Fail Driven Development: a story about how one man can change a life

I’ve gone to, and presented, many talks on Women in Tech. I’m so passionate about this topic that many years ago after graduate school, I proposed a related dissertation for my my PhD. I wanted to research teaching methodologies and retention rates of undergraduate women in computer science, specifically looking for correlations between languages taught and women’s interest and ability to stick with the program. Instead, I had a baby girl and never finished that research, unless you consider coding with my ten year old research. If that’s the case, I’d like to apply for funding.

My Dad is the one who taught me to code back in 1984 on a Commodore 64, when I was 9. I expand on this in one of my talks, about what it’s like to be a 12 year old girl coding; It’s basically a lot of stuff about boys. Anyway, my Dad is the same one who encouraged me to get back into tech after undergraduate school. He was always telling me that I could do it. “You’re smart enough, Leslie, and there’s no reason not to code.” It’s true, the only reason I could come up with is that it was scary. I don’t know why, but ‘scary’ is the word I used. Math wasn’t scary. Science was’t scary. Hell, I aced chemistry and physics and anatomy and physiology. Those weren’t scary. But code? That shit was Freddy Krueger level terrifying.

Having this intimate connection to the sensitive topic about Women in Tech makes me hyper aware of different environments. I’ve had a variety of experiences in my sixteen years in tech, from blatant sexism to subtle ‘micro’ aggressions. (I actually hate that term since it’s such a trendy word, but I have nothing else to explain the subtle eye rolls, blank stares when I explain a technical issue which result in them asking my male coworker the exact question and listen to his same explanation, or the hundreds of other small expectations like ‘you can take the notes for the meeting, right?’ because I’m the only girl and that’s a ‘girl’ roll on the team.) People are sometimes appalled at the things I’m told or the ways I’m treated. I recently read Dan Lyon’s “Disrupted” and relating to some near-abusive experiences in my career, found myself nodding with enthusiasm and for the first time could finally utter the words out loud, “I was not crazy! I am not crazy! This shit actually happens and someone wrote a book about it!” Of course, I know, he’s not a woman in tech, but as an older person in tech, there are a lot of similar experiences and at the end of the day, I’m happy to have something to point to and explain, “This is how I felt, too.”

Given that previous context, all 16 years, let me now explain how the past few months have been a huge, overwhelming, emotional sort of healing.

I’ve been working at a small startup, which I hesitate to even call a Start Up because it’s such a solid little Agency, since February. As a contractor, I can either be as tightly coupled, or as loosely coupled, as makes sense to my Business and to this Agency. Since I happen to have known one of the Founders for many years, someone I respect and admire as a friend and a developer, who is humble and honest and basically just a great person, and since I also happen to know a few of the people on my project and have for many years as well, it is a great fit to be Tightly Coupled with.

A few months ago, at a conference I attend hosted by a fabulous lady, with some fantastic speakers, I sat in person with two others from my team. We attended standup on the same screen, which never happens since we’re all remote, and we were able to share drinks and dinners and conversations about our project with more detail and connection than we usually can afford given our geography.

Since I had been struggling with something project related, I reached out to ask for some help. Sam offered, on his own time, on his own holiday from work, to sit down with me and Pair Program. We sat together, both of us coding and talking out loud and sharing our understanding of the problem and solution. He guided me, helping point out things I might have missed or something to consider, and left me to continue to work on my own while he attended a few sessions he was looking forward to.

I continued to work, taking three steps forward and one step back, until connecting with him again, and we sat for another few hours, watching error messages in the console. We celebrated each time the error changed. We’d high-five. “Fail driven development!” Sam gleefully expressed as we cheered a new error. With each problem we stepped closer to the solution. We did so together, without any judgement or harsh words about how we should’ve caught this or that or what an idiot I, or he, was for missing something. We both trudged through the code together until finally, blissfully, I hit refresh and no errors appeared and the code worked as we expected. We shared multiple high-fives (high-fifteens?) and stood up to be greeted by our teammate watching us with fascination as Sam turned to him and validated me by saying, “That was really tough.”

At the time, I teared up just hearing the words that I had thought so often during the struggle of that piece of code. It was oddly satisfying to hear the validation and even more satisfying to see the nod and understanding of our co-worker, and friend, as he quietly understood the elation. In fact, that evening when I said goodbye to Sam at the after-party, I actually burst into real tears. That emotion caught me off guard. I wasn’t even sure why I was crying, as I explained to my girlfriends, except that Sam did something for me that nobody had ever done: he worked with me as a peer and as a co-worker and validated how I thought and what my ideas and solutions were. For the first time as a female developer, I felt like an equal to a man. And that, apparently, makes a girl cry, gulping, tearful, girl-developer sobs.

Threeeeeee amigos

Over the following months, these men grew to be the people I could ask questions to. Without judgement, without questioning my competence, I never hesitated to ask even the seemingly simplest question and always felt so validated to hear, “I’m not sure, that’s a good question. Let’s see…”

Things I thought should’ve been so obvious, that weren’t to me, were also not obvious to either of them. My Pull Requests were met with kind and valid questions, “What are you trying to achieve here? Would it make more sense to do it this way,” and sometimes the answer was “Yes, it would,” and sometimes the answer was, “No, here’s why.” Both of my replies were valid and met with conversation and solution.

We continued in this way, seeing each other at standup on video, sharing questions when they came up and generally enjoying having a wonderful team. Last week we gathered together again, for the third time in person, for a few days in the Vector office. The three of us got on like peas and carrots. As the “oldest threesome” in the office, we generally hung out together and shared stories and ice cream decisions. These are the important things, knowing songs and references from the early 80’s and knowing whether or not the chocolate Sunday was as wonderful as it appeared. (Spoiler, it was.)

When Sam told us, which he did in our three-group chat, that he was leaving Vector, the same overwhelming emotion came back. I’m happy for him, of course, any company is lucky to have this rare gem of a developer and human being. But I’m sad for our project, for our team, to lose this spectacular person. As much as Stephen and I tried to corrupt his optimistic soul, with our sarcasm and general jaded nature, Sam met us both with compassion and love. We have a saying now, Stephen and I, which is that We Blame Sam for every time we seek happiness and loveliness, when we put someone first before ourselves, and when we generally seek to understand the beauty of the world, which can be a complete dick otherwise.

In this way, I want to say a thank you to my friend, to my co-worker, and to someone who might not even know the Very Big Impact he had on my spirit and my being. Sam? Listen up, please, because I know you’re going to try to not take credit for this. But I want you to know:

I blame you for my professional growth, for my ability to take suggestions well and to learn from someone who understands complexity with high level insightfulness.

I blame you for my willingness to try new ideas and to extend classes in javascript.

I blame you for my compassion to other developers and to myself.

I blame you for my new appreciation of Javascript. And for my appreciation of Naming Things. And my obsession that functions are Verbs and variables and classes are Nouns.

I blame you for wanting to go to Austin as soon as possible to tell your new team to treat you well because they better fucking understand what a great catch they just caught.

I blame you for each time I choose kindness over quick-temperedness and taking things personally.

I blame you for being able to articulate when I’m in code-brain and can’t use English words.

I blame you for wanting to share every damn photo of my dog.

And finally, I blame you for opening my eyes to knowing the ten things I can never not un-know, from your presentation in New York. That I will be many people in my lifetime, that the kindness I show to a child means more than I know, to choose the road that gives the best story, that my greatest loss might be my greatest fortune, that I want to live without regrets (and blurt out all my feelings and pretty much every time I think I’d regret not saying something), that I can blame my shoes if my outfit sucks, to listen to my life and tell my greatest story, and finally, to always have something with my coffee, preferably pie.

I’d write you a function to change each “I blame you” to “I thank you” but I don’t have time to get that PR in before you go.

So thank you, so much, Sam. For being such a Great Influence in Tech. I think if more people entered this field with your heart, the entire Women in Tech conversation would turn into “How can we change the world with all these amazing humans in tech?” You’re a great umbrella of change, and compassion, and knowledge and your presence does not go unnoticed.

You will be missed more than you can ever even know, or would let yourself believe. Thank you for being such a positive person in my career, in my life, and in my team. So much love and joy for your future. Also, don’t forget to write.

-Ldough “flinger” Leslie.