • Smart, hard-working co-workers who hold themselves to high standards

One of the things I forget – quite often – is that my choice to stick with programming classes in my initial years as a coder was influenced by quite a bit of masochism – it hurt, but it didn’t hurt too much to quit, and it actually felt a little good in the bits where the pain let off. I’d find myself signing up for another year of classes, despite having no plans to stick with programming in the long run (I had finished two years of high school programming, and three years of university Computer Science courses, before deciding “Maybe I won’t just do this as a torturous side-hobby after all.”)  Something about the pain made the accomplishment that followed it that much more satisfying, but if you’d asked me at any random time what I thought of the experience of being a CS student, I would have unloaded quite a bit of vitriol and misery.

I need to remind myself of this omnipresent component of my relationship with programming – that dichotomy between the (majority) frustration and the (minority, but addicting) glee, accomplishment, and satisfaction – when looking at my new job.  Because I’m getting exactly what I wanted out of this job, but “exactly what I wanted” turns out to be pretty painful.  Quite frankly, that makes sense – working with a variety of technologies, many of them new, is a lot more difficult than working with the same thing every day; the software methodologies I haven’t tried are going to make me incredibly uncomfortable while they’re still unfamiliar; if my coworkers are as smart and hard-working as I want them to be, I’m going to be the slowest and least knowledgable in the room far more often than if they weren’t – but it’s easy to not see the forest for the trees in that pain, and feel discouraged.  It happens a lot, and I want to give myself a more frequent dose of perspective: growth always involves growing pains, and the last six months, for me, have been a full-fledged growth spurt.

I’m looking forward to exploring these growing pains, celebrating the ways I’ve grown and acknowledging the work that’s left.  I also think there’s some real utility to exploring this discomfort in a professional context, because I don’t see as much acknowledgement of these tricky, multifaceted transitions as I’d like.  There’s a lot of really interesting information to share.

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Open Source Bridge 2011 & Community Awry

Note: While this post includes a recap of this year’s Open Source Bridge conference, it’s also heavily about gender-in-tech issues and negative experiences I’ve had outside of the context of this conference.  I will be moderating comments as a result; see the Geek Feminism comment policy if you aren’t sure about what’s appropriate.

Open Source Bridge is one of the local gems that makes me proudest to be a Portlander in the tech industry.  The conference, created in response to OSCON’s one-year departure to San Jose back in 2009, manages to be unconventional in all of the right ways, from running on a home-brewed open source conference platform, to being entirely volunteer-run, to placing a strong emphasis on building community and a welcoming environment for all throughout the event.

When I go to Open Source Bridge, I’m expecting to leave a better and happier developer, due to:

  • Exposure to new technologies, or special insights on technologies I already know
  • A reinvigorated return to my day job after being around people who are intensely passionate about what they do
  • A strong sense of community, that I feel like an intrinsic part of, during the conference, and persisting in smaller degrees in the social media sphere (Twitter) post-conference
  • A handful of quirky, entertaining, hilarious “only in Portland” conference anecdotes.

This year was weird for me because a lot of that experience was either missing or diminished.  A big part of that was caused by being extremely distracted by events tangential to the conference – and “recovering” from said events meant that I ended up missing about half of the sessions.  It also seemed like the people I most wanted to connect with were equally distracted and tired.  I don’t think the warm fuzzies or awesome talks were missing, but this year we were ships passing by.  So while this summary is going to seem like a bit of a downer, I want to make it very clear that I don’t think it reflects on Open Source Bridge overall, bur rather some of the larger and more pervasive issues within the technical community (in Portland and beyond), finally creeping their way into a little gem of an event that has managed to avoid a lot of that nonsense in the past.

But, before getting to the heavy stuff, I want to make a note of the good things:

Things That Were Awesome at Open Source Bridge 2011

  • “Third Time’s the Charm”, and in this respect the conference organizers were really on top of their game this year.  Along with continuing strong with the things that have worked in years past (excellent website, beautiful and clear conference guide, ever-hopping conference lounge, a great balance between number of sessions, the length of sessions, and breaks, etc.), they refined things that were already pretty good for the better (all-in-one conference guide and attendee badge, clear and proactive messaging like daily conference emails, an onsite hacker lounge that was hopping all conference long) and added some fantastic new amenities (in particular, three lunches that were friendly to people with vegan and gluten-free dietary restrictions, while still being delicious for those with less restrictive diets, as well as some simple merchandising – I *love* the soccer-inspired Open Source Bridge scarf).
    Open Source Bridge scarf in blue and green over a red tutu.

    Wearing my Open Source Bridge scarf out to Tuesday night karaoke.

  • The Eliot Center is definitely the best venue for the event yet (after years one and two at the Oregon Convention Center and the Portland Art Museum, respectively).  It allowed for an intimacy that suits the conference really well, something that the large and sterile layout of the Convention Center, or the dark chasms of rooms at the Art Museum, hindered a bit.  The venue seemed a little too small at times, due to a couple talks that were surprisingly packed (I never expected such a healthy turnout for more human-focused topics like technical management and women in open source, especially given attendance at similar presentations during prior years, but both were very well-attended), and a hacker lounge that was frequently on the cusp of being a little *too* cozy.  But the intimate, well-lit and casual space that the Eliot Center provides was very well suited to the overall culture of the conference.

    View of the backs of attendees of a packed conference session.

    My view during Sumana's "Tech Management" talk - had to sit on the floor during a spot between 4-5 rows of chairs and a table. People were watching from the hall!

  • There were tons of great talks put on by women this year, many of whom I hadn’t met before.  Women in tech are so rare that I tend to see anyone who identifies as a woman in tech and also has the guts to give a presentation as a bit of a role model, and I had several more to add to my list this time around.  I also met a couple of fantastic male allies.
  • While I personally ended up in a pretty low place midway through the conference, the attendees that I reached out to once I’d had a little time to myself to recover were able to pull me out of my hole and get me engaged again – thanks in particular to the Code N Splode BoF and the Privilege / Identity unconference session (productive despite being too short and chaotic for all that needed to be discussed).  Reaching out and finding an anchor – many anchors, really – when I feel like I am drowning is not an experience I’m used to yet, but one I’m glad to be growing familiar with.
  • Attending for the first time while working for a company that I was not only happy to talk about and recruit for – but also sponsored the event – was really cool.  I helped out with arranging the Gilt-branded lanyards this year and was happy to hear that they were well-received, since choosing one lanyard style from about 30 with no prior expertise is an odd task.  Apparently organic cotton is the softest choice!

    A drawing of a kraken head in crayon and a conference badge with a black Gilt Groupe logo lanyard.

    My kraken-inspired contribution to the Crow & the Wolf Project, and my badge with its Gilt Groupe lanyard.

  • The job board was PACKED with companies that are hiring.  Very exciting to see.

    A dry erase board heavily packed with job postings.

    The job posting board in all its glory at the end of the conference.

Things That Were Less Awesome at Open Source Bridge 2011

  • I didn’t feel like the technical talks I attended really paid off this year.  I went in expecting a more nuanced discussion on an element of a technology I was already pretty familiar with, and instead got a handful of beginner-level talks.  Afterwards I read through the synopses, and although they weren’t totally misleading, my expectations hadn’t been unreasonable.  I think entry-level talks are useful, but the stuff that struck my interest this year often seemed to be pretty superficial, which meant that I left feeling like I hadn’t been exposed to anything new.  By the end of the second day, I started choosing the less technical and more human-centered talks because I knew they’d have a greater payoff than someone recapping things I mostly already knew.  (I’m not sure of a good way to fix this, either: if the synopsis looks compelling but the talk doesn’t deliver, I see that as more of an issue with the speaker than the organizers.)
  • I felt like I had fewer opportunities to make connections and network with people – something I was actually eager to do since Gilt is actively hiring for its Portland office.  I think this was due to a mix of random events, from the talks I attended leaving less room for discussion than in the past, to the events of the week making me less comfortable with meeting new people.  Since I had a far more rewarding social experience at BarCamp (located at the same venue), I’m inclined to say that it was mostly circumstance and not anything obvious that led to this lack of connection, but I still feel sorry for missing it.
  • The entire Strip Club Crawl debacle (these are just a subset of the tweets):

    A screencap of assorted #osb11 tweets related to the proposed "Strip Club Crawl".

    ... and now we have our own candidate Incident to add to the Geek Feminism archives.

    While I know this is a conference that successfully had an unconference session titled “NSFW” that included ChatRoulette (and its accompanying masturbators) last year, being able to carry those things off successfully is very difficult (and while NSFW was very funny, so was the side-splitting “Troll University”, which didn’t step into any of that territory).  Even as a Portlander who has attended strip clubs and has friends in the industry, and enjoys making inappropriate jokes in the correct environment, I don’t think that there is ever going to be an occasion where attending a strip club in conjunction with the conference is going to be appropriate.  And hearing about a lot of sex-positive people being told that they needed to be more open-minded was pretty laughable.  While I hate to think that something like “NSFW” was a one-time thing, I suspect in the future I’ll recommend that people avoid sex altogether if they’re trying to cultivate a whimsical and lighthearted culture; there are just too many other things to choose which circumvent these messes, and too many individuals who think they “get” how to do salacious topics in a nuanced way but fail (hint: 140 characters will never be enough space for nuance.)

Finally, The Tough Stuff

My Open Source Bridge week was full of conflict.  Just one of these conflicts would have been enough for me, but the grand total came to something more like four instances of conflict in two days, with more minor prickliness sprinkled in elsewhere.  To be clear: I dislike conflict, I dislike confronting people, and I don’t find “debates” to be interesting or fun.  I really enjoy discussions, in which a group of individuals are sharing their knowledge or experience to expand each-others’ awareness about a given issue, but I think debates or intellectual arguments are unpleasant and often immensely personally disrespectful (treating someone’s reality like it’s an abstract concept to be played with is incredibly dismissive).

I want to admit that some of the unpleasantness and conflict that happened this week was due to others calling me out on insulting or privileged things I’d said – both while attending the conference and in one instance a few months ago.  In both cases I felt really crappy about having done such a thing, and pretty frustrated with myself – but I also acknowledged where I’d messed up, and apologized.  I have the tendency to either get a bit obnoxious or a bit oversharish when I feel my most comfortable, and I’d rather have people call me out on my mistakes than be paranoid about saying the wrong thing and shutting myself off entirely.  But I make that exchange with the intention of always taking the person who calls me out on my mistakes seriously.  They usually have a point.  And I try to learn from those experiences.

But the meat of this is that I had two conversations – in the same 12-hour period of time – that I found pretty brutal and disappointing.  Both were with people I have known only within the last year but nonetheless expected better of, and the experience has left me a bit shaken and confused about where I go from this point.  I had to take an entire day off from the conference because I felt so floored by the whole experience, and am only moving on from that space now due to the amazing support of the women and allies also attending the conference.

I’m combining these two conversations for the sake of anonymity and because it’s easier to discuss them that way.  One resulted in me terminating the relationship entirely, but with the other one I don’t have that option (and I’m not sure if I’d want to follow through even if I did).  One was with a conference attendee, one was not.  One conversation took place via Twitter, one took place in person.  In both cases I get the impression that my male counterpart thought he was having a harmless, albeit spirited debate, while on my end the discussions were enormously distracting, on both a physical and emotional level.  They could return to their code afterwards and I still haven’t.  And I’m pissed about that.

If I were to boil down the bulk of my interlocutors’ comments, the real pain point would be this idea: “I like you just fine, and I think it’s great that you’re a woman in tech, but can you please stop talking so much about being a woman in tech?

I don’t know how to be in tech and not be female – I live in a world where the majority perspective in the tech sphere is not my own, and I’ve never been able to adopt it with any degree of confidence.  I’ve never not been aware of my presence as one of the few odd people out in any given space (except for the rare case, like Code N Splode, where that latent anxiety is able to drop a bit).  Asking someone to cut off something that is intrinsic to their identity and existence is impossible.  It is an immensely cruel thing to say.  And the worst part is that the person making the complaint is merely annoyed or inconvenienced; the person receiving the complaint is left feeling worthless.  It’s not okay.

When I’m told “Why does so much of this have to be about being a woman in tech?  Why can’t we just focus on the code?”, the last thing I am capable of doing after that is writing code.  Because I’ve just been asked to stop being myself, to somehow separate from something that is intrinsic to all that I know.  And while I’m aware that there are little bad behaviors that we all exhibit and could stand to correct, my being female is not one of them – not even close.  (Maybe if the other person agrees to unpack an equal amount of their gendered socialization in equal measure – but I don’t see that happening.)  I am just as incapable of doing away with the number of negative experiences I’ve had while I’ve been in tech (whether or not I’m a woman); I didn’t ask the people who participated in those negative experiences to treat me so poorly.  Nobody wants to be infantilized, dismissed, bullied, or abused.  So if someone tells me to stop talking about being a woman in tech, and I know nothing else, it feels an awful lot like being told to leave altogether.

And this is why women leave tech at greater rates than men at all stages of the pipeline.

Before I was more open about my experience as a woman in tech I lived in constant fear of people telling me that I was obsessed with it or making a big deal of it or otherwise trying to dismiss or diminish my points.  I had battles in my head about a way to somehow justify my experience while still meeting the impossible, unspoken needs of my peers to not challenge them on this level.  This fear kept me from connecting with people, and it left me feeling pretty crappy about myself.  Even though it was “all in my head” at the outset, this was exactly the response I started getting when I did start feeling more open about my experience, and it turns out that no amount of comeback prep ahead of time will appease a person who would prefer to discredit your experience altogether.

If your response to the issue of sexism in tech is “I haven’t seen any” or, “You’re blowing it out of proportion / being overly negative / being overly angry,” or, “You’re seeing sexism where it may not actually exist,” or, “Why can’t you just get over it already so we can get back to coding,” you don’t actually care about having women in tech.  You may think you do, but you don’t. If you can come up with a counter-argument that can’t be labeled as a Derailing for Dummies category or a silencing tactic, I’d love to hear it.  But I don’t think it’s possible.

When I started working in industry and dealt with managers who insisted they knew what was best for me as a developer, even when I was adamantly insisting otherwise, I was willing to write it off as not sexist.  But it still left me with a healthy suspicion of management, that they wouldn’t take me seriously no matter how intelligent I am or how much information I try to offer up about myself.

When I joined a team that had the best gender representation I’ve seen in a company but had all of the women doing the less “glamorous” work and occupying none of the managerial positions, I was willing to believe it was a fluke and had nothing to do with sexism.  It still left me deeply unsettled.

When I got past the neglectful and dismissive managers and moved on to the bullying and abusive managers, I was willing to admit that they were each just individual assholes, even when I’d dealt with a couple in a row.  When one of them called me a “bitch” in a public forum and likened managing me to babysitting, I was willing to say that those comments weren’t coming from a place of sexism but rather one of deep personal instability.

All of these things are experiences I’d be willing to write off as “not the result of sexism”, but listen: they’ve still made a huge portion of my time in industry an enormously negative experience, they’ve still made work and community events a place where I never feel completely safe, and they still mean that my guard is vigilantly and exhaustingly up almost all of the time.  They’re still things we should care about fixing overall as an industry, because negative interpersonal experiences like that suck for everybody, suck for business, suck for innovation, and keep anybody exposed to such experiences from being capable of being their best.  And these things all have nothing to do with writing code, but they certainly have distracted me from it, which means that although I’ve made a lot of progress in the last five years, I’m also nowhere near where I’d be if I’d had the luxury of just being able to focus on the code.

Nobody asks to be treated disrespectfully.

This last January my boss of two and a half years displayed a total change of character during what should have been a routine email conversation.  He employed verbally abusive language in a way that was incredibly similar to a manager I’d had at the same company a year and a half prior.  The emails were unsettling on their own, but having to relive the trauma of the first abusive manager made the experience outright terrifying.  When I returned to work the next week my boss revealed that the email exchange had been part of an effort to get an emotional response (of such a severity that I’d have to stay home from work) out of me.  He believed that he needed to show me that I couldn’t allow emotional outbursts to interfere with my work (as part of a role change I hadn’t discussed with him or consented to), and since I didn’t have a history of being overly emotional on the job, he had to create such a response artificially, by recreating a past trauma.

I’m willing to write off the past bad experiences I’ve had in industry as merely unpleasant.  But being lied to, and manipulated, by an employer so he could prove to himself that I was just as emotional and in need of guidance as he thought I was, despite having no prior evidence to support this theory – is sexist.  He may not have said “I need to test you emotionally because you are a woman,” but I can promise that none of the men promoted to the role he was hoping to see me in had to participate, non-consensually, in such a sadistic exercise ahead of time.

When I let my co-workers know that I no longer felt safe being in the same room as my boss, they tried to say I was being unfair because he had been only verbally abusive, not physically abusive, and “unsafe” implied physical abuse and I was therefore crossing a line and hurting my boss’ feelings.  My boss cared very deeply about not being perceived as physically threatening, and here I was, someone he’d never hit, saying that I didn’t feel safe around him.  These are the sentiments of people who do not understand what it feels like to be unsafe, who can’t comprehend the chasm between “looking bad” and being abused or violated.

As of this January I was done with being silent about my experiences, done with writing things off to mere coincidence or a string of bad luck.  I have had too many adult men with some degree of power over me, be it at work or in a business context outside of my job (for instance, a former landlord) treat me like a child after I’d interacted with them as an intelligent adult for months, if not years.  On more than one occasion, I’ve had to contact a lawyer before getting these individuals to take me seriously.  I’m done pretending that this all has been no big deal.  It has been intensely traumatic, and it’s human for me to be left with a very different approach to my career than the typical programmer as a result of it.  I have legitimate reasons to trust slowly and feel unsafe by default.  This is not a case of me needing to “get over it” or have a more optimistic outlook, this is a matter of me protecting myself.  I’ve always been passionate about issues of gender and technology, but a lot of my mouthiness about the issue in the last 6 months has had a lot more to do with self-perserverance.  I want to thrive as a developer, and I’m hyper-vigilant about making sure that anything that gets in my way is taken care of as soon as possible.

My new job has been great.  I intend to write an entry on the specifics of why it’s been such a good fit for me, but it’s safe to say: I haven’t experienced the managerial issues that I have at all of my former companies, and I hope I never do.  Even so, I’ve dealt with so much negativity up until this point that even if all of the people I deal with are awesome, I’m still highly cautious.

I discovered one of my post-traumatic triggers as a result of January’s incident a month ago, when my team undertook a managerial shift.  I had to choose a new manager, and I hadn’t actually met one of the individuals that was available to me.  Just that bit of uncertainty left me feeling like a total wreck for nearly a week.  I felt like a shell of myself.  Of course, once I met the manager in question, we got along great and had no issues to speak of, and that continues to be the case.  I expressed my issues with trust and authority and received nothing but support in return.  But I feel frustrated that my past experiences have turned every work experience, whether it’s deserved or not, into a potential minefield of threats.  Of course, that’s the impact traumatic experiences can have.  I don’t expect people to bend over backwards for me as a result of these experiences, but I do expect some effort at understanding, and just a little compassion.

Ultimately, that’s all this really is about.  I don’t really understand why so much of tech culture is so invested in being politically incorrect at the expense of compassion, kindness, and openness.  Compassion and friendliness can only help our community, and if you love the community aspect of OSB, creating a more welcoming, inclusive and compassionate environment should be the top thing on your list of priorities.  Sure, many of us are introverts, or we’re wrapped up in the minutae of our day-to-day, so being mindful of the feelings of those around us and showing some compassion is often really difficult.  I certainly fail at it quite a bit – I tend to get quite obnoxious when I’m feeling my most comfortable, and I can say things gracelessly, or in a way I don’t really mean.  But when called on these things I can show my true colors by swallowing that gut defensive response that we all have and looking at the situation with a kind heart.  (Indulging the defensive response reinforces that you really meant it – go ahead, keep digging.)  Showing compassion can be uncomfortable at times; hearing about another person’s pain is often exhausting, and we only have so much capacity for dealing with the ugliness of the world before we need to shut it out for awhile.  That’s normal.  But your brief discomfort is nothing in comparison to the pain you cause a person by dismissing their experience or asking them to be “themselves, but without that [insert minority group experience here] part.”  That hurts, distracts, and derails more than I can express, and quite frankly, I want to get back to writing code.

Here’s some additional documentation related the issues I’ve raised here – there’s an extensive library on these topics on the Interwebz, putting words and strength behind sentiments that I, and others, have had for quite awhile but haven’t been able to articulate so clearly.

Please also check out Geek Feminism and the Geek Feminism Wiki for a further drill-down on any topics that are specifically related to women in technology.

Posted in Code Culture, Conferences and Events, The Opiner | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Shaking the Dust

Back when I was a sophomore or junior in college I went to an arcade with some friends from high school during a weekend at home.  We were at one of the arcades where gamers win tickets that can be traded in for an assortment of crappy prizes, and my friends and I decided to put our entire winnings towards as many cheap bouncy rubber balls as our tickets could afford.  We came away with a paper bag full of fifty-some rubber balls and no immediate idea of what to do with them.

After driving around a bit, one of us remembered that a nearby strip mall included a suite of racquetball courts that could be rented out by the half hour, i.e. an empty closed space where we could wreak havoc.  So the four of us put in a couple dollars for one of the courts and then went wild.  We each grabbed handfuls of the balls, counted to three, and then hurled them at the walls and let physics work its magic.  It was one of those delightful youthful experiences that I’m still lucky enough to have once in awhile, and one of my favorite photos from my early college years is of my friend Jon on this night, hurling the collection of rubber balls from his cupped hands into the air.  The photo was taken right at the moment of initial trajectory; seconds later we were laughing hysterically and ducking out of the way of the sparkling plastic missiles.

Career-wise I feel like my life has been a bit like that whole scene in the racquetball court since the start of 2011.  In very early January, I figuratively threw all the rubber balls in the air, and in the months that have followed, I’ve been coping with all of those resulting trajectories, sometimes with excitement and glee, other times with foreboding and fear.  In the heat of the moment, I knew that the laws of physics would have their say and things would eventually settle back to a nice stillness (as much as life affords stillness).  So I tried to walk the line between taking advantage of the growth opportunities that these intense experiences can provide and keeping my sanity.  It ultimately meant a lot of self-care and continually being reminded that the process of figuring out my next step career-wise took greater priority over most of the things I would have liked to do with my Winter 2011.  Saying “no” was vital; I just didn’t have the capacity to fit everything in, and in the interim I needed so much more downtime than I’m used to.

I’ve been off of work since early March and the time off has been incredibly restorative and necessary.  I start with my next company next week and can honestly say I haven’t been more excited to start a job since I was fresh out of college and headed to the big G (and in this case, I’m a lot less wet behind the ears, which means my excitement is a whole lot more eager than nauseated this time around!).  As I pick everything that I had to put down back up, I’m especially happy to be returning to my technical blog.  I’ve been compiling an ever-growing list of entries to write over the past three months, but until recently, this outlet hasn’t been the appropriate place to focus my attention.  Now that the immediate crisis of the moment (“figure out your next step!”) has been addressed, I’m looking forward to picking through the queue on a more frequent basis, along with whatever new bits reveal themselves in the months to come.

A sampling of the queue:

  • Breaking Up with Perl: Lessons learned from 2.5 years with the language
  • Discoveries and anecdotes learning Ruby, revisiting Python and Java
  • Observations from my latest iteration of the technical job search; ever-evolving!
  • Adventures in Triangulation (i.e. what happens to the brain when you try to work with Ruby, Python, and Perl at the same time, or other similarly-grouped languages)
  • My (female) Friends Want to Learn to Code… wait, really?!?
  • Agile Open Northwest 2011 (how I ended up attending at the last minute, and the neural connective magic that has happened ever since)
  • Verbal Abuse in the (Technical) Workplace (this one will take some major settling time before I can really address it)
  • (related:) Workplace Disability Laws: Experiential Overview
  • Great Open Source Bridge Proposals That Could Have Been (due to time / personal limits / etc.)

And a couple that have been outstanding for a bit:

  • Sleep Disorders, Dysfunctional Sleep, and Coder Culture
  • The Fantastic Geeky Women in Warren Ellis’ FreakAngels

Add to that the mess of technical books I’m trying to juggle right now, and the continuing effort to get this blog actually looking like something a bit less out-of-the-box since my host switch last fall, and I’ve got plenty to keep me occupied technically in the coming months.  Looking forward to sharing it and heading into the next chapter of my tech career.  It’s been good so far and the opportunities ahead are abundant and rich with potential.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Devchix: Best Workplace Atmosphere and Culture

Devchix just posted a blog entry giving the group’s ideas about “the best workplace atmosphere and culture”. One of the group’s members was dealing with a “blah” workplace culture and had been given the opportunity by management to provide some feedback to make improvements.

The discussion that followed was really interesting and ended up being summarized in the aforementioned blog post – which you can find here. Much like with Code Anthem, I like to geek out on questions like these, so I was part of the discussion that led to the summary blog post and am really pleased with how well Garann tied it all together (I’m not nearly as effective at being concise).

Posted in Code Culture | Leave a comment

Quick but Important: Why Women Don’t Speak Out

You need to read this, and here’s why:

A lot of things have happened in the last month that have had common ties and with them a certain profundity.  (I also have the tendency to see epiphanies and connections between things I wouldn’t otherwise notice after going through a period of intense stress or personal change, as I have in the last week – so that may be contributing to why I see the need to post about this.)

I’ve been following Sady Doyle’s #MooreAndMe campaign from about three or four days in.  You can catch up on it pretty quickly just by Googling that hashtag.  Sady, of Tiger Beatdown fame, is very unconventional in how she writes: she’s long-winded and sassy; you can tell that she doesn’t fret too much over either of these.  I admire her on this because I used to be a lot more like that.  I’m still pretty long-winded, but I reserve most of my attitude for the public sphere, and I do think this is a shame; I cheer for Sady because it’s good to see that there is an audience for people with her long-windedness (for the sake of driving her point home harder; and she does) and fighting spirit.

You can take issue with the way Sady presented her point, no doubt.  As a person who keeps her filter at a very low setting (and I suspect most of her readers are glad she does), she’s destined to have made some mistakes along the way.  You may disagree with her tone or her choice of supporting arguments or which aspects of the argument are her “non-negotiables”, but this does need to be done in proportion to the general soundness of the point she is making: do not use language which feeds rape culture, especially if you are a public figure.  Because this language does have consequences.

(If the term “rape culture” is unfamiliar to you, I recommend Fugitivus; I’d try to link to one article, but Harriet J. is brilliant at capturing this on all fronts and I can’t choose just one.  She’s similarly long-winded but to equally potent effect.  Dig into the “most popular entries” on the right side of the page and continue further at your own benefit!)

A couple days ago Sady posted “Why I Didn’t Delete Tiger Beatdown“, a very personal response to the vitriol (including death threats and other threats of sexual and physical violence) that had been directed towards her during and in the aftermath of #MooreAndMe.  Geek Feminism re-posted parts of it as “Quick Hit: Getting Too Close to Power“, focusing on one of Sady’s key points.  But really, after the reading the whole thing, I see it as nothing less than a Grand Theory on Being a Woman with Opinions.  And I keep going back to it time and time again since reading it; my passion about sharing this entry is unequaled recently; the closest competitor was the vitriol I felt for the source material for “The Social Network” (post coming about that soon).  I’ve shared it on Facebook and Tumblr and Twitter; after remembering “Oh yeah, my blog is back up!” today, I figured it was only appropriate to share it here as well.

Because here’s the thing: Sady captures exactly why I took so long to start this blog (and why I don’t post to it with more regular frequency) in the first place, with language stronger than I felt like I could use.  Because, by virtue of setting this up, talking about ONLY tech, and identifying as a woman (i.e. allowing the content to be tied to my identity), I set myself up for harassment and abuse – all it takes is one link to the wrong person or group of people.  I increase the risk by knowing that I can’t really keep my mouth shut about cultural issues within the tech sphere, because, in all honesty, they seem to be the part of the tech picture we aren’t making a lot of progress on lately.  It’s one of our most difficult problems, no matter how anybody wants to talk it down.  But tackling this problem increases the risk for me too.

If you don’t believe it, read Sady’s post.  If you do believe it, read Sady’s post.  If what happened to AZ congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords today upsets you, read Sady’s post (because Sady has been dealing with the same thing from the left: unstable people using the risky rhetoric of public figures to justify their behavior.  And eventually it does lead to this, as countless people will be saying.)  If you have any experience with what I’ve dealt with in the workplace, and you have empathy for it, read Sady’s post.  There’s pretty much nobody who won’t gain from reading it.

A lot of my reason for upping my filter as I’ve become a working adult has been because of the threat Sady discusses.  It’s also because I want to maintain an Internet identity that doesn’t paint me as unprofessional, but I think I’d be a lot more candid if I felt safe doing it.  The truth is that I have experienced far more sexism since starting coding full-time in 2006 than I ever did during my 7 years coding in high school and college, and I have no doubt this is related to the power issues that were far less overt when I was a student.  I want to be able to speak out about these experiences because I know most men in industry want to change things and don’t know how, but I won’t be able to do so unless I feel like I have a safe space.  So I encourage everybody to educate themselves on the contributions they can make.  I’m doing the best I can, in the hopes that I can empower people after me, but every new person committed to the cause makes this easier.

Be mindful of the language you choose and make sure to keep it non-violent.  This isn’t easy; it’s something I’m always working on.  But the consequences of using violent language are too dire to not try.

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