Is The Future Bright?

COEXIST-Final-800px

My dad was a science fiction buff, Democrat and a WWII veteran. As a single parent, he did a marvelous job inspiring me to explore my interests in technology and encouraging me to be my own person with the strength and means to create the life I wanted to live. We were not that Jewish, but our heritage and suffering was always a thread throughout our lengthy family debates about politics and the world at large. Being a Jew was part of who we were as individuals and as a family and his role in the war and the stories he told from his experience was a constant reminder of how important it is to stand up for what’s right, defend minorities and protect our freedom.

I often have days where I wish my dad was still with us so I could see his mind explode when I showed him the latest in tech. An avid Azimov reader and Star Trek viewer who bought every single new calculator (the first one was a Sharp CS10A weighing over 50 pounds!) and Radio Shack TRS80 as they were released, he would have totally lost it if he were to see the iPhone and all the applications one can use on it today. If I were to share a VR headset with him or bring him to an AR installation, he would marvel at how the technology he imagined from all his Sci-Fi reading was coming to life. He would have also said none of it surprised him, because he believed all of it was inevitable. The future was always bright in his mind.

Despite all the progress we’ve made in tech in the US since my dad’s passing in 2009, we’ve had a lot of regression in the country at the same time. I imagine how my dad would feel today about our current President and the rise of hate and bigotry in this country. I imagine how he’d feel to see women continue to deal with discrimination and adversity; where inequality still exists across industries, across the nation. As a Jew, I imagine his disgust at some of the unimaginable things that have happened in our country in the most recent weeks. I imagine that he would not think the future’s so bright right now.

I am not a political activist. In fact, I refer to myself as “A-political, ‘A as in anti'”. I do vote on the regular and keep an eye on important bills being passed, but until recently, I’ve tried to avoid the topic as much as possible. Today however, I am embarrassed for our country and ashamed at myself for not doing more. As I read my twitter feed, I take pleasure in seeing the lack of fear in calling out our President for being ignorant and crass. We are very lucky to live in a country where we can be so vocal without recourse. But I fear we may not have those rights much longer if we allow things to persist. I am now challenging myself on what I personally, as an apolitical non-activist, can do to support our country getting past all of this.

I plan to start by surrounding myself with good humans who care deeply about these issues and have a zero tolerance for hate and bigotry. I will only work with and for organizations where they stand by these same beliefs (I am proud that my employer* has recently committed to standing against hate and violence). I will ensure that whomever I work with, mentor, or coach knows that I will always focus on creating a safe space for them to thrive, speak their minds and be supported – no matter how they identify (race, gender, religion or otherwise) as long as they reciprocate. Finally, I will do what I can to support those on the front lines trying to make our country a better place. I may not run for office or join a picket line, but I will speak up more about the issues, fund programs that are allowing us to make progress on equal rights and social justice (I donated yesterday to https://www.splcenter.org/), sign petitions, and encourage others to do the same. Anyone and everyone can make a difference in some way. We cannot just sit back and watch this happen.

So, Dad, if you’re watching what’s going on right now from wherever you are, please send good vibes and support us any way you can as well. Change won’t happen overnight, but I believe the good people of this country will push hard to turn things around and once again, the future will be bright.

Got other ideas about ways those of us who are apolitical can make an impact? Please share in the comments!

*UPDATE: @DigitalOcean has recently created a site to also foster donations to SPLC as well! Go DO!

Opening Doors & Taking Action

open doorsAs the news unfolded in the past week over Susan Fowler’s recent blog post about her experiences at Uber, I have been thinking deeply about finding my voice on the matter. I recalled the countless times I had been harassed and never said a thing to anyone, let alone the HR rep at whatever company I was working at the time. I have dozens and dozens of stories of inappropriate, sexually charged, comments from colleagues, winks, suggestive touches, crass jokes, and pictures shared with me that I wish I could unsee. I never called them out.

Fear of gaslighting – being accused of being oversensitive, crazy, blowing things out of proportion – is probably one of the top reasons for not reporting the umpteen incidents employees experience in the workplace. It seems no matter how high we climb the corporate ladder, we still hold back. Whether it’s gaslighting, possible retaliation, or as in Susan Fowler’s case, being totally ignored, we doubt we will be heard.

On those rare occasions when we are heard, those who fall victim to bad behavior or blatant harassment are often “handled” quietly, if at all. Issues are swept under the rug before anyone knows. So, regardless of whether the bad actor gets a warning or more severe action is taken, no one else learns from this lesson. Organizations and leaders desperate to protect their reputations and avoid litigation make it go away a fast as possible. Perhaps those who helped “clean it up” get a reality check, but as long as there is no exposure, no public shaming, no admission of guilt, we will continue to see situations like Ms. Fowler’s persist.

It was a bold move for Ms. Fowler to publicly share her story about Uber and its leadership team’s lack of attention towards her situation. The ubiquity of Uber, and attention the company is already getting in other forums, certainly gave fuel to this issue, but this is not just about tech companies gone bad. It was a rallying cry for leaders at any company, big or small, to not only open the doors for employees to be heard, but to make it clear that crossing the line is no longer tolerated and when it is crossed, action is taken.

Opening Doors
Building a culture of open doors is not just about telling employees “my door is always open,” but actually opening that door. We had a thoughtful series of conversations on this topic at DigitalOcean (DO) over the past week. At our company all hands, we emphasized a zero-tolerance for any harassing behaviors that make our employees feel unsafe and our CEO and I both committed that, while we want people to talk with their managers and our People team first, we are 100% available to talk with any employee who is uncomfortable and prefers to talk with either of us about any issue.

Our commitment to our employees this past week has been well received, but executives making statements about their open doors is only part of the equation. Opening doors is also about ensuring a safe and inclusive work environment by proactively mitigating issues. Ensuring a safe work environment involves everything from setting policies and guidelines to conducting cross-company training beyond the online course we are required to click through when we start a new job.

studentdiscussion_250One of my former employers offered a training using situational role playing to develop understanding and empathy for those who may not appreciate the severity of certain actions. It was an invaluable exercise and we do something similar with the unconscious bias training we provide to all new employees as part of their on-boarding at DO. We’ve found by raising awareness of these behaviors in realistic settings we can do a lot to set clear expectations on what acceptable and unacceptable is, and make people more aware of their impact on others.

If you see something, say something.
Despite proactive efforts, open doors, trainings and policies, harassment still happens. Sometimes, it’s an innocent mistake where a young/inexperienced employee just doesn’t realize they’ve said something wrong. Sometimes, it’s an experienced executive who’s never been called out thus doesn’t appreciate the impact of their behavior. Regardless, we cannot stay silent.

I believe every manager is accountable for reporting any incident that they observe or is reported to them as soon as possible. I also believe it’s every employee’s right to know that their company is taking action to ensure a safe workplace. However, because of corporate policy and privacy protection, we often lack the transparency of how organizations are handling situations and whether they are operating a safe place of work. We cannot, for many reasons, publicly call out every person who crosses a line, but there could be methods(*) to get ahead of this such as:

  • Providing a safe forum for any employee to report an incident they’ve experienced or observed.
  • Tracking anonymized incident data to look for trends including frequency of issues and resolution timeframes.
  • Implementing and broadly communicating Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) that provide hot lines, advocacy and legal counsel.
  • Internal or even public communication on a company’s performance regarding harassment situations. Imagine a world where companies own unfortunate situations and say how they are resolving them and share improvement data. Scary as that may sound, I bet that if more companies shared this information, the trend of incidents would go down.

The beat goes on…
Whether it was in Twitter or in an intimate setting among friends, Susan Fowler’s story is not the first we’ve heard like this nor will it be the last. We need to continue to bring these topics front and center and commit to continuous improvement in the workplace. I’d love to hear how other leaders are handling this topic at their companies. We all benefit from learning from each other, so please share your stories in the comments.

(*) These are just suggestions, I leave the real policy and program design work to the experts 🙂

“I was right, I am the only girl. AGAIN!”

This is the fourth summer in a row that my youngest daughter, now 13, has done some sort of a programming camp. For three out of four summers, she has been the only girl in her group. While I commend these programs for a great curriculum and instructors, this has caused me to think about how, as parents and a community, we need to step up efforts on gender balance in computing much earlier than college or even high school. If girls are not participating in programs like this in their formative years, how are to expect them to be computer science majors or pursue technical careers?

As we walked to Harvard this summer for her first day of camp, my daughter was a bit anxious about yet another digitalmediaacademy.orgsummer as the token girl. We had chosen a new program through Digital Media Academy (DMA) largely because they were one of the few to offer a Virtual Reality course where she could play with Oculus Rift and learn how to design virtual worlds. A second major factor was that much of the DMA website and materials are full of images of girls having fun with technology – suggesting they are very successful in recruiting girls to sign up for their courses.

In response to “Mom, if I am the only girl again this summer I am going to be so mad.” I tried to be encouraging and focus on the coolness of the course she was taking. I told her how leading edge she was to learn about an emerging technology before most people her age even knew what it was. I didn’t talk about the potential gender imbalance and instead focused on the fact that this was about pursuing her interests and passions. Inside though, I was hoping…no praying…she wasn’t the only one. Not just because I didn’t want her to be the one girl among the boys, but for the bigger picture. I was dying for a sign that the canaries were singing loudly in the coal mine. Hopeful that I would see a mixed group of boys and girls in the room eager to dig into technology.

The canaries weren’t singing…

When we arrived at the camp check-in area, we were relieved to see a few other girls signing in and heading off to their classrooms. The counselors whisked my daughter away to her classroom so I didn’t have a chance to see the gender composition. I asked her to text me at lunch with a pulse on how it was going.

As I walked back home, I reflected on the prior three summers. The first summer, she signed up for a game design course through ID Tech, hosted at MIT. The boys in this class were obsessed with Pokemon cards – something my daughter knew nothing about and had no interest in – and their break time was used to trade cards or play video games. As a pretty typical 10 year-old girl, she would have rather spent her lunch break talking about boy bands and Youtubers or maybe tossing a frisbee around outside. Needless to say, between that and being among a group of 8-10 year-old boys with zero interest in socializing with girls, my daughter felt pretty isolated among the group. Outside of learning a bit of Javascript, she was pretty disappointed with the experience that year.

The following year, I decided to combine a week I needed to spend at VMware’s Palo Alto HQ with an opportunity for her to try ID Tech again, but this time hosted at Stanford. She was willing to give it another try, thinking it was cool to “attend Stanford”. Once again, I dropped her off at the sign-in area and hoped for a better outcome than we experienced on the MIT campus the prior summer. At pickup time, she joyfully jumped in my rental car bubbling over about all the fun girls who were in her mobile app game design class. Just like her, some were there because their parents were in the valley for work and others were locals and long-time ID Tech participants. Not only did she have a lot more fun than the prior summer, but she accomplished a lot more in that week than I would have expected. We were both thrilled.

Flash forward to last summer and another year with ID Tech at MIT. My daughter was pretty into Minecraft at the time and was eager to go deep and get better at programming in general. She is a very go-with-the-flow kind of kid and told me she didn’t care if she was the only girl, she just wanted to geek out for a week after her return from a month at sleep-away camp. After such a good experience on the west coast the year before, I hoped that I’d see a trend shift here and she’d have other girls in her course. Alas, once again, she was the only one.

While I only have one data point of one summer in the valley, it was pretty interesting to experience such a different situation out there as compared to here. Are more households tech savvy out there because of the thick concentration of tech jobs? Is the bar higher in Silicon Valley schools such that kids out there are exposed to programming/technology earlier? Perhaps it’s climate and spending a week inside to code is a welcome break from sunshine (?!) whereas here we take every moment we can to get our kids outside before the next snomageddon.

Or, perhaps the girls here are not signing up because, like my kiddo, they’re worried they’ll be the only girl.

“I was right, I am the only girl. AGAIN!” was the text I received during her lunch break last Monday. I told her to hang in there and get as much as she could out of the course. But, I felt so very disappointed. Where are the girls that were shown so prominently on the brochure? Why are parents not signing up their girls for these cool classes? It’s Oculus for Pete’s sake!

My biggest concern here above all is that this is one of the biggest factors that impacts the pipeline of young women choosing technical degrees and jobs. If 8-13 year-old girls think their only option to learn how to code or experiment with new technology like Virtual Reality is to be an outlier in a room full of boys, they won’t sign up. Even now, while she learned a lot and got along just fine with the “gamer boys” (her nickname for them) in her class, my daughter is desperately looking into more girl-friendly programs for her age group next summer. Thankfully, now that she’s older, there are programs like Girls Who Code or Technovation. Even though I am a huge fan of programs like these and they give girls the critical mass of peer support they need, I worry it swings the pendulum the other way. I want to see balance in these programs. Not programs for just girls or those that cater to just boys.

So, how do we solve this problem?  Some suggestions:

  • Parents: Sign up your girls for programming summer camps! In most cases it’s ONE week. One! Your kids will survive a week of being indoors most of a day, trust me. And if not in the summer, sign them up during the school year or during school vacations (gasp!). Also, have them sign up with a friend to further balance whatever program they choose. And if you have boys interested in tech, try to sign them up for programs that are diverse too! The younger boys are sitting next to girls who are coding, the more “normal” it’ll feel to them as the grow up with technology.
  • Tech Camps: Don’t just try to recruit girls, sign them up. Reach out to faculty and school technology programs that have girls enrolled and develop partnerships that drive these girls to your camps. Also, try to mix up your courses so it’s not eight solid hours a day of programming. Stop catering to the boys who play video games all day and offer time to run outside or maybe even swim in the afternoon. Kids learn fast. There’s a lot they can learn in a week without having to sit in front of their desktop the whole time. And please, for the love of God, stop plastering your brochures and websites with just pictures of girls. Show boys and girls working and having fun together. Foster diversity.
  • Groups that target professional technical women: Invite young girls to some of your events or encourage mentoring between your members and the girls’ programs mentioned above. If more young girls interested in tech have role models, they are more likely to persevere in rooms full of boys. Maybe even start a camp of your own?

As the VR camp came to a close, I attended a showcase to see what my daughter had accomplished for the week. It was pretty cool to navigate the funky landscapes and terrains she had designed as though I DMA_showcasewas in them via the Rift. She was proud of what she had learned and was eager to download Unity at home so she could keep working on her project. I asked her how she felt about the week overall and she said “It wasn’t so bad this year being the only girl, in fact the best part was that I had the bathroom all to myself.”

Got ideas about how to get more young girls into tech?  Please share in the comments!

Step One: Investing in the Minority

Once, in my first few weeks in the early days at Akamai, I was pulled aside and told I had to stop wearing suits every day because people thought I was looking for a new job. I promptly went out and bought five new pairs of jeans and mothballed my vast array of suits and dresses. I wanted to be sure I was taken seriously as a senior member of a technology organization. Now here I was, 15 years later, asking myself if jeans were OK to wear to a program I was invited to attend at Stanford Law. The event was hosted by a16z and is designed to prepare future corporate board members of venture backed companies. I’m a big believer in the value of strong first impressions and, like it or not, what we wear is part of that first impression.

I sought advice from a friend who’s been a senior leader at a few top technology companies in the valley. Her opinion is that jeans “are part of a wardrobe that connotes technical competence. Dressing like a stereotypical engineer offsets the fact that I’m female; people can place me as an engineer in spite of my gender. And the converse is true as well – jewelry, high heels, emphatic makeup, skirts, scarves – most garments that emphasize femininity also connote non-technical because they connote femininity.” However, she goes on to say “being female, of course, still connotes ‘not a leader’ just like it does ‘not technical’ so you’re still going to have to dress like a guy to get intuitively bucketed as leader instead of an admin.” This last part struck me because the guys I know, in our field, who are some of the best leaders I have had the pleasure to work with, routinely wear jeans; not just to go to work but on stage and in executive meetings.

So what does this have to do with “Investing in the Minority”?

As noted above, the program I was about to attend was to prepare future corporate board members. I knew I was invited along with another CEO friend of mine from Boston in part because we were women, but I thought it was to round out the attendee list. We are often the token “nerd chicks” in our circle of professionals. So, while I was stressed about walking into a room full of white dudes in suits and being taken seriously (on first impressions because of what I wore), it turned out to be a totally moot point. As soon as I arrived, I knew this was about getting a new class of highly diverse board members and no one cared about what we wore. The room was ~75%, ethnically diverse, women and of all the male attendees, I counted only two white dudes. Most of the presenters were, however, white dudes (and most of these white dudes were wearing jeans), but they had clearly been tutored on balanced use of pronouns and were careful not to patronize or overtly call out the diversity in the room.

Audience diversity and wardrobe aside, what was really striking was that a16z put a stake in the ground that they are intent on solving the dearth of women and diversity on corporate boards by training up a bunch of us for the job. This realization reminded me of a recent conversation I had with a founding CEO and CTO duo who want to hire more women engineers. Women were applying for their job postings and they were great fits for this company, but they were finding that most of these women were not “technical enough”. I questioned whether there was unconscious bias at play or whether these women were really not as technically competent for the roles they were hoping to fill. The founders insisted these candidates were great in every way, but they just didn’t have enough coding experience. Just like a16z is investing in diversity for boards by training us up, I pushed these founders to invest in these women engineers. If they are great in every way, but just don’t have enough experience, give them that experience!

Which leads me to think more about this group of newly enlightened future board members. Now that we have been schooled in the duty of care and the duty of loyalty, who is taking the next step to actually get us onto boards? This is no different than the very capable women engineers who just need hiring managers to give them a chance, and perhaps some training/mentoring, so they can get experience. Unless we are actively marketed, recruited and given a chance to sit on boards, this investment in us as minorities is for not. I am not saying that we sit back and wait for others to do the work for us. I will definitely tap my board and others to make sure they know I am now even more prepared to take a board seat than I was with “just” my 25+ years of experience in management in startups and mature companies and from sitting on three different non-profit boards. However, I do think it’s incumbent upon a16z and others who aspire to support and foster diversity on boards and in corporations to seek us out and take a chance on us.

A16z made it clear in their invitation to this event that they are not guaranteeing us board seats. I get that and nor should they as we each need to stand on our own and demonstrate what we can do. However, they should, IMHO, commit to Step Two:

  • Create a directory of newly minted “board ready” professionals who have completed programs such as the one offered by Stanford Law
  • Upon election to a board, provide a mentor directory to those who have completed the program so we can have an experienced, trusted advisor or two to call upon in our first year of board service [Note: They may have to sign an NDA to do this, but if they are trusted professionals without a conflict, this should be a reasonable ask.]
  • Pressure their portfolio companies, current boards they sit on, and others in their networks to take a chance on us, or perhaps if not already oversubscribed with board observers, let us observe so we can start to get real board experience.
  • Finally, track our progress. Where are we in 9-12 months? Are we sitting on a board? Did anything we learned in this program become valuable in our first months as board members? Did we make an impact? As Professor Daines noted in his lecture last week, not enough research has been done on corporate board governance – especially on VC backed companies – so let’s start capturing the data now.

I am truly grateful for the invitation to participate in the program last week and hopeful I can leverage what I’ve learned on a private or public board soon. Much thanks to Marc Andreessen, Ben Horowitz, Margit Wennmachers and their team for taking the time to organize and participate in last week’s program!

…and for those wondering “but she never said what she ended up wearing??!”, I wore jeans.

Got ideas about how to foster more diversity on corporate boards? Please reply with a comment!