Techies: Julie Ann Horvath
Original Interview: http://www.techiesproject.com/julie-ann-horvath/
So let’s start from the beginning. Tell me a bit about your early years and where you come from.
I was born in Hayward, California. I have been an East Bay resident for most of my life. I grew up between Hayward and Oakland, sort of bounced around a lot as a kid. From there, I was actually the first kid in my family — and I don’t know where I got the idea — that I wanted to go to college, but I just thought that that was what I was supposed to do.
“I come from a pretty low socioeconomic background, a pretty poor community, and one that is pretty wrought with a lot of gang violence, a lot of drug abuse and in my home, specifically my sister, was a drug dealer for most of my life. I grew up in this really chaotic home and for me — I had a lot of examples of what I didn’t want to be, what I didn’t want out of life.”
So, unlike most of the people that I grew up around, I just felt like, “I need to go to college.” I eventually got into some schools and somehow found some money to go.
I come from a pretty low socioeconomic background, a pretty poor community, and one that is pretty wrought with a lot of gang violence, a lot of drug abuse and in my home, specifically my sister, was a drug dealer for most of my life. I grew up in this really chaotic home and for me — I had a lot of examples of what I didn’t want to be, what I didn’t want out of life.
I would see these depictions of women on TV who were educated and independent, and they weren’t exposed to sexual assault, and abuse, and they weren’t exposed to drug abuse or trauma, or violence and I mean — maybe they were, actually — but on TV they looked so — happy. And I was like, “I’d like a calm life. I think that’s something that I’d like. I’d like to be successful.”
I don’t know where my ambition actually came from, but at some point I was like, “I’m going to go to college.” I worked my ass off in high school and tried to take advantage of what little resources I had to make it work. I eventually got one of my mom’s old friends to co-sign on some student loans to cover what my scholarships didn’t cover. And I went to college. The first person in my family to do it.
I attended a few different colleges and eventually wound up in San Francisco at USF. They gave me some money to go to school there and I actually, by total accidental, wound up in the technology industry during my time at USF.
“I would see these depictions of women on TV who were educated and independent, and they weren’t exposed to sexual assault, and abuse, and they weren’t exposed to drug abuse or trauma, or violence and I mean — maybe they were, actually — but on TV they looked so — happy. And I was like, ‘I’d like a calm life. I think that’s something that I’d like. I’d like to be successful.’”
What was the impetus that got you interested in tech?
Here’s the official story of how I got into tech: My best friend at the time, who’s actually still my best friend today, Kacie, was working at our Career Services Center and I needed a job pretty badly. I was very poor. At the time, I wasn’t speaking to my family at all. My parents have no money. They have horrible credit. They could never really help themselves and so they could definitely never help me. I remember at the time I was stealing tampons from my campus bathroom because I just didn’t have the $5 to spend on tampons. And just looking back — still, looking back on that past still affects me in so many ways.
“I remember at the time I was stealing tampons from my campus bathroom because I just didn’t have the $5 to spend on tampons.”
But yeah — back to the story of getting into tech. So, I was really poor and I was like, “Okay. I have my student loans and my scholarships paying for my housing and my tuition.” But I didn’t really any have money to eat or for any basic shit like paying for household items, groceries, or whatever. So Kacie, who was also my roommate at the time, comes from really a similar background as me. We both had to work really hard and live really simply. We grew up living paycheck to paycheck. Neither of us had any sort of safety net and we always just had to make it work. So, when she was working at the Career Services Center, she would bring me home job ads.
One of them was from a startup in Soma and I was like, computers, hmmm I can computer. I can figure it out. I always had this blind faith in myself. I don’t know if it’s arrogance, I don’t know what it is or where it came from. I don’t know why me. Why I always figured I could make it work. I knew that I knew how to learn. I knew how to teach myself things. So I figured, if I put myself in this atmosphere, maybe I can learn a few things.
So I would apply to all of these job ads that Kacie would bring home. And one of these ads was from a startup named Yammer. At the time, they were a really small tech company who has just moved up from LA. They had placed an ad for a really lowly data entry position. It was a temp job for sure, but I was like, “no I think I’ll stay.” I was a very stubborn person. I’m sure the reality of me finding a job at Yammer has something to do with my white-passing privilege, I’m sure. But I kind of just threw my hand up for all the odd jobs around the office.
“I always had this blind faith in myself. I don’t know if it’s arrogance, I don’t know what it is or where it came from. I don’t know why me. Why I always figured I could make it work. I knew that I knew how to learn. I knew how to teach myself things. So I figured, if I put myself in this atmosphere, maybe I can learn a few things.”
Someone would be like “We need someone to stack the fridge. I’d be like, ‘Me!’” “We need someone to write a blurb for our blog,” ‘Me!’” “We need someone to replace all of the hyperlinks links in our blog templates” and I was like “Me!”
All these menial tasks sort of allowed me to build a skill set around being a creative technologist. I mean I had some background. I wrote and I read so much when I was younger because I experienced so much trauma as a kid, and reading and writing and escaping my world and being in this other like fiction-y world, really provided a safe space for me.
When it came to reading, specifically, I think it kind of saved my life. It got me through some really hard times and provided a kind of shelter for me through much of my adolescence. I think I feel really similarly about the internet, actually. On the Internet, I can be a person who isn’t wounded by my past — although now, I guess, I might seen as wounded online, heh.
But the Internet has always felt like magic to me. It’s this thing that anyone — even people like us that come from a pretty low socio-economic background — can access these tools to teach ourselves things, and to interact on the same playing field. I can meet or talk to someone from anywhere in the world, and I can connect with someone and find those people who are like me, and have experienced similar things to me, I guess. There’s something really magical about it all.
“But the Internet has always felt like magic to me. It’s this thing that anyone — even people like us that come from a pretty low socio-economic background — can access these tools to teach ourselves things, and to interact on the same playing field. I can meet or talk to someone from anywhere in the world, and I can connect with someone and find those people who are like me, and have experienced similar things to me, I guess. There’s something really magical about it all.”
So, anyway, I decided to stick around in tech. To do Internet things.
I taught myself to code long before I think I would have considered myself a designer, but I eventually realized that I find a lot more satisfaction in design work, and in bringing a vision, a product, to life. And now I get to do this type of work on a daily basis. That’s how I came into this crazy world that is tech.
What your first impressions were of Silicon Valley, whenever you happened to discover it?
I was just really attracted to the edginess of it. I was really attracted to this faux ideology of “meritocracy.”
There really is this “Oh, you dropped out of high school. You can be a CTO,” sort of thing. To me, that was really attractive, the mobility. Here I thought, “I’m going to be working as an admin, or a secretary my whole life,” because that’s what women who come from my community wind up doing. Or maybe I would have ended up in a warehouse. There’s not a lot of mobility in these types of jobs. Whereas at these startups, I was seeing these men who’d dropped out of high school running companies. And so I was like — again, this stubbornness comes up for me, I was like, “If they can do it, I can do it.” Well, I don’t know that I ever really believed that. I think that for me, I felt like I had to do it. I felt like if I didn’t do it, I would die. I don’t how to describe it —
I literally can relate.
Like, you feel like you don’t have the option to fail. There’s no choice. And so you better make it, and then you better turn around and give back to whoever it is around you that you can, because — I don’t know. Like thinking that you did it all on your own is sort of a privilege in it’s own right — I don’t know. Sorry [laughter]. It’s really hard for me to talk about sometimes. But, yeah, it just really felt like I had to make it and so, I guess, by any objective standard in our industry I feel like I’ve succeeded, which is awesome.
I’m still sort of learning — I’m still sort of career building and I have so much growing to do, but I think that I’ve sort of gotten past the whole “I don’t belong here” thing because not even the people who think they belong here belong here, you know?
Like I feel like the Internet belongs to all of us even though businesses don’t operate that way. I don’t know, I just feel more empowered these days than I did when I first joined tech.
So on the one hand, I was really attracted to the mobility in tech, when I joined, and the opportunity and the access. But what I was really taken back by was the wealth and how wasteful people are with it — specifically in Silicon Valley.
I remember the first time I started dating someone in tech and I was still in college and poor as fuck at this point. He was like “I’ll take you to your favorite sushi place, your choice!” So I had this place that I always went to in college and I loved it. It was super cheap (by SF standards) and super delicious and I was all about that fucking place. I thought it was like top notch because to me those things matter, a lot. If I have a good time there with my friends, then that’s the top notch place.
So this guy, we go on a date at this sushi place and he starts the conversation by doing this thing that really bothers me. Salaries came up or money or something. I don’t remember exactly how the subject of money came up, but it did. And he was like, “Oh. I can’t possibly tell you how much I make.” I was like, “Yeah, you can.” I was like, “It’s fine.” But he did that fake embarrassed thing — like, he wasn’t really embarrassed. He’s really proud and he wants to talk about it. There’s this great SNL skit that’s like, “Don’t make me dance.” It’s when someone who really, actually, does want to talk about it, trying to get you to probe them, I guess, for more information and to me, that was really off-putting. So that was annoying. I’m a real ass bitch. I always speak my mind and I don’t feign embarrassment or shyness and I guess I wasn’t used to being who did.
But then, the absolute worst part of this date happened. When the bill came, he laughed at it. He audibly laughed at the check and just — I think my head just went to the side like, “Wowwww.”
I had never been in an environment like that. I was coming from a totally different world. I never thought that I would make more than my mother made. My mom worked for the court system in Alameda County for 35 years and her ending salary, after 35 years of service to the county, was $50K. This guy — who eventually told me his salary — shocking, I know. He was getting paid $125K, which now I make much more than. But I don’t act like that, I would never act like that. it’s insane to me. It’s insane how much wealth there is here but also how quickly it can go away.
What else is insane to me is how wide of a gap there is between the salaries a “junior” or a “non-technical” employee and those of engineers and designers. It’s pretty astounding. And so to see someone act that way — in a restaurant — I was embarrassed and angry.
I was embarrassed because of what I come from and — I don’t know. Like — I don’t know. It’s just like, I assumed “Oh, it’s just this person. This person is just this way.” But then I started realizing that this is a really common attitude and set of behaviors.
Once when I was out for a dinner with coworkers, no special occasion, and I watched my founder get wasted at Alexander Steak House and tip 50% on top of the included gratuity on a bill for like 14 people’s dinners. Great for the waitress. I’m like, “Oh, my god, that’s amazing.” Like, “You’re going to have a great night and a great month probably.” But just how nominal it was to them. Like to do that. Like how easy it was, and how much it didn’t affect them. I was like, “I could feed my family for like how long on that tip, not even the bill.” So it was just kind of insane to watch. That was like a $20,000 dinner or something crazy like that.
“I’ve always felt like I have to hide the person I am from everyone. I am always worried that someone’s going to ‘find me out,’ and that I will be no longer welcomed, or I will be no longer valued as a person here, and I’m still working through that.”
I remember seeing people throw money around like that in my early years in tech and just thinking, “God, if they only knew how much $500 would change my life.”
And you feel this shame for even thinking this. It’s hard to ask for help. It’s super hard, and you don’t want to be — because I know how rich people see poor people — as needy, and that we’re always asking for handouts.
This is actually a conversation that came up in a college course when I was at USF, where there’s a ton of wealthy students. We were discussing the history of San Francisco and speculating about why specific immigrant populations settled in different neighborhoods of the city and the conversation very quickly devolved into students railing against poor and ethnic people. The line, “Well, white people are richer because they work harder,” was actually said. In a college class. And then — What was the other one? “White people don’t want to live next to ethnic people, because ethnic people are always asking white people for money.” I was horrified.
Holy shit. On what planet?
On theirs, apparently. That was a really big “Holy shit, these people are not like me” moment and I had to settle into that feeling because that attitude was pretty well represented the people I was meeting in tech.
It’s always been really disheartening for me and I’ve always felt like I have to hide the person I am from everyone. I am always worried that someone’s going to “find me out,” and that I will be no longer welcomed, or I will be no longer valued as a person here, and I’m still working through that.
“I have a lot of survivor guilt about my family and friends being left behind. All my friends who I think are just as creative and just as smart as any of these tech people and they just don’t have the same access to the tools and the resources as them. I don’t know. It’s sad. It’s sad and it’s hard to reconcile.”
I go to therapy twice a week for this [chuckles], but it’s just survivor guilt that I have from making it out of the hood, and making it in a really white, male-dominated industry. I have a lot of survivor guilt about my family and friends being left behind. All my friends who I think are just as creative and just as smart as any of these tech people and they just don’t have the same access to the tools and the resources as them. I don’t know. It’s sad. It’s sad and it’s hard to reconcile.
It certainly doesn’t make me want to participate in a lot of tech-focused things, because my mind and my heart will always be with my friends and family whose lives are more complicated and who have been through it with me. I don’t know. It’s hard not to be resentful to some extent as well. It’s hard to make peace with the disparity, I guess. It’s always on my mind.
Okay, so before I go deeper into the dark shit, tell me in terms of your work, just overall, what have been some of the most exciting things about your work? What parts of your work really activate you?
Oh, my god, so many parts. All the parts. No, I’m kidding. I have one story that I like to tell, because it just totally simplifies why I am still here — I had been doing these odd jobs, just trying to infiltrate this boys’ club, and say, “No, I can be technical, too. I can understand technology, and I can be an expert.” I was actually on the marketing team at Yammer when the perfect opportunity to level-up presented itself.
We had our own visual design team in the marketing group and we really wanted to build a static page that acted as a feature overview for a new product launch we were doing at the time.
None of the product engineers wanted to build it, because they were like, “No, we came here to work on the product, not marketing.” Marketing doesn’t get a ton of cred with engineers. If they’re smart, they realize the value that marketing can have, but unfortunately the reality within most tech startups is that marketing is just fluff.
Yeah, I remember.
Right. It’s like, “Come on. We’re all here to run a business, guys.” But, yeah, so I was in this meeting when we were like, “Wow, it would be really nice if we had this webpage.” So, once again, I threw my hand up and said “I’ll do it.’” And I thought, “I can figure it out. I’ve written some HTML before. It can’t be that hard, right?” I had no idea what I was getting myself into, honestly.
I pulled some pretty late nights, but with the luck of a lot of Googling around I was able to pull together what our design team wanted, and we wound up launching this page at TechCrunch Disrupt. Which, in turn, meant we got a ton of traffic to this page that I’d built.
After we launched, one of our engineers pulled me over and he was looking at this data visualization tool that was showing all of the visitors and http requests we were getting to this page and how we were distributing the traffic and requests across load balancers. There were these little circles — and I’ll never fucking forget these little circles because they’re what really attracted me to information design.
These salaries that we get paid, not only are they great for our bank accounts — but for some of us, the kind of money one can earn in tech can really transform your life. You can lift your whole family out of poverty one day with the type of salaries we earn. It’s tremendously powerful for someone like me. I just think it’s — being able to do that, have this amazing power to improve your own life, and your own situation, and your own health, and eat good food.
They were flowing onto the screen and into a funnel, and like — It’s almost like a Rube Goldberg machine — they were being diverted into different paths. It was so fucking cool. I remember seeing that and thinking “All these little bubbles are people and they’re looking at this thing that I made,” and there’s just something so powerful in that for me. Being a maker is so powerful. It’s this — It’s a freedom, and something that I could take pride in, and something that I can point to and say, “I did that,” or “Me and my team did that.”. Being a part of that launch meant so much to me. I think that’s where I get a lot of my self-esteem and a lot of my self-worth — putting out things that people use and that people love, and that people talk about.
That’s the coolest part. I remember we went on Twitter — and this is really early Twitter days — for me at least — and we could see what people were saying about the site. They really liked the page and I was like, “Wow, I wrote that.” It was just really, really awesome and — I don’t know. I’ll just never forget that.
I think this was the first time that I was like, “I’m going to do this as a job,” and I can make money doing it, and really improve my own circumstances — People don’t realize that. These salaries that we get paid, not only are they great for our bank accounts — but for some of us, the kind of money one can earn in tech can really transform your life. You can lift your whole family out of poverty one day with the type of salaries we earn. It’s tremendously powerful for someone like me. I just think it’s — being able to do that, have this amazing power to improve your own life, and your own situation, and your own health, and eat good food.
“People don’t realize that when someone threatens your ability to work — and you’re someone like me — that’s your everything. That’s your livelihood.”
The thing that makes me feel like I have really made it, really is a fridge full of groceries, good groceries. And I’m eating well, not like a glutton or anything., But I can afford to eat well now. Healthily. And I can cook good meals and really take care of my body. Like, I’m on probiotics now. I wouldn’t know what a probiotic was five years ago.
It’s really life-changing. And I don’t think a lot of people realize the stability and the quality of life we’re keeping away from those who really need these things by building an industry with a high barrier to entry, and one that isn’t inclusive. This seems so wrong to me. Why wouldn’t we try our best to open up the industry to more people? I don’t know.
Did you, at any point, ever expect to be a face of gender rights and advocacy in tech?
Am I? That’s weird. It’s so weird still, because I don’t feel that way. My friends just treat me so normally and I feel so normal.
It’s so surreal to me, honestly. Back when I went public with my experiences at GitHub I just felt like I had to do it. It was one of those moments where I was like, “I have no other choice. I am backed into a corner.” And you probably notice as well, your flight or fight is triggered in that moment and you have to decide. And, trust me, I think that I might have looked, in that moment, strong and eloquent on Twitter, but one of my best friends had to come and pick me up off of a hotel room floor because I was crying hysterically and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I was like, “There’s no point in living anymore.”
“I couldn’t imagine wanting to hurt someone, actually. So the fact that people really wanted to hurt me, not just professionally, but also physically, and emotionally they wanted to end me. I don’t know. It was so devastating. It was so devastating. I think people in tech like to try to distance themselves from what happens on the internet and be think, “Tech workers are normals. It’s just people on the internet who are crazy, just these randos who live in basements and wherever.” It’s like, no. These people work side-by-side with us in these offices. They’re not randos. They’re people who we come in contact with everyday.”
People don’t realize that when someone threatens your ability to work — and you’re someone like me — that’s your everything. That’s your livelihood. It was just heartbreaking because I know I’m not a perfect person, and I could have been better to some people in my past, but I would just never intentionally try to hurt someone, ever.
I couldn’t imagine wanting to hurt someone, actually. So the fact that people really wanted to hurt me, not just professionally, but also physically, and emotionally they wanted to end me. I don’t know. It was so devastating. It was so devastating. I think people in tech like to try to distance themselves from what happens on the internet and be think, “Tech workers are normals. It’s just people on the internet who are crazy, just these randos who live in basements and wherever.” It’s like, no. These people work side-by-side with us in these offices. They’re not randos. They’re people who we come in contact with everyday. I don’t know. The whole experience was incredibly traumatizing. But hey, I’m still here.
I never imagined I would be the face of anything, nor have I ever wanted to be. I’m naturally very protective of people who can’t for whatever reason, protect themselves. Having grown up in a really abusive and violent home, I always wished that I had someone to protect me. As an adult, I’ve spent a lot of time and a lot of, sometimes to my own detriment, setting myself on fire to keep other people warm. I don’t think it’s always the most intelligent thing to do, but for at least my early twenties, I really felt like it was my responsibility. I really felt like, “Hey, I have access to these things, and all these girls, all these women of color who are at home or from Hayward, I want to show them that they can be here, and they deserve to be here, and they have every right to be here, just as much as anyone else does.
They have everything they need, inside of them. They have all the parts. They just need access. I guess I just always really felt really, deeply responsible for — I don’t know. To create something. To create an industry that is better than the one we came into.
Man. There’s so much more context and depth to the risk you took now that I know more about your upbringing. I was such a minimizer the whole time I was in tech because if you don’t have a safety net and you do anything to lose the job, that’s it.
Yeah. And it doesn’t go away, honestly. And I understand that not every woman has the opportunity to do what I did. They don’t. I already had a pretty good network. I knew that I could find a job and that I would hustle and find a new job. I don’t think everyone has that. I know that there are people, especially women, and even more so, women of color, who have suffered much greater mistreatment than I have but who are much less protected than I am. So for them, ”speaking out” would be even more costly.
“It’s hard when you see all these companies pouring money into diversity efforts, but you still hear all these stories of these women who are being seriously mistreated, sexually assaulted, just brutalized at the hands of incompetent management in tech and having their hope stripped away.”
Thinking about the barriers that we all face, I want to know more about that. I would venture to guess that a lot of women reached out to you after the fact with stories, and you don’t have to get super specific, but I’m just curious what you learned through other women about the greater woman-in-tech experience after that incident?
Honestly, it was really hard for me to hear a lot of stories. In one sense, I was very happy to be a person that someone felt safe enough to talk to and to reach out to, and I felt so much love and warmth from that. I feel like a lot of those stories gave me strength, and I built a sisterhood with a lot of these women. And at the same time, for my own mental health, it was devastating. It’s hard when you see all these companies pouring money into diversity efforts, but you still hear all these stories of these women who are being seriously mistreated, sexually assaulted, just brutalized at the hands of incompetent management in tech and having their hope stripped away. Because what this does, it’s generational. When women have had to put up with this for generations and then the new generation of women come in and they don’t get treated the way that the first generation did. I almost feel like there’s some resentment there, where it’s like, “Everyone should have to go through what I went through,” which I am like, “Hell no, protect other women. At. All. Costs.”
“What’s really cool for me is to watch other women stand up for themselves and to tell me that I inspired that — their strength. And I am not worthy of that. But that’s worth it to me. Oh, my god, like I would go through it — maybe not a million times — I’d go through it at least two more times if I could know that people could look at me and see that I’m okay and know that they’re going to be okay, too. It’s really important for me to stick around for this reason, and to not let other people silence me because when I get silenced so does a whole generation of women who come after me.”
Well, actually, I don’t even think the kids will need our protection. What’s really cool for me is to watch other women stand up for themselves and to tell me that I inspired that — their strength. And I am not worthy of that. But that’s worth it to me. Oh, my god, like I would go through it — maybe not a million times — I’d go through it at least two more times if I could know that people could look at me and see that I’m okay and know that they’re going to be okay, too. It’s really important for me to stick around for this reason, and to not let other people silence me because when I get silenced so does a whole generation of women who come after me.
Yeah, it is all very intense.
Did you have a moment where you were able to stop internalizing harassment and process it in a different way or is it still just as horrible?
I think as women it’s so ingrained in us to internalize any abuse that we receive and to process it as if, “We must have done something to deserve this.” I think that I am still very much in this phase of, not necessarily making peace with harassment because I don’t know that that’s the right next step for me, but in knowing that it’s wrong and that no one deserves to be treated that way. I’m still having to remind myself that this isn’t natural. No one should ever tweet your home address, tell you that they’re going to rape you and your whole family. That’s not normal, and I think that our culture is normalizing that behavior and writing it off as though, “That person’s crazy, but whatever.” But it’s not normal and it doesn’t make it okay, regardless of whoever the person on the other end is. It’s not okay. And It’s not our fault.
“I think as women it’s so ingrained in us to internalize any abuse that we receive and to process it as if, ‘We must have done something to deserve this.’”
So I’m still sort of in this — I wouldn’t call it healing, because I hate when people tell me I need to heal. As important as healing is, I think that everyone should kind of heal on their own terms, and not be told to heal by other people. It’s sort of passive-aggressive in a way [chuckles]. But I’m still in the stage of convincing myself on a daily basis that I did not deserve this. And it’s hard, it’s really hard. I think that might be easier for someone who didn’t come from the background I come from. But I’ve internalized abuse my entire life. So this is a long journey for me, and I think I’m at the point where I’ve accepted that it might take my whole life to learn how to cope. But I’m making peace with that, the fact that I came from this background. It was out of my control as a child. It was somewhat at least power-dynamic-wise, out of my control at GitHub and in tech, when I was not in a position of power.
I’m just still very much in the process of learning how to take care of myself. I’m trying to not set myself on fire to keep other people warm, anymore. It’s not my job. That’s something that all women need to hear at some point. They need to hear that self care is important, and self worth is important, and working on themselves, and spending time with themselves, and celebrating themselves is important. All those things are just so fundamental, at least for me, in finding happiness and stability. As someone who comes from a very unstable background, my goal has always been stability. That’s where I’m at.
My next question touches a little bit on what you were just saying. What do you think your motivators are? What do you think drives you and has that changed from a few years ago?
I think I used to be really ambitious. I used to be like, “I’m going to be a CEO,” or “I’m going to start a company,” and I think that my motivation has changed. Now I just want to be okay, and to be healthy, and to be stable, and I know that life is chaos. I’ve kind of accepted that, but I think now — I think I’m less ambitious in the traditional sense, and more ambitious in being at peace with my past, where I come from, and this survivor’s guilt thing that I experience a lot.
“I’m just still very much in the process of learning how to take care of myself. I’m trying to not set myself on fire to keep other people warm, anymore. It’s not my job. That’s something that all women need to hear at some point. They need to hear that self care is important, and self worth is important, and working on themselves, and spending time with themselves, and celebrating themselves is important.”
I’m working a lot on my mental health these days, which I think is incredibly important for me. I’m doing a lot of unpacking because I think as a means of survival, you are taught to suppress all of your bad experiences, and just say to yourself, “It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s fine.” I’m minimizing, as you called it earlier, which I think is a really good way to put it. You have to do that to survive sometimes. And I think now, for the first time in my life, I’m surrounded by positive people. I have built this amazing team of friends and family members around me. I have an awesome therapist. I am sort of spending some time unpacking why I am the way I am. Why I react to things in certain ways. Why I’m triggered by certain behaviors in others, etc. And I’m just kind of focusing on myself, which is why I’m not doing any speaking or writing right now — like, I’m not doing any interviews; I’m not reading a single blog post this year. I’m not doing anything I don’t want to do, basically. I barely even drink anymore. I’m just trying to do things that make me feel good, and I’m trying to take care of myself because I think for a long time a part of why I was so ambitious was because so long as I was focused so much on my work and my advocacy, I didn’t have to deal with my past. I thought that if I just focused on work, and I became — I think in some ways that benefited me, because I obviously became well known in my craft and respected and valued as an employee, or as a producer, whatever it is. A producer of value — a worker. But I think that there’s just so much more to me and my life and I’m just starting to try to embrace some more of those things recently.
What do you look for in a job now versus when you started?
Yeah, well, mobility used to be a really big thing for me and so I would pretty much go anywhere — I mean, I think that there is this thing where you’re young you want to work for like the hot, flashy start up, right? You want your personal brand associated with this really hot, edgy — I don’t know — brand of this larger entity or whatever. I don’t go for that anymore. I want to do really great collaborative work. I think also I used to be very much like — because you go into so many tight companies and you think fighting is normal and we should always fight about the things and argue and be really like — I love the passion that comes out in that in some like technical — arguments — But I’m not in it to be the winner.
“I’m in it to do work that I’m really proud of, because those are the times I look back at my career and think, ‘Damn, that was great.’ The times that I felt most proud of the work I was doing was when it was on a team that was super collaborative and one where everyone was contributing. I don’t get there when I’m working alone.”
I’m not in it to win an argument, I’m not in it to “win” a company, I’m not in it to win a stock option that’s not worth anything [chuckles]. I’m in it to do work that I’m really proud of, because those are the times I look back at my career and think, “Damn, that was great.” The times that I felt most proud of the work I was doing was when it was on a team that was super collaborative and one where everyone was contributing. I don’t get there when I’m working alone. I’m never really happy working alone, it’s isolating.
I really do like empowering people, enabling other people on my teams. Being a great collaborator really helps you grow into a great manager. And I may want to do that someday, eventually. But right now I’m really enjoying being an individual contributor.
“When I look for a team to join, I try to see how people interact with one another. I like being on a team where people feel heard, and obviously, diversity is a really big deal to me. It’s nice to be able to relate to someone on your team. It’s nice to make jokes and have people get them. It’s nice to be on a team where other people know what it’s like to be constantly discriminated against, and judged for who they are in this industry, or what they represent, or where they come from. I like being on a team with other people who know what it’s like to have to leave so much of themselves at home everyday and come into a job because they have to protect their own stability.”
When I look for a team to join, I try to see how people interact with one another. I like being on a team where people feel heard, and obviously, diversity is a really big deal to me. It’s nice to be able to relate to someone on your team. It’s nice to make jokes and have people get them. It’s nice to be on a team where other people know what it’s like to be constantly discriminated against, and judged for who they are in this industry, or what they represent, or where they come from. I like being on a team with other people who know what it’s like to have to leave so much of themselves at home everyday and come into a job because they have to protect their own stability. So yeah, I don’t know. I think I look for teams that are really collaborative and I look for good management.
A good manager — an experience with a good manager versus a bad one is night and day. You could work for the best company in the world, but if you have a bad manager I just feel like your experience at that company is not going to be one that’s positive; it’s not going to be one that helps you grow as an individual contributor or a manager. Again, I grew up having enough bad examples of what not to do in my life and so these days I’m sort of looking for more good examples and for what I want to do with my career. I’m finally at a company where I can have a long career. I could realistically stay at my company until I retire and that’s a really exciting thing to me. It gives me so much motivation to want to work on my relationships with people and build with them. Those relationships don’t feel contentious like so many really high pressure start-up roles feel. I don’t feel like I’m competing with anyone on my team.
I’m reading this awesome comic book series right now called Saga and I’m obsessed with it and there are so many really good quotes in it — but there’s one in particular really resonates with me and that’s, “life is mostly about learning how to lose”.
Life isn’t so much about our winning moments but it really is about how we handle losing. What’s our next move? How do we keep going? People like us, we’ve been losing forever, right? So this isn’t anything new. For some more privileged people I think it’s a lot harder to lose, especially later in life because they’ve never done it before.
How do your friends and family from home feel about how far you’ve come?
My best friend Kacie is an elementary school teacher and she actually uses me as her example of how to “make it.” She works at a public elementary school in Oakland and her school has one of the highest rates of children who have experienced trauma. I was one of those kids. They’re me. I go to her school and I see these kids and I’m like, “I remember running on the playground with all of you”. It’s really a cool experience for me. But they’re going through a lot as kids and it’s cool because I’ll come around and she’s using me in her lesson plans to teach her students that just because you might not come from the most fortunate situation, you don’t have to accept that that’s all you deserve out of life.
I think every kid deserves a childhood. I think every kid deserves to eat and be loved and to really just be a kid, you know?
“Things that I thought were weaknesses in my early twenties I’m now starting to see as strengths. Being a sensitive person allows you to be really empathetic. And I can read emotions really well. I can empathize with people and do my job better because of it. Sensitivity is, actually, generally something that is framed as something that’s weak. But I’ve found that it’s actually more like a superpower.”
It’s been really cool to watch her use me as an example in her classes. It feels so sincere and just real. There’s all these tech publications or whatever and they’ll email me and be like, “you’re so great, you’re so magnificent” and I’m like it doesn’t mean anything coming from a lot of those people because they’re not my people. I don’t know if they are; maybe they are in some way or shape or form but it matters so much more coming from my friends and family here at home.
I have an eight year old niece and — oh, she’s nine now, holy shit — she’s nine and I helped raise her for her first three years of life and it is — I never had an auntie like me. I never had that good example — And I mean, I’m not perfect — Oh my God, I’m like deeply flawed like any human, but it’s really cool because even though she is going to have to go through a lot of the stuff that I went through as a kid, she will always be able to look at me and say, “I can have that” which is just the most important thing to me.
How do you think the combination of your background, how you grew up, and the life experiences that you’ve had impact the way that you approach your work and career?
Oh, man. Well, one: I’m hyper vigilant. I have PTSD. It’s something I’ve had my whole life and because of it I am very much always kind of on-guard.
It’s very hard for me to relax in certain environments. I think in one way it’s made me an incredibly sensitive human being. It’s funny because things that I thought were weaknesses in my early twenties I’m now starting to see as strengths. Being a sensitive person allows you to be really empathetic. And I can read emotions really well. I can empathize with people and do my job better because of it. Sensitivity is, actually, generally something that is framed as something that’s weak. But I’ve found that it’s actually more like a superpower.
And I don’t think I would have that superpower if I hadn’t gone through what I’ve gone through, as sad as that is. I don’t think I would have had the courage — any of the courage. At the time, again, it didn’t feel like a choice going public with my story but never in a million years can I imagine that I would have had that courage or gotten to that point where I would say that I’d had enough. If I didn’t have my background, I probably would have just swept all that emotion and pain under the rug and kept going, you know, as so many women have to do. I think my past has influenced almost everything about me. Almost everything. Yeah. And I think, again, even though I’m trying really hard to focus on myself, I still think deep down that I am fairly protective of other people and their right to live and be who they are and bring who they are to work, and I just think I do it in a very different way than I did in the beginning of my career.
Yeah. Shall we go macro for a second?
How do you feel about the state of tech in 2016? What excites you, what frustrates you?
Women are in such a difficult position when they join a tech company, and I’m not speaking for myself personally. I’ve been in this position at many companies. I feel like tech companies expect women to be their voices of “diversity.” And I feel like there’s a ton of pressure put on women to recruit other women to their tech firms. But then if something bad happens you’re almost made to feel like a hypocrite. Being in this position really makes you question yourself and if you’re merely a part of the machine, instead of someone who is creating real change.
What I’m excited about is just the rise of all these just incredible voices of women in tech. I have a mentee who is a CS student at Berkeley. She comes from Hayward. I coached her in cross country when she was 14 years old at my high school. I coached my own cross country team for a summer in college and it is so fucking cool to see her bring her Hayward swag to such a white, cultureless industry. It’s just so rad because I never had the balls. I never had the balls to be 100% who I am inside of these establishments and I feel her bringing it. And I feel like I helped a little bit which is really gratifying.
“I see this mosaic sort of taking shape in tech now, and I’m seeing all these different voices emerge and there no longer being one woman as an authority over the voice of women in tech. And I love that. I am obsessed with that. I am so excited. I get to take a step back and really just admire it and help sort of signal boost. Like, there’s just so many amazing women doing very cool things in our industry right now — it’s very cool.”
It’s all about creating space. There’s more space in tech in 2016 for her to be herself, then there was for me when I joined the industry. Just seeing her be like, “I’m here and I’m just as good,” seeing her have the attitude of, “I deserve to be here and I’m just as good as any of you,” is such a powerful thing for me and I really hadn’t seen that in at least my first four or five years in tech. That’s something I’m super excited about. There’s way more vocal women now so it’s no longer like the one Julie or the one Shanley, you know what I mean? It’s not like there’s one radical feminist, no. They’re everywhere and there’s all these voices. For me, and I’ve said this in the past and no one’s ever written about it which makes me always like — you know when you say something in an interview and then they never write about it and you’re like, “That was the gold. That’s what I want people to cover.”
I got you girl. Don’t worry.
I’ve always felt like there’s no one woman in tech, like it’s not Julie. I’m only one person. I’m only one woman in tech. I’ve always felt like the Women in Tech movement should be represented by this mosaic essentially of all these different voices and all these different experiences
It should be representative of different ethnicities and cultures and I want the world that I know to be represented here, and the world I come from is really diverse. Where I come from everyone respects each other’s cultures and everyone respects the strength of women. It’s not devoid of its own brands of misogyny and prejudice. But it’s more representative of what the world is actually like.
Anyways, I see this mosaic sort of taking shape in tech now, and I’m seeing all these different voices emerge and there no longer being one woman as an authority over the voice of women in tech. And I love that. I am obsessed with that. I am so excited. I get to take a step back and really just admire it and help sort of signal boost. Like, there’s just so many amazing women doing very cool things in our industry right now — it’s very cool.
And the idea that I may have helped create some of this newfound space for women to shine is really cool too. It really is.
I don’t think there’s any “may” about it.
I am still not quite at the point of acceptance. My boyfriend tells me all the time, but I am just not quite there. I’m working on it, though, with my therapist — don’t worry [laughter].
I’m getting there. For a long time after my (very public) GitHub exit, I really felt like I had been abandoned. I felt like I had been kicked out of tech, and that I was like this taboo, like the black mark essentially — from Harry Potter. I now think a lot of that was internalized and it was just sort of in my own head.
But it’s just really good not to feel like the enemy anymore, and to feel like there’s more of us than there are of the bad guys, maybe. I don’t know. Good and bad is like a weird binary for that, but there’s more introspection; there’s more conversation; there’s more dialogue. And I feel like those are the things that have to happen. Like, we all have to have hard conversations; we all have to check our privilege. Like, I accept that the way that I was treated by the press and by the media — those are the same thing, I guess, right — was probably way more kind than a woman who is visibly of color would have been treated, and I accept that there’s some privilege there, and so I think it’s important for all of us to sort of accept what privilege we have both in society and in the industry.
The introspection that I am starting to see is really promising. There’s all these amazing women writers writing great pieces, and I just feel like I can retire. I’m like, “This is fantastic.” I just try to support them now and reach out when I feel like someone’s not in a good place and just let them know, “Hey, I’m here. You want to come and hang out with me and my dog? I’m around.” I try to do that as much as possible when I see someone on the receiving end of any abuse that I’ve experienced. It’s a messed up little sorority we’ve got going but [chuckles] I’m definitely feeling a little more solidarity and I’m feeling more — It’s just a feel. It’s so weird because you can point people to all these articles about women in tech in the past decade or so, but it’s really hard to capture how being in tech has felt over that time. There’s no exact timeline, really. But I’m definitely feeling way more positive about it now than I ever have.
Amazing. I hate that you went through all that but I’m also so, so happy to see it all turning into such a positive thing.
It’s really cool. I don’t know. I just hope someday my kids will — Actually, there’s is a great story I’ll tell you — My grandma, my abuela, on my dad’s side, she was this total badass and she died a year after I was born and so I’ve only heard stories about her. But she was such a badass. One of the stories my tia told me was that when my abuela was young and in high school, she had these red pumps, red high heels. She went to a Catholic school, an all-girls Catholic school, and they had to wear a uniform and she was like, “Nope.” She would hide these red Kat Von D-style pumps outside her house and she would leave dressed in her uniform every day. And then pull her pumps out of the bushes and dress herself up on the way to school and then get in trouble for it. I hear these little stories about her every once in a while and I really wish I had gotten to know her. But I still feel this deep connection to her, because of these stories. People say we look alike and we sing alike. There’s all these similarities and I just hope that someday my kids and my grandkids can read about me on the internet and be like, “Holy shit. Our abuela did cool shit.” I want to inspire them to open the door for more people like them. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, was open a door.
My favorite coping mechanism that I’ve had since I was like 18 is “it’s good for the memoir.”
That’s it. That’s a good one. That’s really good. I’m going to write that down.
Like when the shittiest stuff happens I’m just like, “Noted, noted. This will fit in. This is pretty good. Yep. Here’s another chapter. Okay.” I would recommend. A very good coping mechanism.
That’s definitely going in the toolbox, for sure.
Last question for you would be what advice would you have, just based on the lessons you’ve learned, for young girls who are either getting their start in tech or are hoping to get into it?
Find your own way. That would probably be my advice. Find your own way and you don’t have to go to an Ivy League. You don’t have to rub shoulders with whoever, rub elbows, I don’t know the saying. Find your own way if you can. I would say be 100% yourself because that is who you have to go home and live with. That’s who you have wake up with and look at in the mirror every day.
“Be 100% yourself because that is who you have to go home and live with. That’s who you have wake up with and look at in the mirror every day.”
A lot of people will ask me, “Are you mad that GitHub didn’t fire so and so and that they’re not suffering or whatever?” I’m just like, “ No, because they have to go to bed with who they are every night, and I get to go to bed knowing that my conscience is clear, and that I did everything that I could for myself and for other people in this situation. And that I did it with a pure heart.” I don’t know. I did it with the best intentions, and I fought. I’ve had some really dark moments since then and dealing with the trauma from the experience has been challenging. I ended up in a hospital once, and it is the biggest success to me that I survived, and that I’m a survivor. This stuff never going to go away for me. It’s going to be my whole life. It’s going to be a part of my story. A part of my memoir [chuckles]. I’m making peace with it, but also, I’m just making decisions and making choices that I can live with. That’s what I would recommend to young people is to make decisions and choices that’ll make you proud. Make yourself proud.