Greater Than Code

by Mandy Moore

For a long time, tech culture has focused too narrowly on technical skills; this has resulted in a tech community that too often puts companies and code over people. Greater Than Code is a podcast that invites the voices of people who are not heard from enough in tech: women, people of color, trans and/or queer folks, to talk about the human side of software development and technology. Greater Than Code is providing a vital platform for these conversations, and developing new ideas of what it means to be a technologist beyond just the code. Featuring an ongoing panel of racially and gender diverse tech panelists, the majority of podcast guests so far have been women in tech! We’ve covered topics including imposter syndrome, mental illness, sexuality, unconscious bias and social justice. We also have a major focus on skill sets that tech too often devalues, like team-building, hiring, community organizing, mentorship and empathy. Each episode also includes a transcript. We have an active Slack community that members can join by pledging as little as $1 per month via Patreon. (


Latest Episodes

238: Contributing to Humanity and Mutual Aid – Solidarity, Not Charity

01:00 - Mae’s Superpower: Being Able to Relate to Other People and Finding Ways to Support Them 03:42 - Contributing to Humanity (Specifically American Culture) * Title Track Michigan ( * Climate Change * Clean, Accessible Water * Hate & Divisiveness; Understanding Racial Justice 07:01 - Somatics ( and The Effects of Yoga, Meditation, and Self-Awareness * Flow ( * Kripalu ( * PubMed ( * Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) ( * Debugging Your Brain by Casey Watts ( 12:20 - Mutual Aid: Solidarity, Not Charity * WeCamp ( * Ruby For Good ( * Harm Reduction * Encampments * “We keep us safe.” * Rainbow Gatherings ( * Burning Man ( * Big Big Table Community Cafe ( 33:17 - Giving vs Accepting Help; Extending and Accepting Love, Empathy, and Forgiveness * Collective Liberation * The Parable of Polygons ( * Listening: What could be of use? * 99 Bottles of OOP ( – Sandi Metz ( 48:25 - The Mental Health Challenges of Being a Programmer * Celebrating Small Wins; “Microjoys!” Reflections: Casey: The word mutual aid can be more approachable if you think about it like people helping people and not a formal organization. Also: help and be helped! Jamey: Valuing yourself and the way that helps the communities you are a part of. Mae: Engaging with users using the things you're building is a reward and a way to give yourself “microjoy!” This episode was brought to you by @therubyrep ( of DevReps, LLC ( To pledge your support and to join our awesome Slack community, visit ( To make a one-time donation so that we can continue to bring you more content and transcripts like this, please do so at ( You will also get an invitation to our Slack community this way as well. Transcript: JAMEY: Hello and welcome to Episode 238 of Greater Than Code. I am your host, Jamey Hampton, and I'm here with my friend, Casey Watts. CASEY: Hi, I'm Casey, and we're both here today with our guest, Mae Beale. Mae spent 20 years in and out of nonprofit-land, with jaunts into biochemistry and women's studies degreeing, full-time pool playing, high school chemistry and physics teaching, higher ed senior administrating, and more. She went to code school in 2014 (at 37 years old) to gain the technical skills needed to build the tools she wished she'd had in all the years prior. So glad to have you, Mae. MAE: Thanks, Casey. Thanks, Jamey. Same for me. JAMEY: So you may be ready for the first question that we're going to ask you, which is, what is your superpower and how did you acquire it? MAE: Yeah, thank you. I think that my superpower is being able to relate to other people and find ways to support them. How did I get good at that? Well, I've dealt with a lot of pretty complicated people in my life that you have to do extra thinking to figure out. So I think I got my start with that and I've done lots of different things in life and met lots of different people and felt lots of different feelings and thought lots of different thoughts. So I think that's mostly it: living. JAMEY: I was going to say that I know from knowing you that you've done lots of things, but even our listeners who don't know you probably already know that just after listening to your bio, so. [laughter] MAE: Yeah, and there's plenty more that didn't make it in there. That's something that is fun and a joke is no matter how long people know me, there's always still something that they didn't know and so, that's fun for me. I like to surprise other people and I love being surprised by people. So it's like a little game I have with all my fun facts. JAMEY: I love that. CASEY: I've got a question: what's on your mind lately. MAE: What is on my mind lately? So many things, I don't even know where to start. One is where and how can I contribute to the future of humanity [chuckles] and American culture in particular and in the circles that I'm in, drawing it down even more. So I think about that a lot. I think about my house a lot. I just bought a house and I'm going to do each room with a color theme so it'll end up being, you walked through the rainbow. Pretty excited for that, lots of things there. And I think a lot about how to empower others and be a more and more effective communicator. I think about that a lot. Probably those are the top ones and maybe Dominion. I play that every day. So I think about that a little bit. CASEY: [chuckles] Love that game. JAMEY: Me too. CASEY: This is great. All three are really interesting. I want to start on your first one. What opportunities do you see lately, or what have you done recently, or what do you hope to do to help the world help American culture help make an impact? What are you working on? MAE: From where I sit, it seems like the most important things that any of us can attune to about even a portion of is the environment and whatever's going on with our ability as humans to respond to climate change and water, like clean, accessible water for people, and hate and divisiveness. Those three things I think are our biggest challenges. So I try to do things that end up in those spheres, if not in things that ideally have some mix of those rather than having them be silos. One of my jobs is working with Title Track Michigan, and they are a relatively new nonprofit that brings creative practice to complex problems and is specifically focused on water protection, racial equity, and youth empowerment. Once all the uprising started in 2020, we created an Understanding Racial Justice course for white people in Northern Michigan and so, I've been helping to facilitate those courses and taking as many opportunities to rethink my orientation to all those topics as well. CASEY: That's so cool. You found a group that does all of those things in one. MAE: Amazing, right? CASEY: Wow. Title Track Michigan, huh? MAE: Yeah. I found them because my life radically changed a few years ago. A lot of things changed at once like, not just a lot, all of the things. So I went on this walkabout just trying to find ways to be of service in the world without expectation, watch who I met, and where I ended up. I ended up in Michigan and getting introduced to these people who then were creating a new nonprofit Title Track. Another thing I do is I have a consultancy that I have a flagship enterprise product for nonprofit, small business administration. That is a little bit of a Trojan horse for change management and organizational development and sustainable longevity planning for organizations. So the fact that I ended up there with them at that time and way more cool synchronicities happened. That's how I met them. So it just feels right and great to have landed in that space and then to have 2020 be what it became, we were already formed and positioned to try to be of help. JAMEY: This is an abstract question. MAE: Okay. JAMEY: But what does it feel like to feel like you're doing the right thing in that way like, the right place to be? I got the sense from you telling this story that things just came together in the right way at the right time and that's a beautiful thing when it happens and you said it feels right. What does that feel like? MAE: Mm thanks, Jamey. Well, my first thought is another thing that Title Track does in that Understanding Racial Justice course and a lot of circles I've ended up in have a focus on somatic and so, body centered awareness and engagement. So I used to always think my answer was going to be emotional when people ask me, “How do I feel?” and now I hear and think of my body first so that's cool. I'll answer a couple of ways, if that's okay. When for me synchronicities happen and I feel most alive, or of use, which is important to me, my heart literally feels bigger and almost breathing like I can feel air. I don't know how to explain that. I definitely will be smiling more, my back is straighter, and I usually have a lot more to say. All of a sudden, I'll have a lot to say. Other times, I have nothing to say! For how I might've answered that question previously would be closer to having a lot of things to say, like I'm a lot more creative, making connections, getting excited, and wanting to create new things together with other people. How about you two? CASEY: Just hearing you describe that, I have thought back on times I felt really proud and engaged and I noticed my posture improved, too. That's so interesting. I've had a nerve injury for 2 years. My hands go tingly sometimes. So I'm working on my back and noticing posture all the time. Interesting how my mood like that could affect the posture. I believe it, too. JAMEY: I'm not sure that I would have called out posture specifically in that way, but now that I'm thinking about it, I think what I would say is I feel lighter. MAE: Yeah! JAMEY: So to feel less bogged down, I can see in what way that's related to posture. [chuckles] MAE: Totally. Yeah. CASEY: We all have a lot to say on this, I love it. [chuckles] This reminds me of the Flow State. So when your skills match a need and it's challenging the appropriate amount, you're in a great concentration state, but if your skills aren't enough, or if the need isn't important enough—either one—feels a little way less good, not good. JAMEY: Totally. MAE: I lived at a yoga retreat center for a little while in Massachusetts called Kripalu—it's the largest yoga retreat center in North America. I had never done yoga and I was like, “Oh, cool. I'll just go live there [laughs] and see.” Anyway, I was there for three months and they have a part of their organization dedicated to optimal human performance. They have a partnership with Tanglewood and some other places around there to see if yoga and meditation can induce more Flow State, more of the time for top performing musicians, and just to be able to have more “scientific evidence” about how physiologically we can do things to get ourselves closer to those states more often. Pretty cool work. JAMEY: Yeah. That's really interesting. CASEY: I was just doing some research on the effects of different types of yoga and meditation on anxiety. I was trying to read some of the primary sources. I like to go to PubMed first—that's my go-to. Some people do Google Scholar. It's interesting, the framing sounded in a couple of papers like, “Well, it's not as good as CBT,” and my takeaway was, “Well, it helps an amount, huh? Great, good.” [laughter] So people who can't get access to CBT should consider that and that's true anyway. Science has shown this thing we knew was helpful anyway, is helpful in an empirical sense and that’s great. MAE: Totally. Casey, for anybody who might not know what CBT is, would you be willing to…? CASEY: Thank you. CBT here is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is one of the most common and effective forms of talk therapy you would do with a therapist. It focuses on what some maladaptive, unhelpful thought patterns are and helps you change them. MAE: And that's coming from a psych major, right, Casey? CASEY: That's right. I talk all about that in my book, Debugging Your Brain. It's funny, but you're flipping the script here. Usually we do this to our guests. MAE: [laughter] Great! CASEY: Love it. JAMEY: There's another project, Mae that I know that you've worked on that. I'm a little bit surprised that you haven't brought up yet, but I'm going to bring it up, which is your Mutual Aid program. MAE: Thank you. JAMEY: I think that when you are talking about doing something to make an impact on the world, like that was the first thing I thought of since I know you're involved with that and I would love to hear you talk about it. MAE: Yes. Thank you. Thanks for bringing that up and I did want to talk about that and I was looking forward to hearing what you have to say about that topic as well. So when the pandemic started, you may have seen these, or become involved, but there was a whole bunch of spreadsheets starting like Google Sheets of people who had some needs and people who wanted to offer some things. Google spreadsheets are really easy first pass for people with low tech skills and no budget to just come together. But I started being invited to all these different spreadsheets from around the country that include people's name, address, phone number, CashApp name, their exact vulnerabilities and identities, and current struggles in a spreadsheet that's downloadable. It really freaked me out and I started coding that day about how can we start to do something to make these people not have to have their identity so exposed and through like WeCamp networks, Ruby for Good networks, and different Slacks I'm in of varying programmers, I started saying, “Does anybody else want to get involved?” and several people did. So we have built a platform to support mutual aid groups and what we did immediately was find some groups to figure out what their needs were instead of just what we might imagine. They were doing a lot of, we call it dispatch moderated setups where people fill out a form and then volunteers read the forms and then match people and do all the communication manually, but not having peer-to-peer things go on. The system was originally designed to support that dispatch moderated set up and once people started to go back to work in the fall and there weren't as many people able to devote as much time to volunteer, and as varying groups, especially ones that hadn't been around as long, realized they would probably need a lot more training in social work, ask things just to be more effective and figure out how to route people correctly within their community to services that might be able to help them a little more. Since the fall, we've to coding peer-to-peer solution. We have several different mutual aid groups around the country and right now, most closely working with groups in Michigan and New York state, just because that's where our networks are. Getting to launch some peer-to-peer stuff, but mutual aid itself has become a buzzword and like, what is that anyway? [chuckles] So that topic I love talking about. There's like a mutual aid saying, “Solidarity, not charity.” The whole thing is we're all in it together and we're not going to rely on different structures, or institutions that were set up most often in ways that institutionalized various forms of oppression. Just empowering people to connect with each other, have stronger networks, and build more resiliency is what's up with it, but mutual aid has been around for over a 100 years, at least as a term and a thing, but it generally, almost always springs from communities that have been disenfranchised. So when the pandemic started and a lot of new groups formed, not everybody had already checked what's already happening and a lot of different people, especially in communities of color, were surprised by like, they didn't hear that term, that's just what they do. There's been a big—along with everything else—learning of how those structures already were in place and how we can continue to grow them, and support each other as we navigate this world we're in. Jamey, I was going to ask you about your involvement with mutual aid, too and if you had anything to add to that definition. JAMEY: I was going to say that I really liked what you said about finding new ways around things that have been institutionalized. Because I think one of the things that's so beautiful about mutual aid is the way that people can help each other realize what kind of help is available and what kind of help they even might need. A story that I really like to tell that and I think about a lot is I have a friend who's involved in mutual aid in Buffalo, where I'm from and he does repair work and just is very handy in that way. So he does a lot of mutual aid repair for people and he told me that the way that this started for him is that there was a request in our mutual aid Facebook group where someone was saying, “I really need $200, or something like this because my window is broken and I need to buy a space heater because it's been getting really cold. So I need this money to buy a heater and all of this stuff.” My friend came in and was like, “Okay, but what if I just fixed your window?” It had not occurred to this person that she could ask for that. MAE: Oh, boy. JAMEY: She was coming up with all these solutions around it. So this idea of like coming together as a community and saying, ‘Yeah, I can help you, but can we help a little bit closer to the source than what you even just asked for?” I think is really powerful. MAE: Yes. I love that, Jamey. Yeah, it's the closer we can be in community with each other, the easier those asks are. Something that you said about figuring out your own needs, there is a thing and it's related a little bit to some of the other topics we've talked about where there's like the white savior thing. People want to do something for people who they think are less – they have less than them. There's a power dynamic there and mutual aid—mutual, that's the main part. So you really aren't doing mutual aid if you're not accepting help. All of us have things that we could be supportive with and things to offer. I love also having that not – there's a lot of mutual aid that is about just giving money and/or like reparation stuff. But I love when money isn't part of the equation and quantification of value isn't part of the equation. It's just like, “I have something to give and I could use something and this is how we're going to stay in community and in network and lower those barriers to have offers and asks be even easier in the future.” JAMEY: For sure. I think it's about meeting people where they are, too, because I agree about some programs are focused on money, and some people have money and can put that into the community and that's great. But maybe they don't have time to show up and do these things and other people might think like, “Well, how can I help because I don't have money,” but they have time, or they have skills. I think that everyone bringing in and saying, “This is what I have to offer with what's going on in my life right now,” and maybe it's money, or maybe it's time, or maybe it's something else that I didn't even think of that they're going to offer. [chuckles] MAE: Totally. When you were saying that, I just got a chill thinking if really every single person just that question you just said, “How can I help?” If we all did one thing, this is how to effect broad change. CASEY: How can people find the mutual aid groups near them? If they just search mutual aid, that probably gets a bunch, but they don't all say it, right? MAE: Yeah. It's a really great point. There have been some different efforts to link together mutual aid networks and there's a map, but not every network is on it because not every network even knows about it. [chuckles] So because mutual aid is so grassroots, it's not – CASEY: Right. MAE: A number of them have form 501(c)(3) is just to not be doing illegal financial transaction stuff that is problematic by having all this money go through their personal Venmo, or something. But that is what a lot of people have done. So mostly there's the Google option and the term mutual aid is getting used more and more, but there are some other phrases. I'm forgetting it right now. What's the name when they hand out medical supplies? Harm reduction, there's a bunch of harm reduction efforts. Also, in cities where there are a lot of homeless shelters, there's things around encampments and like becoming community with those folks to advocate. Another piece, major piece of mutual aid that I forgot to name is it inherently has a political engagement component in it. So one of the reasons why it is this solidarity thing is you're seeing all the humans as inherently equally valuable and that you're identifying the structural things that led to people having a different experience, or a different privilege, or a different outcome to what's going down for them. So then by identifying those together, you try to change the system to not create the problem. Whereas, to go back to that phrase charity, a lot of charities—which are awesome, I'm not trying to knock those—but a lot of them have more of a it's your fault, or shortcoming, or need that has put you where you are. Mutual aid is the way in which this is all rigged and on purpose, or not on purpose, or just the impact of the structures is how you ended up where you are so let's rejigger. JAMEY: A phrase that comes up a lot, in the protest community specifically, is, “We keep us safe and we say that at protests about security, medics and things, and wearing masks—I've seen people start to use that phrase. But I think that that's a phrase that really speaks to like what mutual aid is about, too. It's about we are doing something together for ourselves as a community, and we're not looking for something from the outside that comes in a hierarchical structure. We're just making this decision as a group of people to take care of ourselves and our neighbors and I think that's what I really love about it. [chuckles] MAE: Totally. Yeah, absolutely. And back to what you were saying, Casey, the how can people find those things? There's also just, “Hey, I've got some extra seeds,” or put a cabinet in your yard with some food in it and say free food. You don't have to associate with a “mutual aid group” to do mutual aid. It's like, that's just a blanket term, basically that offers a little bit of a cue about what those people might be up to. But it's really, in whatever way you are sharing and developing relationships with your fellow community members. This is mutual aid. JAMEY: I thought of another example of that. MAE: Yay! JAMEY: We have this in Buffalo, but I think it's a thing that we're seeing other places, too. Separate from our mutual aid network, we have a Facebook Buy Nothing group. MAE: yes. JAMEY: And people will post like, “Oh, I have this, I'm going to get rid of it. Someone come pick it up.” “Oh, I was going to donate these spoons from my kitchen. Someone can have them.” When you said seeds, that's the kind of thing you'll see on Buy Nothing and I think that's been a revolution in anything even separately from it, because I do think that money plays a part in a lot of mutual aid stuff, because folks need money for things. But in Buy Nothing, it's pointedly without money and I think that that's a very fun and cool dynamic, too. MAE: Totally. Yes. I have a couple of things I would love to say them. One is that the bringing up Facebook has started to support mutual aid. But also, I don't know if y'all have seen The Social Dilemma and just become aware of all of this tracking that's going down. There's something that is another motivator for us on the mutual aid repo is this is open source code that anybody who wants to use it can stand up their own instance and if you partner with us, connect with us, we will help you if you need us to. But it's intentionally not a multitenant app so that people have small datasets that they own and there isn't like this aggregate thing going on about local data. It’s basically a small tech for the win, which is also pretty mutual aid-y. Our group, like the programmers who are most involved, meet a couple times a week and know about what's going on in each other's lives. We are mutual aid for each other, too. The energy of what, how, who we are, and what we're doing is getting put into the thing that we're building that hopefully has that same effect. So there's this nice spiral thing going on in there that I'm proud of. I think there's a lot about what we referenced earlier, institutionalization of oppression, that has to be like, there are ways to create other options and they take cultivation of and building new structures. Stuff like this as an example of that and an experiment in it. Another one that it reminded me of is when I was younger, I used to go to rainbow gatherings. I don't know if y'all know about these. It's a super hippie thing and there's regional gatherings, but there's a national gathering at a national forest every year. All these people just show up and then they build earthen stoves. There's a bunch of people who do not participate in main society; they just go to these different gatherings and travel around as a… There's plenty more to talk about rainbow tribe and even the usage of that word tribe and what goes down. I'm not going to try to touch into that, but something I love about it is there's a whole exchange row where people just sit out with things and there's no money. You're not allowed to use money. I think I was 18 when I went to my first one and I was just like, “What? This is amazing.” Like, just to imagine my life not through a currency, or that evaluated exchange, it was so inspiring to me. It still is and so, some of what you said, Jamey, reminded me of that. JAMEY: I relate a lot to that, too. Burning Man events are also no money allowed. MAE: Ah. JAMEY: When I first entered that space, that was one of the things that really spoke to me about it too. In fact, it's also no barter allowed in Burning Man. It's a purely gifting economy where if you give someone something, a lot of times they become inspired to gift you something back right there and there's an exchange that happens. But culturally, the point of it is that there's not supposed to be any expectation of exchange when you gift something to somebody. MAE: Do you know about that restaurant in San Francisco that is free, but you pay for the person behind you if you want? JAMEY: I don't know about one in San Francisco specifically, but we have a program like that similar in Buffalo. It's called Big – I'm going to look it up so I can link it up. MAE: How about you, Casey? I’m getting excited so I keep saying things. CASEY: I’m reflecting on the award mutual aid a lot through all this. I like this idea that mutual aid as it is in action and that mutual aid groups do mutual aid, but individuals can, too. MAE: Yeah. CASEY: That's a pretty powerful theme. It makes the term more approachable, especially since it's a jargon word lately. It's just grassroots-y helping each other out, however that looks. MAE: Totally. CASEY: I'm thinking a lot about what communities I'm a part of, too, that naturally have that phenomenon. It's like, I'm queer, I’m in a lot of queer groups. I’m in interest groups like musician groups and they help each other do stuff. They carpool to the practice or anything like that that’s this. There's also a formal ones like D.C. Ward 6 has mutual aid groups that are named that. That's its own thing. And then even my Facebook friends, I just post like, “I have a crackpot, who wants it?” MAE: Totally! CASEY: But before today, I might not have used the word mutual aid to describe any of that because I'm not part of a formal approved mutual aid group, which is not the point of that term. MAE: [laughs] Yeah. CASEY: Just people helping people. MAE: When I was thinking about getting into tech, I, as a pretty outspoken woman who will address injustice directly if I see it, when I see it in myself and others, I wasn't sure if that was going to be a place for me. I had had some not awesome experiences with tech people before I was in tech. So I reached out to a bunch of people who were already in the biz and they spent hours talking to me about their experiences, answering all of my questions, and offering to help me. As I took the leap and went to code school and participated in a meetups and just, everywhere is mutual aid in programming, everybody is helping each other. “I have a question,” “I'm wondering about this.” This podcast is mutual aid, in my opinion. It's been really inspiring for me to be a programmer because I feel a part of a worldwide network of people who try to, especially with mixing in the open source piece, build things and offer what they can. It's awesome. CASEY: I have a challenge for people listening to this podcast. This week, I'd like you to help someone and accept help from someone, both in the spirit of mutual aid. MAE: Yes! CASEY: I'm not surprised; accepting help might be the harder half for a lot of people. MAE: Yes. JAMEY: I think that's true. [chuckles] MAE: One way I've said it before is that that is your gift to the giver. The giver doesn't get to be a giver [chuckles] unless you accept the gift from them and that people can, including myself at times, tend to over-give and that is its own challenge. So if you need to stay in the giving frame, [chuckles] you can be like, “All right, well, I'm providing this opportunity to the other person.” [chuckles] CASEY: Sometimes I've playfully pushed on an idea to people. I'm trying to help them and they say, “No, no, no. I can't accept your help because I would be indebted,” and I'm like, “You would deprive me of this good feeling I would get from helping you? Really?” [laughter] MAE: Yeah. CASEY: Thinking of it a little bit, I'm not like – [overtalk] JAMEY: [inaudible]. CASEY: Right. I'm just thinking that way a little bit, flipping it, helps some people accept the help then. MAE: Yeah. JAMEY: I think that people have so much harder of a time of extending love and empathy, and forgiveness, and all of these nice things that we might really value extending to other people, but not to ourselves. MAE: Yo, that's for real, Jamey and still on this theme, the seeing each other as equals as in community. My Mom used to say this great phrase, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” She was raised Catholic so it's got that in there, but I love that of this could definitely be me. There's a cool Buddhist practice that I learned from Pema Chödrön about you extend release of suffering to others and then you widen the circle to include yourself in it, but you don't start there. So similar to how you're saying, Jamey, that that is a challenge for a lot of people, it's just built into that practice where when you can't give yourself a break, [chuckles] imagining others in that situation and then trying to include yourself is an angle on it. JAMEY: I like that. I think also related to Casey's example of his joke. It's thinking about how what you do affects other people, I think sometimes we're better at that and if you're treating yourself bad, especially if you're in one of these tight mutual communities. If you're treating yourself bad, that's affecting the people around you, too. They don't want to see you being treated bad and they don't want to see you being miserable and they want the best for you. When you're preventing yourself from having the best, that's affecting the whole community, too. MAE: Yo! JAMEY: I hadn’t really thought about it like that until right now. So thank you, Casey, for your joke. CASEY: Powerful thought. Yeah. Like the group, your people, your team, they need you to be your best. So if you want to help your team, sometimes the best way is to help yourself. It's not selfish. It's the opposite of selfish. MAE: Exactly. Another thing I've heard a bunch of the different activist groups, some phrasing that people have started to use is collective liberation and no one's free till we're all free and if we are suffering, the other people are suffering and vice versa. So figuring out how to not be so cut off from ourselves, or others, or that suffering and seeing them as intertwined, I think is one of the ways to unlock the lack of empathy that a lot of people experience. CASEY: There's a really cool visualization I like that that reminds me of. It's called the Parable of the Polygons and you can drag around triangles and squares. You can see how segregation ends up happening, if you have certain criteria set up in the heuristics of how they move. Or if some people want to be around diverse people, it ends up not happening, or it ends up recovering and getting more integrated and mixed. It's so powerful because you can manipulate the diagrams. There's a whole series of diagrams. Look it up, it's the Parable of the Polygons. MAE: Cool! That is awesome. CASEY: So I want to be around people who aren't like me and that helps. It helps with this phenomenon and the more people do that, the better. MAE: Yeah, and having grown up in a small city, that's pretty homogenous on multiple levels. When I went to college and learned that people thought differently, my world was this very rigidly defined, this is how things are. [chuckles] My biker dad, that's still his way, his lens. When you start to experience people who are not like yourself, you let that challenge your assumptions, then you end up transformed by that. I was a double major in college—biochemistry and women's studies—and I remember being in an organic chemistry class and the professor said, “Well, if that's too hard for you, you can go take a sociology class.” I raised my hand and was like, “My sociology classes challenge me on every single thing I think about the world. Your class requires me to provide rote memorization, which I'm awesome at luckily and that's how I ended up in your class.” But that is not harder. That's that story. CASEY: The last episode that I recorded was with Andrea Goulet. One of the things that kept coming up was the old-timey programming interview questions were all about math. MAE: Yes. CASEY: Which isn't necessarily what programming is about. That reminds me here of rote memorization in that class versus complex systems thinking in sociology. MAE: Totally!
 CASEY: With these two choices, I might choose a sociology person to do architecture work in my software than the rote memorization person. MAE: Totally, definitely, every time. Yeah, and that's a different lens that I have coming in to the industry from having been an administrator for so many years is our perception as programmers about what's going to be helpful is very different than someone whose day job is to do repetitive work like very, very, very simple apps. When I was in code school, I really wanted us to figure out how to make even our homework assignments be available for nonprofits and that's how my whole system in business ended up getting spun up. Oh, it was before that. My job before that, when I interviewed, I said, “Well, how long do you need someone here for? How long would you need me to commit?” and he said, “A year,” and I said, “All right, well, I'm not sure I'm the best candidate for you because I'm going to go to grad school and get a degree and be a consultant as businesses and nonprofits.” And then I was at that job for 8 and a half years before I went to code school. [laughs] But the thing about what could be of use just requires so much humility from programmers to defer to the actual employees and the workers about their experience and what could help them. Because so often, we think that we're the ones with the awesome idea and we can just change their lives and disrupt the thing. A lot of the best ideas come from the people themselves. I went to a project management training in Puerto Rico and it was a very rarefied environment of people who could pay for people to get PMP training, or whatever. The people that were in my cohort were factory project planners and not a single one of them knew anyone who worked in the factory. Like, they didn't get to know them as part of that project and they didn't have anyone in their sphere and my parents were paper mill workers. So when I'm sitting there and listening to these people talk about the worker and their lack of wherewithal, I guess, there'll be a gracious way to say it right now, I was just appalled. I try to take that into any time we are building software in a way that honors all people. CASEY: Yeah. My favorite leaders are the ones that listen to their employees and the users. I am happy with my roles in leadership positions, but the thing that makes me happy with myself is listening and if I ever lose that, I don't trust myself to be a good leader, or manager. MAE: Totally. CASEY: I could. I know it's easy when you get promoted to stop listing as much. It's the incentive structure of the system. I wouldn't blame myself if I lost it, but knowing I value it and don't want to lose it helps me hold on to my propensity to listen. MAE: Yes, Casey! Totally that. CASEY: Sometimes people have asked me, “What makes you think you'd be good at leading this?” That is literally my answer is like, “Well, I won't forget to listen.” MAE: Yeah. JAMEY: I think that it's weird the way that people create this hierarchy of good ideas and better ideas and which idea is better and put that kind of value judgment on it. When really, when you're dealing with software and trying to create something that works for the people that are using it. It's not about whether your idea is good or bad, it's about whether it's the right one for that group of people. My background, my first tech industry job was in agriculture and so, all of our customers were farmers and people that worked at farms, To admit I don't know what it's like to work on a farm in that way, it's not a value judgment about whether you're smart, or good at programming, which people act like it is. It's just a true fact about whether, or not you've ever had that experience. [laughter] CASEY: Sometimes I run workshops where we think about all the pros and cons to different ideas and when we need it, we pull out a matrix. We get a spreadsheet that has columns and rows, and rows are the ideas. A lot of decisions are made with one column, naturally like, “What's the best?” You just say like, “1 to 10, this one's the best.” But when we break it out, we have lots of columns, lots of variables like, oh, this one's easier to build, this one's higher impact. And when we break it out even further, we can weight those columns then do the matrix math and people like that, actually. Even people who are math averse. They can fill in the numbers in each of the cells and then they trust the spreadsheet to do the thing. That gets us on the same page. It depends on the context, which columns matter, which factors are important and that can completely change the situation. Even if you all agree on this one's harder than that one, the outcome could be completely different. The columns, or the context in my matrix model. JAMEY: We’re reading at work 99 Bottles of Object-Oriented Programming, which Mae knows because we work together, which we haven't said yet on the show. But we're doing a book club. Your description of the matrix columns and what is relevant reminded me of the thesis of that book because it's like, there are tradeoffs. It's not that one tradeoff is necessarily more valuable than another tradeoff, it's just like what makes sense for this context that you're using and building it in, then you have to think about it in a nuanced way if you want to come up with a nuanced answer. MAE: I am so grateful to and inspired by Sandi Metz. Her ability to distill these concepts into common sense terms is so genius and moving, welcoming, accessible. So grateful, so really glad you brought that up, Jamey. One of the things that really stuck out from various talks of hers that I've been to is even if you aren't changing that code, that code does not need to change. That's bad code, but it works. That's great code, [chuckles] like working code, and splitting some of the bikeshedding that we do on code quality with business impact is a teeter-totter that I really appreciate. JAMEY: I like the way it puts value on everyone and what they're working on. Because my big takeaway from starting to read this book has been that I tend to write fairly simple code because that's what I find easy to do. [chuckles] I always felt well, other people write more complicated code than me because they know more about X, Y, and Z than me and I don't know enough about it to write something that elegant, or that complex, or et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I had placed this value judgment on other people's code over mine and to read about code that's dissecting the value judgments we put on it and determining hey, just because maybe it's not always the best thing to overengineer something Maybe it doesn't have to be because you don't feel smart enough to overengineer it. Maybe it can just be because that's not the right choice. [chuckles] MAE: Cool. JAMEY: I thought that was really valuable to think about. MAE: Love that, Jamey. JAMEY: Boost people's confidence, I hope because I think a lot of people need their confidence boosted. [chuckles] MAE: Yo, I had no idea what I was getting into as far as the mental health challenge of being a programmer. To maintain one's self-respect, especially as an adult who was successful in her career prior to then be like, there is a whole thing about the adult learner. But to have your entire day be dealing with things that are either broken, or don't exist yet, that's your whole day. Nothing works ever basically and the moment it does, you move on to the things that aren't, or don't exist. So it's so critical to try to remember and/or learn how to celebrate those small wins that then somehow feel like insulting that you're celebrating this is just some simple things. [laughs] And then it's like, why are we making a big fanfare? But those microjoys—I've never heard that phrase as opposed to microaggression, or something. Microjoys, if we could give each other those, it could go a long because the validation is a very different experience than I have seen, or heard about, or experienced in any other industry. It's a real challenge. JAMEY: Not only is everything broken, or doesn't exist. But once it's working, you never hear about it again until it's broken again. [chuckles] MAE: Yeah. [laughs] CASEY: That’s so true and it's such an anti-pattern. At USCIS, you would have every developer, who was interested, see an interview—we’re working on an interview app—watch the user use the app every month at least, if not more and they loved those. They saw the context, they saw the thing they just built be used. That's positive feedback that everyone deserves, in my opinion and it's just a cultural idea that engineers don't get to see users, but they should. They do at some companies and yours can, too. MAE: Yes, Casey! We are working on that at True Link financial as well. Figuring out how to work that more in so that we all feel part of the same team more and we're not like the IT crowd and in the basement and all we have to say is, “Hello, have you tried turning it on and off again?” [laughs] JAMEY: Casey, I love that because even as you were telling that story, I was like, “Yeah, it's useful to see how people use it because that'll help you make better decisions,” and blah, blah, blah, which I feel strongly about. And then what you actually said at the end was, “and you get satisfaction out of being able to see people using your thing.” I hadn't even thought of that dynamic of it. CASEY: Yeah. It’s both, happier and more effective. That's the thing I say a lot. These user interviews make you happier doing your job and make you more effective at doing them both. How can you not? MAE: Yeah. JAMEY: What’s not to like? [laughter] It's true, though about knowing that people use your app. I started in consulting and a lot of the things I worked on felt a little soul crushing and not because I thought that they were bad, or unethical in any way, but just like, who is this for? Like, who cares about this? One of my most joyful experiences was one of the other products that wasn't quite like that, that I worked on when I was in consulting was an app called Scorebuilders and it was for physical therapy students have a specific standardized test they have to take and so, it's study prep for this specific test. There's like two, or three and we had different programs for them. And then I, a few years after that was, in physical therapy myself, because I have back problems and they have interns from college helping them in the physical therapy office that I went to and they were talking about studying for their test, or whatever. I was like, “Oh, that's funny. I haven't thought about that in a while. Do you use Scorebuilders to study in?” They were like, “Oh yeah. We all use it. That's what you use if you're in this program,” and I was like, “Oh, I built that,” and they were like, “What?!” They were calling all of the other people from the next room to be like, “Guess what?” and I'm like, “This is literally the best thing that's ever happened.” [laughs] MAE: Yay! CASEY: Yeah! That's such a good story in the end, but it's such a bad story. You never got to meet anyone like that earlier, really? JAMEY: Yeah. CASEY: That's common, that’s everywhere, but that's a shame. You can change that. [overtalk] JAMEY: I just realized since it was consulting and not like, I didn't work for Scorebuilders. CASEY: Oh, I’m sure. It's even more hard. JAMEY: Yeah. CASEY: I'm so glad you got that. JAMEY: Thank you. It happened like 5 years ago and I still think about it all the time. [laughs] Well, we've been having a great discussion, but we've pretty much reached the point in the show where it's time to do reflections and that's when everyone will say something that really stood out to them about our conversation, maybe a call-to-action, something that they want to think more about. So, Casey, do you want to start? CASEY: Yeah. I said this earlier, but this is my big takeaway is the word mutual aid can be more approachable if you think about it like people helping people and not a formal organization. Especially since it is, by definition, grassroots-y. There is no formal stamp of approval on a mutual aid group that formalizes it. That's pretty powerful. I'll be thinking about what communities I'm part of that do that through that lens this week and I challenge listeners to help and be helped sometime this week, both. JAMEY: I think one thing that I'm going to really try and keep in mind is what we were talking about, valuing yourself and the way that that helps the community. I really liked Mae’s story about including yourself after other people and using that way to frame it in your mind. Because I think that that will make it easier and thinking about like, this is something I struggle with all the time. I think a lot of us do. So I think that I really want to take that one into my life. Next time I realize I'm treating myself unfairly, I want to think, “Well, how is this affecting the other people around me who probably don't want to see me to do that?” [chuckles] MAE: Thanks, Jamey. Yeah. I have so many answers of reflections! The one I know I'm going to use immediately is this most recent one of engaging with users using the things you're building as a reward and a way to be able to get microjoy. I'm definitely going to use that word now more, microjoys, but I agree with both of what you said, too. JAMEY: Well, Mae thank you so much for coming on and chatting with us. This was really great and I think people will really appreciate it. MAE: Yay. I loved it! Thank you both so much. What a treat! CASEY: I feel like we could keep talking for hours. JAMEY: I know. [laughter] This is how I feel after a lot of my episodes. [laughter] Which is always good, I guess, but. Special Guest: Mae Beale.

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Posted on 9 June 2021 | 9:00 am

237: Empathy is Critical with Andrea Goulet

01:13 - Andrea’s Superpower: Distilling Complexity * Approaching Copywriting in a Programmatic Way * Word-land vs Abstract-land 09:00 - “Technical” vs “Non-Technical” * This or That Thinking 16:20 - Empathy is Critical * Communication Artifacts * Audience/User Impact * Programmer Aptitude Test (PAT) 33:00 - Reforming Hiring Practices and Systems * Core Values * ( * Retrospectives 39:28 - Performance Reviews * Continuous Feedback * Brave New Work by Aaron Dignan ( * Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World ( * Continuous Improvement & Marginal Gains “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” ~ Arthur Ashe Empathy In Tech ( Corgibytes ( Reflections: Mando: Empathy is being able to view and identify other perspectives. Jess: Help happens when you have empathy for individuals who aren’t the great majority of people using the software. Casey: The best way to develop empathy for someone else is to get their feedback. Do it during an interview! Andrea: Diving deeper than code is valuable! This episode was brought to you by @therubyrep ( of DevReps, LLC ( To pledge your support and to join our awesome Slack community, visit ( To make a one-time donation so that we can continue to bring you more content and transcripts like this, please do so at ( You will also get an invitation to our Slack community this way as well. Transcript: JESSICA: Good morning and welcome to Greater Than Code, Episode 237. I'm Jessica Kerr and I'm happy to be here today with my friend, Mando Escamilla! MANDO: Hey, Jess. Thanks. I am happy to be here with my friend, Casey Watts. CASEY: Hi, I'm Casey and we're all here with Andrea Goulet. Andrea is a sought-after keynote speaker for conferences around the world, empowering audiences to deepen their technical skills for understanding and communicating with others. She is best known for her work defining Empathy-Driven Development, a framework that helps software engineers anchor their decisions and deliverables on the perspectives of the people who will be impacted by what they create. Andrea is a co-founder of Corgibytes, a software consultancy that helps organizations pay down technical debt and modernize legacy systems. You can recognize her by the JavaScript tattoo on her wrist. Welcome, Andrea. ANDREA: Hi, welcome! Nice to be here. CASEY: We always like to start with a question, which I think you’re prepared for, that is what is your superpower, Andrea, and how did you acquire it? ANDREA: Yeah! First of all, I just love that y'all ask this. I think it's just such a nice way to get to know different people. I was thinking about this because you sent it a little bit ago and I was thinking maybe empathy, given the work I do. But I don't actually think that's it. I feel like I'm constantly trying to learn more about empathy, but I do think that what my superpower is, is distilling complexity. So I went back and looked at what the thread is of all the recommendations I've got on LinkedIn and things like that. It's not something that I would necessarily say that I noticed, but it's something that other people have noticed about me. The idea of taking a really abstract and big, gnarly, complex topic, and being able to distill it down to its essence and then communicate either what the importance is, or what the impact is to other people. I think that's why I've gravitated towards big, gnarly things like legacy code. [chuckles] Because what motivates me is impact and how do we have the work that we do make as big of an impact as possible? So the way I got into software was really a twisty and windy road. I started out as a copywriter and I think that's where the distilling complexity comes down because I would sit with clients and learn all about their businesses. And then I would write typically, a website, or some kind of marketing material and they would say, “You said what was in my head and I couldn't say it.” JESSICA: Wow. ANDREA: And when I got into software, I had a friend of mine from high school, Scott, who's my co-founder at Corgibytes, he came up to me because I had been writing about my writing and he said, “You're not a writer, you're actually a programmer because the way that your brain works, you’re thinking in terms of inputs and manipulating data and outputs, and that's exactly what a programmer does.” So then, he wanted to fix legacy code for a living. I didn't even know what that was at that point, thought it was a good thing and I found that my ability to both walk in and understand not just the syntax of what's going on, but the business challenges and how everything links together. With that, you can create a sense of cohesion on a team and getting different people to work together and different people to see each other's points of view, because when you're able to distill a perspective over here and say, “Okay, well, this is what this person's trying to say,” and still, this over here. “Okay, I think this is what this person's trying to say.” I feel like a lot of times I am kind of like a translator, but it's taken me a long time. I've been in software 12 years now and I still have massive imposter syndrome like, I don't belong because I'm not the fastest person on the keyboard. I really struggle with working memory. My visualization is really a struggle, but I do really great in an ensemble. When I started ensemble programming—sometimes it's referred to as mob programming—I was like, “I can do this. Oh my gosh, this makes sense and I belong.” I think just over the years, little things like hearing the joke – I was at a conference, Jess, I think this may have been ETE when you and I connected, but I heard a joke and it was, I think Phil Carlton had first said it and it was like, “There's only two hard problems in computer science, cache invalidation and naming things,” and then somebody else said, “Off-by-1 errors.” I remember I was like, “Y'all think naming things is hard?” Like, help me understand how that's hard because that’s – JESSICA: [inaudible]? Oh my gosh, that's hard. ANDREA: Yeah, and to me, it just comes so naturally. I think that's kind of the thing is figuring out where is your trait, where's your skillset. I remember when I first started doing open source contributions, I haven't done those in a long time, but just going in and modifying the language on help messages and turning them from passive to active voice. They got accepted, it was on some high-profile projects, and it was like, I didn't really feel like I was even doing much and I still feel like, “Is that even a big deal?” But I think that's kind of the definition of a superpower a little bit is that – JESSICA: Yeah, it’s easy for you. [laughs] ANDREA: You don't recognize that it's hard for other people. Yeah, and so it's neat now that it's like I'm starting to come into my own and leaning into that, and then helping other people see that the way that I approach naming things, the way I approach copywriting is actually in a very programmatic way. It's leaning on frameworks. It's leaning on patterns that I use over time. I know, Casey, you and I have talked last week about like when I first go to a conference like using open-ended questions versus closed-ended questions and these little kind of communication hacks that I've developed over the years. So now putting those together in a framework to help other people remember that when we're coding, we're not coding for a computer, we're coding through a computer for other people. The computer is just like a code is just a tool. It's a powerful tool. But a lot of times – CASEY: I have a question for you, Andrea. ANDREA: Yeah. CASEY: About that, I find myself switching gears between word land and abstract land. So if I'm coding and I'm not thinking of words, the naming is hard, but sometimes I can switch gears in a different head space. It's like a different me and then I'm naming things really well. Especially if I'm looking at someone else's code, I don't have to be an abstract land; they did that part already. Do you find yourself switching between the two? ANDREA: Oh, all the time. Yeah, and especially, too, when you're writing prose. There's two different kind of aspects of your brain. There's the creative conceptual side and then there's the analytical rational side and everybody has both. So it does require you to come out of the abstract side in that and then move into more of the analytical space, which is why I love pairing. I love coding as a group because then that way, it's like the mental model is shared and so, I can stay in my world of naming things really well, or I don't know that we need to be that precise if we try to – like, when I was in one group and they were trying to have a timing thing and it was like down to the millisecond and I was like, “Y'all, we don't need to be that precise. We just need to have this check once every 10 minutes,” and that saved like 6 hours of work. Just being able to say that thing and be the checkpoint. JESSICA: Yeah. Someone has to be super down in the details of what to type next and it helps to have someone else thinking about it at the broader perspective of why are we doing this? ANDREA: Yeah, and that's me, typically and I love that role, but it's very different than I think what goes through people's minds when they envision a software developer. JESSICA: Yeah, maybe they envisioned the things that software developers do that other people don't. Typing curly braces. ANDREA: Yeah. MANDO: I still think of that when I'm doing it. When I think of myself as a software developer, I think of myself as the person who hasn't gotten up from their desk in 5 hours and just hunched over, just blazing fast hacking on something that probably is kind of dumb. [laughter] But when I don't spend my day like that, I don't really feel exactly like I've been doing my job and it's something that I struggle with because I know that's not the job in its totality by any means and it doesn't mean that I'm not getting good work done. JESSICA: Not even close to most of the job. MANDO: Not even close to most of the job, you're exactly right. JESSICA: Like you said, if you're sitting there for 5 hours by yourself, hunched over your computer, you're probably hacking on something dumb. MANDO: Right. [laughter] JESSICA: We had gotten off on a tangent somewhere without someone to be like, “Why are we doing this again?” MANDO: Exactly, exactly. Yeah. ANDREA: Well, and I think that that has been a personal challenge of mine as well. I know there was a really flashbulb moment for me. Scott and I have been running our business together for a couple of years. We had gotten on our first podcast and he was telling our origin story and he used the phrase, “Andrea, she's the non-technical founder.” When I heard it, I was like, “How dare you? I have for 2 years been sitting right next to you,” and then he said, “Well, that's the term you use to describe yourself all the time. We had been in a sales meeting right before I recorded that podcast and that's literally the words you use to introduce yourself. So once you start calling yourself technical, I'll follow suit.” JESSICA: Wow. ANDREA: It really made me think and I think some of it is because whenever I go to conferences, I don't look like other people who code especially 12 years ago. I don't talk like the people who are typically stereotypical developers and the first question I would get asked, probably 25 to 40% of the time from people I met were, “Hi! Are you technical, or non-technical?” JESSICA: Really? ANDREA: Yeah. MANDO: Ugh. JESSICA: Huh. ANDREA: And that would be the first thing out of the gate. At the time, I didn't have the kind of mental awareness to go, “I'm at a technical conference. I think you can assume I'm technical.” The fact is I was scared to call myself technical and over the years, I'm just like, “What does that mean to be technical and why do we define people by you are either technical, or you have nothing?” Non-technical, you have zero technical skills, you don't belong. JESSICA: So after you had that conversation with Scott, did you switch to calling yourself technical? Did you change your language? ANDREA: It has been a journey. I became very conscious of not using non-technical. I'll sometimes then say like, “I struggle with syntax and I'm really, really good at these things.” When I phrase things that way, or “I have engineers who are so much better and have much deeper expertise in Docker and Kubernetes than I do. I'm really good at explaining the big picture and why this happens.” So it becomes, I think what we do in software is that because we're so used to thinking in binaries, because that's the way we need to make our code work—true/false, if/else, yes/no—and that pattern naturally extends itself into human relationships, too. Because I know that every single person who asked me that question in no way was trying to be rude, or shut me out. I know that the intention behind it was kind and trying to be inclusive. But from my perspective, when half the people walk up to you and go, “Do you belong here?” Then it's like, “I don't know. Do I belong here?” JESSICA: Yeah. ANDREA: So that's an example of how, if you're at a conference saying, “What brings you here?” That's very open-ended and then it gives everybody the chance to say what brings them here and there's no predefined, “Do you fit in this bucket, or that bucket? Are you part of us, or are you part of them?” JESSICA: It's open to surprise. ANDREA: Mm hm and I think that's something that I am really good at. That's my superpower is let's see the complexity and then let's see the patterns and let's figure out how we can all get good work done together. But you can't see the complexity unless you take a step back. JESSICA: Yeah, and yet Scott noticed that when you are thinking that way, you are thinking like a programmer. Because while software starts by getting us used to thinking in binaries—I should say programming. ANDREA: Yeah. JESSICA: It’s just thinking of binaries, as soon as you get up to software and software systems, you have to think in complexity. ANDREA: Yeah. MANDO: And like you were saying, Andrea, I find myself nowadays better recognizing when I'm falling into that trap when I'm not talking about work stuff. When I find myself saying, “Well, it's this, or it's this.” It's like, “Is it really this, or this?” JESSICA: Are these the only options? ANDREA: Yeah. MANDO: Yeah. Do I have to eat Thai food, or pizza tonight, or could I just eat ice cream, or a salad, or…? [laughs] ANDREA: Yeah. MANDO: You know what I mean? It's a silly example, but I don't know, there's something about doing this for a while that I find that kind of this, or that thinking wiring itself into my brain. JESSICA: Yeah. ANDREA: Yeah. Well, and I think that that's normal and that's human. We operate on heuristics. There's the whole neurons that fire together wire together and if you're spending the majority of your time in this thought pattern, adopting something else can be a challenge. So to me, it's like trying to describe how the way I navigate the world in being able to name things well and being able to talk to new people, connect dots, see patterns that I rely on frameworks just as much as I do when I code and trying to figure out what are those things. What are those things? JESSICA: Yeah, because you don't have to import that top level file from the framework in order to use it. So it's not explicit that you're using it. ANDREA: Exactly. Yeah, exactly. So that's been my challenge is that as Scott is like, “Well, help me understand.” I'm like, “I, uh. I don't know. I do this.” That was where I nailed on empathy as really critical and it's been fascinating because when I first started about 5 years writing and talking about empathy in software, the first thing I noticed were all the patterns. I was like, “A really well-written commit message, that's empathy.” That is taking the time to document your rationale so that it's easier for somebody behind you. Refactoring a method so that it's easy to read, deleting the dead code so that it's less burdensome, even logging. Looking at logging in C versus Ruby, it's night and day. JESSICA: Help messages. ANDREA: Yeah. There's a little moment. MANDO: Non-happy path decisions in code. Guardrails. All that stuff. ANDREA: Yeah. So I started thinking in terms of communication artifacts. All of these little things that we're producing are just artifacts of our thinking and you can't produce a communication artifact unless you are considering a perspective. What I noticed, of the perspective, is that a lot of software developers had been trained to take was that of the compiler. I want to make the compiler happy. I want to make the code work. That's a very specific practice of perspective taking that is useful if you're imagining okay, we don't have to get rid of that and we need to add the recognition that the perspectives taking needs to go the compiler into who will be interacting with what you're creating and that is on both the other side of the UI, if there is one, or working on the code that you've written maybe six months from now and that can be your future self. And then also, who will be impacted by the work that you create, because not everybody who is impacted by the decisions that you make will be directly interacting with and when I'm writing content, or that is the framework is getting to know the audiences really well, doing good qualitative research. So that's kind of the difference between the open-ended versus closed-ended questions. Then being able to perspective change and then along the way, there are little communication hacks, but just thinking about every single thing that you produce—and no, I have not come across a communication artifact, or a thing that is produced while coding that is not somehow rooted in empathy. JESSICA: Because it's communication and you can't communicate – [overtalk] ANDREA: It’s all communication. JESSICA: At all without knowing what is going to be received and how that will be interpreted. ANDREA: Yeah. Similar to test-driven development, where we're framing things in terms of unit tests and just thinking about the test before we write the code. In the same way, we're thinking about the perspective of other people—we can still think of the compiler—and anchoring our decisions on how it will impact other people. JESSICA: It's making the compiler happy. That's just table stakes. That's absolute minimum. ANDREA: Yeah. Well, it's been fascinating because this part of this project. So I'm writing a book now, which is super exciting and by far, the hardest thing I've ever done. But one of the things that, because I'm curious, I'm like, “Why? How did we get here? How did we get here where, by all objective measures, I should have been able to go into computer science without a problem and feel like –?” JESSICA: Think of yourself as technical without a problem. ANDREA: Yeah. Why do I still struggle and why did we extract empathy out of this? So looking at the history of it has been fascinating because as the computer science industry grew, there was a moment in the mid-60s. There was a test, like a survey, that went out to just under 1,400 people called the Canon Perry vocational test for computer programmers. It was vocational satisfaction, I think. But it was measuring the satisfaction of programmers and they were trying assess what does a satisfied programmer look like. There were many, many problems with the methodology of this, including the people who they didn't define who a programmer was, the people self-defined. So it's like, if you felt like you were programmer, then you were a programmer, but there was no objective. Like, this is what a programmer is prior to selecting the audience, the survey respondents and then when they evaluated the results, they only used professional men. They didn't include any professional women in their comparison study. So the women in the study, there are illustrations and the women are not presented as professionals, they are presented as sex objects in a research paper. The scientific programmers, they're the ones who get the girl and she's all swooning. The business programmers are very clearly stated as less than and they're shy. The girl is like, “I don't want you.” JESSICA: That have like comics, or something? ANDREA: It was comics, yeah. They had like comic illustrations in there. Okay, it's a survey, what's the big deal? Well, from 1955 through the mid-90s, there was an aptitude test from IBM called the Programmer Aptitude Test, the PAT. In there, Walter McNamara from IBM, who created it, went out, had empathy, and was like, “Okay, let's talk to our customers, what does a good programmer look like,” and determined that logical reasoning was the number one attribute. Okay, sounds good. But then he said, “Well, if logical reasoning is the most important attitude, then we need to create a timed 1-hour math test.” What's interesting to me is that in that, there is a logical fallacy in and of itself, called a non-sequitur, [chuckles] where it's like all humans are mammals, bingo a mammal. Therefore, bingo is a human. That's an example of a non-sequitur. That's what happened where it was determined logical reasoning is important to computer science and programming. All mathematics is logical reasoning. Therefore, mathematics is the only way to measure the capability that somebody has for logical reasoning. That, saying, “Okay, we don't care about communication skills. We don't care about empathy. We don't care about any of that. Just are you good at math?” And then the PAT’s study—I've been diving into the bowels of the ACM and looking at primary resource documents for the past several months—and there was an internal memo where Charles McNamara referred to the Canon Perry study in 1967 and said, “The PAT was given to 700,000 people last year and next year, we should incorporate these findings into the PAT,” and the PAT became the de facto way to get into computer science. So these are decisions that were made long before me and so, what you end up getting then – and then also in 1968, there was what's called, there was a NATO conference on software engineering and they said, “We really need to bring rigor into computer science. We need to make this very rigorous.” Again, there were no men at this conference. It was about standards and Grace Hopper wasn't even invited, even though she was like – [overtalk] JESSICA: There were no women in the conference. ANDREA: There were no women. JESSICA: No non-men. ANDREA: No non-men, yes. So you start to see stereotypes getting built and one of the stereotypes became, if you look like this and you are good at math, then you are good at programming. I'm very good at logical reasoning, but I struggle to do a time capsule. I have ADHD and that is something that's very, very, very challenging for me. So that coupled with and then you get advertising where it's marketed, too. MANDO: Yeah. ANDREA: So we need to undo all of this. We can recognize, okay, we can refactor all of this, but it takes recognizing the complexity and how did it all come to be and then changing it one thing at a time. CASEY: A lot of what you've just been talking about makes me think about Dungeons and Dragons and Skyrim for a little nerdy segue. ANDREA: Yeah. CASEY: You have skill trees. You could be a really, really good warrior, very good at math, very good at wielding your sword, and then if you measure how good you are at combat by how big your fireball spell can be, how many you can shoot, how accurate you are, you're missing that whole skill tree of ability, of power that you have. ANDREA: Yeah. MANDO: What I find so fascinating is when I was going through the computer science program that I never finished and this was like a million years ago. When I was in college, there was a very specific logical reasoning class that you had to take as part of the CS program at UT. But it wasn't a math class, it was a philosophy class and I think that's pretty common that logistics studies fall under schools of philosophy, not the schools of mathematics. So it was really interesting to me that these dudes just completely missed the mark, right? [laughs] ANDREA: It is the definition of irony and not Alanis Morrissette kind of way, right? [chuckles] I think that's the thing it's like – and this isn't to say the Walter McNamara was a bad person like, we all make mistakes. But to me, again, this is about impact and if one, or two people can have the ability to create a test that impacts millions of people across generations to help them feel whether, or not they belong in even contributing to building software. Because I always felt like I was a user of software—I was always a superuser—but for some reason, I felt like the other side of the interface, the command line, it was like Oz. It was like that's where the wizards live and I'm not allowed there. It's like, how do we just tear down that curtain and say, “Y'all, there is no – no, this was all built on like false assumptions”? How do we have a retrospective and say, “When we can look at a variety of different perspectives, then we get such stronger products.” We get such stronger code. We minimize technical debt in addition to hopefully, staving off biases that get built into the software. I think it's very similar of human systems, very similar to software systems. It's like, how can we roll back? If we make a mistake and it impacts human systems, how can we fix that as fast as possible, rather than just letting things persist? JESSICA: When you're talking about who can be a good software developer, when you're talking about who is technical, who is valuable, you don't want rigor in that! ANDREA: Right!
 JESSICA: That's not appropriate. ANDREA: Yeah. JESSICA: You want open questions. ANDREA: Yeah, and that is exactly what happened, was people conflate rigor and data with accuracy. There's a bias towards if it's got numbers behind it, it must be real, but you can manipulate data just as much as you can manipulate other things. So the PAT then said, “Okay, well, if you can't pass the PAT, then we'll create all of these other types of tests, so you could be a console operator, or you could be a data analyst.” What's fascinating is when you go back, the thing that was at the very bottom of the Cannon Perry survey, in terms of valuable development activities, was software maintenance. JESSICA: And that's everything now. ANDREA: Yeah!
 JESSICA: Back then, they didn't have a lot of software. MANDO: Yeah. JESSICA: They didn’t have open source libraries. If they needed something, they wrote it. ANDREA: But the stereotypes persist. JESSICA: Yeah. MANDO: 100%. ANDREA: The first evidence I found, again, was in 1967. There was a study of 12 people, all of whom were trainees at a company, which that would be a wild – they hadn’t even – [overtalk] JESSICA: So this is like even less than interviewing your grad students. ANDREA: Well, yeah. JESSICA: Or your undergrads for your graduate research paper, yes. ANDREA: They measured how quickly someone could solve a problem and they ranked them, and then they made the claim that you can save 25 times—this is the first myth of the 25x developer. Well, it got published in the ACM and then IBM picked it up and then McKinsey picked it up, and then it’s just, you get the myth of the full-stack unicorn who's going to come in and save everything! What's interesting is all of these things go back and I think they were formed out of good intention in terms of understanding our world and we understand now, exactly like you said, Jess. That's not the right way to go about it because then people who are really needed on software teams don't feel like they belong and it's like, “Well, do you belong?” JESSICA: That's an outsized impact for such a tiny study. ANDREA: Yeah. So that gets me thinking, what kinds of things am I doing that might have an outside impact? JESSICA: And can we make that impact positive? ANDREA: Yeah, and when we find out that it wasn't, can we learn from our mistakes? I think one of the things, too, is taking the idea of as people are coding. It's like, “Well, who's actually going to read this?” That's something I hear a lot. I used to feel that way about all tags. I’m like, “Who actually reads all tags?” But then my friend, Taylor, was in a car accident and lost his vision. and he was like, “I absolutely need all tags,” and I’ll tell you, that changed everything for me. Because it went from this abstract, “I have to check this box. I have to type something in, and describe this photo” to “I care about my friend Taylor and how can I make this experience as best for him as possible?” That is empathy because in order to have empathy, you have to connect with a single individual. Empathy is – and actually, when you do form empathy for a group, you get polarization. So empathy cuts both ways. It can be both very positive, but also very – [overtalk] CASEY: [inaudible] on the individual goes a long way. So for our discussion here, I can share an individual I've been talking to about this kind of problem. I have a friend who's a woman trying to get her first software developer role and she has to study how to hack the coding interview for a lot of the places where she wants to work, which is literally studying algorithms that you probably won't use in the job. I had an interview a few years ago that was the Google style algorithms interview for a frontend role. Frontend developers don't write algorithms, generally. Not unless you're working on the core of the framework maybe. It was completely irrelevant. I rejected them. I think they rejected me back, too probably. [laughter] But I wouldn't work there because of the hiring process. But my friend, who is a woman in tech trying to get in, doesn't have that kind of leeway to project. She wants to get her first job whoever it is – [overtalk] MANDO: She wants a job, yeah. CASEY: That is willing to use the bias system like that and to hack that system to study it specifically how to get around it, which isn't really helping anyone. ANDREA: Yeah. CASEY: So how can we help reform the system so she doesn't have to do that kind of thing and so, people like her don't have to, to get into tech? I don't know, my boycotting that one company is a very small impact; how do we get a company's hiring practices to change is a hard problem. ANDREA: It is a very hard problem. I can share what we are doing in Corgibytes to try to make a difference. I think the first thing is that in our hiring process, we have core values mapped to them and these are offshoots of our main core values, one of which is communication is just as important as code. So we have that every single applicant will get a response and that seems so like, duh, but the number of people who are here who are just ghosted, submit an application and it goes out into the ether. That is, in my opinion, disrespectful. We have an asynchronous screening interview, so it’s an application and it's take your time, fill it out, and it's questions like, “What's an article you found interesting and why?” and “What do you love about modernizing legacy code?” Some people need that time to think and just to formulate an answer and so, taking some of that pressure off, and then at the end of our – we have all of our questions mapped to our core values. I'm still trying to figure out how we can get away from more the dreaded technical interviews, but we don't use the whiteboard, but we also have a core value of anything that someone does for us, in terms of whether they show up for an interview, they will walk away with just as much benefit. They will have an artifact of learning something, or spec work is I think, immoral to some of these core things. So we use Exercism for us, so Katrina Owens, as a way of like, “Okay, show us a language that you're like really familiar with.” And then because with what we do, you just get tossed into if it’s like, “Okay, let's pick Scala.” It's like you've never tried functional programming before, but then just, it's more of seeing the mindset. Because I think it's challenging because we tried getting rid of them all together and we did have some challenges when it came to then client upper-level goals and doing the job. So it's a balance, I think and then at the end of our interviews doing retrospectives telling the candidate, “Here's what you did really well in this interview, here's where it didn't quite land for me,” because I think interviewing is hard and like you said, Casey, especially now post-COVID, I think more and more people have the power to leave jobs. So I think the power, especially in software development, for people who have had at least their first position, they have a lot more power to walk out the door than they did before. So as an employer and as somebody who's creating these, that's what I'm doing and then if we get feedback and the whole idea with empathy is you're never going to be able to be perfect. Because you don't have the data for the perspective of every single person, but being open and listening and when you do make mistakes, owning up to them, and fixing them as fast as possible. If we all did that, we can make a lot of progress on a lot of fronts really fast. CASEY: I'm so glad your company has those good hiring practices. You're really thinking about it, how to do it in a supportive, ethical, and equitable way. I wonder, we probably don't have the answer here today, but how can we get more companies to do that? I think you sharing here might help several companies, if their leadership are listening. and that's awesome. Spreading the message, talking about it more—that's one thing. Glad we're doing that. MANDO: Yeah. The place that I work at, we’re about to start interviewing some folks and I really like the idea of having a retrospective with the candidate after maybe a couple of days, or whenever after the interview and taking the time, taking the 30 minutes or whatever, to sit down and say, “If I'm going to take time to reach out to them anyway and say, ‘You're moving on to the next round,’ or ‘We have an offer for you, or not,’ then I should be willing to sit down with them and explain why.’” ANDREA: Well, I think the benefit goes both ways, actually. We do it right in our interviews. So we actually say the last 15 minutes, we're going to set aside on perspectives. MANDO: Oh wow, okay. ANDREA: So we do and that's something that we prep for ahead of time. We get feedback of what went well [chuckles] and what we can do better and what we can change. MANDO: Yeah. ANDREA: Because otherwise, as an employer, it's like, I have no idea. I'm just kind of going off into the ether, but then I can hear from other people's perspectives and it's like, okay and then we can change things. But that's an example of, we think of employer versus employee and it's like that's another dichotomy. It's like no, we're all trying to get good work done. JESSICA: Andrea, how do you do performance reviews? ANDREA: We're still trying to crack that, but there's definitely a lot of positive psychology involved and what we are trying to foster is the idea of continuous performance, or continuous feedback is what we call it. So we definitely don't do any kind of forced ranking and that's a branch of things that have contributed to challenges. We have one-on-ones, we check in with people, but a lot of it, I think is asking people what they want to be doing, genuinely. As a small company, we're like 25 people. I think it's easier in a small company, but part of it is – and we were constantly doing this with ourselves, too. My business partner was like, “I really want to try to be the CEO. I've always wanted to be the CEO.” So I stepped back actually during COVID. We focus on being a really responsive team and so, then that way, it's less about the roles. It's less about rigidity. There's a really great book in terms of operations called Brave New Work by Aaron Dignan. It has a lot of operational principles around this. Team of Teams is another really good one. But just thinking through like, what's the work that needs to be done, how can we organize around it, and then thinking of it in terms of more of responsibilities instead of roles. JESSICA: I want to think of it as a relationship. It's like, I'm not judging you as a developer, instead we’re evaluating the relationship of you in this position, in this role at this company. ANDREA: Yeah. JESSICA: How is that serving the company? How is that serving you? ANDREA: Yes, and I think that's a big piece of it is – and also, recognizing the context is really important and trying to be as flexible as possible, but then also recognizing constraints. So there have been times where it's like, “This isn't working,” but trying to use radical candor as much as you can, that's something we've been working on. But trying to give feedback as early and as often as possible and making that a cultural norm as to the, “Oh, I get the 360 feedback at the end, twice a year,” like that. JESSICA: Yeah, I'm sorry, if you can't tell me anything within two weeks, don't bother. ANDREA: Yeah. But one example is like we've fostered this and as a leader, I want people who are going to tell me where I'm stepping in it and where I'm messing up. So I kind of use – [overtalk] JESSICA: Yeah, at least that retrospective at the end of the interview says that. ANDREA: Mm hm, but even with my staff, it’s like – [overtalk] JESSICA: [inaudible] be able to say, “Hey, you didn’t send me a Google Calendar invite,” and they'd be like, “Oh my gosh, we should totally be doing that.” Did anybody tell them that? No! ANDREA: Yeah, totally. So I don't claim to have the answers, but these are just little experiments that we're trying and I think we really lean on the idea of continuous improvement and marginal gains. Arthur Ash had a really great quote, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” I think that's the thing, the whole point of the empathy during development framework is that if you're a developer working on the backend writing a nice commit message, or giving quality feedback on a pull request, instead of just a “Thumbs up, looks good to me.” That's a small act of empathy that you can start doing right away. You don't need to run it by anybody, really, hopefully. If you do, that's a problem [chuckles] your manager and we've seen that. But there are small ways that you can be empowered and leaning into those small moments, doing it again and again, and then creating opportunities to listen. Because empathy, I think the other thing is that people tend to think that it's a psychic ability. You're either data, or your Deanna Troi. CASEY: Jamil Zaki, right? ANDREA: Yeah, the Roddenberry effect. Jamil Zaki, out in Stanford, coined that. I think that's the thing; I've always been told I'm an empath, but I don't think it's telepathy. I think it's just I've gotten really good at spotting patterns and facial recognitions as opposed to Sky. He can just glance and go, “Oh, you're missing a semicolon here.” That is the same skill, it's just in a different context. CASEY: I love that parallel. JESSICA: Yeah. CASEY: Recognizing small things in facial expressions is like noticing missing semicolons. M: Mm hm. [laughs] CASEY: That's so powerful. That’s so vivid for me. MANDO: Yeah. Going back, that made what something that you said earlier, Andrea really click for me, which is that so many people who are professional software developers have this very well-developed sense of empathy for the compiler. [laughs] ANDREA: Yeah. MANDO: Right, so it's not that they're not empathetic. ANDREA: Yes! MANDO: They have learned over their career to be extremely empathetic, it's just for their computer. In the same way, you can learn to be empathetic towards your other teams, towards your DevOps group, towards the salespeople, towards anybody. ANDREA: The flip side of your non-technical is you're not good with people because Scott got this all the time. He's like, “You're good with machines, but you're not good with people.” When he told me that, I was like, “I've known you since we were 11, you're incredibly kind. I don't understand.” So in some ways, my early journey here, I didn't come with all the baggage and so, there is this, like, this industry is weird. [laughs] How can we unpack some of this stuff? Because I don't know, this feels a little odd. That's an example and I think it's exactly that it's cultural conditioning and it's from this, “You're good with math, but we don't want you to be good with people.” If you're good with people, that's actually a liability. That was one of the things that came out of the testing of the 60s, 70s, 80s, and early 90s. MANDO: I can't wait till this book of yours comes out because I'm so curious to read the basis of all these myths that we have unconsciously been perpetuating for years and I don't know why, but there is this myth, there are these myths. Like, if you're technical, you're not good with people and you're not – you know what I mean? It’s like, I can't wait to read it. ANDREA: You can go to You can sign up for the newsletter and we don't email very often. But Casey actually helps me run a Discord channel, too, or Discord server. So there's folks where we're having these conversations and it doesn't matter what your role is at all. MANDO: Yeah. ANDREA: Just let's start talking to each other. JESSICA: Andrea, that's beautiful. Thank you. That makes this a great time to move to reflections. At the end of each episode, we each get to do a reflection of something that stood out to us and you get to go last. ANDREA: Awesome. MANDO: I can go first. I've got one. The idea that empathy is being able to view and identify other perspectives is one that is something that I'm going to take away from this episode. I spent a lot of my career as a software developer and spent another good chunk of my career as someone who worked in operations and DevOps and admin kind of stuff. There's this historic and perpetual tug of war between the two and a lot of my career as a systems administrator was spent sitting down and trying to explain to software engineers why they couldn't do this, or why this GraphQL query was causing the database to explode for 4 hours every night and we couldn't live like that anymore. Stuff like that. To my shame, often, I would default to [laughs] this idea that these software engineers are just idiots and that wasn't the case at all. Well, probably [laughs] not the case at all. Almost always it wasn't the case at all. Anyway, but the truth of the situation is probably much closer to the idea that their perspective was tied specifically to the compiler and to the feature that they're trying to implement for their product manager, for customer X, or whatever. And they didn't have either the resources, or the experience, or the expertise, or whatever that was required to add on the perspective of the backend systems that they were interacting with. So maybe in the future, a better way to address these kinds of situations would be to talk about things in terms of perspective and not idiocy, I guess, is the… ANDREA: Yeah, a really powerful question there is what's your biggest pain point and how can I help you alleviate it? It's a really great way to learn what somebody's perspective is to get on the same page. MANDO: Yeah, like a lot. JESSICA: Nice. I noticed the part about how a lot of the help happens when you have empathy for the individuals who aren't on a happy path, who aren't the great majority of the people using the software, or the requests that come through your software. It's like that parable, there's a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray and the shepherd is going to leave the ninety-nine—who are fine, they're on the happy path, they're good—and go help the one. Because some other day, it's going to be another sheep that's off the happy path and that one's going to need help and that's about it. MANDO: Yeah. Today you, tomorrow me, right? That's how all this works. CASEY: The thing I'd been picking up is about feedback. Like, the best way to develop empathy for someone else is to get feedback, to get their perspective somehow. I've done retros at the ends of meetings, all the meetings at work I ever do. I even do them at the end of a Pomodoro session. A 25-minute timer in the middle of a pairing day, I'll do them every Pomodoro. “Anything to check in on? No? Good. Okay.” As long as we do. But I've never thought to do it during the interview process. That is surprising to me. MANDO: Yeah. CASEY: I don't know if I can get away with it everywhere. The government might not like it if I did that to their formal process. [laughter] Maybe I can get away with, but it's something I'll think about trying. I would like feedback and they would like feedback—win-win. MANDO: Yeah, I've never done it either and it makes perfect sense. I have a portion, unfortunately, in my interviews where I say right at the beginning, “This is what's going to happen in the interview,” and I spend 5 minutes going through and explaining, we're going to talk about this, we're going to talk about that, or just normal signposting for the interview. It never once has occurred to me to at the end, say, “Okay, this is what we did. Why don't you give me some feedback on that and I give you some feedback about you?” That makes sense. ANDREA: Awesome. For me, I have been wanting to come on your show for a really long time. I was telling Casey. [chuckles] JESSICA: Ah! ANDREA: I was like, “I love the mission of expanding the idea of what coding is.” So I just feel very honored because for the longest time, I was like, “I wonder if I'm going to be cool enough one day to –” [laughs] JESSICA: Ah! We should have invited you a long time ago. ANDREA: Yeah. So there's a little bit of fangirling going on and I really appreciate the opportunity to just dive a little bit deep, reflect, and think. As somebody who doesn't mold, it's nice to get validation sometimes that the way I'm thinking is valuable to some people. So it gives me motivation to keep going. JESSICA: Yeah. It's nice when you spend a lot of energy, trying to care about what other people care about, to know that other people also care about this thing that you care about. ANDREA: Yeah. JESSICA: Thank you so much for joining us. ANDREA: Thank you for having me! MANDO: Thank you. ANDREA: The fastest way to reach out to me and make sure that I see it is actually to go to Corgi like the dog, bytes, B-Y-T-E-S, .com and send an email on the webform because then that way, it'll get pushed up to me. But I struggle with email a lot right now and I'm on Twitter sporadically and I'm also on – MANDO: That’s good. The best way to do that. ANDREA: I am a longform writer. I'm actually really excited that I have a 100,000 words to explain myself. I do not operate well in the 140-character kind of world, but I'm on there and also, on LinkedIn. And then the book website is and there's a link to the Discord channel and some deeper articles that I've written about exactly what empathy in tech is and what empathy driven development is. I'm writing it with my friend, Carmen Shirkey Collins, who is another copywriter who is now in tech over at Cisco, and it's been a joy to be on a journey with her because she's super smart and has great background in perspective, too. JESSICA: And if you want to work on meaningful, impactful legacy code in ensembles, check out Corgibytes. ANDREA: Yeah. JESSICA: And if you want to talk to all of us, you can join our Greater Than Code Slack by donating anything at all to our Greater Than Code Patreon at Thank you, everyone and see you next time! Special Guest: Andrea Goulet.

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Posted on 2 June 2021 | 9:00 am

236: Connecting Arts and Technology – The Power of Print with Marlena Compton

01:07 - Marlena’s Superpower: Bringing the Arts to Tech * Coming Into Tech as a Creative 04:42 - Parallels Between Art and Computer Science/Software Engineering * System Architecture * Spatial Thinking & Representation * Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thought by Barbara Tversky ( * Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff & Mark Johnson ( 09:33 - Sketchnoting and Zines * The Sketchnote Handbook: The Illustrated Guide to Visual Note Taking by Mike Rohde ( 14:19 - DIY Publishing and Physicality – The Power of Print * The Pamphlet Wars ( 20:33 - Zines at Work & Zines in Professional Settings * Slowing Down Our Thought Processes * Using Diagrams to Ask Questions & For Exploration * Graphic Facilitators 31:11 - Target Audiences, Codeswitching, & People Are Not Robots 37:58 - How We View, Study, and Treat Liberal Arts – (Not Well!) * Formulating Thoughts In A Way That’s Available For Consumption 43:01 - Using Diagrams and Images * UML (Unified Modeling Language) ( * Collaborative Whiteboarding Software and Shared Visual Language (Drawing Together) 50:41 - Handwriting Advice: Decolonize Your Mind! * SLOW DOWN * Write Larger * Practice * How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell ( 59:45 - The “Let’s Sketch Tech!” ( Conference * Patreon ( * Podcast ( * Newsletter ( Reflections: Damien: Decolonize your mind. Jamey: Zine fairs at work and valuing yourself by taking up space. Rein: Creativity is good for individuals to explore, but when we share it with people it’s a way we can become closer. Marlena: Connecting arts and technology. This episode was brought to you by @therubyrep ( of DevReps, LLC ( To pledge your support and to join our awesome Slack community, visit ( To make a one-time donation so that we can continue to bring you more content and transcripts like this, please do so at ( You will also get an invitation to our Slack community this way as well. Transcript: JAMEY: Hello, everyone and welcome to Episode 236 of Greater Than Code. I’m one of your hosts, Jamey Hampton, and I’m here with my friend, Rein Henrichs. REIN: Thanks, Jamey. And I’m another one of your hosts and I’m here with my friend, Damien Burke DAMIEN: Thanks, Rein. And I'm here in addition to with the host, our guest today, Marlena Compton. Marlena Compton is a tech community organizer, designer, and collaboration artist who has worked in the tech industry for 18 years. She grows tech communities and organizes conferences such as “Pear Conf” and “Let’s Sketch Tech!” Marlena has worked for companies like IBM and Atlassian. This has left her with a life-long appreciation for quality code, empathy, and working together as a team. When she isn’t working, Marlena enjoys lettering, calligraphy, and walking her dog. Welcome to the show, Marlena. MARLENA: Hi, thank you so much. DAMIEN: So I know you're prepared for this. Same thing we do for all of our guests, we're going to start with the first question. What is your superpower and how did you acquire it? MARLENA: Yeah, so my superpower is bringing the arts to tech and that is teaching people the value of creative arts—such as writing, sketching, music, and more—and how this relates to the tech industry, helping creative types feel more at home in tech, and helping folks who are mostly in the science track in school learn why they need the creative arts for critical thinking and thinking through problems. So it's like, you have to give people a space to do this learning from a peer perspective versus top-down perspective. This includes building community for folks to explore these things. JAMEY: So you came to tech from art previously, is that right? MARLENA: I have a wild academic background of interdisciplinary studies, which will not get you a job for anything but like, renting a car. [laughter] Or whatever and also, later I did computer science, but while I was getting my liberal arts degree, I did a lot of art history, a lot of painting, and a lot of theater. JAMEY: I wonder if you could speak to coming into the tech industry as someone who is already an artist and considers themselves an artist, like, how that translated for you. Like, what skills from being an artist, do you think were helpful to you as you were starting in tech? MARLENA: Sure. So I think that if you know that you're an artistic type, like I knew how important arts were for me. But I think for children often they get a lot of pressure to find something that will get them a job and it's not like this isn't for good reason, it's like we’ve got to be able to pay our bills. On the other hand, when you're a creative type, it's such a core part of your personality. You can't really separate it from anything and if you try to just tamp it down, it's going to come out somehow. So I was this college graduate and I was having a really hard time getting a job and figuring out what I wanted to do that would make enough money to support me. Computer science was literally the last thing I tried and I seem to do okay at it so I kept doing it. [laughs] And that's how I got into it. I wish that we had bootcamps when I started learning computer science, but there weren't any and so, all I could do was go back to community college. So I went to community college. I had to take every single math class over again. Calculus, I had to take three times, but I stuck with it. I didn't know if I could do it, but I kept taking the classes and eventually, it worked. So [laughs] that's how I got into the tech industry and it's like, it's totally okay to do this just to make money. That's why I did it. DAMIEN: So then coming in with this art background, which seems really broad and you didn't talk about anything specific, what insights and connections were you able to make between art and computer science, and art and software engineering? MARLENA: Sure. So for me, building software is a creative process. In fact, this is something I've believed for a very long time, because as soon as I got out with my newly-minted CS degree and I knew that I needed to create, draw, write, and do all of those things. Eventually, I started looking around for okay, what in computer science is kind of more visual place and it used to be people would think of diagramming software, HoloVizio, Rational Rose, which is that is quite a throwback. Who here –? DAMIEN: UML. MARLENA: [laughs] That UML, yes! I would look at these things, like system architect, where it's like the idea was that you could literally draw out pieces and then it would make your code, which was [laughs] I think an epic fail if you look at it from, did it actually ever write successful code? I have never – REIN: There's another option, which was the expense of architects draw the boxes and then the chief engineer put the code in the boxes. MARLENA: Well, but see, you need a brain in there and this is all about the brain. [laughter] MARLENA: Yeah. I think one transformation that my thinking had to go through so, I had to go from this computer science perspective of find a way to chop up all your thoughts into little, discreet, logical pieces so that you can make classes, objects, and things like that and instead look at the brain as an organ in your body. We take more of a holistic perspective where it is your brain is connected to your thoughts is connected to like your internal axes, GPS system, and mapping system and how all of that comes together to problem solve. REIN: Yeah. I love it. Without bodies, we couldn't think about things MARLENA: Indeed. This past year, I've spent a lot of time specifically investigating this connection. One of the things I did was read Barbara Tversky's book, Mind in Motion, and the premise of her book is that spatial thinking is the foundation of abstract thought. That is how you orient yourself in the world and how you perceive a space around you and yourself in that space is what allows you to organize ideas, take perspectives that are based in imagination, and things like that. REIN: Yeah, and this ties into Wyckoff's work on basic metaphors because basic metaphors are how we structure our thought, but they're all about the world. So thinking about the metaphor of containment, you have a thing, it has an inside and an outside, there may be a portal that gets you from the inside to the outside. So this is how houses work, right? This is how we think about houses. This is also how we think about relationships. It's how we think about code. And then there's you combine that basic metaphor with the metaphor of traveling; starting at a place, traveling along a path, ending up at another place. You put those two metaphors together, you can have complex thoughts about achieving goals. But these are all metaphors based on, like you're saying, our perception of living in a world that has 3D space. Yes, and maps are such a big part of that. So when I was reading through this particular book, she goes into things like maps, how we map ideas, and things like that and there is quite a bit of science behind it. And even for metaphor, she writes that metaphor is what happens when our thoughts overflow our brains and we need to put them out into the world. DAMIEN: So putting these thoughts, these ideas back out into the world and into some sort of spatial representation, is that how you view the tech notetaking, or diagramming sort of thing? MARLENA: Absolutely. So I guess, for listeners, I want to back up a little bit because I think something that Damien knows about me and also Jamey and Rein from looking at the biography is that I'm very into sketch notes. Just to bring us out of the depth [laughs] a little bit, I can tell you about why I turned to sketchnoting and why I started doing it. It was because I was trying to learn JavaScript and yes, Damien, I know how you feel about JavaScript, some of us like it. [laughs] DAMIEN: I don't want to show my cards too much here, but I will say the fact that you had difficulty with it is telling. MARLENA: Well, but I also had difficulty learning C, Java, Erlang. DAMIEN: So how did [inaudible]? MARLENA: Well, so I went to CascadiaJS and this was my first – well, it wasn't my first, but it was the language conference and I was just learning JavaScript and I didn't understand half of it. It just went over my head. So to try and create some memory of that, or try to figure it out, I started drawing. I had seen sketch notes on the web. They were experiencing a bump in popularity at the time. I think my Mike Rohde’s book had just come out and it helped. That was what introduced me to this whole world and eventually, we're talking about when thoughts overflow and you turn to metaphor, this is exactly what was happening for me was Barbara Tyversky refers to these pictures we draw as glyphs. They can be more complicated than language and that is why when we're really trying to figure something out, we're not going to be writing an essay, maybe sometimes, but for the most part, we'll start diagramming. JAMEY: I also wanted to talk about zines while you were on. I was thinking about zines when you were talking about this because I feel like there's a few different mediums of art that I do and some of them are more intentional than others. To me, zines are about like, “I'm thinking this and it needs to exist in physical space and then it will be done and I can stop thinking about it,” because it exists. MARLENA: I love that so much and it's exactly what zines are there for. So zines are DIY publishing and zines are the publishing that happens for topics that, I think it happens a lot for people who are underrepresented in some way. Because you're not going to have access to a publisher and it's going to be harder for you to get any official book out. But then sometimes it's also just, maybe you don't want that. Maybe you want your zine to be a more informal publication. I love zines how kind of – they are all so super niche like, you can put anything. Define the word zine, ha! [laughs] JAMEY: It's so hard. People will argue about this in the zine community for like days and days. Hard to define the word. MARLENA: And that's actually part of the power of zines because it means it can be whatever you want, which means whatever you want to create is okay. I think that's really what we're trying to get down into here is having different ways of expressing and problem solving be okay and accepted. REIN: Just something to point out that containment is a metaphor we use for categories. So we're talking about what is inside the zine category? DAMIEN: I want to go back to the well, Marlena, you said zines were do-it-yourself publishing, DIY publishing, but blogs are also do-it-yourself publishing. So zines have a physicality to them and feels like that's an important aspect. Can you talk about that, or why that is? MARLENA: Well, there are also digital zines, so yeah. [laughs] But. DAMIEN: Maybe five containerization and categories. MARLENA: [laughs] Well, if we wanted to talk a little bit about physical zines, that even is interesting and Jamey, maybe you have a few thoughts about this that you can share, too because there are just so many different ways to format a zine. JAMEY: Well, I know that digital zines are a thing and I've read some digital zines that I've very much enjoyed. To me, the physicality of zines is a big part of them and a lot of what's appealing about them for me. I think that part of the reason for that is that, as you were getting at, people can write whatever they want, people who might not have a chance to write in other formats and most importantly about that, you can't censor a zine. It's impossible because someone makes it themselves and then they give it to whoever they want to have. It's a very personal experience and there's no middleman who can like tell you what you can, or can't say. So I think that having that physical piece of paper that you then hand directly to someone is what makes that possible and not putting it on the internet is also what makes that possible. Like, you have this thing, nobody can edit what's in it. It's all up to you. Nobody can search for it on a search engine. If you don't want someone to see it, then you don't give them one and it's just a holdover from what a lot of media was more like before the internet and I appreciate that about them. [chuckles] DAMIEN: Yeah. To me, it sounds so much like the Federalist Papers, like Thomas Paine's Common Sense. JAMEY: Oh, those were zines for sure. DAMIEN: I wrote this thing, [inaudible] about, I'm hazing him out of here, read this. [chuckles] Those are zines, okay. JAMEY: And political zines are a huge subsection of pamphlets and all sorts of political ideology. REIN: And that's where printing started was with the publishing of zines, that's my argument. MARLENA: This is the power of print. It's the power of print and that power, it's something that you don't necessarily get with the internet. Zines are an archive as well and I don't think we can just say – So when I did the first Let’s Sketch Tech! conference, I had an editor from Chronicle Books come and she talked about publishing. When I was talking to her about doing this talk, what I thought was most interesting about our conversation was she said, “Books aren't going away. Books are never going away because we are so connected to our hands and our eyes.” Books are always going to be there. Printed, words printed, pamphlets, zines, I think they're going to outlast computers. [chuckles] Think about how long a CD, or magnetic tape is going to last for versus the oldest book in the world. DAMIEN: Yeah. REIN: And by the way, if you don't think that printing was about zines, go Google the pamphlet wars. We think it's about publishing the Bible, but the vast majority of stuff that was printed was pamphlets. Zines! DAMIEN: And we can look at things that have survived through a history and it's really truly about paper from Shakespeare's works to the Dead Sea Scrolls, this is how things have survived. MARLENA: And on another aspect of this is the fact that we are human, we have human eyes and those eyes have limits as to how much they can look at a screen. Looking at paper and also, the physical manipulation of that paper, I think is a very important aspect of zines. So my favorite scene ever, which is sadly lost to me, was this very small print zine and it was the kind that is printed literally on one piece of paper and this folded up. But it had the most magnificent centerfolds where you open it up and this is awesome picture of Prince and the person even taped a purple feather in the centerfold part of it and it's like, that's an experience you're only going to get from this kind of printed physical medium. DAMIEN: So yeah, I'm seeing a pattern here, communicating ideas through physical mediums. JAMEY: And I think that because zines are so DIY and low tech that people do really interesting things with paper to express what they're going for. Like, I've been doing zines for a long time with friends. But my first one that I ever did by myself, I had this black and white photo of a house that had Christmas lights on it and I was trying to be like, “How am I going to express this feeling that I have about this picture that I want to express in this media?” I'm like, “I'm going to go to Kinko's and make copies of this for 5 cents and how is it going to look the way I want?” So I ended up manually using a green highlighter to highlight over all of the Christmas lights in every single copy of the zine so that everyone would see the green Christmas lights that I wanted them to feel what I was feeling about. I think that's a pretty simple example because it's not extremely a lot of work to put highlighter in your zine either. But I think that people have to think about that and how they want to convey something and then people have done a lot of really interesting things like taping feathers into their books. MARLENA: Yeah. This is a way of slowing down our thought process, which I don't think we talk about enough because right now, in our culture, it's all about being faster, being lull 10x and making a zine is a great way to reflect on things that you've learned. So I would really like to take a minute to just talk about zines at work and zines in a professional setting because I've noticed that one thing people think as soon as I start talking about zines is why do I need this in my job? Why do we need this in tech? I think that zines are a great way to help people on teams surface the unspoken knowledge that lives in the team, or it's also a way to play with something that you're trying to learn and share with other people. I’d like to hear Jamey, do you have thoughts about this? JAMEY: I have a thought, but I'm not sure how directly related it is to what you just said and I feel self-conscious about it. [chuckles] But I like to teach people to make zines who aren't familiar with zines, or haven't made them before and the thing that I try to teach people that I think zines can teach you is that you can just do this. It's not hard. Anyone can do it. It doesn't take a specific skill that you can't just learn. So they're accessible in that way, but I think it's also a bigger lesson about what you can do if you want to do something and that's how I feel about tech. If you want to learn to code, it's not magic, you can learn how to do it. If you want to do a zine, you can learn how to do it. To me, those thoughts go together. I feel like that wasn't exactly what you just asked, I’m sorry. DAMIEN: I liked it, though. [chuckles] MARLENA: It does tie into the fact that it's important to help people feel at home at work. Well, you're not at home at work, but to feel as though they are in the right place at work and this type of making zines and allowing people to surface what they know about your system, about what you're building, about ideas that your team is tinkering with. This kind of format gives people the space to surface what they're thinking even if they're not the most vocal person. DAMIEN: So one of this really ties into what I was thinking. When you said zines at work and there's a couple of great tech zines which I love and I think should be in a lot of offices. But the idea of actually creating one at work, something happened in my chest when I thought about that idea and it's because it's a very informal medium and tends to be informal and whimsical and you just kind of do it. I realize how much that is counter to so much of how tech teams and tech industry runs where it's very formal. You can't just ship code, you’ve got to get a pull request and reviewed by the senior engineer and it's got to fit our coding standards and run in ordering time, or less. [laughter] That can be very, I'll say challenging. JAMEY: I think that's also exactly why it’s easy and fun to learn about tech from zines because it feels so much more approachable than a formal tutorial and you're saying like, “Oh, will this be too hard, or what will I learn?” There's all of this baggage that comes along with it where it's like, “Oh, the zine is like cute and whimsical and I'm going to read it and it's going to be interesting,” and then like, “Whoa, I just learned about sorting from it.” DAMIEN: Yeah. Just because you’re writing software, or doing computer science doesn't mean we have to be serious. [laughter] Probably needs to be shouldn't be. REIN: It also makes me think about a shift that I would really like to see in the way diagrams and things like this are used, which is that when you're asked to produce an architecture diagram, you're generally asked to produce something authoritative. It has to be the best current understanding of what the organization has decided to do and that doesn't leave any space for exploration, or for using diagrams to ask questions. I think that's bad because naturally, on a team, or in an organization, everyone has their own models. Everyone has their own local perspective on what's happening. If there's no opportunity to surface, “Hey, here's how I think this works. Can I compare that with how you think this works?” You can't maintain common ground. I don't think producing a lot of words is a great way to do that. I think that's very inefficient. I also think that having an hour meeting with twenty people where you all talk about it is also inefficient. So I'm wondering if diagrams can be useful here. Relatively, it’s a little bit quicker to draw some boxes and connect them with arrows than it is to write a 1-page report. I'm wondering if we could promote more people putting out these low fidelity diagrams that are, “Here's what's in my head,” and sharing them, if that would help us maintain common ground. MARLENA: Absolutely, and I love the way that you brought up this situation where everyone is – because I think we've all been in these meetings where it's like, there are some technical hurdle, decisions have to be made, technology needs to be chosen, libraries needed – that type of thing. What I experienced was it was hard for me to get a word in edgewise. REIN: Yeah, like if you have twenty people in a meeting, at most three of them are paying attention and about half of them are going to be underrepresented in the meeting for a variety of reasons, if not more. MARLENA: Yeah, and well, I'm just going to say yes. For underrepresented people, this happens a lot. So one of the things that I like to promote is taking apart the traditional jam everyone into a room, let the conversation naturally happen. I'm just going to say it. I don't think that works too well and honestly, I think that a zine format, or even if it's just like take a piece of paper, let people diagram what they think is interesting, then trade, then your team is having a zine fair. [laughs] REIN: Or if you do that to prepare for the meeting and then the meeting is going over them. MARLENA: Sure. Yeah, and maybe the discussion is like a facilitated discussion. I did a lot of Agile team stuff, including I had to go down the route of learning how to facilitate just because I couldn't get a word in edgewise on my team. So I started looking at different ways to how do you have a discussion when it's like, there are two, or three people who always talk, nobody else says anything, but everyone has thoughts. It's really interesting what happens when you start trying to change how a group is having discussions. REIN: It also seems like it's super valuable for the person doing the facilitation because they have to synthesize what's happening in real-time and then they come away with the meeting, with the synthesis in their brains. Part of which they've been able to put into the diagrams, the drawings, and whatever, but only a part of it. So it seems like if you have some external consultant come in and draw diagrams for your team, that external consultant then leaves with a bunch of the knowledge you were trying to impart to everyone else. MARLENA: I don't know if that's necessarily true. In the world of graphic recording, those folks go to all kinds of meetings and I think it's true that they are going to come away with a different set of thoughts in their head, but they're also not going to have the context of your team. REIN: Yeah. MARLENA: And that's a pretty big part of it. But I know Ashton Rodenhiser, she's a graphic facilitator who does this and she'll go into meetings like the one we're describing, and while people are talking, she's drawing things out. It's really interesting what happens when people see their discussion being drawn by a third party. I've seen this happen at some conferences; it's really great way to change the way you have discussion. REIN: Yeah. So for example, we do incident analysis, we do interviews with the people who are there, and we review slot transcripts. What we find is that the people who are doing the interviews, conducting the analysis, facilitating the reviews, they become experts in the systems. MARLENA: Ah yes, because so much – it reminds me of how teaching somebody to do something, you teach it to yourself. So they are having to internalize all of this discussion and reflect it back to the team, which means of course, they're learning along with the rest of the team. REIN: Yeah. So I think my point was not don't hire consultants to do this, it was keeping them around after you do. MARLENA: [laughs] Wouldn't it be amazing if having a graphic recorder, or a graphic facilitator was just a thing that we all had in our meetings? REIN: Yeah, or even something that was democratized so that more people got the benefits of – I think doing that work has a lot of benefits to the person who's doing it. JAMEY: This is making me think a lot about the way that you engaged with something, or the way that you express it, depending on who your target audience is. Like, if I'm taking notes for myself in my own notebook, my target audience is just myself and I write things that won't make sense to anybody else. If I'm writing like a document for work, the target audience is my team, I'm writing in a way that reflects that it's going to be read and understood by my team instead of me. I think that a lot of what we're talking about here with zines, diagrams, and things like this is kind of an interesting hybrid. When I write a zine, I'm doing it for me, it's benefiting me, but not in the same way as notes in my notebook where I don't want anyone else to ever look at it. So it's like, how do I write something that's benefiting me, but also has an audience of other people that I'm hoping will get something out of it? I think that's a bit of a unique format in some ways. DAMIEN: That's interesting because everything I hear from novelists and screenwriters, it's always “Write the book, write the movie that you want.” You're the audience and if you love it, not everybody's going to love it, [chuckles] but there are other people who will, chances are other people will love it. If you write something for everybody to love, nobody is going to like it. MARLENA: Yeah, I think so, too and you never know who else is going to be thinking the same way you are and sometimes, it's that people don't have a way to speak up and share how they're feeling in a similar way. So I actually love that zines allow – I think it is important to be making something that is from your perspective and then share that. That's a way to see who else has that perspective. DAMIEN: But I also understand this need to, well, I'll say code switch. This need to code switch for different audiences. [chuckles] Rein brought up UML. I learned UML in college back in the long-ago times and I hated it. It was an interesting thing to learn, but an awful thing to do because all of my UML diagrams had to be complete, authoritative, and correct because I was doing them for my professor and I was a TA. I thought, “Well, if I had large amount of diagrams describing large systems, looking at them could be very informative and useful.” But no one in the world is going to write those things because this is way too much work unless I'm allowed to be informal, general, not authoritative, or complete and so, I'm realizing these tensions that I've been going on in my mind for decades. MARLENA: Well, and there's programs. Using those programs was so clunky, like adding a square, adding a label, adding a class, and pretty soon, if you were trying to diagram a large system, there was not a great way to change your perspective and go from macro down to micro and zoom out again. Whereas, this is, I think what is so great about the human brain. We can do that and we can do that when we're drawing with our hands. DAMIEN: Yeah. There were promises of automated UML diagrams that you get from type systems and static analysis and I think I saw some early versions of this and they created correct UML diagrams that were almost readable. But going from correct and almost readable to something that's informative and enlightening, that's an art and we don't have computers that can do that. MARLENA: Right. Like, humans are not computers. Computers are not human. [laughs] When is it not Turing complete? [laughter] I think that initially people really wanted to be robots when they were sitting down at the computer and I think we're going through a period right now where we're rethinking that. REIN: Well, in part it was management that wanted people to be robots. DAMIEN: Which reaches back to the industrial revolution. MARLENA: And still does. What I love is that having this conversation about how we work and how to build software, it brings up all of these things, including this type of management wanting people to be robots, but we're not. What's interesting to me and what I think is that if we could shift our perspective from let's make everyone a machine, we're all robots sitting, typing out the stuff for people. If we could shift to thinking about building software is a creative process, people are going to need sleep. If you want them to solve your problems, they're going to need different ways to express themselves and share ideas with each other. REIN: It's really important to uncover facts about work and human performance like, even if you have rules, policies, and procedures, humans still have to interpret them and resolve trade-offs to get them done. You can have two rules that are mutually exclusive and now a human has to resolve that conflict. Also, that we think that the old paradigm that Damien was talking about, this Taylor’s paradigm, is that manager decide how the work is to be done and then workers do what they're told. But workers, to do this, have to think about high level organizational goals that are much more abstract than what the people designing the work thought they would have to think about. I think if you can uncover – this is all creative problem solving and it's a part of the day-to-day work. DAMIEN: Yeah, that command-and-control structure was always a fantasy, less so in some places than other places, but always, always a fantasy. REIN: Even the military is reevaluating what C2 means in the face of overwhelming evidence that humans don't work that way. DAMIEN: It's nice to pretend, though. Makes things so much simpler. MARLENA: What's interesting about this changing paradigm in how we view this management and control piece is how this is manifesting in the world of academia, especially in the world of liberal arts, because liberal arts colleges are not doing well. [laughs] In fact, Mills College here in the Bay Area is not going to be taking freshmen next year and they're going to close. But I think there's a theme of education in here, too in how people learn these skills, because we've been talking about zines. You do not have to have a degree to know how to make a zine and that's awesome! [laughter] Along with these other skills and I know that there are a lot of people in tech, who they went through computer science program, or even a bootcamp and maybe they did some science before, maybe not, but they're still going to these creative skills and it may be, I think a lot of folks in the US and in tech, it's like you weren't in a position to be able to study art, or to get that much exposure, because it was about survival. Survival for your whole family and there's just not the time to try and explore this stuff. I would love to see more space in tech for people to explore all of the creative arts and see how does it help you express yourself at work. The most concrete example I have of this is writing up a software bug. So I used to be a tester and I could always tell who had writing skills and who didn't based on how they would write up a bug. [laughs] DAMIEN: No, and I can definitely feel that. I work on a team of one for several projects. So sometimes, I have to write a user story, or a bug and I have a very strict format for writing bugs. It's basically, it’s write on a Cucumber and yet I will take minutes and minutes and minutes to properly wordsmith that bug report for me [laughs] so that Tuesday – MARLENA: As you should! Doing a good job! DAMIEN: So that Tuesday, when I read that I know right away what it means and what it says. Whereas, I can write something quickly that might be accurate, but would be difficult for me to understand, or I can write something quickly that could be in complete assuming that I found the bug. I'm the one who put the bug in there; I know everything there is to know and still come back to this, no clue. I don't even know what the bug is. I actually have to throw away a feature this week because I had no clue what I meant when I wrote it. MARLENA: I used to actually give a talk about this, how to write up bugs, because it was such an issue and if you don't train developers and other folks who are looking at an app to write them, then it ends up, the testers are the only ones who can write it up and that's not okay. [laughs] DAMIEN: And when you talk about a talk, how to write a bugs, there's some obvious mechanical things. How do you reproduce this? What did you expect to happen? Who's doing it? That sort of things and these are very clear and obvious, but then there's the actual communicating via words issue. [chuckles] How can you write those things down in a way that's easy for the next person to understand? I spend a lot of time doing that sort of thing. It's hard. It's an art, I guess. REIN: I want to turn this into an even more general point about the importance of the discipline of formulating your thoughts in a way that's available for consumption. So as an example, I used to write notes in a shorthand way where if I thought I knew something, I wouldn't include it because I already knew that I don't need to take a note about it and what I've found is that I couldn't explain stuff. I couldn't integrate the new knowledge with the old knowledge when it came time for me to answer a question. The approach I've been taking more recently is formulating my thoughts in a way that if I had to write a blogpost about that topic, I can copy and paste things from my notes, ready to go, and just drop them in. That's the thing I do for myself, but what I've found is that I actually understand stuff now. DAMIEN: Yeah. I've had the same experience writing things that I thought I understood. This is the rubber duck story. You think you understand something so you try to explain to somebody else and go, “Oh, that's what it was.” But since we have Marlena here right now, [chuckles] I want to talk about using diagrams and images in that process for a person who doesn't work that way usually. MARLENA: Indeed. Well, one of the things that I think we hint at in the world of tech—this is interesting because we've all been bashing the UML and all that stuff, but it did give us a set of symbols for visual representation of programming type things. Like, you make the rectangle for your class and then you put your properties in the top and the methods in the bottom, or something like that. Something that I've noticed in the sketchnoting world is that sketchnoting 101 is how to draw at all. How to feel confident enough to put your pen on the paper and draw a line, draw a box, draw a circle, make them into objects, whatever. But once you're past that introductory, when 101 level of sketchnoting and you've done a few, the next level up is to start creating your own language of visual representation, which I think people kind of do, whether they intentionally do it, or not. I kind of find myself doing it. The way that I contain categories of information in a sketch note, I've kind of come to a particular way that I do it. That type of thing is because we don't talk about creativity and representation; we don't take the time to do these things. They're not really a practice. Everyone kind of just does their own and I've been on teams that, or I've tried to be on teams that had a fairly mature way of having a wiki, you're going to talk to each other, Agile teams. Still, we might have a wiki, but it's not like we were always drawing together. I'm interested in have you all had experiences on your teams of drawing together, collaborating on one drawing at the same time? REIN: Yeah. We use a collaborative whiteboarding software to do various things and one of them is drawing boxes that represent systems and architectures. One of the exercises we sometimes do is we say, “You get this part of the board, you get this part of the board, you get this part of the board. I want you each to diagram how you think the system works now and then in 15 minutes, we're going to look at them together.” MARLENA: Yes. That type of thing, I think it's so important and I wish that more folks did it on their teams. Have y'all found that you have any visual representation that has started repeating itself, like say certain part of a system you usually draw in a certain way? REIN: Yeah. We've definitely developed a language, or a discourse over time and some shorthand, or mnemonics for certain things. We’ve not standardized, I think is the wrong word, but we've moved closer together in a more organic way. DAMIEN: Which is how language develops. MARLENA: Indeed, indeed. But this way of having this shared visual language together is going to give you a shorthand with each other. Like, when you have a map, you have a legend, and I think that it's important Rein, like you mentioned, not necessarily having standards, but having some common ways of drawing certain things together. That type of drawing together is very powerful for developing your collective way of visualizing a system and thinking about it. REIN: And another thing I want to highlight here is that if you ask four people to diagram and architecture and you get four different diagrams, that doesn't mean that one of them is right and three of them are wrong. What that usually means is that you have four different perspectives. MARLENA: Yes. We all have our internal way of mapping things and it is not a right, or wrong, a good, or bad. It's just, every person has a different map, a way of mapping objects in the world, that is brain science stuff. DAMIEN: I get the opportunity to reference my favorite, what I discovered just now, today, I’ll just go with today's zine, Principia Discordia. JAMEY: Oh my god, that’s my favorite! DAMIEN: Marvelous work of art. They say in Principia Discordia that the world is chaos. It's chaos out there and we look at it through a window and we draw lines in the window and call that order. [chuckles] So people draw different lines and those are the diagrams you’re going to get. JAMEY: That’s so beautiful. REIN: I have to interject that John Haugeland, who's a philosopher, said something very similar, which is that the act of dividing the universe into systems with components and interactions is how we understand the universe. It's not something that's out those boxes. Aren't something that are out there in the universe. They're in here in our heads and they're necessary for us to even perceive and understand the universe. DAMIEN: Which gives us a whole new meaning to the first chapter of the book of Genesis. But [laughs] we don't have to go that far down the road. MARLENA: Well, even if we think about color and perceiving color, everyone's going to have a different theme that they see. It's going to like – REIN: Yeah, and there's philosophically no way to know if red for me means the same thing as red for you. MARLENA: Mm hm. DAMIEN: So applying that same standard to our technical systems. Some senior architects somewhere might draw a diagram and goes, “This is the truth of what we have built, or what we should be building and that there is no external representation of truth.” “Oh, look, the map is not the territory! We can go through this all day.” [laughter] REIN: And the interesting thing for me is that this is something that there are Eastern philosophies that have figured out long before Western philosophy did. So while Descartes was doing his stuff, you had the Jainism principle of Anakandavada, which is the manifoldness of the universe. There's no one right truth; there are many interlocking and overlapping truths. JAMEY: How does this relate to a GitHub [inaudible]? [laughs] DAMIEN: [overtalk] It means your diagramming is direct. REIN: It certainly says something about distributed systems and in distributed systems, we call this the consensus problem. [laughter] DAMIEN: I love the fact that Git was built to be this completely distributed, no single authority source control system and now we have GitHub. MARLENA: Indeed. REIN: I want to know how I, as someone who has terrible handwriting, can feel comfortable doing sketching. MARLENA: Sure! I just did a whole meet up about that. It's not just you, I think that it's 75% of engineers and we emphasize typing. So what I tell people about handwriting, the very, very basics, is slow down. Not what you want to hear, I know, but it makes a huge difference. So this past winter, my pandemic new skill that I learned is calligraphy, and in calligraphy, they tell you over and over and over to slow down. So that's tip number one is to slow down and then number two is try writing larger. Whatever it is you're writing, play with the size of it. Larger and slower generally gives you a way to look at what you're writing and which pieces like, there are probably some letters that you dislike more than others when you are writing and you can take those letters that you really dislike. Maybe it's just a matter of reviewing like, how are you forming the letter? If it's all of them, it'll take you longer, but. [laughs] JAMEY: When I was a kid learning cursive for the first time, I really hated to do the capital H in cursive. I think it's like an ugly letter and I think it's hard to write and it was hard to learn. My last name starts with H so I had to do it a lot. I just designed a new capital H and that's what I've been using in cursive since I was like a little kid [laughs] and nobody notices because nobody goes like, “That's not how I learned cursive in class,” if they can read it. That's how I feel that language, too and we're talking about the way language evolves. People will be like, “That's not a real word,” and I'm like, “Well, if you understood what I meant, then it's a word.” DAMIEN: Perfectly fine with it. JAMEY: And that's kind of how I was just thinking about handwriting too like, what is there right, or wrong if you can read what I'm expressing to you? [chuckles] DAMIEN: Yeah. If you look at the lowercase g in various glyph sets, you have to actually pay attention and go, “This lowercase g is not the same symbol as this lowercase g.” [laughs] You have to totally call your attention to that. They are vastly, vastly, different things. MARLENA: The letters that look the same, though are capital T, I, and F. DAMIEN: You don't put crossbars on your eye? MARLENA: Well, I'm thinking in terms of like, for calligraphy, when I got into the intermediate class, I had to come up with my own alphabet, typography, design my own alphabet. Those letters were so similar, they just gave me fits trying to make them all different. But I think it's important for people to practice their handwriting. I know that we all just scribble on the pad for charging, or whatever. You just scribble with your fingernail and it doesn't look like anything. But keeping that connection to your handwriting is also an important way of valuing yourself and this space that you take up in the world. I think it's really good if you can get to a place where you can accept your own handwriting and feel comfortable with it. Since I am into stuff like calligraphy and lettering, it's definitely part of my identity, the way that I write things out by hand. It's physically connected to you, to your brain, and so, things like that, we want to say everything is typing in tech, but there is a value for your confidence, for your brain, and for how you process information to be able to write something by hand and feel confident enough to share that with somebody else. JAMEY: That was really beautiful, actually. But I was going to ask, how do you think your handwriting relates to your voice? Because when you were saying that about feeling comfortable with your handwriting and how it's like a self-confidence thing, it made me think of the way that people also feel and interact with their voice. Like, you always hear people, “Oh, I hate listening to a recording of myself. I hate listening to my voice.” MARLENA: Well, there's that whole field of handwriting analysis, just like there's that whole field of body language and that includes what someone's voice sounds like. It is attached to your personality and how you're thinking and how you're working with ideas. [laughs] So it's not like I'm judging someone when I look at their—sometimes I am, I'm lying. Sometimes I am judging people when I look at their handwriting. I mostly don't. Honestly, I think we've lost so much education about handwriting in schools, what I dislike about that is, we were talking about the power of print earlier. Well, if you feel uncomfortable writing your name, if you feel uncomfortable writing down what you believe and sharing it, that's the type of censorship, isn't it? So I think handwriting is important for that type of thing, but I think it is connected to your personality. JAMEY: It says something about you and when you put something out into the world that says something about you in that way, it's kind of a vulnerable experience. MARLENA: It is, and you're showing people how you value yourself. I think that's partly why a lot of times in tech, we've minimized the role of handwriting so much that nobody feels comfortable sharing their handwriting. Well, it's not nobody, that's a big generalization, but a lot of people don't feel comfortable sharing their handwriting and that is a loss. That is a loss for everyone. DAMIEN: I love what you said, in part because I didn't want to hear it, when Rein asked, “How do you improve your handwriting?” You said, “Write slower and write bigger,” and I knew right away that that was correct because that's the only thing that has worked when I was trying to improve my handwriting. But I gave up on that because I didn't want to; I don't want to write slower and bigger because of what you said—taking up space. If you look at my handwriting historically, it's been not taken up – very little space, very little time. I don't want anybody to have to wait for me to finish writing. I don't want to use this whole page. I don't want to think my writing is so, so important that it's all big on the page, but allowing myself to take up space and time is how I get to better handwriting. So that was just such a beautiful way of putting it. MARLENA: Well, I read this book called How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell and it's a wonderful book where the book blows me away and it's hard to talk about it because she has packed so much into it. But it's thinking about how we make ourselves go so fast and it's about the attention economy. How we are trying to speed ourselves up so much and I think that handwriting is part of this. If we are going to take back our own lives, that includes being able to slow down enough to write your name in a way that feels good to you and share it. I like what you wrote in the chat, Damien, but I'd like to hear you say it. DAMIEN: I wrote it in the chat so I wouldn't say it. [laughs] “Decolonize your mind.” It was a message to myself, decolonize your mind. The idea that you don't get to do nothing, you don't get to take up space and time. Yeah, and so that's just, it's all these things are so tightly connected. MARLENA: So I think y'all are ready for me to tell you the story of how I came up with a first Let’s Sketch Tech conference and this conference happened maybe 2017, 2018. I always forget the exact year, but it was post Trump getting elected. Now the Women's March, right after Trump got elected and sworn into office, was a major point in time and wake up call for me. I've always tried to learn about politics, intersectionalism, and things like that, but this March showed me the power of making something with your own hands and showing that and sharing it to someone else. I wanted everyone to feel like, even in this era of Trump, we still have the power to make something meaningful and share that with our own hands. So that was when I decided to start emphasizing more and learning more about the connection between art and tech. I'd been doing sketch notes and it sort of struck me that there was not much of a community out there that handled this topic, which I thought was just kind of strange. When I looked at sketchnoting itself, it seemed like more was happening in the world of design. Well, what about engineers? I've had to draw out things so many times to learn them, to teach somebody else, to understand what's happening and so, that's when I put together this Let’s Sketch Tech conference. I wanted people to be able to retain the power to make something with their own hands, because that can never be taken away from you, whether you have internet connection, or not. But even if you do have the internet connection, combining these together is just so powerful. So that is why I started this conference and this community and it's pretty deep. I don't bring it up all the time because it's kind of a lot, but yeah, and we had a great time. DAMIEN: Thank you so much, and thank you for sharing that story and everything else you've shared with us. How do we feel about going into reflections? I think I'm going to be reflecting on in the broad sense, it's what I didn't want to say earlier until Marlena called me out, decolonize your mind. But in a smaller sense, it's how much of my view of the tech industry, my work in there, and the environment there should be formal, structured, strict, authoritarian. I had all these ideas that are still, unbeknownst to me, having a huge influence about how we can work. The idea of a zine fest at work seems so outrageous to me because it doesn't fit into those ideas and so, I'll be reflecting on well, where else am I seeing this stuff and how has it prevented me from doing something so very effective? [laughs] I said, zine fest. I used to think I was too young to mispronounce zine, but whatever. [laughs] Who’s next? JAMEY: I can go next. So my two favorite things, I think that got said, one of them was also about like the zine fair at work. I host zine fairs in my hometown and the idea of like, well, if you both draw something and then you trade, you're having a zine fair. I absolutely love that. And then my other favorite thing was about the talk closer to the end about valuing yourself and the way and taking up space and all of those things. I feel actually like I want to mush those two things together because talking about valuing yourself, like really resonated with me the way that I do zines in my regular life, not in tech. But I think that inside of tech is a place where there are people that I really want to see value themselves more. It's a system that has a tendency to shut people down and keep talented people and I want to imbue that kind of confidence into a lot of engineers, especially newer engineers. So I think that I really like this idea of a zine fest at work, and maybe that can, in addition to helping teach us about our systems and stuff, help us encourage each other to take that time to value ourselves. REIN: I think what struck me about this conversation the most is that creativity is good for people, personally, individuals to explore our creativity. But when we share it with other people, that's a way that we can become closer. I think that for the work to happen—because to some extent, I tried to apply these ideas at work—people have to build and maintain common ground with each other. I think that encouraging people to be creative and to share that creativity—you typically wouldn't ask a junior engineer to draw an architecture diagram, but I think you should. MARLENA: I hope that after listening to this, people definitely ask their newer folks on their team to draw a diagram, then we’ll share and trade with them. I think what I've learned from this conversation is, well, I think that it validated, more than anything, the ideas that I'm trying to spread about connecting arts and technology. It was wonderful to hear each of you talking about the struggles and challenges that you have at work in bringing this together because it is a different way of thinking. But I feel so positive whenever I talk about this and seeing people be able to recognize themselves and seeing some doors and windows open about how they can incorporate the arts a little bit more into their tech lives is the reason why I do this and it's been such a privilege to share this with all of you and your listeners. So thanks for having me. DAMIEN: It's been a privilege to have you. The idea that we can start out with like, “Let's draw pictures as engineers,” and ended up with, “Oh my God, how do I become fully human?” [laughs] It's really amazing. JAMEY: Yeah, this was really great. Thank you so much for coming on and talking about this. MARLENA: It was a lot of fun. DAMIEN: Marlena, why don't you give your Patreon and your podcast? MARLENA: Sure. Well, I started the Patreon because it was an easier way for folks to sign up for the meetups that happened in Let's Sketch Tech. We do a monthly meetup and I'm starting to plan the conference for this year. There's a free newsletter, but if this podcast is giving you life, if you're getting oxygen from this conversation, I highly suggest checking out the Let’s Sketch Tech Patreon, sign up for our newsletter, and subscribe to my podcast, Make it a Pear! I talk a lot about creative process in tech. DAMIEN: Awesome. Thank you so much and thank you for joining us. Special Guest: Marlena Compton.

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Posted on 26 May 2021 | 9:00 am

235: RailsConf Scholars: 2021 Remote Edition

The RailsConf Scholarship Program ( 03:12 - Tram’s Superpower: Getting 8 Hours of Sleep Per Night! 04:08 - Leah’s Superpower: Being a Companion to Long-Distance Runners 04:55 - Stefanni’s Superpower: Doing Things She’s Terrified of Doing 05:34 - Being Afraid and Grappling with Self-Doubt * Asking Questions and Being Vulnerable * Call-Out Bad Behavior 12:34 - Team Psychological Safety 17:20 - Education & Learning Environments; Tech Journeys * Ada Developers Academy ( * The Turing School ( 27:52 - Making & Noticing Progress; Comparing Yourself to Others * The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance---What Women Should Know ( Reflections: John: Finding new ways to be of service to other people. Leah: What can we proactively do to make our space safer and more conducive to diverse thought? Mando: It’s okay to make mistakes and not be perfect. Steffani: How common it is to openly talk about these things in the Rails Community ❤️ Tram: Representation matters! Humanization and inclusivity. Calling people out. Lending Privilege -- Anjuan Simmons ( Transcript: JOHN: Hello and welcome to Greater Than Code, Episode 235. I’m John Sawers and I’m here with Mando Escamilla. MANDO: Thanks, John. And I'm here with three RailsConf scholars who are going to be joining us today, which I'll like to take turns introducing yourself, maybe starting with Leah? LEAH: My name is Leah Miller and I’m a Platform Engineer at Highwing, which is an insurtech startup based out of Denver. Before making over the switch to tech, I spent almost a decade in the insurance industry primarily working as a production underwriter. In my spare time, I enjoy running and craft beer and frequently, the careful combination of the two. I’m also a new dog mom to a rescue pup named Orla. MANDO: Great. Tram, you want to go next, please? TRAM: Yeah. So hi, everyone. I'm Tram Bui. I’m currently attending Ada Developers Academy, which is a tuition-free coding program for women and gender-diverse folks in Seattle. The program includes an internship match with a Seattle tech company. So currently, for my internship, I work as a Developer Relations engineer and what this means is that I try to make it easier for Rails developers to deploy their apps to the cloud. Outside of coding, I try to maintain it and improve my high school tennis skills. I also like to read books and also, thinking about my next great public transportation adventure and volunteering for local nonprofits. And then Stephanie, I can pass it on to you. STEPHANIE: Hi, I'm happy to be here. I'm Stephanie and I've been working with Rails for the past 4 years, but now I'm trying to transition from dev full-time to having my own projects. And besides software, I also like to talk about plant-based diet, financial independence, and mental health. Also, if you have noticed my accent, I'm from Brazil, but I live in Vancouver, BC and yeah, I'm really happy to be here. JOHN: Awesome. Welcome to the show, everyone. So this is just a little setup here. Not every year at RailsConf, but most years at RailsConf, we do have a special episode where sometimes, we've got many of the panelists are together and so, we can record in the same room, which is obviously very novel for us. This year of course, it's all online. One of the things we’ve also done is bringing in some of the people who are part of the RailsConf Scholar Program, which is the program to expand access to tech conferences to people that are underrepresented and to give them some guidance on how to make the most of their experience at the conference. We always think it's great to get the opinions of people that are brand new to this industry and see what their perspective is on everything. So we're going to start off with our usual question which is what is your superpower and how did you acquire it? We can go really in any order. Who would like to go first? TRAM: I can go first. So my superpower would be the ability to get 8 hours of sleep a night [chuckles] and I think I acquired this power – I think I was very just like, I loved nap time as a kid and I grew up knowing the importance of a good night's rest. I think for me to be my best self, that’s one of the big things that I need to have. I think growing up and going to college, it was very like, “Oh, sleep is not important,” but I always had noticed the importance of sleep and I think it does hustle economy, too. People are very fast to just cast aside and was like, “You can sleep when you're dead,” but I'm like, “No, if you don't sleep, you will die faster.” So I'm going to take every opportunity that I can do at least get a full night's rest. LEAH: I am so jealous of that superpower. [laughs] I think mine feeds into a little bit of the opposite of that, but my superpower is the ability to keep people company when they're running through the night during a 100-mile races, or ultra-marathons. So people running it 3:00 AM, 4:00 AM, getting really down, needing someone to lift them up, I can run alongside them and sing, or just be a companion to keep them motivated. I think I acquired this skill from being a middle child. I spent a lot of time just entertaining myself and being pretty independent and if you can entertain yourself, it's pretty easy to extrapolate that to others, keep people going, so. [chuckles] STEPHANIE: I would say that my superpower currently is a work in progress actually, but it's doing things even if I'm terrified of the way I always struggled a little bit with self-confidence. How I acquired that, I actually had to go to therapy first to build the foundation, but now I think I've been getting pretty good at it and the feeling of doing the things that you're scared at the end is a really good feeling. You feel like a superwoman. [chuckles] JOHN: Oh, those are all such great answers. I want to dive into each of them, I think oh, my thoughts are jumbling up because I want to ask questions to all of you. Well, I think I'll start with Stephanie. That's an amazing superpower and it's definitely going to serve you well. It's something that I've had to learn as I develop my speaking career at the same time. Even just thinking that it was possible for me to get up on stage and do that, that took a while to get there and then actually doing it also took a lot of practice. So certainly, that's going to be awesome. MANDO: Yeah. It's so easy to just keep doing the things that you're good at and try to ignore, or maybe push off the things that you're not so good at, or you don't have that confidence in, Stephanie, like you were saying. It's funny, I keep relearning this lesson over and over again, there's this project at work that I've been putting off and pushing the JIRA ticket over just because I kept telling myself that it wasn't important and that I could do – other things were higher priority. It's just because I was kind of scared, but I wasn't going to be able to do it as well as I could do the other things. I just had to sit down and do it and then I pushed up the PR and it got ripped to shreds by the other wonderful, [laughs] amazing engineers that I work with. But it's good. I didn't die. [laughs] So it’s funny how we have to keep learning these lessons over and over again sometimes, I think. JOHN: Yeah, that reminds me that there's a related skill in there also, which is realizing when you were afraid of something. Sometimes you think, “Oh, it's just not important that happened right now.” MANDO: Yeah. JOHN: As an excuse, but once you realize, “Oh, I'm actually afraid of how this is going to go.” It allows you to approach it differently. You can be like, “Oh, okay, well that's what this is. All right, then now I know how to like face it, head on rather than pretending it's some other reasons.” So I think that that's really important as well. MANDO: Absolutely. Yeah, and it took me a couple of days to [laughs] realize that that's what I was doing and it wasn't until that was the last thing I had to work on for the sprint after I had reshuffled and moved everything over and then looked at my other teammates, JIRA boards to see if they had any stuff that I could help out with [laughs] that finally I was like, “Well, okay, I guess I'll just do this one.” TRAM: Yeah. I think sometimes for me, the anticipation, or the thought of it is even scarier than actually doing the task itself. I've had this happen to me so many different times. For instance, with the podcast, I'm like, “Yeah, this is something that I want to do because I like listening to podcasts,” but I was like, the nervousness and the scariness of putting myself out there and just thinking about it leading up to this moment, it's so much scarier than actually being in the moment and talking with y'all. So yeah. LEAH: I think part of it, too is recognizing that your feelings are not existing in a vacuum. There's other people that experience the same insecurities, or just going through what you're going through. We were interviewing someone a couple weeks ago at my company and just talking about the stressors of being from a bootcamp and being hired into an engineering organization as either a junior developer, or a mid-level developer, or whatever level, but just knowing that your background isn't a CS degree, or it's just a little bit different than what other people have. And then having that insecurity of I'm pushing up a PR and then are 20 people going to make comments on this and then that gets pushed to Slack and everyone sees all 20 comments. Am I going to be laughed at, or looked at as less than? So it's just nice to express that to someone else and have them regurgitate the same feelings, or just reflect back to you that you're not the only one who's having self-doubt in that way. MANDO: Yeah, and it's tough for me at least to remember sometimes that I come from a very different place privilege wise than other folks on the team. So it can be a lot easier for me to do stuff like, just push this PR up and ask for comments because my experience may be very different than someone who doesn't have my same background, or the amount of experience that I have, or the kinds of relationships that I may have with other folks on the team. I strive to help create spaces whether at work, or wherever where people can feel comfortable asking questions and not worrying about people coming in and being overly critical, or negative, or whatever. But my lived experience is very different than others. That's something that I need to keep in mind that you can't always just assume good faith that everyone's going to treat you the way that you would maybe treat them and I have to actively work and actively communicate to people that this is that kind of place. JOHN: Do you find that there are specific things that you do to communicate that, or at least to make that ambiently knowledgeable to the other people in the team? MANDO: That's a good question. I think the easiest thing you can do is make sure that you're modeling both sides of that behavior like, asking a lot of questions, putting yourself in vulnerable situations, and then also, making sure that you always jump in and respond positively when others do that so that you can help set a baseline. I think of what the behavior should be and what behavior is expected, and then the second thing is always making sure to call out behavior that doesn't hit the bar. I can't remember where I first heard this, but my buddy, Jerry, he's the one who always drops the phrase to remind me, he says, “It's as simple as saying, ‘We don't do that here.’” It doesn't have to be a big deal. It doesn't have to be a huge problem, or anything. Just when there's behavior that you don't do here, you say, “We don't do that – [laughs] we don't do that here.” It's as simple as that. LEAH: I love that. MANDO: Yeah, Jerry's awesome. JOHN: I think this is a really interesting topic because I'm always looking for examples of ways to make that easily communicated in a team environment. So have any of you had experiences where maybe someone else on the team was able to communicate some thoughts of psychological safety, or things that made you more comfortable being who you were on the team? LEAH: So I can speak to the team where I work. We're a startup. We have about 15, I think maybe officially 16 people now and we have, I think just hired our fifth female to join the team, or a fifth non-male to join the team. We have created just a private channel for all non-males on the team in Slack where we can communicate with each other and we've set up a happy hour once a month where we can meet. You don't have to drink alcohol. You can just sit and chat and we just have an hour set aside where no conversation topic is off limits. It's just really helpful to just set aside that time where there's no outside influence and it's just the five, or six of us, or however many there are right now [chuckles] who can join and just chat through what's a win for the week, or what's a struggle for the week. I think part of it is giving each other the space to express what's going well and also, express what's going wrong, and then see if others of us on the team can be a champion for the other person and just offer support where possible, or step in when something's happening that we need to maybe put a stop to. Our private channel is lovingly called The Thundercats, [laughs] which I'm pretty fond of. MANDO: [laughs] That's fantastic. You make it almost sound like a union kind of [laughs] where y'all can have this place where you have this ability to do collective action, if necessary. I think that's just fantastic. That's amazing. LEAH: And I should say that the men on our team are fantastic. So this is not like a – [laughs] [overtalk] MANDO: Of course, yeah. LEAH: Escape hatch like, we're all upset about stuff, but it's just nice. Regardless of how wonderful the men on the team are, it's nice to have a space for not men. [chuckles] STEPHANIE: Yeah. I think that for me, from my experience, the one that I was more comfortable with was at my first Rails job. It was still in Brazil and the team was totally remote and they did lots of peer programming. They did a great job in onboarding people, but peer programming was way more than onboarding. It was a common practice and I was just like, “Wow, this is so cool.” You could learn so much more beyond just a code and besides that, I felt really comfortable in seeing that no one was scared of doing anything wrong like, there was a really good communication. So I think that the main thing that needs to be worked at, when you're working in a team, is to make sure that everyone feels safe to do their stuff and they don't feel like, “Oh, I'm going to be judged,” or “I don't want to try this because I don't want to have to handle with anything from management,” or whatever. So maybe having that feeling, “Oh, we make mistakes here. We are humans, but we try to make the best to learn from them.” That's a good way to improve this team behavior, I guess. [chuckles] JOHN: So you were able to see the other people on the team, that you were paired with, making mistakes and being okay with it and just that became obvious to you that that was the thing that happened all the time and it was fine. Right? STEPHANIE: Yeah, and especially because I was also self-taught. I actually went for computer science for one year, but I dropped out. I always had this idea that people with more experience, they know everything. [laughs] That was like a mindset that I changed and it made me feel way more human, more than anything at first, and that's when I started seeing how much it's important to think of your team and how much that affects everyone and in your company as well. MANDO: First of all, shout out to comp sci dropouts. I made it just a little bit farther than you, but I know exactly where you're coming from. I had that same thing in my head for a very long time that these folks with their degrees obviously must know so much more than me and I have no idea what I'm doing. That's one of the things that I've always loved about the programs, like the RailsConf Scholars, is that for me, one of the things that helps combat that imposter syndrome thinking is working with folks directly who are earlier in their careers, or have less experience. So not only do you get to help them, guide them, and show them things and stuff, but it really does help serve as a reminder of all the stuff that you do know. There's nothing better than talking about something with someone, being able to explain it to them and help them, and then you walk away and you're like, “Oh yeah, I do know some things, that's kind of nice.” TRAM: I think in talking about dropping out of a major, or switching majors, my experience and my journey into tech. In college, I was quite afraid. I had a requirement to take a CS class, but hearing all these horror stories from other people made me delay taking it. I actually took my first CS class, my junior year of college and while it was really challenging, I definitely enjoyed it way more than I thought I would. But since I took it too late in my college career, I couldn't switch my major, or couldn’t minor, or major in it and that really stuck with me because, I think going and finding the ADA Developers Academy, which is a coding program, it’s like it was my second chance at doing something that I wanted to do, but didn’t have the time, or didn't have the confidence to do in college. One thing that is nice, that I keep thinking about, is that even if I did do a CS major in college, that environment instilled with the competition of it and instilled with, I guess, people who may think that they know more than you may have not been conducive for my education. But what I really enjoy about the current coding program that I'm in is that it's all women, or gender diverse folks and we all come from all different walks of life. But one thing that we have in common is being really empathetic to each other and that environment, I think made all the difference in my ability to learn and to see that there is a community that would champion me and that would also try to uplift other people. JOHN: Yeah. I think that highlights the importance of that initial learning environment. If your first exposure to tech is a weed-out course when you’re trying taking CS in college, you're probably never coming back to it. But having an environment that's specifically designed to actually be supportive and actually get you through learning things can make all the difference, really. MANDO: Yeah. My oldest son is going through a computer science course, or computer science curriculum at UT Dallas here in Texas and his experience is a little bit different, I think because of the pandemic and he doesn't have that in-person structure. Everything's different. He's not having in-person classes. So it's forcing it to be a little more collaborative in nature and a little less kind of what you were saying, John, like waking up at 8 o'clock in the morning to go to some 300-person weed-out class. I think it has served him a little bit better having things be a little weird in that regard, but it is funny to see how little the curriculum and set up around getting a computer science college degree has changed in the 20 years since I took it. That's a shame and I think that that's why the places like ADA Developers Academy and other folks who are showing people and especially employers, that there's different ways for people to get these skills and get this knowledge as opposed to a strictly regimented 4-year, whatever you want to call it, degree program. Leah, you came into technology, you were saying, through a different path other than your traditional computer science degree? LEAH: Yeah. So I majored in math in college and wasn't exactly sure what I wanted to do with that and when I graduated, it was 2009, to age myself. [chuckles] It was 2009 and the economy was not doing very well and a lot of my peers were really struggling to find jobs. I went for a leadership program at an insurance company and ended up staying there and moving to Cincinnati, Ohio, which I had no desire ever to go there, [laughs] but it worked out fine. I ended up in this insurance company for almost 10 years. Met some really wonderful people and I got to do a lot of really great things, but just kept having that question in my mind of if it hadn't been a poor economy and if it hadn't been whatever factors, could there have been another path for me? I just kept thinking about what I enjoy doing at my job had nothing to do with the insurance side of things. I found that I got really into writing Excel formulas, [chuckles] those were the days that I was having the most fun and I was working remotely, living in Charleston, South Carolina at the time. After chatting with a few friends, I found the Turing School of Software & Design out in Denver. So I quit my job and moved out to Denver and two days after I moved there, I started the bootcamp program. After an entire week of school, I still hadn't unpacked my bag of socks and several other things from my car. So it was just kind of a whirlwind, but I picked Turing because they had an emphasis on social justice and that was really important to me and I think it served me very well as far as being able to meet a lot of people who are like-minded—who also picked Turing for similar reasons—just wanting to better the community and be a force for good with technology. So yeah, that was my rambling answer. [laughs] MANDO: I know that I struggle a lot with knowing the “good programs” and the not-so-great bootcamp style programs. Like anything else, when stuff becomes something that's popular, it attracts folks who are speculators and usurious, I guess, for lack of a better word. [chuckles] So you hear these horror stories about people who go through and spend all this money on bootcamp programs and then can't find a job, don't really feel like they learned the things that they were supposed to learn, or were told they were going to learn. It's nice to hear good stories around those and some good shoutouts to solid programs. LEAH: It was definitely stressful and we had a hallway that we deemed “the crying hallway.” [laughs] But I think it did serve me well and has served many people well in the several iterations that Turing has had over the years. MANDO: Yeah. Just because it's a solid program, or a positive program doesn't mean that it's easy by any stretch. LEAH: Totally. MANDO: I remember one time I was talking with an old coworker and she was telling me about her experience going through the CS program at Carnegie Mellon. This woman, Andrea, she's easily one of the smartest people that I've ever met in my life and she's fantastic at everything that I've ever seen her do. So to hear her talk about going through this program and finding stairwells to cry in and stuff as she was a student really shook me and made me realize that the stuff's not easy and it's hard for everybody. Just because you see them years later being really, really fantastic at what they do doesn't mean that they spent years trying to build those skills through blood, sweat, and tears. LEAH: Yeah, I think one of the things that was hard, too is you have no idea what playing field everyone is starting from. It's easy to really get down on yourself when you're like, “This other person is getting this so much faster than I am,” and come to find out they've had internships, or have been working on random online courses teaching themselves for years, and then finally made the decision to go to a school versus other people who haven't had that same amount of experience. It's another lesson and [chuckles] just level setting yourself and running your own race and not worrying about what other people are doing. TRAM: I totally agree with that, Leah. I feel like sometimes I compare my starting point to someone's finish line and I'm like, “Oh, how did they finish already? I'm just starting.” It can be really hard to think about that comparison and not get down on yourself. But I think it's also really good to keep in mind that we only know our journey and our race and it's so hard to have all of the other information on other people, how they got there. So it's just like, I try to remind myself that and it's like, I think the only one that I'm trying to compare myself with is me a month ago, or me a year ago instead of someone else's journey. LEAH: Totally. JOHN: Yeah, that's actually something I'm trying to build into a conference talk because it's so hard to see your own progress unless someone points it out to you. Especially as you're grinding through a curriculum like that, where it's like you're always faced with something new and you're always looking ahead to all the things you don't know. Like, when am I going to learn that, when am I going to get to that, when am I getting to know all these things like everybody else? It takes extra work to stop and turn around and look at, like you said, where you were a month ago, where you were three months ago and be like, “Oh my God, I used to struggle with this every day and now it just flows out of my fingers when I need to do a git commit,” or whatever it is. Being able to notice that progress is so important to feeling like you're not completely swamped and struggling the whole time; that you're always looking to the things you don't yet know and never looking at the things you do know, because you don't have to struggle with those anymore. They don't take up any space in your mind. STEPHANIE: Yeah. I can relate to that as well. Something that I've been doing that it's working a lot is okay, I look to others, but I try to see what they did that I can try to look forward. Like, “Oh okay, so they did this and this looks like something that I want to do,” but I only compare myself to my past self because it can be really – I don't think it does a lot of good to anyone, in fact, when you compare yourself to others, just for the sake of comparing. But if you do see that as an inspiration, “Oh, look, this person is showing me that what I want to do is possible and that's great because I have now more proof that I'm going the right path.” It definitely takes some time to change this little key in your head, but once you do, it gets so much easier and so much lighter. You see even people in a different way because you start asking, “I wonder if this person is struggling with this as well because it's not easy.” [laughs] So this is something that it's helping me. MANDO: Yeah, that's something that I'm struggling with right now with my daughter. She plays high school softball. She's fantastic, she's an amazing athlete, and she's really, really good, but she's a freshman on the varsity team at the highest-level high school team. So she continually compares herself against these other girls who are like 2, 3, 4 years older than her and have a lot more playing time and playing experience and they're bigger and they're stronger. I keep trying to look for a way to help her understand that, like you said, Stephanie, she can compare herself to herself yesterday and she can look to these other players as inspiration as to what's possible. But what she can't do is get down on herself for not being there yet. That's just not fair at all and she may never get there. There are a lot of other factors, outside of how hard she works and what she does, that will contribute to how she's going to finally be. That's another thing that I have to [laughs] work on just me personally is that we all have our own built-in limitations and we all make choices that set us down only so far down a path. I choose to not keep my house completely spotless because there's only so many hours in a day and I would rather go watch my daughter's softball game than deep clean a bathroom. I'll eventually clean the bathroom, but today, [laughs] it's not going to be cleaned because that's the choice. But yet for some reason, I still get down on myself when I come home after the game and I'm like, “Ugh, why is this house so dirty?” STEPHANIE: Yeah. I think now that you mentioned that you have a daughter, I remember this chapter from this book called The Confidence Code. It’s a really, really good book and it talks about all the reasons women are the ones that more self-confidence and how we can put ourselves to compete. There is a chapter for parents and how you can help your daughters to not go through the normal route because it will happen. Not that much anymore, but we are still, in terms of society, expected to behave differently and the book brings you really good tips for parents. I think you would be nice for you. It looks like you want to learn more about that? MANDO: Yeah, for sure. Thank you, Stephanie so much. I'll take a look at that and we'll include a link in the show notes for that and some of the other stuff. Any and all help [chuckles] is very much appreciated. JOHN: We've come to the time on the show where we go into what we call reflections, which are just the takeaways, or the new thoughts, or the things we're going to be thinking about that we've talked about on this episode that really struck us. So for me, it's a couple of different things. First Leah, you were talking about being a companion to long distance runners, which is something I had never thought about being a thing, but of course, the moment you say it, I'm like, “Oh yeah, if you're running a 100 miles, it'd be nice to have someone keep you a company.” That sounds great and it's something you need to be suited to. You need to be able to run and talk and so, finding new ways to be of service to other people, I think is really interesting part of that. I think the other thing that struck me is we're discussing different ways of increasing psychological safety on the team and the ways that you can communicate that to the people that are there. Those are the things I'm always keeping an eye out for because I always want to be able to provide those to my team and so, hearing your examples is just always good for me just to have even more different ways of doing it in the back of my head. LEAH: Well, thanks, John. Yeah, I think the big takeaway for me is just what can we proactively do to make our space safer, or just more conducive to diverse thought? I think, Mando, maybe you asked the question of what we were explicitly doing at our companies, or if anyone had ever done something explicit to make us feel safer, or invite us to participate fully in the community of developers? I think there is a lot more that can be done to help people feel as though they're a part, or that their opinion matters, or their belief matters and their contribution will only make the team better and stronger. MANDO: Yeah. I think that was John who asked that and then I rambled on for about 20 minutes afterward, so. [laughter] LEAH: Sorry. MANDO: But that reminds me, or that that leads into my reflection. Stephanie was talking about the one of the things that helps reinforce that psychological safety for her was seeing people make mistakes and having it be okay, and having that general attitude that we're going to make mistakes and bad things are going to happen and that’s okay. It's something that Leah, like you, I work at a really, really small startup. There's five people at the company total. So the pressure to make sure that everything is done right the first time is pretty high, the pressure that I put on myself, and it can easily spiral out of control when I start thinking about how long I've been doing this and then the should start to come out. “You should know this,” “You should be able to do this,” You should get this stuff done quickly, or faster,” or “It should be perfect.” I need to keep reminding myself that it's okay to make mistakes, it's okay to not have it be perfect the first time, it's okay to not be perfect. So thank you for that reminder, Stephanie. STEPHANIE: You're welcome. I have to remind myself every day as well. [chuckles] It is a daily practice, but I can guarantee you that it's so much better, things like life in general is so much better, so it is worth it. I think that my takeaway here, not only from this talk with everyone, but also from the RailsConf in general and the Rails community is how common it is to talk about these things at our community. Like, yesterday at the keynote, I saw the diversity numbers and I was like, “Whoa, wait a second. I think this is the first time that I go to a conference and someone is talking about this openly.” I think that's one of the reasons why the Rails community is so important to me and I want to continue the legacy. I think that talking about these names is what makes our community unique and I'm really grateful to be part of the community. TRAM: Yeah, I think my main takeaway is what I've been reflecting on the past few days and this conversation is one thing following the psychological safety theme of how can we have more inclusive and safe environments and like Leah said about representation matters. The people you see around you and the environments that you are in can help you to feel a certain way and when there's such a monolith of people in a certain company, that can make me feel very scared and open up to what I think, or my thoughts are. So I think the diversification of type is very, very important, but also just humanizing people and that's one thing that we can do today is highlight, be open about our mistakes, but also have an environment that is inclusive enough where people can speak up about their mistake and that inclusivity begets inclusivity. You're not going to just say that you're inclusive and don't have actions to back it up. Also, I think what Mando said about calling someone out. Sometimes being a newcomer to a company, I don't feel like I have the power to do that and sometimes, it's uncomfortable for me to do that. So having someone who is in upper management, or someone who has a little bit more power showcase that that's something that they have the power to do, but something that I can do also is really helpful. So that's something that I would try to reflect more on and act upon because it's been a really wholesome conversation and I'm glad to be a part of it. JOHN: Wonderful. Yeah, and to your point, Tram, there's a talk that was actually at RailsConf a couple of years ago by Anjuan Simmons called Lending Privilege. One of his points is that those of us who have the higher levels of privilege, we can wield it for good and we can do things like putting ourselves out there to say, “No, that's not okay on this team,” or to lift someone else up and say, “Hey, you just talked over, what's her name.” Like, “Please Stephanie, say what it was you were going to say,” or like, “Stephanie mentioned that idea tenured 10 minutes ago and we ignored it.” So using that privilege, or the position on the team. I've been at my company for 10 years so I have a lot of social capital; I can use that for a lot of good. I'll post a link to that talk as well in the show notes because I think it's really important concept. All right. Well, we've come to the end of our show. Thank you so much to all of our scholars who were able to join today, Leah, Stephanie, and Tram and thank you, Mando for being here. This was a wonderful conversation. MANDO: Yeah, thanks everyone. LEAH: Thank you. MANDO: It was fantastic. STEPHANIE: Thank you! TRAM: Thanks, ya’ll. This episode was brought to you by @therubyrep ( of DevReps, LLC ( To pledge your support and to join our awesome Slack community, visit ( To make a one-time donation so that we can continue to bring you more content and transcripts like this, please do so at ( You will also get an invitation to our Slack community this way as well. Special Guests: Leah Miller, Stefanni Brasil, and Tram Bui.

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Posted on 19 May 2021 | 9:00 am

234: Civil Society and Community Relationships with Michael Garfield

02:13 - Michael’s Superpower: Being Able to Creatively Digest and Reconstruct Categories * Integral Theory ( * Creative Deconstruction – Michael Schwartz ( * Creating Truly Novel Categories – Recognizing Novelty as Novelty 09:39 - Recognizing Economic Value of Talents & Abilities * Invisible Labor * Ecosystem Services * Biodiversity; The Diversity Bonus by Scott Page ( 18:49 - The Edge of Chaos; Chaos Theory ( * “Life exists at the edge of chaos.” 23:23 - Reproducibility Crisis and Context-Dependent Insight 28:49 - What constitutes a scientific experiment? * Missed Externalities * Scholarly articles for Michelle Girvan "reservoir computing" ( * Non-conformity 38:03 - The Return of Civil Society and Community Relationships; Scale Theory * Legitimation Crisis by Juergen Habermas ( * Scale: The Universal Laws of Life and Death in Organisms, Cities and Companies by Geoffrey West ( 49:28 - Fractal Geometry More amazing resources from Michael to check out: Michael Garfield: Improvising Out of Algorithmic Isolation ( Michael Garfield: We Will Fight Diseases of Our Networks By Realizing We Are Networks ( Reflections: Jacob: Some of the best ideas, tv shows, music, etc. are the kinds of things that there’s not going to be an established container. Rein: “Act always so as to increase the number of choices.” ~ Heinz von Foerster Jessica: Externality. Recognize that there’s going to be surprises and find them. Michael: Adaptability is efficiency aggregated over a longer timescale. This episode was brought to you by @therubyrep ( of DevReps, LLC ( To pledge your support and to join our awesome Slack community, visit ( To make a one-time donation so that we can continue to bring you more content and transcripts like this, please do so at ( You will also get an invitation to our Slack community this way as well. Transcript: JACOB: Hello and welcome to Episode 234 of Greater Than Code. My name is Jacob Stoebel and I’m joined with my co-panelist, Rein Henrichs. REIN: Thanks, Jacob and I’m here with my friend and co-panelist, Jessica Kerr. JESSICA: Thanks, Rein and today, I’m excited to introduce our guest, Michael Garfield. He’s an artist and philosopher and he helps people navigate our age of accelerating weirdness and cultivate the curiosity and play we need to thrive. He hosts and produces two podcasts, The Future Fossils Podcast & The Santa Fe Institute's Complexity Podcast. Yay, complexity! Michael acts as interlocutor for a worldwide community of artists, scientists, and philosophers—a practice that feeds his synthetic and transdisciplinary “mind-jazz” performances in the form of essay, avant-guitar music, and painting! You can find him on Bandcamp, it’s pretty cool. Refusing to be enslaved by a single perspective, creative medium, or intellectual community, Michael walks through the walls between academia and festival culture, theory and practice. Michael, welcome to Greater Than Code! MICHAEL: Thanks! I’m glad to be here and I hope that I provide a refreshingly different guest experience for listeners being not a coder in any kind of traditional sense. JESSICA: Yet you’re definitely involved in technology. MICHAEL: Yeah, and I think the epistemic framing of programming and algorithms is something that can be applied with no understanding of programming languages as they are currently widely understood. It’s just like design is coding, design of the built environment, so. JESSICA: And coding is a design. MICHAEL: Indeed. JESSICA: Okay, before we go anywhere else, I did not prepare you for this, but we have one question that we ask all of our guests. What is your superpower and how did you acquire it? MICHAEL: I would like believe that I have a superpower in being able to creatively digest and reconstruct categories so as to drive new associations between them for people and I feel like I developed that studying integral theory in grad school. I did some work under Sean Esbjörn-Hargens at John F. Kennedy University looking at the work of and work adjacent to Ken Wilber, who was trying to come up with a metatheoretical framework to integrate all different domains of human knowledge. All different types of inquiry into a single framework that doesn't attempt to reduce any one of them to any other and then in that process, I learned what one of my professors, Michael Schwartz, called creative deconstruction. So showing how art can be science and science can be art and that these aren't ontologically fixed categories that exist external to us. Looking at the relationship between science as a practice and spiritual inquiry as a practice and that kind of thing. So it's an irreverent attitude toward the categories that we've constructed that takes in a way a cynical and pragmatic approach to the way that we define things in our world. You know. REIN: Kant was wrong. [laughs] MICHAEL: It's good to get out of the rut. Obviously, you’ve got to be careful because all of these ideas have histories and so you have to decide whether it's worth trying to redefine something for people in order to open up new possibilities in the way that these ideas can be understood and manipulated. It's not, for example, an easy task to try and get people to change their idea about what religion is. [laughs] JESSICA: Yeah. More than redefined. It's almost like undefined. MICHAEL: Hm. Like Paul Tillich, for example. Theologian Paul Tillich said that religion is ultimate concern. So someone can have a religion of money, or a religion of sex, but if you get into these, if you try to interpose that in a debate on intelligent design versus evolutionary theory, you'll get attacked by both sides. JESSICA: [chuckles] That’s cosmology. MICHAEL: Yeah. So it's like – [overtalk] JESSICA: Which is hard to [inaudible] of money, or sex. MICHAEL: Yeah, but people do it anyhow. JESSICA: [laughs] Yeah. So deconstructing categories and seeing in-between things that fits through your walking through walls, what categories are you deconstructing and seeing between lately? MICHAEL: Well, I don't know, lately I've been paying more attention to the not so much tilting after the windmills of this metamorphic attitude towards categories, but looking at the way that when the opportunity comes to create a truly novel category, what are the forces in play that prevent that, that prevent recognizing novelty as novelty that I just – JESSICA: Do you have any examples? MICHAEL: Yeah, well, I just saw a really excellent talk by UC Berkeley Professor Doug Guilbeault, I think is how you say his name. I am happy to link his work to you all in the chat here so that you can share it. JESSICA: Yeah, we’ll link that in the show notes. MICHAEL: He studies category formation and he was explaining how most of the research that's been done on convergent categorization is done on established categories. But what happens when you discover something truly new? What his research shows is that basically the larger the population, the more likely it is that these categories will converge on something that's an existing category and he compared it to island versus mainland population biogeography. So there's a known dynamic in evolutionary science where genetic drift, which is just this random component of the change in allele frequencies in a population, the larger the population, the less likely it is that a genetic mutation that is otherwise neutral is going to actually percolate out into the population. On an island, you might get these otherwise neutral mutations that actually take root and saturate an entire community, but on the mainland, they get lost in the noise. You can look at this in terms of how easy it is for an innovative, artistic, or musical act to actually find any purchase. Like Spotify bought the data analysis company, The Echo Nest, back in 2015 and they ran this study on where emergent musical talent comes from. It comes from places like Australia, the UK, and Iceland, because the networks are small enough. This is a finding that's repeated endlessly through studies of how to create a viral meme that basically, or another way – JESSICA: You mean a small enough pool to take hold? MICHAEL: Yeah. That basically big science and large social networks online and these other attempts, anywhere we look at this economies of scale, growing a given system, what happens is—and we were talking about this a little before we got on the call—as a system scales, it becomes less innovative. There's less energy is allocated to – JESSICA: In America? MICHAEL: Yeah. Bureaucratic overhead, latencies in the network that prevent the large networks from adapting, with the same agility to novel challenges. There's a lot of different ways to think about this and talk about this, but it basically amounts to, if you want to, you can't do it from the conservative core of an organization. You can't do it from the board of directors. JESSICA: Oh. MICHAEL: You have to go out onto – like why did they call it fringe physics? It's like, it is because it's on the fringe and so there's a kind of – JESSICA: So this would be like if you have like one remarkably lowercase agile team inside your enterprise, one team is innovating and development practices. They're going to get mushed out. Whereas, if you have one team innovating like that in a small company, it might spread and it might become dominant. MICHAEL: Yeah. I think it's certainly the case that this speaks to something I've been wondering about it in a broader sense, which is how do we recognize the economic value of talents and abilities that are like, how do we recognize a singular individual for their incompressible knowledge and expertise when they don't go through established systems of accreditation like getting a PhD? Because the academic system is such that basically, if you have an innovative contribution, but you don't have the credentials that are required to participate in the community of peer review, then people can't even – your contribution is just invisible. The same is true for how long it took, if you look at economic models, it took so long for economic models to even begin to start addressing the invisible labor of women in at home like domestic labor, or what we're now calling ecosystem services. So there's this question of – I should add that I'm ambivalent about this question because I'm afraid that answering it in an effective way, how do we make all of these things economically visible would just accelerate the rate at which the capitalist machine is capable of co-opting and exploiting all of these. [chuckles] REIN: Yeah. You also have this Scott Seeing Like a State thing where in order to be able to even perceive that that stuff is going on, it has to become standardized and you can't dissect the bird to observe its song, right? MICHAEL: Totally. So obviously, it took almost no time at all for consumer culture to commodify the psychedelic experience and start using to co-opt this psychedelic aesthetic and start using it in advertising campaigns for Levi's Jeans and Campbell Soup and that kind of thing. So it’s this question of a moving frontier that as soon as you have the language to talk about it, it's not the ineffable anymore. REIN: Yeah. MICHAEL: There's a value to the ineffable and there's a value to – it's related to this question of the exploitation of indigenous peoples by large pharmaceutical companies like, their ethnobotanical knowledge. How do you make the potential value of biodiversity, something that can be manufactured into medicine at scale, without destroying the rainforest and the people who live in it? Everywhere I look, I see this question. So for me, lately, it's been less about how do we creatively deconstruct the categories we have so much as it is, what is the utility of not knowing how to categorize something at all and then how do we fix the skewed incentive structures in society so as to value that which we currently do not know how to value. JESSICA: Because you don’t have a category for it. MICHAEL: Right. Like right now, maybe one of the best examples, even though this is the worst example in another way, is that a large fraction of the human genome has been patented by Monsanto, even though it has no known current biomedical utility. This is what Lewis Hyde in his book, Common as Air, called “the third enclosure” of the common. So you have the enclosure of the land that everyone used to be able to hunt on and then you have the enclosure of intellectual property in terms of patents for known utilities, known applications, and then over the last few decades, you're starting to see large companies buy their way into and defend patents for the things that actually don't – it's speculative. They're just gambling on the idea that eventually we'll have some use for this and that it's worth lawyering up to defend that potential future use. But it's akin to recognizing that we need to fund translational work. We need to fund synthesis. We need to fund blue sky interdisciplinary research for which we don't have an expected return on investment here because there's – JESSICA: It's one of those things that it’s going to help; you're going to get tremendous benefits out of it, but you can't say which ones. MICHAEL: Right. It's a shift perhaps akin to the move that I'm seeing conservation biology make right now from “let's preserve this charismatic species” to “let's do everything we can to restore biodiversity” rather than that biodiversity itself is generative and should be valued in its own regard so diverse research teams, diverse workplace teams. We know that there is what University of Michigan Professor Scott Page calls the diversity bonus and you don't need to know and in fact, you cannot know what the bonus is upfront. JESSICA: Yeah. You can't draw the line of causality forward to the benefit because the point of diversity is that you get benefits you never thought of. MICHAEL: Exactly. Again, this gets into this question of as a science communications staffer in a position where I'm constantly in this weird dissonant enters zone between the elite researchers at the Santa Fe Institute where I work and the community of complex systems enthusiasts that have grown up around this organization. It's a complete mismatch in scale between this org that has basically insulated itself so as to preserve the island of innovation that is required for really groundbreaking research, but then also, they have this reputation that far outstrips their ability to actually respond to people that are one step further out on the fringe from them. So I find myself asking, historically SFI was founded by Los Alamos National Laboratory physicists mostly that were disenchanted with the idea that they were going to have to research science, that their science was limited to that which could be basically argued as a national defense initiative and they just wanted to think about the deepest mysteries of the cosmos. So what is to SFI as SFI as to Los Alamos? Even in really radical organizations, there's a point at which they've matured and there are questions that are beyond the horizon of that which a particular community is willing to indulge. I find, in general, I'm really fascinated by questions about the nonlinearity of time, or about weird ontology. I'm currently talking to about a dozen other academics and para-academics about how to try and – I'm working, or helping to organize a working group of people that can apply rigorous academic approaches to asking questions that are completely taboo inside of academia. Questions that challenge some of the most fundamental assumptions of maternity, such as there being a distinction between self and other, or the idea that there are things that are fundamentally inaccessible to quantitative research. These kinds of things like, how do we make space for that kind of inquiry when there's absolutely no way to argue it in terms of you should fund this? And that's not just for money, that's also for attention because the demands on the time and attention of academics are so intense that even if they have interest in this stuff, they don't have the freedom to pursue it in their careers. That's just one of many areas where I find that this kind of line of inquiry manifesting right now. REIN: Reminds me a lot of this model of the edge of chaos that came from Packard and Langton back in the late 70s. Came out of chaos theory, this idea that there's this liminal transitionary zone between stability and chaos and that this is the boiling zone where self-organization happens and innovation happens. But also, that this zone is itself not static; it gets pushed around by other forces. MICHAEL: Yeah, and that's where life is and that was Langton's point, that life exists at the edge of chaos that it's right there at the phase transition boundary between what is it that separates a stone from a raging bonfire, or there’s the Goldilocks Zone kind of question. Yeah, totally. REIN: And these places that were at the edge of chaos that were innovative can ossify, they can move into the zone of stability. It's not so much that they move it's that, I don't know, maybe it's both. Where the frontier is, is constantly in motion. MICHAEL: Yeah, and to that point again, I tend to think about these things in a topographical, or geographical sense, where the island is growing, we're sitting on a volcano, and there's lots you can do with that metaphor. Obviously, it doesn't make sense. You can't build your house inside the volcano, right? [laughs] But you want to be close enough to be able to watch and describe as new land erupts, but at a safe distance. Where is that sweet spot where you have rigor and you have support, but you're not trapped within a bureaucracy, or an ossified set of institutional conventions? JESSICA: Or if the island is going up, if the earth is moving the island up until the coastline keeps expanding outward, and you built your house right on the beach. As in you’ve got into React when it was the new hotness and you learned all about it and you became the expert and then you had this great house on the beach, and now you have a great house in the middle of town because the frontier, the hotness has moved on as our massive technology has increased and the island raises up. I mean, you can't both identify as being on the edge and identify with any single category of knowledge. MICHAEL: Yeah. It's tricky. I saw Nora Bateson talking about this on Twitter recently. She's someone who I love for her subversiveness. Her father, Gregory Bateson, was a major player in the articulation of cybernetics and she's awesome in that sense of, I don't know, the minister's daughter kind of a way of being extremely well-versed in complex systems thinking and yet also aware that there's a subtle reductionism that comes in that misses – JESSICA: Misses from? MICHAEL: Well, that comes at like we think about systems thinking as it's not reductionist because it's not trying to explain biology in terms of the interactions of atoms. It acknowledges that there's genuine emergence that happens at each of these levels and yet, to articulate that, one of the things that happens is everything has to be squashed into numbers and so it’s like this issue of how do you quantify something. JESSICA: It's not real, if you can't measure it in numbers. MICHAEL: Right and that belies this bias towards thinking that because you can't quantify something now means it can't be quantified. JESSICA: You can’t predict which way the flame is going to go in the fire. That doesn't mean the fire doesn't burn. [chuckles] MICHAEL: Right. So she's interesting because she talks about warm data as this terrain, or this experience where we don't know how to talk about it yet, but that's actually what makes it so juicy and meaningful and instructive and – JESSICA: As opposed to taking it out of context. Leave it in context, even though we don't know how to do some magical analysis on it there. MICHAEL: Right, and I think this starts to generate some meaningful insights into the problem of the reproducibility crisis. Just as an example, I think science is generally moving towards context dependent insight and away from – even at the Santa Fe Institute, nobody's looking for a single unifying theory of everything anymore. It's far more illuminating, useful, and rigorous to look at how different models are practical given different applications. I remember in college there's half a dozen major different ways to define a biological species and I was supposed to get up in front of a class and argue for one over the other five. I was like, “This is preposterous.” Concretely, pun kind of intended, Biosphere 2, which was this project that I know the folks here at Synergia Ranch in Santa Fe at the Institute of Ecotechnics, who were responsible for creating this unbelievable historic effort to miniaturize the entire biosphere inside of a building. They had a coral reef and a rainforest and a Savannah and a cloud desert, like the Atacama, and there was one other, I forget. But it was intended as a kind of open-ended ecological experiment that was supposed to iterate a 100 times, or 50 times over a 100 years. They didn't know what they were looking for; they just wanted to gather data and then continue these 2-year enclosures where a team of people were living inside this building and trying to reproduce the entire earth biosphere in miniature. So that first enclosure is remembered historically as a failure because they miscalculated the rate at which they would be producing carbon dioxide and they ended up having to open the building and let in fresh air and import resource. JESSICA: So they learned something? MICHAEL: Right, they learned something. But that project was funded by Ed Bass, who in 1994, I think called in hostile corporate takeover expert, Steve Bannon to force to go in there with a federal team and basically issue a restraining order on these people and forcibly evict them from the experiment that they had created. Because it was seen as an embarrassment, because they had been spun in this way in international media as being uncredentialed artists, rather than scientists who really should not have the keys to this thing. It was one of these instances where people regard this as a scientific failure and yet when you look at the way so much of science is being practiced now, be it in the domains of complex systems, or in machine learning, what they were doing was easily like 20 or 30 years ahead of its time. JESSICA: Well, no wonder they didn’t appreciate it. MICHAEL: [chuckles] Exactly. So it's like, they went in not knowing what they were going to get out of it, but there was this tragic mismatch between the logic of Ed Bass’ billionaire family about what it means to have a return on an investment and the logic of ecological engineering where you're just poking at a system to see what will happen and you don't even know where to set the controls yet. So anyway. JESSICA: And it got too big. You talked about the media, it got too widely disseminated and became embarrassed because it wasn't on an island. It wasn't in a place where the genetic drift can become normal. MICHAEL: Right. It was suddenly subject to the constraints imposed upon it in terms of the way that people were being taught science in public school in the 1980s that this is what the scientific method is. You start with a hypothesis and it's like what if your – JESSICA: Which are not standards that are relevant to that situation. MICHAEL: Exactly. And honestly, the same thing applies to other computational forms of science. It took a long time for the techniques pioneered at the Santa Fe Institute to be regarded as legitimate. I'm thinking of cellular automata, agent-based modeling, and computer simulation generally. Steven Wolfram did a huge service, in some sense, to the normalization of those things in publishing A New Kind of Science, that massive book in whatever it was, 2004, or something where he said, “Look, we can run algorithmic experiments,” and that's different from the science that you're familiar with, but it's also setting aside for a moment, the attribution failure that that book is and acknowledging who actually pioneered A New Kind of Science. [chuckles] JESSICA: At least it got some information out. MICHAEL: Right. At least it managed to shift the goalpost in terms of what the expectations are; what constitutes a scientific experiment in the first place. JESSICA: So it shifted categories. MICHAEL: Yeah. So I think about, for example, a research that was done on plant growth in a basement. I forget who it was that did this. I think I heard this from, it was either Doug Rushkoff, or Charles Eisenstein that was talking about this, where you got two completely different results and they couldn't figure out what was going on. And then they realized that it was at different moments in the lunar cycle and that it didn't matter if you put your plant experiment in a basement and lit everything with artificial bulbs and all this stuff. Rather than sunlight, rather than clean air, if you could control for everything, but that there's always a context outside of your context. So this notion that no matter how cleverly you try to frame your model, that when it comes time to actually experiment on these things in the real world, that there's always going to be some extra analogy you've missed and that this has real serious and grave implications in terms of our economic models, because there will always be someone that's falling through the cracks. How do we actually account for all of the stakeholders in conversations about the ecological cost of dropping a new factory over here, for example? It's only recently that people, anywhere in the modern world, are starting to think about granting ecosystems legal protections as entities befitting of personhood and this kind of thing. JESSICA: Haven’t we copyrighted those yet? MICHAEL: [laughs] So all of that, there's plenty of places to go from there, I'm sure. REIN: Well, this does remind me of one of the things that Stafford Beer tried was he said, “Ponds are viable systems, they’re ecologies, they're adaptive, they're self-sustaining. Instead of trying to model how a pond works, what if we just hook the inputs of the business process into the pond and then hook the adaptions made by the pond as the output back into the business process and use the pond as the controlling system without trying to understand what makes a pond good at adapting?” That is so outside of the box and it blows my mind that he was doing this, well, I guess it was the 60s, or whatever, but this goes well beyond black boxing, right? MICHAEL: Yeah. So there's kind of a related insight that I saw Michelle Girvan gave at Santa Fe Institute community lecture a few years ago on reservoir computing, which maybe most of your audience is familiar with, but just for the sake of it, this is joining a machine learning system to a source of analog chaos, basically. So putting a computer on a bucket of water and then just kicking the bucket, every once in a while, to generate waves so that you're feeding chaos into the output of the machine learning algorithm to prevent overfitting. Again, and again, and again, you see this value where this is apparently the evolutionary value of play and possibly also, of dreaming. There's a lot of good research on both of these areas right now that learning systems are all basically hill climbing algorithms that need to be periodically disrupted from climbing the wrong local optimum. So in reservoir computing, by adding a source of natural chaos to their weather prediction algorithms, they were able to double the horizon at which they were able to forecast meteorological events past the mathematic limit that had been proven and established for this. That is like, we live in a noisy world. JESSICA: Oh, yeah. Just because it’s provably impossible doesn't mean we can't do something that's effectively the same thing, that's close enough. MICHAEL: Right. Actually, in that example, I think that there's a strong argument for the value of that which we can't understand. [laughs] It's like it's actually important. So much has been written about the value of Slack, of dreaming, of taking a long walk, of daydreaming, letting your mind wander to scientific discovery. So this is where great innovations come from is like, “I'm going to sleep on it,” or “I'm going to go on vacation.” Just getting stuck on an idea, getting fixated on a problem, we actually tend to foreclose on the possibility of answering that problem entirely. Actually, there's a good reason to – I think this is why Silicon Valley has recognized the instrumental value of microdosing, incidentally. [laughs] That this is that you actually want to inject a little noise into your algorithm and knock yourself off the false peak that you've stranded yourself on. JESSICA: Because if you aim for predictability and consistency, if you insist on reasonableness, you'll miss everything interesting. MICHAEL: Or another good way to put it is what is it, reasonable women don't make history. [laughs] There is actually a place for the – JESSICA: You don’t change the system by maximally conforming. MICHAEL: Right. JESSICA: If there is a place for… MICHAEL: It’s just, there is a place for non-conformity and it's a thing where it's like, I really hope and I have some optimism that what we'll see, by the time my daughter is old enough to join the workforce, is that we'll see a move in this direction where non-conformity has been integrated somehow into our understanding of how to run a business that we actively seek out people that are capable of doing this. For the same reason that we saw over the 20th century, we saw a movement from one size fits all manufacturing to design your own Nike shoes. There's this much more bespoke approach. JESSICA: Oh, I love those. MICHAEL: Yeah. So it's like we know that if we can tailor our systems so that they can adapt across multiple different scales, that they're not exploiting economies of scale that ultimately slash the redundancy that allows an organization to adapt to risk. That if we can find a way to actually generate a kind of a fractal structure in the governance of organizations in the way that we have reflexes. The body already does this, you don't have to sit there and think about everything you do and if you did, you’d die right away. JESSICA: [laughs] Yeah. REIN: Yeah. MICHAEL: If you had to pass every single twitch all the way up the chain to your frontal cortex JESSICA: If we had to put breathe on the list. [laughs] MICHAEL: Right. If you had to sit there and approve every single heartbeat, you'd be so dead. [overtalk] JESSICA: Oh my gosh, yeah. That's an energy allocation and it all needs to go through you so that you can have control. REIN: I just wanted to mention, that reminded me of a thing that Klaus Krippendorff, who's a cybernetics guy, said that there is virtue in the act of delegating one's agency to trustworthy systems. We're talking, but I don't need to care about how the packets get from my machine to yours and I don't want to care about that, but there's a trade-off here where people find that when they surrender their agency, that this can be oppressive. So how do we find this trade-off? MICHAEL: So just to anchor it again in something that I find really helpful. Thinking about the way that convenience draws people into these compacts, with the market and with the state. You look over the last several hundred years, or thousand years in the West and you see more and more of what used to be taken for granted as the extent in terms of the functions that are performed by the extended family, or by the neighborhood, life in a city, by your church congregations, or whatever. All of that stuff has been out boarded to commercial interests and to federal level oversight, because it's just more efficient to do it that way at the timescales that matter, that are visible to those systems. Yet, what COVID has shown us is that we actually need neighborhoods that suddenly, it doesn't – my wife and I, it was easy to make the decision to move across country to a place where we didn't know anybody to take a good job. But then suddenly when you're just alone in your house all the time and you've got nobody to help you raise your kids, that seems extremely dumb. So there's that question of just as I feel like modern science is coming back around to acknowledging that a lot of what was captured in old wives’ tales and in traditional indigenous knowledge, ecological knowledge systems that were regarded by the enlightenment as just rumor, or… JESSICA: Superstition. MICHAEL: Superstition, that it turns out that these things actually had, that they had merit, they were evolved. JESSICA: There was [inaudible] enough. MICHAEL: Right. Again, it wasn't rendered in the language that allowed it to be the subject of quantitative research until very recently and then, suddenly it was and suddenly, we had to circle back around. Science is basically in this position where they have to sort of canonize Galileo, they're like, “Ah, crap. We burned all these witches, but it turns out they were right.” There's that piece of it. So I think relatedly, one of the things that we're seeing in economist samples and Wendy Carlin have written about this is the return of the civil society, the return of mutual aid networks, and of gift economies, and of the extended family, and of buildings that are built around in courtyards rather than this Jeffersonian everyone on their own plot of land approach. That we're starting to realize that we had completely emptied out the topsoil basically of all of these community relationships in order to standardize things for a mass big agricultural approach, that on the short scale actually does generate greater yield. It's easier to have conversations with people who agree with you than it is – in a way, it's inexpedient to try and cross the aisle and have a conversation with someone with whom you deeply and profoundly disagree. But the more polarized we become as a civilization, the more unstable we become as a civilization. So over this larger timescale, we actually have to find ways to incentivize talking to people with whom you disagree, or we're screwed. We're kicking legs out from under the table. REIN: At this point, I have to name drop Habermas because he had this idea that there were two fundamental cognitive interests that humans have to direct their attempts to acquire knowledge. One is a technical interest in achieving goals through prediction and control and the other is a practical interest in ensuring mutual understanding. His analysis was that advanced capitalist societies, the technical interest dominates at the expense of the practical interest and that knowledge produced by empirical, scientific, analytic sciences becomes the prototype of all knowledge. I think that's what you're talking about here that we've lost touch with this other form of knowledge. It's not seen as valuable and the scientific method, the analytical approaches have come to dominate. MICHAEL: Yeah, precisely. [laughs] Again, I think in general, we've become impoverished in our imagination because again, the expectations, there's a shifting baseline. So what people expect to pull out of the ocean now is a fish that you might catch off just a commercial, or a recreational fishing expedition. It's a quarter of the size of the same species of fish you might've caught 50, 70 years ago and when people pull up this thing and they're like, “Oh, look at –” and they feel proud of themselves. I feel like that's what's going on with us in terms of our we no longer even recognize, or didn't until very recently recognize that we had been unwittingly colluding in the erosion of some very essential levels of organization and human society and that we had basically sold our souls to market efficiency and efficient state level governance. Now it's a huge mess to try and understand. You look at Occupy Wall Street and stuff like that and it just seems like such an enormous pain in the ass to try and process things in that way. But it's because we're having to relearn how to govern neighborhoods and govern small communities and make business decisions at the scale of a bioregion rather than a nation. JESSICA: Yeah. It's a scale thing. I love the phrase topsoil of community relationships, because when you talk about the purposive knowledge that whatever you call it, Rein, that is goal seeking. It's like the one tall tree that is like, “I am the tallest tree,” and it keeps growing taller and taller and taller, and it doesn't see that it's falling over because there's no trees next to it to protect it from the wind. It's that weaving together between all the trees and the different knowledge and the different people, our soul is there. Our resilience is there. REIN: Michael, you keep talking about scale. Are you talking about scale theory? MICHAEL: Yeah. Scaling laws, like Geoffrey West's stuff, Luis Bettencourt is another researcher at the University of Chicago who does really excellent work in urban scaling. I just saw a talk from him this morning that was really quite interesting about there being a sweet spot where a city can exist between how thinly it's distributed infrastructurally over a given area versus how congested it is. Because population and infrastructure scale differently, they scale at different rates than you get – REIN: If I remember my West correctly, just because I suspect that not all of our listeners are familiar with scale theory, there's this idea that there are certain things that grow super linearly as things scale and certain things that grow sub linearly. So for example, the larger a city gets, you get a 15% more restaurants, but you also get 15% more flu, but you also get 15% less traffic. MICHAEL: Yeah. So anything that depends on infrastructures scales sub linearly. A city of 2 million people has 185% the number of gas stations, but anything that scales anything having to do with the number of interactions between people scales super linearly. You get 115% of the – rather you get, what is it, 230%? Something like that. Anyway, it's 150%, it's 85% up versus 115% up. So patents, but also crime and also, just the general pace of life scale at 115% per capita. So like, disease transmission. So you get into these weird cases—and this links back to what we were talking about earlier—where people move into the city, because it's per unit. In a given day, you have so much more choice, you have so much more opportunity than you would in your agrarian Chinese community and that's why Shenzhen is basically two generations old. 20 million people and none of them have grandparents living in Shenzhen because they're all attracted to this thing. But at scale, what that means is that everyone is converging on the same answer. Everyone's moving into Shenzhen and away from their farming community. So you end up – in a way, it's not that that world is any more innovative. It's just, again, easier to capture that innovation and therefore, measure it. But then back to what we were saying about convergent categories and biogeography, it's like if somebody comes up with a brilliant idea in the farm, you're not necessarily going to see it. But if somebody comes up with the same brilliant idea in the city, you might also not see it for different reasons. So anyway, I'm in kind of a ramble, but. JESSICA: The optimal scale for innovation is not the individual and it's not 22 million, it's in between. MICHAEL: Well, I feel like at the level of a city, you're no longer talking about individuals almost in a way. At that point, you're talking about firms. A city is like a rainforest in which the fauna are companies. Whereas, a neighborhood as an ecosystem in which the fauna, or individual people and so, to equate one with the other is a potential point of confusion. Maybe an easier way to think about this would be multicellular life. My brain is capable of making all kinds of innovations that any cell, or organ in my body could not make on its own. There's a difference there. [overtalk] JESSICA: [inaudible]. MICHAEL: Right. It's easier, however, for a cell to mutate if it doesn't live inside of me. Because if it does, it's the cancer – [overtalk] JESSICA: The immune system will come attack it. MICHAEL: Right. My body will come and regulate that. JESSICA: Like, “You’re different, you are right out.” MICHAEL: Yeah. So it's not about innovation as some sort of whole category, again, it's about different kinds of innovation that are made that are emergent at different levels of organization. It's just the question of what kinds of innovation are made possible when you have something like the large Hadron Collider versus when you've got five people in a room around a pizza. You want to find the appropriate scale for the entity, for the system that's the actual level of granularity at which you're trying to look at the stuff, so. REIN: Can I try to put a few things together here in potentially a new way and see if it's anything? So we talked about the edge of chaos earlier and we're talking about scale theory now, and in both, there's this idea of fractal geometry. This idea that a coastline gets larger, the smaller your ruler is. In scale theory, there's this idea of space filling that you have to fill the space with things like capillaries, or roads and so on. But in the human lung, for example, if you unfurled all of the surface area, you'd fill up like a football field, I think. So maybe there's this idea that there's complexity that's possible, that’s made possible by the fractal shape of this liminal region that the edge of chaos. MICHAEL: Yeah. It's certainly, I think as basically what it is in maximizing surface area, like you do within a lung, then you're maximizing exposure. So if the scientific community were operating on the insights that it has generated in a deliberate way, then you would try to find a way to actually incorporate the fringe physics community. There's got to be a way to use that as the reservoir of chaos, rather than trying to shut that chaos out of your hill climbing algorithm and then at that point, it's just like, where's the threshold? How much can you invite before it becomes a distraction from getting anything done? When it's too noisy to be coherent. Arguably, what the internet has done for humankind has thrown it in completely the opposite direction where we've optimized entirely for surface area instead of for coherence. So now we have like, no two people seem to be able to agree on reality anymore. That's not useful either. REIN: Maybe there's also a connectivity thing here where if I want to get from one side of the city to the other, there are 50 different routes. But if I want to get from one city to another, there's a highway that does it. MICHAEL: Yeah, totally. So it's just a matter of rather than thinking about what allows for the most efficient decisions, in some sense, at one given timescale, it's how can we design hierarchical information, aggregation structures so as to create a wise balance between the demands on efficiency that are held at and maintained at different scales. SFI researcher, Jessica Flack talks about this in her work on collective computation and primate hierarchies where it’s a weird, awkward thing, but basically, there is an evolutionary argument for police, that it turns out that having a police system is preventing violence. This is mathematically demonstrable, but you also have to make sure that there's enough agency at the individual level, in the system that the police aren't in charge of everything going on. It's not just complex, it's complicated. [laughs] We've thrown out a ton of stuff on this call. I don't know, maybe this is just whetting people's appetite for something a little bit more focused and concise. JESSICA: This episode is going to have some extensive show notes. MICHAEL: Yeah. [chuckles] JESSICA: It's definitely time to move into reflections. JACOB: You were talking, at the very beginning, about Spotify. Like how, when unknown ideas are able to find their tribe and germinate. I was reading about how Netflix does business and it's very common for them to make some new content and then see how it goes for 30 days and then just kill it. Because they say, “Well, this isn't taking off. We're not going to make more of it,” and a lot of people can get really upset with that. There's definitely been some really great things out on Netflix that I'm like, for one on the one hand, “Why are you canceling this? I really wanted more,” and it seems like there's a lot of the people that do, too. What that's making me think about as well for one thing, I think it seems like Netflix from my experience, is not actually marketing some of their best stuff. You would never know it’s there, just in the way of people to find more unknown things. But also, I'm thinking about how just generally speaking some of the best ideas, TV shows, music, whatever are the kinds of things that there's not going to be an established container, group of people, that you can say, “We want to find white men ages 25 to 35 and we're going to dump it on their home screen because if anyone's going to like it, it's them and if they do, then we keep it and if they don't move, we don't.” I feel like the best things are we don't actually know who those groups are going to be and it's going to have a weird constellation of people that I couldn't actually classify. So I was just thinking about how that's an interesting challenge. JESSICA: Sweet. Rein, you have a thing? REIN: Yeah. I have another thing. I was just reminded of von Foerster, who was one of the founders of Second-order cybernetics. He has an ethical imperative, which is act always so as to increase the number of choices. I think about this actually a lot in my day-to-day work about maximizing the option value that I carry with me as I'm doing my work, like deferring certain decisions and so on. But I think it also makes sense in our discussion as well. JESSICA: True. Mine is about externalities. We talked about how, whatever you do, whatever your business does, whatever your technology does, there's always going to be effects on the world on the context and the context of the context that you couldn't predict. That doesn't mean don't do anything. It doesn't mean look for those. Recognize that there's going to be surprises and try to find them. It reminds me of sometimes, I think in interviewing, we’re like, “There are cognitive biases so in order to be fair, we must not use human judgment!” [laughter] Which is not helpful. I mean, yes, there are cognitive biases so look for them and try to compensate. Don't try to use only something predictable, like an algorithm. That's not helpful. That's it. MICHAEL: Yeah. Just to speak to a little bit of what each of you have said, I think for me, one of the key takeaways here is that if you're optimizing for future opportunity, if you're trying to—and I think I saw MIT defined intelligence in this way, that AI could be measured in terms of its ability to – AGI rather could be measured in terms of its ability to increase the number of games steps available to it, or options available to it in the next step of an unfolding puzzle, or whatever. Superhuman AGI is going to break out of any kind of jail we try to put it in just because it's doing better at this. But the thing is that that's useless if we take it in terms of one spaciotemporal scale. Evolutionary dynamics have found a way to do this in a rainforest that optimizes biodiversity and the richness of feeding relationships in a food web without this short-sighted quarterly return maximizing type of approach. So the question is are you trying to create more opportunities for yourself right now? Are you trying to create more opportunities for your kids, or are you trying to transcend the rivalrous dynamics? You've set yourself up for intergenerational warfare if you pick only one of those. The tension between feed yourself versus feed your kids is resolved in a number of different ways in different species that have different – yeah. It is exactly, Rein in the chat you said, it reminds you of the trade-off between efficiency and adaptability and it's like, arguably, adaptability is efficiency aggregated when you're looking at it over a longer timescale, because you don't want to have to rebuild civilization from scratch. So [chuckles] I think it's just important to add the dimension of time and to consider that this is something that's going on at multiple different levels of organization at the same time and that's a hugely important to how we actually think about these topics. JESSICA: Thinking of scales of time, you’ve thought about these interesting topics for an hour, or so now and I hope you'll continue thinking about them over weeks and consult the show notes. Michael, how can people find out more about you? MICHAEL: I'm on Twitter and Instagram if people prefer diving in social media first, I don't recommend it. I would prefer you go to and find future fossils podcasts there. I have a lot of other stuff I do, the music and the art and everything feeds into everything else. So because I'm a parent and because I don't want all of my income coming from my day job, I guess Patreon is where I suggest people go first. [laughs] Thank you. JESSICA: Thank you. And of course, to support the podcast, you can also go to If you donate even a dollar, you can join our Slack channel and join the conversation. It'll be fun. Special Guest: Michael Garfield.

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Posted on 12 May 2021 | 9:00 am

233: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Matter with Jess Szmajda

01:22 - Jess’s Superpower: Playing ANY Instrument * Music & Technology * Cultural Expoloration 06:03 - Language Community Ethos (MINASWAN ( * Human-Centered Design * The Joy of Programming Meetup ( * Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis ( 13:24 - Inclusive Language: Language Matters * Valheim ( 17:19 - Active Listening and Expressing Point-of-View, and Using Loudness * Vocally For * Vocally Against * Quiet For * Quiet Against 21:51 - Shining Light on Marginalized People & Voices * BULQ ( * Metacognition: Asking ourselves, “What are we not thinking about?” * Leadership * Changing Mental Patterns; Take a Different Path 31:30 - Benefits of Having Diverse Teams (Resources) & Risks of Homogeneity * Diversity wins: How inclusion matters ( * Why diversity matters ( * The Chevy Nova That Wouldn't Go ( * Google Photos labeled black people 'gorillas' ( * From transparent staircases to faraway restrooms, why these benign design details can be a nuisance for some women ( 37:29 - Storytelling * Representation Matters * Normalization Reflections: Jess: We are feeling beings that rationalize. Damien: How technology impacts culture. Casey: Taking loudness for diversity, equity, and inclusion with people who don’t always talk about it. Who is more open to it or not? This episode was brought to you by @therubyrep ( of DevReps, LLC ( To pledge your support and to join our awesome Slack community, visit ( To make a one-time donation so that we can continue to bring you more content and transcripts like this, please do so at ( You will also get an invitation to our Slack community this way as well. **Transcript:: DAMIEN: Welcome to Episode 233 of Greater Than Code. I’m Damien Burke and I’m joined here with Casey Watts. CASEY: Hi, I’m Casey! And I’m here with our guest today, Jess Szmajda. Jess is currently a senior leader at AWS in the EC2 Networking organization. Previously, she was the first female CTO of a major media organization, Axios, and before that, the co-founder and CTO at Optoro, which helps top tier retailers nationwide handle their returned and excess goods. Jess got her start in tech in the 90s writing Perl to configure Solaris machines. Over the years, she’s contributed to Open Source and organized a number of communities. These days, focusing on the DC Tech Slack and the DC-based Joy of Programming Meetup. Outside of the tech world, Jess is a singer-songwriter, an improviser, a gamer, a proud member of the LGBTQ+ community, and a Mom to the most wonderful, Minecraft-obsessed 6-year-old imaginable. Welcome Jess. DAMIEN: Welcome to Greater Than Code, Jess. JESS: Thank you! It's nice to be here. DAMIEN: So I know someone has prepped you with our first question. What is your superpower and how did you acquire it? JESS: My superpower is that I can play any instrument you hand me and I – DAMIEN: Oh. JESS: [laughs] I acquired it by being a giant nerd. [laughs] I went to a special music high school here in the DC area called Suitland High School and I played all kinds of different instruments. I was the principal bassoonist of the DC Youth Orchestra for a while. Music's always been a lifelong love of mine and it's been a mission to find every strange instrument I can find to figure out how it works. So it's challenge [chuckles] to find something that I can't play. [laughs] DAMIEN: Oh, I'm so tempted and of course, the first thing I would have gone with is the double reed bassoon and oboe, but that's too easy. JESS: That’s right. DAMIEN: Banjo, of course, you’ve got steel drum. JESS: Steel drum and plate, yeah. DAMIEN: Cajon. JESS: Cajon. Oh, I have heard of it. DAMIEN: Aha! JESS: I haven't actually touched one. I'll figure it out. [laughs] DAMIEN: It's particularly easy. JESS: Nice. [laughs] CASEY: I don't know very many people who play more than just an instrument, or two. I think it might be like you and I are the two that come to mind for me, honestly. [laughter] I have an instrument in every color, by the way. That's the way I collect them. [laughter] JESS: Nice. CASEY: I’ve got a white accordion. How do you feel like this breadth of instrument ability has affected your life in other ways? JESS: I don't know. That's an interesting question. How has it affected my life in other ways? I mean, there's the obvious tie into music and technology. There's such an incredible confluence of musicians who are engineers and vice versa. I was actually talking to someone at the office earlier about that and she was theorizing it's because all of the patterns and rhythms that we think about and how that ties into a regular patterns and systems that we think about as engineers and I think it's a really interesting way to think about it, for sure. I do think that there's a certain element of cross-culturalism that you get from learning other cultures instruments. Certainly, the berimbau, the Brazilian martial art? [laughs] DAMIEN: Capoeira? JESS: Capoeira, yeah. The capoeira, the berimbau instrument that has the long string and you have the little – I think you learn a lot about what led to developing an instrument so relatively simple, but creating such an incredible art form in the culture where people just wanted to dance and share their heritage with each other and picked up whatever they could find that would make interesting and fun sounds and created an entire culture around that. So for me, it's as much cultural exploration and understanding as it is anything. I think it's wonderful. DAMIEN: Yeah. That's really amazing. I had a tiny insight on this recently. I saw an amazing video about a Jimmy Hendrix song with the basic premise being, what key is this song in? It's a really difficult question because—and I'm going to go a little bit music nerd here—the tonic is e, but the chord progressions and the melodic signature doesn't really fit that. Amazing 20-minute video, but the end conclusion is that using Western art music tonality to describe blues music, American blues music, it's a different tonality. So it doesn't really make sense to say what major key is this in, or what minor key is this in. JESS: Yeah, totally. My partner and I, this morning, we were watching a video about Coltrane's classic—my favorite thing is interpretation in the 60s—and how he's basically playing between these major and minor tonalities constantly. It's not necessarily tonal from the Western sense, but it’s certainly beautiful and I think it's certainly approachable and understandable to any ear regardless of how you decompose it. Anyway, giant music nerd, sorry. [laughs] DAMIEN: Yeah, but it ties so closely to what you were talking about as an instrument being cultural. The guitar, the five-string guitar, is tuned for American music, which is a slightly different tonality from Western European music. So when you think about “Okay, well, that's very slightly different. Now, what is it like in Africa, in Australia, in Asia?” Then it gets all, it's got to be very, very different. JESS: Oh, yeah. I saw this guy in Turkey, he's modified a guitar to add quarter tones to it because a lot of Turkish music uses quarter tones and so, it's just like the fretboard is wild. It has all of these extra frets on it and he plays it. It's absolutely incredible, but it's wild. It's amazing. DAMIEN: So I want to tie this into different cultures, frameworks, and technology. How about that? JESS: Yeah, you bet, let's do it. [laughs] CASEY: Good segue. JESS: So actually, that's something that's been on my mind is this Ruby community diaspora in a way. I know Greater Than Code has a lot of Ruby folks on it and I'm not sure about the latest incarnation, but definitely a lot of Ruby roots. I think that we've seen this incredible mixing of culture in the Ruby community that I haven't seen in other places that drives this – well, I think [inaudible], it's a really fantastic way to sum it up like, math is nice and so we are nice. As much as that might be a justification to be nice, be nice anyway, but it's still this ethos of we are nice to each other, we care, and that is baked into the community and my journeys and other language communities, I think haven't shared that perspective that it is good to be nice in general and some of them even are, I think are focused on it's good to fight. [laughs] So I've been really curious about this movement, Rubius’s movement into other language areas, like Go, Rust, and Alexa, et cetera, et cetera, how much of that carries forward and what really can we do to drive that? DAMIEN: Yeah. So my question is how does a technological community, what is it about the community? What is about the technology? Why is it different? You and I both wrote Pearl in the 90s and so, that is a very different community. I look at Ruby and I write mostly Ruby now and I go, “Why is it different? What's different about it?” JESS: Yeah, no, it's a good question. A lot of the early conversation that I remember in the Ruby community was—and just contextually, I've been using Ruby since 2006, or so, so that era. A lot of the early conversation I remember was about develop the language to optimize for developer happiness. I think that's a really unique take and I haven't heard of that in any other place. So I'm wondering how much that might've been the beginnings of this. I don't know. DAMIEN: Something came up in a Twitter conversation, I saw a while back where they compared Ruby and Pearl, I'm pretty sure it was Pearl and well, one of the defining features of Pearl was that there's more than one way to do it and Ruby has that same ethos. Literally, in the standard lib, there’s a lot of aliases and synonyms. It's like, you can call pop, or drop and I can't keep it straight. [chuckles] But anyway, then I thought to myself, “Well, in Pearl, that's an absolute disaster.” I pull up a profile and I'm like, “I don't know what this is because I don't know what's going on.” Whereas, in Ruby, I've loved it so much and so, what's the difference and the difference pointed out to me was that in Ruby, it was for expressiveness. Things have different names so that they can properly express, or better express the intention and in Pearl, that wasn't the case. JESS: Yeah, no, totally. I think actually looking at Ruby and Python, I think were both heavily influenced by Pearl and I think Python definitely took the path of well, all of this nonsense is just nonsense. Let's just have one way to do it. [laughs] Having worked with some Python developers, I think that perspective on there is one correct path really drives that community in a lot of ways. I think some people find that releasing really simplifying for them because they're like, “I got it. I know the answer.” Like it's a math problem almost. As a Rubyist going into the Python community, I was like, “Oh, I'm so stifled.” [laughs] Where is my expressiveness?! I want to write inject, or oh, I can't even think of the opposite of inject. Collect. [laughs] Those are two different words for me. I want to be able to write both, depending on what I'm doing so. It's also interesting, like I see a lot more DSL development in Ruby than I see in any other language and maybe Alexa also. But I think that also comes from the same perspective of there is not one right way to do it. There's the best way for this problem and there's the best way for this kind of communication you're trying to drive. It's interesting, as I'm talking myself into a corner here a bit, Ruby almost emphasizes the communication of code more than the solving of the problem and I think that might actually help drive this community where we care about the other humans we're working with, because we're always thinking about how we communicate with them in a way. CASEY: I think about the term human-centered design a lot lately and that's becoming more and more popular term, a way to describe this thing. Ruby totally did that. Ruby looked at how can we make this easy for humans to use and work with and I think that's beautiful. I keep thinking about a paper I read a long time ago that a professor made-up programming language and varied features of it like, white space matters, or not, and a whole bunch of those and measured which ones were easier for new people to learn and which ones were harder for new people to learn. As a teacher, I want to use whatever is easy for the students to learn so they can get their feet wet, so they can start learning and building and doing things and get excited about it, not get hung up on the syntax. So human-centered design baked into Ruby is, I think partly why the community is so human-centered. I think you're exactly right. JESS: Yeah. That's really interesting. That's a large part of why the Joy of Programming Meetup, I think has been really fun is we get to learn from how different language communities build things. I think it was founded on that kind of thinking is the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis for better, or worse theorizes language shapes thought and I think that that is to some degree, at least true in how we think about writing code and solving problems. So the kinds of solutions that you see from different language communities, I think very incredibly. I don't know, even just as simple as from like J2EE, which is the ivory tower of purity in XML [laughs] to obviously, I don't want to pick on Rails, but Rails is an open system. [laughs] An interpretive dance, perhaps. I think it's really interesting, the web frameworks even I see in Haskell almost feel like I'm solving a math problem more than I'm creating an API, or delivering content into somebody. So it's hard for me to separate, is this a community of thought of people who are attracted to a certain way of solving problems? Is this driven by the structure and format of the language? I don't know. DAMIEN: I know you mentioned the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis and their research has been shown to be problematic. JESS: Yeah, for sure. DAMIEN: [laughs] But I will say that the hypothesis is that language shapes thought and I would say that the correct state – correct [chuckles] a better description for me is that language is thoughts and so, the language you use is the sort of things you're thinking about. So if you say inject when you mean collect, those are different things, you're going to get different things out of them. This is why we use get annotate instead of get playing. JESS: For sure. Exactly. So at AWS, this is big drive and I'm not speaking for AWS on this, I'm just speaking for me. But I'm noticing this drive for inclusive language and I think it's really beautiful. Connecting that drive, frankly, in the broader tech community to everything that's been going on in this last year in how we interact with each other as humans from different backgrounds, et cetera. It's like, what kinds of dominant culture paradigms have we baked into our code beyond even the very obviously problematic statements, but just the way that we think about, I don't know. Part of me is like, “Well, is object-oriented design driven by certain cultural expectations that we have, or functional?” I don't know. What paradigms would we get if we'd have had a different dominant culture developing technology? I don't know. It's fascinating. DAMIEN: Yeah, and [inaudible] is an excellent example of that. It's a punishment. This is wrong. I did a whole talk several years ago about specifications versus tests. I don't want you to write tests for your code; tests are something you do afterwards to see if something is suitable. Write a specification and then if the code and specifications don't match, well, one of them needs to change. [laughs] JESS: That's right. I love that. That's also kind of like the Pact Contract Testing space. It's like, I like this framework because it allows a consumer of an API to say, “This is what I expect you to do,” and then the API almost has to comply. Whenever I've talked about Pact, I think with a lot of developers, they're like, “Wait, what? That doesn't make any sense at all.” I'm like, “Well, no.” In a way, it's like the API’s prerogative to deliver what the customer expects and to be always right. The customer is right here, in this case and I think it's a really great way to look at this differently. CASEY: That should totally be the tagline for Pact: the consumer is always right. JESS: I love it. [laughs] CASEY: Another way language shapes things, I noticed lately is Valheim is a super popular game where you're a Viking and building houses. There's a command you can type called “imacheater” that lets you spawn in equipment and building materials. On all the forums online, people are harassing each other for doing their own creative mode for spawning stuff in because of that language, I suspect. So in a recent patch, they changed it from imacheater to devtools, or something like that and the forums have rebranded. There's a new moderator is posting things and the culture is completely changing because the devs changed that one word in the changelog and it's just so cool to see language matters. JESS: That's amazing. That's so cool. Actually, I'm totally hooked on Valheim also along with probably everybody else. I have my own little server with some friends. Anyway, we noticed on the Valheim server that there was somebody who sort of redid the loading screen and they really hypersexualized the female character in the painting and actually got a surprising amount of feedback like saying, “Please don't do that. We love Valheim because it's not clearly gendered, or particularly one way, or the other,” and the artist actually took that feedback to heart and put together a much better version of the thing where the woman was very well armored and looked ready for battle and it was really cool. I've been thinking about the whole tech community and there's so many connections to the gamer community as well. Ever since Gamergate, I think we've been putting a really hard light on this whole world. It's just so heartwarming and incredible to know that like this Viking destroying trolls game has people who actually care enough to say, “No, let's pay attention to what that woman's wearing. Make sure she wears something that's actually reasonable.” That's cool. We've come a long way. I mean, not perfect, but it's a long way. CASEY: Yeah, a long way. I always think about progress in terms of people in four groups. There's like people who are vocally for something like they would speak up in this case, people who are vocally against it, and then quiet people who are for, or against it. We can see the vocal people who are supporting this now and I love to think about how many people are moving in that direction who are quiet; we can't see. That's the big cultural shift under the covers. JESS: Yeah. That's a big question. That makes me think about when I was at Optoro, we were trying to understand our employee engagement and so, we used this tool, Culture Amp, which I imagine a lot of people have seen. We did a survey and we got all this data and it's like, “Hey, everybody's really engaged. Maybe there's a couple of minor things we can fix.” But then we were talking to some of our Black employees—those of you who can't see me, I'm white—and there was just a lot of like, “Wow, this doesn't represent us.” Like, “What are you doing? We actually aren't don't feel like this is a really great representation.” We're like, “Well, the data says everything's fine.” So what we actually did, the next survey we ran, we included demographic data in the dataset and then we were able to distribute the data across racial demographics and we saw, oh no, our Black employees are pretty much all pissed off. [laughs] We've done a really bad job of including them for a lot of reasons. For example, we had a warehouse and most of our Black employees worked in the warehouse and it turns out that we had a very corporate-based culture and we didn't pay enough attention and we didn't really engage everybody. The fact that they were basically all in the warehouse is kind of also a problem, too. So there was a lot of really great eye-opening things that we got to see by paying attention to that and looking not just at our Black employees, but all our different demographics. We learned a lot and I think we had a real humbling moment and got to listen, but it's really this quiet – either people who don't use their voice, or can't use their voice, or maybe don't know how to use their voice in a lot of different ways. These people, I think make such an incredible impact on the true feeling of a place, of a community, of a company and really sitting down and listening to those people, I think can be really hard in any position. So I was really happy we were able to do that, but I think you're totally right, Casey, that it's not just moving the vocal people to really change the Overton window, I suppose on what's acceptable in a community. But it's fundamentally, how do you change the people who you aren't hearing from? How do you frankly even know? CASEY: Yeah, it's a big question. There's no easy answer. There's a lot of approaches. I'm glad people are talking about that in the meta sense, that's huge. We want to do this as a community, but there's work to be done and then even once people are comfortable expressing their point of view, there are then further tiers we're going to have to go through like that other people around them understand. They're actively listening and they internalize it. And then beyond that, actually acting on it. I've had experiences at work where I'm usually very confident, I'll say my point of view regardless of the context. I like being outspoken like that and represent quieter people, but often leadership and other people around me don't understand, or even if they do, they don't incorporate that into the plan and then everybody is still very frustrated, maybe even more so in a way, because a light is shining on this problem. And that's the same for marginalized voices. If they can just be heard, that's great, but we have to go farther than that, too. JESS: I couldn't agree more. This is the thing that I struggle with sometimes. I love people. I'm very extroverted. I'm very gregarious, [laughs] as I imagine you can tell, and I like to engage with people and I try to listen, but I find that sometimes I have a big personality and that can be tough, [laughs] I think sometimes. So I super value people you Casey, for example, who I think are much better listeners [laughs] and are willing to represent that. So that's huge. I also, though on the flip side, I know that I can use that loudness to help represent at least one aspect of marginalized people. I'm trans and I'm super loud about that and I'm very happy to make all kinds of noise and say, “Don't forget about trans rights!” [laughs] Frankly, I think it's kind of a wedge into I'm one kind of marginalized community, I represent one kind of marginalized community, but there's a lot more and let's talk about that, too. Not to toot my horn, but like I think those of us who are allowed to have a responsibility to use our loudness in a way that I think supports people and also, to listen when we can. DAMIEN: Can we explore a bit into the into the metal problem of hearing from marginalized voices? I'm an engineer at heart, first and foremost, and so, how do we solve this meta problem? You gave a good example with the survey separated by demographics knowing that racial and gender demographics, or well, finding out that [chuckles] racial and gender demographics were important factors than you think, but how do we solve this on a broader issue? I don't know. JESS: No, that's a great question. I think we have so much calcified thinking that at every organization and every place in the world, there's so much like, “Well, this is the way we've done things,” and frankly, it's not even, “This is the way we've done things.” It's just, “This is the way it works and this is what we do,” and just thinking outside the box, I think it's hard. Finding these areas that we are being blind to in the first place, I think it takes a certain amount of just metacognition and patience and self-reflection, and that's very difficult to do, I think for any human. But driving that shows like this, for example, making sure that people care and think about these kinds of problems and maybe take a second. You as a listener, I'm going to challenge you for a second, take a minute at the end of this podcast and think about what am I not thinking about? I don't know, it's a really freaking hard question, but maybe you might find something. But it's politicians, it's media, it's our leaders in every aspect making sure that we shine a light on something that is different, something that is marginalized, I think is incredibly valuable. That's a first step. But then playing that through everything else we do, that's hard. I think it falls on leaders in every realm that we have like, community leaders, conference organizers, people who lead major open source projects. Making sure that people say, “I believe that Black Lives Matter.” “I believe that we should stand against violence against the Asian community.” Those, I think are powerful statements and saying, “Hey, have we heard from somebody that doesn't look like us lately, who doesn't come from our same socioeconomic educational background?” It's tough. I had food, but I grew up relatively poor, and I think even that is such a huge difference of experience and background to a lot of people that I end up working with and I've been able to talk about like, “How are we setting prices?” Well, who are we actually thinking about? We're not thinking about ourselves here. We're thinking about a different market. Let's make sure we talk to those people. Let's make sure we talk to our customers and make sure that this actually works for them. I was really proud. At Optoro, we built a new brand called BULQ where we took – so 2 seconds on Optoro. We took returns and excess goods from major retailers and helped them get more value out of it and a a lot of the time, we built great classification systems to say, “Oh, well this is a belt and I know how to price belts because I can look on eBay and Amazon and determine, et cetera.” But a lot of the times we couldn't build these kinds of models, like auto parts, for example, were notoriously difficult for us. So we could say, “Oh, this is an auto part. But I don’t know, carburetor, manifold? Who knows?” [laughs] So we were able to classify them as auto parts and then we put them into these cases, maybe like 3-foot square large boxes, and then we were able to sell those in lots to basically individual people who had time to learn what they were and then could resell them. The story that I love to tell here is they're a laid-off auto factory worker, knows a ton about auto parts, and can probably scrounge up enough money to afford this $200 to $300 box, brings it to their house, knows exactly what these parts are and knows exactly what the value is and then can resell them for like 3x to 5x on what this person bought them for. I was so proud to be able to have created this kind of entrepreneurial opportunity for people that we would otherwise often forget about because so much of tech, I think is focused on us. So, it's an interesting thing kind of being at AWS, which is very much a tech for tech company. I love it, don't get me wrong, but sometimes I think these opportunities to listen to the rest of the world, we miss out on. DAMIEN: Yeah. You challenged us to ask ourselves the question, what are we not thinking about and that level of metacognition sounds impossible. It might be impossible. It's close to impossible, if it's not. So I can't help to think the only way to really get that knowledge, that insight is to get people who are different from me, who have different backgrounds, who have different life experiences. You got a great example of someone who knows a lot about car parts, bring them in, they have years of experience in car parts and they can do this stuff that you can't do. But then also, along every axis, if you look around. If you look around the leadership and go, “Oh, there's nobody in leadership here who has this type of experience,” that knowledge, that insight and people like that are not going to be served because it's impossible for them. They don't even know. They can't know. JESS: Could not agree more and it is leadership. Absolutely. You're absolutely right. So many times I've seen, having been a leader, ultimately, you end up in a room with other leaders and you end up making decisions. And if you don't have other voices in there, if you don't have diverse voices, you don't get that benefit. Even if you've gone to the trouble of paying attention to diverse voices beforehand, there's always some data, some argument that comes up and it's like, “Oh, well, maybe, maybe not.” Yeah, I cannot agree enough. This is the other flip side of that is that as a business leader, I have to think about prioritizing the outcomes of the business, it is a fact of my position and I like to think that I work in a lot more data to what that means than other business leaders perhaps. Like, impact on the community. [laughs] Impact on the people. But a lot of times, we'll be having these discussions about who to hire and maybe we'll have done a really great job—and this isn't specific to any particular company that I'm talking about, but I know that this kind of thing happens. Maybe we've done a really great job of getting a diverse pipeline and having talked to a bunch of different kinds of candidates, but when it comes down to it, we're trying to make often the lowest risk decision on who to hire and so often, we are too risk averse to somebody whose background doesn't quite line up to what we're expecting, or to what we think we need. I like to think that I push hiring communities in conversations like that and say like, “Look, let's think beyond what's risky here and factor in more of these aspects to the conversation of getting diverse voices.” But too often, it's very easy, I think for leaders to think, “Well, we’re just going to hire the known quantity,” and I think that is again, on the meta, a major thing that we need to fix. There's so much more to being an effective leader than having the standard pedigree. DAMIEN: Well, there's also, like you mentioned, the risk aversion to not want to hire somebody who's not like all the other people, but then what are the huge risks of having only people who are alike in certain aspects? JESS: Exactly. Couldn't agree more. I think there's tons of examples. If we Google right now, we'd find like companies have made really dumb mistakes because they didn't have somebody in the room who could be like, “That?” The first one that comes to mind is the Chevy Nova, they tried to sell that in Spanish speaking countries, [laughter] “doesn't go,” “not going anywhere.” [laughs] I mean, like that could have been avoided, right? [laughs] CASEY: Nova. JESS: Nova. That might be a trivializing one, but there's been a lot worse and that's a major business risk and I think those arguments carry some weight. I love that so many organizations are prioritizing hiring more diverse leaders, especially, but this is deep pattern that we've gotten into. So that actually comes to mind when you're thinking about how to change your mental patterns. I'm an improviser, I'm all about trying to change my mental patterns all the time so I can try to be creative. Obviously, there's plenty of silly improv games that you get into, but something that's simple, I think that anybody can do is go for a walk and take a different path. Just turn a different way than how you used to. We, humans love to get into patterns, especially engineers, which I find to be highly ironic. Engineers are all about creating change, but don't like change themselves typically. [laughs] But do something a little different, turn left instead of right today, look up instead of down. Those, I think subtle physical changes really do influence our mental states and I think that can actually lead us to thinking in new ways. CASEY: I love it. That's very actionable. I've been doing a lot of walks and hikes and I actually try to go to a different hiking location each time because of that. I think about that idea all the time, take a different path, and it is great. Every time I do it, I feel amazing. I don’t know, more flexible, I think differently. Yeah, try it, listeners. I dare you. JESS: I love it. CASEY: I'm sure there are papers written showing that having diverse teams have very measured effects, a whole bunch of them, more than I know more, than I've read. Well, I guess first of all, I don't know that the data has been collected in a single spot I can point people to and that would be pretty powerful. But then secondly, even if we had that, I'm not sure that's enough to change minds at companies in any widespread way. It might just help some people, who already care, say their message very clearly. Do you know of anything like that Jess, or Damien, either of you? What's the one resource you would send to someone who wants to be equipped with diversity and inclusion data? JESS: Yeah. This study McKinsey did a while ago that, I think gets a lot of traction here where they demonstrated the companies have better total performance with more diverse groups of people and went into some depth with data. I think it's a fantastic study. It's definitely one that I reference often. I've used it to change minds among people who were like, “Wow, what's it really matter?” No, I’ve got data. [laughs] I know. I can see Casey here on video and Casey's mouth just went open [laughs] It's like, “Yes, no, it's, that's real.” No shade on the people I've worked with, I love them, but like, this is such a thing. There are cynics in corporate leadership who want to focus on profit and sometimes, you have to make a cynical argument in business and a cynical argument can come down to data and this data says, “No, look, if we get more people in here who look different from us, we're going to make more money and that's good for you and your bottom line.” So sometimes you have to walk the argument back to that, even if it feels gross and it does, it's like, “No, this actually matters to your bottom line.” DAMIEN: That's a great argument and it's a positive argument. In my view of corporations, I feel like the larger they get, the more you have an agency problem where people aren't looking to take risks to get the positive benefits, they're going to do things to avoid backlash and negative things. So I think larger company, more middle management, more people you’re answerable to, especially on the short-term, the more people are better motivated by fear. So for that, I want to pull out like, what are the risks of homogeneity? You mentioned the Nova. You mentioned like, oh, there was – [laughs] I pull this out far too often. There was an AI image classifier that classified Black people as gorillas. There was a store. Oh goodness, I think it was an Apple store. Beautiful, beautiful architecture, glass everywhere, including the stairs. These are all the harms that come from homogeneity. [laughs] What was the expensive fixing those stairs? It couldn't have been cheap. JESS: Oh my gosh. [chuckles] I don't even wear skirts that often. [laughs] DAMIEN: And I know that's a problem because when I heard that story, I was multiple paragraphs in before I realized the problem. I wear skirts less than you, I'm sure. [laughter] JESS: For sure. Oh, that's amazing. Yeah, I think those stories are really important for us to be able to tell and to share with each other because diversity matters. I think it's easy to say that and especially among people who care, people who prioritize it. We almost take it as like a, “Well, of course,” but I think there is still, getting back to that quiet group of people who don't say what they actually think, there's a lot of people who are on the fence, or maybe frankly disagree. It's like, “Well, you can disagree and I respect your disagreement, but here's the data, here's the results, here's the impact. Let's talk about that. Do you have a better way to handle this? Because I don't.” DAMIEN: So I think the risk is especially acute in tech companies and in tech for tech companies where things are far more homogeneous. Next week on how to pronounce these words. [laughs] So what can we do? Is there anything special that we can do in those sort of environments? JESS: Yeah. Well, besides have the conversation, which I think is something we can all do. Not to fangirl too much about Amazon, but I really do like the company and I'm really enjoying my experience. A lot of it comes down to how we've expressed our leadership principles. We say this is our culture and our values and we actually apply it constantly like, if you ever come to talk to an Amazon person, I'm going to tell you about how I've disagreed and committed and what I'm doing to think big and how I'm customer obsessed. I'm going to talk about those things directly. To this, we say one of our leadership principles is that leaders are right a lot and that feels weird, right? Leaders are right a lot? “Oh, I just happen to know everything.” No, that's not what that means. We actually go into it in more depth and it's like leaders look to disconfirm their beliefs and seek diverse perspectives and we bake that right into one of our core cultural values. I think that that is absolutely critical to our ability to serve the broader tech community effectively. The fact that we hold leaders to being right through having gone through a crucible of finding out how they're wrong, I think is magical and I think that's actually something that a lot more companies could think to do. It's like, you as a tech person and you think, “Oh, I'm going to go sell this great new widget to all of my tech buddies.” Okay. You might be right. But how could you make that bigger? How could you make that better? Like go, try to find out how you're wrong. That should be something we value everywhere. It's like, “No, I'm probably wrong. I want to be right.” So the way to get right is to find out every way I'm wrong and that means talk to everybody you can and find out. CASEY: From our conversation here, I'm picking up a couple of tools we have to help persuade people to get them to be louder, or more proactive at least. Data is one. Telling stories from other companies is another one. And then here, I'm picking up get your own stories that you can really tell from your point of view and that's maybe the strongest of the three, really. The change is you, too. I love that idea. JESS: Yeah. We had a internal conference this week, the networking summit, and there was a great session last night from somebody talking about what customers love and what customers hate about our products. He was just telling story after story about customers saying, “Oh, I'm so frustrated with this.” “I would love to change that.” Those stories, I think have so much more weight in our minds. Humans are evolved to tell the stories to each other. So if we have stories to tell, I think those are so much – they connect at a deeper level almost and they help us think about not just that top of brain logical, almost engineering, binary yes, no, but it's more this deeper heart level. “I understand the story that led to this position. I understand the human that feels this way.” Personally, I think no matter how logical we think we are; [chuckles] we’re still walking bags of meat [laughs] and there's a lot to be said to respect that and to connect with that. So yeah, storytelling is huge. DAMIEN: You brought up, earlier in our conversation, about how things might be different with a different cultural paradigm. This is an enormous example of this. White Western culture overvalues logic and objectivity. It's a by-product of the culture and there's a conflation between objectivity and rationality and rightness. Weirdly enough, in my experience, that makes people less able to be rational and objective. It's quite amazing, ironic, and tragic. But if you follow the science, you follow the logic, you follow the rationality; what you'll discover is that humans are not naturally logical, rational beings. We are not rational beings that feel; we are feeling beings that rationalize. From the beginning from the birth of humans as a species, stories and communication have been how we navigate the world, how we see the world, how our beliefs and behaviors change and you can see that throughout all of history and it's the narratives that change everything. So that's something that is super important to have, to know and especially if you want to be effective. Having grown up in this culture, though, it amuses me to no end how little I use that knowledge. [laughs] I argue with logic and facts and wonder why don't people don't understand when I have all the logic and facts that tell me that that's not going to change what they do. [laughs] JESS: Oh, yeah. Honestly, I think our political climate right now is representative of that because it's like, I don't know, I feel like it's so logical and factual, my political perspectives, and then I'll talk to somebody else and they feel the exact same way. Having been in media, I've seen like a lot of what we end up believing is how we sold it to ourselves and the stories that we've told around it and what we've paid attention to. We've listened to it. It's so easy to develop this cognitive filter on the stories that don't line up to your expectations. I don't know. This is, I think an area that engineers really overlook time and time again, is the power of media and the power of the stories that we tell. Being a trans person, I didn't come out until I was in my late 30s because the stories, I grew up with of trans people were stories of serial killers, rapists, murderers, and people who were at the very edges of society and like, I'm like, “Well, I'm not that. I can't be trans.” [laughs] It wasn't until we had these news stories of love, or hate. Caitlyn Jenner, I think set a new story on the world and a lot of things changed around then where we were able to see ourselves in a light that wasn't just pain and I think that we've seen a lot more trans people come out because they're able to see themselves in these happier stories and better stories. So we need more stories like that. Like Pose, I think is amazing and great stories of standing up in a hard place and owning your power, even under all this adversity, I think it's incredible. Those set of stories, I think are just so incredible for everybody and we just need so much more. I could rant for a while. [laughs] CASEY: Yeah. I'm totally on board with this as a queer man, I wasn't comfortable for a lot of my life being that because of the representation. I'm not into drag, but that's not a requirement. [chuckles] A friend of mine just shared a list of children's books that are incidentally queer and I just think that's so cool. The phrase, even. They're just regular storybooks, not about being queer as a topic, but just people doing normal stuff that happened to have including queer characters. JESS: I love that. CASEY: The world is changing. JESS: Yes, and I think we have a responsibility to be a part of that storytelling. Let's tell stories and it doesn't have to be a big deal that the person you’re talking about is a female engineer. No, she just happens to be an engineer. Let's tell stories where he has a husband. Who cares? He has a husband, it's great. It's not the focus of the story. It's just a part of the whole, the melior that we're in. That's really important. So, I think a lot of normalizing – a lot of acceptance comes through normalization and honestly, it's so complicated because there's this tendency to whitewash when you go into this normalizing place. It's like, “Oh, I don't see skin tone.” No, I think that's not the way to do it. I think it's like there are differences in us, in our backgrounds, in our cultures, in our experiences, and that is incredible and that is wonderful, and it's not the story, but it's a part of the story and that's an important part. DAMIEN: Yeah, as a Black man, I've definitely seen this. I like to say Black Panther was the best thing that happened to African-Americans in the history of cinema. Get Out is another example. It's very much about the Black experience, but it's not the old story of what being Black in America is like and so, it's very different. JESS: Definitely. Yeah. CASEY: We're getting near the end of time we have today, let's shift gears into what we normally do at the end, our reflections. What's something that you're going to take away from this conversation? Jess, or Damien, who wants to go first? JESS: I'll start because I already wrote it down here. Damien, you said, “We are feeling beings that rationalize.” That is going to stick with me. That was profound. I love that and it's so obvious, I think but I'd never thought to think of it that way, or to say it that way. So I’ve got to think about that one for a while, but that's, I think really going to stick with me. Thank you. DAMIEN: Thank you, Jess. That's quite an honor. I can drag out like probably a half dozen off the top of my head, or a dozen probably store of scientific studies that show that. [laughs] I never get enough of them mostly because I've been rationalizing more. Anyway, my reflection is really on how technology impacts culture, both within the technologists and how that relates to storytelling, communication, and language. All those things are creating culture and all those things exist in technology, in between technologists, and that's how we can make our culture. It's something that I want it to be, or more like something I want it to be. So thank you. JESS: That's awesome. CASEY: I think my takeaway is I'm noticing that I said I'm very loud and outspoken about a lot of stuff, and I care a lot about diversity, equity, and inclusion, especially when I’m groups of people talking about it, I talk about that all the time. But can I and how can I take that loudness for diversity, equity, and inclusion with people who don't always talk about it? Who can I approach and how can I tell who is more open to it or not? That's always a big open question for me. I guess, I'll be thinking about that especially this week. JESS: Well, this was a pleasure. Thank you for having me. DAMIEN: This was great, Jess. Thank you so much for joining us. JESS: Yeah, it was delightful. DAMIEN: I suppose this might be a good time to plug our Slack community, which is available to all Patreon for the podcast and also, all of our guests. So Jess, if you want to join us there and we can nerd out some more. I’ll keep throwing you instruments to try and stump you. JESS: Yes! Bring it on! [laughs] Special Guest: Jess Szmajda.

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Posted on 5 May 2021 | 9:00 am

232: Outside The Charmed Circle with Tamsin Davis-Langley

01:17 - Tamsin’s Superpower: Recognizing Songs Within Seconds 05:08 - Outside the Charmed Circle ( (Tamsin’s book about gender, sexuality, and spirituality) * The Pagan Community ( * “Necessarily Brief” 09:09 - Consent in the Mentor/Mentee Relationship (Master/Apprentice) * The Universal Attribution Fallacy * Access * Power Dynamics * Conflicts of Interest * The Word “Politics” - how we negotiate power between groups of greater than one 16:57 - Using Certain Phrases (i.e. “Identity Politics,” “Cancel Culture”) and Divisiveness * Obfuscation * We Hate You Now: The Hardest Problem of The Aftertimes ( * Social Contracts 23:46 - What Is A Person? Individuality & Personhood * Plato ( & Aristotle ( * Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind by George Lakoff ( * Hegemonic Norms, Privilege & Power 30:01 - “Fringe Communities”; Subcultures and Intersection * How Buildings Learn ( Edge Cities * The Queer Community * Using the Word “Queer” * Gatekeeping * Fear of Powerlessness * The Relationship Between Radicals and Reactionaries * “Outside The Charmed Circle” * Gayle S. Rubin: Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality ( 44:30 - Individual Experiences Are Not Universally Applicable * Getting People to Care About Other People * Teaching Empathy * Less Hubris, Gatekeeping, and Self-Reinforcing Superiority Reflections: Jamey: Conceptualizing that other people are having a different experience than you. Rein: What are the interactions in a community that empathy leads to and how can we promote those? Helping. Helping by Edgar H. Schein ( Tamsin: The dynamics at the heart of any subculture you care to name really aren’t that dissimilar from one group to another. This episode was brought to you by @therubyrep ( of DevReps, LLC ( To pledge your support and to join our awesome Slack community, visit ( To make a one-time donation so that we can continue to bring you more content and transcripts like this, please do so at ( You will also get an invitation to our Slack community this way as well. Transcript: JAMEY: Hello and welcome to Episode 232 of Greater Than Code. I’m one of your hosts, Jamey Hampton, and I’m here with my friend, Rein Henrichs. REIN: Thanks, Jamey. That is a lot of episodes. I’m here with our guest, Tamsin Davis-Langley who is a white, queer, nonbinary trans femme from a multiethnic family who grew up poor. They spent most of their adult work life as the tech-savvy person in a non-technical office, and are now pursuing a career in digital communications. Their academic path began in liberal arts, detoured through computer science, and ended with a degree in Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies from the University of Washington. Their work explores the ways subcultural communities intersect with non-normative expressions of gender and sexuality. They've written about how the problems of abuse and predation in subcultures are linked to the power dynamics inherent in those groups. Under their nom de plume, Misha Magdalene, they're the author of Outside the Charmed Circle, a book about gender, sexuality, and spirituality. Tamsin, welcome to the show. TAMSIN: Thank you so much! It’s a delight to be here. REIN: So you know what we’re going to ask you. [laughter] What is your superpower and how did you acquire it? TAMSIN: My superpower is that I can, with a relatively high degree of accuracy, listen to the radio and identify the song that's playing within 5 seconds, or so if it was recorded within a specific window of time and basically falls under the very broad umbrella of Western pop music. This happened because I was bitten by a radioactive record store employee back in the 80s and since then, I've been able to go, “Oh yeah, that's Won't Get Fooled Again by The Who. It's on Who's Next released 1972. Produced by Glen's Johns,” blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and this is a delightful party trick for getting people to suddenly realize they want to talk to someone else at the party. JAMEY: I was about to ask – [overtalk] REIN: How do you remember all of that? TAMSIN: How do I remember all of that? I have no idea. I literally could not tell you what I had for dinner last night and I'm in the midst of training sessions for a position that I'm pursuing in digital communications and half the time I'm going, “What was the command to do the things so that I can function?” But I can literally tell you the brand of bass guitar that Paul McCartney played in The Beatles, or the kind of keyboard that Kate Bush used when she was recording her albums in the late 70s and early 80s was a Hohner, a violin-shaped bass, and a Fairlight synthesizer, respectively. [chuckles] JAMEY: I can relate to this because I often think about how many other things I could know if I freed up all of the space in my brain where I kept the names of all the Pokémon. TAMSIN: Right, right. I want to defrag my own brain and just throw out huge chunks of permanent storage, but no. JAMEY: Do you use your superpower for good, or for evil? TAMSIN: In finest, strong, bad tradition, I try to use my powers only for good, or for awesome. I have actually used it to further my career. I did work for a little while at a Musicland, back when those existed, and later at a Tower Records, back when those existed. For younger listeners, those were both brick and mortar stores where you could go in and buy music on physical media and occasionally, accessories that were associated with bands, or musicians that you liked and people would walk in and say things like, “I'm trying to find a CD by this band and I don't know the name of the band, or the name of the song, or any of the lyrics, but it's got this bit in it that goes “Duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh” and I went, “Bad to the Bone, George Thurogood & the Delaware Destroyers. Here's their Best Of. Thank you.” So that's the extent to which my superpower operates for good, or for awesome. REIN: That reminds me, there was a librarian who worked at The London Library, which has about a million books, for 40 years and could do a very similar thing where they knew what book someone was looking for better than that person did. TAMSIN: Yeah. That kind of talent always delights me when I find it out in the wild where I'm like, “Yeah, I was looking for this book. It kind of was about this thing and I remember it had sort of a teal cover. Oh, here you go.” Yeah, it's kind of an amazing and wonderful thing to see, but then I do it and I feel really self-conscious, so. [laughs] REIN: So, speaking of books, graceful segue. TAMSIN: Yes. Speaking of books. REIN: Tell us a little bit about the book that you wrote. TAMSIN: I can, yes. So when I was finishing up my degree at the University of Washington in Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies, I spent a lot of time thinking about how to apply the concepts and the tools that I was learning in my degree program to my actual day-to-day life. It's all well and good when you're in the ivory tower of academia to talk about intersectionality and hegemonic norms of sexuality, or gender, but how does that actually play out in your work life, or in your family dynamic? Or if you are a person who practices some form of spirituality, how does that play out in your spiritual communities, or really, in any subcultural communities that you're a part of? As it happens, one of the subcultural communities that I'm part of is what's generally referred to as “the pagan community,” I'm going to throw a lot of quotes around that because pagan is not a commonly agreed upon term and we could get into a great argument about how much of a community it is. But all of that to the side, one day I was sitting there probably having coffee at the coffee shop on campus and I thought, “Hmm, I wonder what would happen if you took this intersectional feminist lens and turned it on the pagan community?” I thought about it a moment and then I think I literally said, “Oh no,” out loud because I realized that was a book and 2 and a half years later, 3 years later, it was published by Llewellyn worldwide as Outside the Charmed Circle. It's a book about how gender and sexuality are expressed, explored, repressed denied, or whatever other ways engaged within the subculture of modern pagan polytheist, or magical “practice.” It's a book I had a lot of fun writing, which is really strange to hear myself say out loud because there were moments when I absolutely wanted to bang my head on the keyboard, or just fold the laptop up and smack myself in the face with it like the monks in Monty Python. But it's a book that I really enjoyed writing because I got to spend long hours researching and talking about a bunch of my favorite stuff: gender, sexuality, embodiment, philosophy, Van Halen and their impact on Western culture and I say that, and people are like, “Oh, that's really funny,” and I'm like, “No, no, I'm being really serious.” As far as the question that just came up in the chat here: is there something I cut from the book that I wish I could have put in? One of the things that I said in the very last chapter is that the book I wrote is necessarily brief. Each chapter in that book could have been its own book. There's a chapter on embodiment. A chapter on gender and theory – I believe the chapter is actually called Gender and Theory in Practice. There's a chapter, or a couple of chapters on consent and how consent works in these communities. There's so much more that can be said about these topics. There's so much more that I could have said about any of these topics. But 300 pages, I felt like I'd run on quite long enough. Consent in the mentor-mentee relationship also just came up in chat. That's actually a topic that I touch on in the book and it's something I have really strong feelings about. Especially in the pagan and polytheists communities, there's often a lot of stress on the teacher-student relationship, sort of master-apprentice, if you want to get all scythe about it and well, there's a lot of unspoken disagreement about what the appropriate dynamic between those two parties should be. There are people who will cheerfully say, “Oh, well, teachers and students should always have this kind of relationship and should never have that kind of relationship.” Yeah, and by that kind of relationship, we're usually talking about a sexual and/or romantic relationship. And then there are people who are perfectly happy to say, “Well, that's true in most cases, but this situation is different,” and often what they mean is, “my situation is different.” So when I was writing the book, I had the less than enviable of saying, “Dear sweet summer child, no, your situation isn't different. It's not any different. It is never any different. Teachers and students just shouldn't have those kinds of relationships while they are ensconced in that power dynamic of teacher-student, or mentor-mentee.” REIN: Of course, thinking that your own situation is different is quite common. Common enough that we have a name for it and that is the universal attribution fallacy. TAMSIN: Yeah. Not to be super political, but it goes back to the phenomenon that you see quite often in modern sociopolitical discourse where people will say, “X is always immoral and wrong, except when I do it,” and X could be getting an abortion, being in a same-sex relationship, any number of things. “Well, that's always bad and wrong, but my circumstances are different.” JAMEY: One thing I think is interesting about what you're talking about with teachers and students is that the concept of a teacher-student relationship is nebulous in a lot of ways. Like, how would you draw the line here between this is an actual teacher and student relationship and therefore, inappropriate as opposed to “I have this relationship with someone and I'm learning something from them,” which I learn from all people all the time, including my partner and other people? Where is the line between “This is a great person in my life that I'm learning” from versus “I'm in this hierarchical relationship with them”? TAMSIN: The short answer would be access—access to knowledge, access, to experience, access to opportunity. If you are a teacher and I am coming to you saying, “I want to learn this thing,” and your response is not “Okay, sure, I can take you on as a student and teach you this thing,” but instead, “I can take you on and teach you this thing if X, Y, or Z,” that becomes a really sketchy kind of dynamic where if I want whatever it is that you have the ability to give me the knowledge, the opportunity, the access, I am essentially being required to behave in ways that I might not otherwise. REIN: It seems like there are maybe two important things here. One is power dynamics—which always exist; they never don't exist—and the other is more narrowly conflicts of interest. TAMSIN: Right, and one of the things that I ran into, with talking modern practitioners of pagan and polytheistic spirituality, is that a lot of people want to talk about power, very few people are comfortable talking about power dynamics. In part, because in my experience, a lot of people don't want to see themselves as being people who have power to impact others in a negative way. Will they, or nil they? There becomes this attitude of deniability where it's like, “Well, I can't possibly be in an oppressive position. I can't possibly be an abuser because I'm coming to this from just as much a place of powerlessness as the next person,” and that's not always true, of course. REIN: I think sometimes talking about groups in that way is vulnerable to that counterargument and I try to talk about the dynamics as being every relationship between two people has an element of power. TAMSIN: Absolutely, and one of the arguments I often get into with people is about the word politics because people, especially in our current social climate, tend to think that politics means a turf war between these two groups, or parties. My response is that politics is just the word to describe how we negotiate power between groups of greater than one. Politics is how we talk about the policies. There's the whole word police meaning city, politics, policy. It's a thing. Politics is how we arrange policies and laws and agreements so that we can all basically move forward doing the same kind of thing. Yes, from the chat: “framing politics between two groups is very American.” It really is. So I have often been criticized for bringing politics into spirituality and I'm going, “We're sitting around talking about power all day long, pretending that politics isn't a part of that is a way of getting out of having to be accountable for the politics that's actually going on.” That maneuver is as present in any subculture you care to name as it is in the pagan community. I mean, that's certainly not unique to witches, Druids, modern polytheists, and whomever. JAMEY: Yeah. Everything we've been talking about in the pagan has made me think of the tech community, too. My question earlier about mentorship, I was thinking that and when you were talking about “Don't bring politics into” – such a common thing that we talk about in tech, also. TAMSIN: Oh yeah. Why do you have to bring politics into this? Why do you have to bring identity politics, or diversity politics into this argument? We work in tech; this is a meritocracy and the sound of a thousand palms slapping into a thousand foreheads echoes across the land. JAMEY: I know you said it to illustrate that point, the phrase, identity politics, I just have such a visceral physical reaction to. [laughs] TAMSIN: Oh, it's great. Isn't it? It's like, there are certain phrases that in modern discourse have become so completely alienated from their original context that they're almost devoid of meaning. Identity politics is one. Cancel, or cancellation, or – [overtalk] JAMEY: Cancel culture. I just saw a whole conversation about this today because Andrew Cuomo said it in his press conference. It was a whole thing. TAMSIN: Oh God. [laughter] JAMEY: I’m sorry for bringing up Andrew Cuomo. I take it back. [laughs] TAMSIN: Verbal equivalent of keyboard smash right now. [laughter] Yeah, I feel like when people start throwing terms like that around, this is all an attempt at obfuscation. It's an attempt at getting away from having to talk about what's actually going on and, in many cases, what's actually going on is that somebody, or somebodies are doing some shady things that they don't necessarily want to be held accountable for. REIN: People say, “Keep politics out of X.” That statement is incomplete and what they really mean is “Keep politics that don't matter to me out of X.” TAMSIN: Right. “Keep politics that I don't have to think about.” REIN: “Things that don't impact me in any way, I don’t care about those.” TAMSIN: Exactly. Yeah. But if politics suddenly means that I can't get the right chip for the motherboard to run the gaming machine that I really want to set up, suddenly politics is real important. That's the point where I start getting that glassy-eyed thousand-yard stare at somebody and going, “So politics and power dynamics matters when it's something that impacts you personally. Is that what you're saying?” Maybe from there, we could, I don't know, extrapolate that other people who, and this is a galaxy brain moment here, actually exists, have the same relationships [chuckles] to the things that matter to them. Like, I don't know, housing, or healthcare, or to be a little dark, I guess, not being hatecrimed to death. REIN: This is the one of my favorite tweets: “I don't know how to convince you to care about other people writ large.” TAMSIN: Yeah, exactly. We talk a lot lately about how divisive things are and how divided the country is. There's a Medium article that I read recently with the delightfully bracing title of, “We hate you now.” It was an article about the potential going forward into a post-COVID-19 world where all of the people who've been wearing masks when they have to go outside, washing their hands, staying home unless absolutely necessary and who've, essentially, felt that they've been held captive in their own homes for over a year now are looking at the people who've been going to weddings, pool parties, restaurants, barbecues, and two weeks later, half of the attendees are sick, or dead and having, what I would say, are some pretty justifiable feelings of “We were doing all the right things and you selfish, entitled fill in your profanity of choice, have been doing exactly all the wrong things that have perpetuated this situation, such that we're still in lockdown and still in lockdown. We kind of hate you now and there's a real possibility of that we're always going to hate you.” To me, that's the divide I'm seeing in our culture going forward. Things like that. Then again, I am speaking as someone who shares custody of my daughter with my ex who lives in California and what that means, operationally, is that I have not seen my daughter in-person since March 8th of 2020 and so, I'm a little head up under the collar. Wow, that just kind of went off into a really dark place. [laughs] REIN: No, this is good stuff. Very normal for us. This is why I don't have an issue going on record as saying that ethical systems based on naive individualism are bankrupt. TAMSIN: Absolutely. One of the things that came out of my degree program with—and I will point out that I did go to a state university in the notoriously liberal state of Washington. But one of the things that I came out of my degree program with was a healthy and deeply ingrained respect for the concept of the social contract and for social contract theory as a venue of study, especially when you're looking at power dynamics in groups. What I found is that explaining the social contract to people is really easy if they actually want to understand it and utterly impossible, if they're opposed, because if they're opposed, what's really going on isn't that they don't understand. They get it perfectly; they just don't want to agree. I can say the social contract is that you don't punch me, I don't shoot you; we maintain a basic air of non-violence and go on about our day. That's a contract. You don't hurt me. I don't hurt you. We move on. It's as simple as that, or as complicated as, “Hey, look, we have a civilization.” That is a marvelous quote in the chat: “No, thank you. I'd rather pretend I invent the entire universe every time I make an Apple pie.” REIN: This gets all the way like the turtles go all the way down to what does it mean to be a person and what is the person to relationship to society? TAMSIN: And if we are going to dive that deep into philosophy, I'm going to need some whiskey at least. [chuckles] I'm kidding. But as far as what is a person, philosophers have been trying to work that one out for quite literally thousands of years, at this point. When I was writing Outside the Charmed Circle, I wound up necessarily having to go back and read some amounts of Plato and Aristotle because they are, in many ways, part of the groundwork of Western philosophy and as well, part of the groundwork for Western notions of spirituality and magical practice. As you know, pagans are polytheists, or magicians. One of the things that I was horrified to discover and shouldn't have been really—I should have expected this—was that Plato and Aristotle didn't think too highly of women. There are these marvelous quotes that I included in the book and by marvelous, I mean tragic, frankly referring to the distinction between men, and women and other animals. That was text I saw on my screen and looked at and went, blink, blink, blink, What?” REIN: This reminds me of George Lakoff's book, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, so titled because there is a language with a category that includes those things in the same category. TAMSIN: Wow. That's great. That's neat. REIN: I think I can respect women being in the same category as dangerous things, to be fair. TAMSIN: I think depending on how we're defining dangerous, anybody of any gender can be dangerous, but I have to admire the hustle of putting that as your title, that's pretty great. But the question of who counts as a person? What is a person? If you look at some of the classical Greek philosophers—Aristotle, Plato—they would say a person is a human male individual who fulfills these criteria and anyone who doesn't fulfill those criteria isn't really fully a person. REIN: The human male citizen. TAMSIN: Right. REIN: Which is also how the US defined it. TAMSIN: Shocking. Yeah, and then if you look at these philosophers as laying the groundwork for how Western culture defines, or describes personhood individuality, the next big cultural movements come along was of course, Christianity. I'm not here to bash on Christianity, but I will note that if you look at Christian philosophy around identity and individuality, especially if you're looking at gendered identities, a lot of that would be drawn from the work of Paul who wrote most of the epistles in the last two thirds of what's called the New Testament, the Christian Bible. Paul had some less than awesome views about women and they're pretty much in a direct line of descent from Plato and Aristotle. You look at the things Paul was saying and it's like, oh, okay so he's basically just importing Greek philosophical misogyny into this new religion, which made a lot of sense because at that point in time, Greek philosophy was, I've called it the groundwork for Western philosophy and the Greeks were considered the de facto mainstream philosophers of that era, and everyone was rolling around speaking Greek, even the Romans. So this notion of individuality and of personhood being something that we specifically define by how you match an established hegemonic norm and by hegemonic, I mean a norm that is imposed by a power above you and it's this established hierarchy. When I was learning about hegemonic norms in my degree program, someone in the class asked, “Okay, so hegemonic norm, how does that apply to us in modern Western American 21st century culture?” It's like, well, it's real easy. Who has the privilege? Who has the power? If you're white, you have privilege and power that you don't have if you're Black, or Brown, or Asian, or what have you. If you are a cisgender person, you have privilege and power that you don't have if you're trans or non-binary. If you are a cis male, you have privilege and power that you don't have if you are a non-cis male, and so on. That's hegemonic power, that's hegemony in action and a lot of those hegemonic norms come directly down from the classical Greeks through the norms established by Christianity. I spend a lot of time talking about this in a book which is at least extensively about witchcraft, paganism, and magic because they're hobby horses that are really important to me and they seemed to tie in. So I was like, “Yeah, let's do this. Let's just throw it all in there.” REIN: So you have these fringe communities and fringe only relative to the dominant normative culture, right? TAMSIN: Right. REIN: But then they start to intersect on the edges of that hegemonic, cultural conglomeration, whatever you want to call it. It reminds me of – so this is an analogy that I'm going to see if it lands so let me know. There's a book called How Buildings Learn and, in that book, one of the things that he talks about is what are called edge cities, where historically cities have been built around a port, or railroad, or some other thing. But what's happening in modern cities, there's a lot of the action is happening at the edges of the city where the highways intersect and so on. There's also a lot more possibility to build out there because the city center has been made pretty rigid by the buildings are large and they're probably not going anywhere, the codes, the building and zoning codes are very rigid, and so on. So actually, a lot of the most vital growth that happened in modern studies is happening at the edges. I wonder if it's like that as well in these fringe communities and if that term has baggage that you want me to avoid, let me know. TAMSIN: Oh no, I'm fine with the term. I think there's a lot of traction there. One of the hobby horses that I drag out and bang on a regular basis is the notion that subcultural communities reiterate and reinforce a lot of the same core assumptions as the over culture in which they are ensconced. There is this attitude of, “Well, we're different from outsiders. We're smarter, we're better, we're more spiritual. We're more accepting. We're more,” whatever the virtue, or the value that they want to see themselves as having is. But they frequently don't stop to realize that, in many ways, they are just reenacting a lot of the same attitudes that the mainstream culture, of which they are a subculture, is enacting all over the place. I think when you look at the fringes of subcultures, the places where they start to rub up against other cultures, or other subcultures, where they start to intersect and get some new ideas and some new, interesting stuff going on that can be really valid, valuable, and healthy for the community as a whole. I also think that that is a place where there can be a lot of tension and a lot of fear. I've seen that in the pagan community, where there are a lot of people who I think would position themselves very much at the center of the little circle of pagan community and they look at someone like, for instance, me, who's kind of out on this fringe edge here, rubbing up against the queer community, or the trans community, or whatever other communities that I'm part of. They may see this idea, or that idea and go, Well, that's not how we do things. That's not us. That's like some of your weird queer trans stuff,” and I'm going, “No, but wait. It's really cool and it informs what we do over here in this really useful way. And why are you walking away? Come back.” And then occasionally, it's like, “Oh, you were walking away to get a torch and a pitchfork. No, no, no, don't come back.” [chuckles] JAMEY: When you were talking about that with the fringe communities, I was thinking about the queer community as well, even before you brought it up, because I think that what Rein was saying about exciting things happening in that space is definitely true. But I also think that you have a problem in the community sometimes like, people who are younger, or more newly out and don't know as much about queer history trying to roll things back. That's why we have this argument about why younger people, who think that the word “queer” is not okay for anyone to use, coming in and saying, “Oh, we can't do this,” and older people saying, “There has been a lot of discourse, progress, and things that have happened over the course of history that you need to know about before you can have an informed opinion on it. [laughs] TAMSIN: You need to scroll back up in the chat before you start talking. [laughter] JAMEY: Yeah. You need to scroll back up like a bunch of years in the chat. [laughs] TAMSIN: Right. Yes. That is a huge issue in the queer community and it's one that – I'm 47 years old and I have found myself in conversations with people who are 19, 20 who wants to tell me, “Oh, well, you shouldn't use the word queer because queer is a slur,” and I'm going, “Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, red flag, hold on. Queer has been used as a slur, absolutely yes. But in the 80s and 90s, there was an awful lot of work done to reclaim that word. I know, I was there.” And today, now the primary driver behind the notion that queer is a slur is trans-exclusionary radical feminism. It's transphobes who are like, ‘Yeah, no, no, no, no, no, no. Queer gives too much leeway for all of these trans people to sneak into this community. So uh oh, we can't be having with that.” So I find myself basically having to strike the compromise of okay, I'm never going to tell you that you have to call yourself queer, but you don't get to tell all of us queers out here that that's not our word and if that means you don't want to come sit at our table, or come to our parties, that's okay, too. The problem of gatekeeping in the queer community, as in every subcultural community, is real and it's real bad. The extent to which some quorum within a community wants to enforce little boundaries inside the larger community. So it's like I have my little walled garden in the queer community, and you can come in if you perform gender, or sexuality, or identity in these specific ways that I am dictating. It's too much headache. It's funny how I talk about these problems in the queer community, or in the trans community, or in the pagan community and I have friends who work in the tech world and they're going, “Huh, this all sounds eerily familiar.” JAMEY: It's almost as if people act the same, TAMSIN: No matter where you go. [chuckles] Yeah, it is. These are not problems unique to any one subcultural community. They are human problems and I'm often tempted to say that the solution is to stop dealing with people, but I like people and I like doing things with people. One of the reasons I'm so mad about this stupid pandemic is that I miss people, hanging out with people in-person and being able to drink coffee with them. But I think that a lot of these problems of gatekeeping, these enforcement of boundaries, these power dynamic issues that we have all fundamentally come back to, at least in many of the cases I've seen, issues around power and the fear of powerlessness, the fear of being disenfranchised, or of losing what you see as power, or opportunity, or access, or privilege that you're entitled to. I mean, that's certainly what seems to be one of the things that's at the core of these ridiculous ideas like white genocide. White people are being crowded out and we're being outbred by all of these other people of color and white people have to band together and blah, blah, blah! All of this garbage is all rooted in fear and under that ignorance. Much wiser and more experienced minds than mine have written at great length about those issues and how best to combat them. I have a lot of hope in that regard, but at the same time, I look at the news app on my phone every morning and that hope dies a little. So it's kind of a tidal thing; it rises and falls. REIN: The relationship between radicals and action areas, I think where it's a relationship to a particular preferred state of affairs and whether you think you need to go forwards, or backwards to get there. REIN: Right. We used to call that the difference between a liberal and a conservative view, but those words have been so battered and worked out of utility that you can't even bring them up anymore. But it, again, goes back to that idea of you have the circle that is the community and the people at the center, who are perhaps most emblematic of its baseline core ideas and ideals, and then the people out on the fringes of things, who are bringing in new information and new ideas, or sending their ideas out to other communities and sharing with them. I think that can all be really healthy and part of a wholesome ecosystem of subcultural engagement and interaction. I also think that when people get scared, they start doing things that are really not in their best interest. They start making really bad choices and that way lies dissent, dissension, and conflict. But a lot of that is why I titled the book I wrote Outside the Charmed Circle because it comes from an essay by a cultural theorist named Gayle Rubin. This is an essay that she wrote called “Thinking Sex” and in this essay, she posited that you can look at ideas like sexuality and if you picture it as two circles, one inside the other divided up like a dark board, pie wedged shapes. The inner circle, the charmed circle is the stuff that society basically all approves of: heterosexuality, monogamy, sex for the purposes of procreation, and so on and so forth. And then outside the charm circle are what Gayle Rubin called the outer limits. Those are the things which society doesn't approve so non-monogamy, having sex for reasons other than procreation, because it's fun, or to make money, or whatever reasons. Each of the things in the term circle has its counterpart in the outer limits, its counterpart outside the charmed circle. Ah, see what I did there? So things like homosexuality, or bisexuality, or asexuality, or demisexuality, or, or, or—these are all outside the term circle because they are fundamentally alien to the hegemonic norms of culture and I just realized I'm throwing a lot of this jargon around, wow. REIN: I think it is interesting as a metaphor here because it implies both, at the periphery and also, a sparseness, or lack of structure. TAMSIN: Yeah. I think that there's value to be found both, at the core and on the edges, on the fringe. [laughs] REIN: What’s [inaudible] is that some of these groups on the edges seem to be reproducing structures that are found in the core. TAMSIN: Oh yeah, absolutely. The structures that you find at the core of a group are really comfortable. They're really comforting if they're built for you. To pick one, for example, the structure of being cisgender is really comfortable. You’re cis if you were born and you were assigned a gender at birth and you grew up and you're like, “Yeah, that's me. That fits me like a glove because it's tailored to who I am. I don't have any objections to this.” But if you take that same glove and put it on someone else, it's going to be too big, too small, it fits in the wrong ways, it's no, this is wrong. These structures of being cisgender don't fit for someone like say, me. That's not to say being cisgender is wrong. It's perfectly fine and that's okay. Just not for me. JAMEY: This is certainly coming back to what you were saying earlier about “Oh, I care about these issues that affect me,” and we have to extrapolate that they affect other people because you'll see people are like, “Oh, but this is so comfortable. Why wouldn't you want this great comfortable thing?” And I can't extrapolate that other people are having a different experience. TAMSIN: One of the real problems that we as human beings have is not understanding that our individual experiences are not universally applicable. It's like handing someone a strawberry ice cream cone and they taste it and they're like, “Oh, thanks. Not for me,” and you're like, “Well, what's wrong with it? It's delicious. It's a strawberry ice cream cone,” and they're like, “I don't like strawberry ice cream.” Like, “Well, how can you not? I like strawberry ice cream.” “Yeah, but I don't taste this strawberry ice cream with your tongue. Your taste buds. Mine are wired differently.” That's just a random example pulled out of the air; I actually like strawberry ice cream fine. Not my favorite, but it's fine. But individual experience isn't universally applicable and to come back to that question of how do we define the individual person as against a larger culture, or community? I think past a certain point of defining an individual, or a person as a self-aware consciousness, I really don't want to try and define personhood at all. If I can acknowledge that someone is sapient and sentient, that's good enough for me and if at some point down the road, we get to a place of developing actual artificial intelligence, like Turing capable AI. If it tells me it's sentient and sapient, I am more than happy to sit down and have a coffee with it and I think that's as much as I want to get into well, how do we define a person? Because once you go any further than that, inevitably it winds up with oppression, slavery, and genocide. Again, pretty grim. [laughs] JAMEY: No, it’s good. REIN: Again, how do we get people to care about other people? TAMSIN: Oh, if I had the answer to that, I could write another book. It would be a bestseller and I would never have to try and get another job. I think that the answer, and I am totally cribbing from my partner here—who is an amazing human being and a developer at a local software company up here. My partner would probably suggest that the answer is you teach empathy and you start teaching empathy by going back to you have this relationship to this issue, or this thing that happened. It made you feel a certain way. How do you think that issue impacted that person? Experiences aren't universal, but the condition of experiencing things is universal. So I'm not going to have the same experience that someone else has with any given issue, but I can acknowledge that they are having an experience and that their experience is as meaningful to them and their lives as mine is to me and my life. Once you've done that, you started the building blocks of developing empathy, which leads to compassion, which leads to, “Oh, maybe we should get kids out of those cages on the border, maybe we should find a way to feed people, and restore the power grid in Texas so elderly people aren't literally freezing to death in their homes in the 21st century in America.” REIN: I think there's a Swedish word for the realization that everyone on this street that you're walking down has just as rich, deep, and complex an inner mental life as you do and I think we need more of that. TAMSIN: Yeah, we do. We do. Now I totally want to go and look up that Swedish word, but that acknowledgement that everyone around us is actually a person. They have an interior life, they have hopes and dreams of their own, and their hopes and dreams don't have to be relevant to me. One of the things that I think those of us who are ensconced in subcultures sometimes struggle with is – well, it's the inverse of another problem so let me, let me try and rephrase this. Those of us who are in subcultural communities—whether it's the tech community, or the queer community, or the trans community, or the pagan community, or what have you—we all struggle with these feelings of our interests and our passions being incomprehensible to people who aren't part of our communities. I am not a developer. I am not even really much of a coder, but I know enough about coding from having been in a CS program for a hot minute to be able to grasp what's cool about really elegant code, what's really cool about this thing that my partner comes to me and she's like, “Oh, I did this thing and we blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” and I'm like, “I understood about one word in three, but it was barely enough to hang on with my fingernails,” and that is really cool and awesome. But that's not a conversation that she could have with, for instance, my Mom. My mother, who is a brilliant woman and has a degree in nursing and is a medical professional and does all these things, my Mom would do just glaze over a little and go, “Okay, cool. I'm glad that the good thing happened for you,” but it does reinforce this idea that these things we're into are relatively esoteric. So it in turn reinforces this seclusion of our little subcultural communities into their enclaves and we become this little technocratic priesthood, but that can turn into another problem, which is not only are we weird and different, but we're better. The taking of pride in the cool, awesome thing that we understand and love can turn into, “If you don't understand the cool, awesome thing we're into what's wrong with you?” Oh, well, pfft users. I've heard that exact sentiment expressed by people in the software industry and it always baffles me because I'm like, “You realize that you are making tools for people to use, right?” The people that you're going “Pfft users” about are literally the reason you have a job because otherwise, all of the tippy-tappy you do with the keyboard is an intellectual exercise. Great, you created this incredibly elegant piece of software that no one is going to use. At that point, you may as well just be building a matchstick cathedral in your backyard and then lighting it on fire. What I would really like to see from all of our communities is a little less hubris and a lot less gatekeeping and a substantial amount less of a self-reinforcing sense of superiority about people who aren't inside our particular charmed circle. What I want to see is our subcultural communities, having pride in who we are and what we do, and the cool things that we make, or the cool things that we do, or the cool lives that we lead, or whatever it is that is part of our community without turning that into, “And that's why we're so much better than the normies, the mundanes, the muggles—to use Voldemort's word. That's why we're better than people who don't do this cool stuff that we do.” Because I feel like that need to be better than the people who make us feel kind of weird and like we don't belong is again, just reiterating the same power structures that got us into this problem in the first place. The over culture thinks it's better than these weird freaky fringe communities because they're nerdy, or they're awkward, or they're cringy and the fringe communities in return think they're better than the basic, boring, mundane, mainstream, normie culture and nobody gets to have any fun. I would much rather have a mainstream culture that respects and appreciates the awesome things that fringe communities bring to the table, the innovations that they provide, the new ways of thinking and approaching problems and have subcultural communities that understand that they are ensconced in an over culture, which is the reason that they can exist and that's how I'm going to solve world peace. JAMEY: So we’re coming up to the part of our show where we like to let everyone give a reflection about what we've talked about for the past hour, or so. This is something that is going to be on your mind, or a call-to-action, or just something that stuck out for you. I'm going to go first. What's something that stuck out for me was the conversation that we had actually a couple of times about conceptualizing that other people are having a different experience than you and how that's so hard for people. Because I think that you see this, even on a microlevel within these subcultures, and I think that suggests to me that it's such a natural human thing to do and I think that I get that because it does feel good to have things in common with other people and to celebrate the things that we have in common. I guess, I'm thinking about this specifically in the trans community where they're like, “It feels great to be able to be like, ‘We have this thing in common and I feel so good about that,’” but there are still a lot of different kinds of people in the trans community and this is how you end up with people saying, “Oh, the universal trans experience is loving being a girl when you take your estrogen,” and I'm like, “That's definitely not.” [laughs] You could probably keep making that thing that you're saying smaller until it's true for everyone in your little group that it's true for. But we have this desire to categorize ourselves in that way and I think that the reason I'm talking about this and saying this is, I think that it's really good to keep in mind the ways that all of us probably also do this on smaller levels. So I guess, my call-to-action is I'm going to try and think about catching myself if I'm doing this. REIN: Well, I'm going to attempt to stay in my lane here with my reflection. I was thinking about one of the first things that came up, which is mentor-mentee relationships, and I was thinking about what you said about empathy. One of the things that – I’ve changed a little bit, even in the last few years in terms of how I think about empathy, which is, I think empathy is good, but I don't think it's very actionable because empathy is an internal thing that happens in individual people's heads. No one else has access to it. What Russell Ackoff says is that systems are not the sum of their components, they're the product of their interactions. So what I started to think about was what are the interactions in a community that empathy leads to and how can we promote those? What I've started to focus on is the interaction called helping. Edgar Schein wrote a book called Helping and it's a study of the social process, or phenomenon where people help each other. How does it happen? Why does it happen? One of the things he noticed that that was pretty interesting is that helping is mostly notable when it doesn't happen and there's an expectation that it should have. So you think here are things like that's not helpful and what I think that we should try to do is focus more on positive affirmations when it does happen. So that's why when I do retrospectives with teams, we leave that with appreciations. I want to make helping remarkable. I want people to talk about helping and get better at it as practice. I guess, that's my solution to how do you get people to care about each other? It's how do you build empathy and I think it's by the practice of helping. TAMSIN: I like that a lot. That's really good. One of the thoughts that has recurred over the course of this conversation for me is that the dynamics at the heart of any subculture you care to name really aren't that dissimilar from one group to another, whatever their special interest happens to be. That was the thing I didn't understand growing up. It was a thing I certainly didn't understand through much of my adult life and now, crawling into my late 40s, I'm finally starting to wrap my head around this concept, that in a lot of ways, these groups are really all the same. That's because well, as we've alluded earlier, they're all made up of people and people all tend to be kind of the same in terms of the patterns that they enact, the approaches that they take, the things that they fundamentally want. Again, not universal experiences, but we all have the shared commonality of having these experiences. We all have the shared feature of wanting things and wanting to be understood. Wanting empathy, or compassion, even if we are ourselves not terribly good at giving it. That's certainly something that's been true with me. Even within the course of this conversation, I brought up the Medium article about the pandemic and how it's really easy to want to be furious with the people who are, in a very real way, responsible for the fact that I haven't seen my daughter in over a year. At the same time, at least some of those people were acting in ways that I don't have to think are rational or correct, but they had some reason they did the things they did and if I can understand why they act the way they do and I want to spend the effort and the energy to meet them where they are, perhaps I can find ways to work with them to be different, to be what I would consider better. More in line with a social contract that means that we don't have 600,000 people dead by the summer, but that is work that's on me to do, because I can't ask somebody, who's already living in a state of fear, to suddenly magically have cool, calm rationality descend upon them. REIN: The last thing I'll mention for folks who are listening, who are on software development teams and so on, is that a team is literally definitionally a group of people who help each other. TAMSIN: Yes, yes, it is. JAMEY: This was really great. Thank you so much. TAMSIN: Thank you. I had a wonderful time. This was a blast. JAMEY: And I should say that anyone who wants to have further conversations like this with us, we have a Slack community and we're all there, all of our guests are there, and lots of other really interesting people. You can join our Slack community if you back us on Patreon,, even like a dollar. REIN: These episodes are successful because we co-create them with our guests. We're helping each other make cool episodes. So thank you for helping us to make a cool episode. TAMSIN: It has genuinely been my pleasure. It’s been a delight. Thank you so much for having me. Special Guest: Tamsin Davis-Langley.

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Posted on 28 April 2021 | 9:00 am

231: Deserted Island Safety and Expectations with Austin Parker

01:04 - Austin’s Superpower: Pain Tolerance 02:06 - Deserted Island DevOps ( (Running an Online/Virtual Conference in Animal Crossing ( or Other Mediums) * Deserted Island DevOps 2020 on YouTube ( * Software Circus ( * The Great Cloud Native Bakeoff ( * Making Real-Time Audience/Human Connection * Streaming * Watch Parties * Austin Parker: Virtual Events Suck. ( 24:09 - Failure; Making it Safe to Fail * Technical Failure * Psychological Failure * Underpromise, Overdeliver 32:51 - Safety and Setting Expectations (The Problem with More is Better) * OKRs * Open Source Principles ( Reflections: John: The creativity of new ways to experience a conference. Coraline: The importance of moderation. Austin: How to communicate feelings of failure and setting expectations about it to people you’re working with. Jacob: Find a conference that has been thoughtful about interaction when not in person and go. This episode was brought to you by @therubyrep ( of DevReps, LLC ( To pledge your support and to join our awesome Slack community, visit ( To make a one-time donation so that we can continue to bring you more content and transcripts like this, please do so at ( You will also get an invitation to our Slack community this way as well. Transcript: CORALINE: Hello and welcome to Episode 231 of Greater Than Code podcast. I’m so happy to be here with you today. My name is Coraline Ada Ehmke and I’m joined by my friend, John Sawers. JOHN: Thanks, Coraline. And I’m here with Jacob Stoebel. JACOB: Thanks. John! It’s my pleasure to introduce our guest this week, Austin Parker. Austin makes problems with computers and sometimes solves them. He’s an open-source maintainer, observability nerd, DevOps junkie, and poster. You can find him ignoring Hacker News threads and making dumb jokes on Twitter. He wrote a book about distributed tracing, taught some college courses, streams on Twitch, and also ran a DevOps conference in Animal Crossing. Such a nice pleasure to have you on the show. AUSTIN: It's fantastic to be here. JACOB: We can start the show like we always do by asking you a question. What's your superpower and how did you develop it? AUSTIN: Right now, my superpower is I'm 50% through a COVID-19 vaccine and I developed it by staying indoors for the past year, but more hilariously I guess, I developed a strong resistance to burns by working as a gas station cook for quite a while, back in my younger days. So I ran the fryer and you get really good at ignoring hot oil spattering on you. So I'd like to think that that level of pain tolerance is what helped me get through a lot of DevOps stuff and getting used to computers. [laughter] CORALINE: Yeah. I hate Kubernetes and it's hot oil splashing. They should do something about that. It's open source. I guess, I could open my PR, but . AUSTIN: Yeah. Well, they say PR is welcome, but that's the open-source maintainers. Bless your heart, right? CORALINE: Yeah, exactly. So Austin, I want to know more about this DevOps conference that you ran in Animal Crossing. AUSTIN: So let's start at the beginning, let's take everyone back to just about a year ago now where we were all kind of settling in for our wonderful pandemic that has been extremely not wonderful for most people, but I think everyone was coming to grips with how long it would take at first. My day job, I work as in developer relations. I'm a marketer, effectively. But I remember a lot of people were talking, the marketing team and certainly, the entire events space like, “Oh, what's this going to do about the summer events, what's this going to do about the fall events?” and I'm sitting here like, “Hey, I think this is going to last a little longer than till June.” So the conversation kind of pivots as everything gets progressively worse and people are starting to come to grips like, “Well, can we do a virtual event?” I don't think anyone at the time really had a good idea of what a virtual event would be. We all know video conferencing certainly is something that we've come to rely on in our day-to-day lives over the past year. Even if you weren't already in tech, or weren't already working remotely, Zoom is – it’s been Q-tip. It's been Kleenex. It's a no matter what you're using, you're Zooming someone. So they have that going for them, I guess. People, I think there was a lot of possibility and not a lot of real, strong ideas about what does this actually mean? So I wanted to try something different. I was joking around on Twitter and I had just gotten a copy of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and I was staging with screenshots with like, “Oh look, this is funny. It's like a conference booth.” It's like ha, ha, we're all giving out t-shirts and laughing. And the code people picked up on and they were like, “Oh, that's funny. I bet you could actually do a conference in Animal Crossing and stream it out” because you can actually have people like join you, come over to your island and stand around. I was like, “Well, actually, you could just composite that video from the output of the game over some slides and what's the difference?” Someone's talking, someone's clicking through slides, and it spiraled from a joke. I put up a page, a landing page on April 1st, which is the best time to announce anything thing. Because if people don't go for it, you can always be like, “Ha, ha, April fools. Got you!” [laughter] But I put up a landing page and we had a 100 people register for more information that first day, I messaged them on Slack, and I'm like, “Well, I’ve got to do it now; a 100 people one day. That's great.” CORALINE: Yeah. AUSTIN: So long story short, over the next 30 days, we basically put together, myself and then my co-organizer, Katie @thekatertot on Twitter, or Katie Farmer, a virtual conference inside of Animal Crossing. It's called Deserted Island DevOps. You can go watch it on YouTube, the one from last year. We're doing another one this year on April 30th. It's just a one-day live stream. If you're watching it, you're just watching it on Twitch. We have a Discord that you can talk and do the hallway track stuff and ask questions and network. But the gimmick is basically, everyone's presenting has a Switch and they are in Animal Crossing. They're on this island, they're dressing up their little Animal Crossing character and we overlay their slides with the video coming out of the Switch so they can emote and react and it's cute experience to watch. But I think it's also interesting because what I saw, last year at least, is that it solves a lot of the problems, I think most virtual conferences don't quite nail, which is, I think a good event is something that takes you out of your day-to-day. It takes you out of where you are and put you somewhere else. Now, if you go into KubeCon, or re:Invent, or even devopdays, if you're doing this physically like, you're not at your office, you're not at home, you're somewhere else talking to people, literally, you have changed the physical location you're in. But most virtual events, it still boils down to, “Hey, I'm watching a Zoom effectively and I'm talking to people in Slack.” If I wanted to do that, I could just do my actual job. So I think one of the things that people appreciated about Deserted Island and continue to is the idea that this is produced differently. There's a couple other people that are doing stuff like this. I think Software Circus out of the UK, they've done a lot of themed events, themed virtual events like this, where the presenters are wearing costumes. Or there was The Great Kubernetes Bake-Off, I want to say where it’s a cloud kitchen theme so everyone has their chefs’ hats. I think having that concept also gives presenters a lot of mileage in terms of hey, you can theme what you're talking about. Here is an analogy in a box, here is a world that you can put your talk in and you have an idea that everyone can use those shared experiences, that shared language to develop your talk and give people an anchor for it, which I think is one of the good ways you help people learn. If you give them something they know about and then you tie your concept into that concept, then they're going to get more out of it. The other thing is that it's a great way to be expressive. In Animal Crossing, you are who you are, you are whoever your avatar is. So you don't get any of the – I hate being on camera a lot. It gets exhausting because you feel like you're performing for the camera. It’s not the same, but in this, nobody's seeing your actual face; they're hearing your voice and then you can dress your Animal Crossing your avatar whatever. So you can be creative. You can be who you are without having that weird performance pressure of a bunch of people that you can't see staring at your face JOHN: This is an important topic these days because there's still everything's online and will be for a while and I think so many people are still learning how to do online events and those skills are going to need to keep happening over the next coming years. I think because you can do now online events, which are more accessible to more people all over the world, you don't have to be the sort of person who can fly places in order to attend certain events. Having them online is a great accessibility option. So finding new modalities for making that interesting and not just sitting on Zoom all day, I think is a worthy endeavor. AUSTIN: Yeah, and it's super challenging. I don't want to sound like I'm like dragging people's work because I know CNCF has had to move a lot of stuff virtual. I know of the entire devopsdays community has had to move a lot of stuff virtual. This is super hard to do. It's not easy. It requires a lot of intentionality; a lot of planning and I think we will all get better at it over time. The future is not necessarily going to be like the past, I don't know if there's ever going to be a day where we just kind of flip a switch and it's all like, “Oh, we're back to how we were before March of 2020,” I think. So there's still going to be a desire for virtual events and there's still going to be a desire for figuring out ways to be more inclusive and to bring people in, especially because of climate change and everything like that. At some point, we have to come to a reckoning about the actual cost of a global travel-based society but that's maybe a slightly different topic. I don't know. CORALINE: I actually think a good side effect of all this is a focus on accessibility and like you said, a lot of people aren't people to travel. It's expensive. I know conferences, typically in-person conferences, used to spend quite a bit of money with programs to bring in marginalized folks who maybe couldn't afford the travel. But one thing I do miss is getting that audience reaction. Especially as a storyteller, I tend to tell a lot of stories in my talk and I like to be able to see, is the audience with me, is the audience getting what I'm saying? I can tune my presentation in real-time based on audience reactions and I really miss that. I really missed that aspect of it, that feedback aspect of it, because at the end of people are like, “Oh, great talk.” I'm like, “Yeah, but did it get to you?” AUSTIN: Yeah, did you connect with it? CORALINE: Yeah, and that's so hard. AUSTIN: It's challenging, especially because so many of – on the production side, there's a bias, I think in virtual events to prerecord, due to a lot of factors and this is not a diss on prerecording. I personally hate it. I basically have stopped doing any event that's like, “Oh, we want you to prerecord.” I'm just like, “Eh, I'd rather not” because that’s the style, that's the way I talk. I agree with this idea of storytelling like, you're not just reading slides. If I just want someone to read slides, I could just hand them a book. But what's weird to me is one of the things that I think that we did, that I haven't seen anyone else really do, is there's already a way that people do this. If you watch Twitch, if you watch, or live streams like the kids do these days, there is a real-time chat and people are reacting in real-time. It's a little bit delayed. It's a couple seconds delayed, but I don't know why you haven't seen other virtual event platforms take that idea and really try to have even just a button like a clap button, or a sparkle fingers button, or something to kind of let people know that there's people out there watching you and that they're reacting positively and maybe not negatively, but they're reacting. That they are cognizant of what you're saying. It's really surprising to me that we haven't seen more like that and I would love if some of these event platforms thought about that. How do you make that actual, immediate real-time, or near real-time audience connection with the speaker? CORALINE: The Twitch thing is really interesting. Back in October, I started streaming in addition to everything else I do in my life—I'm a musician—and I started streaming, recording, and music production and I have a weekly show. You're right, the audience interaction is great and I incorporate that into my show. I'll stop what I'm doing after I finish laying down one track and I'll ask the people in chat, “What instrument should I pick up next?” Or, “What sound would you like to hear there?” Things like that. It does make that more interactive and it brings some of that human connection back and I think you're right. That's what's missing from a lot of these online conferences is that connection. CORALINE: Yeah, and I actually think you've hit on it right there with streaming. There's been a big question – I don't know how much you follow the CNCF, KubeCon EU talk acceptance drama that kind of popped off a week, or so ago. But the short version is obviously, KubeCon is a very prominent conference in the Cloud Native world and it gets a lot of submissions and because it gets a lot of submissions, a lot of talks get dropped, a lot of things get cut. That's every event; there's always more submissions than there are slots for people to speak, but it turned into a bit of a blow up on Twitter and they actually wrote a blog post that's very explicitly described again hey, this is how we pick these talks. There's a lot of factors that go into it. The thing that occurred to me and I've seen some people talk about, especially people that have been in the industry for a while is, what really is the benefit of a conference at all? When you have things like Twitch and you can build an audience for yourself and it's easier than it's ever been to get a platform. Some people in the world have used that for good ends and some people in the world have used that for ill ends, but regardless, I could go out and just say, “I'm not doing talks and I'm not doing conferences anymore. I'm just going to stream. I'm going to produce things and put them on YouTube.” The only reason you would be at a conference at that point is as like okay, this is a quality filter. These are some people saying, or suggesting that these talks, or these individuals have a higher value to the community because we got a bunch of people, smart people to look at it and say like, “Yeah, we think this one's better than that one.” But I really wonder if all of this with COVID, with the pandemic, with the change in events is going to inspire a different model going forward, where there's less of a centralization factor of you haven’t made it until you've done a KubeCon keynote, or you haven't made it until you've done the devopsdays circuit, or you haven't made it until you've written a book, or whatever. If you’ve got something to say, go say it and I think maybe that's a better way because that also is more accessible. You don't have to necessarily – there's less gatekeepers and a lot of times, gatekeepers and experts are useful because they help cut through all the chaff. But on the flip side, it can be harmful, too because everyone has biases and even the best process is never going to weed out bias and most of the time, you don't want it to weed out bias. You want it to be biased for good things, not bad things. I don't know. I feel like there's a conversation that needs to happen about this that hasn't quite gotten off the ground yet. I'm interested to see where it goes. JACOB: One thing that sounds interesting about this Animal Crossing conferences, you talked about it was a different modality altogether and I'm just curious if did this conference include, or at least was it like there was a side-effect of conference goers just playing the game with each other? AUSTIN: Yeah, actually that was one of my really interesting learnings from it was that when you have a community started, just the best thing to do is just let them go do stuff. We had a bunch of people form impromptu watch parties where they would open up their island and invite people are watching to come and be in the same game space as them as viewers and run around together while watching the stream. So they would tweet out pictures like you would do at an actual conference, where it's like, “Oh, hanging out with the besties,” and then tweet out a picture, a screenshot of their island with people sitting. Some people went really into this; they built little watch party rooms where everyone had chairs and a little movie projector set up. Some people had coffee machines and a little snack plates, or whatever in the game. It was really interesting to me how, when you kind of let people be creative about it and you let people try to build what they want inside this modality, this world, this bigger world, I guess, of being at a virtual conference, that they'll do stuff with it because it's fun and because it gets you engaged. Again, it's not just watching another Zoom. It's not just chatting on Slack. It's, you're doing something and the really good thing about that is if you are doing something, if you do make it a unique experience, people will actually take the time for it. One thing that I think gets lost in a lot of these virtual events right now is that it's not something you're blocking off time for. You're saying like, “Okay, I've got maybe two, or three talks I really want to watch. So I'm going to block off 45 minutes in my calendar here and there and I'm going to watch this different screen for a minute.” But with this, what we saw was people had blocked the entire day off. It was a 6-hour, maybe 5 hours total and people were there the entire time. We had 8,000, 9,000 people watching basically consistently from the beginning to the end and about 15,000 people total watched it over the course of the day. So nearly 50% of that were people that were there the whole time roughly. I think by giving people that space to make time for themselves and to say like, “I'm going to treat this like an actual thing and not just something I'm going to pop back into.” That meant they could do the networking. They could do the chatting. They could react in Twitch and they could do the little clap emojis and the sparkle emojis. They could have those hallway track conversations and network and bond and get that social jazz you get by talking to people that have this similar problems, or have overcome challenges and are like, “Oh, this is how I solved X and Y problem in Kubernetes,” or even, “Oh yeah, this is a strategy I learned for dealing with managers that don't understand me, or making sure that we – how do I communicate this technical concept to the business?” It wasn't just, “I want to talk about really cool IP tables configs.” It really was like, “Hey, we're all people trying to solve these problems,” and that was, I think, wonderful to see and something that I'm really hoping that we can nail again this year. JACOB: I think the wonderful thing about conferences is that, as someone who has a good deal of social anxiety, or shyness, is the in-person experience is an excuse to sort of – well, it was like it prevented me from having the excuse of like, “Oh, I could just watch it on – is this something I can just watch it on YouTube?” I was able to like, convince myself, like, “No, you actually have to go there and you have to sit next to someone you don't know and introduce yourself.” I feel like conferences that I could get the exact same experience just watching the video anyway, I lose that side effect, which is, I think the more valuable thing is that there's an experience that I would miss out on if I wasn't there. So it made me think about what Caroline is saying about that immediacy of being a speaker and I guess, what I’m wondering is maybe the secret is if you can't reproduce the immediacy of people being in the same room together, and I'm not certain that's true, or not whatever it is, maybe the trick is how do you use technology to your advantage rather than thinking about it as a barrier to get around? AUSTIN: Yeah. I'm not going to say I have all the answers, certainly. The thing that I really hope, because I wrote a big thing about it on my blog and I feel like there's a progression of events, virtual events that have happened where people are experimenting and trying new things. I would like to think they're trying to get to that point. How do you use the technology we have to enhance connections rather than viewing it as just like, “Oh, this is a thing we’ve got to do until we can get everyone back on a plane”? CORALINE: And really, that's the best thing about technology is when you find an unexpected use for it. When you find something outside the use case that it's designed for and you get that feeling of delight, I think that's when tech is at its best. AUSTIN: Yeah. I think that was one of the things. The two big things about Deserted Island is the idea that this is a deliberately delightful and cute and comfortable place. It is the softest game you can imagine. There are no harsh edges. There is no failure state. I don't think there's a 90-degree angle in that entire game, but it also gives you enormous constraints because it's a very crafted world and so, working around and through those constraints, but also having sort of the delight of overcoming them and figuring out like, “Oh, this is this really soft round space that I can do stuff in, but I have these walls. I have these barriers set up that I have to work around.” I mean, that's why I'm in technology; it’s because it's endless source of challenges and it's an endless source of like, “Oh, here's a hill I can overcome.” I was never super popular, or fast, or anything. I sucked at sports. I still suck at sports. The one time I went skiing, I tore my ACL in 15 minutes. I'm just not a coordinated guy, but in technology, there's always a new hill to summit. There's always something new to learn. There's always a new challenge that presents itself. That, to me, is that's why I stick with it. I could do other things, but here's something that's always going to challenge me and it's always going to give me something new to do. That, I think is worth celebrating in itself and if we can find a way to blend all these things together, blend all the different ideas about events and the delight and constraints and challenges of technology and dah, dah, dah, dah, and throw that together in a Twitch stream. Cool, rad, let's do that. I think that was a lot of the inspiration. It was just like, “Hey, this might blow up in my face. This might fail terribly, but it's better to try it and see what happens.” Every day when I'm sitting here thinking, “Oh my God, it's never going to be as big of a success. Everyone's going to hate me,” whatever, I come back to that like, “Well, better to try and just like fall on my face than it is to wonder what might've been if I hadn't tried.” CORALINE: That reminds me of safety and something that we talk about at least in workplaces is making more places safe to fail and I think at the event level, the fear of failure has got to be a lot more on a different level. So were you prepared to fail and how did you prepare to fail? AUSTIN: It’s a great question. To be super honest, I'm not sure I was prepared to fail by the time it actually – so there's two types of failure. There was the technical failure and that was something that I did have plans for. There's a lot of technical failure that can happen during a live event production; my computer could have crashed, my internet could have gone down, a presenter's internet could have died. In preparation for that, there was a playbook effectively of okay, if this goes wrong, then do this. If this goes wrong, do that. Now, in doing so, I actually discovered a lot of other things that I didn't think could go wrong that did go wrong. One example was, we had very strong moderation in the chat because it's the internet, it's a public thing. There's no registration. Anyone could come into the Twitch chat and say whatever. So I was pretty biased towards okay, now let's crank up the moderation filters and make sure that people aren't going to just come in and say some mean things. One thing I didn't think to ask any of the presenters is like, “Hey, do you have something that's interactive outside of this?” One of them did, they had an interactive presentation where people went to Slido, or something and could that had its own chat input, text input. Any large enough Twitch stream, you had some trolls that had come in and started typing some slurs and other non-code of conduct things. So it's like, “Oh, crud,” and switch that scene off really quick and try to make sure, coordinate in chat like, “Hey, are you aware of what's going on with the speaker?” In real-time while they were continuing to present. We managed to deal with that and then cut out the offensive language in the video on demand version. So it's not there and it didn't disrupt things. there was a blip of like, “Ah,” and then we dealt. I think beyond that, though, the actual psychological failure because my expectations were pretty low in terms of like, “Oh, what is a success?” Because we didn't spend a lot of money on it. I didn't have any sponsors. I think I had an email list with 1,500 people on it and I was like, “Well, 50 roughly, you have some sort of webinar, or whatever, you get 50% of the sign-ups and that's a good one.” A 100 people sign up and 50 people show up. Great, you're doing fantastic. So my expectations were like, “Oh, here's my bar, 1,500.” If we hit that, if we hit anything close to that, we're doing great and then we hit 8,000. So the problem coming back to this a year later is oh, now the expectations are so much higher and we've taken sponsorship. We have sponsors now; we have a sponsor money in order to fund things like scholarships. One of the problems last year was you had to have a Switch to participate. This year we've come, I've gone around and said, “Hey, if you want to sponsor this and pay for someone that doesn't have access to a Switch, or Animal Crossing, or whatever, you can sponsor us by buying that person the equipment thingy to join this because not everyone can afford that.” Obviously, it's some level of exclusionary, like not everyone has internet, but within the group of people, the class people are giving talks to this, I figured that's about what we can do. Especially since you don't need a good camera, you just need a microphone. But because they're sponsors now, because there were so many people last year. It's like, “How do I set myself up for the chance that this is a failure psychologically?” And that, I don't have a great answer to. Therapy, I guess, is the answer to that. I talked to my therapist about this stuff. But it is. I think the psychological effects are actually much harder to plan around and much like in a workplace, psychological safety is significantly harder than technical safety. So my advice is to be very open and honest and transparent with the people that you're organizing with and to talk about it. I think this is the problem with most things is we don't talk about failure enough and we don't talk about how does it feel to fail? How do you get back up after you failed? By keeping all that inside, that leads to a lot of negative stress outcomes and stuff and you just feel like crud. So normalize talking about failure. JOHN: Were there any specific structures, or just communications that you set up with your organizing team around that to get everyone on the same page about thinking through failure and how it feels and how you're going to react to it, anything like that? AUSTIN: So that's also a really great question. It's an area that I could do better at. The organizing team is very small and informal for this like, it's mostly just me and Katie, and I've wound up doing quite a bit of it just for a variety of reasons that are really important. But we've had a lot of conversations about, I think that level of nervousness and that level of stress that you can have. A lot of it is both of us talking ourselves down right and being nobody – and some of it also just being very straightforward with people, with external people. When I did this last year, literally the expectations were very, very low and when people applied to speak, it's like, “Well, you know what you're getting into.” I didn't pretend this was anything other than what it is. This year as well, when I'm going and I'm talking about it, or I'm putting together sponsorship perspectives, or whatever, I'm saying, “Look, here's what happened last year. I can't guarantee you the same level of thing, but I'm also not asking a ton from you.” So I think one lesson from this is preemptive de-escalation. It's better, or maybe a better way to say this is under promise/overdeliver. The perspectives is very clear. It's like, “Look, this is historically what we had. Here's what I'm asking from you and here's what you're getting for it.” I've seen what a lot of conferences charge for sponsorships, I'm asking you for much less and maybe compared to those, you're not getting as much. You're getting a 30-second ad a couple of times over the day, you're getting your logo, you're getting some shoutouts and that's it. You're not getting leads. You're not getting an attendee list because there is none. That's one nice thing, I think about doing stuff like this is you don't have to be super aggro about stuff because it's like well, this doesn't exist. There's no registration so I can't tell you who's attending. But by lowering the stakes a little bit, people are still willing to throw you a couple grand, or whatever on a community conference, because one, that's a rounding error in most places’ event budgets. Two, even if you only get a 1,000 people and you expected 8,000, the video's going to be there. It's a long-term asset. Those videos are going to be on YouTube forever and they're going to be something that people go back and watch so, under promise. And the third thing really is and this actually makes it worse, not better, but this is probably the longest I've talked about this to anyone, this podcast right here. Most of the promotion for this has come from people that attended last year and spoke last year that are going around and talking it up and being like, “Oh no, this was the best thing I did in 2020. You should definitely put this on your calendar.” That actually makes it worse because that's all of your internet friends are like, “Oh my God, this was so great,” and you're just sitting here like, “Wow, I hope I don't let all these people down,” but that's life. I'm not going to tell people, “Hey, don't talk good about this because I'm worried that it's going to fail.” Let those external expectations try to lift you up a little. If everyone knew what it was last year and if you can deliver that again at least, then you're probably going to be doing all right. JOHN: There's two threads I wanted to pull on with that. First of all, you talked about having multiple different people, different constituencies like there's you as the organizing team, there's you and the speakers, there's you and the attendees, there's you in the sponsors. There's all these different groups and there's different levels of safety with each of them that. A different type of relationship with each of those and they each have a different level of communication and setting expectations. And then I think the other thing that really jumped out was the setting of expectations. I think that's such a key to managing an emotional reaction to something because so often those negative reactions come from missed expectations and that proactive communication about where things can land and what's possible and what's likely is a great way of keeping everyone on the same page. AUSTIN: Absolutely. So I want to actually start on that second one about expectations because I think this is something that catches me a lot and probably catches a lot of other people that are – wherever you are in your career, really, but there's both a tyranny of low expectations and a tyranny of high expectations. We tend to focus on one, or the other, but the hardest thing in the world is actually figuring out what that band is in the middle between your expectations are too low and your expectations are too high. I think the tech industry is absolute hot garbage just stem to stern. There's a ton of practices we have in the industry that I think because we're so afraid because the way capitalism works, the way funding works, the way everything works, every incentive is tuned towards preventing you from ever setting expectations too low. So if you look at OKRs, the concept of OKRs, the idea is the objective and key result and you should always set those as something you'll never hit; you should never set your key result too low. I think the Google-y way to think about this as if you achieve 70% of OKR, then that's good. That's what you should expect. To me, that's terrible. I hate that with every fiber of my being because you're giving me an objective that I'm always going to fail. That's how I perceive it and I get why we do this because it's always bad to be too low and I think a lot of this is cultural. It's the success win whatever business culture that's infested technology, where we would much rather set a very high bar for ourselves and then not meet it rather than set a low bar and clear it because if you set a low bar and you clear it, then that means you weren't pushing yourself. Because of the way that all of the money works an d how monetized we make all of our labor, if you aren't doing enough, you might as well not have done anything at all. So the thinking is better to have that high bar and then miss it. But that's extremely, I think just dismantles people that aren't super neurotypical. It certainly dismantles me and I'm whoever, I'm Austin, I'm one person in the distance. But I think it's prevalent throughout everything in tech and I would love to see that interrogated more. You're starting to see a lot of the golden geese of the tech industry being interrogated because of the pandemic. Things like the value of people working in person with each other, or the value of having companies in San Francisco, or the value of hiding your pay, of pay inequity. I think this idea of what should our expectations of ourselves be, of our teams, of the performance of our software even, I made a joke the other day that’s like, I want to see smaller applications written by fewer people that are paid more, that don't work as well and I'm not kidding. Because I think that the idea of oh no, we want the Googles, we want the big companies of the world to encompass everything. We want this one-stop shop. It's not great. It's harmful, it's actively harmful, and I know that there's a lot of voices and people are like, “Well, you can't just dismantle, you can't just cut Google into two pieces, or five pieces, or Amazon into five pieces and have it all worked out.” I agree, you need to be intentional about this. But I remember when I was growing up in the 80s and I remember what technology was like a little more than and the idea that someone could go into business for themselves maintaining a library and just selling a license for people to use that library. Maybe they figured out a really fast way to do a bubble sword and it's like, “Okay, I'm going to sell you a library, a Pascal library that you can link to and it does this work really fast and if you have a problem with it, then you get support from me and you email me, or whatever and I fix this bug for you.” We've taken all those things that people used to be able to do and build and craft and just said, “Hey, we're going to socialize all that expensive maintenance and put it on the open source community and have them do that for free and then we're going to build businesses around extracting value from all that labor.” CORALINE: That's one of the seven criteria of the ethical source principles is that we have a right to be paid. We have a right to have the value of our work respected and if you're making billions off of an open source library, you would better be giving back. AUSTIN: Yeah, and I think but it feeds back from – this all goes back to the capitalism.exe; It's all from the same source and a lot of ways. But I think that idea of expectations setting and never setting the bar low; that is a product of this and it's all intersectional. It's all interrelated. There is no one evil other than really big sociological complex sociotechnical human systems, or whatever and we can make it better, but we can't fix it without equally big changes. JOHN: Yeah. I think that the capitalism more is always better rule is what's poisoning this because you could make a small app and it can be successful and it could be two people on the team and those people could be very happy. But everything in society is saying, “Well, make it bigger, add a bigger team, do more things, blah, blah, blah.” I remember reading a story about, at one point a couple of years ago, the Uber like iPhone app was growing by 1 megabyte of compiled code per week because they were adding all this stuff to it and that just boggled my mind. It's like, it's Uber. They do really just one thing and they were having to do all these things and they kept bumping up against iOS store limits of the size of the binary. Just that mentality of let's do all the things because we can and let's stress ourselves out and work ourselves raw just because more is better. AUSTIN: Yeah, and I think it's a team problem. It's an organizational problem. Because how does that happen without you having so many people working in the same small space that are duplicating effort, that are duplicating features even, or other things behind the scenes? You just keep hiring and hiring, you keep growing and growing because that's all you can do, because that's the only way you can exist in society as a corporation, or as people building a product, or whatever is to constantly consume and grow and grow. This goes into Non-Fungible Tokens, NFTs, that have taken, at least my corner of the internet, by storm and the idea that oh, this is a way that you can introduce scarcity into digital art and it's like, “Oh my God, it's such a bad idea.” Every blockchain thing is so, so awful. But the amount of energy it takes to actually encode these things under the blockchain, even on Ethereum blockchain, because of how proof of work algorithms function, the only purpose of these things is to consume more energy for a completely pointless purpose. If you're consuming energy for the sake of consuming energy, to prove that you're doing some work in order to “prove that you own something.” You can't own a tweet; Twitter technically owns that tweet. There are people who are selling cryptographic signatures like, “Oh, it's like a signed tweet. You own the signed tweet.” It's like you own a link and that I'm not even sure that you can own that from any sort of legal, or moral, or ethical standard. That's not how ownership works, especially intellectual property ownership. Oh my God, this industry. Every day, it makes me want to move to the woods and raise alpaca. CORALINE: Well, maybe there'll be an alpaca feature added to Animal Crossing soon. [laughter] AUSTIN: Maybe, yeah. Just live out my alpaca farming dreams in Animal Crossing. It’s a shame that we need money to live. JOHN: So we've come to the time on the show and we go into our reflections, which is a where each of us talks about the things that we're going to take away from this conversation. Maybe the things we're going to keep thinking about, or any new ideas that we were exposed to and just what's going to stick with us. So for me, I think I heard about Deserted Island DevOps last year when it happened, I think some of my friends presented there, but hearing you talk about it more in-depth in behind the scenes, should we a bit more about the creativity, both on your side and in the audience as they put together new ways to experience the conference. I am really excited by that because it's not a place where I've seen a ton of creativity being expressed and finding new ways to have a conference-like experience like different mediations, different ways of participating, I think are really valuable because right now, we're copying online what we used to do in-person, but kind of and it's not always working out great. So if you just sort of throw away all the stuff and start over from, this is our platform and these are our constraints, I think that that leads to creativity and so, it's nice to see that. CORALINE: And I'm thinking about what you said about moderation and the importance of moderation. I was involved in the famous tech feminist wars of the 2010s and I was one of the voices calling for codes of conduct at in-person conferences. I think that becomes even more important with virtual conferences and the need for moderation. I don't think we do a good job, as an industry, of thinking about what moderation means, thinking about how to manage random people on the internet coming to a virtual space and I'm hoping that virtual events continue to invest some more technology. I think Twitch does a great job of giving us tools and I'm hoping that that idea of really investing in moderation takes off because I think that will have ripple effects in a lot of different domains. AUSTIN: I'm going to reflect, I think when you were talking about with failure and psychological safety and how to communicate failure, or those feelings of failure and setting expectations about it to not only peers, but also to people I'm organizing events with, or two people I'm working with. Because I think that one thing that this conversation really led me to realize is that I don't actually communicate it as well as I thought I had, or there's things I don't think about. Sometimes, you need someone to mention it to really piggy back up. I'm wondering if there's ways that we can develop toolkits, or playbooks, or even just point by point, like, “Hey, here's a guide to have these conversations,” because they're hard conversations and they're conversations that maybe you think you're ready to have, or that you think you've communicated. But it's like, “Well, did you think about this?” So that's something I'm definitely going to take away from this. I will put it out in the moderation thing. I used your code of conduct for the Deserted Island one. So yes, I appreciate the work that went into that because it was invaluable to me to make a good one for this. CORALINE: I'm glad to hear that. Thank you, Austin. JACOB: I haven’t been to any conference since the pandemic started and I think part of it is that being stuck at home like pretty much everyone else, hopefully, is that I think I was always telling myself, “Do I really need to take time off when I would probably be bored and restless and would wish I could just watch the video later anyway?” I think I was kind of missing the point because I think maybe what I really need to do is find a conference like this one that has been thoughtful about how participants can interact when not in-person and make the leap and force myself to take the day off, or days off. That’s the only thing I’m doing and force myself to be engaged with it because I’ve got nothing else to do just like any in-person conference. I’m going to give it a shot. CORALINE: Well, Austin, it’s been great talking to you today. Thank you for your openness, your honesty, your vulnerability, and you great ideas. I think we all have a lot to take away from this conversation so, it was really great talking to you today. Thank you so much. AUSTIN: Thanks! It was wonderful to be here. Special Guest: Austin Parker.

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Posted on 21 April 2021 | 9:00 am

230: Using Tech + Policy For Good with Corey Ponder

01:55 - Corey’s Superpower: Empathy * Finding Voice: You Are Not a Statistic * What does it mean to support Black lives? * Authentic Self * Having Conversations Around Allyship * Owning Vulnerability 09:06 - Having People Hear Your Stories * “How are you doing?” * “Me Too” Movement ( – learned something about self and blind spots in the process and the feedback was helpful 13:01 - Allyship Best Practices * Growth Mindset * Trusted Sidekicks; Augmenting Journies * Invisible Knapsack: How to recognize your white privilege — and use it to fight inequality ( (Peggy McIntosh) 19:04 - Developing Empathy * Watch Hamilton! When it comes to leadership, Aaron Burr was right — “Talk less, smile more” ( (Being Able to Hear vs Being Able to Listen) * Deep Canvassing – How to talk someone out of bigotry: These scientists keep proving that reducing prejudice is possible. It’s just not easy. ( * Google Assistant Research; Inclusive Design * Empathy Mapping (From UX Design) – Building For Everyone: Expand Your Market With Design Practices From Google's Product Inclusion Team ( * Empathy Can Combat Mis/Disinformation * Fearing What We Don’t Understand: Nas - Hate Me Now ft. Puff Daddy ( (song) | Lyrics ( * Active Processing (psychology) ( 36:03 - Using Tech + Policy For Good * Educating & Empowering People Online * Company and Community Values * Pipeline Investment and Early Exposure * Diversifying the Tech Policy Space / Manifestos? * Algorithmic Justice League ( * Virility * Clubhouse Is Worth $1 Billion Off the Backs of Black Folks. Now What? ( Reflections: Arty: Centering around empowerment + asking, “How ARE you?” with the intention of listening. Chanté: We can’t outsource empathy. Corey: How the model of technology has shifted away from interest-based to follower-based and influencing. This episode was brought to you by @therubyrep ( of DevReps, LLC ( To pledge your support and to join our awesome Slack community, visit ( To make a one-time donation so that we can continue to bring you more content and transcripts like this, please do so at ( You will also get an invitation to our Slack community this way as well. Transcript: ARTY: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Episode 230 of Greater Than Code. I am Artemis Starr and I'm here with my fabulous co-host, Chanté Thurmond. CHANTÉ: Hey, everyone and I had the great pleasure of introducing our guest of honor today, Corey Ponder. Welcome, Corey. COREY: Thank you. Thank you. Glad to be here. CHANTÉ: We're so glad to have you. If you don't mind, I'd love to read your bio so everyone knows who you are. COREY: Sounds great. CHANTÉ: Corey has over 10 years of work experience, he has had several roles across two industries and has also served in community organizations and nonprofits. At the core of each of these experiences is a passionate commitment to building community and developing people and programs. Corey most recently worked at Google serving as a senior policy advisor focused on privacy, advising product teams on best practices and approaches to inspire user trust. He also owns and manages his own business, em|PACT Strategies, a consulting firm that helps organizations build inclusive communities by prioritizing empathy as a skillset. Corey serves on boards of InnovatorsBox, a firm focused on creativity, and Youth Speaks, a nonprofit focused on youth arts and education. Great background. Corey, did we forget anything else? COREY: Well, I have to just because I am a lifetime SEC, Southeastern Conference, person, that I have to shout out Vanderbilt University, where I went for undergrad and then also, because I'm in California, I have to shout out University of California, Berkeley, where I went for my Master's in public policy. So those two things I would add. CHANTÉ: Those are great institutions for education. So good. Let's start off with the first question that we give everyone and that is: what is your superpower and how did you acquire it? COREY: Yes. I love this question. It gives me a chance to really nerd out. So I would say the first thing that comes up for me is empathy. When I think about empathy, I think about how superheroes, oftentimes exhibit qualities around being empathetic that we might look at as healing abilities, or the ability to regenerate themselves, or regenerate others, the stamina, or the fortitude, last, or survive in a space where there's a lot of things attacking them mentally and emotionally and able to persevere in spite of all of that. So I would say empathy is definitely the superpower that I have. I think when I step into spaces, I'm always thinking about what can I do to make other people feel more welcome, or feel more authentically themselves, which I feel like is the healing part. I feel like the regeneration piece is often me putting myself into positions where I don't like conflict, or seek it out, but I definitely feel like I put myself into spaces where I'm like, I want to support you and it might come at some risk to me, but I think I can bounce back from this. And then the stamina piece. I mean, none of this work, showing up for others even is not just a one-time thing and so, the consistency piece, I think, is something that I've really over time become more comfortable with just knowing that things might be protracted. People might need you for long periods of time and I'm here for it. CHANTÉ: So you said a few things here that really, I think, demonstrate the skillset for somebody who is in the diversity, equity, and inclusion space and I will bet that you probably didn't see that 10 years ago, or whenever you started down this journey. So if you wouldn't mind, I'd love to know how you got to this space now and I'll also add in, before you answer that question, that a lot of folks, BIPOC folks like us, we know what it's like to be othered. We know what it's like to be excluded. So I know for myself, I'm in the DEI space, but I'm just really curious. I did peek at your background, but just for folks who haven't or who don't have those quick fingers right now, they just want to hear your background, walk us through how you got here. COREY: Yeah, absolutely. So there are two inflection points. The first is I am a Black man so there are moments that I think about as a part of my growth as a Black boy and feeling like I had to grow up very fast to be taken seriously in whatever space that I was interested in to see the world from a perspective of hey, you really have to make sure that you're showing up and representing the person that you want to be because people will quickly ascribe something to you. This was a conversation that was permeating all around me so that when I got to college, there was an inflection point. The first one where I remember I was like, “I want to be a biologist and I might also go to medical school.” When I took lab for the first time, it was a moment where I realized like, oh man, despite all of the things that I have done, all of the things that are within my control, I studied hard. I was getting great grades. I was just woefully unprepared for that space of even just being in a lab and doing a titration. I was like, “What the heck is a titration? What is an Erlenmeyer flask?” I realized that in a lot of ways it was because I didn't have access to the resources, or the conversations, or nobody had even told me that I could do those things. I wasn't seen as somebody that could do those things and so it's like, I didn't know what I didn't know and I think that I really started doubting in many ways from that moment who I could be, what I felt like I needed to thrive in the spaces, what I felt like I was capable of in these spaces. It took me throughout college—great relationships and friendships, but also investment and resources around me to really find that voice that said, “Hey, actually, here's your story,” You're not this other narrative, this person that can't do it and you're not a statistic in a sense of a Black man that is x as opposed to a successful Black man. That was the first inflection point for me. Then I think the second was just having been at this point, maybe like 6, or 7 years working. I was at a moment at Facebook actually, where there was an increased conversation around what does it mean to support Black lives? Why are people talking about Black Lives Matter? In particular, during 2015, 2016, I forget specifically when, but Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were two Black men who were killed by police officers in different instances, in different cities, in different places, but within the same week. It was one of the first times that from a technology perspective, we were discussing this in an international way because it had been captured on Facebook Live. So there was this conversation around who are we as a part of this broader conversation? It was the second inflection point because it reminded me that was man, I am a Black man so even as I've done all of these things, I've been in careers, I've had these jobs and these opportunities where I've done things that I can be proud of, I'm still walking into this space the next day, after hearing about these instances and really feeling like I'm carrying something that I don't know how to speak to. I don't know how – I've never really talked to anybody about how it impacts the way that I am showing up in this space. So from there, I just made the commitment where I said, “I'm going to start trying to be more authentically myself. I'm going to start talking about all the parts of me that make me who I am.” I didn't have a plan for it; I just knew that I wanted to have those conversations. The interesting thing was I started having those conversations and people naturally, after I would talk to people, would say, “Well, what's next? What can I do to support you?” It really just made me think about the broader conversation around allyship. There's a broader conversation around what does it actually mean to show up for somebody and then I realized retroactively that there have been many examples, not only in my life, that people who have shown up for me that now I can pinpoint and look at as case studies, as data points, but also that I have naturally gravitated to doing that because of what I said earlier about the superpower of empathy. It has been something that I had always valued, even if I didn't know what it was, or what I was doing, or what it meant, but it was really important for me to see other people's stories because I knew how important it was for people to see mine. So those two inflection points really shaped how I viewed diversity, equity, and inclusion in my role, in the broader conversation. One, my own vulnerability with myself, but also two, how valuable it is to have people hear your story and validate who you are and your experience and how it's a part of a whole and how they see you. CHANTÉ: Yeah. ARTY: With stories like you mentioned being able to have this experience where you really understood what it meant to show up for someone. COREY: Yeah, absolutely. I'll give two stories. One was actually when someone showed up for me and I remember it was my boss actually shortly after the conversations, or at least what I mentioned earlier about Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. I just was having a really rough, it was a rough day. I mean, I was trying to show up business as usual was very much like, well, I have a job, I have meetings I have to go, and my boss asked me, “How are you doing?” That's a question you hear maybe a hundred times a day and it's also a question that feels like a rhetorical. I mean, you're supposed to say, “Good,” and keep it moving. I said that, but she really stopped me, told me like, “Hey, I'm asking because I really want to know and I have time. How are you doing?” I think just in that simple moment of making the space, creating an avenue for me to actually express a real truth, it just made me feel like wow, you didn't have to listen to my story. You didn't have to consider that I was something more than this a meeting I had to go to, or that I was more than this deliverable, or this project that I was working on. And you did. That meeting was, I, even years later, still to think about it because it was just like, wow, that meeting didn't have to happen that way. But I felt like this wasn't just my burden to bear after that question, or that conversation. The question that she asked and the conversation that followed. I think for me, showing up for others actually has been in this work—working through impact strategies and thinking through how do you actually show up as an ally. I've had a number of experiences. But in particular, there was one right around the decree, I would say the resurfacing of the Me Too movement and that conversation around sexual harassment in the workplace. There was an event, or a town hall, or an opportunity where I had a chance to really show up. I initially—and this is also a part of the failures piece—showed up to that very equally with the best of intentions and said, “Hey, what can I do to move this conversation forward?” Along the way, I remember realizing that oh man, in all of my eagerness to show up to this, I actually have silenced, or not included the voices that were probably most important to actually have this conversation. Women in particular, but also just thinking about in general, people who are survivors, or have been a victim of assault. So it was one of those moments where I took on feedback from people, some of my coworkers, colleagues, friends, I figured out a way to revamp the event, postponed the event so that I could do it the right way. And then I remember in the aftermath of that, seeing I learned something through that process about myself and also, the feedback that I received about the event afterwards was like, all right, this was a conversation where it really prompted people to think about a story that they haven’t thought about before—people who showed up to the event. Because I was helping organize it, showed up, and got something else out of it because I wasn't the only voice in the room. It was another moment where it was like, wow, this isn't necessarily my story, but I leaned in a little bit, or leaned in a lot in the beginning, learned a lot in the process about myself and even where my blind spots were within that entire process of learning in some ways helped tell a story that other people realized like, oh, wow, thanks for helping me see this narrative. CHANTÉ: That is so helpful. I feel like the times where I've had to show up as an ally and lean in to something that I didn't necessarily understand, really helped me to better articulate the needs I had as a Black identified woman, or as a Latino woman to say, “Hey, friend or colleague, you want to show up and help me. This is how you can help me,” Because I've learned from my own ouch moments like, oops, I shouldn't have done that and thankfully, somebody was gracious enough to share feedback in that moment, but many times, they're not. Do you have any best practices in terms of folks who want to show up, especially right now in this year, as an ally, they're very well-intentioned, well-meaning people, but they don't necessarily have somebody like an insider to give them the lay of the land, or to tell them where the real pain points are? COREY: Yeah, absolutely. Two things. The first thing is that to your point about the feedback, I think feedback is so critical and also, we have to recognize that for many communities, like you said, we're in the intersect. We are at the intersection of a lot of identities. I recognize that even though I am underrepresented as a Black person in many spaces, I also am in a privileged position because I'm a man. So I'm having to constantly examine those different nuances and intersections of my identity. Yet that also helps me understand that there's a lot of emotional labor in just showing up to be Black every day so, then sometimes, I might not have the energy, or might not have the capacity to give that feedback to somebody who was looking to be on their journey as an ally. The first thing that I would say is showing up for others is really, there's got to be a hunger, or a desire to actually grow and change. This idea of a growth mindset and it has to be separate from passively taking on the information, or the stories of others. I think once you have that, really having said, “I want to do this and I am motivated to do it.” Then I think the second thing is to go back to the superpower question from earlier, is I like to think about showing up for others as a trusted sidekick. So this model of thinking about you're not showing up to save the day, because that's also a lot of labor. Expecting to be the person to in the movie on a high note and be the person that walks down the aisle to get an award, or reward is not really the goal. But what it really is about is really understanding the stories of the people that you're playing in the same universe with and then figuring out what ways you can augment their journey. I think about three things that are a part of that, which is really those everyday moments. When I've had conversations through my work, oftentimes people are like, “Black lives matter. We need to March,” or “Gender equity. We need to dismantle capitalism.” It’s like, that is probably true and there are scholars out there that are speaking more deeply than I can ever speak to on that, but what about those moments that are outside of that? So you might say that Black lives matter,” and you might have the t-shirt, or you might step up in a forum and say, “Hey, I'm declaring that I believe in this cause,” but are you then actually including your coworker who was Black in the team lunches that happen every day that y'all just get together organically, but somehow that person is never on the organic chain? Or if you're thinking about gender equity and pay discrimination, that is a big thing, but also, are you actually making space and not taking up the room when you're in a meeting everyday being the person that has to get the last word, or are you making sure that everybody's opinions are on the table, including your women colleagues, or female colleagues are heard in the room? I think these are the everyday moments where we can show up as an ally. I think the second piece is thinking about these things that we have to confront about ourselves. It might be ugly or scary, but are necessary. We all have biases. We all are a product of certain privileges because we have identities that confer some amount of power to us and some type of favoritism to us. So if we're thinking about that, we have to really examine that how those show up and affect us. Peggy McIntosh wrote Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, where she did a lot of research in this space, where the idea is that we carry this around and even if we don't acknowledge it, it's still there. This idea of it might be invisible to us, but you can imagine walking into a room with a big knapsack on not realizing that every time you turn left or right, you're hitting somebody with your privilege. So I think it's important to acknowledge that we have that backpack on whether we realize it, or not and it's affecting people whether we accept it, or not. And then the third thing is taking that next step of we have the positionality. So if you're talking about supporting from your identity, or from your perspective, you have some ability to influence change. Again, even if it's at a micro level. Because I'm a man, I have some privilege in the communities and spaces that I hold. Because of I’m a man, people are going to see me a certain way so then what I talk about what I represent, what I say, what I'm willing to advocate for is going to hold a different weight, whether that's right or wrong, it's going to hold a different weight than if a woman were to ask, or advocate for the same thing. So then what can I do to use that privilege in support of what that community might actually be asking for, or want? That might take a little discomfort on my part, but I guarantee it is way less uncomfortable than underrepresented groups having to advocate for their right to be seen, or heard, or validated in spaces. So those would be three things, I think you could do in that journey. CHANTÉ: Those are awesome things. The one that really resonates for me, too is just the empathy part because I feel like that is a core skill that we're going to need for the future of work. Oftentimes, when I say that people ask me, “Well, how do I develop empathy?” I have my own answer there, but I'd love to hear yours. How do you think people can get better at working on that empathy muscle and if you have anything that's worked for you personally, or that you recommend more professionally that you've seen in the workplace? That'd be helpful. COREY: Yeah, absolutely. Two things. The first thing that came up for me is Hamilton. I feel like everybody has seen it now. If you haven't seen it, spoiler alert, there's a theme that goes throughout Hamilton where Ehrenberg says, “Talk less, listen more.” There's this idea that I feel like with empathy, we often think of it as just like, ”I have to be in touch with my feelings,” but actually what I think it is, is actually a skill, a tangible skill of can I actually listen to someone and I think there's a difference between being able to hear and being able to listen. So I think the first thing that I have done is like, how can I actually actively listen more effectively to the people around me? There's actually this research, I think 2014, 2015, it was focused on can we use empathy? Like, actually measure the effect of empathy on reducing, in this case, anti-trans gender opinions? I think the research was called “Durably reducing transphobia,” but essentially, what they did was it was an exercise around active listening. They used the political tool called deep canvassing to essentially equip these researchers to go into a home where people expressed, or had been exposed to anti-transgender views and they literally just listened to them. They processed actively with this person about why they believe what they believe and then through that process, they didn't actually rebut with facts, or say, “But actually, that's not true,” or “Did you know that that's actually not true?” What actually happened was people realized through their own act of processing that you know what, this is not actually about transgender. It's actually about safety. I can relate now. I can empathize because now that I've come full circle and have been able to tell my story about why I'm processed out loud, I realized that I do have something in common with the transgender community. They want to feel safe. This law makes them feel unsafe. I want to feel safe in bathrooms, but those two things don't have to compete with each other. We're all people that want to be safe. That that research for me really sticks out whenever I think of active listening. I think the second thing is I've talked a couple of times about storytelling; there's a part of this for me, that really is seeing people as these amazing figures in a story you just haven't read yet. I think when I practice empathy, it often is just me really taking an interest more deeply in the why somebody does what they do as opposed to what they are doing. This hearkens back to Simon Sinek, who was a leadership consultant, or coach, but he had that phrase in a TED Talk where he said, “People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” I think for me, that boils down to the core, how I think about if you want to cultivate empathy as a muscle, or a skill, it's really asking that question, “Why did they do that?” An actual tool that I often use in my work is something called empathy mapping, which is often used in UX design actually, in tech, to really think about human centered approaches to product design. But it lays out all of these ways about how do you think they would feel? How do you think they would see this? How do you think they would hear, or receive this message? And then it really gets you to ask this question about why would they react this way to what you're about to present, or why would they react to these set of circumstances in a certain way? CHANTÉ: One of the things that you're talking about here is the empathy mapping. I actually do this course, or this workshop with some collaborators around designing for inclusion and that is something that we really focus on. Have you seen that in practice well somewhere that you could illustrate, or show? I guess, we could provide an example, or a case study so folks know what you're talking about. COREY: Yeah. One of the things that this makes me think of is Google Assistant space, which is also a space that I spent some time in. But within the Google's Trust and Safety team, there was a focus on thinking about digital assistants and whether they had an inclusive voice when it came to gender, because there is a lot of research now that exists about voices and people perceive assistants to be female, but because of the voices. Companies are really doing a lot of that work now to think through what the implications are around that. But at the time, I remember in this work very early on, what I thought was interesting about this was just the steps that the Trust and Safety team went through to actually figure out if there was an issue here because you design a product, the product is meant to respond to queries. But soon, what they started finding was that maybe some of the queries that the digital assistant was getting were actually maybe more vulgar, or maybe more derogatory. So how does that break down? Does that break down like, is it just objectively that's how people talk to digital assistants? Well, no, and actually doing work and trying to reduce those offensive, or shocking, or risky experiences, what they found was that maybe this is actually offensive, or derogatory on the Google Assistant voices that present, or sound feminine. So now that we have done this research, how can we actually address that in the broader product? I think the Google Assistant then did things to try to make the voices more gender neutral, to provide more options so that there were a range of voices and then also, not necessarily default to the feminine voice, or not even call them feminine. I think they started calling them like Voice 1, Voice 2. So I think that that's one example of that I know, that I am aware of where when you're thinking about inclusion as it could be an objective truth that you're here to provide an answer to a problem. But often, that problem that you're solving might actually have many other subproblems within it. But the idea of inclusive design is important. It's an important lens for everybody to have honestly, on the product, because there are a range of things that might be happening that we're just not aware of. But certainly, the power of doing extensive UX research, or a deep dive on some of those things, I think is what helps augment and move us away from those types of snafus happening in our technologies. CHANTÉ: That was a beautiful example. Thank you. That sounds like a really cool project that you got to be a part of. Was there anything else that you learned from being on that project team that you can share? COREY: Yeah. Well, I should say, first off, this happened before I came into the team, but I think it was one of the things that I found very powerful about the team itself, doing the work and also, where they were centering people. I think that was one of the reasons why I've also been very interested in policy within tech, because it very much it's about centering and advocating for best practices for people and defining what users actually are. But I think for me, the lesson that I took from that just was again, that we all really have to be our advocates for this type of work and this type of change in the products and also, that a lot of this is sometimes not as complicated as we make it out to be. I think that it's really about priorities and what we value. What I appreciated about this team was just this idea of wow, you actually value not just the objective user, but the user in a sense of what context would they use this and how would this impact this community that we're trying to build this ecosystem? ARTY: So there's something you said earlier that really struck me when you were talking about this example with empathizing for these people that had been exposed to anti-transgender ideas and sitting down and listening. One thing that strikes me about that is just that as opposed to these people being a certain way, you framed things as these people were exposed to a certain kind of content that then they had this fear that came up in resonant to something that they were exposed to. I see those sorts of dynamics in other contexts. Would you mind elaborating a little more on that thought? COREY: Yeah. I definitely think that we are in – not that 2020, or certainly, the last 4 years since 2016 with President Trump, I don't think that that is unique. I think that it feels exacerbated because on top of that technology has been a lens through which we've seen almost an exponential growth in access to information. It may have outpaced the way in which we also keep up with the ways in which you are skeptically dissecting this information and analyzing it for truth and veracity. So I think that there's been a confluence of forces that have made it so that things like misinformation and disinformation are permeating and now, it is easily accessible. One of the things that I think about a lot in this space, as it relates to diversity, equity, and inclusion and why I think empathy is so important is that I feel like it can become very easy to go down this path because we're always looking for ways to validate our own experiences. So if there's one thing that we – an easy way to do it that is harmful, or damaging to others, is to validate by saying that, “Well, it can't be that over there.” I'm invalidating that to bolster the way that I see the world, or my experiences. What I really focus on from my work and why I think the empathy piece has been so powerful is that it's a reminder as we move through that cycle of how can you be more empathetic, that at the core of our human experience is this idea that we all do not like the feeling of being othered, or unseen. Even if for someone who feels like they are, whether you agree or disagree with this idea, I'm disaffected. I think this election cycle is a great example. A lot of people felt disaffected on both sides like, you're white middle-class, or you're Black and in poverty, or you're white and in poverty. You have all these sects of people that are like, “Ah, nobody's listening to me,” and that's reinforced because you're like, “Nobody has the experience that I have and nobody knows what it's like to feel othered like this.” But actually, the reality is, regardless of whether you understand what it means to be grow up white and poor, or Black and affluent, or Black and poor, or white and affluent, you all have this common experience where you have been othered at some point. Empathy says at the core of that human experience is something we all should be able to understand. So we're not necessarily focusing on what you went through so much as why did you have to go through it? I think that this disinformation, this misinformation feeds the – If we had more empathy, I think that would be the thing that would combat this because it would allow us to ask the right questions around maybe this is true, maybe this is not true. If I don't have the tools to actually assess whether it's true or real, what I can say is that I need to really think about the community that is centered in this story and understand how this would make them feel if this were true, how does it make them feel if this were not true. I think that that's where empathy and developing that as a skill could do a lot more work in this space where we're probably only going to see more honestly, content, or information where we have to vet where it comes from, whether it's real, who’s saying it and why they're saying it. ARTY: Yeah. I was thinking about how powerful it is just that even in listening to this context, as opposed to trying to correct it, what you did find was this commonality of, “Oh, we both have a desire to feel safe, it is part of the human experience,” and then with this disinformation, you've got this dynamic that really plays on fear. A lot of this information that's associated with fear reminds me of this TED Talk by Daryl Davis that I think Chanté, you're the one who actually had me listen to that. But specifically, that ignorance breeds fear breeds hate and then if we can go about empathizing and listening and building those connections and tackling the ignorance, that it can have a chain reaction effect on all of these other things. COREY: Yeah. This has made me randomly think of a song lyric by Nas, street prophet that he is, but his song with Puff Daddy, or P. Diddy, or whoever he was calling himself at the time called Hate Me Now. He said that line: people “fear what they don't understand, hate what they can't conquer. I guess, that's just a theory of man.” I was like, ah, this is making me think about that because I think so often, we are pushed into those lanes where the idea is to think that you have to conquer something. So it's like your safety, your capacity to do what you want to do in this world is won by subjugating, or by conquering something else, someone else and that's the only way that it can happen. And then also that fear piece; if I don't understand it, then it's not safe. So if I can't wrap my head around it, then I need to assume the worst and fear it. I think why empathy has been so powerful for me is one, because we don't often talk about it as something that we can actually cultivate. We often talk about it in a you either have it, or you don't, or it's a natural gift, or it isn't. I think it actually is something that can be cultivated and brought to bear, like in that research, where it’s like this was a community. I think the first time I did it, it was in South Florida, or maybe somewhere outside of Miami. I'm not actually sure of the specific locale, but this community had been subjected to all sorts of messaging around the transgender community, because it was meant to drive a particular position, or opinion on a bill around bathrooms and whether bathrooms could be used by people of the multiple genders, or you had to have separate men and women bathrooms. They were able to do through this research, they were able to find that not only were they able to shift people's perception around those issues—actually shift them positively in the direction of saying like, “Oh, actually I do support transgender rights in this conversation.” But that it was a statistically significant shift and it lasted for three months after that conversation when they did a check-in. So I think that it just really speaks to we don't have to fear what we don't understand. If you really just take the time to let people really work out their own narrative for themselves, they will often figure out that their own narratives are incongruent with how they actually are showing up in the space and it's not about telling them, “Your narrative is off,” like, “You're wrong.” I think that there's value in that, but if you're going to make the real change over time, in psychology, they call it act of processing. There's value in actually getting people to their own whatever it is, whatever reason they have for fearing what they don't understand to process that out loud in a way where they can actually be like, “I was heard and are realized that hearing myself is incongruent with how I actually like what I actually value.” So maybe coming to my own conclusions, I don't have to fear this, even though I don't understand all the parts of that experience CHANTÉ: That was really helpful, Corey and one of the thought bubbles—well, one of the many that popped up as you were responding to Arty's question was how do we then, because it sounds like there's a lot of value in anticipating, or using tech and policy for good in those moments. I'm just wondering, I know that you consult around this. So maybe take us down that avenue, because I think we're at this place where we've seen coming off of this last election, the power of the misinformation strategies and how we've partnered that with let's say, the Cambridge Analytica situation where they used data to underpin those fears and then really influenced a community, or a country to the space that they wanted them to be. How do we get ahead of that? What are some things we can do? Or what are some things maybe you're working on that are worth mentioning here today? COREY: Yeah. So those are very, very good questions, or good thoughts. I think that one thing that just thinking about even as you were saying with Cambridge Analytica, my first thought was just that we have existed in the technological space, in this information age where empowering people online, I feel like it has been separate from the using the data, or giving the data up in a way that, or using the data or giving the data up. By that I mean, essentially, we're using these products and tools, wouldn't have never really thought about it as a platform for change, or a platform to see the world we want to sees except for these little blips, or these moments where there are revolutions around like Arab Spring. That was driven, I believe on Facebook and then conversations again, around Black Lives Matter because of live video that we now have, we're able to capture the experiences in real time. So I think that the first thing that I would say is how can we actually educate people around being empowered online? You have a voice, but it's not just the voice to repeat what you have heard, but really to lend your own voice, your own vulnerability, your own story to what's happening in these forms. I think the second thing really is it comes down to the companies. I think that a lot of my conversations, when it comes to disinformation and misinformation, really comes back to values. Many companies, particularly ones that are community-focused and saying that our users are a part of an ecosystem, have to really ask themselves about what ecosystem are you actually trying to build? Because at a certain point, particularly if you are a private company, there are good ecosystems and there are destructive ecosystems. So it can't be a libertarian view of the technology is just a tool and it will all sort itself out. It actually has to be maybe more curated than that and that might not have been the initial approach of technology. Certainly, wasn't the approach to the world wide web either when it first started out. It was just like, anybody could create a geo site, anybody could do anything on the internet, but in some ways, I think that view of technology maybe has to change. It helps lends itself very well to innovation, but the challenge is that it creates a lot of loopholes for abuse. So then I think companies, as they start curating their experiences more, it has to be centered on very clear community values. What is your ideal world and your ideal state that you want to be contributing to as a part of this broader conversation around information and sharing data for the benefit of others? Most of these companies have that in their mission somewhere. They believe that they're doing a public good, even if they're also profiting in the process. Well, if that's true, then what values get you there and keep you there? So I think that that's how the disinformation and misinformation is allowed to persist, because there's just questions that you have to ask around are some things allowable within this ecosystem? Are we willing to take a hard line on some things for the benefit of the greater good? Then it’s also acknowledging that it is hard being in technology and now it's like, even if you're 99% effective at something, if you have a billion users, that's still millions of people, or millions of cases. You have to then also acknowledge that you're always working and it never will be good enough, but you can try to close that gap and be consistent on what you actually value and believe and that at least shows a bit of sincerity over time around what you're trying to do. CHANTÉ: I appreciate your take on that. One thing I might imagine to be true, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think from what I've seen is that the tech policy space is not Black enough. It is not; I don't see enough BIPOC folks. I don't see people really, outside of cis able-bodied white guys in that space. Is there anything that you recommend in terms of trying to change that so that in the future where we're going to have, for sure, undoubtedly more mixed-race people, just given the trends that we're on, how do we address that, or how do we curate for that? COREY: Yeah. I mean, so much of – it reminds me of the story I was telling about biology and going into lab is that I think so much of it is about really understanding the possibilities of what is actually out there and having someone tell you, or exposing you to what those possibilities are. Some of that is pipeline development. So I think we're many of these companies and also, just not even tech companies, but policy in general. This base is about how do you invest back in these communities, knowing that it might pay dividends in 10, or 15 years down the road to have this more diverse ecosystem of policy people, or practitioners, or technologists. Even if you're not developing them particularly for a job today, but down the road. I mean, I think some of that is pipeline investment and actually just telling people at a young age, “I see you, here's the three things you need to get started,” and then the sky's the limit. I know there are some programs around coding that have taken off where people go into the community and do that. It will be interesting to see how, if we were to look over time, whether that's really changing the overall dynamics of actual Black engineers, or BIPOC engineers, or a diverse representation of engineers. But I think that that would be the same for policy and the other thing that I would say is it would seem that many companies, in the tech space in particular, did not actually have – whether they should have, or shouldn’t have, they didn't necessarily have to focus on these types of questions for their growth and success in the early stages. So I think that that also meant that there just wasn't an investment in the broader, we need a policy team. Maybe there were people there to focus on policy and ask these questions. But I think as we continue to see the growth and the impact of companies on just everything like our economic systems, the way we behave, and the way we think about different issues. Now, it is really important to think not just about whether building this product is going to net an additional 100,000 users, at the expense of so many other things, will it affect the political conversation happening in this country? Will it affect the access to resources in this place? Now we're seeing the investment in those communities and spaces, for companies that are growing, or building now, I think it's about really investing in there early and make sure you have the right team and the right representation of the team to address the issues that you could foresee being a challenge, or being a space that your product will exist in. But I think policy is certainly one of many professional spaces where you do see underrepresentation really because of access, or knowledge about the opportunity. I'll just say, because this is a long, long way of saying, but I want to end with a personal story where it's just even for myself going into the technology space, I was always interested in policy, but really from the lens of how you can go directly into government as a civil servant and I try to push the machine, or move through the bureaucracy to actually make effective rules, or regulations that mattered, or meant something to different communities and I think government can still be that thing. There's a lot of challenges there, but it still can be that force. What I didn't realize was that this existed in the tech world, that these were conversations that were happening, that companies were having an influence on the way we legislate, or the way we behave, or the way we think about all sorts of issues that would “fit squarely” in the policy world. It was only through my kind of exploration, but also, connecting with people who had gone over to these companies, in these spaces and the privilege that I had of being able to go to different institutions, where I had access to people who could have these conversations with me, where I realized hey, I could be in this space. But it was something that I didn't even realize was a thing and would never have explored, otherwise. So I think that that also for me, recognizing that I had access to resources and tools that helped me even see it as a possibility and so, I think that has to be the thing that we're in the companies that anybody who has the privilege, or capacity to do so should be investing in. CHANTÉ: Yeah. ARTY: I feel like there's some things that we could do in terms of new precedent setting, that we could do as a broader tech community, that could help drive change of adopting cultural practices within the context of organizations and everything that flows from there. So one of the key threads you brought up was that it comes down to values and we ought to start with having a clear set of things that we want to value as a community and build as organizations and build around that. I started thinking back to you mentioned early days of the internet when anybody could do anything and spin stuff up on the internet and I think about some of the early tech interfaces and stuff we had and I feel like there was a lot more community and curation type things, too. We had message boards and I think about AOL days where you have little chatrooms that you join and stuff that were topic-focused. It seems like, as opposed to being these topic-focused finding each other kind of things by having similar shared interests, we've shifted to this follower type model where it's just about networking and connecting with the people and not necessarily being connected for any other purpose other than getting the most followers. So the purpose becomes the network and then the identity stuff is associated with how many followers you have and how many retweets you get. The dynamics of how we've framed identity dynamics and communication dynamics in tech has shifted quite dramatically. Tech has shifted the internet and then the people seem to have kind of shifted a mirror of the technology that we built. So I'm thinking if we take a step back and start with what you're saying in terms of community values and what a reflection of that would look like technology wise, but what if we started with a manifesto and some vision, even if it's rough vision, of what that might look like? Do you have any thoughts on, if you were to write some of those things down, what you would say? COREY: Yeah. This is making me – and I don't know them off the top of my head, but it's making me think of some of the AI ethics work, artificial intelligence work that several people are working on right now. I think of Dr. Ruha Benjamin, it was Dr. Tim McGraw, I think of a few other contemporaries of them, but there's actually, I think an Algorithmic Justice League where they are actually thinking of that. There's a manifesto of sorts, or a thing that we should be believing and that underpins the ethics that we should have as it relates to that technology. If I were to think of just a couple of things, the first would really be around the empowerment piece and I think I mentioned that before that we're promoting people to feel not just that they can speak, or be on a platform, or they can have access, but that they are empowered with the information, which in my mind, when I say empowered means that they can actually, it's a call to action. They believe that they can do more of the thing that they want to do. I think that is important because then it helps you actually center, it makes you actually have to question all of the communities that are on the platform and what you want them to actually be able to be called to do. Right now, not saying empowerment means that I feel like you're removed from the actual impact of what you are allowing to be shared, or allowing to be set on the platform. I think the second is while there are a lot of companies that would say they do this; it is important to call out safety and authenticity as maybe two and three. The idea is to really root in vulnerability, the idea is really to root in this idea of safety, psychological safety, but also physical, depending on whatever the product is. Because again, I think that those two things require you to then center the user and actually really think about well, what does it mean to actually build a safe community where most of all people feel safe psychologically and while also being their truest selves. Those were the three values, or the three areas where I feel like you would shape some type of principles around, but I also just want to say, I love your point because I do think that in some ways, the way in which we consume technology, or consume information now has really centered on this viral nature. I think in some ways, virality motivates the way that information is even propagated. Whereas before, when you're talking about these interests, it may have really been just genuinely about the interest and then it coalesced around that chatroom. But now virality, because that is the name of the game in so many ways, it almost requires people who have figured out the model of how to make things viral as opposed to people who have figured out something to say that is substantive, or something to say that is empowering to our broader community. Those two things are not always overlapping and so, you have people who will influence and then systems that might reinforce that influence when the influence is not necessarily earned on the merits of actually being empowering, or safe, or authentic dialogue. So I think you're absolutely spot on that like, the way that we consume has shifted to maybe wanting things to be viral and virality being almost the barometer of truth and value when that's not always the case. CHANTÉ: It makes me think that perhaps we've been focusing so much on the tech and the product space, that nobody is—I shouldn't say nobody—but we probably haven't focused enough on the actual consumer and making sure that we stand up resources, or a hub to inform them and make them smarter consumers. Because as we know, every click leads to a dollar, or every like leads to something. So I think we reinforce the system unknowingly. COREY: Yeah. CHANTÉ: I often feel this sort of pull, I don't know about you, but I've been watching versus on Instagram. Are you familiar with versus? COREY: Yes, yes. There have been some good ones. There also have been some duds, but yes. CHANTÉ: Duds, I know. Don't get me started, but #BlackTwitter, right? I'm like, “Oh wow.” So where I was getting excited and I was online early for the pandemic, but there was this part of me that just couldn't. I didn't want to get too attached, or too into it because I was like, “Man, look, we're on somebody else's platform making them money.” I know that there's some stuff being done to shift that and I see this a lot with the Black culture specifically, I feel like sometimes we're online and we're making this tech space, or this product really dope and nobody's there to protect us as consumers. I get really upset about that and I just want so badly to make sure that the consumers are educated, that they are informed and understanding how they should, or shouldn't be using their social capital. How they should, or shouldn't be supporting something that probably doesn't always have their best interests at heart. I don't know, it's not like there's one or two of us who have to be responsible, there's a whole – it's everyone's job. Do you of any collectives, or projects, or are you a part of anything that is aiming to do that? COREY: Yeah. Again, a really, really good point. That really resonates because, I'll just say before I answer the question, I've had that conversation around memes because I feel like memes are such a way that we communicate now as a part of popular culture, but I don't have the tools necessary to trace the lineage of the first meme, but I would bet again, going back to the virality of means that there was something that was also infused with Black youth culture in America that made memes popular and then made them more ubiquitous. So this idea of making technology cool is because there is a culture that is infused in again, making it cool. It's a tool that then you have a community, it feels empowered to do something a certain way, but then that empowerment is not protected. I would say that just in my experience in tech, I have seen companies that have made investments in this conversation on equity and well-being where really, the goal is to how do you work more closely with and partner with creators? How do you work more closely with users of the platform, either through research, or actually through direct partnerships to understand how the tool is actually being used and what are ways that actually supplement the way in which they are using it today? I know in the very, very beginning stages of Twitter, that was one reason why Twitter took off was because Twitter was just – I think it might've started, was it a 100 characters? I don't even know now is way more, maybe it started with the 140 characters, but other than just being that platform tweet 140 characters, everything else was community generated RTs, the idea of having a retweet button, these different features very early on were all things that had organically risen out from the community and they just listened. So I think in many ways, it was cool to see our product at that early stage just say we've created a tool where they were just going to see how people use it and then build on top of that. I think that that work's still happening. Companies should continue to invest in it, of course, but really listening to your creators and rather than saying, “Here's what we need you to fit, we are going to start doing that,” doing more of learning how you're using it is either about talking to you directly, or analyzing or examining it and really understanding what will matter to you and now we're augmenting that with this feature that we have listened to you and heard that you need. And then on the reverse side, proactively thinking about these are the issues that people are citing that they have, then make them feel unsafe, make them feel like they can actually have a voice on this platform and we are listening to that and we are actively going address that even if it's not going to necessarily net us an additional dollar spent, or an additional user earn. This is important because this is preventing you from using a platform to the fullest. So I've seen some things since I have been in the space, I think much of it is going to have to be a continued investment. I can't think of any one product, or any one area where I feel like it's like really landed. But I also think that that speaks to the broader point, which is that it's a journey and then as you continue to grow as companies, you're going to have more challenges. But also, I see opportunities because you're bringing more communities and more people onto the platform and as you scale, that has to be a part of the conversation. It's not just going to be a monolith, or one trigger response to a collective user, but actually many different types of users on your platform. CHANTÉ: No doubt. I’m trying to remember when it was specifically, it was probably three, four weeks ago when there was all this big announcement about Clubhouse, for example, going and people specifically felt some kind of way because here you had a situation where there was a bunch of Black users who were early on joining and you even had a Black man who was the representative of the icon and people were like, “Wait a minute. We're not being involved in this whole opportunity for more funding and what does that mean for us?” I listened in that week to a bunch of conversations and folks were incensed; they felt left out, they felt overlooked, taken advantage of. I think we've seen some action spur out of that, but it just reminded me of that moment that we have a lot of power collectively as a community. But you have to have times and spaces where people can organize and communicate that are not dependent upon somebody else's online community that looks free, but maybe it's not and my feeling is that it has to be a multi-stakeholder groups that are holding these technology companies and even the investor community accountable, but also at the same time, there's got to be people who are thinking about just consumer education and consumer engagement period, because we're only going to see more of this, not less of it. COREY: Yes, on multiple points. Having worked in privacy for some time as well doing policy work, that is something that comes up continually is that even as you build out more mechanisms to keep people's data safe, or you're like, “Hey, we actually are committed to the cause and this is all the work that we're going to do to protect your data,” the number of choices become unwieldy if you don't also have an education around all the things that a company can do with your data. So then it almost feels insincere if all of these things are offered without the education, or the continual reinforcement in different ways throughout their product, or their company's values. And then your point about Clubhouse. Actually, I remember reading that and I agree. Again, it really speaks to what I was saying about the meme piece where it’s like there is something that becomes really, really cool and it helps the technology take off and then it suddenly comes ubiquitous in this different way and it's like, “Whoa, wow, did we really think about the core experience?” How the course readings was shaped by a smaller community, but a very important one. But then the other thing I think about with Clubhouse, but I think a lot of apps are guilty of this in the US is, also just from a tech equity perspective, leaning into the iPhone development space in and of itself often, I feel like creates its own barriers around elitism and privilege. Not because iPhone, or Apple is uniquely trying to say, “Here's our image and here's who the customers are that we have.” But actually, that just even being on Clubhouse in and of itself, or iPhone only products often leave out an entire demographic of people when you think even in the US, I think 50 something percent of people are still are Android users and then you think globally, Android actually has a ridiculous market share of way more than Apple globally. So I was just what you're also thinking about the equity perspective and inclusion, I often think about that as well. Even at the outset, you're already narrowing the lens a little bit, and I get some of that as developmental challenges, but given all the success—I remember reading this article about Clubhouse and what they're worth, I'm like, “Wow, it's all of that.” It would seem like for me, the next step would be now invest in the development of an Android app in order to really see us reach that community, a broader community of which some of the people who help shape the core experience are representative sample of, but we could probably get so much more from this broader community. CHANTÉ: Yes like, I wish I had a lot of snap effects going right now. I agree with that, obviously. So thank you. ARTY: We're getting to the end of the show where we finish up with reflections. So the thing that—I mean, there's so many things in the show—I've been thinking about this idea of what it means to center around core values and community and what type of communities we want to build and everything that follows from those core values and especially this idea of centering around empowerment. I feel like that makes a lot of sense: centering around empowerment. If our goal in building these spaces is to empower people, then what are all the systems and policies and things that follow with that goal of empowerment in mind, how do we raise and lift up people, and create supportive spaces that do that? I think back to one of the things you said at the beginning around authenticity and the ability to, or this conversation that you had, where I think it was your manager, Corey, that asked you, “How are you?” which is normally this plain old question that you just reply with, “Oh, good.” There's an expectation that it's almost rhetorical like, we're just moving on and touching base and not really saying anything of substance. But there's something fundamentally different there with, “No, how are you?” and it's not about the words you're saying, it's about the intention to actually listen. The intention of giving someone the space to let their guard down, to be their authentic self, to tell you what's real. With this goal of empowerment, I feel like that's another aspect that's really important is being able to create spaces where we can drop our guard and be real. We can say what's really going on. In order to learn, we’ve got to be able to be ourselves, too and I feel like there's a lesson in the small in that of something that we can all make an effort to do when we interact with people to really ask them, “How are you really doing? What's really going on?” As opposed to trying to fix it, to change anything, to just listen, to really listen to what's going on with them, to finding those commonalities of, “Oh, I guess we all just want to be safe.” Seeing those things that are the same, as opposed to trying to fix, or change someone else, just focusing on listening and hearing where they're coming from. I feel like if we move toward those combination of things with that intention, with that goal in mind, with that being our why, that how we design the technology, how we design the policies that follow from that will help move us in the right direction. CHANTÉ: For me, I'm thinking a lot about this empathy piece, because it makes me pause and say, “While I prioritize it, I value it,” I just don't know how many hiring managers out there are actually looking for and building empathy into one of their core values that they're prioritizing on their hiring rubric. But as we move to this next fourth industrial revolution where we're automating and people are losing their jobs, we can't outsource empathy. So it's something that we definitely need to make sure we are working on individually and if you have children, I hope that people are thinking about ways that they can cultivate that early in young and teachers and educators, and especially folks who want to be a founder, or they want to be an investor. I think this is something that takes a community effort and I want to hear more people talking about empathy. So I'm really happy, Corey, that that's one of the core things you're focusing on with your strategy and your consulting firm. Really looking forward to connecting with you after this, about that because I think let's celebrate it and make sure that we get more people knowing who you are so that we can see a better future. COREY: Thank you. No, I appreciate you saying that and absolutely. I was looking at your background as well and also, just Greater Than Code. I just thought, “Wow, this is a great model, generally.” This idea of voice because really that's what I connected to when I saw the podcast, this idea of, we all have a story and oftentimes, either because on a micro level on a day-to-day, we're not asked to share our story, or in the broader society, or broader infrastructure or whatever it is, technology. We're not invited to share our story in a way that others are. I think it's just so important to have vehicles like this podcast. Again, I saw your work as well. So I hope to continue to be involved in whatever way I can and also, support in whatever way I can. I think there's been so much has come up today is iterative, which is also why I love these conversations because I feel like I literally want to go back through and dissect some of these points. But the one thing that really is still very top of mind for me is this idea of that came up, or we talked about how the model of technology has shifted away from interest-based almost to this follower-based. I think Arty, it was something that you said. The idea that now we're focused on following, influencing, and how that shifts the conversation and it's something that I had not really thought about until this call, but I think it's like a very important thing to think about. Again, we talked about Clubhouse, but I think one of the reasons why Clubhouse may have taken off was because it really seems like it centers the idea of, “I just join a room and just come together around an interest,” and that is enough. I think that that idea, however, the model ultimately works, maybe that's a sign that people have an appetite for really finding that type of space again and maybe that means that virality is not – it might be entertaining and there's going to be echoes of it, but maybe that's where we're shifting, or we need to be thinking about shifting. Maybe if there were companies proactively trying to do more, when it comes to helping stories be told or helping to empower people, maybe that's something that we're thinking about, or that we're investing in more as technologists on the call, but also, as people who use technology and consume technology. So that really stood out to me and that's something I really want to think about more. CHANTÉ: Those are great reflections. Thank you so much. That was such a good note to end on, Corey. It's been a pleasure to have you on our show. Let's make sure that we definitely stay connected. COREY: Yeah, absolutely. It has been an absolute pleasure. I'm excited about this and also thank you for giving me a reason to talk about superpowers and superheroes at different points throughout the show. Special Guest: Corey Ponder.

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Posted on 14 April 2021 | 9:00 am