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One engineer’s lessons from attending Lesbians Who Tech & Allies Pride Summit 2021

Policygenius is America’s leading online insurance marketplace. Our mission is to help people get insurance right by making it easy for them to understand their options, compare quotes, and buy a policy, all in one place.

Late June of this year, Policygenius sponsored my attendance at the virtual Lesbians Who Tech & Allies Pride Summit. I participated in talks on topics ranging from how to get better pay to the evolution of cloud networking, and these were essential. But after a year of a pandemic, where connection to not only the tech community, but also the Pride community felt distant and nearly lost, it was fantastic to be able to (virtually) engage with such a large group of wonderful people, and dance in my apartment during the music breaks.

The importance of attending talks as an engineer

In the past, I’ve viewed attending conferences and summits as “nice-to-haves” in my career, but as I’ve attended more throughout the years, I’ve realized that they are vital to one’s growth as an engineer. It’s easy to think that your day-to-day work is the most important aspect to your career growth, as that’s what your performance is primarily measured upon. However, the things I’ve learned at talks and conferences have influenced not only the way I think about problems in my day to day, but also how I view myself as an engineer.

Especially with remote life, it’s easy to become disillusioned with your own personal performance. Humans are social creatures, and for the past year and a half, many of us who work from home have been entirely isolated. Some of the most impactful talks that I attended weren’t about cybersecurity or scaling systems, but were about how to manage stress, balance work and life when the lines begin to blur, and optimizing productivity during a pandemic. In fact, one of the most important things I learned during this conference in particular was that I am not alone in feeling isolated and unproductive at times.

Not only was it enlightening to engage with people who feel the same, whether they’re an executive at a Fortune 500 company or a senior software engineer at a startup, but I also felt inspired by everyone’s desire to succeed against all odds. I learned so much from so many different intersections of people who I don’t get to interact with every day, especially with remote life. It was enlightening to watch open conversations about complicated issues such as racial inequality, systemic political issues, and mental health.

It’s easy to live in a bubble, especially when that bubble is your apartment in New York, but I’d encourage anyone who is hesitant to attend a conference, or even just a series of lightning talks, to just go for it. You’ll most likely learn a lot more than you would just continuing to do the same things every day.

This summit was awesome. I am so glad I attended and was able to learn from a vast array of women, men and non-binary individuals from all sorts of backgrounds. People from both startups and major companies were presenting, making Pride Summit one of the most diverse conferences I’ve ever attended. To attend something like this in tech was eye-opening. Tech is notorious for being extremely heteronormative and white, and seeing how much progress we’ve made as a community towards diversity and inclusion was incredible. If you find any of the breakdowns of these talks interesting, I only attended about a quarter of what was offered, so there’s plenty more to offer. See you there in 2022!

Highlights from non-technical talks at Pride Summit 2021

I’m a Site Reliability Engineer here at Policygenius, so I was pleased to see that a lot of the technical talks revolved around security, systems, and networking. These talks were mostly suggestions and revolved around the speakers’ individual experiences. While not all of the talks were directly applicable to my nor my company’s needs, they were still interesting to listen to! My three favorite talks were:

Test Distributed Systems in 15 seconds

By: Nikita Sirohi

For context, Nikita defined the types of tests as follows:

  • Unit test: Single function or API
  • Integration: Not localized to one component
  • End to end: Entirety of a feature

When testing a distributed system, she suggested dependency injection as a great tool for effective testing because it allows you to have a lot of control when testing. You can use the object wherever you want, it allows for modularization of your code, and is easy to mock. Additionally, by its nature it creates a separation of business logic and environment, allowing you to avoid muddying your testing by environment specifications. It also allows for you to interrogate assumptions made by a function or object by controlling your dependency separate from the function or object’s manipulations.

However, she noted some drawbacks. Dependency injection can lead to unneeded code, creating a dependency that isn’t used often enough to justify its existence. It also can create a steeper learning curve for newer developers, since portions of the code can be obfuscated by this approach.

For her use case, she applied this testing technique by mocking out each server (for her distributed system), and set up failures in the system to assert expected behavior on the servers. After all of this set up, she was able to run through an integration test suite in 15 seconds using her dependency injection approach.

DevSecOps: Making Security a First Class Feature

By: Nupur Jain

Nupur’s company, FactSet, like many companies, went 100% remote in 2020. As a financial data company working with mergers and acquisition, there were a lot of security concerns to handle in this transition. Mergers and acquisitions involve a large paper trail and more archaic methods of transferring data, something unsupported in a fully remote world.

She wanted to make DevSecOps a first class feature

Knowing this, they had to overhaul a lot of their systems in order to deal with these issues. She wanted to make DevSecOps a first class feature in this transition, as a reactive approach can be 30x more expensive to fix. Nupur prioritized security features in her design to avoid costly mistakes later on.

One of the most significant concerns she had was that of user authentication for the external companies they interface with regularly. She started with user provisioning by email domain, but it caused some issues. What if people used the same email? She thought of company verification from the companies they would deal with, but that left a lot of room for human error. Instead, she decided to take control over the user identification and use usernames, since they provided uniqueness constraints, prevented potential duplications, allowed for simple registration, and allowed her to control their application security.

Cloud Networking in 10 years & how you can prepare

By: Jess Szmajda

Jess spoke about addressing in 10 years. Currently, most companies and individuals use IPv4 addresses, which are limited due to their length and the fact that we’ve been using them for years. IPv4 has 232 addresses available, whereas IPv6 has 2128.

IPv6 has more addresses than grains of sand in the world.

Some other benefits of IPv6 is that it has built-in IP security. There’s no intermediate fragmentation, leading to better performance. It also provides simpler networks, since network address translation is not required. For more explanation behind what NAT is, before you connect to the internet from home, there are 1+ translations for you to connect, because your home IP address is private, so you’ll need to provide a public address for the network to use. It also allows for simplified addressing, SLAAC and prefix delegation. Over 30% of the world is actually IPv6 enabled today, which means a new future for networking is drawing closer. Jess suggested beginning the transition to IPv6 sooner rather than later.

Non-technical talks: Highlights

Angelica Ross Keynote

To kick off the Summit, Angelica Ross (who you may know from Pose) started off with a keynote address. In it, she talked about how she’s been coping with the pandemic and how she’s pursued her own personal success against adversity.

She talked a lot about her mindset. She works from a spiritual place and spends a lot of time introspecting.

In order to fight hardship and adversity, you need to take control of what’s within your grasp and not waste time on anything beyond that.

She told us to ask ourselves two questions: what can I respond to and what can I enact change towards? If the response is nothing for the situation you’re in, then it’s important to not waste time on it. She emphasized that it’s important to only spend time and focus on those things that you can control and change, otherwise you’ll toil.

Angelica also spoke about self-worth and what you can do to prevent someone from diminishing how you feel about yourself. She said to not measure your self-worth around life’s scoreboard, and own your own self worth. She asked what makes us feel valued? If the answer is others, then you’ll lose your worth. Putting your own value in someone else’s hands leaves you open for people to take things away from you. Anjelica noted that you need to find value in the things that others cannot take from you, and put the power of your own self-worth in your own hands.

One of the last things she said was: Do what you gotta do to survive. And especially in the last nearly two years, this struck a chord. We’re all just trying to survive, and we need to use this time to figure out what’s important, and what we should spend our time on.

How to Take Up Space

By: Xinrou Tan

Xinrou is a Google Account Executive, and spoke about how oftentimes she’s the only female in a room of men in tech. She had three tips for those looking to have a voice and take up space in otherwise unwelcoming atmospheres:

  • Always have a perspective
  • Every room you are in is a room you belong in
  • Your background matters
  • You don’t have to be an expert to talk about something
  • Make a routine
  • Sit where you can be a part of the conversation
  • Share something and ask questions throughout the meeting
  • Always raise other’s voices
  • Get other minorities at the table
  • Level them up
  • Celebrate their accomplishments

She noted that when you take up space, you make room for others, so if you’re not going to do it for yourself, do it for them.

Productivity in the Pandemic

By: Lesley Pace

I’m sure all of us have struggled at some point in the past year plus with productivity. When your home is your office and your office is your home, it can be hard to separate your work life from your personal life. Lesley spoke about this as well as those fatigue-inducing stressors many of us have experienced either recently or throughout our lives.

Fatigues:

Chronic stressors and why we’re exhausted.

  • Pandemic fatigue
  • Virtual Fatigue
  • Surge Fatigue
  • Dealing with race issues
  • Heterosexism Fatigue

She presented some strategies to increase productivity. One was to create an intentional space between work and life, whether that’s creating your own home office or changing your clothes between your office day and your home relaxation. Lesley said she’s been pushing herself to reclaim her time by blocking working time on her calendar, and asking meeting organizers if they could use an email instead of a meeting to accomplish the end results.

To feel productive and accomplished, she advised to create daily, weekly, and quarterly task lists for not only work goals, but personal goals. This leaves room for small wins and edging towards larger successes. Lesley suggested taking “play breaks”, a couple 15 minute breaks throughout the day to get away from your computer and engage in something enjoyable.

Lesley advised against using unhealthy coping mechanisms to get through the pandemic such as spending excessive amounts of money and drinking, as these would not only be unhelpful but actually can be hurtful to your overall well being. Instead, she suggested replacing these activities with exercise, dancing, and setting boundaries by saying no to things that take time away from us. While some of these suggestions might be rather obvious, they’re still easy to forget in a global pandemic.

Closing the Gap Between Good Intentions & Real Change in the Workplace

By: Michelle Kim and LaFawn Davis

Good people can perpetuate harm, even if they have the best intentions. This talk revolved around how to show up the right way, and not just the way you think you should.

Michelle and LaFawn discussed Diversity & Inclusion initiatives and how they can be problematic. These initiatives can be safe and comfortable for the privileged, when sometimes people need to get uncomfortable in order to truly be an advocate for change. Oftentimes, these initiatives can be rooted in capitalism and presented as ways to make a company profitable, when DEI shouldn’t exist for a companies profit nor because it’s just the “right thing to do.” For an initiative to be successful it should uproot the systems in place that perpetuate the ideals that continue to bury the marginalized.

DEI is more than unconscious bias training, do’s and don’t’s and celebrating history months to treat discrimination in silos; there’s no room for intersectionality in that treatment. And simplistic DEI initiatives are the short term solution. In order to create change, majorities need to think about what they’re willing to give up in order to promote inclusion.

One of the ways that they stated you could help seems simple: show up for your colleagues and be there for them. A real ally should stand up against bias, offer support wherever they can by reaching out to colleagues when applicable, and raise unheard voices in meetings. Real allyship is a major way to promote DEI, as the effort for diversity and inclusion oftentimes falls on marginalized groups.

Some of the tools they recommended to help with advocating change were the following:

  • Funneling your job listings through Natural Language Processing for potential bias
  • Use naming tools to help pronounce people’s names
  • Create accountability in DEI goals, create goals & measure them with actual data

Bigger Bags: A Guide to Securing the Money You Deserve in Tech

By: Ciara Peter

Ciara covered how to get paid well as a woman in tech when you’re first being hired at a job. One of the common misconceptions that she noted is that if you negotiate for more pay at the time of the offer, you may lose the offer. At the end of the day, the company chose you, and she stated that rarely does a candidate get the position because they’re cheaper. One thing that she mentioned that surprised me is that your manager might even think less of you don’t negotiate. If you don’t know or respect your own self-worth, why would your manager?

She discussed some of the basics of negotiating. One of the hardest things to know is who should say the first number. Ciara stated that you should hold off on providing a number first if you can and instead say you’re looking for a competitive offer. When you do eventually discuss your actual number, you should use your total compensation (base pay + additional pay including bonuses). A good time to negotiate compensation is during the verbal offer stage, as the offer isn’t finalized yet, and you should solidify it before you receive your written offer letter to sign. Ciara said that you should ask for the largest number you can while keeping a straight face. There’s no reason to ask for less than that, since chances are you’re not asking for enough even then.

Outside of being hired initially, she gave some advice on ways to get comfortable talking about money and how to learn strategies towards getting paid more. Ciara has a group of trusted individuals (men and women) who she meets with in what she called a “money club”, where they talk about money and personal finance. She also suggested male allies who may have experience negotiating for money and have had success with negotiation strategies. Another strategy she’s used is to share a spreadsheet with anonymous data at her company for people’s pay so that it’s upfront and known.

Engineering Relevant Feedback Loops: Emotional APIs and How to Create Service Contracts with Each Other

By: Stacy Mauro

Stacy talked about how to not be limited by your company’s feedback system and ways that you can own your own feedback loops. Here’s the breakdown:

Typical Communication Interfaces

  • Communication is always fraught, as we are human and discussing complex issues such as critical feedback is already difficult enough
  • Everyone is different, but communication interfaces don’t allow for this and instead use a generic approach to handle feedback for everyone at once
  • This usually involves exclusively top to bottom feedback, versus reciprocated feedback between managers and their employees
  • In order to make feedback applicable for everyone, there ends up being a lack of clarity for the directives in the platforms. They lack specific points that should be discussed for the individual’s job performance and goals.
  • There’s little to no expectation setting for what the employee should demonstrate in their personal view of their performance

Pitfalls

  • No regular 1:1s
  • Comp growth/career objectives are taboo
  • Continuous improvement is an unknown

Pitfall Outcomes

  • High turnover, especially with folks from marginalized communities
  • Lack of trust
  • Higher barriers of entry into company/promotion to senior
  • Promotions/career development fee like “luck of the draw”

What Can You Do

Identify how you like to receive feedback

  • Right after an event occurs
  • Weekly check ins 1:1
  • Written

Ask your boss how they would like to receive feedback

Use existing team processes to retrospect on communication threads

Be upfront about areas of improvement and/or goals you have

  • Tell your boss & ask for guidance

Create a 1 page about how you work + what folks can expect from you

  • Ex: sometimes I need a moment after receiving feedback to process

Unstructured Feedback + How to Make it Work For You

  • Treat feedback as data points and not personal
  • Start from a place of curiosity (why? can you be more specific?)
  • Ask for direct feedback
  • Give direct feedback
  • Always better to be kind (direct, honest feedback) than polite (protecting the “peace” over progress)

Make it Scale

  • Ask for feedback regularly from everyone
  • Take ample notes from each feedback session
  • Start to identify trends + patterns
  • Create an action plan from insights, take action, repeat

Create a Career Plan For Yourself

  • Take time at the beginning and identify goals
  • Share with boss + trusted people
  • Every week check in with where you are & how your goals are doing

Workshop: Addressing Intersectionality: The Benefits of Cross-collaboration across Employee Resource Groups

By: Emily Marvin & Joy Caracciolo

Emily and Joy discussed their experiences with cross-collaboration between their pride and black ERGs.

They started off with increasing allyship by outlining actionable steps their colleagues could take to help. They identified gaps in their programs and then identified key stakeholders around initiative (avoiding tokenism) to find overlapping areas between their ERGs.

When they worked together, they empowered individual contributors by getting to know members of the other ERG and the issues they cared about. They used polling to help with this. When asking, they ensured they were listening to listen, not just to respond and stayed open to hard truths.

One of the benefits of intersectionality in ERGs is that it expands horizons, and enables people to build relationships and diversity in their networks. However, it’s important to be ready to pause and pivot to support evolving needs of members. Another is that it can amplify your missions, as you can pool and maximize your resources. You’ll need to make sure your efforts are providing a mirror and a window, and that you’re not just checking boxes to hit metrics exclusively.

They provided some examples of how to get started. One was to create joint events and initiatives. Some of these can be impromptu meetings and spaces for communities in need. Intersectionality in ERGs allows for the amplification of social issues, and you can use remembrances or recognition for what’s happened in the past, highlight important events, and share resources across groups.

One of the most important elements of their talk was about holding each other accountable. To be intentional around language and practices, and call in vs. call out. Their final note was that when we work together, we don’t need to speak for others if we give them room to speak for themselves.

Other talks I attended were: Building for a Better Climate with Pete Buttegieg, Corporate Advocacy & The Fight for Civil Rights with Pamela Stewart & Alphonso David, We Are Powerful: Paving Your Own Path in Today’s America with Karine Jean-Pierre and Danielle Moody and The Urgency of Paid Leave Policy with Kara Swisher and Alexis Ohanian.

We’re hiring in NYC, Durham, and remote. Check out our careers page to see open roles: https://www.policygenius.com/careers/

Policygenius is America’s leading online insurance marketplace.

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Maggie Curtis

Maggie Curtis

SWE II @Policygenius

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