The Divine Comedy of the Tech Sisterhood
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
A letter from Virgil
If you’re looking for inspirational wisdom about how leadership is more than a creative enterprise but a calling and there’s nothing more rewarding than selflessly enabling other people’s successes, this is not that.
This is a guide to some of the absurd dysfunctions and dynamics you will likely encounter if you embark on a career in tech, and end up in a leadership position with all the naive innocence and drive that you will be different, you will be a great leader, respected by all, and you will change things not just for yourself and your team and but for the industry as a whole, moving the needle on behalf of all the other women out there who look up to you as a role model.
So. You believe in yourself and you’ve read Lean In and gone to Grace Hopper, and are armed with a myriad certificates in leadership, influencing and negotiating skills. You’re convinced you won’t fail.
This is a story that you should come to when you’ve failed. When you’re in pain, when all your creativity and emotional resilience has been depleted by the guy you fired who is now suing or stalking you, when you’re considering quitting to have a baby, travel the world, write a book or maybe try your luck as a yoga instructor.
So is this a girl book? Self-help? Can a self-help book use the word fuck? Should I hide this book in a paper binding if I’m reading it on the subway? If you’re asking yourself any of these questions, you’re not a real engineer.
How’d that feel? Get used to it. Because any time you actually solve a problem, someone is going to say that what you do isn’t really engineering. That you’re not as sharp now that you’re not writing code anymore.
This is a book about all the ways leading can crush your soul.
And about how to survive and thrive anyway.
# # #
PART ONE — INFERNO
A lot of the tech industry today is fucked up. Think of every horrible stereotype of software engineers you’ve ever seen on TV — hackers straight out of mom’s basement who can’t lift their eyes from your chest, socially-awkward twenty-something millionaires who get shit-faced in night clubs in San Francisco and convince you of the merits of polyamory, venture capitalists who refuse to shake hands with women for religious or cultural reasons — and somewhere in Silicon Valley, you will find it.
And that’s not even scraping the surface.
The entrance to hell is not a cave with the words Abandon all hope. It’s the $200,000 signing bonus being offered to you by Facebook, or the car from Microsoft, or the offer of free food from Google after you’ve scrimped and saved to get through college and are eating nothing but Ramen every night so you can chip away at your student debt.
Your journey begins with being rescued, and so for the first couple of years you struggle to be worthy of the gift you’ve been given, not recognizing the temperature increasing gradually around you to its boiling point.
Welcome to hell.
# # #
1. Athena meets the Brogrammers
You’ve never been drunk in your life. You skipped a grade in high school, graduated summa cum laude from university, and so you’re not yet twenty-one. Back home, in Kansas where your parents never went to college, or in India where your family lives in a tiny, cramped apartment, people are counting on you to make their sacrifices worthwhile.
You’ve never been an extrovert. You had very few friends in high school. People either bullied you for being a geek, or stared at you when you demonstrated your intellect, as if you were Athena sprung directly from the head of Zeus and not a normal girl at all.
You’ve never learned how to dress yourself. You spent high-school and college studying, hiding in grey hoodies and unflattering jeans. You worked three jobs to put yourself through college, and one of them was washing dishes in the college cafeteria where you came home with your shoes smelling like eggs.
You’ve never really dated, either because love was a distraction or sex was a sin, or the University of Waterloo where you studied Systems Engineering was a boring bomb shelter and your body went into hibernation for four Canadian winters. So you don’t know when boys are flirting with you or just being friendly or treating you like a kid sister because all of it amounts to more attention being paid to you than you’re really comfortable with anyway.
So when the boys invite you to their parties, you feel like you’ve arrived. You’ll drink beer with them even though it tastes like stale yoghurt, or pretend to like the really expensive whisky that brings tears to your eyes. You’ll be their anointed Queen, singing and whooping as the world swims before your eyes, and taking the proffered Adderall to stay awake until 2 AM. They all claim that they see you as a friend and a sister, nothing more, it’s all safe, but something tells you they want something from you even if it’s only validation that they’re cool enough to have a girl with them.
“Why do women not want to join tech?” one of them asks you. “Aren’t you having fun? Isn’t this fun?”
“You’re not like other girls,” the quiet one says when you’re alone discussing the benefits of one API over another. “They’re stupid or irrational. You’re so smart.”
“Let’s go on a road-trip!” says the ringleader, your manager. “We’ll be driving across the country as a team-bonding exercise. We’ll go bar-hopping in the mountains, drink Redbull and vodka by the campfire in the great plains, and Kerouac our way to Manhattan!”
Instinct tells you this is a terrible idea. You’ll be the only girl among a group of drunk guys, stuck in a small, smelly car. You’ll have to either pay for your own room or share a room with them when even the idea of a co-ed dorm had you shrinking in revulsion. You don’t know if you’ll be on your period.
But you can’t say any of this. So you take your manager aside and tell him privately, “I feel weird doing this. I’m the only girl in the group.”
He says, “Nobody’s forcing you to do anything. It’s just a team-bonding thing, and team culture is really important. You should have the opportunity.”
What you hear is, We need to talk about your flair.
“If it’s the sharing of a space that’s a problem, you can drive alongside us separately and we’ll catch up at the rest-stops. But you should know, the team really respects you as an engineer. They don’t even really see that you’re a girl.”
You do what’s necessary, because that’s what you’ve always done. You toss away your lipsticks and your few skirts, you give up on makeup, you wear your hair in a messy, natural ponytail, and kill your inner anima not with anger but with rational detachment.
You join the brotherhood. You become an engineer.
# # #
2. Imposter Syndrome
“Sweet, everyone’s here. Let’s get started. Can you take notes?”
Since he doesn’t know you or use your name you look around to see if he really meant to ask you. Why you? He smiles encouragingly when you give the Who me? face.
And then moves on to his content.
Why you? You look around. Oh, right. You’re the woman.
Your ears are burning and you can barely pay attention to what anyone is saying. You’re torn between taking notes because you’re worried that if you don’t you’ll not be a team-player, and defiantly taking truly shitty notes so that he will never ask you again.
You spend most of the discussion calming yourself enough to ask him later, “Why’d you ask me to take notes? I couldn’t take notes and participate at the same time.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” he says, giving a nervous laugh. “I thought you were the admin.”
It happens so often that you’re not even surprised. It doesn’t matter that you’re wearing the dingiest gray T-shirt you can stomach, or that you purposely failed to comb your hair this morning.
It’s always an honest mistake. Interview candidates who refuse to answer your questions because they’re interviewing for an engineering job and want to question your credentials first to know if you have the right to interview them. Sometimes you get mistaken for that other woman on your floor, or a shy new manager comes up to you and asks if you’re the HR representative.
“I’m the other woman,” says Sheila, laughing. “I never thought I’d find myself saying those words to introduce myself.”
“Does it bother you?”
“It used to,” Sheila says, her eyes glinting with mischief. “These days I make it work for me. Admins have all the power anyway.”
You watch her at work and it makes you laugh. She listens to confidential HR issues never meant for her ears, schedules meetings with a dictatorial hand that always meets her needs before anyone else’s, and her meeting notes highlight who is and isn’t wasting their time in idle argument.
5 min: Jian presented the proposal with cost tradeoffs.
20 min: Ed said something about the performance characteristics of some new hardware.
5 min: Team agreed to Jian’s proposal.
You start taking meeting notes too. You’re a fast typist so you collect a ruthless transcript.
Sheila: What we’ve noticed about iOS development is —
Dan: Don’t even get me started on iOS. Do you remember the xkcd where… something something who even cares.
Sheila: *innocent smile* Oh, I stopped taking notes because I was waiting to finish my sentence. Sorry!
Sheila’s always smiling, but if you cross her she will get like a blade and cut you.
Sheila is who you’re going to be when you grow up, if you don’t get fired first.
# # #
“You’ve been doing tremendous work,” Kris says. “Tremendous.”
You nod, because you’ve got to fight the urge to laugh at the way everything Kris says comes out sounding like dialogue in an action movie. Fake and bombastic, like his slicked-back hair and his slipping accent and his power-poses and the fact that his name isn’t even Kris, it’s Krishna, but he doesn’t seem to understand that Kris-with-a-K is the kind of name you’d expect to find at a sleazy dive-bar in Vegas, on a woman.
“Since you’ve done all the work anyway, I was thinking, how would you like to be there when I present this to our VC?”
You wonder for a moment why you can’t be the one to present, but there’s probably a good reason so you don’t bother asking.
“Perfect. Make sure you suit up. I know it’s not really done to dress up in the valley, but the key to getting people to give you money is to look like you don’t need it.”
That. That right there is the kind of thing Kris says all the time, thinking he’s being helpful, and it makes you think of all the horrible frat boys and douche-canoes in the Marina who add in clauses to their prenups against their wives gaining more than five pounds. Kris talks fast, dresses sharp, and annoys the fuck out of you just by existing.
You dress up.
Kris does his thing, says all the phrases you hoped to avoid hearing by never going to business-school. You do a mental tally.
“Just to set expectations,” five times.
“Strategic opportunity,” sixteen times.
“Network effect” ten times.
“Cloud computing,” twenty-five times.
Maybe it’s a good thing you’re not presenting. You wouldn’t be able to keep a straight face. Kris talks about everything the product will do, and you wonder how the VCs don’t notice that he only ever speaks in future tense.
“You look skeptical,” says the VC, turning to you. “What are your concerns?”
Kris looks as if he’s about to explode. You’re not quite sure you’ll survive this moment, never mind this day.
“The timeline is aggressive,” you say, as reassuringly as you can. “We can’t handle a million user-signups without at least three months of work on production stability.”
The VC nods and turns to Kris. “All right. Let’s sync up again in three months so we can look at the reliability numbers.”
For a long time after the meeting, Kris says nothing. You wonder if you should start looking for other jobs. Three months later, he takes you aside.
“You’re still doing tremendous work,” he says, giving you a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. “I just don’t think it’s a good idea for you to come to the follow-up meeting. There’s a way these things are done, and it’s not good for VCs or folks on the ground to see internal dissent. I need to know that even if you disagree with me, you’ll do it in private. In public we’ve got to be a united front, and right now I can’t trust that you’ll fall in line. You understand, don’t you?”
While you think of how to respond, he laughs and says, “Besides, I know how much you hate all that biz-speak. I’m glad to provide you with air-cover so you can be heads-down doing what you love.”
You understand. You’re a live-wire, unpredictable and fiery, and your energy is best channeled into code. Looks like there’s only room for one Alpha around here.
# # #
4. Kali is nobody’s victim
“I need to talk to you,” Ralph says.
“We’re meeting tomorrow, aren’t we?”
“I need to talk to you right now, about the performance feedback you wrote for me.”
Alarm bells go off in your head. Ralph has the stormy look you last saw on the taxi driver who felt you didn’t tip him well enough. It’s the look of righteous indignation that, if you were not highly-educated professionals, could result in violence. “Let’s talk about it tomorrow,” you insist. “I’ve got a meeting now I need to go to.”
“This will only take a minute. We could have finished talking about it already instead of arguing about scheduling.”
You find an empty room so you’re not having a messy confrontation in the hallway, even though your inner voice is laughing at you, saying, because the correct way to respond to an insistent and angry man is to be alone with him?
But Ralph is all of a hundred and thirty pounds, and you could snap his neck if you needed to. It’s unfortunate that you have to consider everyone around you in pugnacious terms, but you learned very early not to walk into a room of men smelling like prey.
“I just don’t understand why you would write about this stuff in my performance feedback,” Ralph says. “I thought we were friends.”
“You said I get easily frustrated and angry and that makes people not want to work with me. Why couldn’t you just say that to my face instead of putting it on the record?”
You blink a few times because you can’t believe that’s not a rhetorical question.
“Look, we all have areas for development,” you say in your most soothing voice. “My issue is having the confidence to set my boundaries — ” and this conversation is a clear indication of backsliding, “ — and yours is managing stress and frustration. It’s not a big deal.”
Ralph grabs you by the shoulders and shakes you.
“I DON’T HAVE ANGER MANAGEMENT ISSUES!”
When you were younger, you decided it was a good idea to fight the boys of your neighborhood for the right to have a picnic near their football field. The first time you felt a punch it caught you by surprise. The taste of blood, its copper-tang, was like a switch that flipped on a part of you that you didn’t even know existed.
The blood is thrumming through your veins as you say, with deadly intent, “Your minute is up.”
You leave Ralph sobbing in the meeting room. You know how the next few weeks will go, exaggerated kindness alternating with desperate demands for forgiveness that will border on ultimatums. Do you still think I have anger-management issues? What the fuck? What do I have to do to prove myself to you?
Ralph will quit, when he can’t bring himself to look at you anymore. You’ll stay, and spend one night a week at the gun range.
# # #
5. Gossip Girl
You don’t like Julie. You really want to, because she’s brilliant, and she’s done absolutely nothing to warrant your dislike, and you’re sick and tired of being the only girl on the team.
But does it have to be Julie?
She’s gorgeous, in that careless Blake Lively way that means that she turns heads even when she’s a complete mess. And she often is. A complete mess.
She’s the kind of smart girl who never had to work for anything in her life, and she slouches back in her chair with her hands in her pockets and a bored expression on her face when you try to offer friendship or mentorship.
“Thanks,” she drawls, “so far I think I’m okay. Everyone’s so nice.”
They really are nice to Julie in a way that they never were to you. Julie is invited to pub-crawls and secret hangouts for anime aficionados. She can drink seven cocktails in a single night and still make everyone laugh. She speaks fluent Japanese, because her father hit it rich on some video-game and she spent her holidays surfing and getting cheap massages in hidden Pacific getaways.
Julie stops coming to your weekly mentorship coffee sessions. You don’t even take it personally, because she doesn’t need mentorship. People hang on her every word. Three of the men on your team are in love with her. Each of them separately comes to you and asks for advice about “girl stuff.”
“There’s this girl I like, but I’m not sure if we’re just friends or if there’s something there.”
“If you’re hanging out with a girl every weekend, doing stuff together all the time, is she into you or using you?”
“There’s this girl who really could have anything or anyone she wanted, and she’s always talking about these loser guys she’s going on dates with who can’t even hold down a job.”
This is how it ends. Julie chooses one of them, not to date but to fuck, when they’re staying late in the office one night hacking on stuff, when Julie’s bored or trying to prove a point to her latest ex, you never really hear the whole story.
What you do notice is the implosion of your team, and the death-rattle of your product. The gentle giant leaves first, his face white with shock and grief. The one who was spending his weekends with Julie, moving her stuff and driving her home after parties, he tailspins and you’re left picking him up off the floor and holding his head over the toilet so he doesn’t get fired. It’s the last of the guys, Kyle, the quiet one, the chosen one, who really leaves you hating Julie with the fire of a supernova.
“Women are fucking manipulative,” Kyle says, “Can’t trust a word that comes out of their mouths.”
“Generalizing from a single data-point, are we?” you ask, not meeting his eyes. “Thought men had more analytical rigor than that.”
Kyle freezes, and then laughs until tears flow down his cheeks.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m so sorry for everything.”
He cries into his beer, and you realize you loved him all along but it’s no use now. He still smells of Julie.
# # #
6. Manicures and Mimosas
They say that men don’t show stress the same way women do, that they bolt down their feelings and take their frustrations out on video-games. They get drunk. They get angry.
The people around you are stressed. You are too, but you do what most women do when they’re stressed. You take care of everyone else.
You tell Aman to go home because he can’t focus on anything but his sick kid, nor should he. You take on some of his work as well as Bob’s, who is stuttering more than usual. It may have something to do with the way your manager Chris keeps asking for focus and results and clarity in daily status reports. Dave is somewhat impervious to stress because he got rich in an IPO, but even he seems to be unnaturally worried about bears entering his Tahoe cottage.
You notice that Emily is gaining weight around her middle, Freda has stopped going to the gym, Gary is subdued and isn’t telling everyone stories about his tricks, probably because Harry complained that it wasn’t work-appropriate conversation. Imran is being pressured into an arranged marriage, and Jane is pregnant and afraid to tell anyone, but her memory is failing and she’s got deep bags under her eyes.
Really, you can go all the way down the alphabet on this one, to distract yourself from the fact that you’re stressed out, and worse, you’re feeling guilty about stressing out when everyone else has problems too.
Sarah is the first to snap, and you catch her crying in the ladies room about Gary asking her not to waste his time asking him to explain things twice.
“Everyone’s so loud. And mean,” she says.
You’re torn. A small, mean part of you delights in knowing that you’re stronger than she is and you want to tell her to get her shit together because this is a workplace, damn it, and we all have work to do.
“Do you want to go and get our nails done and talk about it?” you ask her instead.
She looks as if you just gave her the keys to heaven. It becomes something of a routine, where you both spend every other Sunday at the nail salon, bitching about everything that pisses you off, shedding frustration, cortisol and dead skin in favor of gel armor.
After the launch-deadline passes, the two of you are commended for your work and given bonuses and bottles of wine.
Manicures and mimosas become a tradition. You wear your lacquers as a weapon, and you learn to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.
# # #
7. Ode to Hillary
In the last few years, you’ve given everything you had to the work in front of you. You’ve dealt with your own fears that you were not equal to the task, you’ve given your best, you’ve handled a major launch and a production emergency, and you’re clearly in line for a promotion or the leadership role on the team.
A-a-and it goes to someone else. Someone who isn’t as technically competent as you, but is far more “likable” which, your manager Mike tells you, is an important characteristic in a leader to hold a team together in times of uncertainty. New Guy Nate is an expert at “influencing without authority” and uses “soft power.” He’s “very flexible in his leadership style, not directive and commanding.”
If you don’t dissolve into furious tears or head straight to the HR department to complain about sexism, you’re a goddess among mortals.
You say, knowing that your voice is shaking, “Tell me more.”
Tell me more about my likability.
Manager Mike sighs, and says, “I’m sorry, I know you’re disappointed. We were really hoping that you’d step up. We’ve been giving you feedback for a while about your leadership skills, but you haven’t been very receptive.”
“Tell me more.”
“The other team members — obviously I can’t tell you which ones without betraying their confidence — feel that you don’t listen to them. You can be kind of aggressive, which silences and intimidates them. It’s important that a business leader doesn’t act like a military general, distant and commanding. It’s important for a leader to be a good coach, to show vulnerability.”
Suddenly it all makes sense. Mike is former military. He’s six feet tall, has actual battle-scars and is a hundred times more intimidating and commanding than you will ever be. You spent the first year terrified of him and then learned that he valued you for speaking up so you adapted, learned from him, became his shadow self.
You are the mirror he can’t stand to look at. He sees in you what you consciously added to your psyche by learning it from him, the steel required to hold your ground in the face of doubt, dissent or condescension.
He continues, with a self-deprecating smile, “Now I know I’m not going to win any Miss Congeniality contests either, so it’s a skill we both need to work on, and I’m happy to help you with it in any way I can. I really do believe in you.”
Because you’ve perfected your mask, you smile and say Thank you, and go for a walk to let the tears fall in private.
That evening you get a phone-call from Rachel, who wants to talk. Rachel is trying to determine how to make her system integrate with one that was just acquired by the company. She met the lead of the acquired team to do the intelligent thing — ask naive questions. It’s the Socratic approach, to question even the most fundamental assumptions of a software system, to begin from first principles instead of the party line.
“I asked him why they chose SQL and whether they had any concerns about scalability,” Rachel says, laughing, “and he said that I should stop asking stupid questions and let real engineers do their job.”
You close your eyes because the pain that underlies her laughter is just a little too much right now. You’ve got shit of your own to deal with.
“I told my manager what happened,” Rachel said, “and of course he said it was unacceptable. But I was wondering, has something like this ever happened to you?”
“No,” you say slowly, choking when you attempt to say anything more.
“That’s what I thought,” Rachel says, still laughing, her false cheer concealing her anger. “I realized that nobody ever pulls shit like that around you and I was wondering why that was. The dude and I are the same level, but he wouldn’t treat me as an equal. But people even more senior to you are afraid of you sometimes.”
Why do people not respect me? What do I have to do to prove I’m capable?
Why do people not like me? What do I have to do to prove I’m likable?
Insight strikes you like lightning from a goddess.
“We can’t win,” you tell Rachel. “We’re either too emotional or too cold, too naive or too commanding, too junior or too set in our ways, too directive or too vulnerable… oh my God, we’re Hillary Clinton.”
At the end of the day, you’ll both move on. Rachel will pick up a few things from you, like the body language and focused eye-contact of a military general who might snap your neck or cut you down with a word, and you’ll learn a few things from her, like perfecting the weepy-puppy look when you just need something done by someone who wants to be a hero right now, and you don’t have time to worry about looking weak.
You’ll learn these rules because you’re engineers who know that even society is just a system that’s engineered according to certain principles that can be understood, questioned and refactored.
You’ll move on because you’re engineers who, at the end of the day, really fucking love the work you do.
# # #
8. The Virgin and the Whore
Ever since the Julie debacle, you’ve tried very hard to befriend more women, so you’re not the turdy bitch who doesn’t have any female friends. In fact you’re even friends with Julie now, who is older and wiser and regrets the way things turned out. (You’ll wait a few years to get her to admit her agency in “the way things turned out” but this is progress).
You’re friends with your exes, and your exes’ exes, which turns out to be a survival skill in the valley where everyone really does know everyone else.
So Dolly is a fucking curveball.
Dolly is a doe-eyed princess from Cupertino. She was born in America but has never left the valley except to go to India, where her family owns a palatial five acre estate. She’s married, and has two adorable children who are as good at their Kumon classes as they are naive — neither of them have ever seen or heard of Harry Potter, because reading fiction or watching movies would distract them from their studies.
Dolly doesn’t understand why her Masters from Stanford University isn’t helping her navigate the organization.
“If you want me to lead the team, you should put me in charge of it,” she says, pouting. “At my last company I had an idea and I went straight to the CEO. He thought it was a good idea and gave me six engineers who would implement it.”
“They’re looking for emergent leadership,” you explain. “People here don’t care about what you’ve done in the past. They don’t care about your degrees or titles. They care about what you’re doing right now, how you’re able to help them, challenge them and lead them.”
Dolly rolls her eyes.
“That’s not fair,” Dolly says. “So I have to win a popularity contest and keep pushing my way in or I don’t get to be a lead?”
“Tell me what you mean when you say, get to be a lead.”
“People don’t respect you unless you have Team Lead or Project Lead in your title. At my last company I was a CTO. Here I’m nothing. If I bring my ideas to the table nobody listens.”
Dolly has no idea how right she is. Tech is ruthlessly democratic and you’re more likely to have listeners if you’re doing stand-up comedy about your failed company than if you have the words Director or CTO on your resume.
“You can build yourself up,” you offer. “If you’re bringing a controversial idea to the table, don’t spring it on a room all at once. Take it to a few people privately, ask for their feedback, reconcile their perspectives, and then when you know you have a lot of support and momentum, bring it to the meeting as a problem they can help you solve. Put them in a position to help you, and don’t go to the senate unless you know how the vote’s going to go.”
Dolly’s doe eyes get virgin-wide.
“That’s evil,” she says.
“If you want something, you should just ask for it. Not play games. That’s what I tell my children too. I’m an engineer, not a politician.”
“Think of it as engineering the outcome that you want. Think ahead about what you want to say, how people might react, and how you can mitigate any concerns in your approach.”
The pout gets even bigger now.
“But taking people aside to talk to them separately, that’s Divide and Conquer. It’s evil.”
“It’s just a backchannel. People use it all the time. Here, look.”
You show her a contentious email thread on the team mailing list that you brought to resolution, by taking some people aside to understand their positions, taking others aside to calm them down, pulling in a manager to make sure you were not overstepping by making a decision, stating a solution on the main thread and then having five senior engineers back you up, ending the argument.
Dolly’s eyes fill with tears.
“So is everyone backbiting about everyone else all the time?” she asks. “Now I’m afraid to say anything in email because someone else might see.”
“This isn’t backbiting,” you say through your teeth. “You just have to assume that people talk to each other, all the time, about everything. You will never be able to control who talks to whom about what.”
“At my old company,” Dolly says, “we didn’t allow people to have a chat room unless the manager was also in it. Even if it wasn’t the rule, my team would never backchannel.” She spits the word out as if it were a depraved act. “They would always come to me with any problems. They loved me and I loved them.”
You have to engineer the outcome you want, you remind yourself. It’s true not just for mailing lists and meetings. It’s true for every conversation. There have only ever been two outcomes possible from this conversation, and one of them isn’t looking likely.
“It sounds as if you really miss your old team and company,” you say, keeping your face completely neutral.
“It was very clear who was in charge of what,” Dolly says agreeably.
“What would you like to be in charge of here?”
“I want a team of ten people who will just do what I need them to do,” Dolly says, her tone indicating that she is asking for rather less than she thinks she deserves. She doesn’t seem to understand that in software engineering, a team of ten people who will follow orders without question is kind of like asking for a unicorn and a dinosaur and your ex-husband to throw you a surprise birthday-party.
“What do you propose to do with those ten people?”
Dolly shrugs. “I just want to be in charge of a project. I’m at the point in my career where I care more about leadership, not coding.”
Partly out of schadenfreude, but mostly because you’re curious about human behavior, you send Dolly to have lunch with Julie, suggesting that they might like each other.
Julie shoves at you playfully in the ladies room. “Fuck you very much,” she says, but she’s laughing. “Four years ago, you should’ve fired me but you didn’t have the power. If you don’t fire her now, I’m going to have her sent to the colonies. She can lead up a team in India or China where people just want to know the rules and do what they’re told.”
Julie grins. There’s a ring on her finger that’s decked with diamonds. She’s more beautiful than ever.
# # #
Jesus Christ, you’re just trying to get some work done. You would really like to spend your day reading design docs, deeply understanding the architecture of a 10-year-old system that your team is trying to fix so your company doesn’t get sued for missing its SLA.
But you’ve got a problem. In what’s supposed to be your ordinary weekly chat, Mark says he’s surprised that his last performance rating wasn’t as high as he’d expected.
He’s even more surprised (and you’re not an idiot, when he says surprised you know he means pissed off) that he only heard about it after it was already in the system (i.e he didn’t get a chance to negotiate).
Mark’s a solid performer. But ratings are not actually negotiations. They’re statements of fact about work that was done and expectations that were met, missed or exceeded. You went through an arduous process of fact-finding before giving him that rating with the full consensus of every other manager.
But, as I said, Mark’s a solid performer, so you go the extra mile. You dig up your data and research, which, because you’re a rockstar manager, is more detailed than any other manager has done for any of their reports. You think that maybe Mark will understand if he sees how you saw everything he had done when you made the rating call.
You email him the information, apologizing for the fact that he was surprised by the rating. Mark’s a mature guy, he replies politely saying that he’d like to read and digest before discussing in person.
It’s Friday night, 10 PM, and you’re enjoying the feeling of satisfaction that comes from having read those design docs so you can enjoy your weekend in peace.
Email from Mark, to you and your manager. It’s long, and it pulls apart every statement you made and argues the minutiae. It isn’t fair to generalize, he says. He insists that you give at least two examples for every single statement.
Remember the director gave me a bonus for my work, he says, even though the only reason he got that bonus was because you negotiated it for him with said director.
On and on the email goes.
I agree that I tend to try to solve problems by myself and don’t escalate them in a timely manner.
This can be seen as normal/OK by experienced managers. For example, I prefer not to know every little detail, especially the ones that are likely to be resolved.
So I see this is as part of aligning ourselves to each other — and not something that impacts my ability to perform at a high level.
In other words, Mark is correct, you are incorrect. Moreover, you are a micromanager. He wants to tell his side of the story, not just to you, but to your manager who is more trustworthy as an adjudicator here because you don’t know how to do your fucking job.
Because you’re a demon-slayer, you don’t give in to your anger at the mansplaining. You don’t try to defend your decision with facts, like Mark’s project was delayed, and customers started complaining, and you ran interference for months to give him air cover because he was really doing a good job if not a spectacular one.
Mark’s not in the mindset to hear facts if he’s sending emails to his boss and his boss’ boss at 10 PM on a Friday night.
So you do the smart thing — you go dancing with the girls and shake it off. You know that Mark was triggered emotionally. But until you can detach from your own anger, you won’t understand why or solve the problem.
Towards the end of the weekend the reason for his behavior becomes obvious. You remember the only other time Mark has ever pulled some stunt like this. It was when the coworker he was competing with reported to your director, while he was stuck reporting to you. He didn’t understand that the director had years of experience and could manage a low performer, while you got Mark because he was supposed to be easy.
Mark pays attention to titles because it’s the only articulation of power he really understands. He doesn’t like his place in the food chain, because it’s below you. He’s got years of experience on you, and he thinks you’re keeping him down.
That’s why he included my boss in the email, you realize suddenly. He wants to move up the hierarchy.
The simplicity of the solution makes you laugh. Two birds, one stone. You don’t give a shit if he reports to you or to your boss or to the freaking CEO. Ultimately, the only thing that matters is who can figure out that 10-year-old system’s architecture and fix it, because that’s why you’re all here, isn’t it?
You don’t reply to the email. You’re going to chat with your manager on Monday. Your manager who really values your work and wants you to be happy. You’re going to say, “It would make me and Mark happier if Mark reported directly to you. I don’t want reports who don’t believe I’m fighting for them with everything I have.”
You’ll talk to Mark in person. Butter won’t melt in your mouth. You’ll smile and say, with quiet dignity, “I didn’t reply to your email because there’s no point debating facts if you’re emotionally upset. Are you ready to discuss just the facts now?”
Whether he is or isn’t, you’re done. You don’t have to prove yourself to him. You don’t have to explain why you’re always given the most challenging technical problems while others struggle to have their efforts recognized and argue about how they might have screwed up four things but they did five things right and so it should all cancel out in their favor. You’re not here to debate and prove that you can have a vagina and still be rational.
You’re here to get work done.
# # #
PART TWO — PURGATORIO
If you or a woman around you has never experienced any of the depressing crap from Part One, this section goes out to you.
You’re a success story. You graduated top of your Ivy-league class and had recruiters fawning over you and sending you gifts to get you to accept their offer. Founders of startups phoned you personally to talk about your career potential. You’ve been promoted a couple of times, you’re sought out for mentorship by girls just out of undergrad who think you’re a unicorn and headed for the C-suite.
Life is great. You’re a manager now. And your own boss isn’t just openly gay and married, but has adopted daughters and lives in Noe Valley and understands work-life balance like nobody else in the world. Your team has more women than any other team in the company, and not one but two lesbians. You have no idea why everyone else complains about how hard it is to get diversity in the workplace.
Right now, you’re probably glad none of the really awful stuff is happening to you. You’re not aware of it yet, but things aren’t as good as they could and should be, and when you do discover all the problems around you, you’ll deny them, sweep them under a rug, bear up and move on, or won’t complain because you know life could be much, much worse.
You’re part of the problem.
Congratulations, you’re not in Hell. You’re in Purgatory, which we all know is Hell-adjacent and filled with monsters.
It really, really sucks to be you right now, because you’re going to feel so sideswiped when the shit hits the fan.
# # #
1. Artemis takes no prisoners
Ziv doesn’t understand why his team of sixty engineers have been unable to launch anything in the last six months. What exactly are people doing all day if they aren’t writing code? He’s offered a cash bonus to anyone who takes on extra hours in production support, and has promised to take all sixty engineers to Hawaii if they get a million daily users.
He lists off the management strategies he’s tried while pacing up and down the long meeting room.
“I’ve created the right incentives, I’ve set an inspiring vision, I’ve motivated the problem by referring to the market need and what our competitors are doing, I’ve told the team I believe in them, I know every single one of them by name and I’ve made sure they’re working on something aligned to their interests… I just don’t understand, what more do they want?”
He’s beautiful, you realize, in a way that speaks to your intellect as much as it does to your loins. A keen mind that chafes at being surrounded by mediocrity even as it tries genuinely to make room for others’ limitations. You know exactly what that’s like. You thought that you’d somehow be delivered directly out of university (which was clearly too easy for you both) into some sort of Avengers movie where everyone’s superpower could be honed into solving an impossible problem. Instead you’re surrounded by regular people with banal problems. Housing costs, long commutes, getting kids into schools and arguing about how impossible it is to go on vacation.
It helps that he’s tall and lean, all sinew and restless limbs, and when he greets you it’s with a boyish grin that makes you want to protect him from the world before his fire burns itself out.
“I want to make sure we’re aligned,” Ziv says. “I don’t think there’s a solution here. I’ve just been told I need to give you a chance.”
“I like having a low bar to jump over,” you say, sitting on a table and swinging your legs. “It’s not condescending at all.”
He’s torn between finding the total lack of formality appealing and worrying about whether he’s hired a child.
“Give me two weeks to find my feet.”
“Another thing,” he says, with that adorably awkward hesitation. “We’ve never had a woman on the team, so people may not take kindly to it if they think I’m putting you in charge of them. You’re an outsider, remember that, and some of these people have ten years of experience over you.”
You bat your eyelashes at him, and he does a double-take. It’s clear nobody’s ever tried flirting with him before. And why would they? His seemingly casual T-shirt says in stark black letters, To what end?
Everyone assumes that Artemis was a kind of Amazon, a woman whose shoulders were wider than an economy seat, who could chase lions out of the mountains and grapple with bulls.
Artemis was a huntress. Stealthy. Her step was light, her gaze was sharp, and her prey never saw her coming.
For the next two weeks you hang out in the common area and eavesdrop on water-cooler conversations. You have coffee with every single person on the team. You take the old guard out for drinks and loosen their tongues. You take the kids out dancing and hear about their love-lives. You learn the important things.
Who cares about the project, who’s only in it for the money, who’s in it out of loyalty even though they don’t believe, who’s holding back progress by demanding all decisions go through them, who’s hiding the facts from Ziv to stay in his good graces. You learn that they all worship him, but they think he’s on crack if he believes this project is remotely feasible. They’re all afraid to be honest with him, but they’ll follow him into hell.
Two weeks later you come back to Ziv with the decisions he needs to make. You ghost-write his talks for him, organize social events where you take potshots at each other in public so the kids can see that bantering and backtalk are perfectly all right. You quietly get fresh blood to infiltrate the old guard. Those who are made to leave thank you for the conversations that helped them realize that they’d be happier elsewhere. You work with the ones who remain to put an actual engineering plan together.
The project launches, and you get to go to Hawaii.
You’re standing by Ziv’s side at the beach in the moonlight, watching your team frolic in the waves with the indulgent and watchful eyes of parents protecting their brood of chicks.
“I’d heard you were good. I didn’t know you were that good. It’s like you have X-ray vision.”
The buzz from the gin and tonic sends warm flushes through your skin. You’ve weathered a tough year together, and you know that there’s something there between you that goes far beyond loyalty but you can’t call it love.
He shifts on his feet. Nausea roils in your gut.
“You know I’m bisexual, right?”
You don’t even bother responding. The raised eyebrow says, Obviously.
“I used to be married. She was… a lot like you, actually. Whip smart, incisive and yet soft. A velvet knife.” His voice falls to a whisper. “I can’t do that again. I can’t be with someone and wonder if they’re controlling me. Your reins are gentle but I know they’re there. Guys are… well, they’re just a lot more straightforward.”
# # #
2. The Woman behind the Man
His name might once have been Samarth Padmanabhan but he goes by Sam and his keynote at the yearly leadership seminar he runs begins with his trademark line, “You have the right to be transformed out of obscurity.”
Your heart skips a beat, because he’s looking right at you.
It isn’t something as prosaic as a crush. It’s like having Steph Curry tell you that you’ve got great aim.
Sam continues his speech.
“The secret of my success is actually quite simple,” he says. “Have only the best people on your team. I’d like to introduce — — — without whom I would never get anything done.”
You’ve never blushed quite like this, not even at your senior prom. You’re just a lowly sys admin, and not the kind that hacks into the CIA for fun, just the kind that fixes up parents’ computers when they’re fucked up with viruses.
You’ve heard rumors of other leaders who take the credit for their people’s work, who provide zero air-cover, who are always looking to find fault with their team so they can feel better about themselves. Horror stories.
Sam is unlike anyone else you’ve ever met. Even when he’s telling you how you might have done something better (you’ve never, according to him, done anything wrong) his constructive feedback feels like a hug.
He’s married, you’ve met his wife, and she’s exactly what he deserves — gorgeous, smart and sophisticated. You respect him more for his having chosen her over you, because your family Thanksgiving in one of the many Springfields, with two drunk parents and one farting grandfather, is not something you’d ever want him to see.
He’s the rising tide that lifts all boats, and every year that he’s received a raise you’ve got one too, and every time the most challenging opportunities come his way he comes to you as helpless as a baby and says, “I can’t do this without you.”
You never stop to say, “You’re right. You can’t. So why aren’t I in your seat?”
# # #
3. The Disney Princess
You come back from a hard-earned vacation to find out that there’s been an organizational shuffle. You have a new manager, which is disorienting enough but one day your new manager shows up with a new team-member and asks you two to be co-leads.
Let’s call this one Belle. She has some sob-stories that she shares in perfect humble-brag humor, “At my old job they were psychopaths I tell you. I sometimes had panic attacks thinking about going in to work on Mondays.”
It takes you two weeks to realize that she’s really not doing anything but telling you sob-stories. She’s been through a lot — bad managers, misogynistic engineers, even the occasional harassment — and you’re sympathetic, totes, but you’re doing the lion’s share of the work in this co-lead relationship, and she’s not totally incompetent, but something isn’t right here.
You bring it up as delicately as you can, “X has mentioned that their team needs Y. Can you handle it?”
“I don’t want to step on your toes. You’re so much better at it,” says HumbleBrag Belle.
Suddenly you realize you’re thirty years old but you’re still that geek who just got asked to do the cheerleader’s homework.
# # #
4. Friendship among fakers
It’s very important to reach a data-driven decision.
But what does that mean? For which of the big decisions of your life have you ever looked at the facts?
You chide yourself for doubting. Data-driven decision-making would have helped you realize that Ziv was unavailable before you fell in love with him. What you really need is proper success-criteria and monitoring for your blood-pressure, your hormone levels, your attractions, your relationships, and your general mental and physical health. Come to think of it, you probably need to make a data-driven decision to assess whether the hundreds of dollars you’re shelling on your therapist is even really worth it.
“Given this information I could go either way,” says Ziv. You struggle not to laugh at the double entendre, because he has his serious-face on, the one that means that you are expected to put aside your complicated history and focus on the facts of this meeting. “What information is missing that would lead us to a resolution?”
What’s missing isn’t information. Whether or not this new product you’re launching is going to be a game-changer or fizzle out like the fifty others you’ve tried before isn’t something that can be predetermined by more accurate math.
Everyone has a theory, a way to squeeze the data to fit their beliefs. Harini in the corner knows that a new shade of blue isn’t going to stop the product from being a solution to a zero’th world problem that will have no consumers in emerging markets. Harry the VC is listening intently because he believes that top-down solutions don’t garner sufficient investment. Ziv, darling Ziv, whom you know better than anyone, is rapping his fingers on the table. He’s bored. He doesn’t actually care anymore now that his product is launched and minting money, and the glaze in his eyes is because he’s already packed for the White Party.
“Let’s focus on the greatest impact.”
“Let’s look at the low-hanging fruit.”
“Let’s consider the alternatives — what’s the cost of getting it wrong? Is any decision better than no decision at all?”
You have an idea. Let’s go party. We’re phoning it in, people, you want to say. We’re using the tired language of people who are too rich and comfortable to have any truly revolutionary ideas.
Ziv turns to you, now giving you his suspicious-face. He knows you too well, knows your mask of disinterested objectivity for exactly what it is. “We haven’t heard from you yet. What do you think?”
“I think that if we don’t agree in the next ten minutes we should cancel the project.”
There is silence. Ziv gapes. It warms your heart to know that you can still surprise him, because his been-there-done-that attitude gets on your nerves.
The project is canceled in thirty seconds. The VC takes you aside afterwards. “It’s a political game, you see. I wanted to cancel the project but I couldn’t be the one to do it. Please do continue to be the voice of truth, the voice of dissent. Call out the Emperor when he has no clothes. You’re headed for high places.”
You stare at him. You want to say, “This company isn’t going to last another year. Do you want to know that?”
You smile and say thank you, and send out your resume to competitors.
# # #
5. Charlie’s Angels
His name wasn’t Charlie, it was Samarth and he went by Sam, but there were more women in his team than in any other team in the company. People who joined came for Sam and didn’t care what they worked on, didn’t care if they ever got promoted. They got promoted anyway, as if Sam’s ship was filled with pure helium and could lift a submarine out of the Marina trench without the slightest effort.
Sam was forty-five when he got bored. The telltale signs of executive boredom are even more obvious than the signs of grunt-stress. Sam started to dress better. He got divorced and remarried and did mushrooms at Burning Man. He got a nose-job and took a few months off to go to Antarctica. He came back to talk about management philosophies, steer the ship, and confer his benedictions upon his legacy of leaders. He told self-deprecating jokes, insisted that passion was more important than loyalty, and boiled down his experience into pithy aphorisms that were quoted in the hallways.
It should have been a surprise to exactly no one when Sam left, and yet it caused more upheaval than you thought was possible. There were C-suite tears and counter-offers, interventions and suggestions that Sam could continue to just dial in from Fiji every once in a while. They wouldn’t take him off the payroll and so his name kept showing up in the system. A quit-list was made, with the names of his most loyal followers, and the HR department made an outreach and retention program to target them.
You’re on that list. So is Julie, whose red-rimmed eyes and frazzled hair are surer signs than any confession that she was in love with Sam. You wonder if they ever slept together.
Julie’s full of smiles next week, and you know before she tells you that Sam’s calling to her from beyond-the-bubble. He wants her to run his charitable foundation, and he’s willing to pay her the salary she’s making now. You try to tell Julie that running a charitable foundation is actually a step down for someone of her knowledge and abilities. It goes badly.
“You’re still so naive, moshe,” she says, using the nickname you hate. “In this industry you can’t get anywhere without executive sponsorship. You don’t know what it was like to be on this team before Sam was around. He just had to put a word in and people got promoted. When he calls the CEO of another company, they make the time for him that day. It takes us three weeks to get an audience with their underlings. You don’t even know the number of times Sam’s gone to bat for us. He’s called people out when they use terms like bossy to describe us, he meets with all the VPs to provide air-cover so we’re not subjected to bullshit, he takes the bullet for us when we fuck up. He’s not just a great leader, he’s an industry icon. This foundation of his isn’t some stupid tax write-off. You should come with us. We’re going to change the world.”
Julie’s gone. You’re left with her people, some of Sam’s people and yours, a large team of frightened college graduates who bring you chocolates and hand-written cards begging you not to leave them too.
You end up in a private meeting. There are two other people there. A frightened HR representative, and Kyle, whom you haven’t seen in a few years. You haven’t really talked since the Julie-debacle, and you assume it’s because he doesn’t want to be around the woman who saw him fall apart.
Kyle’s a VP now. He looks different. Still the skinny, effeminate boy you remember, the one who blushed when he realized what really goes on in the San Francisco Armory. But there’s a detachment to him now. His eyes aren’t cold but they aren’t expressive either. His lips are still full and soft, but they’re frozen in the Gioconda’s smile.
“You can leave us,” Kyle says to the HR rep. She gazes at you in fear, because Kyle is a Big Shot now, and you’re the little people, whom she needs to protect.
You nod. There is no world where you could fear Kyle. He may have sealed off his heart, but there isn’t even a shade of malice in him.
When the two of you are alone, Kyle says, “I’m supposed to sell you on the benefits of staying. You were on a quit-list when Sam left. I expected that. You ended up on another quit-list when Julie left. I understand you were friends.”
He says it without inflection or accusation, the journalist’s tone. You can’t resist digging at him.
“Julie and I have come a long way. Did you know we once dated the same guy?”
Blood rises to Kyle’s ears.
“It’s an interesting study of human behavior,” you tell him. “Do those who are marginalized fight over scraps or do they band together to amplify their voices?”
Kyle smiles. “There are other interesting studies. Like the perception of what people did versus what they actually did, and how that varies by gender. I see you’re confused. Let me read you something. It’s what Sam wrote last year, recommending that you get promoted. You’re not supposed to hear this, which is why I sent the HR person away.”
“I didn’t get promoted.”
“I know,” Kyle says, and reads. He uses the “X” that your company’s performance review process uses to mask people’s names from the review board. It makes him sound even more dispassionate as he reads Sam’s words. “One way that I know X is ready for a promotion is how she handled things while I was on leave. I was out for nearly three months, and when I came back I found that lots of issues had come up while I was out, and everything had been handled thanks to X. Anything she wasn’t able to handle was stuff only I could have done anyway. Feeling like my projects were in safe hands allowed me to step away and focus on other things.”
Kyle looks at you. The mask is still on but there’s sympathy in his gaze.
“It goes on,” he says. “X is a leader because she listens intently and is very socially connected. She is able to gain the confidence of junior engineers and bring their thoughts to my attention. Ultimately I make better strategic decisions with her participation. X also helps with keeping the team cohesive and handling people’s emotional issues, so I owe a part of my management award to her.”
Kyle does. For a long time you sit there in silence. Kyle knows what this is, the time you need not to cry. Fuck Sam, for making everything you’ve ever done about him. Fuck Julie, for believing in Sam and making you believe in him. Fuck Kyle too for good measure.
“There are people in HR trying to decide your fate,” Kyle says finally. “They know you’ve got more potential for leadership in your pinky finger than ninety-percent of this company. But they think I’m the next Sam and you’re the next Julie, because Sam was a cult of personality and Julie is the only woman they’ve ever known. But I’m not Sam, and you’re not Julie.”
Still you say nothing.
“I don’t want to be your Sam,” Kyle says. “I know it would make things simpler for everyone else if we fit their mental model for the charismatic male lead in the movie and the woman who stands behind him, invisibly making him successful. But that’s not what I want, because it would hold you back. You’re my equal and my friend, and the only person I’ve ever known who’s called me out when I was being an idiot.”
It’s this that finally makes the tears fall.
“I could protect you from the bullshit that goes on in exec meetings the way Sam protected me. The shit’s going to hit the fan soon. There’s a bust on the horizon. Do you want to be protected from it or do you want to grow up?”
# # #
6. The Mentalist
When Patrick Jane does it, it’s entertaining, the colder aspects of his keen insight forgiven because he’s grieving for his dead wife.
When Sherlock Holmes does it, it’s scintillating, the knife-edge of his psychopathic curiosity forgiven because it’s Benedict Cumberbatch, and God, those cheekbones.
When you do it, it’s witchcraft.
You have a memory for faces so strong that you can pinpoint guest actors on Castle that you’ve seen once in Supernatural or The L Word, and it means you know everyone around you.
You recall not just when you saw a person last, but what context it was in, where they were sitting, in what room, and if pressed you can recall the entire conversation.
Speaking of conversations, you know how to steer them like a detective looking for clues, so you’re always getting exactly the information you need out of people so quickly they feel glad to be useful in your investigation.
You read everything — rooms, faces, emotions, tensions — not to mention a vast and varied literature, so can draw even the shyest person out into a discussion of the latest sci-fi novel or hold your own in a discussion about database schemas or Greek philosophy.
You can recite the checklists for a software release process or an airplane takeoff.
You’re probably a novelist, an Olympic weightlifter or a ballet dancer, or one of those people who posts pictures from your Parkour exercises at Athletic Playground.
You’re a problem.
“How can you tell who is in a room just by smell?” Dave asks you, wide-eyed and squirming.
If you’re a man and you reply with, “The scent of white musk is distinctive, but what’s really telling is why you would choose to wear a fragrance selected to emulate the natural odor of a male deer attempting to mark his territory and find a mate” you’d get punched in the face.
When you reply with, “Our sense of smell is not just the most closely connected to memory, it’s how we connect with our emotions and with other people” you get the response you had to know was coming, because you’re just that kind of genius.
“That’s fluffy psychological crap. I wish people would just engage with each other logically, you know, like engineers.”
You want to tell him that Descartes was wrong, that identity is not a brain in a vat and it’s not a box that might or might not contain Schrodinger’s cat.
You want to tell Dave that what makes you good at your job is that you’re firing on all fucking cylinders, mental, emotional and physical, and sometimes you’re so alive it hurts.
It hurts to be alone in a room full of people who aren’t even really there.
# # #
7. The Woman Whisperer
You hear so many voices you start to wonder if you’re schizophrenic.
“My manager says I’m too aggressive. But I was right, and she wouldn’t listen because I’m new.”
“I don’t want to be a lead. Have you seen the guys on the team? They’re six feet tall and they stand together like a wall of thugs. I’m not going to get into a shouting match.”
“I’m getting really sick of Hari. He talks all the time and never listens, and assumes that I agree with him because I didn’t get a word in edgewise.”
“I’m the only woman on my team. Where’s everyone else?”
“I don’t like my manager. He’s pushy and moody and keeps telling me why I’m wrong and that I don’t know what I want because I’m new. I spoke to HR and she said I should learn to work with him. Two other people have left my team. I want to leave too.”
“I keep getting told to challenge myself and expand out of my comfort zone. But I don’t want to take on the stress of being in the spotlight with everyone picking apart everything I say and do.”
You’ve got an anonymous forum to support people with their struggles. Mentorship, recruiting, coaching, and efforts to improve life in the workplace make up nearly twenty-percent of the week and fifty-percent of your brain-space.
Kyle sends you to Tel Aviv to speak with the company he’s just acquired, and after your talk wide-eyed new grads from Eastern Europe ask you, “Is it true that in America women can get paid the same as men? I asked my professor and he said it was only in America that men and women perform the same. In this part of the world, men are better than women because they have better grades.”
Your plan is simple. You have faith in the system, and if the problems people are facing persist it’s because they’re not well-understood. The stories you’re hearing will help you understand what needs to be done. You have no doubt that you can fix the problem once you know how. There’s no system you can’t decompose and re-engineer.
You and Kyle compare the salaries of your people. There’s a gender-gap, of course there is, because every company that claims to have fixed this adds a clause that says “when adjusted for performance, men and women make equal pay.”
You and Kyle know better. You know that performance is never evaluated fairly and so it’s easy for people to justify saying that anyone can be a leader as long as they’re assertive, confident risk-takers who lean into conflict and yet build consensus through soft power. That is, men only make more than women because they’re performing better.
The social experiment goes like this. You and Kyle write evaluations for your people. When a man and a woman seem to you two to be performing equally, you use the same text for both. Kyle submits evaluations you wrote for his people in Silicon Valley. You submit evaluations Kyle wrote for the people in Israel.
The HR ratifications committee reads your evaluations. The chair sends you the following statement.
In a leadership position, there is an expectation of calm under fire, of hiding frustrations. Sierra seems to not be demonstrating sufficient diplomacy in her leadership style to warrant such a high rating. Rat.committee recommends manager consult with Kyle V — on writing more objective evaluations.
You watch the cloud pass over Kyle’s features when you forward the report to him. His lips tremble, and your heart races to watch his fury. Your eyes meet.
Kyle walks away without a word. You have a new HR chair the next day.
# # #
8. The Butterfly Effect
Mohini resents the rumor that she’s the New Julie. She never even really knew Julie, but Julie’s name echoes through the valley as if it were her own Manderley.
“Julie was nothing without her man of the moment,” Mohini declares, so much authority in her voice that the women’s-group around her just nods in assent. “Julie didn’t bother making friends with other women. Julie thought diversity efforts would stain her resume, as if she’d be lowering the bar, not raising others up.”
More nods. All of this is probably true, but you don’t like that it has to be this way. Julie was more oblivious than malicious, and if she never helped out the sisterhood it was because she had never felt the need of it herself.
“It’s got to be some weird edge-case failure of the Bechdel test,” you mutter, “that there are fifteen women from every major tech company in the Bay, all gathered to talk about technology and we’re gossiping about a woman who isn’t even here.”
Mohini’s face darkens for a second, because she’s been called out. Then she changes the subject gracefully. Later, she takes you aside and says, “I get that I crossed a line, but if you want to be part of the group in the future, it’s important that you don’t resort to public shaming, especially in front of my friends. You understand, don’t you?”
“I just get triggered every time someone compares me to Julie. I mean, really, what do we even have in common? All women aren’t the same, am I right? Hugs? There we go. We gotta stick together.”
Mohini is not Julie. Mohini is a Hinjew from Edison, New Jersey. Mohini’s parents run a restaurant. She grew up in poverty with four brothers, one of whom is serving time for dealing drugs. She’s scratched and clawed her way into tech, and has screaming matches with her mother in the office parking-lot over her inability to find a husband or submit to an arranged marriage.
“Mohini reminds me of Julie,” Kyle says at lunch, completely oblivious.
“Don’t go there.”
“They’re different in one important way,” Kyle continues, and only the slight deepening of his tone is any indication that this is critical information he’s about to share. “The past didn’t even really exist to Julie. For a while after… I didn’t even try to talk to her. I was afraid she’d humiliate me publicly, make it so I’d never get a job anywhere. Careers can be destroyed so easily. All it takes is a photo. A forwarded email. A tweet.”
His words are a warning, as if you needed one. Through the glass you watch as Mohini makes her daily rounds, asking people if they want to join her for lunch or a board-game as a break. Her eyes fall on the two of you in the balcony, and her lips purse in disapproval.
Why? What does she think this is?
“But Julie could never be bothered with anything as petty as jealousy or vengeance,” Kyle says, his emphasis on the name of the ghost the clearest sign of impending doom.
“That’s not the kind of thing you can know about a person, or even about yourself, in advance,” you say. “You never really know the kind of person you are until you’re truly tested. I don’t know, for instance, if I had a chance to confront someone who had really hurt me, whether I would take it, whether I’d hurt him back if it wasn’t a crime.”
Kyle’s eyes grow distant. “But you know, don’t you, what holds your power in check? What keeps you from abusing the position you already have in search of a higher one?”
His question leaves you unsettled. It’s only three months later that you understand. Mohini has been amassing power. In the world of tech, where everything is discrete and measurable, the idea of amassing pure power is as alien as trying to chant spells to get code to compile. But Mohini has run a campaign, quietly and inexorably, created a platform for herself. It doesn’t include you.
There are parties with VCs in SOMA lofts, fundraisers in the pop-up art-galleries in Bernal, and back-rooms of the bars begun by hit-it-rich party boys are booked out weeks in advance. Mohini has become a sort of patroness of the geeks, able to discuss anything from the merits of Java over C++ to which indie band must be followed now before they get too bougie to bear. But you’re off the guest-list.
There’s another marked difference between Mohini and Julie. Mohini never sleeps with the men in her set. It’s a gaggle of women, gay men and awkward engineers who are so far on the autism spectrum that they attend her court and never say a single word, as if there were marks for participation.
None of this really matters to you. You do learn something from her though. There are ways to be a social nexus that have some unprecedented effects. Mohini is the People’s Queen, the voice of a proletariat that didn’t know it was disenfranchised and oppressed until she told them so. When she’s feeling generous Mohini acts as the Intermediary, bridging the concerns between divided groups but still perpetuating their division.
“If you want a contact at X, a real human contact who’ll actually get shit done for you and not send you into their process twilight zone, you gotta go through me,” she announces irritably at a meeting, and the engineers gaze up at her in awe. She can procure anything. Cheap opera tickets, a branding agent for a team logo, front row seats to the baseball game, a way to bypass the line at the best restaurants.
“Don’t be talking to my peeps without telling me!” she says with a friendly smile when she catches you at her restaurant. “Yo, Marco, you make this chica happy, whatever she wants. She’s one of mine, you hear?”
You’re so used to thinking of mobs and the mafia as a man’s game that you never saw the valley turn into a turf war beneath your feet.
Kyle needs to make his six-monthly global tour, something every VP in the valley is encouraged to do in order to get a better perspective on tech developments in other countries and the needs of emerging markets.
He sends you an IM. Who do I need to talk to while I’m out? What should I make sure to try? Where do you think I should go?
I’m not some fucking yenta, you write back. Mostly you’re annoyed because you’re planning a trip to Peru and everyone you ask for advice tells you to talk to Mohini, who really knows how to travel.
At the team-leads meeting that day, Kyle grills you ruthlessly. It’s not done with anger, and his tone is perfectly even, but he’s asking more questions about more details than he should really care about. Something is very definitely up, but his face is a mask. At the end of the meeting, he says to Ryan in a way that tells you it’s actually meant for your ears, “I hear your concern, but she can take it. And at the end of the day, I need everyone to have depth and substance. I don’t want my leads to be air-traffic-control, simply forwarding questions to other people.”
News of your excoriation ripples its way down the ranks, and Mohini shows up at your desk with your favorite tea. “I heard what went down,” she says. “We haven’t had a chance to catch up lately. I know you’re probably feeling betrayed right now, but these guys, they can just turn on a dime. One minute you’re their pet, the next minute you’re out of favor. That’s why we’ve gotta stick together, sisters before misters, am I right?”
You go home and spend three hours putting an itinerary together for Kyle. Because you know him better than Mohini does, and what happened today was the best gift anyone’s ever given you.
# # #
9. The Deadliest Sin
You’re the rising star. You’ve got the most challenging projects. The best team members want to work with you, and in fact threaten to quit if you’re not made happy. Stock refreshers and bonuses are rolling in until you’re paying more in taxes than the 99% make as their yearly salary.
And then you don’t get promoted, even though every single person around you believes you’re more than competent. You know from the way people don’t meet your eyes that there’s a reason for this that they all know but aren’t telling you. There’s a widespread secret that you’re not privy to. You’re not invited to the leadership circle, even though you know more about the systems and the people than all of them put together.
What the fuck.
Kyle, bless his heart, tries to explain. He says, “I know you can handle direct feedback. You’re the kind of person who can take anything without flinching. You’re exceptional, but you come across as junior in your approach. Every single lead loves working with you, but they’ve all said the same thing. I’d like to work with you to find out why that is and fix it.”
What the hell does that mean, junior? You’ve proven yourself over and over and yet again. In every design review, you’re the one who asks the crucial questions. You’ve got more technical breadth and depth than the vast majority of engineers you work with, and you’re not afraid of any challenge.
“Tell me more.”
“I think it might help if you showed more vulnerability.”
You spend a weekend thinking about this, fighting the waves of betrayal over the idea that Kyle wants you to put yourself in damsel-mode. Et tu, Kyle? And what does it even mean to show vulnerability? And can you really just cut yourself and bleed into the water and not get eaten by sharks? And is it even in you to be vulnerable, to be the weepy puppy asking for scraps at the leadership table instead of demanding your place at their side having earned it by merit?
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
You don’t sleep for three days. You might be able to take anything without flinching, but you’re not made of stone, you just have a cement mask and the walls around your heart are thicker than Troy.
Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe you’re blind and unhearing of subtle messages because your heart’s so closed off. Show more vulnerability. Fine. Suddenly your next step is clear.
You go to Leo. He’s the boy genius who’s likely going to be CEO of something and change the world before he manages to grow hair on his chest. His team doesn’t just respect him, they love him with the fanaticism formerly reserved for Joseph-Gordon-Lewitt.
Oh, shut up with the explanations. You’ve got a crush on him. That’s why you go to him and not to some leadership coach. You want to know if he’s paid any attention to you, if he’ll tell you differently, if he’ll say, “Fuck this vulnerability shit. What I love about you is how assertive you are, how you’ve paved the way for women around you and changed everyone’s perceptions with your exceptional competence.”
“I’m trying to understand why people think I should show vulnerability,” you tell Leo. “Do you have any guesses as to what might be going on?”
He asks for more information — how does your team function and relate to one another, what are the mentorship structures, what are common complaints, how do meetings run, how does performance management usually pan out — and all the while you’re thinking Yes, this is what I need, someone who really sees into the heart of things, who sees into my heart and can hold up a mirror.
He gazes off to the side in contemplation and then says, “It sounds like the crux of the problem is that it’s all about you. I mean, your team clearly respects you, but they’re not stepping up. You’ve got a strong personality, so they get relegated to the shadows. Normally, I’d say you should ask more questions, but that’s actually something you do really well. You ask a lot of questions, but maybe not the right ones. When you share things with others, it’s always about your experiences and what you learned from them. When I was doing X, I learned Y. I know you don’t mean to monopolize conversations, but you do.”
You will. NOT. Flinch.
“Tell me more.”
Leo sighs. “I’m trying to remember the conversation, but I don’t have your memory. We may have been having a discussion about how to manage low performers, and you offered your opinion based on the one you’d handled. I mean, you were correct, so the information you provided was constructive, but I remember thinking, everyone here isn’t just more experienced than you, they TEACH classes on management. So you didn’t really see your audience. I mean, dear God woman,” he laughs, “you’re competent, but you don’t have a monopoly on competence. It wouldn’t kill you to show some humility.”
There’s really no charge to his words. He’s bantering with the directness you love, treating you with the respect and frankness you yourself have demanded. If he were treating you as junior (thank you, Kyle) he would have coached you rather than told you. He cares enough about you to make your time together worthwhile, to give you exactly the information you need as soon as you need it.
You thank him for his time and go for a walk. Your hands are shaking and your knees are weak. You don’t know if you’ll fall apart. You don’t have tears because you haven’t cried since you decided that you wouldn’t show weakness, but damn it would feel amazing to fall apart right now, to cry and be hugged and told that you’re not just respected, but loved.
It takes a full thirty minutes for even a single tear to fall. Why is it that you’ve handled being told you’re incompetent, being passed over unfairly, being shoved into a wall for fuck’s sake, but this hurts so badly you want to quit? You think of that leadership circle meeting in the afternoons, the one with no women in it, and you think about Leo sitting in the room telling Kyle over beer, “Yeah, I think she heard the feedback. She came to me and I told her straight out, she needs to come down off her high horse before anyone will take her seriously.”
He wouldn’t do that. But you hate him, and you hate everyone and everything right now.
Many people have tried to cut you down, but this is the first time someone has broken your heart.
# # #
PART THREE — PARADISIO
It gets worse before it gets better. They may call you Moshe, the one who rescues and is rescued out of the water, Moshe the prophet who was raised as an Egyptian prince but never forgot that he was one of the enslaved Hebrews. Seer and savior, that is what you are called, for your unerring instinct and your ability to see deeply into everything and everyone, but you never see the wave coming and you can’t save everyone when it comes.
Ten years in, they’re all gone. It happened slowly, so slowly you didn’t see. It didn’t happen near you, it happened in other companies, other teams, other cities and countries, and so you didn’t see.
Harassment. Microaggressions. Unequal pay. Slow promotions. Misogynistic language. Drinking culture. Useless HR. No HR. Burnout. Anxiety and depression. Pregnancy. No maternity leave. No privacy in the “collaborative” open offices. No financial support or recognition for outreach and diversity initiatives. Tone-policing from “allies” who insist that more people would get behind the cause if they weren’t so emotional about it.
And these are just the things that a few people have been willing to talk about, and only to you, because they’re worried about being doxxed.
Doxxing. That’s a thing now, and so it’s not bad enough that people leave their jobs, leave the entire industry, these women have to pick up and leave their homes because their personal addresses have been posted online and they’re receiving death-threats.
Companies throw money at the problem frantically, blaming the pipeline and questioning the quality of HBCUs, but as Kronda puts it, when your bucket is leaking half the water in it, do you (a) get a bigger hose and put more water in the bucket or (b) FIX THE LEAK?
The darkest hour is when Kyle gets up in front of all four-hundred of his people and says in his neutral, dispassionate way that we need to make the workforce more inclusive of diverse backgrounds, and there is a rumble of displeasure in the crowd.
One man stands up, adjusts his trousers with trembling fingers. Kyle doesn’t see it but you do, the banked rage.
“I don’t understand,” the guy says. “You say you want to bring more blacks and latinos and women. You want to bring affirmative action into tech, but we’re engineers. We only make decisions based on the merits, and we only hire based on the merits. In Harvard admissions, Asians work harder for their entire lives and score hundreds of points higher on SATs but we still could not be admitted. Now you want to bring that discrimination to tech and lower the bar for these people. When you talk about diversity, why does no one care about Asians?”
You know that this is going to turn into a shit-storm. You don’t know how yet, so you start messaging people in the room frantically. Who’s this guy? What’s his story? The answer reaches you through the grapevine, because people know now to give you the information you want without question. It’s Hector, who could not get into Harvard or MIT and had to “settle” for Urbana-Champaign, and still bristles over the fact that everyone else on his team went to an Ivy-league school.
Kyle says with his patient tone, as if he were talking about a site outage rather than a triggering racial issue, “Rather than think about this in terms of one group versus others, I would encourage us to consider that not everyone has had the same opportunities, and that by applying our unconscious biases that favor confident, extroverted, well-dressed white men from big-name universities we may be discriminating against people who — ”
“THIS IS BULLSHIT!” cries Hector, and the room falls silent. “I worked for my entire life to get this job. You want to hire someone who doesn’t even have a Computer Science degree to take my job?”
It’s the new HR chair who steps in, with a bland recital about respect. She goes into some hiring profiles for the year listing the number of Asians that have been hired and the muttering gets louder. You know that this moment is why you’re here, and so you walk up to the front of the room. Kyle steps back without a word, even though neither of you knows what you’re going to say.
“I want to thank you, Hector, for raising an important issue that is clearly a concern for many people. I want to thank Kyle, as well, for creating a culture where we can raise tough issues about race, gender and diversity and discuss them together.”
The room is still rumbling, but the volume is lowering. Hector’s fists are still clenched at his sides. Kyle is stiff as cardboard. He needs to relax, because he is their leader and the room feels everything he feels.
“By the way, Kyle, you didn’t even go to college, did you?” you ask, meeting his eyes. There are gasps around the room.
I think it might help if you showed more vulnerability.
“I dropped out,” he says, his eyes widening in sudden understanding. “Too many rules to follow.”
“So what qualifies you for this job?”
“I wonder that every day,” Kyle says, grinning. “I have to learn on the job, fuck up a few times, figure out something new.”
The room is calmer now, thrown out of the predictable course of outrage and anger by this back and forth. Kyle doesn’t know what you’re doing, that you’re standing by his side but are taller than him in heels, that you’re deliberately taking him down a peg to satisfy the mob’s desire for a lynching. He just trusts you.
“I think it might be helpful to all of us if you could share why it’s important that we diversify the workforce. Not just why it’s important for tech — we’ve all heard the drums — but to you.”
It’s code, and he picks up on it, tells the story that only you know.
“My eldest daughter — I have two — is just starting first grade. She wants to be a scientist. She asked the teacher why people didn’t wear their souls on the outside, so that we could end all the problems that came from different colors of skin. The teacher laughed at her, and told her that she shouldn’t talk about souls if she wanted to be a scientist. Now my daughter thinks she can’t be a scientist.”
You keep your face neutral so he’ll keep talking. It’s a start, but he’s still checking the boxes of male-ally-bingo, as if it’s awkward to put himself into someone else’s perspective. It could’ve been worse, he could’ve referenced Lean In, that magical three-step way for women to achieve everything they want. Be raised by an educated family, go to a pedigree institution to achieve self-confidence, and marry someone who’s also educated and rich! So easy.
“I don’t think I realized how hard things were for other people because they’d always been so easy for me,” Kyle says, admitting his privilege with casual vulnerability. “But now I’ve got a family and four-hundred people I feel responsible for, and everything that hurts them hurts me too. I want this to be the kind of place nobody wants to leave. We’re not there yet, and I don’t have the right answers for how we can get there, but I’m tired of saying goodbye.”
This is the moment it all changes.
# # #
The Heart of the Matter
You’re invited (for the first time) to a leadership retreat that includes the brightest technical and organizational minds alive today. A face in the corner looks familiar. With his salt and pepper hair Logan is hotter than he ever was, the rockstar professor from your alma mater who only taught one seminar a year so he could spend a season hacking on various startup ventures. He was awesome. You walk up to tell him how much you’ve missed him.
Logan remembers you.
He greets you with a warm hug after asking awkwardly if it’s okay to hug now that you’re no longer his student, reminds you of that one time you said that funny, smart thing and how it totally made his day. Ten years ago. As if that’s not enough, he tells you about how he’s used you as an example of a strong, smart woman with some of the people he’s worked with in an effort to bring more women to startups.
You talk for hours. At some point he tells you about a low point in his career, when he’d done everything — everything — for his people but the company was going to go under, and the best he could do was salvage a piece of it so a few people could keep their jobs.
And how one of the people who stayed said, “I can’t even pinpoint what it was about how you handled it, but I just don’t trust you anymore.”
“How did you handle hearing that?”
“Not well,” he admits. “It hurts, to know that you can give everything and feel questioned on such a fundamental level about your empathy. To give everything and still feel like you’re failing everyone.”
“Can we go somewhere?” you ask. “There’s something that’s been on my mind and I’d like to share but I don’t know if I can control my emotions.”
He comes with you instantly. Sitting by the fireplace of a seaside resort on a chilly California evening, you tell him about Leo, who told you that you monopolized conversations and couldn’t show humility.
“I didn’t let him see,” you tell Logan, tears filling your eyes, “but it shattered me.”
“It’s always heartbreaking,” Logan says, “to feel questioned about your humanity rather than your competence. To feel that the strengths that are so core to your sense of identity are seen as wicked or weak somehow. I’m analytical, and people think I’m cold. I know someone who’s friendly, and people think she’s soft.”
You wait for the wisdom that will help you bear it all. He’s got to know.
“You already do everything that has helped me — yoga, exercise — you can always have a rubber band you snap any time you’re on edge…”
“You’ll deal with it,” he says casually. “You always do. You were the best student I ever had. Blew my mind, actually.”
Your heart soars.
# # #
The Divine Secrets of the Sisterhood
Every month, the women leaders of the valley get together in a SOMA space near Chipotle to talk about whatever is on their minds. Almost all of you are managers, and between the rolling set of ten to fifteen people who show up consistently despite busy schedules, travel, families and just wanting some time to yourselves, you know there’s something significant building here.
Every major company and a few startups are represented. Suman, who bikes forty miles to work every other day, has been working in tech for longer than you’ve been alive but she doesn’t ever pull the “oh, aren’t you adorable discovering social justice for the first time” card. Instead she talks about how the lack of women in tech is not a problem but a symptom, and we ought to stop addressing symptoms and troubleshoot the root cause.
“We prize individual endeavors over team contributions in hero culture. It starts in school and continues into the workplace. Maybe the core problem is that we value our individual voices over the voice of the community.”
Mohini is subdued these days, and says nothing. She spent the last ten years trying to satisfy her parents’ desire to see her married to an appropriate Indian boy, but all the appropriate Indian boys have demanded that she stay at home and raise kids or run away screaming when they find out she makes ten times more money than they do.
“I don’t think it’s that simple,” says Alona, who’s recently been let go for publishing stories of inaction from her company’s HR department, and ended up at a higher-paying job running a course in organizational behavior at Stanford. “When I was fired it was not for poking the bear but for talking about poking the bear. Even some of my female former-friends think I betrayed the community, that I leaked information by saying anything outside the ‘proper’ channels even though the proper channels turned out to be shouting into a vacuum.”
“They probably think that when you spoke out, it angered the execs who were trying to fix the problem, made them defensive, and set change back a few months,” you suggest as an explanation.
“Don’t you be ‘splainin’ for people who aren’t even here, when they wanted to silence me for saying something uncomfortable. If a company really fucking values diversity, they should stop expecting that diverse people will sound like WASPy white men. Girl I’m sorry you were colonized at an early age, but if you start blaming the victim instead of accepting her perspective you don’t belong here even if it is your fucking party!”
You accept the dig and apologize. It’s odd, you realize, to be in a room where there are enough women that you might actually have different perspectives on a subject you all care deeply about. So often at your current company you’ve been called in as The Woman, to proofread job descriptions for inclusive language, to vet a promotion decision, to speak about what needs to be done about diversity. It’s refreshing that you and Alona disagree about absolutely everything and love each other anyway.
The conversation moves on to addressing PTSD. So many women end up burned by a bad experience, or an inept manager. Even if your heart is in the right place, even if you have the power to change the system, how do you get people to believe you have their best interests at heart?
“One of my reports once asked me why I was asking her to go up for promotion when it wasn’t certain,” you confess. “She asked me if I was doing it to humiliate her publicly. I don’t know how to convince her that I’m not the enemy.”
“I have a report who doesn’t want to go up for promotion because she’s afraid that people will see her as part of the elite, and won’t like her anymore.”
It’s Julie, whom you’ve insisted on including in the group, who speaks next. She ditched the philanthropy crap a while ago, but got invited to be on the Board of Directors of a growing tech-company through a contact she made there. Of course she did, and you’re not even jealous because her fiancé cheated on her with some Marina girl that Sam’s also been having an affair with, and the Julie who showed up at your door six months ago couldn’t even speak. She arrived shivering and barefoot, her feet bleeding from the broken glass of a busted car window, and simply rocked back and forth in your arms for an hour.
“Have you guys told your people that you’re in this group, talking through your problems?” Julie asks.
“Well, when I was at my worst — ” she looks at you meaningfully, “ — I thought I was completely alone. I’d burned so many bridges, I’d been careless, and… it was the first time I’d ever felt helpless. There’s something that’s odd about being, well, being us, being survivors, and feeling helpless. We assume that if we couldn’t do it, nobody else could. Because we’re strong and we know it. Your reports probably think you’re just as powerless as they are. Just as alone. I think it would comfort them to know that you’re part of something bigger, something that cuts across companies and cultures. That you’re not just one lone woman trying to buck the system.”
“True that,” Alona says, “we’re the divine secrets of the management sisterhood right here.”
“Sharing our stories, and our people’s stories,” says Kiran.
“Because it’s not just about bringing up diversity numbers,” Suman says. “It’s about building up enough empathy for others’ perspectives so you don’t build a product that auto-corrects Suman to Susan every fucking time.”
# # #
Aphrodite’s arrow strikes true
You spend two weeks in the hospital. When you wake up you start laughing. Not hysterically, but because it’s just so cliche. You’re an industry leader in your own right now, sponsoring startups that cater to your interests, you get actual fan-mail, you’re sought after to give commencement speeches in universities, followed on LinkedIn and Twitter by the masses, and your net worth is fast approaching the GDP of Micronesia. You’ve grown a team out of nothing, with strong women leaders who have revolutionized what it means to work together, to provide high-quality user-facing service, to empathize with customers instead of generating requirements documents.
Getting sick now makes you feel that destiny is a soap-opera writer, generating tension where there isn’t any so the show can go on for another season.
The doctors have no idea what’s wrong. It could be genetic, or chronic stress, or too many long flights, or an autoimmune disorder, or a gluten-allergy, or estrogen from years of birth-control, or or or.
You do the only thing there is to do — take some time off from work to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life. You have a month before you need to give the commencement speech at your alma mater, and you spend it at home. Your parents have turned their retirement into a way to help refugees and their children assimilate, and a group of thirty frightened little kids gather in your parents’ basement, with their parents admonishing them to behave in front of the VP and not get their clothes dirty.
For the next three weeks you run a workshop on basic computer literacy, ignoring the pinch in your heart when a fourteen-year-old girl asks you if it’s illegal to build Android apps because “it’s a phone for men” (no woman in their community has the means to purchase a smartphone). They’re afraid of breaking the phones you gift them, and place them carefully in ziplock bags instead of using them to hack on stuff.
You do everything in your power to reach them, dressing in torn jeans and lying on your stomach on the floor, propped up on your elbows over a laptop screen as you rediscover the joys of Python with them. They’re still scandalized that you’re not going to hold an examination.
It’s from watching these kids who have been told all their lives that they are wrong, that they are outsiders, that they are different, that they aren’t good enough, that they should be afraid, that they should be feared, watching them sparkle with the joy that comes from feeling code come alive beneath their fingers that you get the words for your commencement speech, the words that send you right back to work.
Today, in Beirut and Cairo, people are using technology to break out of the shackles of war or tradition. Iran’s tremendous cultural legacy is being lost to history because we’re not able to share information. In rural India and Pakistan, people are coming online and breaking down borders. This is the most exciting time to be in technology, when we can use it to give voice to previously silent perspectives, and connect people who have spent far too long in isolation to each other and to new opportunities. The skills you need for tomorrow are not in any particular programming language or field. They are the curiosity to learn and explore, the courage to question your assumptions and pick yourself back up after each failure, the compassion to seek out others’ perspectives, and the conviction that we can change the world.
It’s not about you. It’s never been about you.
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