GHC and feelings on being experienced

I went to my first Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing a couple weeks ago. I graduated from school with a computer science degree in 2001 (and had a student programming job even before that). I’ve been working in industry ever since. Unsurprisingly, I had feelings about the experience. I spent most of the time there overwhelmed by all the people (not a fan of crowds and there were 11,000 attendees!). I talked to many excellent women, both young and more my age. I bonded with some of my women coworkers more than I had in the past. I felt a renewed sense of drive to do awesome things. But I was frustrated by how far we haven’t come and that GHC is necessary-useful at all. Many of the career and organizational change tracks I avoided — I’ve heard it all and don’t need to be reminded. But most of all I was glad to see so many different women in different places in life.

I graduated in 2001 with a B.S. in Computer Science (and a lot more math courses than strictly necessary due to a poorly planned double major in math). My program at the time required you to “apply” for the major after meeting introductory course requirements (calculus and introductory programming primarily). I remember sitting in the room where they welcomed us all to the major with around fifty people in the room. Only a couple of us were women. I didn’t know it at the time, but even then my program was clearly well below the norm for women. In 2001, almost 28% of CS degrees granted in the United States were to women (data in excel). But I didn’t care at the time. I was just excited to do do math and program computers. But this might be why I never learned about GHC until I moved to Seattle six years ago to take a job at Amazon which actually had a women in engineering group internally. I had few women role models or even peers before.

My career path has been strongly guided by a desire for security and stability. I grew up pretty poor. Getting a college degree was the first step to getting a good, stable job which for most of my career has been far more important than traditional concerns of career development, like learning new skills, taking risks or changing jobs for more money or better projects. Changing jobs is risky. Sticking your nose out is risky. I think a lot of folks forget that not everyone has the same career goals or life path. Especially in big tech companies, we tend to focus a lot on college graduates with very similar backgrounds (middle class or better usually). In reality, a lot of tech job advice looks risky and low reward to someone who’s pretty glad they aren’t waiting tables at a diner for a living (I waited tables in college and I can’t say I really liked it). Why change jobs? Whatever minor (or major) irritants my job has, it’s probably the same somewhere else. Fortunately at most of my jobs I have been challenged. I got career development in spite of myself, but it wasn’t really because I was looking for it. Mostly I just wanted stability.

The last few years I’ve been a lot more conscious about my career and made some decisions that were a bit more risky. I changed teams in 2014, helped build a team starting with me and my manager to two dev teams that has shipped several features that are already doing well (in terms of practical business goals and user feedback). It was a risk and I definitely went into it feeling like I might fail. But I’m in a place where that felt okay to risk. And the outcome has been pretty good: I’ve learned a lot both technically and in terms of leadership. I got a promotion. But it’s also been really stressful. While doing that, I’ve also been doing a lot of things with the internal women in engineering group. This is also stressful. And, more other things at work (I like to call them “extracurriculars”). Meanwhile, I do have a partner and a toddler I care for quite a bit. So much stress! I joke about “leaning in” all the time, but it’s not a joke at all. It feels like running against a headwind.

So GHC triggered a lot of feelings about career and life goals. There just aren’t a lot of women who’ve been “around” as long as I have — and I’ve only been around 15 years depending on how you count. The last few years I’ve met a lot more women who have been around a while and that’s been great. GHC was dominated by two groups: many, many college students and large contingents from various tech companies. The latter were overwhelmingly younger than me which I couldn’t help but remind myself was because most of the older women had left tech. Some of the few career talks or panels I did go to tended towards being positive to the detriment of being practical. I feel well past this advice and found it hard to not dismiss some of it as a pep talk. (And a couple of the plenary speakers should be at tech conferences actually attended by men because those are the people who have more power.)

I’m maybe a bit burned out about the “women in tech” topic right now.

But I got to meet so many interesting women! I met several women who are fairly senior in their careers and wanted to talk about what it’s like to work where I do. (My answer briefly: it’s not rainbows and puppies but it’s workable and make sure you ask a lot of questions about the team and organization.) I also met some young women still in school worried if they had enough resumes but so excited to be there (why exactly do we still have print resumes?). I got to have excited, expansive, “what if?” conversations with multiple (multiple!) women who are awesome (in different ways). I got to meet (or re-meet) women I don’t know well. I saw technical talks by women at many different places in their careers and life (internet of things despite the silly name is really cool and I want to do more in it!)

In short, I got to see women living a variety of lives and not constrained (or appearing to be constrained) by one way of being a “woman in tech”. I got to see women who clearly just don’t bother with thankless emotional labor in service of increasing the number of “women in tech”. And I got to see women who do some but have learned to be choosy and (maybe) avoid burnout. Because I’ve frankly probably been a bit burnt out.

I’ve been pretty pensive since GHC. And wildly enthusiastic at other times. What do I want to do next? Where am I going 2-3 years from now? Where do I want to be in ten years? What does it mean for my family? What’s important to me besides having a well-paying, stable job? Shouldn’t I go work on something more meaningful (thinking long-term) if I can? What’s that going to be? What should I be doing now to make that happen? How do I manage myself day to day and week to week to not lose sight on that? How do I manage my own emotions so I can be committed and happy with how I spend a third plus of my life?

In other words, I have choice unlike many people who grew up like I did. And that’s a weird and strangely uncomfortable place for me.