Tell your Women In Tech story in our Medium channel!

I had a stunning number of women volunteer to write chapters for Women In Techthe book we just kickstarted. I think somewhere around 150 women volunteered at last count, and I keep getting emails! I was honored and thrilled that so many women wanted me to help them tell their story, and I’m so proud to announce now that we’re launching a Medium channel to provide a platform for women to tell their stories in the same way that Brianna, Keren, Kristin, Angie, Kamilah, Miah, Katie, and I are. If you write a great story, you may get an email from me about future work 😉

We’re also looking for a publication editor on an ongoing basis, so please let me know if you’re interested in helping women tell their stories!


If you’re interested in telling your story, I have to make you a writer for the publication. Send me an email with your Medium username so I can add you, and then I’ll have you submit your essay to! I’m a little new at this Medium thing, so if you have any issues submitting your essay, just email or tweet me and I’ll get you fixed up.

If you follow this structure, more or less, you’ll get to the heart of your life and experiences. Vary or change this any way you see fit; this outline is just intended to give you a place to start.

  1. Growing up
    1. Where were you born?
    2. What was it like growing up as you?
    3. What is your family like?
    4. When did you start to have an interest in tech?
    5. Did you go to college? What did you major in?
  2. Early career
    1. Did you start out in technology? 
    2. How did your career start to grow more and more aligned with what you’re doing now—or did it?
    3. What early lessons did you learn as you started working in all your different jobs that helped teach you what you needed to know to get where you are?
  3. Now
    1. What are some of the times that you felt that you couldn’t keep going on?
    2. What made you push through?
    3. Are you happy doing what you do?
    4. Why?
    5. What will some of your next goals be?
    6. What do you do to help others succeed and what are your passions involving mentoring and volunteering?
  4. Reflections
    1. Is it possible for others to do what you did?
    2. If you could go back and change anything, would you—and why?
    3. What do you wish people knew about you that they don’t?
    4. What do you hope telling your story will accomplish?


  • Liberally sprinkle this whole essay with examples that focus in on how you felt at times when you were at decision crossroads and what made you make the choices you did.
  • Do not let your own modesty stop you from talking about yourself. Talk about yourself and your accomplishments instead of doing a general critique of the system.
  • Think of this autobiographical essay as an explanation of how you got where you are now. This is a moment to show what you did, not tell others how to replicate what you did. Huge numbers of women in tech (including me) did not have a computer science degree and came into tech through a side door faced with difficult decisions, self teaching, and life-altering moments. 
  • This is only about you, your story, and how other women can see possibilities for themselves through your story. Use “I” statements instead of “you” statements. I can’t wait to hear from you!

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!

Kathryn Janeway, Startup CEO

Reposted from an edited version at WeWork Magazine.

A couple of weeks ago, WeWork Magazine interviewed me for a Spotlight article about me. One of my answers about which Star Trek captain I thought my management style most closely reflected betrayed how seriously I take Star Trek. So, they’ve asked me to expand on my thoughts about how Star Trek captains can be compared to tech CEOs. In this three-part essay, I’ll be looking at Kathryn Janeway, Jean-Luc Picard, and Benjamin Sisko as examples of CEOs at different stages of their careers: at a startup, in a mature company, and during transitional periods.

I was eight years old on the evening of September 26th, 1987. My dad whispered “Shh. Don’t tell your mom I’m starting you on science fiction,” and tiptoed with me down to the basement of our old farmhouse where the little 13” TV sat in his proto-mancave. He flipped the switch, put a little more aluminum foil on the antenna, and I saw the blue letters on the screen as the Alexander Courage & Jerry Goldsmith music played for the first time ever at the beginning of Encounter At Farpoint. Dad choked up a little, remembering when he was nine years old and watched The Man Trap with his father. We bond with these stories. We tell and retell them. We vary the details, but the core myth remains the same: a diverse crew explores the boundaries of space and other civilizations while learning more about what it means to be human.

The most important part about Star Trek captains isn’t which one you admire most, or which one you feel most closely reflects your management style. The most important Star Trek captain is the one who inspires you to be a better leader, and though I think I have the most in common personality-wise with Picard, the truth is that Kathryn Janeway is the closest ideal to what a startup CEO should be. She has no shame or pride, no false sense of ego, and a single, unwavering, certainly monomaniacal goal: to get her crew home. In the course of seven years on the way back from the Delta Quadrant, she uses everything she has and more to succeed.

Janeway is put in impossible situations with untenable choices, and yet she creates humor, freedom, and a shared sense of purpose. She’s by far the wittiest and funniest of the captains, and very free with a joke or a tension-relieving pun. I like her sense of humor a lot, but there’s one thing she does which I try very hard to emulate. She understands that her promise to her crew to get them home is the only thing she’ll ever be judged on, and she sacrifices her personal comfort, her friendships, and her privilege time and time again to make it happen. Barring morally despicable options, there’s nothing she won’t do to achieve her goals. Over seven years, she adopts the roles of a mechanic, a prostitute, a governess, a merchant, a general, a killer, a janitor, an exterminator, a referee, a teacher, a programmer, a scientist, a pool shark, and many, many more. When the time comes for her to play a low-status person to aid in her goal of getting her crew home, she doesn’t hesitate.

Janeway strikes a careful balance among the tight and dramatic relationships that form in the crew when there’s a limited amount of choice for who to socialize with. The greatest CEOs I know worry about their people, not their status. Janeway invests in her people and builds them up instead of tearing them down to maintain an artificial hierarchy, and in return, they achieve more than they could imagine in a crew that will support them.

I love that Janeway has two heroes that I can think of in Voyager; one is Amelia Earhart, and the other is her own ancestor, engineer and architect Shannon O’Donnell Janeway. Perhaps this is where I feel closest to Janeway; she too has mentors and heroes that inspire her that she’s imbued with personality and hope, that she uses to get her through tough decisions, and that she believes in. She’s never met them (well, she meets Amelia Earhart, but this is science-fiction, people), but she knows what they’ll say when she needs their advice. She uses their accomplishments to hold up a mirror to her motivations. There’s not much of a difference between the inspiration of an ancestor you’ve never met except through stories, and a fictional hero who dares us to achieve more. When we need heroes that are more than human, we create our own legends to give us strength, and Star Trek is a rich source of hope and mentorship to me.

Captain Janeway, you’re my hero.

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.

Companies Lie About Their Proportion of Female Engineers

Companies tend to inflate the numbers of women in their ranks holding ‘technical’ positions. No corporation wants to admit that their company has little to no female engineers; instead, they create an overarching category of people on technical teams, and then divide by gender.

The statistics a company publishes concerning the number of women hires are often very misleading. Companies often say that women in graphic design or project management are ‘technical’ in nature; they are not typically regarded as so by most engineers. They are artists or human resource and task specialists who schedule, track, and motivate the developers. However, it is convenient to use them to showcase high numbers of women in technical positions in any organization. I wrote a now defunct blog post on my experience asking about this, which was chronicled in Huffington Post.

Here’s the original data I compiled on Klout’s proportion of women in tech at the time. It’s just an infograph (don’t mock my nonexistent graphic design skills), but it illustrates the situation quite well. Click the thumbnail to embiggen.

Klout by the numbers-Large

As a result, most people are not aware of the true nature of the difficulties women face being hired to work in development and programming teams. These are tiny, overwhelmingly masculine pockets of an often quite egalitarian overall corporate culture.

The way to determine the real number of women in technical positions is to ask how many female engineers are on board. That is not a number which can be inflated; ask to meet with one or two in order to find out how women are treated in the organization. If you are concerned with how that might appear, contact the women via social media. You should be able to reach at least one or two…if they exist.

It’s very tough to tell how many companies are inflating their numbers. I know of two large companies at a minimum in the Seattle area which count project managers and graphic designers as “technical” employees, when in reality it is a rare event indeed for a woman to be employed as a software engineer or web developer. Be cautious when companies tout their high integration stats; the truth is that unless the CEO, CTO, COO, and VP Engineering are all female, I would never believe offhand any company that tells me that “42% of our technical workforce is female.”

If you know a company that is seeking female engineers and which would be a great place to work, even if the proportion of technical women in the company is low, leave it in the comments. I can think of several places with low ratios that are great workplaces.  It’s merely the vicissitudes of hiring which have left them low on women, though they work hard on diversity.

A small disclaimer: if you are a project manager or graphic designer and you consider yourself to be technical, I believe you. I am speaking only of the corporate habit of trying to make female engineers believe that they will be on a team consisting of a gender split like unto that which the company publishes as its official gender ration for technical positions.

Parts of this post adapted from “Technical Interviews for Technical Women” © 2011 Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack

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

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.

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.