Lessons Learned from Powerlifting

Years ago, I was a competitive powerlifter. No, I'm not big and burly. But you'd be surprised at how many "normal" people show up to a powerlifting meet.

Powerlifting is hard work. There's no way to cheat. Your success in the sport is determined by how many hours you spend moving iron at the gym.

I've learned a lot on the short walk from the chalk bucket to the platform. Those lessons have formed the foundation of my work ethic. 

My value system is based on 10 basic principles.

  1. Always show up.

  2. Smile, even on the bad days.

  3. Work consistently toward one goal.

  4. Appreciate slow progression.

  5. Learn from others.

  6. Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard.

  7. Setbacks are part of the journey.

  8. Ask for help when it's needed.

  9. Never, ever give up.

  10. Deeply value collaboration.

Support In; Complain Out

The #watercooler used to be a physical space. Not a slack channel. (Yes, kids, we didn’t always have LaCroix and fancy bottled water.)

And I believe the watercooler can be a healthy place for colleagues to gather and discuss ideas. Some companies even promote cross-functional teams meeting to discuss things wholly unrelated to work because those discussions can spur ideas. And the relationships formed in those moments can benefit the team — and the company — in a real way.

Great Minds Discuss Ideas; Average Minds Discuss Events; Small Minds Discuss People.

People work well with people they trust. People work well when they feel safe.

But the watercooler (which can come in many forms) can become malignant. The watercooler can turn from a place where people discuss ideas to a place where people discuss people. And that is one of my canaries for a toxic work environment.

I’ve long loved the quote, “Great Minds Discuss Ideas; Average Minds Discuss Events; Small Minds Discuss People.“ It’s often attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt but that credit is perhaps unfounded.

I’m the first to say I don’t always live up to this ideal. That’s the thing with goals and principles — you don’t always achieve them. But they do serve as a guide to redirect you when you become lost.

Humans Are Pack Animals

I’m human. I don’t like some people. And not for any good reason. I just don’t like them. And there are people with whom I have no interest in forming a longterm personal relationship. This isn’t always a reflection of them as a person. We just don’t jell. And that’s OK. The beautiful part of this diverse and thriving world is that we all have (or should have) our people.

There are also people with whom I have personal disagreements due to conflicts of principle. And this is where humans tend to get into trouble.

I have strong feelings about healthy conflict. And my natural personality (along with my childhood in DC) lends me the gift of being extraordinarily comfortable with direct conflict. I used to have a saying, “I don’t talk shit. If I say shit behind your back, it’s because I already said it right to your face.” And I lived up to that. Because the culture I was in allowed for it.

I’ve always preferred that approach — perhaps mostly because that’s simply the culture I grew up in — because I always knew where I stood with people. I knew X didn’t like me. And, well, fuck them. But more than that I was secure in the fact that no one was running around talking behind my back.

Although public confrontation is uncomfortable (painful?), it comes with a gift. You always have the chance to defend yourself. To meet the accusation. And that style of conflict, while more intense, is finite. It ends.

The Insidious Nature of Gossip

The cousin of direct conflict is indirect conflict. This typically comes in the form of gossip. And social ostracization. If you can’t (or won’t) have direct conflict with someone, the next option most people fall into is turning others against them.

And this behavior isn’t always malicious. Sometimes it’s just habit. And there are a lot of reasons those habits and patterns of behavior exist.

I can no longer always live by the rules of conflict I once did. For three reasons:

  1. Not everyone is comfortable with it. And solving conflict means meeting people where they’re at. I have learned to appreciate that not everyone is as comfortable with direct conflict as me. And I try (and sometimes succeed!) at resolving those disagreements in different ways.

  2. Some people are much better at managing public perception than me. I used to naïvely think that direct conflict and gossip were mutually exclusive. But, turns out, that’s not actually true. Some people will gossip about you for years after a direct conflict is “resolved.” Go figure.

  3. I’m a public figure. For me, public conflict has changed from my local community of people who know me and morphed into thousands of people on the internet that see a fraction of who I am. In addition, I have a platform and, because of that, my words come with extra weight. it’s easy for me to actually be punching down. I try to be cognizant of this and overcorrect for it.

I’ve talked about the danger of gossip and tribalism in tech as a community. And I ruminate on this problem a lot. Because it is a cancer on the community I want to see all of us cultivate. A community where everyone — everyone — feels safe and welcome. And perhaps that utopia is, well, just that. But you know how I feel about unattainable goals…

Gossip Is Contagious

I think the most dangerous part of gossip is it is malignant, in every sense of the word. It grows quickly and indiscriminately. And it’s incredibly difficult to destroy without also destroying healthy cells.

But more than that, it can quickly become the norm. And people at the edges of gossip can mimic the behavior because they’re under the (sometimes unconscious) perception that to belong — to be liked — they must gossip. Or choose sides.

Venting

And I also want to be careful to acknowledge that being able to vent is healthy and important. I vent. Mostly to Jessica West. She knows things. But she also knows that when I whine, I’m mostly just moaning in the moment and after a bath and a sleep — and probably too much champagne — I’ll have a plan to work through it. As my confidant, I trust that she will keep my words confidential. I trust that she knows I don’t want her to run around sharing my heated thoughts with the entire community. She consistently earns that trust and that type of relationship is absolutely priceless. I’m forever grateful for her friendship. And the friendship of so many others.

It’s OK to vent. But what’s the difference between venting and gossip? Well, that’s a tough question. And like all things in tech, it depends. But I do think there are two guardrails to help keep you (mostly) within bounds.

  1. To whom you complain.

  2. How you complain.

People Matter

I think the second guardrail is more nuanced. I want to address it. Perhaps at another time. For now, I want to focus on the people to whom you complain, vent, gossip, moan, whine.

I first heard the concept of “support in; complain out” from one of my early mentors, Karen Flood. And it always stayed with me. I’ve done my best to visually illustrate the concept below.

You more than likely exist in multiple communities or groups. Work is one of the easiest scenarios to use to consider and evaluate this concept.

I think the healthiest organizations have space and room and trust for solving interpersonal conflict directly. That conflict will be contained and resolved. But achieving that trust is a long road and most of us don’t work in those extraordinarily healthy companies.

So what I’m suggesting to you is that instead of gossiping — or accidentally falling into the habit of gossip — you choose to complain out and support in.

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Complain to managers, mentors and personal friends. Ask their advice. Seek their guidance. Vent. And trust that those words will stay with them. Support your colleagues, employees and community members. Speak positively. Recognize the good things. Celebrate successes. Build trust and rapport.

If you’re not comfortable talking to your boss (or your boss is the problem), seek out your boss’s boss. And if you don’t feel safe doing any of those, it may be time to consider another workplace. There are many of us who will gladly help connect you and make introductions.

And finally, talk about ideas. Not people. You exist in a community of some of the most brilliant humans on the planet. We are better than gossip. We are better than division. We spend a lot of energy cutting others’ down. Winning others to “our” side. What if we stopped? What if we spent that energy another way? What if we solved the hard problems. Together.

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Developer Relations: (More Than) The Art of Talking Good

Thank you to Sarah Drasner and Chloe Condon and Matty Stratton for reading this over and making sure there are only a few typos.

If you’ve come out from under your Christmas tree with a stomach full of cookies and fudge to hop on Twitter, you’ll have discovered that Developer Relations is taking some heat. Again.

Over the last few weeks, some influential members of tech have criticized developer relations — hard. Even going so far as to say it’s worthless and the role should be eliminated. Ouch.

What Is Developer Relations?

Well, great question. A lot has been written on the topic. I highly recommend Mary Thengvall’s book, The Business Value of Developer Relations. The truth is, there are a lot of definitions and the industry as a whole is still developing and figuring it out.

In my opinion, someone in developer relations serves as an advocate for the tech community within their company. And we do a lot more than go to conferences. We use the product and give feedback, we help product teams prioritize, we develop tools to help you use the product, we write tutorials, we make connections between people and departments. We write, we speak, we code, we do a little bit of everything. And we work with engineering, marketing and product departments — helping them all communicate with each other.

When I go to a conference, I’m never one to drop in, give a talk and then book it. (Unless there is a damn good reason.) Because I don’t gain anything by giving a talk and leaving. That’s self-serving and useless.

The value I get from conferences is, well, talking to you. I listen. I may not get it right every time or get to talk to each of you, but I really do listen. And I really do care. I take the stories you tell me and bring them back to my team and my company. I am a catalyst that serves to amplify your voice and, hopefully, help deliver you a better product.

That information is absolutely priceless to Microsoft, my employer. And that actually translates into money for the company. I’ll touch on this later but I do want to be absolutely clear about one thing: there is ZERO expectation that I sell you some Azure. I would quit if that ever became a measure of my success. (Because that means I’d be in sales and should be making more money.)

If I can point you to a service in Azure that actually solves your problem, awesome. But I will NEVER point you to Azure — or anything Microsoft — unless I absolutely believe it’s the best product for you.

The more valuable conversations I have with you, the better Microsoft can build out Azure. You can help us improve. Because it is still an immature product in some ways, it’s pliable. My excitement about Azure is just that — we actually want your input. And we’re acting on it.

A Bit Of A DevRel Bubble

Yes, I said it. I believe there’s a developer relations bubble. At some point in the last few years, companies woke up to this idea of developer advocacy. We can thank the API. Because developers are the ones who have to implement APIs and (usually) choose the tools to use, tech companies realized traditional sales and marketing wouldn’t work. Engineers can smell a salesperson like a shark smells blood. And they’re not having any of it.

Please don’t take this to mean I have a problem with sales and marketing. I used to work in PR and marketing. I actually believe those departments play a fundamental role in business and do a lot of the work you and I don’t really want to do. (Isn’t that crazy?! It’s like different skill sets and interests make for a good team…)

Microsoft has completely turned around their relationship with the tech community. This is a company that went from actively trying to undermine and destroy opensource communities to contributing enormous amounts of work toward opensource software. That’s quite the turnaround. One I believe in and stand behind.

Microsoft has also made quick work of hiring huge swaths of people in developer relations. My team employs dozens of engineers with a vast variety of skill sets, backgrounds, interests and styles. Not to mention personalities.

And we’re not the only team growing quickly.

Maybe there will be a contraction in the developer relations market, maybe there won’t. But I do think the industry is in its teenage years of growth. We’re discovering who we are and occasionally appear a bit acne-ridden and hormonal.

My Value-Add

I fear we’ve conflated “influence” — or, really, number of followers on twitter — with skill in developer relations. I think this is bullshit and I loathe the belief that because someone has a large number followers that they’re better or more valuable than someone who writes code all day or supports infrastructure or anything else.

We all contribute to this community. It’s just in different ways. And we need to stop arguing over the value of each contribution. This is not something that should be stack ranked because people should not be stack ranked.

The truth is I think I’m a pretty average engineer. I can write code. And I contributed to my team when I developed APIs and (macro)services full-time. But I’ll never be the most brilliant engineering mind in the room. And I think that’s all right. I actually really like it because I get to listen to and learn from all you brilliant people. It’s just not my value-add.

My contribution to the community is that I’m gifted at storytelling. I can listen to a brilliant mind talk about something obtuse and hard and distill that information into something that is palatable for the audience.

I think this is actually why I excel in the DevOps space. Because I’m able to experience a pain point with someone and put that feeling into words with clarity and confidence. I enable other people to communicate their feelings and frustrations in productive ways.

Because I’m not an expert — in anything — I serve as a bridge between people and communities. That is my value-add. That is my passion. And that is why I care about this community (and you) so deeply.

I’m Human Too

Up until earlier this year I operated under an assumption. I believed Twitter was an extension of real life. I believed others knew me. The real me. Knew my reputation. Knew my heart.

What I didn’t realize is that something had already happened. At some point prior to that moment, I stopped being a person. And I became a persona.

That is not something I chose. It is not something I would ever choose. I am real. And human. And flawed. I talk to my daughter about a growth mindset all the time. That we have to be able to screw up, own it and then fix it. That philosophy is important to me.

Fewer than 500 people have a good idea of who I am. Fewer than 50 actually know me. Fewer than 5 understand my deepest hopes and ambitions and fears and regrets.

Five people don’t follow me on Twitter. Nor do 50. Nor do 500. I now have over 10K followers.

Our emphasis on Twitter disgusts me, but that’s a different topic. My point is this — most of the people who follow me on Twitter understand a fraction of who I am. They don’t know or understand all of me. I am basically a horcrux. (Minus the murder-y bit.)

And if you’re thinking, Isn’t that inauthentic? Again, excellent question! One I have toiled over for almost a year. How can I be genuine and authentic while still retaining my reputation and ensuring I maintain my approachability?

Because the truth is there are bad actors out there. There are people who want to see me (and my team) fail. And those people can’t wait for me to screw up.

Those are the people who steal my humanity on the internet. Those are (some of) the people who make Twitter — and tech — unsafe. Those are the people who deny us our ability to be vulnerable with each other, make mistakes and then figure it out. Together.

Criticism Hurts

The people you follow on Twitter have bad days. They get frustrated. They have conflict with people. And when they type something flippantly out of an expression of their human emotion, things can get out of hand pretty quickly.

One of the things that bothers me most about tech is how many people — including “influencers” — knock each other down in extremely public ways. I want to hear from the positive voices. I want to hear who’s doing great work. Who’s struggling. Who needs love and support. Who is excited about something new. Who had a baby or got a puppy. Life is way too short to be cutting each other down, especially when our community is so small. All that does is put us back on the playground in school. It makes us bullies and we’re better than that.

Personally, this criticism of developer relations hurts. It’s my work. It’s what I do. It’s what I care about. And to have it so easily dismissed as something that’s useless or simply being a Twitter celebrity makes me sad. That’s certainly not what most of us feel is our job. And I’m going to work to better convey what I, and my team, do.

You Don’t See All The Work

A lot of the work of developer relations is done behind closed doors. No, I will never criticize Microsoft on Twitter. Mostly because if you do follow me, you know I have extremely strong feelings about public criticism and public shaming. I also won’t do that because that’s simply not being a professional.

But mostly I won’t speak poorly about Microsoft because Microsoft isn’t a single entity. It’s a collection of people. And those people also have feelings.

If I slam a product or service I don’t like on Twitter, I’m publicly making a whole lot of engineers who put lot of work into it feel like shit. And that’s not behavior I find acceptable.

If you’re an engineer, you know so much of your job is making tough choices. How can you solve this problem given your resources? What gets cut? What technical debt is acceptable? What risks are you willing to take with your availability and security?

Sometimes, with hindsight, those decisions weren’t the best. But they were made with the best intentions and there are real people behind the products we love (and hate). So no, I’m never going to publicly share which products I think need drastic improvements.

But I do work internally to carry that feedback to the teams in a humane and respectful way. In fact, I’m moving onto an internally-focused team within the Developer Relations organization at Microsoft whose mission is to help product teams maintain their momentum, improve their products and ensure design decisions are made with engineers in mind.

Incentives

There’s been some concern that those of us who work in developer relations for large companies are biased toward that company’s products or that we feel pressure by our employers to say good things about the products.

I’m still pretty new and just now digging into Azure. (I have some things I want to do around Azure as I learn it so keep an eye out.) But let me assure you, I will not be promoting something I don’t believe in. Azure is great for some problems and not for others. Like all products. There’s no one-size-fits-all in tech, nor should there be.

Much of my ability to be successful in developer relations is based on reputation. And I won’t sacrifice that for any company.  

I have also never felt any pressure from anyone in the organization to go out into the community and evangelize Microsoft. Personally, I haven’t had a deeply technical product to work with in over a year so I’m excited to dig into it. But if I wanted to go around and only talk about DevOps or engineering management and never mention Microsoft, my managers would be supportive.

Remember, my value to Microsoft is that I gather honest feedback from the community and ensure our products are built for you.

I am not a developer marketer. I am not an influencer marketer. I don’t consider myself an influencer. I hate the term thought-leader. I think of myself as someone who struggles just like you. And I believe if we stick together, we can have enormous positive impact on our community and our world. Whether you’re a developer or a developer advocate.

Stop Being Mean

The day everyone stops being mean to each other is the day I never get on another stage ever again. And yet, here we are. We’re still making ourselves feel better by cutting other people down. We’re still conflating personal problems with individuals to entire groups of people. We’re still subtweeting. We’re still gossiping. And we’re still making other people feel unsafe.

I hate it. This — THIS — is the thing that keeps me up at night. All my talks are different. But they’re also all the same. Be kind. Give grace. Learn. Be humble. Forgive.

You aren’t perfect. Neither am I. We all have bad days. But please remember that the people whom you criticize are people with feelings. And many of those people are fighting for you — whether you see it or not.

biscuits

The Freemans settled Alabama before it was a state. And I’m extremely proud of my Southern heritage. Like most Southerners, I make a lot of buttermilk biscuits. I don’t want to brag, but they’re delicious.

Ingredients

2 cups All purpose flour

1/4 tsp Baking Soda

1 Tbsp Baking Powder

1 tsp Salt

6 Tbsp Butter

1 cup Buttermilk

Preparation Steps

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

2. Combine dry ingredients into food processor.

3. Place butter in cubes in freezer to keep very cold until use.

4. Cut butter into flour until it resembles coarse meal.

5. Add buttermilk until just combined. It should be very wet. Add more buttermilk if necessary.

6. Turn dough out onto floured board.

7. Do not knead or roll. Gently pat the dough until it's 1/2" thick.

8. Fold dough 5 times and pat out until 1" thick.

9. Use round cutter to cut biscuits.

10. Place on cookie sheet next to each other.

11. Bake for 10-12 minutes until golden brown.

12. For freezing, place uncooked biscuits on cookie sheet in the freezer. Good for up to a month. To serve, heat in the oven at 450 degrees for ~20 minutes.

Growth in Fear

I didn't grow up with much. I never went hungry — my wholly unscientific litmus test of poverty — but financial security is not something I've ever experienced.

There's this moment in my memory where the scene means much less than the emotional impact. One thing I've learned is that our brains lie to us — morph memories. I was probably 14 or 15. I stood in the home of my friend, Amy. Her father was a Navy officer and tough on her. I stood in the kitchen with Amy, our friend Jill, Amy's mother and Jill's father.

We apparently couldn’t afford a hairbrush. (Laugh! This is heavy.)

We apparently couldn’t afford a hairbrush. (Laugh! This is heavy.)

I don't know what preceded the moment and I don't actually know how it played out. Sometimes, when something awful is happening, my senses dull themselves. It's as if I don't hear everything and don't see everything. Maybe our brains lie to us to protect us.

Jill's father said something. I wish I could relay the words to you now. But the implication was clear. Because I was poor, I was nothing.

I had known I was poor for many years prior to that. Children are much more adept than we give them credit. And it's hard to describe the shame you feel when you don't have money.

Especially for children, I think, because there's nothing you can really do. You're a victim of your parents' misfortune. And there's a conflict in your mind. You love them. But is it their fault you're poor?

I can't answer that question, but I can tell you this. That moment, in Amy's kitchen. The look of horror on Amy's mother's face. The feeling of my heart plummeting into my stomach. The realization that I was less than. That moment will stay with me forever.

The truth is I had a lot more than most. While we came close to homelessness, family loans kept a roof over our head. While we bankrupted, my father was able to find a job. While the car we drove was old and didn't have heat and shook like a cheap motel bed, we had a car. While food was limited, we didn't go hungry.

Anyone who's grown up without financial security knows what an impact it has on you. It's like a brand, forever imprinted on your soul. It's a hard thing to shake. Even if you have money later in life. Because the fear, the knowledge of what life is like in that situation sits on your shoulder, quietly reminding you how close we all are to the streets. Simply buying groceries without adding up the total before you get to the register is a privilege.

Assumptions

I think we all assume things we shouldn't. (Myself included. I'm no less guilty of this than anyone else.) We attempt to compare experiences — which is impossible. How do you compare hardship and pain? There's no universal measure. And this is not the oppression olympics.

I think we all owe each other a lot more grace than we give. And yet tech is small. There is gossip and cliques. How do we balance the human need to be heard and understood with our deep desire to fortify the lines between our tribes?

A Culture of Vulnerability

I've been thinking about this for some time. If you've been paying attention, you'll have noticed some of this has seeped into various talks I've given. I think if we're going to build a culture of acceptance and safety and trust, we have to build a culture of vulnerability. A safe environment where we don't have to be anything but our best selves.

And your best self varies greatly day-to-day, right? Some days my best self is more or less a titan of impossible feats. Other days I can barely manage to check email. We are not the machines we work on. We are human and broken and flawed and yet... beautiful.

I think trust is a lot like that bridge in Indiana Jones. Only the penitent man shall pass. You have to show vulnerability to receive it.

When I first mentioned this idea to James Turnbull, he offered wise counsel. How could people be comfortable sharing without recrimination? And how do you build that culture? He commented that the person first showing the vulnerability takes a huge personal and professional risk.

The Hard Truth

James is right. I wish he wasn't. But he is.

How many of us suffer from anxiety or depression and hide it? How many of us have been at the bottom of a Twitter dogpile? How many of us are scared to be our whole selves because it doesn't fit some standard prescribed by society or our small world of tech?

I guess what I've realized is that if I want this culture of vulnerability, I have to go first. And this is my attempt to be vulnerable with you. To share the parts of my story that have been obfuscated by different narratives.

Why I'm in Tech

I get this question a lot, because I have an odd background. I did not play video games in utero. I did not build a server farm from my parents' garage at 8. I did not teach myself Fortran at 15. And my story doesn't take away from those of you whose stories are classically associated with computer science. None of our stories are better or worse than the next. It's additive. Life, in many ways, is a write-only database.

I wanted one thing as a child, and that was to be president of these United States. I know, I was a simple girl with small dreams.

My mother took this photo in the Museum of Natural History for the Washington Post.

My mother took this photo in the Museum of Natural History for the Washington Post.

My hero and me.

My hero and me.

Growing up in DC infects you with a passion for politics and a deep belief in the steady effectiveness of bureaucracy. I've loved politics for as long as I've been breathing and had zero intention of doing anything with computers other than play the occasional game and chat with friends on AIM.

College

I've always been ambitious, but I worked hard in college because I had no choice. There was no money. I took out loans. I worked multiple jobs (thank you Old Navy and UCF). I did as much as I could to position myself to succeed. But, as anyone with a humanities degree will tell you, life isn't friendly to those of us who love history and words and people.

I met my (now ex-) husband at school. We were RAs in the same community. I hadn't dated much as a teenager but I always said I would marry the smartest man I met. And I did just that. He was brilliant and funny. I fell in love.

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Job Hunting In The Recession

I graduated school straight into the recession, and — much to my dismay — no one gave a shit I wrote a thesis on Iran's nuclear program.

Luckily, I had taken a bunch of unpaid internships (I was busy) and had earned the trust of several influential people in Orlando. I did what I've always done, I pounded the pavement. I needed a job and surely someone needed me.

I landed a temporary gig at a PR agency. My boss could only be described a sociopath who, as a middle-aged man, lied about his ownership of the company and only hired 20-something pretty girls straight out of college. Our office had to be on the 9th floor because it was one floor higher than the competition. We couldn't bring Pepsi into the office because he only supported Coke. The man was a nutjob. I resigned from that position a week before the entire office was laid off.

My next job was only slightly better. I worked in PR and community relations for one of the largest hospitals in the country. I struggled to balance my young and naive desire to move fast with the slow churnings of a large organization. I loved my colleagues but struggled to connect with my boss. It was my second job in a row I'd had conflict with my supervisor and I began to think I was the problem. (In some ways I was. I had a lot to learn. Still do.)

When my ex-husband was offered a job in my hometown of DC, I was eager to move home. I'll never forget my last day at the hospital. The vice president came out to the elevator and asked if I was becoming a "kept woman." Bet none of you boys have been asked that.

My Time As A Housewife

We moved to DC. Into a beautiful apartment next to Key Bridge. My ex was an engineer and I could take a break from working. And then I languished.

I felt like a failure. I was clever, I had worked hard and yet there I was again — worth nothing.

I'm a big believer that people need work. Without it, we struggle to find purpose and fall into a lull of unchallenged existence. I struggled. I found work here and there as a fundraiser for small nonprofits. But I was unhappy. I was searching for a joy I couldn't find.

I tried several times to start a business with my family. That, like any entrepreneur will tell you, failed. I took art lessons. I searched for alternative careers. And I watched too much TV. I had become a kept woman after all.

Editing Emily

And then one day I received an email. A mutual friend from my PR days had recommended me to edit a self-published book for publication on Amazon. I said yes. I was trying to pay off my student loans and could use the extra money.

I undercharged and did a fairly terrible job. I'm lucky she paid me at all. But I enjoyed it. It was relatively simple work and it gave me freedom. I didn't have to show up in an office. I just did the work. And I knew I could improve.

So I kept doing it. I found more clients who had written a book, wanted to self-publish and needed help. I researched grammar. I learned how to format books for Amazon. I figured out more about the process of self-publishing. I started blogging for authors. Then a few entrepreneurs wanted me to blog for them. I liked that even more than editing — often terrible — books. (Ask me about alien smut.)

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And suddenly I had a tiny business: Editing Emily. For three years I ghost wrote blogs for professional organizers, etiquette experts and tech entrepreneurs. It was an interesting client list and I learned a lot of semi-useless information — which, if you know me, comes at no surprise.

Slowly, with tons of practice, I grew into a good writer. And then a great one.

Editing Emily wasn’t anything special. I didn’t make millions and I didn’t write for big name celebrities. But I had built something out of nothing and, for that, I was proud.

My Daughter

I think this is the only photo of me pregnant on the internet. Enjoy.

I think this is the only photo of me pregnant on the internet. Enjoy.

My midwife, Jo, weighing my daughter.

My midwife, Jo, weighing my daughter.

In Spring 2014, I "felt" pregnant. My ex didn't believe me. But my body felt different. I took a test — and (not) surprise! — I was pregnant. The pregnancy was relatively easy and I had a quick home birth (about which I could talk for at least an hour so be careful I don't corner you if you ask).

Giving birth was the first time I felt truly powerful. My body felt less like something to be criticized and objectified and more like a symbol of ferocity and strength. (I recognize birth stories encompass a wide set of experiences. If you ever need to talk about yours, I am here for you.)

And then the reality of the early days of parenting hit.

My daughter at 3 months old. Look at that hair!

My daughter at 3 months old. Look at that hair!

I didn’t know it yet, but I was suffering from a postpartum complication called postpartum thyroiditis. My pregnancy gave me Hashimoto's — autoimmune thyroiditis. I was hyperthyroid and by the time I went to the doctor several weeks later, my resting heart rate was 120. I was hot, filled with rage and wanted to die. I remember sitting in a bathtub, trying to get a moment of silence away from the endless needs of my newborn. A moment to be alone. A moment for my body to be mine and only mine once again.

I kept thinking about what it would feel like to drown. To have the water sting my lungs. To accept death. I didn’t want to commit suicide. That required action. It was too violent in some way. I simply wanted fade away. To vanish and be forgotten.

New moms need a lot of love. And if you know one, I can't tell you how much she might need you to just sit with her. Be there in the loneliness with her. Give her permission to stop pretending it's all sunshine and baby toes.

I didn't take maternity leave — one of the great mistakes of my life. (Yet very on brand.) I missed only one deadline, the day I went into labor. That sentence is ridiculous and shameful. Take your maternity and paternity leave, please. And fight for it in your workplaces.

An Ultimatum

I literally wrote articles like this.

I literally wrote articles like this.

Weeks past and it became apparent that writing while my active baby squirmed in my arms was going to be more or less impossible.

My ex-husband issued an ultimatum. I could stop working to care for my daughter full-time. Or pay for childcare out of my salary exclusively. Real partnership, right? It was one of those moments that created a typhoon of emotion for me and one he likely doesn't even remember. Words can be empty and powerful at the same time.

I made probably $35,000 a year. Far short of what I needed to pay the $2,200 per month for daycare in Arlington.

I sat on a sidewalk in Northern Virginia sobbing on the phone to my mother. I held my daughter in my lap. It was early spring. The breeze still cut through my clothes but the sun was out and enough to suppress winter’s chill.

My tiny baby was precious, as all babies are, but she was also in that phase of her life where she was completely unforgiving. Quick to scream and difficult to soothe.

I sat crying to my mother about how hard it was, how tired I was, how much I needed something — someone — to be there for me. To support me. To care for me.

In that moment I had a realization. I was wholly financially dependent on another human to survive. I couldn’t support my child and myself in DC independently. My work was admirable but not valued. At least not valued in the way an engineer was.

My Decision

And in that moment I decided this fact wasn’t acceptable. Not for me. And not for my daughter.

The last photo of my daughter and me in the room in which she was born.

The last photo of my daughter and me in the room in which she was born.

I found a Ruby meetup in Arlington (I owe them so much for their kindness) and I started a class on Codecademy. A few months past and I began looking for a code school. I considered the ones in DC or NYC but everyone at Arlington Ruby said I should go to Turing, in Denver.

And that's what I did. We packed everything, I said goodbye the room I gave birth to my daughter in and we left. My daughter was 6 months old. (Ask me about hunting down dry ice on a cross-country drive to transport breastmilk.)

That first night in Denver, I was scared. What had I done? Was this all a terrible mistake? But it didn't matter. The decision was made. And a month later, I started school.

Learning Ruby

My daughter wearing a Turing shirt and my disaster of an apartment.

My daughter wearing a Turing shirt and my disaster of an apartment.

I spent seven months entrenching myself in something which I had no experience in and for which I had no natural inclination. I made another decision. I wasn't going to quit. The only way I would have left Turing is if the staff had kicked me out.

And I can't tell you how powerful that was. The decision to stop saying "no" to myself. To keep pushing until some more powerful outside force stopped me. It was freeing. I took the brain capacity I would normally dedicate to worry and fear and instead dedicated it to learning.

I wasn't the most brilliant person in my class, far from it. But I live by a saying, "Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard."

At some point through school I realized my previous career had been a waste. I felt like a failure. Again. In what way could writing, the one thing I knew I was good at, help me as a software developer?

I couldn't have been more wrong.

Elbowing My Way Into Tech

I worked my ass off and, knowing I needed a job, pushed hard in the final weeks to get as many interviews as I could. By some miracle, I landed four offers. Please don't mistake this for a measure of my talent as a developer. It is, more than anything, a result of knocking on dozens of doors. Of putting in the work. Something of which we are all capable.

My first technical interview not only included whiteboarding but an 8-page paper program I needed to debug. Seriously. They handed me 8 pages of printed paper and asked me to debug it. Few technical interviews scare me now because when that's your first experience, the only step forward is simply to buckle the fuck up.

The job I chose was a job in Java. The entire interview process I kept confirming they knew I didn't know the language. Not even close. But I learned. You can always learn.

A Crumbling Marriage

My relationship with my partner entered a kind of stasis while I was in school. We were two ghosts passing, talking only about our child, work and school.

When I graduated Turing, and started my first job, the crevasses between us became apparent once again.

We started marriage therapy. But repairing years of damage and hurt — initiated and felt by both sides — is hard. More than hard. Through a series of events and discoveries, it became apparent the marriage was not healthy for either of us.

I used to sit, staring at my daughter while she slept, tears quietly pooling until they broke the threshold of my eyelid and pounded the sheets. I wondered how a divorce would break her. What damage I was choosing to inflict on her. Because it was a choice. And it was my fault.

But for the first time in my life, I could afford an apartment of my own. I still wasn't sure how things would play out in the divorce so I chose a pretty shitty apartment, but it was mine nonetheless.

My First Talk

Just before I moved out, I had my first talk accepted to three conferences. Humpty Dumpty: A Story of DevOps Gone Wrong was angry-typed in a closet while pumping (I was still breastfeeding) after my third horrible interaction with the ops team at my job. I, apparently, do my best writing when I'm feeling things.

The day of my first talk, I was terribly nervous. And incredibly sick. My first audience was a group of Ukrainians. Lovely people. But they don't smile. Ever. I panicked when the display didn't work quite right, rushed through the talk and did an embarrassingly poor job.

The second audience were Swedes, not exactly the easiest to make laugh. A Swedish chuckle is equivalent to an American belly laugh. But I did make them chuckle! I moved too quickly and wasn't well paced, but my performance was pretty good.

My third time giving my first talk, Humpty Dumpty: A Story of DevOps Gone Wrong, at DevOpsDays Madison.

My third time giving my first talk, Humpty Dumpty: A Story of DevOps Gone Wrong, at DevOpsDays Madison.

The third audience was DevOpsDays Madison. That conference and its organizers will forever be special to me. People thought I was funny! And it was there that I fell in love with public speaking.

It's true that I'm naturally comfortable performing as court jester to get you all to laugh and feel things. But so much of my ability to speak is my ability to write. All my talks are written, word-for-word in the notes. There are no bullet points and general direction. That works for a lot of folks. Just not me. I choose words purposefully. I select imagery intentionally. It's scripted storytelling.

Developer Relations

Like many women in tech, I began to experience some gender discrimination at my first job as a backend engineer. I was the only woman on a team of 14 and, especially as a junior, that can highlight some really shitty behavior.

After about my 8th meeting with "HR," it became woefully apparent I needed to move on and I did what I've always done, I knocked on doors. I asked folks to coffee. I let people know I was "casually looking."

Brandon West just so happened to put a note in a DevRel channel that he was about 6 weeks away from hiring a developer advocate. Two mutual friends made introductions. I met him at a stereotypically Denver coffee shop and we chatted. I summarized that meeting in the Intersection of Life + Career.

It was a great fit. I got the opportunity to write more talks and practice speaking. I learned how quickly travel can burn someone out and I deeply appreciate Brandon taking a risk on me — one I hope paid off for him as much as it did me.

Recently, Jason Hand — a close friend and one of the great advocates of my career — moved to Microsoft. And I got a message from Steve Murawski.

What's Next

Which brings me to my next role. I feel humbled and undeserving, but I'm thrilled to announce I'm joining the CDA team at Microsoft as a CloudOps Advocate.

Saying that won't get old for a looooonnnng time. The team at Microsoft has built out a phenomenal group of advocates with an extremely diverse set of skills. I simply can't believe I get to work with them.

I think in many ways Microsoft has helped legitimize Developer Relations and highlight what a phenomenal role it can play in product development.

And that's what I'm going to focus on. I want to do a lot less talking and a lot more listening. I want you to find me and reach out. Tell me what you love about what we're doing and where you think we can improve. You can even tell me where you think we absolutely suck.

I think it's important as advocates we remember that we don't talk at engineers, we speak on their behalf.

Just Keep Swimming

This tome of a blog post is a (perhaps too) verbose way of saying this: I am fundamentally not special. I'm not brilliant. I'm not particularly talented. I simply work hard. And I've been incredibly blessed with countless opportunities.

At any point along my journey, a snapshot could have painted me a failure. And yet here I am. Still standing. Still growing.  

I believe kindness and hard work are worth much more than raw intelligence. I believe we, as engineers, are forming the future. We are developing systems that will make decisions for humanity. And the ethical implications of that are weighty, to say the least.

We have an opportunity to fundamentally impact our world's future. We can fight on behalf of good or — whether from maliciousness or laziness — we can allow bad actors to infect our work.

Whatever you do, don't quit

The people who lose at life are the people who quit. So just don't quit. Keep marching, even when the steps are so slow and small they're barely noticeable. Velocity is much less important than progress.

We are survivors. All of us. We have suffered and overcome. We have survived divorces, deaths, depression, cancer, rejection, racism, sexism, homophobia. We have had doors slammed in our faces. We have had our hearts broken. We have trusted. And been betrayed.

But we are still walking. And together, we are a tribe. A tribe of survivors. With the scars to prove it. In every scar lies a story. A story of resiliency.

I have survived — thrived — in large part because of this community. This loving, hopeful, wonderful community.

And I wonder sometimes what our workplaces would look like if we could build a culture of vulnerability. A culture of raw truth. A place free of judgement. A place safe to cry. A place where mistakes were forgiven quickly and without the whispers of gossip.

My ask is this. That you never quit. That you give vulnerability freely and you accept the vulnerability of others with grace and love. That we support each other.

This community is small. But we are mighty. And I wonder how much more powerful we’d be — how much better our engineered solutions would be — if we dropped the facades of our Instagram accounts and practiced acceptance. Of ourselves and of others.

THANK YOU

Thank you for being my light in the dark. Thank you for dragging me through the tough times with your notes of encouragement, your GIFs and your jokes. You have brought me laughter in the midst of tears.

And I only hope I can be a source of joy and encouragement for you. That I can use my voice to speak for you. To drive our industry and our culture forward. To represent you. And, ultimately, to tell your stories.

Community Management

Our industry is centered around community. Which is funny given our origins as basement-dwelling, anti-social nerds. 

But here we are. In the throws of CDD: Community Driven Development

Think about it. We've got language communities. And open source communities. DevOps communities. Even companies manage the communities around their APIs and tools. 

My job, as a developer advocate, is largely communicating and engaging with communities of developers. 

Communities in tech. 

So imagine you've got a pool of developers. (The engineers pictured are obviously frontend developers because of their smart dress.)

Every developer belongs to many communities within the greater industry. 

Don't believe me? Let's break this down visually. 

Language communities

Engineers typically identify with a specific language or stack. You've got some Ruby guys. Some React gals. Some stubborn Ember folks.

And if you're thinking, "But what about full-stack engineers?" First, I think that's largely bullshit. Second, even engineers who call themselves full-stack are part of a full-stack community. 

Community by language

Women in tech

Due to the disparity between genders — folks who identify as male and folks who don't — women have begun to group together on teams. And for large part, this is AWESOME. Women can amplify other women and people who identify as another underrepresented group. 

womenintech.png

People of color

If you think there's a gender disparity, hold onto your butts. People of color are woefully underrepresented in tech. And, rightfully, have begun to band together and support each other. 

Management + Individual contributoRS

CTOs, VPs, project managers, product owners, team leads. These roles have different challenges than those of individual contributors. And often, due to shared perspective, managers of all types form their own community in tech. 

management.png

OPS + Dev Communities

This is a division as old as time. Well, at least in Unix time. 

You've got the folks who build the thing and the folks who make it run. While DevOps culture is taking hold, many teams still divide themselves into groups like this. 

ops vs dev.png

Just kidding. Zero teams have five operations folks for ten developers. Like, zero. In the whole world. Null. Nil. Nada.

But that's a whole other blog. 

REALISTIC OPS + DEV TEAMS

opsinreallife.png

People who hate frank

My apologies to the Franks reading this. Hugs.

There are communities whose bond is as simple as a shared hatred for a manager or colleague. Or even a popular persona in the industry. 

BEST FRIENDS + CLIQUES

And then there's the most insidious form of human grouping: cliques.

The best friends. The "work wives." The moms. The grumps. The people who like to work in the dark and the people who want the freakin' lights on like professionals.

(Not that I've literally had this argument. Did you know OSHA requires offices to have 30 candle-feet of illumination? Ask me how I know that.)

cliques.png

Best friends in communities serve a critical purpose. We need people to talk to, confidentially. And no, at work that's not your manager. Having a buddy does wonders for making the occasional slogs bearable. 

Cliques start to become a problem when two powerful people within the community become enemies. Or, make a personal feud public. 

And then people take sides. It compounds. And suddenly the community is split. Each member defending the person for whom they've taken up the flag. 

This is where community management bleeds into crisis management. 

What makes a great manager.

A lot of people who are smarter than I am — and many who are dead — have written at length about what makes a great manager.

These are my personal beliefs cultivated by my experience as a manager and as an employee and validated by the many people I've talked to about a variety of crap situations through which they've endured. Feel free to rail on me in the comments below. 

Every manager has faults. We're all human. No one is coming in and making everyone happy while also managing a rewrite and increasing sales by 400% year over year. If someone says they can do that, they're either a liar or have a wildly inaccurate view of themselves and their capabilities. 

The best managers have faults they can hire for. 

If you don't have 15 years of architecture experience, guess what? You can hire someone who does. If you've never strangled a monolith and deployed containerized microservices, guess what? You can hire someone who has. If you hate running standup every morning and JIRA makes you want to take your eyes out with a hot spoon, guess what? You can hire someone who hops out of bed every morning bright-eyed and ready to write 53 user stories. 

If you're managing a community, you're usually not hiring anyone. But you do recruit volunteers and contributors. 

You can't hire for leadership and you can't hire for communication. And that's what distinguishes a great manager from a mediocre one. 

Leadership comes in a few shapes and sizes. There's not one prescription. But the result is loyalty and respect. And the gift of leadership is wrapped in the skill of communication — tailoring your words and message to your audience. 

The triad of community management.

There are three central components to community management. What I have very cleverly named the "3C's: Cheerleading, Conflict Resolution and Curation.

  • Cheerleading: Get out your pom-poms. Because encouraging folks and being the most excited and enthusiastic person on the team is your job. The moon reflects the sun's light. You aren't a moon. You are the goddamn sun. Which means you need to make your own energy and spread it like a virus. (Kinda like conference plague.)
  • Conflict prevention and resolution: Guess what? People fight. A lot. We rub each other the wrong way. We disagree. We feud. Grab your gavel. You are the Judge Judy of your community. This is possibly the most critical role you'll play as a community manager. Because even the most tight-knit communities will war inwardly. It's your job to control the blast radius. 
  • Curation: I'll only speak for myself, but a community manager shouldn't be the smartest person in the room. That's a shitty community manager. Your job is to recognize talent, amplify it and create space for people to shine.  

The 5 rules of managing communities.

1. Remember that everyone is a human. 

Humans have feelings. Humans have wounds. Humans aren't rational. 

Many times when I've had conflict with a friend or colleague, there's much more than the current argument fueling the fire. Often — and this should never be used to undermine someone's position — there are other experiences acting as triggers.

Perhaps you attacked someone who had been bullied as a child by someone who looked like you. Perhaps you made a joke that brought back hurtful memories of a previous experience. 

Acknowledge that people are flawed, broken and wonderfully made. 

2. Validate feelings. (Even when you don't think they're valid.)

Here's the thing. Feelings aren't rational. They're not accurate. Sometimes they're not even legitimate. But there is no greater way to undermine communication in conflict than to invalidate feelings. 

All feelings are valid. Because they're just that. Feelings. 

It wasn't until the start of the scientific revolution in 1543 that "truth" began to be aligned with "fact." But it's not. 

Hume's fork builds on David Hume's 1748 work, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas, and Matters of fact. Of the first kind are the sciences of GeometryAlgebra, and Arithmetic ... [which are] discoverable by the mere operation of thought ... Matters of fact, which are the second object of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner; nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing.
— David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

Hume's fork divides statements into two groups:

  • A priori: Knowledge independent of experience. 
  • A posteriori: Knowledge dependent on experience. 

A fact is a priori, but a truth can be a posteriori. Feelings are truths dependent on experience and must always be validated. Regardless of the facts of the situation. 

3. Practice empathy and kindness. 

People remember kindness. I can list off a dozen times I've been in a position of weakness and someone extended kindness to me — without expectation of reciprocation. That grace earned my loyalty. And you can bet when those people need help, I will be first in line. 

There is a difference between niceness and kindness. Niceness is a state of being. Kindness is a characteristic. To be nice is to be pleasant. To be kind is to be considerate.

Not everyone who is kind — including myself — is always nice. In fact, sometimes my words can cut deep. Often in defense of people or causes I care about. And bullies? Well, bullies will never be spared my harsh words. Because I don't mind going toe-to-toe with an asshole. And I will never tolerate repugnant behavior in my communities.

You can choose to be unkind. To be uncaring. But there's a price. You may never make a mistake. Because the minute you do, the moment you falter, people will gladly watch you fall and revel in your loss of reputation.  

4. Set clear expectations and consequences.

Conferences have codes of conduct not to be punitive, but to clearly state the behavior expected of attendees. Communities require a similar standard. I don't think every community needs something as formal as written rules. But if you manage a group of people, you must be consistent in the behavior you find acceptable.

Life is nuanced so some level of subjectivity can be expected. But make your expectations as objective as possible.

"Treat others with respect" can be interpreted in many ways. 

Instead, try something more direct.

Before you submit a pull request or comment on someone else's code, think to yourself, 'How would I feel reading this about something I built?' Then think to yourself, 'How would I feel reading this in my first engineering job?'
If the language you use — verbally or in writing — is derogatory, belittling or harmful, you will be put on probation for three months during which your communications will be reviewed prior to publication. 

Give everyone a fair shake. Before I put my daughter in time out, she receives a warning. A clear statement of the behavior I find unacceptable and the consequences that will follow. "You've chosen to not pick up the toys when asked. If you continue to not pick up the toys, you will be put in timeout."

The only offense that is exempt from a warning is physical violence. When my daughter hits the dog, it's an automatic timeout. Go directly to Jail. Do not pass Go.

We're certainly not toddlers, but the same basic structure works — even for adults. If someone acts like a jackass for the 657th time, but has still not been given a clear warning, you are failing to manage your community.

Even though they have behaved inappropriately hundreds of times, disabling their access to your community is not the right course of action. This will breed resentment, instill in folks a fear that they could be cut off without warning and create a sense of unfairness. 

5. Engage in direct conflict

This feels weird, right? Wouldn't happy communities never have conflict? No. Negative. Absolutely false.

Do you know a single healthy marriage that doesn't have it's fair share of conflict? Have you never fought with your best friend — the person you trust most in this world? Is your Thanksgiving table free of side eye and people shifting in their chairs when your crazy uncle brings up politics?!

Direct conflict is a gift. One that should never be disrespected. Conflict requires energy — a lot of it — and vulnerability. It requires engaging with someone you probably would really rather not face. 

When someone in your community fails to meet the expectations set, have a conversation. In private. Allow them the opportunity to save face, own their mistakes, learn and move on.

Shaming someone — embarrassing them publicly — will always have negative repercussions. Studies show the root cause of murder — the thing that takes someone over the edge from I hate them to Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick — is embarrassment. When someone is shamed, they feel a rage unlike any other. 

Never gossip. Ever. Absolutely no one wants to feel talked about. It just feels shitty. It feels like a betrayal. I have a saying I sometimes fall short of. "I don't talk shit behind your back. I talk shit right to your face."

Give the gift of honest, real, hard conversation. 

Finally, absolve the crime. If every sentence is a life sentence, the system doesn't work. Allow people the grace of forgiveness when they make a mistake and make it right. 

Respect is earned.

Fear is a powerful motivator in small bursts. But eventually Caesar gets a knife in the kidney.

Respect is the only way to persuade folks over the longterm. And respect must be earned. And that starts by walking the walk. You must serve as the canon of the kind of person you wish to have in your community.

 

Dr. Seuss Guide to Code Craftsmanship

I have a two-year-old daughter who adores Dr. Seuss. And as I was reading Cat in the Hat for the 214th time, I realized Dr. Seuss had it all figured out.

His words are odd. The cadence confusing. But there’s a gem hidden in all his children’s rhymes.

You see, Dr. Seuss would have made an excellent engineer. Because great code isn’t about choosing the perfect method name or building out 95% test coverage. All that is great, but it doesn’t make great code.

YOU DO.

It likely never feels that way. There’s a rhythm to software development that goes something like this:

  1. “Easy. I’ve got this.”
  2. “Uhhh, maybe not.”
  3. “HALP! I have no idea what the f*ck I’m doing.”
  4. "How did I not think of that before?"
  5. “I AM A GOD.”  

This process is okay if you’re comfortable having a mild psychotic break every sprint. I’m not.

I think we’re going about it all wrong. Putting ourselves — our egos — above our code. No judgment. I do it too. We’re human. It’s okay. 

But I think we can bypass our egos and the emotional ups and downs it produces. 

Imposter Syndrome

If you haven’t heard of imposter syndrome, it’s a concept describing high-achieving individuals — like you! — who struggle to internalize their accomplishments and experience a persistent fear of being exposed as a "fraud."

And if you think I don’t feel like a total fraud every time I stand up in front of a crowd at a conference, you’re wrong. 

I think any thoughtful, intelligent person deals with self-doubt. Some of us deal with it a lot. 

A few months ago, I did something pretty stupid. I volunteered to demonstrate a mock technical interview in front of 100 students.

My motivation was pure. Students at Turing, the code school where I learned to program, are terrified of technical interviews. Because they’re scary. Right?!

(And junior engineers seem to think seniors code like Neo.)

So my mentor, Ian Douglas, and I thought we’d show them what to expect. Ian would throw some tough questions at me and I’d illustrate how to handle questions you don’t know the answer to. 

I don’t normally quote Mike Tyson, but he has one great saying I love. “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” 

Dr. Seuss.019.png

Ian asked his first question and I froze. I realized that 100 people were staring at me. Expecting me to know the answer. And that all of them would leave thinking I’m an idiot. 

Which left me looking a lot like a sad pug — can we make #sadpug a thing?! It was scary, but I muscled through it as best I could. Like every technical interview I’ve had, I left feeling a bit down. The quiet but persistent whisper of doubt left me skeptical of my technical abilities. And I started wondering again if I was really cut out for engineering.

This feeling was reinforced when I found out a student had expressed disappointment at my performance to Ian. He thought my answers were weak and, if it were a real interview, I should not be offered the job. 

Gonna be honest, I cried. 

Because it fed into all the doubts I’ve had over the last year. When I graduated Turing I had a lot of success in the job search. I was offered 4 jobs which made me feel extraordinarily lucky and wonder if I somehow oversold my talent in those interviews. 

But the last year hasn’t been easy. I’ve struggled. And I’ve worried constantly that I haven’t been growing fast enough. That I had beginner’s luck. That I won’t be able to get another job. Certainly not one I love. 

Imposter syndrome isn’t limited to me or you or this industry. Imposter syndrome is a human problem. There’s something called negativity bias. And it’s played a crucial role in keeping humans alive all this time. Basically, if we hear a noise in the dark, our brains assume it’s a lion about to eat us. Not a mouse scrambling through the grass. 

Negativity bias is awesome if predators are an everyday threat. But we don’t have to worry about being eaten much these days. These days, negativity bias adds stress and anxiety to our lives. Certainly to mine. Who’s had a good day only to wonder what disaster is awaiting you around the next corner? As if we can only have so much good before it’s balanced out by something terrible.

Like many of you, my heroes are the extraordinary men and women in history who stood up against a fearsome power and overtook it. The little guy going toe-to-toe against the giant. And, against all odds, winning. 

I love stories of underdogs. I actually think we all do. Because it’s fundamental to American culture. We were founded by rebels and embody the attitude of we’re gonna make it on our own — no matter what it takes or how hard it is. 

It doesn’t matter the risks. It doesn’t matter the odds. We believe, as a people, that hard work can overcome just about anything. 

I like to think sometimes about what it felt like to be Caesar standing before the Rubicon or Hannibal facing the Alps. I picture strong, confident men. Filled with hubris and might. Commanding enormous armies filled with men loyal to their cause and their cult of personality. 

But I know how their stories ended. They — in that moment — did not.

Abraham Lincoln might never have been president. (He had lost 8 elections prior.) George Washington could have been hanged for treason. And Rosa Parks might have decided to sit where she was supposed to.

It’s easy to look at historical figures and think how courageous they must have been. How sure of themselves they were to take the action they did. They weren’t. Like each of us would be, they were scared. Afraid they would fail.

Dr. Seuss

Dr. Seuss started life as Theodor Seuss Geisel. His first book, Mulberry Street, was rejected 27 times. 

Walking home from the book's twenty-seventh rejection, with the manuscript and drawings tucked under his arm, he ran into a friend from Dartmouth College. His friend — Mike McClintock — had been made editor of children’s books that morning at Vanguard publishing. 

Geisel said later “If I’d been doing down the other side of Madison Avenue, I’d be in the dry-cleaning business today.” 

It may feel as if all your accomplishments can be attributed to luck. And everyone else’s to their intelligence and hard work. That’s not true. Every success story is a little of both. 

So if we know this is the reality, how can we feel like it in our everyday lives? Dr. Seuss has some hints. 

 

Find A Mentor

Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.

I firmly believe that your mentors should be people outside of work. It’s important to remember that humans are motivated by different things and sometimes it creates a conflict of interest. 

For example, your boss — as awesome as he or she may be — will likely not recommend you ask for $20,000 more than you currently make because he or she does not want to pay you that. Whereas someone without that conflict of interest may recognize that you’re currently underpaid. 

I have 2-3 mentors in tech whom I trust implicitly. Whenever I need encouragement, honest feedback or career guidance, I call them. They’re generous with their time and believe in me as a person and as a professional. 

That all sounds great. But how do you go about finding a mentor? 

My best advice is to be vulnerable. Do the scary thing. Reach out to people you respect and ask them to coffee. Mentorship doesn’t have to be a formal arrangement. It can be an organic friendship between two professionals. 

 

!Networking

Why fit in when you were born to stand out?

People talk a lot about the importance of networking. But, to me, networking conjures an image of a silver-tongued salesman with slicked back hair working a room and collecting business cards. I don’t know about you, that’s not my kind of thing. I’d rather sit at home and watch Netflix. 

So let’s not call it networking. Let’s call it connecting. And that requires vulnerability — the foundation of genuine relationships.

There are jerks in this world. And being vulnerable is risky. Everyone in this room has had their hearts broken. We’ve been hurt. Exposed. Rejected. That’s why we have walls. To protect us. 

But there are an extraordinary number of wonderful human beings that walk this planet. Those are the people I’m asking you to be vulnerable for. Those people are good and kind and trustworthy. They deserve to know you.

 

Be You

Today you are You, that is truer than true. 
There is no one alive who is Youer than You.

The real you. Nobody is better at being you than you. Seriously. Your authentic self is a 1000% better than you acting like someone else. If you spend your time thinking you need to be different, you’re cheating yourself — and the world — of something amazing. You. 

The freedom you will feel when you are authentically you is flabbergasting. Plus, the rest of us get to know someone pretty freaking cool. 

 

Stay Curious

You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. 
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.

If you haven’t read Mindset by Carol Dweck, I really can’t recommend it enough. It’s a life-changing book about growth mindset and enthusiastically learning new things without fear of being “bad” at it. 

It rejects the notion that we are limited to our god-given talents and instead focuses on the ability to learn new skills. Even if we’re initially pretty terrible at something. 

I think a great way to exercise this concept is to constantly try new things and take lessons in random subjects. I have a friend who takes improv and another who’s in salsa classes.

A few years ago, I decided to get my motorcycle license. Will I ever own a motorcycle? Probably not.

But, much to the chagrin of my mother, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. I showed up to a classroom of adrenaline-junkie 18-year-olds and one recently retired man. I didn’t exactly fit in. But guess what? It was a blast. It didn’t matter that I looked like an idiot. And, to be clear, I definitely looked like an idiot. But I had fun and I learned something new. 

You all are here, which means you care about learning and growing. Never let that be extinguished. If learning fuels you, make sure you make it a priority. Which brings me to...

 

Keep Learning

The more that you read, the more things you will know.
The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.

Negotiate an educational stipend. When you start a new job, ask what the budget is for conferences. And don’t accept “it’s as needed” as a response. It blows my mind how many of my peers have to beg their boss for a $150 ticket to a local conference when sales and marketing regularly spend $2000 on booze for potential clients. 

Developers must adapt to changing technology. That means constantly learning and absorbing information. Your job isn’t to pump out 40 hours worth of code every week. Your job is to be a subject-matter expert and continuing education is a huge contributor to your success in that role.

 

Take Small Risks

If you never did you should. These things are fun, and fun is good.

If you want to learn a new technology or implement a change at work, do it. It’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission. Create a proof of concept and then advocate for it. 

And don’t be afraid to fail. Everyone in this room has or will bring down the site at one point in their career. That’s awesome. Because that means you’re trying. You’re doing something. Keep doing that. 

And when you do fail, publicize it.

 

Publicize Failure

Today was good. Today was fun. Tomorrow is another one.

This is admittedly a weird one. But start sharing when you screw up is especially a great idea for those of you who are senior or principal engineers. 

It’s the best thing you could do for your team. When people I respect tell me their mistakes, it sends the signal that it’s okay to take risks and fall flat on your face. And you’ll be amazed at the response. You’ll see your team share lessons learned and become more collaborative.

A culture of being “right” all the time is toxic (and all too common). Collaboration will nosedive, silos will develop and people will cover their tracks when something goes wrong.

 

Celebrate Your Successes

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.

I like to keep a “Yay Me!” file. Whenever someone sends me a nice note or emails my boss about what a great job I did on something, I save it in my “Yay Me!” folder. 

The alternative to this is to keep a gratitude journal. And before you scoff at the image of a diary on your nightstand, hear me out. Taking the last 5 minutes of your day to jot down the 3 things you were most grateful for that day is a surprisingly helpful practice. 

Remember negativity bias? We focus on the bad by our nature. Reminding yourself of everything going right in your life does wonders for your mental health.

 

Keep Going

And will you succeed? Yes you will indeed! (98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)

I’m a fan of running toward the open door until the moment it closes. Perhaps you want to launch a business in a year. Or move to a different city. Or just found out you’re expecting a child. The natural inclination is to start planning, to think a year in advance and have that plan dictate your everyday behavior at work. 

Don’t. There’s no reason to treat the next year as biding time. Just keep going and figure everything out later. Avoid planning in detail so far in advance — it only causes you to slow down and not take opportunities that you normally would. Anything could happen, plans fall through. Just keep going, but...

 

Pace Yourself

Step with care and great tact, and remember that life’s a great balancing act.

Burnout is real, folks. I’ve been in this industry a year and I can already feel the reaper coming for me. If you’re ambitious, the hardest thing to do is to recognize that careers are marathons, not sprints. 

Embrace work/life balance. Make it a priority. 

I went through Turing with a 6-month-old. Which meant my schedule was pretty intense. I woke up, got her to the nanny and went to school. I left school at 4:00, ate dinner and put her to bed. Then I did homework from 6:00 – 9:00 before going to bed (more like collapsing). That routine was my life for 7 months. 

It wasn’t easy. There were a lot of tears and wine involved. But my daughter was a critical part of my success in school. She gave me balance. Demanded I stop. Take a break. Play. Read books. And say goodnight. She gave me a break from coding and school provided me a reprieve from being a mom.  

Don’t answer emails after dinner. Don’t look at your phone the minute you wake up. Don’t work on the weekends. 

Play is not just a different kind of work. Find what you love and embrace it with child-like joy. Eat great food. Spend time with your families. And pick up that hobby you’ve been thinking about for the last few years. We get one life. And we all deserve to enjoy the shit out of it. 

 

Don't Be an Asshole

A person’s a person, no matter how small.

It’s golden rule time, folks. I’m amazed at how small of a world it really is. And people truly matter. They’re really all that matters.

It’s easy to go full Frank Underwood when you’re in a position of power. When you have the advantage. But take a step back. Be kind.

I believe we get what we give. You can’t control the behavior of others, but you can definitely control your own. Empathy is a powerful tool. Use it. You have absolutely no idea what someone else is going through. 

 

Embrace Your Humanity

Think and wonder, wonder and think.

You’re not a snowflake. Neither am I. Who’s left a crappy job and thought, “Good luck, you won’t last two weeks without me!” Only to find out the business kept on chugging along. The future of the planet doesn’t rest on your shoulders. Nor mine. And think about what a relief that is! I feel less stressed just thinking about it. We’re humans. We’re fallible. 

Here’s the cool thing. The more human you are, the more vulnerability you show, the more people will grow to trust you. 

None of this is to say you can’t make an impact. Quite the opposite. You will leave your footprint on this world. Whether it’s with the people you love most, your community or the globe. But you can let go of the pressure that you’re critical to everything. People will pick up the slack if you let them. Relax. Let go.

 

Value Old Friends

You’re in pretty good shape for the shape you are in.

Hold onto your childhood friends. The people who knew you when you were young are the most honest friends you’ll have. They don’t expect anything of you. They don’t see you as fancy or special or important. 

To them, you’re still the scrawny kid with glasses who sucks at kickball. And they love you anyway.

They’ll kick your ass when you need a dose of reality and they’ll sit beside you in silence during the worst moments of your life. 

They’re not perfect. None of us are. But they’re worth more than gold. Make sure you tell them that.

 

Make New Friends

Think left and think right and think low and think high. 
Oh, the things you can think up if only you try!

Create a small group of trusted peers. I have two groups like this. One is more for shooting the shit with people I like and the other is focused on goal accountability. 

The former is a small group of wicked smart, ambitious, female developers. They’re strong, resilient and full of grit, which means they inspire me and lift me up when I need it. 

The latter is called Wine + Goals because we literally drink wine and discuss goals. (No one said we were creative.) One Wednesday a month, 7-8 of us from varying industries and career paths sit down to discuss our highs and lows of the month and our goals for the next. Then we’re randomly assigned an accountability partner for the month, who checks in on how things are going. It’s a small, friendly kick-in-the-ass. 

 

Embrace the Suck

“Everything stinks till it’s finished.

Some days are going to suck. Nothing will go right. 

You’ll get decaf coffee and a fork with your oatmeal. It’ll take you 3 hours to debug a method only to realize you reversed a boolean value and should have figured it out 2 hours and 59 minutes ago. Not that that’s happened to me. You’ll get in a fight with a loved one and hit every single red light on the way home. 

Want to know what I do on those days? I break out a bottle of wine — yes, I drink a lot of wine — run a bath and turn on Real Housewives.

What I don’t do is start evaluating my life choices. Let bad days pass by. Look forward to the morning. Start again. 

 

Quit Comparing

I’m afraid that sometimes you’ll play lonely games too. Games you can’t win ‘cause you’ll play against you.

Stop comparing yourself to others. I know, I know. Easier said than done. But one of the most detrimental things you can do yourself is compare your bloopers to someone else’s highlight reel. 

I’m a great example of this. When I give a conference talk, I know every time I say "um" or "so," miss a bullet point or get off-track. But it’s not nearly as obvious to the audience (hopefully). 

Remember imposter syndrome? It would be very easy to look at me and assume that I must know more than you. But I don’t. I promise. You know things I don’t. And everyone has something to contribute.

Focus on what you can give. Forget about what the person next to you is doing.

 

Life is Short

How did it get so late so soon?

But it’s also long. Many of the choices you make won’t matter. Some will matter a lot. 

Live your life. Enjoy every moment of it. Friends who make you feel bad about yourself aren’t friends at all. Drop them. Surround yourself with people who inspire you, challenge you and love you. 

Play. And laugh. Show humility. Never stop learning. Be kind. And remember… 

 

"You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes.

You can steer yourself any direction you choose. 

You’re on your own. And you know what you know. 

And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go."

 

YOU are what makes your code great. I believe in you. And you should too. 

 

Implementing Quicksort

A few weeks ago, Ian Douglas asked me to help give mock technical interviews for Turing students. As someone coming out of a code school, tech interviews are the emotional equivalent of walking into Mordor. They're absolutely horrifying. (Full disclosure: I cry after every tech interview. And then drink heavily. I can't be the only one.)

I've been thinking a lot about the questions asked lately. And, unsurprisingly to you, O(n) and sorts come up frequently. I'm not going to go into too much detail about O(n) because, frankly, I don't feel qualified. Greek symbols in math scare me. They're like warning signs for the rest of us. 

For developers, the purpose of these questions is to measure your understanding of time complexity — the length of time your algorithm (function, method, code) takes to process the result.

O(n) refers to linear time. The algorithm will take more time proportionate to the size of the input. 

 
o(n).001.png.001.png
 

Sample Problem

Let's take an interview question like: Write a function that takes a list of integers and returns it from least to greatest in O(n) time. Godspeed if you have to do this on a whiteboard. Sending good thoughts your way. 

Sorts have always fascinated me and I don't know much about them so it's a great opportunity to learn something new. (If you haven't seen the Hungarian folk dance of bubble sort, you're missing out.)

I'm the first to admit that computer science fundamentals are a growth area for me. I'm far from an expert in the area of well-known algorithms. A little googling and I found that the most reliably linear algorithm for sorting is quicksort. Awesome. (I should say here that algorithms are always evaluated on worst-case scenario. And in worst-case, quicksort is not O(n). That said, it's pretty darn good.)

A little more googling and it turns out quicksort should be called hardestsort. But I decided to give it a shot anyway. 

An article on DevCamp gave me a start. But, Ruby's syntactic sugar was too much for me. I couldn't tell what was happening. This solution is beautiful, but I need to keep looking.

This StackOverflow post (note the verbose quicksort algorithm toward the bottom) led me to Khan Academy and helped me break down what exactly is happening. 

Here's how quicksort works:

  1. You have a list. Yay for arrays!
  2. You choose a pivot point. This is an index in the list you'll use to split the array into three parts: the left array, the pivot and the right array. From my research, I've seen the pivot selected randomly, as well as first or last index being used. Let's talk about this using the first item in the array as the pivot. 
  3. Compare the pivot to the value to its right. If the pivot is smaller than its neighbor, leave it. If the pivot is larger than the value to the right, switch their positions. 
  4. Buckle up for recursion. Move the pivot and do the same thing. 

Handcrafted Quicksort

Let's dive into some code. 

If you're still confused about what's happening, let's look at the output. This is the list each time we call quicksort(). I added a bit of color whenever two values are swapped.

 
$ quicksort([0, 7, 0, 87, 4567, 18, 65, 55, 55, 99, 987, 2345678, 0, 1, 10000])
 

Pretty cool, huh? 

Fancy Quicksort

OK, I feel like I have much more of a grasp of what's actually happening. I'd be lying if I said I could deliver an hour-long lecture about it, but I'm learning!

I wanted to revisit the "elegant" version I saw before. And found this lovely video.

To the code, Batman! 

This implementation involves meta-programming (I'm a little nervous about this) and extending the Array class. 

OMG is that so much better that the first go. 

Remember how we pass the block in with the less than symbol? This sorts the numbers greatest to least. If you were to call partition(&pivot.method(:>)) instead, it would sort the values least to greatest.  

For more reading on the partition method, check out the docs

I sincerely hope this helps you on your next interview question on sorting. But like I said, if you're at the whiteboard, I'm sorry. Good luck!

Intersection of Life + Career

I was lucky enough to connect with Brandon West this morning to talk about developer relations. (He literally wrote the book.)

Brandon asked me a question I can't say I've ever heard before: "What are your career and life goals?" The "and" struck me. I've never really thought of my life goals as being separate from my career goals. Which may or may not say something mildly unhealthy about my life view. 

I naturally spent the afternoon obsessively thinking about it. This is what I've come up with. (Yes, this illustration is my 267th draft. I killed a lot of trees today. Don't judge me.)

Professional

BE ELECTED TO POLITICAL OFFICE

I'm from DC. Isn't that enough? 

This has been a dream of mine since I was very small. My family are yellow dog Democrats — meaning we always vote Democrat. And for good reason. My grandmother grew up in rural Alabama with her widowed mother and two sisters during the depression. FDR and his social programs absolutely saved their lives. 

I believe strongly that we're all in it together. That most of us are only 3 mistakes away from the homelessness. And that being poor isn't a measure of morality or hard work but of misfortune. I want to ensure that all of us have the social safety net that allows us to reach for our goals and care for our families.

PROVE WOMEN CAN BE BADASS DEVELOPERS

It's not enough to be a badass developer. I'm a lady dev, which means it rests on me and others to pave the way for women and people of color. This matters to me

I want to continue to grow technically. Sometimes I forget I've only been doing this professionally for a year and it's OK to not know everything. Heck, do any of us ever know it all? No. 

I want to play in other languages (hello, Python and Go) and get quicker with syntax. I want to gain enough experience that I can identify solutions faster. And finally, I want to get better at speaking developer. The hardest part of being a junior is having an inkling of what the answer is and not knowing what it's called. 

(I also want to destroy the current style of technical interviews. But that's a different blog post.)

BE A CEO/CTO

I'm someone that can home in on a vision and make clear decisions. I'm a generalist which means I know a little about a lot. I have a small enough ego to recognize that I can't do everything and must hire people who are smarter than me. And I feel a deep responsibility for those around me, which means I won't be a fly-by-night leader. 

Personal

WIN A POWERLIFTING MEET

I am not as strong right now as I used to be. And it's hard for me to even type that. Pride is powerful. I feel guilt and shame when I go to the gym right now and can't lift as much as I used to. 

The truth is, it was almost unavoidable. I had a postpartum complication that took me out of the gym for 6 months and then I went to a code school for 7 — you try going to the gym during Turing. 

I had to focus on other things, my health and my career. I like to describe priorities as separate flames fueled by the same source. If your career flame flares up, the others will dim. And isn't that true? I find when I hit a stride in my personal life, my work suffers and visa versa. 

I'd love to get back to my previous strength level and eventually surpass it. It would be amazing to win a powerlifting meet. Even if I'm 45 by the time I do it. 

In the meantime, the gym is still my happy place. I can go, work off aggression, think through hard problems and listen to what I like to call my battle music. 

WRITE A BOOK

If you're wondering why someone who used to be a ghostwriter hasn't written a book, it's because writing a book is insanely hard. It takes intense focus and hundreds of hours of dedication. I lack the discipline, simple as that. This one is definitely a stretch goal for me. 

LEARN A SECOND LANGUAGE

My daughter is bilingual. She's two. This embarrasses me at a deep level. How is my two-year-old bilingual and I'm not? I got REALLY lucky. Her nanny speaks to her exclusively in Spanish and is the sole reason my daughter has this extraordinary advantage in life. 

I am partially fueled by a desire to not let my daughter outsmart me this early on in life. I'm first to admit she will at some point — isn't that what we all want? — but she's not gonna realize she's smarter than me until she's at least 16. 

But learning another language, specifically Spanish, also speaks to a deeply-held belief of mine: America's immigrant culture should be celebrated. 

There are 41 million native Spanish speakers in the US. And another 11 million who are bilingual. How cool is that?

But yes, it's mostly that I don't want to be outwitted by my toddler.

The Intersection

GIVE A TED TALK

OMG. Don't you want to give a TED talk?! I'd just about die. And then wave my hands in the air while jumping like a 7-year-old who just found out she got a puppy.

For me, TED talks are the pinnacle of public speaking. And it would absolutely be a dream come true. 

START A COMPANY

I specify product company here for a reason. I've run a consulting business before (where @editingemily came from).

I loved it. And it taught me an extraordinary number of hard lessons. I will always favor people with entrepreneurial experiences on their resumes for this reason. You learn things you would never observe while gainfully employed. 

It also taught me a lot about me. How I handle ups and downs. That I hate reconciling accounts. Why no one recommends starting a family business. 

But I don't like consulting and freelancing for two reasons:

  1. It's difficult to scale. Consulting by its nature is high-touch. As far as growing the company, you can hire more people or raise prices, but that's pretty much it. And there is a limit to how much money you can charge per hour. A SaaS product is created once and — if developed well — can be scaled and sold to millions. 
  2. Slow feedback loop. Humans are difficult. If you have 10 human clients, it's much harder to get honest feedback about what you're doing right and what you need to improve on. (People don't like hurting other people's feelings, even when you beg.) But if you have 10,000 customers, you can bet your butt they'll be complaining on Twitter the minute they don't like something. And those angry tweets and emails are gold. 

So what's the product? I have a folder with all my cockamamy ideas. But that's a few years off at least. I have a few more lessons I'd like to learn first.

MENTOR + CONNECT

There is no better feeling than the helping someone else. It doesn't matter what it is. Maybe it's as small as an introduction or a job referral. Or helping dozens of Turing students get through the program — both technically and mentally — so they can become kickass developers too. 

The bottom line is I love people. And if I can do something to help another human, I'm going to. It brings me endless joy and makes me feel fulfilled both personally and professionally. 

That's the list. It'll likely change and evolve as I grow. But it's a good starting point. 

Pythons + Vipers: Empathy in Tech

I want to talk to you a little bit about snakes. Specifically, pythons and vipers. (Well, sorta.)

When I was researching this topic, I pretty much thought a snake was a snake. After all, they all have scales and embody the devil — right? But I was wrong. 

Pythons move in rectilinear progression. Scientists actually used to think they used their ribs to "walk." Instead, they use their scales and muscles to pick up parts of their body off the ground and move forward in a straight line by scrunching and expanding. Like a very scary inch worm. They're big, slow (they move at about 1 mph) and non-venomous. They're constrictors, so they squeeze you until you die and then eat you. Fun!

Vipers use undulatory locomotion — favorite phrase of the week! — to propel themselves. It's that serpentine movement we're all used to. They're small, fast and venomous.  

But humans aren't like snakes. Humans are herd animals. 

Evolution

I know we don’t like to think of ourselves as equal to the other creatures that walk this earth. We cook our food and use computers, after all. We build robots and shoot humans (and monkeys and dogs) into space! We must be more advanced.

But at our core, we are herd animals.

We’re just not as fierce as some other animals — specifically the predators I think we like to associate ourselves with. Who doesn't have a CEO who considers himself or herself a "lion of industry?"

We don’t have the speed of cheetahs, the strength of bears or the armor of rhinos. In fact, we’re pretty weak.

Take me for example. I don’t have a lot of fat to survive a long winter. I’m not strong enough to fight off large predators. I have no camouflage, venom or other defenses.

No, humans have only survived because we have each other. Once we figured out the basics of food, water, fire and shelter, we were able to create specialization and division of labor. Some of us hunted. Others gathered. We shared food. We protected each other and raised children together.

I don’t know about you. I think that’s pretty cool.

Group > Individual

But this evolutionary dynamic has one critical repercussion: The group is held far above the individual.

As a result, our brains desire conformity.

Think about your group of friends. Shut your eyes. Really take a minute.

  • What do they look like?
  • What are their characteristics?
  • What do you like most about them?

Most of my friends are white, college-educated and have a similar socio-economic status. I prefer being around people who are smart, strong-willed, hard-working and ambitious.

If I’m honest, they’re not too dissimilar to me. Or, more likely, they reflect my favorite parts of myself.

This affinity for conformity goes well beyond our friendships. Which brings me to social influence and social conformity.

Social Norms

We all conform to social norms. We follow (most) traffic laws. Sure, we speed, but usually within that grey zone of 10 mph over the speed limit. We dress up for weddings and funerals. We bring a class of wine to parties and speak quietly in libraries.

These are all behaviors we don't even think about. They were taught to us through our everyday social interactions throughout our entire lives. And these social norms dictate our behavior.

Think back to high school. (I'm sure it was a super awesome time for all of us.) The popular kids set the canon for what was “cool” and the rest of us spent way too much energy trying to catch up. We wanted to belong.

Some conformity is referred to as non-conscious automatic mimicry. Like when we yawn after seeing someone else yawn. 

But conformity generally describes how we adjust our behavior and thinking to the rules of the group. It’s something psychologists have been interested in for a long time.

Asch + Conformity

In the 1950s, Polish-American psychologist Solomon Asch performed a simple test on small groups of people sat around a table. 

His study — looking at conformity and social influence — was presented under the guise of a study on visual perception.

Volunteers were shown a standard line and three comparison lines. Then they were asked to identify which of the three lines matched the comparison line.

Now anyone with their glasses on would be able to tell you it’s B.

But imagine sitting there. You're in a room with 5 strangers. You'll respond last. The person to the left of you says the answer A.

Huh? You shrug it off. He looks a little weird anyway. Then the next person responds with A.

You’d probably start wondering if you were stroking out. Or going blind. Or have a brain tumor...

What the volunteers didn’t realize was that everyone else in the group was a plant. The last person to respond was the only true participant. A common deception in studies — sneaky scientists.

In every group, the real participant struggled. Should they trust their own eyes or go with the group? 

And here’s the disturbing part: more than a third of participants gave the wrong answer.

Asch and other researchers have found people more likely to conform if:

  • They’re made to feel incompetent or insecure
  • They’re in a group of three or more
  • Everyone else agrees
  • They feel as if others are watching

Rejection

Think about a time you’ve been excluded from a group. Or different in some way. Again, think back to high school.

Were you bullied? Didn’t quite fit in? Perhaps you were defined by your group of friends — nerds, goths, athletes or mathletes.

Remember how you felt? Different. Rejected. Alone. It sucks in the short-term. And absolutely brutal to experience for years, even decades.

You may be the oldest engineer on your team. Or the youngest. Perhaps you use Emacs and everyone else uses Vim. You're the only woman or person of color. The only person with depression or anxiety. Maybe you have diabetes or a disability. You're married. Have children. Care for an ailing parent. You're gay. You're straight. You're transgender. 

Celebrate Diversity

We’re all a bit different. I think that should be celebrated.

But that isn’t always the case. Sometimes, often, our differences divide us. Or create subtle social norms that drive our behavior — and the behavior of those around us.

I’m an extrovert. But I was raised in a household of three extremely sensitive, introverted artists — talk about stereotypes.

Through years of attrition, they taught me to be sensitive to the way introverts communicate. I recognize that the quietest voices in the room are sometimes the most valuable.

Against all my extroverted instincts, I hold my words to allow the thoughtful introverts around me to gather and convey their thoughts. It takes energy but it is absolutely worth the effort.

It's Hard But Worth It

Before I continue, I want to acknowledge that embracing differences is hard. Especially at work. We all have a job to do. 

Social diversity — the kind that comes from diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation — can cause conflict, discomfort, distrust, disrespect and more restricted communication.

That all sounds awful. Is there an upside? Hell yes.

Being exposed to diversity alters the way you think.

  • Diversity enhances creativity and innovation
  • It encourages teams to seek out different perspectives
  • It improves decision-making and problem-solving
  • And it increases the bottom line of organizations

I’m not making this up. There are decades of research to support this. NCWIT — the National Center for Women and Information Technology — located in Boulder, is a great resource for more information on this topic.

#womenintech

Unsurprisingly, I’m a woman in tech. This term gets thrown around a lot. And god knows everyone is well aware of the diversity problem in tech.

I’m not asking you to solve it. Or implement changes at work. Or even really care.

What I’m going to ask you to do is pay attention. For a few minutes, I want you to let go of assumptions or questions or rebuttals. I want you to hear me. To feel empathy for my experience. And the experience of so many others around you.

I’m the only female engineer on my team. In 95% of the meetings I attend, I’m the only woman in the room.

And while that in and of itself isn’t that bad…

A lot of the time, it doesn't feel like the left picture below. It feels like the one to the right.

I’m different. And that subtle social cue makes it just that much harder to speak up. To take a risk and share an opinion. Because if I go against the group again, I risk being further isolated.

That’s heavy, I know. And I want to be clear: I’m not asking you to solve diversity issues in tech. It is so much bigger than you and me.

What I am asking of you is to do one thing. Just one thing.

Pay Attention

At your next meeting observe those around you. Who’s different and who’s the same? Is their behavior equal? Are those who are different given a chance to speak and are their ideas really heard? If the idea is implemented, is credit given to the correct person?

Search your own assumptions and actions. We can all share more empathy with those around us. And make tech more awesome in the process.

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