Okay! As of today it’s been one week since I wrote some advice and the internet exploded in my face, so now it’s time to do what I always do: post mortem that shit.
This is going to be long. I erred by making my first post too short, so I’m going to ship $(allthedetail) this time. Duly warned.
Around 8 am on Friday, March 2nd, after pulling an all-nighter, I decided to pound out a quick blog post that has been on my todo list forever: the only advice I feel equipped to give on how to succeed in tech.
My advice, in brief, was this:
- as a junior engineer, tough it out. work hard, learn everything, earn your stripes.
- stay technical. don’t get sucked into an offramp unless you are god damn sure you want out for good.
- once you are senior, use your power to advocate for others and fuck that shit up.
Money, power, credibility. This is the best way I know how to earn these things. This is what worked for me and most of the senior technical women I know and admire.
First of all: I don’t think there should be anything controversial at all about this advice. It’s good advice, if a bit bluntly put. Pick your battles, show strategic impact, leverage your influence into power and use that power to fuck shit up in the manner of your choosing.
The fact is, we are far too chickenshit about telling young women straight up how to succeed at work. We praise them for all kinds of dumb shit and second shift work and emotional labor that has little if any strategic impact to the bottom line, and wonder why they’re burned out and resentful.
We live in a fallen world. I didn’t make it this way, I just want to help you level up to be a powerful destroyer being so you can make it better.
So I hit “publish”.
Around 9:30 am, Camille Fournier gave me a bunch of unsolicited criticism. Unfortunately, due to some sour personal history with Camille I was extremely not disposed to receive this from her. I can be a resentful little shit: as soon as she told me to change it in certain ways, it was the last fucking thing in the world I was going to do.
For a few hours, all the feedback was good. People liked my advice to stay technical (“god I wish someone had told me that 15 years ago”) and my pointing out the loophole that lets women advocate for each other without being penalized.
A few people nailed what I was trying to say even better than I did:
✕✕✕✕✕ (@peterbourgon) March 02, 2018
Cindy Sridharan (@copyconstruct) March 02, 2018
But by the end of the day I was receiving a steady stream of angry tweets from people I had never heard of, with objections that seemed puzzling and ridiculous to me.
They were acting as though the sum total of my advice had been ordering bullied and abused people to just shut up and tough it out. Soon I was getting tweets accusing me of trashing all diversity work, trashing all women, only being out for myself and my own career, erasing sexual assault, being insensitive and destructive to people of color, and on and on.
People were subtweeting me like crazy, or DM’ing me telling me how much they liked my piece but were afraid to say so in public. Others were harassing my engineering managers and people who follow me.
I have never received textual scrutiny of this type before, where every single word was turned over and macerated and peered at for evidence of traitorous views. It sucks. (And it’s pretty hypocritical, to say the least … some of these same women who were gleefully bashing me for clumsy words remain good friends with men who are actual known harassers and abusers of women.)
Lots of people wanted me to take the post down immediately, or publish a retraction or correction immediately. Some prominent feminists publicly chided me and refused to talk to me until I repented of my sins. 🙄
Valerie Aurora (@vaurorapub) March 05, 2018
Let’s be clear. I have no problem admitting my errors and making amends. I do it all the fucking time. But I am disinclined to grovel before a howling mob. It wasn’t even clear to me what I had done wrong, given all the contradictory noises.
So I decided to wait a week before responding, so I could talk to people and figure out what to take away from the mess.
(Also last week: traveled to multiple continents, flew a few dozen hours, wrote multiple talks, delivered presentations at various conferences and meetups, visited and pitched to potential customers, managed a handful of teams, fit 1x1s in between hops and time zones and you know just tried to do my fucking job while dealing with crazed nuts screaming abuse at me online.)
I had a couple of hard but helpful conversations with people like Alice Goldfuss and Courtney Nash, who took the time to walk me through ways that what I wrote may be misinterpreted or wrongly received. This feedback can mostly be bucketed into the following categories:
- “Assume the reader knows nothing about you and considers you hostile until proven otherwise.” Well shit, I am not used to writing defensively. I live my life in high trust, high transparency environments and prefer it that way.
- “Your advice doesn’t apply to $x.” True! I didn’t bracket it in layers of padding — “this is just what worked for me”, “may not apply to every situation” — because I thought that was freaking obvious.
- “It sounds like you are shit talking all diversity efforts.” No, but I was waving vaguely in the direction of some very cynical and tired feelings on the subject. I’m pretty over corporate diversity issues and pinkwashing that doesn’t expand opportunity or share power.
- “It sounds like you are shitting on all women.” Oof. This is the one that is really painful, because this is the one I have been working hard on for close to 20 years… and should have seen coming. I did intend to put some space between myself and women in tech, because I don’t exactly identify as a woman.. exactly. I grew up fundamentalist and misogynist af, and have been working hard to recover from that ever since I left home at 15.
- “Maybe you shouldn’t give advice to women at all.” Courtney challenged me on whether I should speak to women, given my ambivalence wrt my own gender identification. Which is an interesting question that I have pondered a lot.
This was all desperately inevitable and predictable, however, and I made some unforced errors. So let’s talk about what I do and don’t regret about all this, and what I would or would not do differently.
NO REGRETS: giving the advice. It’s good advice, it needed to be said. I’m tired of seeing women burn themselves out on shitty corporate diversity work that only diverts their energy from amassing real power and strategic impact. Not sorry.
REGRETS: I was sloppy about waving in the direction of my gender issues. I intended to put some space between myself and “women’s issues”, because I don’t exactly identify as a woman, exactly, and I have always felt uncomfortable in women’s spaces. Given the historic devaluation of women’s spaces and issues, I should have been clearer. I am sorry.
NO REGRETS: I think it’s fine for me to give advice to women if they ask, which they do. After all I was raised as a woman, have always been read and treated as one, and assumed there was no other option for 30+ years. I get to speak. Not sorry.
SEMI-REGRETS: I still can’t figure how anyone managed to project into my piece that I was slamming all diversity work. I said somewhat colorfully that a lot of the advice didn’t work for me and wasn’t my favorite thing to dwell on, in the same grouchy grumbly tone that I use when bitching about query planners and terraform variable interpolation. I don’t think this would have been a big deal if the frenzy hadn’t gotten whipped up, but if anyone genuinely felt hurt or dismissed by it, I can be sorry for that.
REGRETS: the impact it had on my poor engineering managers and other people who work with me. They are still being asked to denounce me or defend me and their decision to work with me. So deeply not ok. I am sorry — but that’s really on you, internet assholes.
BIGGEST REGRETS: any accidental cover given to misogynists. By far the most annoying thing about the brouhaha has been when men with toxic views compliment me because they think I’m agreeing with them. I am NOT, so get off me. Sorry not sorry.
SADDEST REGRETS: my plummeting opinion of the feminist internet trash mob. I am a feminist and damn proud of it, but I am also disgusted by the hyperperformative boundary policing of certain self-proclaimed “tech feminists”. If your great joy in life is roving the interwebs looking for any toes pressing a line so you can rapturously castigate them and shun them until they have licked your boots and begged for forgiveness … if you love performing elaborate outrage rituals and whipping up a frenzy of whispers or a witch hunt… then:
Fuck. The Fuck. Off. You are an embarrassment. This is about your ego, and your manufactured grievance machines are Not Helping.
I honestly thought these feminist pile-on mobs were a right-wing fantasy, and I’m sad that I was wrong. I’m also pretty sad about all the folks who know me and have every reason to know better. In my world you check in with your friends before leaping to judgment, and you help teach each other when you’re being stupid. A pretty dismal number of people I would have called friends just leapt excitedly into the fray passing judgment.
So now I know more about who my friends are.
Why even stick my neck out? I guessed something might go wrong, I just didn’t know what. So why?
Because I want to help, dammit. The farther I get in my career the more time I spend pondering how to bring others along with me, how to open the gates a little wider.
I’ve gotten to do a few things. I have tried to create an equitable, respectful working environment where everyone can do their best work, with managers who are passionate about diversity and strong where I am weak.
But … I have felt very often alienated by the messaging and attempts to help women. I can’t be the only one who responds more to a strategic message than an empathetic one, who feels condescended to and patronized by the mainstream corporate efforts.
I can’t be the only one who feels simmering resentment every time I get held up as a successful “woman in tech” (the world’s worst participation trophy). I don’t want a fucking consolation prize. I want to sweep the competition, I want to change the world. I can’t be the only one who hungers for power, money and credibility.
I know I’m not, actually. I know because they are telling me. The response has been at least 100-1 positive in private — from junior women especially — thanking me for being brutally honest and treating them like adults, like equals. (I’ve been told there are armies of women who feel dreadfully hurt but too afraid to say so. Pity if true, as they say.)
There has always been tension between the people who see the world as it is and fight to succeed in it, and the people who opt out and refuse to participate because it’s compromised. The world needs us both. So shut the fuck up and let the kids pick for themselves.
And maybe stop persecuting the people who stand with you.
P.S. check out Jen Andre’s eloquent restatement of it all. it’s so great.
Charity todo items
- If I ever again write anything about women or diversity, have someone I trust proof before publishing
- Remember how much of my audience doesn’t know shit about me, and won’t or can’t assume the best of my intentions
- Wrap statements in exception handlers about this being my experience blah blah
- Try not to let people get under my skin and spark a personal reaction
- Derive somewhat less pleasure from smacking down assholes on the internet, even when they deserve it. [ASPIRATIONAL] [WONTFIX]