Looking backwards

I knew a few weeks ago this was coming, sort of. I gave a talk at DevOpsDays where I said, “And a year ago I was about half-way through my very brief tenure at the shortest job I’ve ever held.” I guess I just didn’t realize how fast everything goes by, especially when the world feels extra out of control.

It has been on my calendar for months: Write One Year Later Post. Certainly, this year hasn’t exactly gone the way I had planned it to. I had plans, after all! I expected to spend at least three years at reddit, and had cleared the decks of just about every kind of overhanging distraction project I had been slow-burning to make space for the intense work I knew we had ahead of us. There was so much to do. The sheer weight of so much turn-around possibility was intoxicating. I was ready for the journey. I was ready for the long hard haul.

And then, suddenly, I wasn’t on that road anymore.

Side-note: I have absolutely zero regrets about my choices from one year ago — first the decision to leave FB, then the decision to leave reddit. With the data I had at the time — and certainly the reinforcing data that came afterwards — I have not lost one moment to anguished “what could have been” scenarios.

But back to where my brain is now — out of a strange year, this is an especially strange time for career-focused introspection. Over the past week, I’ve thought far more about the decision to leave Dallas in 2002 than I ever have before, but that’s been about it from a “looking backwards” standpoint. I’ve never been particularly driven by the kind of ruminating self-analysis in which I’ve seen both friends and colleagues indulge or regret. I’ve set aside my writing time today with that explicit purpose, but hey I guess I still suck at it.

Just writing a post that is basically assigned homework from myself on the topic of how I’ve changed this year, or how my relationship with my career or world has changed, or a dissection of every choice I’ve made in the past twelve months, or a confessional laid bare in which I talk about myself at length… I’m not sure there’s any way to write something like that without it being at best self-indulgent and at worst tone-deaf.

Even knowing that, the least I feel like I can say today is that the world, or my relationship with it, has changed in ways I never expected. I have always heard that as we get older, we get more set in our ways. Sure thing — in some respects I see that in my own life and habits. Then I look again more closely and I’m struck by the ways that I am freer now. Without the luxury of more work than I can handle soaking up all the space in my brain, I’ve stopped averting my attention.

Instead, I’ve started actually processing when something is so fucked up that I can’t make excuses or pretend otherwise. For me over the past year as a whole, that has mostly meant focusing energy and attention to calling out how messed up it is that The Meritocracy so revered in Tech is far from reality.

I have a habit many of my friends find deeply annoying. If I’m able to accomplish something, I immediately label that thing as “easy” and “anyone can do that if I can do it.” I say this shit so often that a few friends have called me out on it. “Stop saying that, because it’s not true. It’s actually hard to do that.” I’ve fallen back on this technique to make light of all kinds of personal accomplishments, large and small — from intricate cable-knit gloves to selling our startup to Facebook. “If I did it, it can’t be that difficult. Anyone can do it.”

The plus-side my friends pointing this out to me (besides making them feel better, I hope) — it’s driven me to confront some of the ways I have been really, really lucky. If it wasn’t easy, then how did I manage? Hard work isn’t enough. I’ve had some good luck and advantages to shore up that hard work. And I also had to face something I had never considered: when I’m falling into that pattern of “it’s easy,” I’m also being outrageously insulting to people who do not have the same luck/opportunities that I have enjoyed in my life. Not only am I lying to myself in an irritating self-deprecating way, I’m also minimizing the experiences of people who haven’t had my advantages. To use the Scalzi analogy, being a woman in Tech means I’m not exactly playing on easy mode, but there are many many people around me every day who are just plain stuck with a broken controller. The same flippant self-devaluation that I fall back on out of habit is downright dismissive of people I’ve never even met.

The effortless way I say, “It’s easy — if I did it so can anyone!” is essentially me being an asshole.

I’m smart and I’ve worked hard, but I’ve also had some serious advantages because my skin is white.

Growing up in Texas, I remember seeing extreme and overt racism — unapologetic, painting itself in as “history” and “culture” to excuse why they thought it was just fine and dandy to categorically despise people who didn’t share their white skin. Every Friday night during high school, I’d try and fail to reconcile how a white guy who would use the n-word without thinking twice would also cheer and holler for the football players, many of whom were African-American or Latino. I guess that during the game, that guy briefly felt everyone was on the same team. Back at school, in public places, at social events — that game-night camaraderie would revert back to the their default unabashed sense of superiority that came from being born white. I won’t say every white kid saw the world through the same unabashedly racist eyes, because that would not be accurate. But we did all see the overt racism happening in pockets around us, and for many of us it was just what became “normal” — and at least we didn’t do that, right?

Instead, we confused the absence of overt racism in our homes and our social circles with the absence of racism altogether. We didn’t see just how much bullshit our Black and Latinx and Asian friends were carrying with them everywhere they went, because our very presence reduced its expression. In retrospect, I realize there was so much I didn’t know — the amount of fuckery they were dealt on a regular basis that I would never see because it wouldn’t happen when I was around. I would hear from time to time about one Black friend being pulled over by the cops (again), and all I thought was “Damn! He must be a really terrible driver.” It never even occurred to me why he was pulled over, or why his dad was constantly pulled over, or why when he borrowed the family car to drive us somewhere he followed every traffic law with such precision. I still can’t deeply understand his experience, though I suppose now I know that I don’t get it. That may count as personal progress, but there’s no way it’s even close to enough.

Well, huh. Look what I went and did. A self-indulgent little post about myself after all. A One Year Later retrospective through the eyes of who I am today. As worn out as I am pushing through uncomfortable realizations, it’s nothing compared to the experiences of people of color (in Tech and otherwise). If you stop pretending that nothing is wrong, the only option left is to face it directly and take the discomfort as it comes.


I want The Meritocracy in Tech to be real. I really do. It would be great if it were real, if everyone coming into tech companies throughout the industry had the same fair shot at success. If no matter what your background or ethnicity or religious background or gender or who you love — if no matter how you are described, you had the same ability to succeed as someone who adheres to the stereotypical “we want someone who looks like Zuck” phenotype… that would mean we had made it real. I guess what I’m asking from white men and women is for them to face head-on something I’ve stopped pretending isn’t there.

Just because I don’t want it to be true, that doesn’t mean I get to declare that the problem doesn’t exist.

Just because it hasn’t happened to me personally, that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

Just because some negative things have happened to me, that doesn’t mean I have the right to appoint myself as representing the experiences of another group.

Just because I haven’t seen it first-hand, that doesn’t mean it’s not real.

Just because I want to feel like it’s “not so hard” if I can do it, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t downright impossible for someone else at least as smart, as driven, as talented as I am — because the opportunities aren’t equal.

I want The Meritocracy to become reality, and we won’t get it unless we fight for it.


Originally published at bethanye.geekery.org on July 13, 2016.