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How not to join the wrong company

I recently had the experience of joining and then leaving a startup. I won’t get into the details of the company, but let’s just say it rhymes it “kitty slapper.” I stayed a month, which was long enough to understand the culture of the company, the mission, and the people. In that time, it became really apparent to me that I’d joined the wrong company for me. Once I knew, I didn’t waste any time. I let the team know and transitioned out.

So, on one front, I think I did okay. When I knew it wasn’t going to work, I didn’t belabour it. I didn’t foolishly stick to my plan despite the evidence I had that it wasn’t going to work. A younger, more driven, and more naïve me would have pushed ahead trying to make it work at all costs. I did that at Facebook and mostly just gave myself more grey hairs.

Now, I wouldn’t pretend that I left Facebook in the most mature, conscientious way. No, in truth I was really frustrated and hurt when I left. Things weren’t adding up and my two separate chains of accountability were giving me incongruous feedback. If I’m honest though, I think there was a way forward for me there. It would have just required a lot of letting go of hard feelings and finding a new team to call home.  I wasn’t willing to let go of my goals or area of focus at Facebook. So, instead of moving away from security or quitting when it seemed like there was an impasse, I just kept grinding. I gritted my teeth and pushed forward. The result? I still quit a year later, even more frustrated and demoralised than the year before.

Okay, so I didn’t repeat that mistake this time. I recognised the way was blocked by unresolvable issues and I walked away.

But there’s room for improvement here. The question I keep coming back to since I left a couple weeks ago is how did I miss these signals in the first place? I’m a very, very seasoned interviewer. So much so that when someone is interviewing me, it typically works more like I’m interviewing them. So how the hell did I miss majorly important signals that would’ve prevented me from joining that company in the first place?

After another week of self-reflection, I think it comes down to just a few things.

#1 Don’t fall subject to the authority bias

One of my favourite books is The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli. The chapter devoted to the Authority Bias poignantly sums up one place where I went wrong in joining the startup I just left:

The first book of the Bible explains what happens when we disobey a great authority: we get ejected from paradise. This is also what less celestial authorities would have us believe.

When I went for one of several interviews with the CEO, I noted a clear authoritarian streak in his communication. Shockingly (at least to myself in retrospect), rather than investigate this, I bowed down. I was excited about the company and scared of not getting to join it. So, even though I had signal that *already* was telling me something wasn’t right, I ignored it. This is probably a bit of confirmation bias on my part as well, but the fact that I didn’t take the opportunity to ask the hard questions I should have is something different. It’s the authority-fearing part of me (and I guess part of everyone) who is afraid of causing trouble — even when the consequences of *not* causing that trouble turn out to be much worse.

#2 Don’t let “winning” override making a smart decision

In the interview phase of this company, I sent over some outlines that explained how I would run a team doing the work I had been discussing with the leadership team. It was very technical (as one might imagine it ought to be if I’m being interviewed to be a lead engineer). Now, from the technical people, I got a thumbs up. In fact, after a month at the company, I can see that the outline I sent over was basically spot on. Yay me. The important part about this is that I also got told that my communication “wasn’t a successful one for informing business people.”

At this point, if I’m honest with myself, I let my ego get the better of me. Incredulity overtook me and I got caught up in a haughty, “Why would business people expect to be able to understand an outline explaining how to tackle a hard technical problem?” train of thought. Now — that question is actually the perfect question to ask. However, instead of facing the reality that I was having to ask such a ridiculous thing and walking away, I tried to “win” the debate. I should have just accepted that at this particular company the top of the food chain was obviously business people rather than engineers. I should have owned the reality that their expectation would be that I would communicate extremely complex things upwardly in some sort of digest format. That if I didn’t summarise complexity digestibly enough, the communication would be a failure and blame would be assigned to me.

But I didn’t do any of that. I got caught in the trap of “No way, I’m a great communicator — I’ll prove it!” I can see that now, but it was not at all obvious to me then. In fact, after being told that my hours of free effort devising a way to tackle a hard problem with a team were wasted because a business person didn’t understand it, I was nervous. I worried that I had screwed up my prospects of getting hired. I spent one night tossing and turning hoping that my failure hadn’t undone all the positive interactions I’d had prior. Silly me.

#3 Pay attention to all the signals you have

Going into this company, I had several reports that all was not unspoilt in the state of Denmark. I had some direct feedback from current employees and I had some very telling Glassdoor reviews. Did I weigh these correctly? Nope! Again, I let confirmation bias take over my reasoning. Rather than asking the hard questions about these things, I instead asked the questions that I knew gave my interviewers enough rhetorical space to give answers I’d accept.

For instance, I should have asked, “I read on Glassdoor that X, Y, and Z appears to happen at your company. Is that true? If so, how often? Has anyone left the company as a result?” That question leaves no room wriggling around. Instead of using the signal I had usefully, I instead asked questions like, “You guys have a bit of a reputation. How does that play out in the day-to-day running of the company?” This question gives *plenty* of room for subjectivity and soft answers. This is silly of me. Wasting a strong signal about a company — especially one that invalidates the assumption that it’s a good one to join — is about as rookie a mistake as one can make. 10+ years into my career, here I am making exactly that mistake.

#4 Checksum your intuitions about how your job will work

As I look back at my interview performances, I realise I didn’t bother to do something really important. I didn’t bother to check if the company worked in a sensible way relative to my expectations. I think my years at Facebook set me up perfectly for this. At a company like Facebook, even a “meh” team still produces a lot of great work, has amazingly talented people on it, and has plenty of remit to do their jobs well. It never occurred to me that these things might not be true at a different company. So, rather than asking straightforward questions like:

  • If I need to coordinate with other teams in order to do my job well, what might that look like?
  • What does the reporting structure look like for engineers?
  • If I see an opportunity to improve processes across the engineering team, how can I push that forward?
  • If I see an opportunity to improve processes across the company, how can I make them happen?

If I’d asked these questions and pushed for authentic answers, I would have known that I was barking up the wrong tree. But, I didn’t. I just assumed that every company works as well as Facebook by default.

Nope.

This site is now available only via SSL

After much gnashing of teeth and furious Googling of obscure SSL related Apache error log messages, this site is now available via SSL exclusively. Huzzah.

Largest Rectangle in a Histogram Coding Interview Problem

Here’s the full text of the code from Episode 05. This is coded in JavaScript and uses the common approach of using a stack to keep track of the open rectangles.

Permutation Generator Coding Interview Question

Episode 04 of the series is available now on my YouTube channel.

This problem revolves around generating permutations of a sequence incrementally. Rather than pouring out a huge vector of output, this problem asks for a generator that can output the next permutation of a vector with every iteration.

For this video, I code in C++ and uses a functor to create the generator.

Thinking About Knee Jerk Reactions

Original post here: https://www.facebook.com/jg/posts/10100265608855158

While I was running tonight, I had a thought about the extremely negative reaction so many privileged people have to being called sexist or racist or <insert thing here>-ist. It occurred to me that this group of people probably hates being unfairly labeled as something they don’t see themselves as and don’t want to be.

Then I thought about every black person I know who has been pulled over for driving while black. Or every woman I know who has been mansplained by someone who just assumed a woman wouldn’t know something. Or every gay person I know who has had to deal with homophobes who are convinced the evil gayness is going to rub off them and their children. People in this group constantly have to deal with people labelling them and applying a set of expectations to them that may not have anything to do with their identity.

Everyone dislikes having someone assume something of them unfairly. One curious thing about people in the second group is that most of the people I know who would fall into the second group actually have some compassion for the people in the first group. They don’t expect the people in the first group not to put labels on them. They deal with dozens of small instance of this every single day. It’s as inevitable as breathing.

Interestingly, the people in the first group can’t stand the idea of anyone putting labels on them. To them, it’s a hateful and unfair dismissal of some or all of their humanity. It’s bigotry and ignorance. An outrage! Maybe when you don’t regularly face it, you don’t build up any thick skin towards it. I still find it fascinating that so many people (and if I’m being real, I mainly mean white men here) don’t see how similar the natural emotions are from group A to group B or how dissimilar the contexts of those emotions are.

I’m guilty of this left and right. I complained relentlessly about how terrible it was getting into and out of the Tel Aviv airport because I was treated badly. They singled me out as a young(ish) guy traveling alone and grilled me. I griped relentlessly about what a shit show it was trying to get my visa to go to China. In both cases, a friend of mine who happens to have relatively darker skin just laughed at my frustration because he faces that kind of treatment every time he flies. He also comes from a country that doesn’t have a great political status relative to the US, so he has to play the “please can I have a visa” game for almost every country he visits.

For him, it’s a day to day pain in the ass. He reminds me of this every time I get indignant about the injustice. To me, it’s unthinkable. It’s outrageous. I suppose really, it’s just new to me. Now, I can understand where he’s coming from in a way that I couldn’t before.

The same applies when being called out for being sexist or racist or anything-ist in a way that doesn’t feel fair. It might be, it might not be — I’m not trying to answer that question. However accurate it is or isn’t, if you’re a privileged person, you might be feeling that sting for the first time. Rather than knee jerking away from it, take a minute to consider that it’s a day to day reality for people around you. How much shittier would it feel if that was the way people treated you all the time?

Birthday Question, Age 31

Original Post: https://www.facebook.com/notes/jackson-gabbard/birthday-question-age-31/10152781770934836

So the 21st was the day of the Birthday Question. It’s the 2014 edition and roughly the 4th year of asking it. I think for me, this is a fairly easy thing to decide on. Last year was a big year and one that I spent a lot of time reflecting about. I feel a lot more in touch with what’s actually important and where I’ve grown the most. I think the biggest difference between the me of today and the me of last year is that I can understand the gap between what I want for other people and what they need for themselves.

I’m kind of a steamroller. I usually have a strong sense of how things should be. I usually know what steps to take to get there. I’ve learned that if I’m acting alone or in some context where the outcome is objective and there are no strong feelings, my tendency to impart order onto chaos is a strength. Sometimes the grand future I see requires change in other people. In that case, this style of… let’s call it ‘assertive problem solving’ is actually problematic. I’ve learned why this year.

Last year, I learned to accept my flaws more than I ever had before. I learned that doing so makes me stronger rather than weaker like I had previously thought. This year, I learned that extending that love and acceptance to the people around me works exactly the same way. I learned that it was actually fear that kept me from loving and accepting the people around me in the first place. When someone has a major character flaw, I felt I had two options: push them away or hold a strong line about that issue and never give an inch.

On some level it’s probably good not to condone bad behaviours. So, in some small way, yay me for that. In reality though, my reaction to these flaws wasn’t based in a desire to help the person. No, it was to keep myself from catching the cooties. To keep me free from falling into that same flaw pit and being worse off for it. When I was young, this was a real risk and avoiding it, a valuable skill. This year I learned that now, it’s a mostly bogus vestige of being young and surrounded by people I didn’t want to end up like.

For instance, let’s say someone has a flaw that makes them a bad decision maker. It turns out that it’s pretty unlikely that I’ll absorb that flaw through unconscious osmosis. The very fact that I see the flaw means I’m probably insulated from it. It’s still in me to try to fix the problem. Importantly though, if I really want to make things better, there are much better things I can do than throw their flaws in their face or push them away. In fact, letting people know that there’s something about them that should be improved mostly has the opposite effect of making things better. At least, the way I was doing it — at arm’s length, trying my best not to let any part of them touch me lest I become the worse for it.

This year I learned that the fear of being bad is a really strong, growth-inhibiting fear. I learned that people are usually doing their best. That whatever we should be doing differently we probably would be doing if we could. Someone who comes along and happens to see a better way isn’t really offering much by just telling the person about how things could be.

It’s kind of like seeing a person who is straining to live life in a scary world. They’re wearing a suit of armour for protection. Old me would see the suit of armour and say, “Hey, if you weren’t wearing that silly helmet, you’d be way better off!” At best I sound like a complete dick. At worst, I only make the person pile on more armour — to guard themselves against me and other people who would criticise them for being guarded in the first place. The reality is that the person is already doing the very best they can, struggling to feel good. They aren’t armoured up for no reason. That’s the gap I used to miss. Or maybe wilfully ignore is more accurate — a sort of self-protection in its own right.

It’s interesting that it was so hard to see this. It was hard work to realise that the way I kick myself for not being perfect is actually unhelpful. It’s been just as hard to generalise that acceptance to everyone around me. At least, it’s certainly much easier to just have a simple pass-fail test and cut off things that I’m nervous about and can’t use force of will to change. The problem here is that this makes me a very prickly person. Someone for whom you either pass or fail. If you fail, you experience a very different, compassionless side of me. Not because I want to be that way, but because it’s the only way I can definitely keep you from making me something I’m afraid of being (rightly or wrongly). At least, so I thought. This has been such a useful growth strategy, it’s been really hard to let it go where it doesn’t actually work.

At the same time, I can see now that almost everyone I know can think of at least one thing they would improve about themselves. Most of the time, they can think of lots of things. So, it’s not as if they’re just fundamentally flawed people who might drag me down in blissful ignorance of their toxicity. In fact, if they could get to a better place, they would. In all likelihood, they will in time anyway. But what if I see something that trips the ‘fix it or GTFO’ alarm in my head? How do I fix it?

Well, the biggest lesson I’ve learned this year is that love helps. Acceptance helps. It turns out that I and so many people I know do weird shit because we’re armoured up for conditions that aren’t obvious. Life is stressful. The world is dark and terrible at times. No one I know carries around protective gear just for funsies. The thing that has helped me need less armour was chancing to trust people more, going against some very well-trained instincts. Trusting that, probably, everything will just be okay. That the moments where things aren’t okay also aren’t the end of the world. I’ve learned that if I want to help people, it’s not a hard push for a grand and beautiful future they need. Probably, they need some love and some acceptance. With more goodness, they’ll probably get to a good place on their own. It’s pretty likely it might be a place even better than what my purview included in the first place.

“Mate, really?” (Or, Why It Matters to Me)

Original Post: https://www.facebook.com/notes/jackson-gabbard/mate-really-or-why-it-matters-to-me/10152645525549836

I wrote a note a long while ago about a conversation I had over a dinner. I wrote the note to explain how the conversation was actually sexist and dismissive of women despite looking like a conversation that was praising some of the women we knew. I got a lot of flack for that note. Most of the harshest comments came directly to my inbox or came up in conversations between me and other outspoken men. I also got some push back from women. Interestingly, in all of these conversations, I often found myself being critiqued as a standard, privileged white male. As someone who isn’t in a position to take a strong line like I did in that note.

The most common push back I got was skepticism about my intentions. Everything from a gentle, “Mate, really?” followed by a sideways look suggesting there must be a girl I’m trying to impress or some other selfish goal I’m serving. Or, the less direct but more dismissive, “I can’t stand it when guys try to be white knights about stuff like this.” In most cases, the thing that was in question was what gives me the right and reason to even have an opinion here. It’s apparently highly suspect that an overtly privileged white guy would spend his time pushing back on sexism that he reaps the benefits of. For that matter, highly suspect that a guy like me would even use the word ’sexism’ or ‘misogyny’ or other words that can be easily dismissed as the vocabulary of someone with a ‘feminist agenda.’

Well, the truth is I’m not just some Standard Privileged White Guy™. I know from the outside, it’s easy to make that assessment. I work among lots of very privileged people. I’m white. I’m a guy. I have found myself in a lifestyle of greater privilege than anything I could have fathomed. Can’t deny those things.

So, if not a SPWG, what do I think am I? Here are some details. My family used to live in a really poor town in Oklahoma called Shawnee. A redneck town by every measure. Some of my most vivid early memories are just glimpses from dark times in that place. Like the time my mom rushed me and my brother to our bedroom when our neighbour, a woman my mom had known for years and a woman who was regular company in our home, knocked at the door. She was covered in blood and bruises. Her face was swollen and shiny from the blood, tears, and snot that intermingled when her husband, a guy called Gary, beat the hell out of her. I was a little kid at the time but the impression was strong. I can still see her standing shaking in the living room, trying to explain what happened as if it wasn’t already brutally legible. Gary was a shadowy presence in the neighborhood. My brother and I weren’t allowed to talk to him. His wife was a constant victim of his abuse and that was just how things worked.

We moved from Oklahoma to Booneville Kentucky. Booneville is the county seat of Owsley county, a county that boasts the second highest child poverty rate in the entire United States. Something like 41% of families fall below the poverty line. By relative measure, we had an amazing life there. We had a house, not a shack or a trailer. We had food to eat every day. We lived near enough to the school that we could walk there while other kids had to take buses through tiny, winding Appalachian roads. We didn’t have to leave school before the end of the semester to go help our family harvest tobacco.

I had an aunt who lived there most of her life. She was a spunky, rebellious lady who had paid the price on occasion for that kind of impertinence. For instance, one day she ran off and got married without permission. Though I never met the guy, the adjectives that I’ve heard used to describe him are ‘mean’ and ‘cruel’ and spoken by people who know what those things really are. Despite living in a situation that was pretty terrible, she was looked down on. She had run off and defied the natural order of things. The fun factoid about her elicit wedding is that she was something like 40 years old at the time.

Another time in Booneville, I was sitting around the dinner table with another aunt, my mom, a few other family members, and the woman who had taken care of my grandmother in her last years. She was a woman with strong arms despite being in her seventies. She would hug you like her next breath were her last and she needed to give all of the remaining love she had lest it be wasted. She spoke caring words in thick Appalachian speech. On this day, she was telling us the story of how she jumped out of a police car and landed on the road. The cop who was driving her tried to get her up. She attacked him, hoping that he would kill her. He didn’t.

Prior to all of this, her sister and she had married into the same neighbouring family. There aren’t a lot of families to marry into in Booneville. Her sister’s husband reached some impasse in their life together that he couldn’t deal with. So, he killed her sister by beating her to death. In the normal world, killing someone requires legal process and consequences (unless the person killed is black for instance or perhaps poor or a woman, like in this case). Anyway, there was a quick and tidy cover up with some help from the sheriff and a prominent preacher in town. Everyone just turned a blind eye because there was nothing more to be done. Almost everyone. Of course, the sister of someone brutally killed might object to the whole thing being ignored by everyone including your husband who is the brother of the murder. My grandmother’s caretaker objected.

So what happened? Well, she was kicked out of both families: her married family, for betraying them, and her own family, for being a dishonourable wife. As a result, she had a nervous break down. Her normal mode of caring for the elderly and being as tender and loving as any mother was replaced by what I can imagine to be the darkest and most destructive thoughts possible. At least dark enough that she would try to force a cop to kill her in the street.

Then of course there’s my own grandmother. No physically brutal life befell her, thankfully. She was brilliant. Graduated college at 17. She was a voracious reader and tack sharp her entire life until the very end. Her brother grew up to be a research scientist despite growing up in rural Kentucky. She grew up to become a wife and a school teacher. Do I think the apex of her abilities was in teaching children? Not by miles. Do I think the world she lived in held even the tiniest sliver of an open door for anything else? Doubtful. She was a respectable lady. She would never be so hasty as to go off and pursue her own career goals. She wouldn’t even have her own career goals. She was an obedient and supportive wife all her years. She asked for permission to go places. She had her husband escort her around. A grand woman, for sure. But also a woman who was capable of so, so much more than her world permitted.

So that’s all far away and long ago. I just moved flats in London. I live in a nice place in an insanely nice part of town. It costs more in a month than the family home I grew up in cost for a year. SPWG existence is pretty good. I was unpacking boxes two nights ago in my living room. I heard shouting outside. My ears perked up and I wandered toward the sound. It was a woman’s voice apologising for the actions of her kid (or at least of someone who wasn’t screaming). There was also a man’s voice. He was calling her a pig and stupid and stringing together reasons the current situation was unacceptable. He was shouting about what a stupid thing it was that the kitchen window wouldn’t close properly. She would try to close it, but couldn’t get the mechanism to disengage to let it down. Then he would try. Mostly he slammed it and shouted insults at her. This couple lives in my building in my privileged Zone 1 London world. Before someone managed to get the window closed, I could hear her begging for him to please just stop shouting. Not out of respect for her. Not because she expected reasonable treatment. Just for him not to draw attention. Not to expose how selfishly he was behaving and to keep quiet how brutal and mean he is being and how shameful the whole thing was. I walked around our manicured court yard to see if I could identify what flat it was. No idea what help I could really be, but you can be certain that I won’t just turn away from it. As I heard this exchange, I thought of the moments where I heard, ‘Mate, really?’ and all its variants.

So these are some stories. Some flashbulbs and some broad impressions. This is far from an exhaustive list of the moments in my life where women were on the receiving end of a culture that gives them little good and lots of bad while expecting everything of them. Believe me when I say these are not the most personal or intense stories I could be telling. These are the only ones I have the stomach and the right to tell.

So, why does this SPWG stand up for women and push against a sexist and patriarchal society? What’s my real goal? Who am I really trying to impress? I guess being super honest, I’m trying to impress my mom. And my grandmother. And my aunt. And my next door neighbour. And my sister-in-law. And my niece. And a lot of women. Impress upon them that things don’t have to suck and that there are men who care about making it better. I’m trying to impress the interview candidate I talked to last month who felt so relieved when she realized that, “I’m not that kind of guy,” but in fact one that she can have a frank and fair conversation with about gender in the work place. I’m also trying to impress the Gary-types of the world. Impress upon them that the years where abuse is tolerated and ignored are over, at least if I or other people like me are nearby. I’m trying to impress the other SPWGs out there. Impress upon them that it’s not some ethereal problem that doesn’t have a concrete form. That it’s not something that ‘people like us’ don’t really have to deal with.

So, sure, there is at least one girl I’m trying to impress. I’m also trying to look this far-from-civilized aspect of civilized life in the face and not be yet another person who sees but does nothing because that’s the way things are.

Lessons: A Year and A Decade

Original post: https://www.facebook.com/notes/jackson-gabbard/lessons-a-year-and-a-decade/10151936284329836

This is my answer to The Birthday Question for the 30th year of my existence. I was asked the question by a number of people this year, which I think is awesome. For those of you who haven’t been exposed, the question is this — what is the most important lesson you learned this year? Because this is a special year, I was also asked to answer the same question, but scoped over the last decade. Serious business.

To answer the original Birthday Question, I wrote a massive list of things I learned and then sorted them according to impact to my life. What follows below are the things from that list in order decreasing order of importance. I’ve omitted a few things that I don’t think make sense to share this way. If you’re itching to know, I’ll probably answer privately.

So, the most important lesson I learned this year is that it’s okay to fix me and also to love me while broken. Or, to put it less harshly, to accept myself as good, flaws and all. I would guess for a lot of people that’s a strange thing to hear me say. I probably come across as confident and happy (or at least upbeat even if I’m raging) most of the time. In reality, I have very high expectations of myself that sometimes I don’t stack up against. I don’t think anyone who knows me would blink if I said it’s my nature to put a lot of pressure on people to achieve. The part that not a lot of people know is that I have always put much, much more pressure on myself than I put on other people. Part of my internal ruleset is to avoid letting other people feel the pressure I apply to myself.

This year, I learned (in some senses the hard way) that I have to be able to accept myself even in the face of failing some of my internal checklists, especially if I want to love other people. I learned that letting the cracks show and not being so perfect means I can grow and heal, better and faster. I learned to be compassionate beyond what I knew was possible. It also means I can be an open heart for others because I’m not afraid of being faulty myself. Obviously, I’m not just a wide open heart all the time, but it’s something I can be. This year I learned that people respect you for owning your flaws.
This year I learned that what I think is most important might be something that not everyone else agrees with or sees value in. I guess I’ve known this for a long time, but not in general form. This year I learned that this can be true at work as well as family as well as friends, and so on. Sometimes that means doing things other people disagree with and being willing to deal with the consequences of the difference.

I learned that everything most likely will just be okay. That doesn’t mean I learned to trust that knowledge 100% of the time, but I try to and fundamentally I know it’s true. I also learned this year that trusting people is easier than I thought it was.

This year I learned that choosing to work on what I *need* to work on more than I what I *should* work on is a dangerous proposition. Sometimes serving one need means neglecting something else. This year I put less of myself in my work than I have in the past 5 or 6 years. I needed to. I had some healing to do and some growing and I wasn’t willing to let work hold me back on that front. It worked out poorly for me in my review, but I learned a lot in the process. Sometimes accepting the cost of “failing” in some way affords breathing room that is more valuable anyway.

This year I learned that finding a role model and letting that role model know she or he is a role model changes the relationship. Not necessarily in a good or a bad way. It’s just different than being quiet about it.

This year I learned that I’m on a mission to realize a world that I wish I had. I think I wasn’t aware of this before, but I was just as ardent about achieving it. Knowing makes a huge difference. I get to decide how much energy I want to devote to it and decide if the world I’m driving towards is a good one (and so I can change course if I’ve gone wonky).

In a broad sense, this year I learned to be less afraid. Also that being less afraid means other people get to be less afraid, too.

Because this is my 30th year, the wise and giving Chaitanya Mishra asked me to answer this question for the last decade. Same process, different answers.

This decade I learned that where I come from means only as much as I’ll have it mean. I learned that I want it to mean more than I thought I did. I learned that I respect and value my humble beginnings and never want to lose sight of what that feels like. Importantly though, who and what I want to be matters more than where I come from in the end.

This decade I learned that I don’t need much love and affection, but I do need some.

This decade I learned that I want important people in my life who stay in it.

This decade I learned that I’m capable of more than I had any working models for when I was young.

This decade I learned to code.

Sassy !== Assertive and Female

Original post: https://www.facebook.com/notes/jackson-gabbard/sassy-assertive-and-female/10151447333274836

At a dinner some weeks back, I was having a conversation with some male engineer friends of mine from a bunch of companies in the London area. The challenge of finding engineers who are women came up. It’s a topic that comes up a lot when I’m at the table because I think it’s really important for male engineers to understand the experience women have as the gender minority in technical roles. Usually I find these conversations enlightening. Especially if there’s a female engineer at the table, I often find bugs in my perspective as a guy. I’m far from bias-free as a man in tech (though I could probably just delete the “in tech” part).

 

At this particular dinner, I found the opposite to be true. As we talked through the factors that make hiring women in technical roles difficult, we started thinking through the characteristics women we work with have in common. There do seem to be some common things. Really strong technical skills was (and usually is) at the top of the list. We also talked about women who code not being afraid to be the only girl in the room a lot of the time. This is where something unexpected popped out of the conversation. It took me a while to grok why I was so bothered by it, but I think I understand it now. The flow of the conversation went something like this:

 

* Started with a trailing conversation about women in tech who are awesome, focusing on particular women we know. *

 

Male engineer #1 –

Yes, _redacted_ is really good. She just has a sassy personality that prevents her from getting pushed around by men.

 

Male engineer #2 –

I think a lot of women who do well in tech are sassy that way.

 

Me –

*semi-automatic facepalm, vague confusion*

So, by sassy — you mean, like, assertive and female?

 

Male engineers #1 and #2 –

*General agreement*

 

Me –

You know those aren’t synonymous — right?

 

Male engineers #1 and #2 –

*Lots of counter arguments*

 

All of us –

*Lots of terrible validation of gender stereotypes, completeley assinine judgments, and typically male presumed-top-of-the food-chain awfulness.*

 

 

It’s not all the time that I’m aware of subtly sexist things I do or say. If I’m being completely honest with myself, I’m pretty sexist in a bunch of ways that fall out in a lot of places. It’s embarassing to admit. It’s more embarassing to try to hide it. My goal here is not to flame some people for saying a sexist thing. I’m completely guilty of the occasional TWSS joke and definitely guilty of letting my biased thoughts roll out unfiltered into conversations with peers and coworkers irresponsibly. I have absolutely been that guy who has to stop laughing when a woman walks in the room because I’m too embarassed to try to answer her if she asks what’s funny. Knowing this about myself, a goal here is to point out a class of sexism that happens all over the place and to flesh out the underlying perspective that enables it. Also, to hopefully own my role in it in a way that will help me change.

 

Back to dinner. In the immediate conversation that followed, I called the guys out about it as much as I could then. I argued that sassy is not gender neutral and that it carries a bunch of bad connotations. Surprisingly, I got skepticism and push back. I don’t know why I’m suprised really. Smart engineers don’t fix problems that don’t exist. They want proof and want to do their own thinking about the proof they’re given. Why wouldn’t they push back against an accusation that, if valid, would require them to rethink a lot of how they think and behave? Why wouldn’t they push back against someone telling them that they need to be more self-critical about everything they say about women? Fair arguments. My response is: because it really, really matters.

 

Now let’s dig in to the tricky stuff. What’s actually the problem with sassy? Let’s start with why this is a bad way to describe someone, starting from least offensive to most.

 

For starters, let’s be clear about the meaning. Sassy means self-assured and bold. Good things. It also means impudent, saucy, cheeky, conceited, and pretentious (all from the OED, btw). Very bad things. Someone who is sassy has an agenda other than what is important in the moment. They might react overly strongly to something in a way that doesn’t fit the situation and probably draws attention to them.

 

I can see why that would be annoying if you’re trying to get work done. I can also see two massive reasons why being annoying is good and being labeled ‘sassy’ sucks in this context. Imagine the gentle discrimination felt by someone on the receiving end — someone assertive enough to address it — by people who don’t notice what they’re doing. That feeling of “wow, this sucks” can easily lead to a kind of “impertinence.” She’s pushing back on the loaded situation she’s in. Meanwhile, the guys are ignoring it because “hey, it’s not a problem I feel any evidence of.” In this situation she’s behaving reasonably, I think. I have done the same when someone is being dismissive. Labeling this as “sass” is sort of accurate (by definition) and also completely terrible in basically every way. It means short changing the person in the moment, frustrating her resolve to fix things, and simultaneously maintaining the hegemony. Triple facepalm.

 

Okay, so, that’s obviously really bad, but it’s not the worst of it.

 

Worse than that, sassy is a gender identifying term in this context. In my adult life, I have never heard a guy called sassy. To fully own my assertion here I will add that all of us at the dinner party actually discussed this very point in the same conversation. We agreed, because we’re terrible people, that sassy is a term only fit to describe women and gay men. My internal “I’m telling everyone what a massive asshole I am” alarm is going off like crazy as I write that, but I’m committed to being honest here so I’m ignoring that alarm. I’ll indict myself fully in the next paragraphs.

 

Most tragically, sassy is really, really belittling. After giving a lot of thought, I pretty sure it’s only appropriate to refer to children as sassy. Why? Because my right to label someone “sassy” implies that I know what’s appropriate in a given context and they don’t. It implies that I’m qualified to judge them. That they’re somehow under me in a way that makes it okay for me to assess and label their assertiveness one way or another. To put this more painfully, it shows that we men felt entitled to judge her and all women (and apparently even gay men, to my surprise) on their ability to participate at “our level” in things. That’s phenomenally bad.

 

The sum of all of this is pretty obvious but I’m going to spell it out anyway. We, men, these men, myself included, are still a bunch of male-supremacist assholes. When another man asserts himself or has a generally boisterous personality we probably call him things like boisterous or assertive. Maybe in the extreme case, aggressive or domineering, or an asshole. We probably also compliment him for it because he’s an engine — a steamroller. What’s interesting is that we describe him relative to how he makes us feel for the most part. With this woman, we described her in a way that reiterates her status relative to us. We put her beneath our implicit superiority — because she was trying to reach across and behave as a peer. We don’t give her the option of being able to make us feel any particular way other than sassed by an inferior.

 

For the haters:

‘Dude, you’re reading a lot into this one conversation?’

Yes. Yes, I am.

‘Man, is the problem really *this* bad? Aren’t you just making it worse drawing so much attention to it?’

Depends on how much you care about giving everyone who would love to be in technical roles the ability to be in them without having to look up a steep hill of tiny bias-pebbles every single day. I would say that’s pretty important.

 

‘Doesn’t it seem hopeless making this much noise when there are countless similar events happening in others contexts without anyone batting an eyelash?’

Not on your life. You have to start somewhere. This is my first attempt at changing things by being willing to be the guy who owns what we as guys think and to hold us accountable for it.

 

‘Oh, this again.’

Haters gonna hate.

 

Main point, again:

My goal in writing this isn’t to flame a handful of dudes about an offhand comment made at a dinner. It’s to point out, own, and debug a perspective problem that manifests in offhnad comments at dinners everywhere all the time. I want to be a guy that women want to work with. Someone a woman will trust to give her credit where it’s due — to take her just as seriously as anyone else with the same abilities and different anatomy.

 

Aside from the fact that it’s just extremely obviously wrong to feel any differently, I feel this way because my experiences working on teams with both women and men is that women make kick ass engineers and kick ass teammates. If you disagree fundamentally, you should be very skeptical of your perspective. You might be suffering from the same subtle biases I’m trying to get past.