Supporting Others with Sarah Drasner
This week, we get down to the business of being a badass woman in tech with Sarah Drasner, an engineer, author, award-winning speaker, and renowned expert on web animation.
We hear about mentorship, using your profile to help others be seen, building a body of work, and so much more.
For the first little while I was trying to pull myself up by my bootstraps and just, like, work really hard to kind of get some place where I felt more comfortable—where I was not just taking any job that was offered me. And then the second part of that is to extend whatever privilege I might have to others…to promote the work of other people that are doing great work in the community that might not be seen.
We talk with Sarah about:
- What it’s like to write a technical book like SVG Animations, Sarah’s book from O’Reilly last year
- Using machine learning to make images on the web more accessible for blind people
- The benefits of diverse teams
- The badassery of Arlan Hamilton and her company, Backstage Capital
- How to get over feeling overlooked in your career (and the secret benefits of being underestimated)
- Mentoring others, finding mentorship for yourself, and getting comfortable in a senior role
- Why the number of women in technical roles isn’t going up
- How visibility can lead to harassment
Also in this episode, the three of us get real about the pros and cons of showing your age at work, and discuss all the anxieties and double-standards we face when it comes to how we look and what we wear.
- Katel becomes an unofficial spokesperson for Billie Razors (call us, Billie! We can make it official anytime)
- Sara talks about Linguist Deborah Tannen’s 1993 essay, “There is No Unmarked Woman”
- Michelle Wolf isn’t apologizing for her comedy set at the White House Correspondents Dinner
This episode of NYG is brought to you by:
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Sara Wachter-Boettcher [Ad spot] If you have a great idea, you can build a successful business with Shopify. They’re leveling the playing field for entrepreneurs, and they’re looking for passionate problem solvers from around the world to help them do it. See how you can join their world-class team, and learn so much more about their history, their culture, and where they’re going next. Visit shopify.com/careers [music fades in].
Jenn Lukas [Music fades out] Welcome to No You Go, the show about being ambitious—and sticking together. I’m Jenn Lukas.
Katel LeDû I’m Katel LeDû.
SWB And I’m Sara Wachter-Boettcher. We are so excited today to talk to one of our favorite people working in tech and that’s Sarah Drasner. She is perhaps best known for working in web animation, she’s known for being a speaker, but today you’re going to find out why she’s also just super awesome. We’re going to talk to her about a lot of things but one of the things that came up in our conversation is kind of being more senior in tech, and sort of getting comfortable as a woman in a senior role in technology, and I think that’s where we’re going to get started in our conversation today.
KL Yeah, speaking of that, I [exhales sharply] have to share something with both of you. The other day I was like taking a shower, shaving my legs, doing, you know, whatever, and I noticed that there was like a rogue couple of hairs that creeped away from my bikini line, and like onto my thigh and on my stomach. And then I also saw one on my boob, and I shaved it off because I didn’t know what else to do. And it just made me sort of spiral into this thing of thinking about how I’m getting older, I turned 40 last year, and in my head I’m like, “I just turned 40.” But in reality, I’m like about to turn 41. And it’s just, time is moving on—which is totally fine. But I think I just like can’t help thinking about it a little bit more and I think that happens. Do you remember, either of you, when I declared I was going to just go grey and say, “Fuck it,” and I just be a greyed hair—grey-haired person.
SWB I mean I remember [KL chuckles] and I thought that was a great idea.
KL And then approximately five point nine weeks later I was like, “Never mind. I can’t do it.”
SWB Ok and then I also thought that was a great idea.
KL [Laughs] Well I’m very lucky to have supportive friends but I go back and forth between feeling like whatever, it’s fine. I’m going with it. I’m going, you know, gracefully and then I think I realize things are changing, and then I feel like I have to cope with it somehow.
JL Katel, I also think either choices of your hair is a good idea.
KL [Laughs] Thank you.
JL I will tell you, as your friend, I’m a little scared about a quick thinking razor near your boob.
KL Yeah! Well—
SWB That—I am more concerned about that than the grey hairs on your head.
KL I—I hear you.
JL Just the fastness of it. I just want you to be careful with a razor near your boob.
KL I totally hear you, and this is not a plug, because the razor brand, Billie, is not sponsoring us.
KL But they’re wonderful and their razors are super great and very klutz-proof [laughs]. But yeah, I think that just kind of goes hand in hand with, you know, sort of figuring out how to feel attractive and sexy and sort of like as you are going through different parts of your life.
SWB You know I remember this time when my mom was in her maybe like early to mid forties. And up until that point she had never worn makeup, and she had never really thought about wearing makeup, and she had become a professor a little later than some of her peers. So a lot of her peers were starting their professorships when they were in their like, let’s say, early to mid thirties, and she was starting almost ten years after that. But then they would like pause and have children a few years in and she had kids in college at that point. So, she had this moment where she was like feeling concerned that she was showing her age in comparison to people who were her peers at work. And I think it freaked her out a little bit and I think rightly so. I mean on the one hand everybody should do what they want but on the other hand what I think she—she realized and what I think was true for her and is, you know, true for a lot of us is that people were going to perceive differently if they knew how old she was, or she started showing her age more, and that making it seem like she was the same age as her peers or closer to their age was professionally valuable to her. And I think about those kinds of trade-offs all the time. Sort of like what are you saying about yourself if you allow yourself to be perceived in this way or that way because you stopped dying your hair or whatever. And like I think it’s tough, right? Because there’s no—there’s no like good answers. All the answers have trade offs to them it’s never simple, and I’ve been thinking about that a lot. I think particularly like I spend a lot of time feeling kind of public in my profile, right? Like I give a lot of talks, which means I’m on stage, I’m at conferences and I’m shaking hands with people, and I feel like people look at you and hopefully most of those people are not hanging out like critiquing [laughs] my looks or my body or whatever but there’s a piece of me that sort of like knows that some of that is happening. And like as a woman that’s always happening to some extent. And you kind of—it’s like I’m just—I find it like tiresome and also I don’t really know how to not care about it. And like not caring about it is a trade off too, right? Like you could choose to not care about it and then you may be treated more poorly because you don’t care about it, right? So like I—I feel like I spend a lot of energy on this, like kind of behind the scenes, and—and then I’m pissed about that because like I would rather spend my energy on like literally anything else.
KL I spend extra time thinking about do I need to be on a video call? Right? And so do I need to put [chuckles] a fucking coat of mascara on, at least, and some lip gloss. And usually I feel like yeah, I do. I need to like do something so that I don’t know, look a certain level or a certain way or whatever. And I know that, you know, when I have meetings with men, that’s not, they don’t think about that at all. They’re like hopping on a call and going—you know what I mean? They’re not—they don’t need like an extra 15 minutes to just kind of like figure out how they look, which—
SWB I mean plug for our newsletter, which came out on Friday. So in Friday’s newsletter I actually talk a little bit about this, right? Like what are some of my tricks for making myself feel or look put together for the surprise video call. And it’s totally like can I slap some paint on this [chuckles] before I get on, right? Like it’s like ok, lipstick and a necklace. Or it’s like, I’m going to throw this little blazer cardigan over whatever I’m wearing and use this headband. And it’s like, the kind of smoke and mirrors to kind of like, “No. Look: I’m—I’m ready.” [Laughs]
KL Cool. Which sucks because I—I think all of us here are kind of like, “We do fucking great work. We’re—people want to work with us. And like why is that not enough?”
SWB Also we all look great.
KL [Laughs] But you know just that like it’s—it’s bullshit that that’s [yeah], you know, that that’s a thing.
JL I mean we’ve talked about this like I’m on the opposite side where like the days I do work from home now and when I did work from home I always get dressed in the morning. But for me, it’s not, even if I don’t have video calls because it’s not for other people. It’s for me. I need to mentally take the break from like here I was sleeping to now I’m like doing something else. And like that’s why people will tell me that they like don’t put bras on. And I’m like, “But a bra means I’m doing something now.” Like it is like like the physical thing I am putting on my body to say that like, “Ok. I’m now like ready to rock the day.”
KL There’s a transition.
JL Yes. Yeah. And so I totally understand why people wouldn’t want to do that but for me I like I need to move from like one point here’s my like relaxing to now like here’s like my business time.
SWB You know I do put a bra on but like pants are pretty optional but that’s like a personal preference thing.
JL [Laughs] Yeah. You know I’ve been struggling recently with like, “Do I want people to think I’m older or younger?” Like I can’t—I can’t decide. Like there are some where I’m like, “Oh if like people think I’m younger, they relate with me more.” But like maybe people are like, “Well, why are you my manager?” Like, “Aren’t you my age?” And I’m like, “No, I’m actually older than you.” And like the other day I was at work and I was talking about the movie The Wizard with Fred Savage and Jenny Lewis [laughter]—
SWB Uh huh! As you do [laughter].
JL And I was talking about how like I went to go see it in the movie theatre so I could go see a sneak preview of Super Mario Brothers 3 because it was in the movie before the game came out, and my coworker just turns and goes, “Wait! How old are you?! Like weren’t you like one when Super Mario Brothers 3 came out?” And I was like, “Yeah let’s go with that.” And then I was like, “Oh. I guess I just gave away my age at work.” Which like I don’t specifically try to hide but I don’t like necessarily flaunt either I suppose. It’s interesting like every year I get older I feel more confident about a lot of things in my life. It really—it frustrates me when I hear people say things like, “Oh I’m so old. Ah I’m so old.” Because there’s always someone older than you. And it’s like you’re—you risk insulting other people and their age and how they’re feeling about themselves and so I always try to be really cognizant of that but, you know, it’s hard, right? Because, you know, you do go through things where it’s like, “Well, I’m not—I’m not the same age as I was a year ago, or five years ago, or ten years ago, so how do I adjust if there are things that are like weirding me out about this?”
KL Yeah. I think that’s the thing too. I have felt more confident and sort of myself, you know, in the last few years more than any other time. And then I think going through different physical changes caught me off guard which was like why I started feeling that way. But it’s funny that you’re talking about sort of like how you’re perceived because we had a comment in our iTunes ratings and reviews that talked about—about us being sort of like older sister figures which we really loved because we thought like how cool is that to you know have that kind of vibe? But I think there’s also something associated with that, with being like, “Oh.” Like, “But you still want to hang out, right?” [Laughter]
SWB Oh my god. My biggest fear. You know this also really has me thinking about, there’s this essay I read years ago now. It’s called “There is No Unmarked Woman.” And it’s by Deborah Tannen and she—what she writes about is she’s basically taking like a concept that exists in linguistics about marked languages which is like … there’s like a standard form and then there’s the marking in—in linguistics where that like changes the meaning, right? And she says basically when you’re a woman, the way you’re perceived in society, there is no unmarked existence. Meaning that, like, if you go into a room wearing makeup that says something about you. If you go into a room not wearing makeup, that says something about you. If you wear clothes that are revealing, if you wear clothes that are conservatives, et cetera, et cetera. And not in the same way that men go into rooms, right? Like when a man goes into a room he can wear an outfit that is, like, unremarkable, right? And so—it’s like perceived as a very neutral thing, right? But no matter how you go into the room as a woman there is something—it says something about you. And I think about that a lot about age as well, too. It’s like, oh, do you want to be perceived as older or younger? It’s like, well, it depends what that says about you. And like what are people perceiving from that. And I just feel like that’s a lot of like extra cognitive effort that you go through to decide like how might this perceived? How do I feel about it? How do I feel about the potential risks of doing it? Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, and like , you know, weighing it out and making those decisions about how you’re going to wear, and how you’re going to present. And I think it’s like worse for other people too, right? Like I’ve had trans friends who’ve said like, “You know, part of me wants to be able to pass as the—the gender that I am, and part of me doesn’t. Part of me wants to show up in a room and be noticeably trans and make people deal with and like vacillating between those feelings.” And I think that that’s, you know, it’s like an unresolvable tension, right? Like we’re never going to be a able to like find an answer to this [laughing] conversation, right? Because you’re always going to have to figure what do you—what do you want? What is expected of you? What are you trying to do in that scenario? What are other people thinking? Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
KL I mean one of the perks that happens and comes along with, you know, getting older is that you get to share that, and I think that is one of the coolest things we heard from Sarah Drasner. So, I don’t know should we listen to that interview?
SWB I’m super ready for it [music fades in].
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JL Sarah Drasner is an award winning speaker, Senior Developer Advocate at Microsoft, and staff writer at CSS Tricks. Sarah’s also the co-founder of the Web Animations Workshop with Val Head. She’s the author of SVG Animations from O’Reilly and has given frontend masters workshops on Vue.js and advanced SVG animations. She has worked for 15 years as a web developer and designer, and at points even worked as a scientific illustrator, and an undergraduate professor. That is awesome. Welcome to the show, Sarah!
Sarah Drasner Thanks. Thanks for having me.
JL It’s like such a pleasure to have you here. You know, as I mentioned before I had to cut some of your bio because there was so much [laughter] so I think it’s just so cool. You’re doing so many awesome things. So most recently you left consulting and you’re now at Microsoft as a Senior Developer Advocate. Can you tell us a little more about what that means exactly?
SD Actually, it’s kind of funny because Senior Developer Advocate in some ways means that I’m getting paid for some of the work that I was doing for free before [laughs] so—
JL That’s amazing [laughs].
SD Yeah. Yeah. I think so. I was always doing kind of open source work on the side, and doing a lot of talks, and, you know, putting out a lot of resources, and doing consulting work at the same time. Microsoft is really like kind of steering the ship differently these days and it’s much more towards open source and, you know, giving back to the community but also like, you know, of course communicating some of the cool things that they’re building. So my job is a bit of all of those things. I’m still doing a lot of engineering work. I’m still, you know, speaking at conferences. I’m still writing articles and, you know, some of them are about Microsoft, some of them aren’t. And all of that is cool. So it’s a really good job for me.
JL Was it hard for you to leave consulting?
SD Yeah! It definitely was. I had a couple of contracts coming down the pipeline that I was super excited about. One of them was to work with Addy Osmani who I do hope I get to work with someday because he’s like one of my heros. So turning down contracts with people that I just like really wanted to take. So it was—I think, you know, it took me like a while to really decided because I just was sitting there like, “But on the one hand there’s this, and on the other—” So like, you know, which isn’t to say that either of them—like I think when people say that it was a hard thing for them to decide it means that either option was bad. It was quite the opposite where I was like, “Oh I’m like—this is really strange because previously in my career it had been very much like, ‘Take what you’re given, [laughs] I gotta, you know, support myself here [laughs]’.” So this was—this was a very different type of decision making process for me and my career.
JL So you mentioned, you know, you had a couple of projects lined up, I feel like that’s something we constantly like we worry about disappointing people in order to maybe choose the choice that we really want to make. How did you balance that struggle?
SD I try to be as transparent as possible about like, “Here’s what I’ve got coming down the pipeline, this person is talking to me, I’m not sure if I can do this.” You know? Even if it’s just like a chance that something could happen. So that there’s no surprises coming down the pipeline. So yeah, I think that that really helps.
SD Um people really need honesty.
JL So, Sarah, last year you wrote the book SVG Animations: From Common UX Implementations to Complex Responsive Animation. Can you talk us through the process of writing a technical book?
SD Oh yeah! I mean I think actually like writing a book was on my bucket list, although that was another one where I’m not sure I would’ve done it unless O’Reilly had reached out to me. So thank Meg Foley, if you’re listening to this. I think I really thought that I was going to write it a lot quicker than I did. So I thought that I was going to write it in like, you know, nine months to a year and it ended up being like a two year process and I didn’t anticipate how long the editing process would take. Especially because they were like, “Oh name two technical reviewers,” and I named four because I was like, “Oh well that’s going to make the book better.” But the thing about four technical reviewers is you have to go through the book four times [laughing] like line by line. So I definitely was kicking myself for that decision. But I do think it made it a better book. But yeah I mean writing books is a lot of work. Like I know everyone says that and like it should be obvious by now but like that’s all I can say is like it’s a lot of work.
KL I was just going to say those are so common to be like, “I thought this was going to take this amount of time but [chuckles] it took twice as long [SD laughs] or four times as long.”
JL I mean but that’s great to hear, right? Because when people say a long time and nine to 12 months would be a long time to a lot of people [KL absolutely] and so I think it’s like—it’s really great to hear like two years because I don’t think we talk that much about timelines. Right? We say like, “Oh it takes a long time,” but like your definition of long might be different than someone else’s definition of long.
SWB You know something I’ve thought a lot about when I’ve written books I have also had people come to me and—which is awesome and it kind of happened in a few different ways but I’ve never gone to a publisher cold and said, “I want to write a book.” And I have lots of thoughts about sort of like ways that’s good and bad, and all kinds of feelings, but I’m curious like, from your perspective, what do you think it was that you had done before you got to that point that made a publisher come to you? Because people ask me this a lot, like, “Well how do I get a publisher to come to me?” “I don’t—I don’t know! Keep doing stuff until people notice?” Which is like a really bad answer.
SD Yeah, yeah, no. I think that’s a great question and, yeah, I get those kind of questions fairly frequently too. I mean I know actually because Meg told me that she found me because of talks. She had seen me give talks before and I was giving talks on SVG animation, and complex responsive animations. So that was what made them approach me. You know I’m actually starving to work on another book now which I’m just kind—like my fiance is like making fun of me because I said that I wasn’t going to write another one [laughter] I’m not sure if I’m supposed to talk about it yet but I’m going to write another one with Smashing and I mean certainly that one is because of my relationship with them for talks. So I think talks—I mean that’s probably not like a catch all for anybody but for me that’s been historically what happened.
JL Well one: that’s so exciting. I cannot wait to hear [SD chuckles] more about it. I think too like that makes total sense, you know, if you continually—if you continuously speak about the same subject, right? Then I think that you have more like chance of people noticing that, right? Would you say that that’s true?
SD I think like if people think of X and they think of you. You know like if I think about like you know bias and algorithms I probably think of Sarah. You know like, not me [laughs]. So, you know, I think that that helps.
JL You’ve been working a lot with machine learning lately too, right?
SD Yeah, I’ve been working with machine learning quite a bit but not in like a very deep sense I would say. There are some APIs that Microsoft Azure exposes where you can just do like an API call. In other words, I can just like talk to this thing and say, “Here’s an image, can you please tell me something about this image?” And then it gives me data back. So I’m not building the thing from scratch like some other people are. I’m just like communication with it and making some projects with it. So like one project I made was I was mentoring a blind woman and she mentioned to me that a lot of the internet was not accessible to her. In other words, she was working with screen readers which like read out the content of a webpage. And there was no alt text for images. So if you have an image of something like a meme, or if you have an image of something like a news story, there’s no content there for her. It’s just completely empty. And so she felt left out of a lot of conversations and experiences. So I used these cognitive services which was this machine learning API and I made a call to this API and created dynamic alt text where people forgot to add them. So I’m making a Chrome extension so that blind people can use it on any site that they visit and kind of gather data. So it analyzes the image both for words and text. And, you know, it’s not perfect. It’s still learning. There’s, you know, definitely stuff that it could be better at but it’s really pretty good. Like very, very impressive. So I think that using some of the machine learning for good because there are like positive things that you can do with it is really exciting for me. So I’m not necessarily building the machine learning piece but I’m applying it.
JL Yeah that sounds absolutely amazing. Could you explain a little bit more for some of our listeners who aren’t really familiar with machine learning?
SD Basically machine learning is when you teach a computer to make assessments on its own. And this process has been started, you know, like this historically like invented in the sixties but hasn’t really reached maturity until lately where people can really use it, and have been using it very frequently because there’s so many of us online that we come into a point where we really need a system to build and tag and sort for us. Some of the way that it works is that like actually I’ll teach like kind of like a trained like there’s—there’s a few different ways of working with machine learning but like one of the simplest ways of discussing it is a genetic algorithm. So this isn’t every algorithm. There are like thousands of algorithms but this is probably the like lowest metaphor I can think of that’s like easy to understand. So let’s say you have this bot and you say, “Ok. Here is—you have these two—like a pug and kitten.” You say, “Here’s a picture of a pug and here’s a picture of a kitten. Now guess which one is pug or a kitten.” At first it’s going to be totally random, right? Like there—it’s going to be like, “I don’t know. That one?” And they’re going to fail. But if you keep selecting the algorithm that’s picking the one that is like “Pug, pug, pug, pug,” then taking those, throwing those away, like getting all of the ones that are correct, and then you do that a few thousand times, eventually you arrive at this very complex algorithm that actually knows a pug is a pug.
SD [Continued] The problem is that by the time we reach that level of maturity no one really knows how it works. Not even the person who [chuckles] originally was building the first algorithms. So they’re a bit of a black box and that’s true pretty much of every machine learning algorithm. They get to a point of complexity where the people who built it knows how it started but they don’t necessarily know what’s going on in the end. And they are effective. So we keep using them but there’s also some dangers there which are, you know, that it can be seeded with the wrong information. One is like that’s like a really huge one is like what if you’re giving it fake demographics data that’s built off of things that aren’t real? Like you could actually start building, and tagging, and sorting all—like huge amounts of people to see only a certain kind of information based off of information that’s not really true of them.
SWB You know I think about this stuff obviously all the time and one of the things that I also think a lot about is like that there has often not been enough care going into what data we fed the things to start with. Right? So it’s one thing that if you’re like, “We showed it a bunch of pictures of pugs and kittens.” Ok fine. But when you start talking about people and like image recognition of people you get into a lot more difficult territory because there’s so many more bias get involved there. So like I’ve seen a lot of examples where the—the images the machine learning system has learned from was almost entirely pictures of white people and as a result [right] the system is really bad at identifying pictures of people who aren’t white. And so if you then apply a system like that to this tool you’re talking about which could have this huge benefit for blind people where you’re—you’re using, right? If you were using uh a machine learning system that had been trained off pictures of white people to then figure out what an image is and tell a reader what they were of and it did a worse job of—of figuring out when people were in the image if it was like people of color like then you’re also feeding bad information to the blind community that you’re trying to serve, right? So it’s like you create these problems by not looking at where that data’s coming from and whether it’s representative of the people that you need to represent.
SD Well totally and I think actually like so first of all like the—this is like a really old problem too. Like with even like the old cameras that we—you know the first film was just trained off of white people’s skin tones and then like didn’t actually pick up black people’s skin tones well. And we’ve done [chuckles] kind of a bad job of this historically in other areas. So now we’re doing it in machine learning. But I think if we—if we have diverse teams. This is another reason why having diverse teams is really important because you’re kind of more likely to think of those things or at least have someone on staff who’s like, “Hey, wait a minute.” [Laughs] When you have these kind of issues before it even gets shipped. I mean I worked at a company that I’m not going to the name of where they were going to ship a feature that would’ve actually been against the law. It was going to use machine learning to kind of train on data that wouldn’t have been legal. And I just had, by chance, read about that like a couple of weekends before that and raised my hand. And I was just a developer on the project. I wasn’t like a PM or even someone who was guiding the way the project was shaped and I just kind of raised my hand and was like, “Isn’t that illegal?” And, you know, kind of cited this thing that I had read and they looked into it, and they were like, “Oh my god that is illegal. We shouldn’t ship this product.” But here the thing is like I wasn’t like anyone super special. I just was a random person who said, “Hey, I don’t know so I think if you have you know more of a variety of people, and more of a variety of thought processes in a room—you know, towards anything in any given room, then you’re more likely to catch these edge cases that you know might be shipped like even before they happen.”
JL So, Sarah, I mean talking more about this and getting more representation and you mentioned it before that you were mentoring someone who was blind. Last year you started mentoring people who were underrepresented, can you tell us more about that?
JL So did you like tweet the form out and wait for people to fill it out?
SD Yeah! I did. I tweeted out, I actually have like 500 [laughs] responses.
JL That’s amazing!
SD Which is more than I can [laughing] actually do. So I feel—there’s like a part of me that feels super guilty but I did see that there was a bunch of other people who took that and did their own version of it. So I think that it kinda spreads it out a little bit. And I feel—if anybody filled out that form and I didn’t get to you. It’s really nothing personal [laughing]. I’m like trying to get through as many people as I can, it’s just there’s a lot of people on that list.
JL Yeah, how do you—I mean 500 is a lot. But I mean like ten is a lot. How are you finding the time?
SD That’s always a challenge. I mean there’s definitely months where I’m not able to do it as much as I want to. There’s also people that I just know that I’m mentoring and some of the mentoring relationships are kind of casual like you know they’re friends of mine who ask a lot of questions about how to do this and that or like it ranges from that to like really formal meetings. So there are months where I can set aside the time to have a few mentoring sessions, and then there are times when I just, you know, am on the road a lot and so it comes more in the form of like people randomly wanting like one Skype meeting or like somebody just chatting me on Facebook for a while, asking me how to do deal with a certain situation. I’m also mentored. I think like one person who helps mentor me is Val. She was a consultant way before I was a consultant and so when I started working as a consultant I—she spent a lot of time with where I was just like asking a ton of questions like, “Is this normal? Should I set up a contract?” [Laughs] Like just kind of like I don’t know what I would’ve done without her actually. And also Darius Kazemi he is really super awesome and he actually even just like sent me a version of his contract for me to like understand what a good contract looks like. Which I super appreciated. Darius, if you’re listening, thank you. So I don’t make it sound like I’m only doing, you know, outward. Like I’ve also benefited from other people’s expertise as well.
SWB You mean you’re not learning as a human person? [Laughter]
SD Yeah [laughs] basically.
SWB You know I”m really curious you talked a bit about wanting to make sure that there is, you know, a diverse group of people in the room making decisions in tech which is something I think, you know, all of us share that value. And you’ve talked about wanting to mentor and help answer questions for people who are earlier in their careers, and also I think something you said was like, “Sometimes people just need to not feel alone.” And I know that that’s something that often women in tech can feel is kind of alone. Do you feel as you’ve gone through your career and gotten to this place where you have you know you’re relatively well known, well connected, and well supported. Have things changed for you being a woman in this field has this—is this something that you think is like changing overall? Like what’ your take on sort of where things are at and what needs to happen?
SD I do feel like things have changed for me. I’m already privileged in some sense because I’m white and, you know, I was living in San Francisco which is like a tech hub. So that gives me that—like allowed me that point. I don’t live in San Francisco anymore but that allowed me some affordances that people in more remote areas don’t have for even being connected. I feel like I was ignored for a lot—to be totally honest, for a lot of the first part of my career and I, you know, I think when I first came up and like people were starting to recognize me, they thought I must be like a junior, or like I must have just like, you know, shot up—like as I just started making things. But the truth of the matter is I was working for a very long time. Like more than a decade just nobody knew of me and nobody really cared. To which I say to people listening: if you feel like you’ve been working for awhile and nobody’s paying attention to you, don’t give up. Like really don’t. Because it doesn’t mean the end of anything. Sometimes people just take a little bit to, you know, notice you. And also I would say if you haven’t been noticed, and you feel like you should’ve been, one thing that I think actually really helped me was by not being noticed for a long time, by the time people did notice me I already had a huge body of work, and people were like, “Woah! Where did all of this work come from?” [Laughing] I’m like, “I’ve been working for so long.” [Laughs] So I think that actually helped my career in some sense that people were just like, “Oh my god there’s so much—there’s so much here. It wasn’t just like a one off or something.” Recently I tweeted about an experience I had where I changed my hair color. I was like fake blonde before [chuckles] and then I dyed my hair back to my natural colour which is brown … and when I kind of had gotten used to like people at tech conference maybe knowing who I was a bit before going there and then I went to JSConf Iceland and I went to this party and everyone was like, “Oh, whose girlfriend are you?” [Laughter and disappointed ughs][Uh huh! Mmm] [Laughs] You know? I mean you know that’s like I remember that. I remember that experience from before I was well known. And I’m like, “Oh this is still here. I just stopped experiencing it because people knew who I was.” Like I just am not recognized at this event, you know? Like because—because I dyed my hair. So I think that that like that kind of was like this reminder and I tweeted that out and the entire responses to the thread were either guys like, “I can’t believe that happens,” and women just going, “Yup, that happened to me the other,” “Yes, that happens to me all the [laughing] time.” Like and I do think we have a long way to go in that sense. I try not to get saddened by the numbers that are actually going down for tech instead of up like for a lot of other industries the number of women goes up over time. And for ours it’s actually trending in the opposite direction which I also—which is why I think that mentoring is such a big deal. Like giving people a support system is really important.
SWB I started recently listening to this podcast, The Startup Podcast, and it’s from Gimlet and they’re—they’re featuring a VC named Arlan who she’s a, you know, like a black gay woman in Silicon Valley, trying to run a venture capital fund and she has decided to call the people that that she wants to invest in not underrepresented but underestimated and I think that’s really interesting to think about like the way in which so many of us have been underestimated in our fields, and sort of like you’re kind of flying under the radar as a result and that means that there’s like all this untapped potential which, you know, like it’s super problematic that—that we may have been underestimated but being able to kind of harness that potential is really exciting.
SD Totally! First of all, Arlan is a hero of mine. I just like I mean she’s been doing stuff for forever, I only was aware of her recently and was like, “Holy crap.” [Laughs] She’s—she’s just super great. And yeah I think that that’s amazing. I’m going to actually try to like co-opt that term, giving her credit of course. Like that’s—that’s a really, really great term because there are so many people who—like I feel like I’m mentoring who I’m like, “Jesus Christ, you’re doing so many cool things,” and then people don’t really know about them. Or even just like people who are doing good work that like some people know about but then they still get talked down to like they’re not that valuable, like, you know, I think that there’s some people that like—like Lin Clark who does amazing, amazing work and then people like on a livestream are, you know, harassing her or whatever. And I just like, it’s like why?!? [Laughing] She’s incredible. She’s probably like benefitted, you know, React community more than anyone in terms of like understanding some of the things that are going on. So I just think it’s kind of like an important time to support people.
SWB Yeah like how do you find sort of the balance for yourself between wanting to push for representation in tech and wanting to talk about some of these issues around the lack of diversity and the way that people have been underestimated but also just wanting to like do your fucking job as an engineer and be known for being awesome at your job?
SD Yeah. I mean that’s a really good question I think that actually I try to lean towards showing not telling because I think that actually changes minds more than me telling people to, you know, it’s like on the one hand I could be like, “Ok you should respect women,” and like people who already respect women will be like, “Hell yeah!” And then the people who don’t respect woman will be like, “Why?” [Laughs] And, like, “Go away,” and like, “No.” But if I, you know, if I work really hard, and make work that they need, or make work that like, you know, people are using or people like find valuable then they kind of have to—I don’t have to say anything, they kind of have to reevaluate some biases on their own. So I kind of believe in putting my money where my mouth is and like, you know, sure, like I’m not always going to make like a perfect thing or anything but if people find the work that I do valuable, I think that that’s much more compelling and tends to move the bottom dollar a little bit more than—and I kind of know this because people have told me. Like I know a number of dudes who write to me and say like, “I, you know, I used to have bias against women and I saw some of the work that you were doing and I had to reevaluate what I was thinking about it.” And I think if I had just kind of gone forward and said, “Women, you know, respect them.” I don’t know that that—it would’ve been quite as effective and see that in the kind of ways that I promote women is also to just like really like highlight the work that they’re doing because that is important. That’s the important piece is, right? Is like all of the work that they’re doing is super valuable and then people can see that for themselves and it kind of like does the job of show not tell. But I’ll also say this on that subject matter: my mom is the first woman Chief of Neurology on the planet and she was physician and chief of UCSF, and is a very brilliant women, and she was really like a kind of pioneer in medicine. And she taught me a lot of this stuff. This isn’t born from my brain or something. She actually like I think a lot of other people’s moms taught them a lot of, you know, other really awesome things. My mom taught me like, “Ok. Like this is really important when you’re in a business meeting you can’t talk like this. You have to say this.” Or like, “When you’re presenting your work you have to make sure to do this.” Or, “You know, honey, you’re just going to have to work, you know, five times as hard, I’m sorry.” Like [laughs] which I think you know I think is unfortunate but also really super prepared me for tech.
SD [Continued] There’s no other way around it like what she did for me is, you know, what she did for medicine was really important, but what she did for me was also super important and she’s obviously my role model.
JL I think that’s I mean that’s just incredible to hear, Sarah, and I think, you know, you are probably setting the same example as a role model now with your family.
SWB You know what? Well we just had an author on the show, a fiction author, Carmen Maria Machado a few weeks ago. And, you know, one of the things that she said was getting comfortable with the idea that she is good at things and so how often women are taught to like not talk about the things that they’re good at, and to not own that. I—one of the things that I’m, you know, makes me so excited is thinking about how can we do work today. You know like people like you and people like us posting shows like this to make it so that there’s fewer of these double standards in the future and so that, you know, as girls like that grow up, they do have the opportunity to not have to work five times as hard but can just be awesome for being awesome.
SD Totally. Totally. Yeah I mean it is kind of funny how like that stuff comes at a—like a really young age that you’re not supposed to—you’re not supposed to be proud of yourself, you’re not [chuckling] to like, be excited about the thing like, “I built this thing and it’s great!” Like there’s a certain age where people tell you not to—not to like that or not to feel like that, and yeah, it’s kind of important. It’s important to stay excited about the stuff that you’re making.
JL Completely. So, before we get going, just one final question for you, Sarah. You have a really awesome end of your goal setting tradition and I was really hoping that you could tell us the story about that.
SD Oh yeah so my best friends and my fiancé and I were like talking about how we have these goals and I was kind of talking about how like I make a list for myself, and she was saying that she has a list for herself, and you know he was saying that he has a list for himself. So we decided that we take these like either staycations where like one of us comes over to the other person’s house or like we—one year we went to Cancun and like did this. But we’d all like hang out together and drink champagne and talk about the things that we’re planning for the future, and the things that we want to get done. So every year we make a list of the things that we want to do and want to accomplish and we revisit last year’s goals. We like kind of look through them and, you know, for some of the goals we say like, “Oh, you know, that’s no longer important to me.” It’s like, “I never did it but I’ve changed my idea about whether or not that was important or vital to me.” And then, you know, on other ones we’re like, “Oh like I shoulda gotten more done on that.” Or like we’ll check in mid-year and see where we’re at. Um it’s nice to work with other people through those things. It makes me feel really accountable in a way that doing it on your own—plus like the champagne and the kind of like, you know, celebration of it makes it fun instead of arduous. Like instead of like, “Oh no I’ve got like things on my list.” So yeah it’s been like a really awesome thing I think for each of we’ve all gone a lot further in the last few years because of this kind of like bond we share like supporting each other.
JL It’s so awesome. I think the to-do list is always something that a lot of us struggle with [laughs] and so I love this idea of a communal, celebratory to-do list and goal setting.
SD Yeah and it’s like long term goals too. I think to-do lists tend to be kind of short so it’s nice to kind of take a purview and be like, “What do I want to accomp—” Like kind of like align yourself like, I’m doing all these small things that are like, you know, tactical. But what’s my strategy here? Like what’s the long term here?
JL Yeah, that’s a great point. I think often I’ve very micro-focused, and I think to stop every once in awhile and be like, “Wait. Where am I trying to get?” Is really valuable.
KL Yeah. Thank you so much for being here.
SD Yeah, thanks for having me! This has been a blast. It’s so nice to speak to like three women that I admire so much.
SWB Oh I—we admire you too!
JL And we cannot wait to keep seeing what you’re doing.
SD Thanks, likewise.
JL Because it just gets awesomer and awesomer.
SD Bye! [Music fades in, plays for four seconds, fades out]
KL It is time for one I think of our favorite segments: The Fuck Yeah of the Week. Sara, can you tell us what that is?
SWB Yeah. The Fuck Yeah of the Week is someone or something we’re super hyped about and this week it is none other than Michelle Wolf. As you might’ve heard because it was freaking everywhere, Michelle Wolf did the comedy segment of the White House Correspondents Dinner last week, and it was pretty fucking great. I mean she really didn’t pull any punches. She was extremely direct about a number of problems with the current political climate and one of the things that she talked about directly was Sarah Huckabee Sanders and the lies that she tells. Now, she got a lot of flack for this, I don’t want to repeat the whole thing. It was a 19-minute segment so if you haven’t seen it, you should go watch it because it was great. But what really got everybody bothered was that, you know, she made this joke about how Sarah Huckabee Sanders burns facts and then uses the ash to create eyeliner to get the perfect smokey eye. Aaaand what she was accused of was having criticized Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ looks, which was not what she criticized. What she criticized was the fact that this woman tells lies all day and is supposed to be the White House Press Secretary. So, anyway, you should watch it, you should catch up on the controversy, but what I think is really important here and the reason I wanted to give her a big fuck yeah is that after all of this has happened, I think it’s really easy to kind of get pushed into apologizing and walking it back, and to be pushed into, like, being nice. And, instead, you know, she had an interview with NPR where she was like, “I stand by everything that I said,” and one of the things that she talked about was like, “You know when people invite a woman to do comedy, they’re often expecting her to be nice. And, in fact, that’s something I talk about in my comedy is the way in which people are expecting that I’m going to be nice and I’m not. I’m not there to be nice.” And she said she didn’t regret a word that she stood by it. And so, I say fuck yeah to telling it like it is and then also, you know, not being pressured into apologizing for something that you shouldn’t have to apologize for. And fuck yeah to not being a nice girl.
KL Uh yeah. I say fuck yeah as well. I just—I think it’s so important especially for someone in her position to have been invited to do that to, you know, to stand her ground and stand by what she did and said, because it wasn’t any—you know she didn’t say anything that was like, “Oh my gosh.” Like so controversial that it was detrimental. It was like she was calling people out for, you know, what was happening. And addressing a room full of people that [laughs] don’t want to hear that.
SWB Super tough room to work. I wouldn’t want to have to give a talk in front of that room because the people there are just sort of like prepared to dislike you.
KL Yeah, and! It’s also—it’s not a Comedy Cellar. It’s not—you’re not going on and like feeding off a group of people who are like there to laugh [laughs] and like there to support you, and like want to hear you roast them. I mean I think there’s been a historical, you know, underlying like that’s what it is, but if you don’t want that to be what happens there, then this isn’t the set up.
SWB Why the fuck are you inviting Michelle Wolf then, right?
KL Exactly. Right.
SWB Like that’s on you.
KL Yeah, exactly. So I think she did a great job.
JL I think it’s going to be really interesting to watch stand up comedy as it like expands like a year or five years from now. I mean we talk about things—I mean we do vocab swaps on the show, right? Where we talk about like how to like tread on sensitive subjects whereas like stand up comedy throws all that out the window. So I think it’ll be really interesting to see if people stay true to what they believe in with that, especially with like a movement to sort of like be more sensitive to other people, and be more careful about the things we say. So I—I’d like to see where we are in five years from now, on this podcast, and we can look back and be like, “What’s Michelle Wolf doing now?” Because I have a feeling that she’ll still be like standing behind what she believes in.
SWB Yeah. And I think, you know, that’s one of the other reasons I really liked what she talked about is that she said, “You know? When I wrote my set, I specifically took care to make sure that I wasn’t going to be making jokes at the expense of other women’s looks.” That that was something that she didn’t want to do in the set. And so it’s sort of like—I think what it actually shows is that—you know there’s this talk in comedy where it’s like, “Oh if you’re sensitive, or if you’re worried about inclusivity, then you can’t focus on telling jokes. And it’s just going to kill all the fun.” And I think with somebody like her shows is like you—you can be more careful with what you say and how you say it, and you can be inclusive and also still be really fucking funny. And that doesn’t mean that everybody’s going to like your humor. It’s not that. But that you’re not going to make jokes at the expense of more marginalized groups and you can do that and still be like super fucking good at it. And I would like to see a lot more comics sort of stretch themselves in that way. Right? Because I feel like it’s kind of a lazy answer to be like, “Well if I can’t say literally anything without any ramifications at all then you’re like, you know, getting in the way of my creativity.” And I’m like, “Man, maybe you’re just not that creative then.” I don’t know. Sounds like a problem with you [chuckles].
JL But I think it’s also you know you brought up like I mean it’s choice—like I think you know I read that you know she had an abortion joke in there too which like is not my cup of tea but I’m not inviting her to my birthday party. You know? And so for me that’s like—that’s like research on a lot of things. And so, you know, she didn’t change what her style was because of where she was.
SWB And I also think that you, you know, there’s differences between telling jokes that are not going to be like in good taste for everybody. Just like some people don’t like swearing which I’m fine if people don’t like swearing, fine and they also should not listen to this podcast [laughter and chatter]. I think that it’s one of these things where, you know, the way you choose to talk about a joke about abortion is really important to me. I mean you know it’s—people talk about the concept of punching up or punching down. Right? It’s like who’s the butt of the joke? And and I think that that makes a big difference. I’m not suggesting you should enjoy abortion jokes. But like the way that she was talking about it, you know one of the things that she said, is like, “Oh yeah, all you guys oppose abortions,” she’s speaking to like the conservative legislatures in the room, “Unless it’s the abortion you buy for your secret girlfriend.” But like [laughs] so in that—in that joke like the butt of the joke was the people who are being hypocritical, right? And so like that’s—to me, like that’s a different flavor than like there’s lots of other things that could’ve been said.
KL It also used to not be televised. So, I think there’s something in that that, you know, it is now. And so now it’s in the public sphere and there’s room for appreciation and criticism and I’m glad that we can have this conversation, and I feel like even that’s a Fuck Yeah.
KL That’s it for this week’s episode of No, You Go, the show about being ambitious—and sticking together. NYG is recorded in our home city of Philadelphia, and produced by Steph Colbourn. Our theme music is my The Diaphone. Thanks to Sarah Drasner for being our guest today. If you like what you’ve been hearing, please make sure to subscribe and rate us on Apple podcasts. Your support helps us spread the word and means the world. We’ll be back next week with another great guest [music fades in, plays for 32 seconds, fades out to end].
Transcript by secondhandscribe.com.