Unbothered with Laura Kalbag
Writing a book is hard. Writing a book as a woman in tech is even harder. So what happens when some mansplainer comes along to rain on your well-earned parade? Laura Kalbag tells us about how she found the courage to write, why listening to women reminds her of what’s important, and how she keeps her cool even in the face of jerks.
Laura is a designer and the cofounder of Ind.ie, a not-for-profit that works on protecting people’s rights in the digital age—and the author of Accessibility for Everyone. She works tirelessly to champion web accessibility—that is, making websites and apps usable for as many people as possible, including those with disability—and believes the best online experiences are ethical and inclusive.
When she wrote her first book, she embarked on a journey: from doubting whether she could do it, to gracefully handling a high-profile mansplainer, to getting the attention of J.K. Rowling and Roxane Gay. All before publication day.
I don’t care about impressing little men. That’s not my job. I care about trying to reach the right people with the messages that I care about. I care about trying to make the web more inclusive, trying to make the web more ethical, and if people aren’t bothered about that, then I’m not bothered about them, quite honestly.
—Laura Kalbag, cofounder of Ind.ie and author of Accessibility for Everyone
We talk about:
- Cofounding Ind.ie, which focuses on building technology to protect people’s privacy and rights online.
- What it’s like to run a company with your partner when you have wildly differing work schedules, and why respect and trust are key.
- The Ethical Design Manifesto: a guide Laura created to help folks make more sustainable design choices.
- How she navigated the book-writing and publishing process—from self-doubt to self-promotion.
- What it’s like to be on the receiving end of some of the worst mansplaining we’ve ever seen—and how to keep on being awesome, anyway.
Plus: Sara and Katel share their adventures from Werk It, a women’s podcast festival, where they learned tons and got to spend two days surrounded by amazing women and non-binary folks in excellent outfits.
This episode of NYG is brought to you by:
Harvest, makers of awesome software to help you track your time, manage your projects, and get paid. Try it free, then use code NOYOUGO to get 50% off your first paid month.
StoryWorth—the easy and fun way for your loved ones to share their stories. Get weekly prompts emailed, and a beautiful hardcover book at the end of the year. Get $20 off your StoryWorth now at storyworth.com/nyg.
Sara Wachter-Boettcher Today’s show is brought to you by Harvest, my go-to tool for tracking time, invoices and clients. It’s easy to use on desktop or mobile and it’s great for both freelancers and large companies. And it just makes it easier for you to do things like get paid. See all the features and try it free at getharvest.com. And when you upgrade to a paid account, you are going to want to enter the code “noyougo” at checkout for fifty percent off your first month. That’s getharvest.com, code “noyougo.” [music fades in, plays for five seconds, and fades out]
SWB Hey everyone, I’m Sara!
Katel LeDu And I’m Katel.
SWB And you’re listening to No, You Go, the show about building satisfying careers and businesses—
KL — getting free of toxic bullshit—
SWB —and living your best feminist life at work.
KL Today we’re talking to Laura Kalbag, someone both of us have known for a while. Laura is a designer and the co-founder of a not-for-profit called Ind.ie and she’s also the author of a book I got to publish—Accessibility for Everyone. It was really great getting to know her throughout that project and I’m so glad we got to talk to her about her work and what it was like to write a book.
SWB I loved talking with Laura and something that she mentioned in her interview that I was hoping we could start with is that you reached out to her to write this book, right?
KL Yeah, we totally did.
SWB Okay, so last week on the show you mentioned that a couple of years ago you realized that A Book Apart had been mostly publishing books by white guys. And [laughs] you really wanted to change that and so you were starting to try to figure out ways to get more diverse authors. Was reaching out the Laura kind of part of that effort?
KL Yeah, so we had always really relied on people with good ideas to come to us and pitch and it was mostly we were kind of waiting for folks to just send us pitches and that’s how it worked for a while. But, well, that’s sort of how we ended up with all those white guys. So around that same time when we were thinking about this, we had noticed that Laura was doing really great work around accessibility on the web. She was speaking and writing about it and we could see that she was already articulating some of the concepts we’d wanted an accessibility book to focus on. So, we decided to reach out to her to see if she would even be interested.
SWB Well, obviously she was because she wrote the book, but in the interview, she also talked about how she didn’t know if she knew enough to write a book or if she would have enough material. She was like, “I never would have done this on my own. I wouldn’t have submitted this proposal on my own.” And I totally relate to that because I have felt that way every single time I’ve written a book and that’s three books and it has not changed! [laughs]
KL [laughing] I mean, yeah.
SWB And so I feel really lucky that there were other people who are out there who advocated for me—there were people who nudged me when I needed to be nudged—because I think that without that, I don’t think I would have written any of them. I mean, I really didn’t know what exactly I had in me until somebody kind of tapped me on the shoulder. And one of the things that has been really interesting for me to think about is how you’re doing that as a publisher, but that doesn’t have to come from a publisher, that can come from lots of places. For me, the only time a publisher did that was on book number three, but for the first two, it was people I looked up to in my field and that was super important.
KL Who was the first person who did that for you?
SWB It was actually Kristina Halvorson. Some of our listeners probably know who she is. If you come from user experience and content strategy, that name is really familiar. She is the author of a book as well and pretty big proponent for content strategy and runs conferences. And so, you know, this is kind of something that she does. But when she reached out to me, it was like 2011, it was before I had ever really spoken at a conference. I hadn’t done much of anything public really. I mean, I’d written a few blog posts. That was really what I had done is I’d written a few blog posts. And she got me the phone one day and she was just like, “you should write a book and Louis Rosenfeld”—the guy who runs Rosenfeld Media—she’s like, “and Louis Rosenfeld’s going to publish it.” And I was taken aback. I was not expecting this at all.
SWB I remember that she DMed me to say, “hey, can I get you on the phone?” I was at work one day at my job I was totally burned out at and I was like, “I’ve no idea where this is going, but I’ve got to go somewhere because I’m really miserable right now and this is very exciting.”
SWB So anyway, so—I figured, “well, I don’t know that I believe in me, but she seems to believe in me, so I’m going to see where this goes. And if Louis says that he wants me to write a book for him, I’ll do it. I might do it badly [both laugh], but I’m going to give it a shot!” And so that’s what I did and, you know, I haven’t opened that book in a while because looking at your past work is tough. So, I don’t know how I would feel about everything in it today, but I would say that a lot of people have told me that was really really helpful to them—getting them to understand a concept of structured content, which isn’t important for this particular conversation—but getting people to understand that at a time when a lot of people in my field found that very confusing and breaking it down and making it easy for them. And I think that that was really all I ever wanted, right? Like wanting other people to understand the things that I had found really helpful for me in my work. And so I mean definitely big thanks to Kristina because that was such a pivotal moment for me.
KL That’s so incredible. I really wish everyone could have that. I mean, I feel like this is part of what made us want to start that research we mentioned earlier this season where we interviewed people and sent out a survey asking folks about building their career visibility. And it was so exciting to start talking to people about how they built their profiles—finding out what was easy, what wasn’t and I think we’re seeing some ways we could help folks feel more empowered to go pitch a book proposal, or a conference talk, or start writing and actually share that writing.
SWB Or like start podcasting?
KL Yeah! [SWB laughs]
SWB Yeah, no, I want to focus on this a lot more this coming year, you know, 2018 is almost over and I feel like I’m just kind of coasting into the holidays now. [both laugh] But for 2019, this is a big goal of mine, right? I want to help more people have the same kinds of pivotal career moments that I got to have. And something that I’ve been thinking a lot about is mine have been really ad hoc, right? Kristina Halvorson happened to notice my work—I mean, she was paying attention, it wasn’t totally random. But she happened to notice my work, she happened to have recently had a conversation with Louis Rosenfeld, who was somebody she already knew as a peer—about what he was looking for for his publishing house next, and then she had the kindness and was willing to give the time to reach out to me and to kind of help me along and encourage me and helped me make connections, right? She was the one who introduced me to Louis and that at the time felt a little bit scary—I wasn’t going to just email that person out of the blue. And so that’s something that I definitely have tried to do for other people now that I’m in a more comfortable place or a place where I feel like I have a lot more credibility and people kind of know who I am. I definitely send out recommendations like, “oh you should really get this person at your conference,” or try to connect people to book publishers or whatever kind of opportunities they’re looking for—recommending people for jobs or contracts. Whatever it is, right? Because I feel like that is one of the ways that I can make sure that a wider range of people are getting access to opportunities and also that when I know people are out there with really great ideas or doing really great work that they are getting recognized for it. But it’s not enough to just do it at that ad hoc level. I think that that’s great and I’m glad I’m doing that and everybody should do that. I hope anybody who has the power to do it does it. But I just think that there’s so much room to do this at a more systemic level. I’ve been paying a lot of attention to projects like Women Talk Design, which I think we’ve mentioned before in our newsletter, where they are curating this big collection of women and non-binary speakers and the talks that those people have given because they’re really trying to get more women in front of conference organizers and to make sure that event organizers are never going like well, I don’t know where to find anybody who can talk about X or Y who’s not a man.
SWB Because that’s not true, they just don’t know where to look, right?
KL Yeah, exactly.
SWB So, they’re saying, “no we’re going to try to do this at a broader scale” but I still feel like there’s so much more to work on here. I want to help people figure out, you know, what do they want to talk or write about, what do they really want to share? What are the things that they figured out that have really helped them in their work that they feel like other people would benefit from if they just knew about them? How can we help people figure out what those things are? How can we make it easier for them to organize their ideas and share their ideas because something Laura mentioned is that it wasn’t until she sat down and wrote an outline and really put together all of her ideas that she could see that she did in fact have a body of work there—she had a lot of material and she had opinions!
SWB And I think though that sitting down, writing an outline and getting all of your opinions into one place—that’s a super fucking daunting task if you’re doing it by yourself. That’s so hard, I wouldn’t do it.
KL Yeah, absolutely.
SWB And so it’s like, how do you get yourself to that place mentally? Well, you need some help probably and what if we could give people more tools for that and more opportunities for that where they felt like they had that support?
KL Definitely. And yeah, I mean talking to Laura got me so inspired to sit down and really get to work on this—figuring out if we want to write a book on this, or give workshops, or who knows! Because we—we totally need more voices like Laura’s.
SWB I think we’ve talked about her interview enough. I think everybody needs to hear it now.
KL Definitely. [music fades in, plays for five seconds, and fades out]
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INTERVIEW: LAURA KALBAG
SWB Laura Kalbag is an author and the co-founder of Ind.ie, a not-for-profit that works on protecting people’s rights in the digital age. Katel even got to work with Laura when she wrote Accessibility for Everyone for A Book Apart—something that then got the attention of folks like JK Rowling and Roxane Gay. Yes. I am so excited that Laura is here to talk with us about that and about all the incredible work that she does. Laura, thank you for joining us on No, You Go.
Laura Kalbag Thank you for having me. It’s really exciting to be able to talk on a podcast with two people who’ve actually given me great opportunities in my career themselves.
SWB Oh, [laughs] that’s lovely to hear, but I think that both Katel and I have been big fans of yours for a while, so we are excited to have you.
LK It’s very, very exciting.
SWB So, let’s start out with talking about Ind.ie. Can you tell us a little bit about Ind.ie and what led you to start that company?
LK It really started out sort of about five or six years ago, particularly when the Edward Snowden Revelations came out. So, when Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the NSA in the US and how governments were sucking up a lot of our information about what we were doing online and spying on us in that way. And we were talking about this a lot because it was something that really impacted our work. We’re building things for the web and we’re using the web all the time. What we were wondering though is why is so much information being sucked up? Why is so much stuff about what we’re doing, what we’re looking at, who we are already being sucked up by big corporations—the social media and things like that. They’re already collecting the information and that’s what makes it easy for governments to get hold of it as well. And so what we started to do is look into ways of how can we build technology that doesn’t make it so easy for governments to surveil us and helps protect people’s rights.
SWB So what are the things that you’ve been working on as part of Ind.ie is a little app called Better, right? Can you tell us about that?
LK Yeah. So, what Better does is, it protects you while you’re browsing the web and it does that by blocking trackers that are trying to follow you around the web—so the kinds of trackers that might retarget advertising at you. So, you might be on a site and you might be looking at something you want to buy like a nice new dress or something like that. And then you find that same dress showing up on ads on every single other website you’re visiting. And that’s an instance of when you’re being tracked by a tracker in their sort of background of the site. And they’re using that information that it’s you on that website to show you that ad again and again. And there are all kinds of different trackers doing all kinds of different things behind the scenes. And so what we do is we curate our own list where we decide what we think is a potentially harmful tracker and we block it for you, so that when you’re browsing the web—it only works on Safari for Mac and for iPhone for iOS—but when you’re using Safari, you don’t have to have those trackers watching everything that you’re doing.
SWB And since you’ve been sort of getting that out into the community, what kind of response have you gotten from it?
LK It’s very interesting. I think a lot of people agree with what we’re doing because we are doing it for the reason of protecting people’s privacy because we want to keep people safe. The people whose privacy is most at risk are people who are most vulnerable. It’s people who do not want their governments to necessarily know what their location is. That could be undocumented immigrants, it could be people whose lives they don’t necessarily want to share with corporations and things like that. So, that could be perhaps if you’re gay in a country where you’re not allowed to be—where homosexuality is banned—you don’t want that kind of information getting into the hands of people who could then pass that on to your government or to someone that could cause harm to you. And so what we’re doing is really trying to protect people’s privacy. It very much varies from ad blockers. So, what we mostly get compared to is ad blockers and a lot of people download Better expecting it to block ads. And it does because what we’re doing is blocking the tracking and the tracking actually tends to block 99.99% of all ads because most ads are based on profiling you and sort of examining your underlying behaviour. But if an ad is just a link, just a picture, just a bit of text, we don’t block that. We’re not trying to prevent people from making money on the web, we’re just trying to prevent people from invading the privacy of the people visiting the web.
SWB And so you bring up the whole advertising model of the internet and that makes me want to ask a little bit about the business model that you’re using when it comes to Ind.ie. So, I know that a lot of your work is—it’s a tiny team and that you have a lot of it being supported by donors and patrons, right? So, how does it work for you to run this type of company?
LK A lot of it is trying to find ways to be financially sustainable and not being hypocritical about what we do. Because we don’t want to take money from people if they’re doing it because they want to get good PR from us or if they want to get something sneaky in exchange. So, we make money from selling the app. It’s one of the reasons why we make an app that goes on an app store because Apple is one of the few ways you can make money with apps. And we make money from doing things like going around and talking at conferences and events. And we’ve raised a little bit of money for research—we’ve got funding for research into creating an alternative model for social networking in a way that the people can have ownership and control over their own information and over their own data. So, what we’re trying to do is bring all these different ways of making money together. It’s much like I think a lot of not-for-profits —their financial situations. You’re trying to make enough money to keep doing what you want to be doing and what you think is important to do.
SWB And now, you founded Ind.ie with your partner Aral, right? So, what’s it like to build a business with your partner?
LK It’s really great in a lot of ways and in other ways it can be very difficult because we live and work together, so that’s spending a lot of time together. And so we have to find strategies where we have our own space, we do our own things. We do things in our own way as well because both of us have predominantly both been entirely independent in our professional lives, so we’ve both run our own businesses before. And so bringing those two things together with two people who are—like to have control over how they do things and have very set ways of getting things done—we’ve had to do a lot of work and we’re continuing to do a lot of work to be effective together and to be able to do things together. But it’s really nice to feel like you’re working towards something together. A lot of people can find their work kind of leaking into their lives and I don’t mind that a lot of the time because it’s actually nice to have something you’re both passionate about and you both want to work on together.
SWB Yeah, that’s interesting. You know, we talk on the show sometimes about things like balance between work and personal life and sort of how to make sure that you can turn off work. But I think there is also the story that I totally relate to that’s around saying that, you know, I’m sharing this thing that I really care about that I share with my partner and this thing that I really care about that I spend a lot of my time on is something that I don’t mind bleeding over into everything else, that I like this feeling of it all being part of the sort of like, cohesive view of who I am and what matters to me.
LK I love it, but I also love having a good balance. And that’s one of the ways where we completely vary because Aral has no sense of balance whatsoever. He won’t be offended [laughing] by me saying that. [SWB laughs] He will work late at night, he’ll work all weekend. I work very strict hours. I like to get started at a good time in the morning, I work until the evening. I’ll go off, I’ll do dog walks during the day sometimes. I don’t work weekends unless I really, really have to if there’s a deadline or an emergency or something because I can’t keep myself sane and well if I work all the time. And he’ll allow himself some down days and things like that, but that’s how he does it. And so I say to him sometimes, “I know you really want to talk about this thing tonight and you want to start working on it tonight, but I’m not going to, so you’re have to wait until the morning.”
SWB Is that hard to do? I mean, that’s a lot easier to do if your coworker is emailing you at 10 pm—you just ignore it. It’s a little harder when that person is [LK laughs] across the dining table from you.
LK Yeah. We try to keep different spaces in the house as well, so that we can be working on things separately and someone can have time to just chill out and play computer games or whatever and not feel like the other person is in their peripheral vision working, making them feel guilty that they’re not doing stuff. Because it can be really difficult in that way. But I think one of the things we’ve really had to learn about working together is respecting each other’s way of working and respecting what works for each other because we know we have very different personalities to begin with. We both have very different ways to work, ways we enjoy working, and ways we find work fulfilling. And so we have to respect that in each other.
SWB It sounds like that takes a lot of trust. I mean, because you can’t really work with somebody and allow them to do things the way they want to do it unless you fundamentally trust that they know what’s going to be best for their own work.
LK Yeah. I think we know that we’re working from the same guiding principles, that we care about trying to protect people’s rights, we care about speaking out about things, speaking out about sort of surveillance capitalism, as they call it. The idea that this business model where people are making money from your data and trying to do things in a way that understands that a lot of people aren’t privileged and do not have the technical knowledge, do not have the time or the money to be able to make the web safe for themselves. And so we’re trying to work towards solutions that work for a mainstream audience. And these are our kind of guiding principles that we both know we agree on and if we feel like one or the other of us is not really sticking to that, we can call each other out on it too. We have to have that kind of relationship where we’re willing to take criticism, as well as give it.
SWB That’s great. And I want to pick up on something you touched on there a second ago. You talked a little bit about making work accessible. And I know that you’ve built a big focus on accessibility in your work. I mean, you wrote a book [laughs] about accessibility which we’re going to talk about here in a second. Can you tell our listeners who aren’t from tech or design what you mean when you talk about accessibility and why it’s something you care so much about?
LK When I talk about my book specifically, and the things that are in my book, that’s really focused on making the web accessible to people with disabilities. And so it’s this idea of a lot of the ways that we build things on the web can be exclusive to people who have disabilities because we’re not paying attention to how some people need to consume content in a different way. They may not be able to read it, they may be using something to read the screen to them, rather than reading the texts themselves. They might need to have subtitles because they can’t hear what’s going on on the web. So, that is about trying to make the web easier for people with disabilities to use. But that extends out into so many different things that we do because it’s about making something that’s written in a very technical way easier to understand for people who are maybe starting out and don’t have those technical skills yet or people who don’t want those technical skills, have plenty of other things to do with their lives, and just want to be able to understand how something works. And so, I’m trying to work on applying accessibility to absolutely everything that I do—always trying to be better at making the things that I design easier to use and understand by as many people as possible.
SWB And so the other thing that I wanted to ask a little bit about that I think ties into that is something that I know you’ve worked on at Ind.ie, which is the ethical design manifesto. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and how that fits into the picture?
LK The ethical design manifesto is first of all, making sure that what we’re building respects human rights. Because it’s all very good making something that’s beautiful, making something that’s fun to use. I mean, the products that we have on the web, we’re pretty good at doing that kind of stuff—making stuff fun. We know and talk about things like user experience. But actually, unless the core of the product actually respects human rights. I mean, if the core of the products we’re making actively does not respect human rights, then what are we doing with the products we’re making? So, it’s things like making sure that the products we build respect people’s rights by respecting their privacy, keeping things private, making them accessible, making them sustainable—both financially sustainable and not having a negative environmental impact—making things interoperable—allowing people to move their data around if they want to. And then once we’ve done all of that, once we’ve got products that respect human rights, then we can focus on the doing things we do well in the industry like respecting human effort— so, understanding that people put a lot of time and effort in when they’re using our products, so we want to make sure that the products we build a functional and convenient and reliable. And then once we’ve achieved all of that, we can look at focusing on the experience—making things delightful and things like that. I really enjoy quoting Sara on this when I talk about it in talks and it’s—I think you say something like not spreading a thin layer of bullshit in order to cover up things that just aren’t working. [laughs] It’s not like twinkle—sprinkling a little bit of fairy dust on top of something that’s rubbish.
SWB Yes. So, we talked a little bit about the book that you wrote and I would love to talk about that further because, Katel, you actually got to publish that book, right?
KL Yeah. So, actually a few years ago, the team at A Book Apart had been wanting to publish an accessibility book. And we knew we wanted to reach out to you, Laura, because you were doing such great work around the topic, clearly. And then Accessibility for Everyone came out in 2017. How did you decide to write that book with us?
LK Well, I’m very glad you asked because I never would have offered. I have never really been in the position where I would have had the confidence to say, “oh I can write a book about this.” But actually, as I started to think about the outline and the proposal that I was going to write and what I wanted to say, I realized, “oh actually I have loads to say about accessibility” and actually over the years—because it’s been something I care about so much—I’ve accumulated so much information about different ways to make websites more accessible for people with disabilities that it would be really great to be able to share that. I had so many bookmarks and so many things and so many great people that I follow. And I like the idea of being able to take accessibility as a topic that can seem very big and very intimidating and give an introduction to it that applies to a lot of different disciplines within the web profession. So, how it applies to writing code, how it applies to designing and doing things like choosing color palettes, and how it applies to even writing text and writing copy. And so I love the idea of being able to be that bridge to the people that really had huge levels of expertise as well.
KL And it was—it just came together so well. I think exactly what you are talking about really shines through in the book. It’s very informative for folks who are getting up to speed about it and need to really get a lay of the land. You’ve talked before about how your brother, Sam, has cerebral palsy and that probably sparked some of the interest in the topic for you. And you talk about him in the book, which is awesome. You mentioned that you sat down with him and talked with him about how he uses the internet when you were writing the book. What did you learn from that?
LK Well, it was really funny because before I started writing the book I hadn’t even thought about how my brother having a disability affected how I saw the world and how much I cared about accessibility. I hadn’t actually connected those two things together because I—growing up with Sam, he’s been my brother since I was three years old—I’m three years older than him—and so, our whole lives have been making little accommodations around his need. He can walk, but not well. He has mild cerebral palsy, He finds balance very difficult, he has learning difficulties often associated with cerebral palsy and difficulty with things like fine motor control as well. So, throughout our lives together—and we spend a lot of time together—we’ve always been doing things like—I’d read a menu to him in the restaurant. He could do it, but we get there quicker if we do it together. I know to give him my arm on my right side when we’re walking somewhere just to make it a bit easier for both of us. And I’d never really watched him use a computer before because it’s not the kind of thing you sit and watch somebody else do. So, what we did is one day, we sat there on the phone and I got him to talk through all the things that he hated about using the web and the things that he loved and the things that really helped him. And it gave me a really nice insight into his particular use and what it also really revealed to me was how different everyone’s use of the web is. How because we’re not watching each other use computers, use our device every day, we don’t necessarily realize that we all have different ways of doing things. We all type in different ways, we all read in different ways, we all—some of us open a million tabs, some of us only have one tab open. We will do these things so differently and what it really shows is the need for inclusivity and making websites accessible. What it shows is the assumptions that we make are usually very wrong.
KL Did you do any other kinds of research for the book or did anything surprise you as you were writing it?
LK What always surprised me was the many different ways that every time you talk to new people, they let you in on a different way that they use something or a different way that they access something. So, I did a lot of research into the different forms of input that people use with the web. We think that it’s quite a lot when people are using laptops and iPads and iPhones and all different brands of tablets and things and even watches to access the web now. What we don’t tend to think about is how people might use things like screen readers, which read the contents of the screen to you as audio, or things like eye tracking, so you can have this device that tracks your eyes, so that you can use your eyes to show where you want to go on the page, what you want to interact with. The same—you can do it—there’s these buttons that you can use if you have difficulty with motor control, you press the button, so it scrolls through all of the different options on the screen and you press the button when it gets to the part that you want. And there are so many different ways to interact with computers using all of these different things. So, when we’re trying to create experiences on the web and we’re really focusing on exactly how one tiny little element should work and exactly how we want it to be, we need to think about how so many different people will use that in a completely different way from what we intend.
KL Absolutely. Okay, so in August last year—about a month before the book was due to launch on September 26th—you excitedly tweeted that you wrote a book and rightly so. That tweet sort of became famous though, and I remember getting your first Slack message about it. Can you share a little bit about what happened?
LK Yeah, so I think this was even the second tweet I’d written about it because I was so eager to make sure that no one had missed my first tweet because when I was writing the book, we kept quite quiet about it—I talked with my friends and family about it, but it’s not something you announce before it’s done, lest it never get finished. [KL laughs] And so I wrote this tweet saying “if you’ve missed it, I’ve written a book. It’s coming out very soon, sign up to get it first.” And so a couple of links—a link to the A Book Apart page and then a link to my website. I don’t think it was even right away, but maybe a few hours later I got this reply from a very well-known designer saying, “Actually you wrote a text. It took a few other people and skills to make that into a book.” And I was absolutely mortified, and it was late at night and I’m not a late-night person really, but I saw this quite late at night and I completely froze inside my gut because I was really worried that what I’d written had implied somehow that I wasn’t being grateful to the people that had helped [laughs] me with this book, [KL laughs] that had actually made the book exist. Like you, Katel, and just everyone else involved because it is a very small independent publisher. There’s a lot of people who put their bit of love into it. And I just felt horrible and thought that I was suggesting that I was ungrateful, but then only in the back of my mind when I was—if I looked at it from a detached perspective, of course, this guy wasn’t being very nice. [laughs] And fortunately a few people started to point that out and kind of speak up for me and say “hey, you know, when you start a message and you’re correcting a woman and it says actually and you tell her something that she already knows, you might be doing something called mansplaining [laughs & KL laughs] and it got to the point where this started getting picked up by a lot of people. I don’t even know how JK Rowling or “Rowling”—my brother says I have to make sure I pronounce her name correctly seeing as she stuck up for me—congratulated me on the book. And Roxane Gay, which I was amazed with, because I love Roxane Gay’s writing. So that was pretty cool. I was sitting there reading all these lovely people say really lovely things to me about my book, but it kind of didn’t stop the fact that it came out of a man mansplaining to me. [KL & SWB laugh] And so then, of course, there were magazines wanting to write about it. Teen Vogue and contacted me to ask me for my comments on the situation and that was a difficult one because there are a lot of people really railing on Erik who tweeted me. And I don’t like pile-ons. I don’t like it on social media when people try to bully each other by drawing a lot of attention—particularly people with a lot of followers—drawing a lot of attention in order to shame someone. I think a little bit can be healthy, a little bit of awareness. But actually, there’s a point where you’re just bullying people. I didn’t want to really be involved in that. And so I did say—sort of when I saw it was starting to get a bit much, people can we just—this is nice, this has been fun, but can we draw our attention elsewhere now because there’s a lot more to worry about in the world than a tweet about a book.
KL Yeah, I mean I do just want to say that of course, you are an extremely thoughtful person and I don’t think anyone was assuming that [laughing] all the work that went into it was, you know, disregarded in that tweet. But the truth is that you did write a book and you have every right to be excited about that and he had no right to sort of like mansplain that to you. So, I mean the negative part is that that happened, but there were these positives that came out of it—you had these badass famous authors tweeting in support and solidarity with you and and you did pick up a lot of this coverage and I know it was bittersweet. What did you do to handle that?
LK I tried to have a healthy amount of perspective about what was going on. And I remember sending messages to you saying, “hey, maybe we could open pre-orders because, I mean, while people are hearing about the book…” I mean, it’s not the kind of book where someone who knows nothing about the web is going to buy it just because of a tweet that they didn’t like somewhere. It’s not that kind of thing. But if it did raise awareness for accessibility, well that’s really cool. If it meant that some people ended up learning about making their websites more accessible for people, that’s a really cool outcome. And so I tried to look at it that way. It could get a bit frustrating when people would introduce me at conferences talking about the tweet and some people said things like, “oh, you must be really grateful to him after all of this.” [KL laughs] And I just thought, well actually, you know what? I’m not because I think the book would have done fine without his attention and it doesn’t feel right being grateful to him. He wasn’t being nice and he continued to not be particularly kind to me in private messages and I just wanted it to go away at that point and I didn’t want to have that negative attention anymore.
SWB I mean, you’re still being, I would say, so diplomatic about it. And so thoughtful about it and I will just say, I remember when I saw his original tweet, it was quite early on in this whole firestorm and I felt sick to my stomach with anger at him for this because I knew that it felt like he was stealing something from you—stealing this pure moment of you being able to celebrate having done something difficult and have something to show for it that you could share with people. And so, I want to talk a little bit more about how that felt for you because I know you’ve written a little bit about it, about how the feeling doesn’t go away, right? You’ve mentioned that it made you feel really small and it’s also made you feel like even afterward that you don’t want to make a big deal out of it or celebrate this book because you feel that implication of being indebted to him always coming back to you.
LK Well, that’s the thing. It’s often a lot easier to be angry and get sort of enraged by these things when it happens to somebody else. Because I’m really great at getting angry on behalf of other people. I spend the majority of my work trying to encourage other people and often by telling them off and telling them I don’t think they’re doing the right thing in order to try to get people to behave more ethically in their work. And it’s very different when you’re on the receiving end of it. And I’m a very sensitive person and I really take criticism to heart. I really listen and I really care about what people [laughs] think about me. So, when the comment first came through and I thought “oh, no, I’ve done something wrong, I’ve done something wrong.” I’d just started to be able to talk about this book. I was already quite nervous about the idea of publishing a book in the first place. I was worried that people wouldn’t think I was qualified or well-known enough or know enough about the topic to even do that in the first place. And so to suddenly have someone questioning that on Twitter very publicly— someone who has a lot of followers. And, in fact, I think he was even responding to a retweet from someone else who has even more followers. And so the idea that all of these people would sort of see my embarrassment was—oh, it made me feel horrible and I do keep going back to that feeling, I do keep kind of thinking, ugh, I call it “the book.” I call it Accessibility for Everyone. I don’t say “my book” because I don’t feel like it’s my book and I’m really worried that if I do go around saying oh “my book,” people will think, “oh there she goes thinking that she did all this work when she just wrote the text.” So it’s—I know how unreasonable it is. I really do know how unreasonable that is, but I can’t help but feel that way.
SWB I think that’s one of the things I wish people who make these shitty comments or people who have given you this kind of like, “oh you should feel indebted to him” feedback. I wish that was the kind of thing they really understood was like how much this kind of stuff can erode the confidence of somebody who’s kind of gingerly setting their foot out there and saying like, “here I am I made something” and you know what? You did not deserve that and you wrote a book! You wrote a fucking book! it’s your book. That book is yours. [all laugh]
KL It is.
SWB And I think that that’s one of the biggest things that—it makes me sad that somebody would try to take that away from you and particularly—I think that this is something that he wouldn’t have said that if you had been a man. He just wouldn’t have it. It wouldn’t have even occurred to him.
SWB And I’m sure he doesn’t believe that. I’m sure he doesn’t think that it was a gendered comment, but it fucking was. And it’s so frustrating and I’m curious: is there anything that you have found that has helped you figure out how to celebrate this anyway? Or is there anything that helped you sort of process it and move on from it?
LK Yeah. Well, I unfortunately it’s something that I feel like I have experienced with in that—so my partner, Aral, and I work together and I often find the work we do together, we will get different gendered—different responses to what we do. And people will treat him in a very different way from how they treat me when we’re often saying similar things in similar ways. And it can be so frustrating and feel very unfair. And what I try to do is I try to see the victories in reaching the people I really want to reach. Like when I’m giving a talk and I have a man come up to me afterwards and dismiss it as I’m apparently young and idealistic or I don’t know what I’m talking about or I haven’t been in the industry for long enough—all of which is untrue, by the way. Actually, it’s the women who come up to me afterwards and say “oh that talk was great and I loved it.” I’ll always remember this fantastic tweet this woman wrote after I gave a talk. She put the animated GIF of—oh, it was Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games—you know—when she does the gesture of like victory and everyone like looks around. And she put that up after my talk saying “yeah, this was such a great talk and you really smashed it.” And that’s what I care about. I don’t care about impressing little men. That’s not my job. I care about trying to reach the right people with the messages that I care about. I care about trying to make the web more inclusive, trying to make the web more ethical, and if people aren’t bothered about that, then I’m not bothered about them, quite honestly.
SWB I love that so much. I was cheering for you, clapping so loudly in my head right now. [LK laughs] And I love that because I do think it’s so great when you know that you reach people and I know that your work absolutely reaches people. And you have a lot more people that you’re going to reach. So, we are running out of time and I’m wondering if we can—before we go—just talk more about that. What’s next for you? What are you excited about? And what do you have coming up in 2019?
LK What I’m excited about is being able to dig in and keep going with the work we’ve been doing. We’ve been doing a lot of research and a lot of work into trying to work out how do you architect ethical technology in this day and age when we have so many things to worry about? How do we try to build technology that understands things like bias and how people are discriminated against all of these systemic issues we face? How do we try to make technology that is stronger and can be flexible and not be the same old stuff that straight white men in Silicon Valley are making? How do we make things that are for everybody? And I’m really excited about being able to work on these things—being able to really dedicate time to it. I think now we’re in a place where we’re settled down where—we’ve been moving a lot over the last few years, so we finally have a place to live that feels comfortable and safe and will give us the ability to just get on with it.
SWB Well, I’m so glad you’re doing that, both because of the work itself and because I know that you are such an inspiration to so many people, including me and Katel. Laura, we have loved your work for a long time and we have been so happy to have you on the show. Laura’s book, which is Accessibility for Everyone, is available from A Book Apart. And, Laura, where can listeners find out more about you?
LK You can find everything about me on my website, which is laurakalbag.com.
SWB Laura, thank you again for being here.
LK Oh, thank you for having me. Thank you for being so kind. [music fades in, plays for five seconds, and fades out]
CAREER CHAT WITH SHOPIFY
SWB Time to take a quick minute to talk careers with Shopify. So, this week we have Mackenzie Bartlett, a recruitment researcher for production engineering. Mac, you see a lot of incoming applications. What is the number one thing that you recommend when folks are applying to Shopify?
MB Thanks! My top tip? Do your research on the company before you apply and definitely before you interview. Shopify has a ton of videos and blog posts online and it really stands out to me when a candidate has done their research and knows a little bit about what the team is working on already. It shows me that you have an interest in what we do and the problems were solving. It’s a simple tip, but it will make your application stand out and your interview process that much better. And as an aside, make sure your cover letter is addressed to the right company. You wouldn’t believe how many applications we get that are addressed to a certain popular music streaming platform, which will remain unnamed.
SWB Oh my God, I’m not gonna lie. I made that mistake on a proposal once. So, don’t be like me, do your research, and maybe you should also talk to Mac. Check out shopify.com/careers to see all the latest job postings. [music fades in, plays for five seconds, and fades out]
FUCK YEAH OF THE WEEK
SWB Katel, I don’t even have to think about what my “fuck yeah” is this week because it’s Werk It! That is the women’s podcasting conference, which we went to just before Thanksgiving.
SWB So, for all of you who aren’t podcast nerds, Werk It is put on by WNYC, which means that it is full of super legit podcasters. We got to learn from people like Manoush Zomorodi, who I’ve loved for a long time. She used to run a show called Note to Self, but now she has this new one called ZigZag, which is pretty rad. And we also heard a panel from Nora McInerny, who runs Terrible, Thanks for Asking, which I thought that panel was super refreshing and such a good show too.
SWB And like, these are some really big names in podcasting.
KL I know! It was very cool. It was a great conference and we met some really incredible people.
SWB Also, we got the hang out in New York for a few days together, which was fun.
SWB And also—and this was an extra cool part for me—one of the things I learned is that maybe we are further along than I thought with this show.
KL Oh my gosh, yes. That was so validating.
SWB A lot of the stuff the presenters were talking about I felt like “oh yeah, we’re kind of already doing that” or like, “oh yeah, we’ve been working on that.” Not to say we have it all figured out, not to say that we’re going to be like raking in that Serial level fame and fortune yet. [KL laughs] But, I started feeling like, “yeah, maybe we’re not quite so kind of like fresh to this. Maybe we are—we do kind of know something now.” And we also had this mentor session, which was awesome. It made me realize that any time I’m going to an event that has mentor sessions, just sign up for them because—who knows what you get!
KL Oh my gosh. That was very—a really cool thing they did.
SWB Yes, and so our mentor happened to be somebody who was really well connected in podcast land. And she was so reassuring and she was even legit excited about the future of our show and how she can help us, which, I mean, I hope everything that we talked about pans out, but even if it doesn’t, it was just so great to hear from her that we’re doing okay. It was great also to be in community with all these other podcasters and especially women podcasters, right? Because so many podcasts events are so male-dominated and this allowed us to leave both feeling, I think, really excited and just like a little more confident that we’re doing alright. We’re like—fuck that, we’re doing great!
KL Yeah! Fuck that and fuck yeah to Werk It.
SWB Yeah, we worked it.
KL That’s it for this week’s episode of No, You Go. NYG is recorded in her home city of Philadelphia and produced by Steph Colbourn. Our theme music is by The Diaphone. Thanks to Laura Kalbag for being our guest today. If you like today’s show, please leave us a review and rate us wherever you listen to podcasts. And get even more of us in your life with I Love That—our biweekly newsletter. Sign up at noyougoshow.com. See you again next week.
SWB Bye! [music fades in, plays alone for 32 seconds, and fades out]