From Engineer To Executive

I recently did the keynote talk for the Puget Sound Python users group, and while it wasn’t filmed, I had a couple of requests that I post the material somewhere. Here you go!

Going from an engineer to someone who can manage people and execute on the company vision takes a commitment to changing yourself, changing your environment, and changing how you relate to others. There are three key areas that I had to work on and will be striving towards for the rest of my life. They are: (1) your people skills, (2) a will to change, and (3) your support network.

First, let’s take a look at people skills. You need to lose your contempt for interpersonal skills. You may be one badass engineer, but if you cannot communicate your purpose and assign tasks to your subordinates in such a way that they’re enthused about the tasks you set for them, you can’t be an executive. That’s it. Learn to rephrase your requests and statements about situations in a positive way. Many engineers are uncomfortable about dealing with people, and you’ll need to not only lose that discomfort, but actively enjoy employing your people skills. Note that I don’t say that you have to actively enjoy people. I’m a full-bore introvert, and dealing with people takes it out of me if I cannot escape and recharge. However, I can always enjoy that I have a skill, and that I’m getting better at using it every day.

If you don’t like social media, tough cookies. You need fans and connections. These are people that you can transmit ideas to, and from whom you get updates on how the world thinks and works. Make the connections on LinkedIn and open up your Twitter and Facebook profiles. You won’t be able to hide what you say anyway, and you may as well keep your lack of privacy in mind. You no longer get to bury your head in the sand when it comes to social issues. You’ll need to keep updated on meaningful news. There would be no excuse for a leader of people who made a tone deaf crack about protesters the day after the Ferguson grand jury decision because s/he didn’t know what was happening in the world. You can be yourself on social media, but you cannot treat your public pronouncements as if they reflect only on you now. I am communicative on social media, but I don’t complain about individual people anymore, no matter how bad the customer service was. I have the ability to point attention at issues, and as a representative of my company regardless of how many disclaimers I put in bios, I have to respect that I’d be punching down, not up. Remember the same.

The last thing on people skills, and the hardest lesson I’m still working on is this: don’t be the smartest person in the room. That’s a direct quote from a mentor of mine. It was an especially hard lesson for me to learn. As a female engineer, I’ve been screaming for 15 years that I’m right, that my code is good enough, that my solution works, and that I belong in this room with the rest of the engineers. I’ve had to shift my approach a lot. Now, what matters is that the people that I’m talking with feel like they’re heard, not that I’m smart. That is how they’ll build consensus on the right way to solve a problem. If you figure out how to do this, please tell me.

Second, let’s talk about your personal will to change your life and grow. This is a very difficult topic, because it has to do with social class, judgment, and your own goals. There’s a common phenomenon among professional athletes and musicians who succeed dramatically. Those among them who came from less privileged backgrounds often will struggle with negative influences from the people who loved and supported them while they were on the way up. I have friends and dear loved ones who have loved and supported me, but are still fighting to give up drugs, get out of prison, and get their lives together. I can love them and be there for them to the best of my ability without being pulled into problems I have no power to fix. Think very hard about the people you surround yourself with. The motivational speaker Jim Rohn very famously said that “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” I choose to be around people that I like AND admire. I think of people who I respect for their kindness, entrepreneurial spirit, irrepressible joy, courtesy, intelligence, and strength, and then I figure out if we like the same comic books and TV shows (thee must like Arrow or I will not have to do with thee). Those are the people I try to spend my time with.

Develop your own sense of judgment about people to the point that you’ve learned to trust your instincts about someone’s character before you start making final hiring decisions. I screw up sometimes, and I make mistakes all the time. However, we have built a culture at Fizzmint that ultimately reflects my personal decisions about people’s characters, and I have to trust that I make good decisions while always being willing to revisit those choices if needed later. You are going to start learning to consciously harness the judgments you make about people, because if you don’t, you’ll judge unconsciously. That’s how poor hiring decisions get made, like hiring a team of nothing but straight white men and thinking it’s because they’re the only ones tough enough to stand up for their coding choices. Without examining how you judge others, you’ll do so without thought. Don’t not think.

If there’s any one thing I can tell you about being a different person and one that others will respect, it’s this: be on time. People who are habitually punctual have a whole lot of other life skills nailed down. They manage their time well. They’re honest with themselves about how long tasks will take. They have the logistics of their city and transport down. They respect you and your time. They have built time into their day for small tasks, often after they’ve arrived early to meetings. They likely sleep and eat on a healthier schedule. I and everyone else understand that sometimes you cannot help being late. There’s a difference, however, between someone whose definition of ‘on time’ is 5 minutes late, and who arrives more than 15 minutes late half the time, and a person who arrives early or on time 19 out of 20 times. The habitually late person is not honest with themselves about their commitments and how long their day will take to execute on–or they’re pushovers about letting others dictate their schedule. That’s not someone I want managing others. The more time I spend with the people who run companies, the more I realize that this is one of the unstated expectations on people who should be trusted with making decisions. When I set up coffee with a fellow CEO, s/he is nearly never late. That’s even in Seattle, which has a truly terrible transportation system, and which can unexpectedly jam up with hours of traffic and overpacked buses and trains.

Develop your personality and interests outside technology. I have lots and lots of interests, side projects, hobbies, and fun things I do. I have to, or I would be a deadly dull person with a stultifying lack of stories, points of commonality, and conversation openers. I like reading audiobooks, and I’m currently running a Kickstarter to bring Frankenstein’s Creature’s favorite book to audiobook for the first time ever. I helped found and currently am on the board of Hack The People, the world’s largest tech mentorship initiative. I help underrepresented hackers propose to speak through Defcon Unlocked and Infosec Unlocked. I take cat pictures and read and play WoW and do triathlons and cook. If you don’t have a cool hobby and some volunteer commitments, get some, or you’ll be boring. Also, you’ll miss out on personal growth and contributing to your community.

Finally, let’s talk about your support network. There is nothing, NOTHING more important than your mentors and mentees. Your colleagues can come and go, but you MUST develop tight relationships with people who want to teach you, and whom you can teach. You never really learn something until you teach it, and you need to pass on what you learn. This blog is part of how I pass on information to people, after I filter it through my own experience and understanding. I’ve been given truly terrible advice, and truly spectacular advice, but the common thread there is this: someone cared enough to try to help me.

Join your professional association or a group of people who do the job you’re currently doing and the job you want to be doing. Learn from them. Treat your network like a million dollars, because that’s literally what they are to you. Create weak and strong ties to people in your community and in your virtual network. Find a person you admire online that you’ve never met in real life, and tell them that you admire them. You might be surprised at the result. Most of what people face when they’re public-facing is criticism, anger, and second-guessing (unless you’re Taylor Swift, in which case bless your heart, honey). It’s always nice to hear that someone’s picking up what you’re putting down.

Add some comments about your best tricks and tips for how you transitioned from engineering to executive work, and post your questions. I’ll do my best and point you at the right people if I don’t know the answer!

Managing people that don’t look like you

No one trains managers in empathy. We train new managers to use project management software, to interface with clients, and to fill out timesheets, but being a manager means giving a shit about your people. When’s the last time you, as a manager, faced training that taught you that you have profound power over the lives of the people who work for you, and that your thoughtlessness is deeply cruel when you force people to operate in an environment that harms them?

I’m using strong language because over the last fifteen-odd years, I’ve seen an unbelievable amount of thoughtless cruelty towards people who vary from your expectations. Much of what I’ve seen involves treating people with disabilities or medical conditions as inconveniences gladly shed when the workday is through–and absolutely ensuring that people with disabilities cannot attend the after-work and networking events that are so vital to a successful career. Many managers don’t realize how much harder it is getting jobs when you’re differently abled, transgender, female, older, or any of the other categories that aren’t “Single, White, Young, Straight, Male”.

Your job as a manager is very different than the one you did while on the team. As a manager, your job is to facilitate and help your team succeed.

One of the biggest issues I see new managers dealing with is the idea that the team is theirs. Their responsibility, their charge, their trust. They’ve been entrusted with people that have less voice than they do about the conditions under which they work, the conflict they experience and the situations they find themselves in. The worst managers I’ve seen aren’t the ones who deliberately push people around. The worst managers are the ones who assume a peer relationship with their team and take absolutely no responsibility for the success and comfort of the people they’ve been charged with protecting and promoting. “It’s not my fault; I didn’t know that poster would make her uncomfortable, and if it did, why didn’t she tell me?” Pushing blame onto your employees for not doing your job for you is vicious, whether unconscious or not.

Managers often think to themselves “If someone has a problem with these arrangements, I’ll hear about it. They’ll just speak up.” Wrong. If you’re in a position of power over people’s lives and ability to put food on the table, you’ll never hear about a problem with the hotel accommodations, the food selection, the air conditioning, the pet allergies, the disability access, the racist posters in the ladies bathrooms, or the pressure to consume too much alcohol.

This is especially endemic when your team is travelling somewhere. When people are moved outside their comfort zone, they have needs that they expect you to be thinking about and to handle. If you have a team member who is disabled, and you plan an afterparty at a rooftop bar with no elevator, you won’t hear from that person about your stupid choice to create an “optional” event that your workers are expected to attend for job and networking reasons. Instead, that disabled person will simply say “I’m not up to it tonight” and head back to the hotel. How are they supposed to speak up? They have no power, you pay their bills, and if they complain, they’re a party killer instead of a friend and colleague. It’s your job to put yourself in the position of each person on the team, and ask yourself if they’ll be comfortable and able to succeed in the environment you’re forcing them to operate in.

Yes, you’re FORCING them to do what you want. If you’re the person that decides if an employee stays or goes, you literally have the power to turn off their electricity, to pull their kids out of school, to have their car repossessed, to cause them emotional and social pain and shame. You think that someone is going to just speak up when they’re uncomfortable? Or are they going to keep their mouth shut, start looking for another job, and badmouth the poor management you’re providing?

I’ve seen a lot of instances of thoughtlessly cruel management, especially when travelling for work. I’ve seen blind people unable to attend work parties because dogs weren’t allowed in the door. I’ve seen people with severe animal allergies expected to work in small offices with service animals. I’ve seen a single down step into a restaurant prevent two people in wheelchairs from attending a party.

Let’s look at examples involving gender, disability, and ethnicity.

**The one where the manager doesn’t understand the reason for the disabled person’s request**

Say you’re a project manager. Your dev manager decides to send you to the big yearly conference for your tech. You book the rooms for your team, set up the reservations for dinner on two nights, and book 8 seats on flights. Then, the email from your team member who has a mobility disorder arrives. “Can I talk to the airline myself? I want to do an upgrade to first class.” GODDAMNIT, you think. I’ve been trying to get this person to be MORE a part of the team WHY DO THEY HAVE TO MAKE MY LIFE HARDER BY BEING A SNOB??

I’ve seen managers respond angrily to requests to have travel arrangements changed because they’re seeing that request through the eyes of someone working on team solidarity–or they’re simply cutting costs. Unfortunately, the state of air travel can be completely vicious  and much more expensive for someone with a disability, and often the fastest way to handle discomfort and ensure that there will be someone to help you is to do an airline upgrade. It may look classless to not want to sit with your team (pun intended), but it’s often a shortcut to take care of your own needs without being a pain in the ass for your manager. When you have a person on your team who you know has a disability, it’s often easy to think that you know best for them. Being visibly physically disabled absolutely means that people treat you as if you’re mentally or socially disabled as well. Don’t think you know better than someone who’s been managing their disability for years. Let them make their own choices and find a different way to accomplish your goals.

**The one where your workplace is diverse and your happy hour is monochrome**

You’re a new manager. You want to invite all your team out to pizza and beer and make it a regular thing. In a fairly common circumstance, you have 5 white men, 1 East Asian man, and one South Asian woman working for you. After three Friday happy hours, the woman has never come, the East Asian man came to the first one and not any following ones, and the 5 white men are regulars. Why do you think this is? Have you noticed that it’s happening?

To realize what is happening here, look at the socioeconomic factors on your team. I won’t say that it’s always the case, but for many women around the world and in the US, a job with clearly defined working hours is a blessing that lets them support a family and still spend time with them. I’m not just talking about children; there are many cultures that have a big emphasis on care for the aged, and given my experience managing, it’s generally women that bear the burden of that care. Now, you’re less likely to promote that woman because you don’t know them as well. Let’s not pretend that happy hour is totally unrelated to career success. Instead, think about how to make team socializing happen on the job. Can you do a team lunch potluck on Fridays? Potluck always helps, since people can be guaranteed of having something they can eat. Can you do a family-friendly picnic as an offsite some Monday or Saturday? There are better options than the unspoken requirement that even if you’re not getting paid for it, your ass shows up for happy hour or you don’t get promoted. That invisible power structure is a major barrier for the success of women and minorities of all kinds, and you can help open it up.

Your East Asian man may be lactose-intolerant (very common genetic difference) and unwilling to tell your whole team that pizza makes him ill. This is serious–who would want to tell their friends and colleagues that they don’t like their food? Ever thought about rotating the location of your happy hour to include lots of different experiences and restaurants? Not only does sharing new experiences make for a better team, it offers choices for people who may not want to tell you that your plan doesn’t work for them.

There are lots of reasons your team might be different at happy hour. Don’t pretend like it’s not your problem when your not-so-subtle power over your team is what creates burdens for people that don’t look like you.


The reason you’re being thoughtlessly cruel to your team is because you see situations through your eyes, not theirs. If they make a request that seems odd, don’t immediately deny it. Ask yourself why they might be making the request to begin with. If the women on your team never show up for happy hour, ask yourself what about the environment could make a woman uncomfortable. Not going to Hooters is an obvious choice, but a more subtle one might be that the social situation changes to one that is more sexually charged when the rest of your team gets tipsy.

It’s your responsibility to take care of your people. You have power, and whether intentionally or not, you’re using it. Use it to help, not hurt.

Developer at AtlasCamp apologizes to “all getting offended” by his sexist joke

**EDITED 17:44 Pacific 6/4/14** Saha develops for Atlassian, but does not work for them.

Today, Jonathan Doklovic, an Atlassian developer at Atlassian’s AtlasCamp in Berlin, Germany presented a talk that contained this slide:


Then, Marko Saha (Director, Agile Enterprise Solutions at Ambientia) tweeted it because he thought it was funny.

The tweet has gone viral. Atlassian’s CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes, has already responded with a blog post here:

On failing our values, our team, and our industry

There’s a problem. While the creator of the slide hasn’t responded, Marko Saha has responded by halfheartedly apologizing “to those offended”,

referring to the social media response to his sexist joke as a hassle,

claimed the slide was taken out of context,

And seems to be referring to the lack of consequences anyone faced as bullshit, because

Soooo, Atlassian? You’ve got a mess to clean up there. You might start by letting your dev know that this is inappropriate behavior BEFORE handling the PR in a situation like this. Second, Ambientia has a mess to clean up as well. The last thing Saha tweeted, an hour ago, was a list of literary insults.

How IT workers get conned out of an honest wage through secrecy

A friend recently asked me to pass along information about a job opening for a project manager position at a local tech company. It’s a vendor position, meaning that an agency would hire you full time, then loan you out to a tech company, such as Microsoft, Amazon, and Google, to work for them on-site. You’d be a full-time W-2 employee of the vendor agency rather than an employee of the tech company itself.

The tech company pays the agency an hourly rate, called the client bill rate. You, the worker, have your own hourly rate with the agency. Here’s the tricky part: the vendor agency is under no obligation to tell you how much their client bill rate is. If you’ve signed a nondisclosure agreement with your agency and the on-site company, you will have no idea what your time is actually worth.

In general, tech client bill rates are at least $70 an hour. A contractor on a 1099 would receive this full amount, and then pay their own employment taxes—perhaps 40% of the total—leaving them with $60/hour if their bill rate was $100 (which is a common amount for a web developer or designer of medium skills and 5 years’ experience). However, when contractor operates through a vendor agency, she becomes a vendor, and is instead paid a W-2 paycheck based not on her client bill rate, but on her hourly pay rate with the agency.

Think of it this way: a fair bill rate for a senior developer with specialized skills and experience might be $250/hour. Taking $75 an hour of that is a 30% charge and results in $175/hour for this highly-skilled worker who is now thrilled and happy with the agency. What actually happens most of the time is something like this: the agency tells the dev that they can only get $80 an hour for their skills and then they pocket the remaining $170 as a 68% charge. And individual recruiters are incentivized to maximize the difference between the client bill rate and the vendor hourly rate—because that’s where their commissions come in. Add to that the nondisclosure, and you should be realizing now in a way you never did before: if you are working for a vendor agency that does not disclose their client bill rate, you are not your recruiter’s client or partner. You’re their product.

Tech contracting is how the tech industry gets around labor laws. Now, because tech workers are paid so much, there is little public outrage on their behalf when labor laws are skirted, ignored, or outright violated. This is a problem. Tech contracting means that the tech company can work contractors for 80 hours a week or more with total impunity, so long as they pay the agency for the vendors’ time. Then the vendor agency merely pays whatever hourly wage they have settled on with the vendor. This system, which is manipulative in its own right, also sees many common abuses, such as having a limited amount of hours that you can work your contractors each week but asking them to do work off the books or off site to “make sure this contract stays open at renewal time,” or asking them to double their hours one week and work nothing the next, while being paid as if they were working a regular amount on a weekly basis.

To make matters worse, many major companies with brand-name recognition work with only a few “preferred vendor agencies,” meaning that to take a contract position at a major company and get a feather in your cap, you must agree to work for a preferred agency, and risk being in the dark about your true value to the company. My first position at a major brand-name tech company (and let’s put it this way: I live on the Eastside in the Seattle area) was as a lead web developer. This company had a great deal of money after laying off many full-time staff to replace them with contractors who do not have to be paid benefits. Many of the contractors had previously been full-time employees of the company in question. I cannot reveal my exact rate, but let us assume that I was paid between $40-$45/hour. I found out later that my time was being billed to the company at between $110-$140. It’s very common for people with no expertise in negotiation to take the first rate offered to them, leading to an even lower rate for women and minorities than they would have had—and this difference is exacerbated by the conspiracy of secrecy around their actual value. When told that they’re not worth a higher rate, the women and minorities tend to believe it and accept the amount offered—and while in full-time employment you could never tell someone that they’re not worth the amount they ask for, a vendor agency can do so with total impunity because they’re negotiating on behalf of two parties.

That is correct: your eyes do not deceive you. The company doing nothing more than signing my paperwork as a preferred vendor agency and passing along my employment taxes to the state (about $15 an hour, at my bill rate) was making two and a half times what I was. I received no benefits, no health care, no paid time off, and no overtime extra pay—only the money I was paid hourly.

Let’s add to this the fact that tech is actually a very small world, and the existence of blacklists for tech workers who have caused problems in their contracts is real. If you’re put on ‘the list’ at a major tech company, you can expect that other tech companies will refuse to consider you for employment. Similar to pursuing a discrimination suit at a major law firm—you can absolutely expect that you will never be hired to work for a large firm again. To stand up for yourself means to have only one option: to start your own firm and declare victory. There’s a good reason that top-level minority and female contractors leave high-paying contract gigs to build their own startups and companies. When you work on-site at a tech company but do not work FOR that tech company, any discrimination or harassment issues you may face are your tough luck. You don’t actually work FOR that company, so you can only sue your vendor agency if you have issues—and why would you do that? You weren’t harassed or discriminated against by your direct superior, so how do you prove a hostile work environment in a company you don’t technically work for?

Here’s the punchline: I never negotiated with the large tech company I worked for. In that first position, I was treated well, by people who themselves had no idea what my bill rate and hourly wage were. I had to negotiate with the vendor agency for my wages. As a result, the vendor agency was incentivized to lie to me with every breath (in fact, I signed paperwork saying that the vendor agency wasn’t obligated to be open with me about my bill rate, without necessarily understanding that this meant they could and would lie outright to me about my worth). I was told: “this is the way it is if you want that position at XXX Co.” I had no reason to doubt that, because I didn’t yet know of the existence of full disclosure vendor agencies.

Let’s be clear: vendor agencies serve a great purpose. In tech, investing in an employee is time-consuming and resource-intensive. If you become an employee at a tech company, it’s likely that they see a future for you there with multiple roles and an upward trajectory. However, there are a lot of positions in major tech companies that are by their nature temporary. If you have a project that must be executed in Python to work with one of your company’s client’s interfaces, and your company only has a bench full of C++ programmers, you have a short-term job that means you should hire a contractor. Think of it this way: you don’t invite the people who remodel your kitchen to stick around in case you need them again in a few years. They possess a specialized skill that you need on a temporary basis, and you pay them well to come in, do their job, and leave when they’re done, without any feeling of long-term obligation to them.

To extend the analogy, however, imagine that you have hired a construction firm that sends a three-person crew to your house, and you discover that though you are paying the company for the hours spent by that crew in your home at the rate of $60/hour per person, each of the workers themselves only make $11/hour—the minimum wage in the state of Washington. Worse, they have no idea how much you are paying for their time, can be fired for asking, and cannot share their information with any of their colleagues.

All of a sudden, your conscience starts to twinge. Why is it that the best construction business in town won’t share its rates with its own employees? Why not be honest about what you are paying for these services? It doesn’t change the amount itself. All it does is empower the worker to choose an agency that treats them with respect and transparency.

This is why I do not pass along information on jobs from vendor and contracting agencies that will not disclose their client bill rate. If you’re a vendor agency, it is understandable and appropriate to charge anywhere between 15-40% of the client bill rate for your services. After all, you’re handling employment taxes, W-2s, accounting, paperwork, direct deposit, and possibly benefits as desired. You should be making a good profit on your service to both parties. Taking 85% of the client bill rate and leaving scraps for the actual worker, all the while hiding behind a non-disclosure agreement, is simply morally indefensible.

You should refuse to work for agencies that do not disclose, and I pledge now that if I am in a position to engage a contract or vendor agency to fill open positions for my company, I will not work with one that does not disclose my rate to their developers.

Look, it’s easy to lack sympathy for people who make sixty bucks an hour sitting in a chair. Realize, however, that these folks work hard, many have student loans that they took out to get their specialized training, and even more have families they support. Just because the amount of money they make is more than a construction worker does not mean they’re not facing the same kind, if not degree, of injustice.

If this article makes you angry (and I hope it does), please use the comments section to make your own pledge about refusing to hire vendor or contract agencies who use NDAs.

I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors: the perfect go-away email.

Stop feeling bad for telling people that they’re wasting your time. I don’t mean Radical Honesty; that’s a great concept, but not very helpful in business and technology. Instead, when people email you with a request for your time, and aren’t capable of clearly articulating why they want to talk to you in person or on the phone, make them choose between being clear and leaving you alone.

New people often want to talk to someone in person about Hack The People, our mentoring in tech initiative.  They may have questions, want to share their stories, have administrative questions, or want to form a group in their area. Every so often, someone emails one of our coordinators with a request to talk in person or on the phone rather than simply saying why they’re contacting us. We’re still a small group with only two dozen or so part-time staff, organizers, and directors. We ask why a person is emailing so we can direct them to the correct local HTP group, handle a media request (which should be clearly marked MEDIA REQUEST in the subject line, btw), or get them signed up as a local organizer. We cannot help you if you don’t have a question to ask.

This happens to me a lot for Fizzmint as well. People email me and ask for my time without being able to clearly articulate why they want to talk to me. Often, it’s specifically because they want to get me on the phone to sell me something, or $DEITY help them, they want to try to recruit me to a junior Ruby contract dev gig in Austin. Even more often, it’s because outsiders to tech and very junior people feel very uncomfortable clearly stating what they want and need from me. They want to spend fifteen minutes over coffee or on the phone feeling me out and seeing if I’m sympathetic enough to help them. I’m more likely to be able and willing to help if they’re clear and efficient in their communications.

Here is my first reply: “Can you please email me your questions? I’ll see what I can do to help.”

If they double down on the request for personal time, still without telling me why, here is my second reply: “I’m sorry, it seems like you’re not able to tell me why it is that you want to meet with me. I’m happy to answer any specific emailed questions you have, and I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors. Thanks!”

If you get still another request for your time from someone after sending that email, you can feel free to ignore it/trash it. They’re clearly not able to socially understand that they’re wasting your time. Alternately, if they do clearly tell you what they need and you want to continue the conversation, you can.

Your time is valuable. It’s truly the only thing you possess, and people will eat it like Cheetos if you’re not careful. Being clear with people in email and in all communications is a courtesy to you, and one you and everyone else deserves. Insist on it, and practice it yourself.

My last name is correct, and your DB validation is stupid.

My name is Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack. My name matters, and no, you cannot just leave some of it out if you don’t feel like using all of it, spelling part of it wrong, or if your system doesn’t handle names as long as mine. I have the same number of letters and one syllable less in my name than Hillary Rodham Clinton. She doesn’t hyphenate either.

I added my husband’s name onto mine when I got married. I didn’t change my name or hyphenate–first, because I didn’t bloody well feel like it, second, because hyphenation can change search results and destroy SEO, and third, because hyphenation can indicate spamminess when found in URLs–like those that would have made up my name.

Last year, San Diego Comicon’s registration system couldn’t process
names with hyphens, special punctuation, or spaces.
I joined my voice to those saying that if there had been even one single woman on the SDCC tech team or handling the database, the thought would have been raised that perchance, just possibly, women might also want to come to Comicon, and that they sometimes have hyphens and spaces in their last names.

Recently, I switched over my personal email and site from to I wasn’t really sure what to do about that. My name isn’t just Tarah Wheeler anymore, but DAMN, would have been one hellacious email address. Liz Dahlstrom, my co-founder and business partner, was talking to me one day, and I was hemming over trying to get a new email address. Just my first name is already taken. She said, “Why don’t you get TheTarah.Com? It’s short, easy to remember, and no one will misspell it.” Twelve or thirteen minutes later,
I was switching the MX records over on Such a short email address–you have to love it.

We talk about branding as a woman in technology, and I do worry about search results. There’s a more serious problem, however. As of right now, Enterprise Car Rentals, Bank Of America, Bellevue College, the US government’s student loans processing, Puget Sound Energy (my power bill), the Oregon and Washington Secretary of State’s office (my company tax and registrations), my health care provider, Verizon, and many other major service providers that I have no choice but to do business with simply do not allow for spaces or punctuation in names. I am not usually one to pitch a fit over something that seems to be small, and there are matters in the world that are greater and more important than validity checking in SQL. Still, in so many places on the Internet, I don’t get to use my name. Every time I have to edit or change my name because someone didn’t think about the fact that women have to
have multiple names is another time that I have to track or elide or alter my online identity.

UPDATE: Fourteen hours after I originally posted this, I went to order a new debit card. AAARRGHH. Click on the image below to embiggen. I have to go into a branch now; I cannot order a card online.

Bank of America   Alaska Airlines® Debit Card   Your Information

This isn’t just a female problem; people with apostrophes and commas in their names all have this problem. I have it extra because I also have a
Dutch last name. Maybe it just seems a little more unfair because so many people say, “I’ll just put down Tarah Wheeler” when I tell them my whole name. I say “No, my full name is Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack, and you’ll put my full name down,” but there’s only so much bitchiness that even I can contain and exude in one day, and I shouldn’t have to do so to defend my name. I also shouldn’t have to call it ‘bitchiness’, but that’s basically what it feels like. It’s the same thing that happened to Quvenzhané Wallis at the Oscars, when she was instantly dubbed “Little Q” rather than being given the respect of being called her name. Having your name taken away from you is enraging, dismissive, and is an assertion that you have less power than the person to whom you’re speaking. This isn’t something that often happens to men. It happens to me about once every three phone conversations.

Imagine “Benjamin Frederickson” on
the phone with Comcast and scheduling a repair visit. He’s asked to give his name and number. “Wow, buddy, that’s a hell of a long name. I’ll just put down Ben Freds for the repairman to call.” Benjamin Frederickson has the same number of letters and one more syllable in his name than I do, but doesn’t this seem like an absurdity to you? Like something that simply doesn’t happen? In fact, I just went and Googled Benjamin Frederickson to entertain myself. Turns out, there actually is a Benjamin Fredrickson (one fewer ‘e’). I think I’m going to ping him to see what he has to say about this.

The internet is my home, and I do not like feeling like an unwelcome guest. At each site I visit where I must change my name or squish it down or lose my capitalizations or remove the spaces or–and for some reason this really jerks my chain–when I see that hyphens are automatically added in where I have put in spaces, I wonder who carelessly thought that no one would need to enter a name in that wasn’t a
heteronormative single capitalized word. One day, I am going to have zero problems adding my full name on a car rental or government website. I am going to go to the About Us page, and I am going to see that the database engineer’s name is Ms. Destinnee Chang-O’Driscoll. Then, I am going to paste a giant grin on my face, take a selfie, email it to that woman, and thank her for kicking ass at SQL.

Look, the way it works is this. I am identified by several names. My first name is me. My second name is my dad. My third name is my husband. I live in a world where this is the way it works. I love my dad, I love my husband, and I love me. I am fine with my name, I made my choices, and I’m not going to engage in a giant war to have us all get a UUID. I have a better war to fight. I do, however, want you to permit me to spell my name the right way in your first and last names fields on your website. Show some respect, and stop taking my name away from me.

PyCon Code Of Conduct Warning Cards

Hey, folks. You all might be seeing the giant mess that is coming out of the firing of several people over two jokes at PyCon 2013 this year. I’m Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack, and I and my colleague Liz Dahlstrom were there. We had a great time this year, and will certainly be at Montreal next year. (Some of you may know that I and Liz are co-founders of LadyCoders; we’re not wearing that hat right now and we’re not writing on that site. We’re just two devs who have some thoughts on this topic)

I’ll try to relate the facts as dryly as possible: Adria Richards, a developer evangelist at SendGrid with more than 10,000 Twitter followers, overheard two PlayHaven devs speaking behind her at a large speaking panel at PyCon in Santa Clara
last weekend, and took offense to their language, which by their later admission was in violation of the PyCon code of conduct. Adria turned around and took pictures of the two men and posted them on Twitter, with a comment about the sexual nature of their conversation. The men (Alex Reid and supposedly Hacker News handle mr-hank) were publicly outed. mr-hank, who says he is a father of three, lost his job. Richards wrote a post explaining her side, and so did the man who lost his job. There’s an excellent post up at Ars Technica that also tells the tale.

As the Internet does upon occasion, it lost its $#1%. Richards was just fired from SendGrid; arguably she can no longer function in her role in developer relations, and
her site has been DDOSed. mr-hank has been fired from his job at PlayHaven, and a petition is now up asking for his reinstatement.

Liz and I were also at Defcon last year, and will be this year. In fact, we’re writing up our speaker proposals now. How many of you remember these?

rugby cards

Liz and I have been talking about the situation. We’re wondering–how can we give people who become uncomfortable at PyCon more options? How much of this problem could have been fixed if Richards had had some way to tell these guys that what they were doing was making her feel uncomfortable without having to confront them? I can tell you now that at Defcon, when I saw a woman pull out a red card and show it to someone,
every single person’s attention instantly fixed on that situation. A quiet apology was issued, the (now) gentleman exited the room, chastened, and having learned not to talk about his manparts loudly and drunkenly, and in front of someone who didn’t want to hear it. 99.9% of the time, we are just socially clueless nerds. I have been known to tell some truly appallingly clueless jokes, and I actually got yellow carded last year at Defcon. I’m serious. If we had a way to make our wishes known while taking most of the confrontation out of the situation, I think that the convention would be a much happier and more comfortable place for everyone.

We don’t want to see PyCon ruined for everyone. It is one of the most overall open and friendly environments in tech that either of us has attended, and we’d like it to stay that way. We don’t want silence to begin as soon as a woman enters the room because everyone there is afraid of public shaming and losing their job. We also don’t want women to be
afraid to speak up because of the nastiness that has ensued over the last few days.

So, Liz and I are going to carry on the work of KC from Defcon. Read more about this amazing woman: The Red/Yellow Card Project.

See these three cards? We just mocked them up. We want to put them in the swag bags next year at PyCon 2014 Montreal. All please note that we will ask for Diana’s ok (Diana is next year’s PyCon chair) on the wording. We think it’s ok, but we’ll check to make sure that it doesn’t give anyone legal hiccups before we send them to the printers.




We want to make this convention better, and without a tool to help us communicate with tact and clarity, we think the confusion will continue. If you’d like to help us out with printing costs, you can donate to the paypal account below. We’d like to put these cards in swag bags for everyone.


Look, we were playing Cards Against Humanity in that exact same game that Adria was playing in. We had a great time. This was in the
hotel, away from the con, and nowhere near where the Code of Conduct applied, but even there we would have respected anyone’s wishes to be quieter, kinder, or chill out if someone had been unhappy. There’s no joy in making other people uncomfortable or unhappy. All most nerds need is to know that what they’re doing is inappropriate, and they’ll stop.

Twitter   tarah   dirnonline  kennethlove ...

We’re all really inappropriate people. Let’s make an easy way to tell each other when it happens.

The Best Way To Deal With Piracy

I have personally uploaded my technical interviews DVD and booklet to help women prepare for technical interviews here, at Demonoid. I’d rather have people listen than not, and I realized that when it comes to piracy, there are two possible outcomes: either my video is pirated because someone likes it, or no one pirates it because no one knows about it. In the first case, I’d rather have my letter to torrenters included, as well as a good quality MPEG rip and the full PDF of the 40 page accompanying booklet. In the latter case, I’m not making any money off the DVD sales anyway.

So, I decided to release it myself. This way, I can directly speak to torrenters and ask that if they like the DVD, to tell me why they didn’t buy it. I guaranteed them that I would never ever personally go after them for copyright infringement, and in fact, to please spread it far and wide. I offered
the steepest discount codes I could in the torrent so that if people DO want to buy it but price is a bar, I get that information too. Here’s the letter:




My name is Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack, and if you’re reading this now, it’s because I haven’t created the right kind of value to get you to buy my DVD and booklet online instead of downloading it from Isohunt or Pirate Bay or Demonoid or wherever.

You can find my DVD/booklet product at I made this video to help women get jobs in technical fields; women are TERRIBLE at negotiating with and interviewing for men. I want to show the ladies how to communicate well with their future bosses, and I think that as a senior coder and experienced development manager that I have a lot to offer them.

nI had a lot of fun and a lot of pain making this video. It’s been several months since the day I shot this video, since it takes quite a while to write a good booklet and have editing done. I spent over $1600 of my own money just on the video shoot; I paid the folks you see in the credits to help me make a great product. We worked on that day for 16 hours straight to get me made up (high definition powder itches fiercely, people), get the video shot with retakes and scene changes, and lighting changes. I brought in some of my good friends and a few people I hadn’t met before to help me. Then, I spent several months getting the booklet written, the video edited with music, and marketing campaigns developed. I do my own web development; is all me including backend work and analytics on the site.

Between you and me, there’s a solid reason I know where to post this DVD and booklet packet online. I know where the torrents live, because I’ve
been there a time or two myself 😉

I like to think that I contribute to authors and content creators as directly as possible. I have a moral code that doesn’t let me go jack Wil Wheaton’s books from Demonoid, because he directly publishes them and gets paid directly. I donate directly to Hijinks Ensue; that’s a badass web comic and Joel Watson makes me laugh every day. I get a little fuzzier on whether I think that giant studios who have already paid off the talent who made their movies should continue to get paid years later through residual royalties, even though all the people who worked hard on their product are long since gone. I really get cranky when operas that were written by Mozart and recorded fifty years ago by the London Symphony Orchestra still cost $200 because someone bought the back catalog.

I am personally releasing this DVD and booklet to the torrent sites. I have a whole new perspective on my work being used and
enjoyed without any compensation coming my way, but I also know that it’s better to be heard than ignored. I think that the people who feel the way I do about content creators will pay for this DVD and booklet, knowing that I’ve done the best I can to make a great product to help women get technical jobs. I think that there are people out there who would never pay anyway for my work, and though I disagree with you, I still want you to hear what I have to say.

Finally, as your reward for reading this, I want you to know that I will never, ever personally pursue anyone who torrents this (though I’ll ask you to keep these files intact, including this message). In fact, I am going to occasionally offer coupon codes for you. Right now, you can go use the code “LIVEFREEORDIE” on my site to get a 60% discount on my DVD set. I’ll release 20 or so of these codes at a time; I can’t afford to cut more than that off the price, or it doesn’t pay me to produce and ship the materials.

I want to know why you didn’t buy this DVD and booklet; please go to my site and give me some comments. You can consider that your payment if you cannot help me out any other way. Or, tweet or Facebook me. That helps me…not as much as cash, but you would be giving me a hand.!/techinthelp Hashtag: #TechIntHelp

I look forward to hearing from you, and I wish you the best of luck in your interviews!

Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack



It’s more important for women to hear what I have to say than it is for me to go after people who can turn into my fans when
I publish future books and study materials.

One woman’s continuing mission to make you love Star Trek, too.

I recently attended the Seattle Symphony’s ‘Scifi at the Pops‘, a collection of great science fiction scores and themes. I bought a ticket even before I knew that Jonathan Frakes would be directing. I was thrilled to find out, of course; I had the hugest crush on Commander Riker when I was thirteen, just like every self-respecting girl. Oh. Wait. Weren’t all the other girls in love with someone called Johnny Dupe, or something? (Don’t ask about the life-size Captain Picard cardboard cutout at my 15th birthday party…wearing a floral hat)

I listened with pleasure to the Superman theme, to some music from Avatar, and heard some great stuff from Battlestar Galactica. All excellent shows.

Then, after a long day of dealing with the unfairness of life, I heard Jonathan Frakes conduct the original
Alexander Courage theme to Star Trek, and I burst into tears.

Life isn’t fair, and we know it. People die of misunderstandings based around the color of their skin, the garments they’re wearing, the message they’re sending. In the name of business, we fail to promote hard working people because their skin color or gender or sexual preferences “might not contribute to team fit and cohesiveness.” Those born to privilege misuse it while those born to poverty rage against the machine that grinds them.

But there is still hope, as Arwen likes to breathe elfinly at us. In a country with the most volunteers in the world by far (56% of us volunteer regularly, and we volunteer 3.5 hours a week on average), we have a nation of people who are generally aware of social discord and inequality, and work genuinely to improve ourselves and our neighbors. Change will come from here, and it will come from our example, both good and bad.

nSimply seeing a world on screen where a person’s competence isn’t judged by the number of probosces and ocular implants they may possess–much less anything so irrelevant as skin color and secondary sexual characteristics–gives us hope. In that symphony audience of bluehairs, I may have been the only person who grew up in the world that Star Trek improved upon by its existence.

Not only does Star Trek itself inspire us, but the actors who participated in it serve as fine examples of people and artists. Frakes is an excellent musician as anyone who’s heard him play the trombone knows. Wil Wheaton‘s volunteer work for Child’s Play and mentorship to the gamer community make him a genuinely decent human as well as a terribly funny writer. John DeLancie is an innovative opera director, and I don’t need to tell you about Sir Patrick Stewart’s and Robert Picardo’s acting chops both on- and off-stage. George
Takei may be the best example of all; his perpetually humorous messages of tolerance to the fan community and his leadership in social media communications for LGBT teens add to all our lives. I am so Takei for him. Plus, that brokering of Star Peace is one of the most priceless moments in sci-fi fandom history.

**** Trek, **** Wars, Battle**** Galactica, ****blazers, **** Cops, ****gate. It doesn’t matter which Star show you love the best; they all show us something about our future. I choose to believe that some serve as a warning, and some serve as a goal. I want to live in a world where universal ethics about the value and quality of human life trump individual morality while still respecting it. I want to be evaluated on my performance, not my appearance. Finally, I want to live in a world where great achievement is rewarded not with security, but with
even greater responsibility.  Sign me up for the world where we live long and prosper.

PS: It’s The Next Generation, in case you were wondering. Argue if you want, but I will stomp on you.

SDCC Just Didn’t Think About The Ladies This Time.

I normally never critique a company for not hiring female devs or DBAs; I tend to think it’s the responsibility of women to be good enough to deserve employment. This time, however, I think it’s quite appropriate for a system that seriously screwed with women who have two last names after marriage.

I’ll start by saying I got my San Diego Comic-Con badges just fine. Two 4-day with preview night badges successfully purchased for myself and my husband…but it nearly didn’t happen, and it certainly didn’t happen because I followed instructions.

You may all remember the giant cluster that was last year’s registration process. Comic-Con spent an extra five months trying to fix their problems concerning server balancing and site overload. They set up a system using preregistration for member IDs that had to be verified in advance. I applaud the effort; it seems that with a few hitches, this year went much better than last. There were two
serious issues, however.

In a predictable moment, the link included in the Comic-Con registration email (, for all of you who maniacally clicked it hundreds of time) went down due to tracking on the URL from the email. Their tracking and analytics system was their bottleneck. As a dev, I had some advantage here, since I expected that to happen and had already set up two machines in front of me with two different browsers and the link pasted into the address bar ready to hit ‘enter’. I popped in at #1906 in line on my main box in FF and #3222 on my netbook in Chrome.

Turns out that in a moment of epic (pun intended, as Epic Registration is the in-use system) failure, San Diego Comic-Con Member IDs created by people with spaces or punctuation in their names were utterly useless. In the badge registration email, I was told to register with the last name of VLACK, though my last name is Wheeler
Van Vlack. After VLACK didn’t work, I tried WHEELER VAN VLACK and was deeply fortunate that it worked. Chelsey St. Juniors has a space and period in her last name, and missed out on her badges entirely, since the information in her badge registration email was incorrect.

Others complaining on Facebook say that people with a space in their last names have not received confirmation emails. One woman’s comment (Lisa Wong Rodriguez, if I remember correctly) concerning her Member ID and last name not working has been deleted.

People on the Comic-Con International’s Facebook page who are commenting on this issue are being deleted, or so they claim. In a bit of investigative journalism, I’ve posted a comment there as well and already received a response. Far from deleting my comment, Comic-Con has acknowledged that they screwed up people with multiple last names. Still, note Tina’s comment at the bottom.

I want to congratulate Comic-Con for acknowledging their fault, but really–how many men have two last names like these women do? I’ll pay Comic-Con the compliment of assuming there were no talented female devs or DBAs available to do a quick smoke test for stupid.



Comic-Con has responded to my post on Facebook, and they say that the system was broken for all
people who had strange last names with any spaces or punctuation. I absolutely agree: their system was broken. They assert that because men sometimes have spaces and punctuation in their last names (Sr., Jr., etc), that they were affected too; I heartily concur. I never said that this was a deliberate attempt to keep women out of Comic-Con; what I said was that hiring a woman to look over the system might have prevented this problem. Women were, I think, disproportionately affected by this error–and I’m open to refutation on this point. I think that, proportionately, there were more women with multiple or hyphenated last names who didn’t get their badges than men who have a Sr. or Jr. tacked-on.