Ladies, you’re not the chief-cook-and-bottlewasher. You’re the damn CEO.

Why are women so uncomfortable at acknowledging that they have power and authority?

I went to Founder Friday on the 15th of November here in Seattle. It’s an event put on in multiple cities by the amazing people at Women 2.0. The goal is to network women in technology by creating a friendly space and relaxed atmosphere with notable speakers. The amazing Mary Jesse, CEO of Ivytalk, and inspiring Nadia Mahmud, co-founder of Jolkona Foundation, were the keynote speakers.

It was a networking event, so I clutched my better-than-usual-grade Riesling (thanks for the hospitality, Facebook Seattle!) and started the business-card-shuffle in the pregaming part of the evening. There were maybe 25 women there.

“Hi! I’m Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack, and I’m the CEO of Fizzmint, an HR automation company. What do you do?”

“I am part of a cool startup that does X.”

“Oh really?” I say. “What do you do there?”

She blushes. “I do the business stuff. My co-founder, he does all the technical stuff.”

“Wow, that’s awesome! What do you call yourself there?”

“Sorry,” she says. “I’m just the chief cook and bottlewasher. My co-founder, he’s an awesome CTO.”

You have a technical co-founder, and you handle all the business, marketing, hiring, and tax matters. What the devil do you THINK your title is, woman??

I move on to the next person, thinking that this might be an aberration. It’s really, really not. Out of 25 women at the event, I met two people who had the audacity to put a CXO title on their business cards. Yet, every one of them was a co-founder of an up-and-coming startup.

We know the insidious, vicious effects of impostor syndrome. I won’t pretend that I don’t feel the impulse to soften my speech, to not intimidate the people to whom I’m speaking every once in a while. When you do an image search for “CEO” on Google, the first seventy images have only 3 women in them–and one of them is CEO Barbie.

However, if you’re creating a startup, and you’re handling the business end of your company, have the respect for yourself and your employees to call yourself the CEO. No one starts out as a CEO. It’s an unnatural job title. You still have to learn. I am the CEO of a 9-person startup, and I am constantly learning. I am never NOT taking a class to improve my communication, to better my listening, to increase my business financial savvy, and to add to my human resources skills. It’s uncomfortable–even unpleasant–to grow personally and emotionally this rapidly. I am in a class now that is intended to improve my listening skills, not only for Fizzmint, but also for Hack The People, the mentoring charity that I and my CTO Liz Dahlstrom co-founded. I have a wonderful coach who is working with me on how to handle the very different style of communication that men in business use from my usual compatriots in the hacking world.

Did you think you could become a CEO without acknowledging that you are imperfect? That you would simply start out by looking and acting like a CEO? Don’t make me laugh. The job of CEO is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and it means confronting my own weaknesses every day. CEOs are made, not born. You can be the CEO of your startup, but it means acknowledging your weaknesses, and it means acting to compensate for them or eliminate them. You already have the responsibility for your people, whether your “people” are your family, or your employees.

Don’t push your authority and power away. It doesn’t “soften your image.” It makes you powerless and ineffectual. Have the respect for the people you lead, like it or not, by accepting that they trust you, and that it is your obligation and joy to learn as much as you can to serve them as best you can.

How to negotiate your salary as a woman in tech

Women have a very difficult time negotiating salary. We are trained to be nonconfrontational, to paste a smile on our faces, and to be grateful for what we are given. This is not the most effective tack to take when trying to increase your compensation. There is no way to convince you that you will not immediately be tossed out of the applicant pile for negotiating a better salary. You must experience for yourself the respect garnered by insisting on the maximum possible compensation in order to truly believe me.

I am not generally considered the most pliable of women, and though I can be very direct and confrontational in negotiations, I have never been thrown out of a salary negotiation before. I have had companies which were unable to meet my price, but never any that simply refused to negotiate with me. I’ve gotten much better salaries and far more respect by understanding that whether salaries are labeled as ‘negotiable’ or not, men will negotiate them, and I had better do the same. This is Minute-Zero in the gender pay gap; this is the single place that women can improve their economic condition most of all.

It does not matter if an F500 company is offering me 10% equity and a salary that makes Steve Jobs roll over in his grave (may he rest in peace). I have never in my life opened a salary negotiation by saying “Yes, that sounds like a reasonable number.” Instead, I have a phrase I repeat ad infinitum, ad nauseam, and it would behoove you to memorize it until you can parrot it to the pursestring-holder with whom you will be negotiating. “That is a lower number than I was expecting to hear, but at least it provides a baseline from which we can negotiate. I assume that your offer will also include benefits as well as stock grants or options of some kind?”

Just repeat that exact phrase after they give you the first offer–and make no mistake, they are making you an offer that they expect you to counter. If you do not, they will believe that they offered too much, or that you had no other options. Both those statements may be true, but you should never admit it. Do not get cute with your salary negotiator. This is not the time to use excuses, to plead or flirt, or to describe your personal situation in great detail (“I need onsite daycare”). You will be in a much better position to negotiate that after you have a salaried position with the company.

I cannot emphasize this enough: the men with whom you will be working do not need to like you, and the person with whom you negotiate your salary should breathe a sigh of bewildered relief after they are done speaking with you. If I can be permitted to lapse into stereotyping, men are often very good at working well both for and with people that they do not like–so long as there is mutual respect. Women sometimes have a hard time with this, and if you want to work well with the men in your workplace, you must learn that respect, not friendship, is the coin in which your colleagues will trade.

This means that you should think about this negotiation as the reverse of a used car purchase.

  3. Have a number below which you will not accept the position.
  4. If the negotiator accepts your number too quickly, you did not ask for enough. Add 10% to the amount for which you will ask initially, as it is too late to ask after you have given your first number.
  5. If the negotiator must continue to talk to someone else to get approval on your demands, either they are using a very effective negotiating tactic (“Someone who does not know or like you must make this decision, not I.”) or you are not speaking to the person with whom you should actually be having the conversation.
  6. A baseline from the company which is too high for the position means that you do not know everything about the position for which you are being wooed.
  7. Be willing to accept addons which are able to be negotiated in place of those which are not, i.e. stock grants or flextime to tempt you in place of a too-low salary set by company policy and not your hiring manager.
  9. Neither of you should be happy with the final number. If one of you is thrilled–and you will be able to tell if you are bargaining hard enough quite easily if you treat it as a purchase–then you are either being paid too much (Were they honest about the unpaid overtime?) or too little (You are that woman who is being paid 78 cents on the male dollar. Do not be her.) for the job you will be performing.
  10. Ensure that you understand the fine details about the expectations in relation to the salary and benefits. A telecommuting benefit does not appear quite as appealing when you realize you will have to personally purchase a work cell phone, work laptop, networking equipment, an additional router, company-approved security equipment, and possibly an entire home office in order to take advantage of the option. A wonderful salary may hide a poor 401k employer matching benefit, or expectations (common at most tech firms, regardless of what they tell you up front) that you will be on call for your job 24/7. That last is particularly endemic to we web developers and all of you poor, martyred database administrators. I have been unofficial tier IV support for several websites for which I was the lead developer–and that is not something they tell you when showing you the vegan options in the company cafeteria.

If you want to ask specific questions, do so in the comments below. Leave your best tricks and tips too!

Portions adapted from “Technical Interviews for Technical Women,” © 2011 Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack

Give thanks for open source software developers

They make the world go round.

Open source developers and plugin devs are the people that make small technical businesses possible. They’re the folks who spend their time working hard to make obscure pieces of software that most of us will never see into something that is beautiful and usable. Without the major CMSes, many startups would have no way to get a company up and running rapidly.

Today, I will thank three of them by name.

Joost de Valk and his team make Clicky By Yoast, a spectacular plugin for WordPress that absolutely kills on analytics. He’s a major WordPress core developer as well; I am deeply grateful for his work. His analytics have contributed time and again to how I run my site. Thanks, Joost!

Jonathan Riddell is the lead dev for
Kubuntu, the fork of Ubuntu that uses KDE for a native desktop environment. I owe much of my daily happiness to this person; Kubuntu is easy to use, stupid simple to configure, and requires little to no knowledge of Linux for a n00b, while being configurable enough to entertain someone like me. All I’ve done is write a plasmoid or two; Jonathan, I seriously raise my glass to you. Thank you for your hard work and devotion to this project.

The Sarahs: Sarah Mei and Sarah Allen are the two women who started RailsBridge. OSS is notoriously short of women developers, and these women have not only pushed major Ruby work, they’ve also single [double?] handedly increased the number of women at OSS conferences. Thanks for being inspirational as well as technical, ladies.

go eat some of that tasty Thanksgiving turkey!

Help me mentor women in technology.

A few months ago, I teamed up with two other ladies from the Seattle area, and we formed LadyCoders, an initiative to mentor women in technology. We’re focused on helping women survive interviews; if you’re a reader of mine, you know that this is a particular passion of mine. We are going to try to put on and film a seminar in October to help 40 local women learn how to convert their skills into a career, and we need your help to do it.

Please, see the LadyCoders: Get Hired Seattle 2012 project on Kickstarter.

Women need training in how to communicate well in interviews. They need to learn to self-promote, to run projects, to take credit where credit is due, and we can help.

As for me, I have an RNG to write; we’re asking for help sponsoring women to the seminar, and I get to randomly assign financial assistance to those who request it. I’m
thinking a Mersenne twister.

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.

Why Gossip Girl needs better faux techspeak.

It’s been my experience that when TV shows and movies get software development and web development wrong, they get it REALLY wrong.

A week ago, I rewatched The Dark Knight with two of my gaming buddies, both of whom are skilled developers. While we loved the movie, popcorn was thrown when Christian Bale rasped that a certain database was null-key encrypted. NKE is total fiction. It turns “Hello World” into “Hello World”, in case you were wondering. At least in the movies, they bother to invent some techno-jargon.

Now for the painful admission: I watch Gossip Girl. It is a vapid soap opera that I positively adore, and part of the major season story arc is the loss of control over the Gossip Girl website by the original (anonymous) owner, voiced by Kristen Bell of Veronica Mars fame. [See? I have legitimate geeky reasons for watching GG!] Any developer can see that there’s some sort of CMS that is used to post information; it’s likely the TV equivalent of WordPress. In a moment of brainmeat-deadness, Serena is IMed by Gossip Girl, and asked to return “the password to my site.”

Now, this is totally imbecilic on several fronts. First, if you’re the person who set up the CMS, you have administrator rights on an account that is different than your posting account. All GG would have to do is login using the alternate CMS admin account and change the password herself. Second, if she’s lost the admin account, she can tunnel to the server and change the authentication for any account through either the MySQL (or whatever DB) admin prompt or PHPMyAdmin if you’re as lazy as me. Third, if she’s the one who set up the
site, all she has to do is nuke the site at the server level after copying or exporting the DB and template files, and rebuild it (or talk to the hosting company). Fourth, and the worst-case scenario, if her hosting account or cloud server itself has been hacked, she can simply build another server and redirect the DNS to that location. In none of these cases does she ever lose control of the URL itself.

I am irritated here because I see Gossip Girl as a show that is primarily targeted to women and young people; I know I’m stirring up a tempest in a teapot, but I would like to see the same level of effort put in to creating fake technobabble in shows directed at young women as when they’re pointed towards a male demographic. I guess that may be unreasonable, but the truth is that we all absorb messages from pop culture, and the lack of care taken in shows like these betray a feeling amongst the show writers that no femmes would notice the difference anyway.

Well, I did. So there.

To Gossip Girl; I can hook a sister up with RSA-encryption and a 4096-bit key. That would keep nosy socialites out of your site. Also, more Bass, please.

XOXO, Cowgirl Coder.

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.

Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack to speak at Seattle Central Community College, Jan 18th, 3-5PM

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I’ll be speaking as a joint guest of the Ignite program through Seattle Public Schools and the IT department at SCCC.

People of all ages who want to know more about becoming a female programmer and entering technical careers are welcome to attend; I’ll be speaking on interview techniques, what to expect from your colleagues, how to succeed, and the rewards of software and web development compared to many traditional women’s career paths.

Please let your friends and mentees know; I am looking forward to answering your questions and giving you the insider information you need to succeed!

Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack, 
the Cowgirl Coder, to speak at SCCC 01/18/12 3-5PM
Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack, the Cowgirl Coder, to speak at SCCC 01/18/12 3-5PM

What is it like to be a freelance web developer?

I want to take a moment away from my usual howtos and commentary to offer some encouragement and etiquette tips for my fellow web developers, especially the ladies starting out.

Doing freelance work with the occasional longer contract is difficult to break into, requires a thick skin, and demands careful reputation-gardening. Before I reached the point where I was getting contract requests and recruiter emails on a daily basis, work was thin on the ground. I did IC (individual contributor) work, and it’s taken a lot of time and effort to reach the systems architect and senior management positions for which I am now being recruited.

I maintained three principles which I use every day, especially when I have to deal with aggressive recruiters, tight-lipped company reps, and the inevitable professional relationship snafus.

(1) Say something nice about someone every day.

In late 2009, I had a tough personal situation to deal
with, and after it was over, I knew I could react one of two ways. I could be angry and sour to anyone who asked, with the excuse that I was having a tough time, or I could find a way to turn the situation into personal development. I started looking over my friends list on Facebook, and made a point to say something nice about a friend every day. It got me back in contact with people I hadn’t talked to in quite a while, provided encouragement, and sparked memories. Likewise, when I’m dealing with professional issues, I write recommendations for my colleagues on LinkedIn. Many people I know work extremely hard without a great deal of positive reinforcement or top-down encouragement due to the nature of contracting and freelancing. No one ever tells them that they have serious skills, that they’re a pleasure to work with, and that you’re glad to have them on your IM contacts list for sticky coding questions. Nearly every company has a policy of never giving any feedback whatsoever on performance to anyone
who’s not an FTE–this is to avoid legal issues. That’s good for the legal department, but doesn’t provide much in the way of constructive criticism for personal growth and improvement in skills. This is my way of helping others with this problem. Say nice things about your colleagues and professional contacts; it draws you together and provides opportunities to turn sometimes difficult situations into networking goldmines.

(2) Be courteous to recruiters, but do not let them run your life.

I am deluged with emails from recruiters on a daily basis. This is the very definition of a high-class problem; I am quite aware. Still, imagine getting a variant on this email about five times a day:

“Hi! My name is XXXX, and I am from XXXX Consulting, Inc. I came across your resume, and believe that you may be absolutely perfect for this (.NET, C#, Java, OSS, MS, frontend, backend, lead/IC/senior/junior, DBA, FTE/Contract) development position I have. Please send me an updated copy of your
resume as well as current contact information, salary requirements, availability and geographical location, and a point-by-point answer to each of the ten questions below which will determine your suitability for this position.”

Now, these people are overworked, underpaid, and are dealing with a paradox whereby the people most likely to respond to them are not currently employed at high-paying and prestigious positions. However, almost all of my best contracts have come from recruiters. This means that I absolutely do want to talk to them, if they have something I need to know–but answering them all in detail would be more than 10% of my day.

I’ve come up with the perfect solution. I send a Gmail canned response to all recruiters thanking them for their interest in me, giving them a quick rundown on the positions I will accept, my base salary/equity/wage/benefit requirements, a link to my website where my resumes live in pdf and txt format (the pretty version and the text-searchable version),
and my geographical location. I ask them to please send me the job description, geographical location down to the city block of the company for which they’re attempting to recruit (often they cannot give out the name of the company, but I need to know what transportation/commute will be like), and the salary.I let them know (as courteously as possible) that I will not respond to any reply that does not contain that information.

So far, it’s worked like a charm without sucking my time the way recruiting emails used to do.

(3) Maintain your relationships with the people with whom you have worked.

Facebook your friends, and LinkedIn your colleagues. Every nerd hates to hear it, but the people you know and with whom you collaborate are the best resource for gigs, recommendations, inside news, and a heads-up when you need it. THANK THE PEOPLE WHO HAVE HELPED YOU. When people point me to gigs, recommend me, help me out, and provide me with information, I thank them
thoroughly and in written/gift form. Get a case of decent wine and send a bottle and a thank you card to the people who have helped you professionally. This isn’t because you want something from them; it is because you are grateful for their help without expecting that they’ll do so again. I mean it; sincere gratitude is important for its own sake.

Those three principles help me out when I am in contracts and looking for new ones, as well as closing down old contracts. Probably the biggest piece of advice I can give is this: take the time to be courteous to those who are helping you and supporting you, whether you know them or not.

How to become a web developer.

Just do it.

I’ve been running a web development and consulting company, Red Queen Technologies, for 9 years. I have come from doing page templates to being called in to demonstrate agile development techniques for mid-size companies and running full multi-tiered architectural and systemic designs for sites.

I get questions all the time from friends and colleagues on how to start a web development company. The first thing I tell them is that you have to know how to code. I tell them to buy the HTML/XHTML/CSS for Dummies book, and jump in. If they’re too afraid to try to do the job that they want to manage others doing, they’re not suited to running their own dev company.

Just do it.

other day, I was in a boutique, chatting with two lovely friends of mine. These ladies are a bit older than me, by about 15 years. We all share an interest in haute couture; we were talking about Prada purses, I believe. These ladies are intelligent, beautiful, and entrepreneurial; one runs a successful clothing store, and the other is in real estate. When they asked me what I did and I told them, the realtor said “I could never do that. You are so much smarter than me.” This made me quite angry, honestly. There is a self-defeating voice inside many women that tells them that only very smart women can run their own tech companies, and since they’re not smart, they can’t do it. This woman was excusing herself from trying technology out of fear.

Just do it.

Get some server space, view page source for any web page, paste it into a text document, name it iwannacode.html, and upload it to your server
space. View it in your browser. Start fixing things. Learn.

Just do it.