I’m a 50-year-old woman who has been working professionally as a computer programmer/software engineer/coder (the name changes, the job remains the same) for the last 29 years, plus six years in college during which I also worked in the field.
I’m a 50-year-old woman who has been working professionally as a computer programmer/software engineer/coder (the name changes, the job remains the same) for the last 29 years, plus six years in college during which I also worked in the field.
Tell me a bit about your early years and where you come from.
So, I was born on the East Coast and we moved around a great deal. It’s probably—may not be relevant that my dad was previously trying to be a computer programmer because of my mom who had been a math teacher, and then went into—became a systems analyst, and later like a manager up to vice president of systems groups, so more in sort of hardware and software selection than in the actual programing.
But they split up and I grew up with my mom, and she worked in computers and—I have a story more than a memory that when I was like six she took me into the office with her, and she was working at Macy’s at the time, and so I went into the machine room with all the programmers, and for whatever reason one of them taught me to count in Hex which I didn’t even get until much later in math when we were doing different bases, and I was like, “Wow, I remember that from…”
She actually did not think being in computers was a good thing. It was a good career for her because she was a manager and telling people what to do. She had the math background and understood things very well. In fact, she’s still doing that. She’s 76 now and she’s still working as a manager of computer projects like selecting the machinery and selecting the software and setting up a group, that kind of thing. I used to say “she’s a system analyst” when I was a kid and I had no idea what that was. No clue at all [laughter].
When I went to college I still actually didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was fairly young. I graduated high school when I was 15, so I wasn’t that aware of what was going on in the world, even though I was pretty sure I knew everything of course [chuckles]. I took her advice of what college to go to and on what to study to some degree, but I went to an expensive college back east, so I had to do work study. The options for work study were work in the computer lab, work in the administration office, or work in food service. I was like, “Well, the computer lab sounds best to me.”
At that point I hadn’t had a lot of connection to computers Some of my friends in high school had had an Apple 2 of their own, but my high school did not have a computer lab. My high school in Virginia did, but then we moved to California, and what with prop 13 and all, my high school in California had nothing. I didn’t really get into them very much, except to play with my friend’s computer a few times. A couple times my mom would bring something home from work, though she didn’t do much work at home, so I didn’t really see a lot of it.
I get to college and I’m like, “I want to work in the computer lab, but I don’t really know much about computers, so I’ll take a Basic programming class, the intro programming class.” That was so much fun, and I started to spend all my time online, writing extra programs and playing the games that they had at the time, which were fairly primitive. Adventure, that kind of thing. I got very into it, so I took another computer class and another computer class. I switched colleges to San Francisco State out here, and I started working in the computer lab there and just taking more and more classes both in what at the time was called the information Science department, which was business computing. Stuff like Cobol, accounting, statistical packages, that kind of thing. Also in the Computer—well, what was the Math department then and became the Computer Science department before I graduated. That was a fairly common evolution at that time, for the classes to start in the math department.
About halfway through college I went to the ACM programming contest with some friends of mine from the computer lab, and then the computer science department—which was still pretty new—was like, “why aren’t you a computer science student if you’re going to the programming contest to represent our school?”. I’m like, “oh, okay, sure, I’ll study computers”. Then I actually signed up for the degree program and got a degree in computer science. For the longest time I was honestly just doing it because it was fun and that’s what my friends did because we were all hanging out at the lab. I wasn’t really planning on a career; it was just the thing I enjoyed most in college was being in the computer lab, working on the computers, helping people get their stuff done, and it just kind of evolved.
I graduated college in ‘87 and at that point it was mostly defense contractors. There weren’t a lot of startups. Banks and big companies and that kind of thing. I interviewed at Lockheed and I interviewed at a small company in Berkeley that was doing natural language processing. It was a start-up before there were start-ups all over the place. I didn’t like the idea of working on spy satellite software, even though I’m sure it would have been fascinating as a problem. So I went to work with the start-up in Berkeley.
I was there for seven years and then it was time to move on. I thought, “I’m doing the same thing here over and over. I want to do something different.” It wasn’t as common then for people to change jobs every two years. I didn’t, at that time, really think of changing as a thing, until I was so tired of doing the same thing all the time and so stressed by the small company thing.
Then I went to work for a larger company, a database company. One of my friends was working there and I had just been saying on my friends mailing list, “I’d really like a new job.” and she was like, “come work with me.” I went to work there and after that, I took a short break and did web contracting, because the web was suddenly a thing and I was a little burnt out on working. That was in the mid 90’s. I wasn’t that good. I’m not a designer at all. I’m terrible with graphics and all all that. So HTML was easy to learn, but it’s hard to really do something good with it without having a sense for design and user interface. That was all pretty new at the time, web design. So all the sites were just awful. I was not much worse than anyone else, but these days they would be absolutely terrible. And yet people were willing to pay me for it because nobody was doing it then.
And then when I went back into a full-time job, it was the dot-com era. I got a job and I was like, ”Wow. It’s a job in San Francisco.” Because I’ve been living in San Francisco since we moved here when I was in high school. But I was commuting down the Peninsula and over to Berkeley because that’s where the companies were. Then I got a job with an e-commerce company in San Francisco. I was like, ”This is great. I can commute to work on the MUNI.” Which was still not dreadful at the time.
So I started working there, and I worked there for four years, and finally, it was kind of the same thing. The work became pretty much the same, and it was still a startup with no real income even after four years. I got a little tired of “every time you walk in you have to something to save the company because it’s going to go under.” I’m like, “If it’s going to go under unless I mobilize and stress out every day, I don’t really want to be involved in that.” I was getting more sensible by then. I still spent then and spend now almost all my time online. If something went wrong, I’d be there. I’d be there to help out at 2:00 in the morning or whatever. I don’t mind that, but I do mind the expectation that everyone will do that. Like I’m there because I happen to be there. I happen to be doing my own thing. I don’t want to be working literally from the moment I wake up to the moment I sleep anymore—although when I was younger, that was fine. I really didn’t mind. I really love what I do.
Not that I feel like I have to work that much, but I’m always interested and you can’t really turn it off. Like you’re working on something and you go home, and it’s still in your head. Even in the early days we still had dial-ups or we still had the source code on our machines that we could move around. You can keep working as much as you want to keep working and if you really like what you do, it’s hard to stop. It’s hard for anything to not be part of it. So I worked there for four years and then it was a series of dotcoms that went under—at that time, they were all going under.
Eventually I went to work for—I was like, “I’m so tired of companies dying out from under me. Get me a job at something that’s not going to die.” So one of my friends was working at Wells Fargo, and she said, “Come work here, it’ll never go under.” After I was there for about six months, another one of my friends from another of the startups that had died, we were having dinner and he—and we’re talking about I’m ranting or about my job and he says, “They’re destroying your soul. Come work with me [laughter].” I said, “Yeah. You’re probably right.”
And so I went to work with him at a Dotcom 2.0, a company called Shopping.com. That was wonderful. They were great. I was there for about three years but they got purchased by Ebay and became really, really, really boring. A lot of people I worked with there, I have worked with again since then because it just was another of those atmospheres that was really amazing. The first dotcom, I was the second engineer I guess, so I just hired all my friends. As we needed more people, I’d be like, “Well, I got a friend who could help us out.” It was good then. After I’ve been in the business for like 10, 15 years, it starts to get harder to get your friends to come work with you because they’re very happy where they are. They’ve found a nice place and so instead you go work where your friends are when you decide you need something new.
Since then, I’ve been working for a number of companies, mostly smaller ones. I really, on the whole, prefer start-ups or relatively small companies where I can understand all of what’s going on. But after my last start-up got bought by Facebook, one of my friends from Shopping.com was working at Twitter and he said, “You should come work at Twitter.” So I went down there and it was really nice. They were in their new building and the food was excellent. I had really liked working with him before and his team was very nice, so I went to work there. That was the largest company I’ve been at since Wells Fargo and one of the largest companies I’ve ever been at and it was growing like crazy while I was there. When I interviewed, I think they had about 1,200 people and by the time I was actually starting work, they had over 1,500. Then by the time I left they had about 3,000. That was two and half years later.
I did not like the bigness. I did not like the bureaucracy. I did not like the corporate-ness of it all. So I was like, “All right, this time I’m going to try to find something in between because I don’t want to be stressed out with a start-up that’s going to die everyday, but I also don’t want to be working at a big company where I just have no idea what’s going on.” Like, all I know is my little area and the communication is not great and all. That’s just natural to big organizations. Now I’m working at Instacart with another of the people I used to work with at Shopping.com and actually, one of my friends from Twitter came to work here as well. It’s a nice size. It’s got under a hundred engineers so you could squeeze all the engineers into the cafeteria and have us all talk to each other at once, which is pretty good. So that’s a very long-winded summary but nonetheless brief because I’ve actually worked for—I think I’ve counted 12 companies in, what is it now, 29 years. So, there’s more [laughter]. Those are the highlights.
What about your work really, really excites you in actually true to the core?
Basically, it’s puzzles. I love puzzles. I’m a gamer of all sorts: jigsaw puzzles, other kinds of puzzles, card games, board games, role playing games, video games, all of it. I used to play video games in the arcades when I was in high school and college and I didn’t have a console until much later. I still think of video games as standing up with the machine, even though now I sit on the couch and play with the controller. My favorites are always the puzzle solving ones. I think of most problems in software as being solving a puzzle because making a computer do what you want to do, in itself, is a simple but interesting puzzle. Even more so when something goes wrong. Then you have to envision the whole system and figure out where the problem came in and what you can do to correct it without breaking everything else around it. To me that’s very jigsaw puzzle-ish in conception because you have a lot of pieces that perhaps look a lot like or could be parts of almost anything and we have to be careful how we put it together. That’s a very strange analogy but still it’s how it feels when working on it.
What are your biggest motivators? What drives you?
Oddly, I feel like it’s the people. Both the people that I’m making the software for and the people I’m making the software with. Day to day I can come in and not speak to my team all day. We might chat on Slack or something but it’s not really the same, although I do think of it very much the same. I’ve been chatting online since I was 16 and I had a lot of just social chats and social email lists, and then it was newsgroups and forums and so on. I see working with computers as extremely social. To me it has always been an interactive thing.
When I was in high school, the one contact I had with computers was going over to hang out at friend’s house who had a computer. When I was in college I was always in the computer lab with my friends who were also in that lab or who were in other labs and we’d be chatting online and talking about all sorts of things, not just technical work, but certainly that was part of what we talked about. Writing programs for each other, sharing code, pretty “open source” before that was a thing. You would even hand other people a print-out and they’d type it in; whatever it took but you always shared.
A lot of what makes me stop liking a job is when I don’t feel a good sense of being a team with the other people I’m working with. When I start to feel isolated in some way, whatever it may be, it can be from the company standpoint when I feel like the company doesn’t consider the programmers or it could be from the developer standpoint where I feel like I have a lot of disagreements or disconnects with the other developers when our style or our sense of what’s right is not the same. But, as long as I have that good feeling that I’m part of something, I’m happy, and similarly I love web development and tools development because I feel a lot closer to the customers that way.
When I was doing package software back in the early days, my first company I actually did customer support, so they would send me to a customer to find out what their problems were at a technical level. I’d actually sit down with their database and their software and dig into whatever their product domain was, whatever their business domain was, and try to help customize our software for them. Then I’d bring problems back to the office and sit with the other developers and we’d try to work out ways to deal with these unusual problems that I might encounter out in the wild. And then when I worked with the database company, it was really disappointing because I had no connection to the user or how they were using the software, and then when I got on the web, websites had a more direct sense of interaction with people because they’re built for people, rather than being built for computers. Even more so, these days, I do a lot of internal tools work, because then, not only am I a part of “the team” from a company standpoint, but I’m helping another part of the team and I can get direct feedback from them if something is not helping or something goes wrong. So yes, it’s very, very social and it’s very, very much about people.
Let’s flip to the dark side for a second. What have been some of your biggest struggles and roadblocks over the course of your career?
[chuckles] At Wells Fargo—I mean, mostly I’ve been really happy. At Wells Fargo, I was frustrated as a developer and the reason my friend said they were destroying my soul, I said to him, “Well, they’re forcing me to do a bad work on an evil product” [laughter]. Although really, the product wasn’t evil, it was just telephone banking, but the process that they had was to develop a product spec of like hundreds of pages, and then get it signed off by dozens of people, and then essentially, it’s thrown over the wall to the programmers, and we would try to implement it and then we’d come back, and we’d be like, “Well this is impossible. Literally, not physically possible.” And they’d be like, “Well, we can’t change the spec.” So then you’re like [chuckles], “Why are you not rational? Why don’t you understand that a computer simply cannot do this. So you have to change the spec.” “We cannot change the spec. It’s been signed off.” Then you’re like, “This is insane world. I can’t live in this world. I need a world that is more rational.”
That’s the worst example, but of course, there’s always examples like that. You always have things which are being decided by product people and then brought to the engineers later, and then you have to deal with people’s idea of what it is that you can do. Often, I find, it’s even worse when they’re trying to be nice to you. So they’ll say, “Well, we want this.” And if you go back and you say, “Why do you want that?” they’re like, “I thought it was easier. What I really want is this.” And then you’re like “Oh, what you really want is much easier than what you asked for [chuckles].”
I think during the early days, though, there was a lot more disconnect. These days, I’m working at companies where the product managers are much more technical, much more involved, and frequently embedded with the actual group that they’re supporting, so they know what’s going on day to day. So that’s gotten a lot better. But it was definitely frustrating and difficult in the earlier days.
Then, at Twitter I ran into a very different problem which I had never encountered before, which was being female, [chuckles] and I never—I was always mostly at small companies and I might be the one woman on a team of ten. But, I never really felt it. We were just all the developers. Then other times like at eGreetings, where I got a bunch of my friends hired, it was about half and half, actually—not precisely half and half, but certainly pretty close to it— and I didn’t really feel it there either. I didn’t feel it one way or the other. Although we did used to joke there that all the people in marketing were almost the same attractive blonde woman, I think because the guy who ran marketing might have had a little bit of a preference, but I think also just there always has tended to be more women in marketing and more men in software engineering.
Also, at eGreetings since it was the early dot-com days, practically anybody who could pick up a book on HTML would become a web developer. And so we also had an extensive team of people who did the web site things—the HTML—and they were also mostly female, so that also contributed, I think, to the feeling there that it was very evenly distributed. Other places—it’s back and forth, but I never really felt it until I went to Twitter. I went to Twitter, and I could, literally, go all day without seeing another woman. Every meeting I went to, all the people I worked with, all the people on my team—If I didn’t look up from my computer, and I just went to meetings, I’m the only one there. And somehow I started to feel it in a way that I had not felt it previously. I don’t know, really, what the situation is there—in terms of what the management thinks—but I do know that I went and counted, and there was only like seven percent women, as far as engineers go, and they were all at the lower levels. So, at the higher levels it was men. The management chain—you looked at anybody’s management chain and it was almost certainly six men. There might be one woman in there. I just started to feel really different. I’d never felt different before, I was always—I won’t say one of the guys because it wasn’t like that. They were—I dated lots of them. They didn’t think of me as a guy, but I was one of the engineers and not “the female engineer” on the team. You know what I mean? And at Twitter you’ll be like—There were three of us who got together once in awhile, and one of us was invited to every interview, to every interview panel, to prove that Twitter had female engineers or something. I don’t know. It was really bad. Because it—Like, “Why am I interviewing for some team that, not only am I not on but I don’t even know what they do.” And they still put me on the interview panel because the team didn’t have any women [laughter].
I had been really interested in feminism and feminist issues back in college, as you do, and I posted a lot on soc.feminism, and I eventually became a moderator there, and I talked about all these issues at length, and then I just kind of forgot about it for 20 years. Not because I felt the problem was solved, I know the problem wasn’t solved, but it wasn’t really bothering me and wasn’t really bothering my friends and—Even though every once in awhile, I’d say something in a group discussion or somebody would talk to me as “the female engineer”, it just wasn’t a thing from day to day, until at Twitter it became a thing where I was really, really feeling it. So, I started getting involved in discussions there about the level of diversity, and arguments, and so on.
The other thing that I felt was my age—not that people commented on that—but that everyone there was so inexperienced in comparison. In fact, when I was hired they were arguing with me about my pay. They’re like, “Well, you’re going to make more than anyone else on your team.” I’m like, “I’ve got 20 years more experience than anyone else on my team.” So, I’m not going to take a pay cut. [laughter] There were so many times when—they’re these very, very bright people, but they just were not practical. They had not had experience putting things into production. So, they do a great job developing, but the sense of ownership, of maintaining it, of consideration for other developers—the person who would come next—how are they going to deal with your code? When you’ve done this really, really clever thing, but you haven’t explained it or tested it, or anything, how is that going to work when someone has to maintain it? Nobody wants to fix bugs. Everybody wants to be developing exciting new features. It’s all the shiny new object. and I was just like, “Believe me. My experience tells me that what you’re doing is a bad idea,” and they just don’t get it.
Even the people in management, they’re only a couple of years older. They’ve had no experience. And so I kept running into conflict with people because I was like, “No. I’m really, really, really sure that this is true,” that we need to do maintenance, that we need to have people who are focused on keeping the old stuff clean and working, and we have to every once in awhile clean up the platform. And everybody just had this really short-term point of view. “Everybody” is an exaggeration, with a thousand engineers of course there are people of all sorts of viewpoints, but just so frequently I would be meeting with people and trying to convince them that after 20 years of experience, I actually knew what I was talking about, and I couldn’t do it. And I was just like, “What’s going on here,” because again, I’ve never had that problem before. People had always had a similar point of view and even when it wasn’t similar, it was close enough they’d get what I was saying. And suddenly it was like being in a foreign country and I think I’m speaking the language, but I’m just not.
So I have no idea what how that happened, but my sense is that—and from also looking into a lot more things about diversity, bias, and all of that—they started with a core of people who were very similar, and then in order to, quote, not lower the bar, which they literally said, hired more and more people who were precisely like the people they already had, until they just ended up with this great homogeneity of person and thought, which was really hard to pierce, because—I mean, you see this, when talking about political things too, where people are presented with contrary evidence to their political view it oddly actually reinforces them in their original incorrect view, rather than them learning. And in part that is because everyone else they know agrees with them. So the more you’re in an environment where everyone agrees, if you are the person who doesn’t agree, if you are the person who’s different, you can’t get through that, because everyone’s backing them up. “Yes, you’re right, you’re the same as me, we agree, we understand”.
That sense of being different was really odd to me, really, really odd, because I had never had that sense. And it was very difficult to work, because I felt constantly on the outside of everything; in some sense not wanted, right? Nobody wants to hear it. Nobody wants to be challenged. Nobody wants to hear that they’re doing it wrong or at least you think they’re doing it wrong. So, I was “too aggressive” and eventually—yeah, I know. And I’m like, well I mean, in a way I am, nobody would describe me as retiring in a work sense. I’m actually reasonably shy with new people in a social sense. But, at work certainly I’ve never been one to just shut up and let things go. But again, my experience in developers has been that they welcome better ideas and to have people just shut off any different ideas, forget better, right, like obviously I think it’s better, but, it’s “different”, and one of the things I love actually about the job is that discussion and that argument and that debate to try to find the best possible solution.
One of the things that attracted me to the field in the first place was that it was so much more logical and so much more deterministic than people are—software, it either works or it doesn’t and it works faster or it doesn’t work faster and it works better or it doesn’t work better. And so, while there are certainly still things that are subjective, there are a lot of objective measurements and a lot of ways to be able to determine “Yes this is right or at least this is not wrong.” Even when we’ve gotten into the most contentious arguments, I just enjoy that. I enjoy that we’re arguing to get better and not arguing because you have one what I would call religious view and I have a different religious view. Vi vs. emacs, you’ll never settle that, but you recognize that it’s a matter, if you will, of faith or belief and not a matter of fact. Eventually you just stop arguing about that one and you do your own thing.
For questions like, “Should we upgrade to the latest version of Ruby?” I don’t think that’s a matter of opinion or religion. I think that it’s a matter of fact that you have to keep your tools up to date. I’ve seen over and over again that when we don’t do that things go wrong. Then people are saying, “Well, it’s too much trouble to do that.” I’m like, “It’s too much trouble not to do that.” I’m good at compromise but I’m not good at letting things which are wrong go by. If I believe it’s my own feeling I’m perfectly happy to compromise, but if I think that it’s really truly wrong, then I just plant my feet. And that’s I guess not so good [chuckles]. I’m not going to stop, but it certainly can cause trouble.
Yeah, but it’s interesting that you’ve had so much perspective in that it was okay and it worked for a long time.
Well, at my new job it works a lot better. Even though again, I’m probably one of the oldest people here, and there’s only a fraction of people who I think have even ten years experience. I feel like the people here are much more open and much more of my viewpoint. So that’s another reason I think it’s not so much the industry, it’s the fact of when you collect a sort of critical mass of people who have the same viewpoint, and it makes it hard to be different. But as long as you have a community where everybody’s not from the same background and the same approximate age and social and everything, then it’s not so hard to disagree with people. That’s one of the things. I’m on the diversity committee here and to me, the important thing is not like specific characteristics of the person, but the fact that they aren’t like everyone else. That we get that difference in viewpoint which allows people to continue to perceive that different viewpoints are valuable and okay. That’s the best environment to really learn in, too. So, I think it’s better for all the engineers, even if they don’t personally care.
Did that experience immediately affect what you were looking for in your next job?
Absolutely. But it’s hard to define, right? I mean, how do you say, “I want a really open-minded team that’s open to different ideas.” Of course everybody is going to say, “Of course we are.” But in reality, people just aren’t even maybe aware of how much of a little bubble they’re in. Until they get hit in the face with it a few times [laughter].
Where have you found your support networks, traditionally. Where did you find them early on and where do you find them now?
In college, it was the other people in the computer lab and the people that I talked to online. There was a program called Talk and it was like a sort of a mini IRC, so like a small channel plus personal chatting, across the State University system. We all had access to it, although most people didn’t know about it, but the sort of hardcore computer geeks did. So I had friends all over California from the State University system and then after I started working there were people I had met both at school and there was a dinner group over at Berkeley that I used to go to and, again, it was computer people who just socialized once a week.
So I just had a lot of friends from those kind of groups. They were founded on being engineers to a great degree, but they were also social groups. And over time, you introduce those friends to other friends, you introduce people that you work with and they bring in people they work with, and so the group expands and certain people you have more in common with and you get to be personal friends, and other people you just kind of hang with in the group, you know? So when there are group events then they’re all there.
I met people on Usenet. I met people occasionally through other interests, like I started going to board game conventions, so I’ve made friends there. As the industry has expanded, more and more of those people have turned out to be engineers, anyway.
So my circle of friends is still primarily engineers with, strangely, a bunch of lawyers who somehow crept in there. They seem to be big board gamers as well [laughter]. And then a few people from other areas. And then over time as I’ve been doing online gaming I’ve met people on there. And that’s actually where I get the most diverse group of friends is from online gaming because you get people from all over who—A lot of them it’s when they’re in college or if they’re unemployed or something. But a lot of people just keep at it for years and so I’ve met people from all over the world, people of all different ages and backgrounds.
I even for a while was playing a game in China. It was hosted on servers in China and it was all Chinese people. And then there were a few of us who had gone there to play because they had the game before it was released in the US. And they were super nice. They’d find somebody who could speak English if they wanted me to join their group, and you I didn’t really get to be friends with many people because the language barrier was such that beyond the gaming it was really difficult. But they were friendly, you know? I’d say most of my friends I’ve probably met online or if I haven’t met them online, I’ve maintained the relationship online, and then college and jobs.
I’m curious to know—going back to your earlier experiences—has that made you more drawn to finding and connecting with women in the workplace? I’m curious.
Only in the sense that I’m more open to it than I was. When I went to Twitter, they had a Women in Engineering group that invited me to like a lunch or something as an employee. I was just like, “Eh. Whatever.” That had never been a thing for me, so I just didn’t bother. Of my friends, some of them are women, but the vast majority are men. I’m just generally more used to hanging out with them, which is another reason why it was so weird, feeling different from the other engineers. I’ve been in groups of men all the time. I never felt like it. So I didn’t go there, but when I came to Instacart, the female engineers were like, “Hey, let’s you know, get together for a drink. I’m like, “Sure, let’s do it,” because I was like, “Alright. Maybe there’s a problem here that I should be involved in in helping solve.” As far as personally, apart from the issues that I’d like to see things improve in tech generally, no. In general my friends are men and they always have been.
Let’s go macro for a second. How do you feel about the overall state of tech in 2016? What excites you, what frustrates you, what would you like to see change?
I like the speed at this point of everything. Network connections, you know? I started out with a 300 baud modem. I like how fast everything is and I like how fast everything’s changing. It’s part of what keeps the job interesting. I’m essentially in school every day, learning new things and having to keep my brain working and not just repeating the same patterns. As I said earlier, I will often leave a job when I feel like I’m just doing the same thing over and over again. It’s actually to me somewhat more stressful. You think it’d be stressful learning new things, and it is. There’s always that feeling of, “I should be better at this,” but it’s more stressful to feel like you’re just grinding away on the same thing indefinitely. The way that the world keeps changing is wonderful to me because I’ll never get bored. I might get bored on a particular teams, on a particular task, at a particular company, but there will always be something new and interesting out there, hopefully at the same company because I don’t really like changing jobs. If not, then certainly at another one. I think it’s unfortunate that some of the things that are really nice—It used to be we were kind of looked down on as engineers. We were weird, we were not socially apt, we worked with computers, which were scary, or at best, really irritating to people. The IBM at the office where everything’s always crashing and it’s blue screen of death all the time, and people hated computers. The web came out and people started to use it. Suddenly, everybody’s using computers. I’m like, “Okay, this is cool. This is what I wanted to see.” I felt like that from the very beginning. Actually my very first class was back east at Wellesley and the instructor was a guy from Stanford who was a visiting instructor there. The first thing that I remember him showing us was, he logged into his account at Stanford and showed us the weather in California. Of course that made me horribly homesick. because it was freezing in Massachusetts already and it was really delightful in California. But I was also like “Oh my God, you’re in California. You’re standing here in Massachusetts but you’re in California. That is so cool.” And that’s always how I thought about computers, you know, was as a way to communicate and a way to draw people together in some sense, to take away the distance. And that was maybe more of an issue for me because we moved so much and I always lost touch with people because, you know, you’d go away and I mean, especially if you’re a kid, you don’t travel back to see somebody who lives in another state the way you might when you’re out of college and you have friends or whatever. So I’d just lose touch with people all the time. This was a way to talk to people all over the world, to get different viewpoints, to talk about anything for people who felt—one of the cool things about Usenet was that people who’d felt really alone and different in their little community could find people in the larger world.
So now another, I guess it’s—wow, 20 years down the line since the web came out. Everybody’s seen that, right? Everybody’s feeling that. So the way I felt about computers when I was 16, now everybody feels that way and everybody is able to communicate with different people, keep in touch with people and find things out, look things up. That’s how I always felt since the day I touched a computer till now. And now, everybody is that way. I remember [chuckles] when i was 16. People thought I was really weird, rushing home to read my emails all the time. Now, everybody is reading their emails at all moments, or their chats, or whatever is equivalent. So you see, I was not that weird. I was just ahead of my time [chuckles].
The things I don’t like—now we’re ridiculously spoiled. It used to be, we were paid decently but not amazingly. We were treated much less well than the sales people. The salespeople made the company money and we didn’t. They got all the nice stuff and we were stuc in our cubicles. There was not a great deal of respect. Like there was respect definitely, but it was sort of you’re just another professional. Now, it’s insane. Everybody is pinging you and telling you how great you are, it’s just silly.
Actually that was another thing that was kind of discordant. Before Twitter I was used to a lot of positive feedback. The culture there is more of a culture of negative feedback. You don’t get a lot of people saying, “That was really great. Thank you.” But you do get complaints whenever anything goes wrong. That kind of brings you down. Right? I don’t expect everybody to constantly tell me how great I am, but I’d at least like to get general positive feedback of: you’re doing a good job, I like what you’re doing, keep it up. It just wasn’t the culture there and that’s uncommon. Most places I know engineering managers are pretty good. I think that they realize that we are slightly fragile and need some reassurance that we’re doing the right thing day to day, however big our egos may be [laughter]. But, unfortunately now, the egos are getting pretty big. Right? I used to say jokingly, “I don’t see why they’re so down on us. They do know we run the world.” Well now they do know we run the world. Unfortunately, that leads to a lot of engineers who have a lot of big egos and expect a lot of really excessive things in the ways of benefits and treatment and perks and everything. I’m like—in the end we’re still just another set of professionals doing a job that these days is very popular. But, I remember the days when we were much more negatively viewed.
Many of the stereotypes are still there. “Silicon Valley” is one of my favorite shows. It has all the terrible stereotypes and some people, they’re like, well, I don’t like it because it goes too far. I’m like, no, I know all of those guys. I know them. Sure, they exaggerate it a bit for the humor value, but it’s not unusual to meet people like that still. But they are also not the only people. There’re plenty of people who have lots of outside interests and can get dates and be social and all, you know? We aren’t so bewildered by the world as that show depicts computer people, which is nice. It does, however, make it hard to be the old-style engineer who is not so social, not athletic, not interested in sports, not interested in much of anything besides computers and in my case, board games and science fiction, that kind of thing. It used to be practically everybody I met was like that. And now I am more different than I was. The group is less homogenous and that makes it possible also to have pockets of greater homogeneity, which are very different from who I am and that is weird. It’s probably better on the whole, I just I miss the old days sometimes.
Totally. My last question for you would be, what are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned over your time in tech that you would give as advice to folks who are just starting out now?
Well, from a career standpoint, it’s most important to have friends. I’ve gotten almost all my jobs through friends. If I haven’t gotten the job, that way, I’ve either made friends, real-life friends with people at work or I’ve hired my friends at the job. Again partially it’s the people who are the best part of it, but also if you want to know that the place you’re going to is good, get a reference from somebody who works there. If you want to find a new job, but you don’t know where to go, ask your friends to refer you. If you don’t have any friends, well, or any friends in the industry, then you’re kind of out of luck.
And then, as far as while doing work, I think people really need to realize that the housekeeping and maintenance tasks are just as valuable. And if you’re the one doing them, then you should stick up for yourself and say, this is just as much needed as flashy new feature development. If you’re not the one doing them you should recognize that you would be a lot more unhappy if someone wasn’t taking care of all those things for you, and so respect those people. I mean I suppose to get into the gender stereotypes, again, it’s like mom at home and dad at work in these sort of faux-ideal—because I don’t think it was ever ideal—but this ideal that people had of someone being home taking care of all those housekeeping tasks—making you food, and cleaning, and laundry, and all of the things that just make your life run more smoothly—is just as important as the person who’s bringing in wads of money and paying for things.
And I think that engineering has a lot of housekeeping to be done, like a ton, and it’s not very glamorous. And you can’t be the one to point and say, “Oh, yeah, I developed this thing.” You would just be like, “Well, you know, I fixed a dozen bugs last weekend so the site kept running, so that was good.” But people don’t really appreciate that, and I think—One of the things that I try to do is make sure that people do appreciate that. And then finally, the other thing I think is really important is as people become more senior they should be teaching more and developing less. It’s a constant educational effort to stay good at what you’re doing, but it’s not just you educating yourself, but you helping the people around you. Which again, I guess is a little bit of a housekeeping thing. But if you’re not making your team better then in some sense, what good are you because nobody will miss you. You could be plugged in with another coder the next day, and nobody will care. You’re going to need to contribute more than just the code.
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