I don’t write much these days, besides code. It feels unfamiliar and aching like returning to jogging after a long stint of couch potato habits. I tell myself I’ll get over that. (I really should do the same for actual jogging, but I digress.)
I hadn’t really talked about this much until recently and in doing so it made me want to write it down. After a many year hiatus, I have accepted a job at a startup, and somewhat to my surprise, it has brought back to the forefront a nasty experience I had earlier in my career.
It went something like this: at 24, almost 25, I joined my first startup bright-eyed and incredulous. Coming from more average workplaces, robotic desks and stocked fridges made the place feel somewhere between Narnia and summer camp. This fifty person operation was housed in a swanky section of DC, and my coworkers all seemed to have walked out of a catalog. Some perfect indefinable mix of care and lack of care rolling into an aesthetic that worked for them. Developers with grody hair and gigantic brains around which we all orbited to some extent, ironic t-shirts and man sandals on the C-Suite executives, some of whom were still young enough to live with roommates.
Money introduced interesting and polarizing behavior – at this point in time, I was a recruiter and was stunned that we would gouge people coming in the door. We didn’t want to pay them too much, eat our runway. But by the same token, we’d all fly out to Lake Tahoe for a trip and blow hundreds of dollars on booze alone. I realize now, the dual purpose of hiring people cheaply was not only to save runway, but to attract the right ‘type’. The kind of person that would exchange a better livelihood for beer and videogames and a cool environment. Obviously, it is a personal choice, but as you’d might expect it attracted a fairly homogenous group. Typically, young white guys that could wax poetic about craft beer until you, the listener, barfed, or walked away, or both.
If I sound a little bitter now, it didn’t start that way. I walked in the door thinking I had found a place that cut through the phony act and let people actually be human at work. Instead of caring about what type of suit you were, we valued creativity. Instead of being a bunch of clock-punching paper pushers, we were passionate and mission driven. All those things still appeal to me, and if that were the end of this story, I wouldn’t be telling it. I should also note, my experience pales in comparison to many stories of bad behavior coming out of Silicon Valley, or even my own backyard, where not long ago a female developer at a tech conference was roofied down here in North Carolina. The only bad thing to happen to me was deep disillusionment. You also could say that at a startup or not, I was probably headed towards this lesson sooner or later. You see, at that point in my life I genuinely believed my life had not ever been impacted by sexism.
As best I can recall this time, it was a running series of moments that struck me deeply that might be summed up as, “That was weird.”
- When the other recruiter I started with was producing no notable work, but in meetings everyone spoke to him only. I’d be cut out of emails then asked about assignments I’d never heard of. They’d been emailing my guy colleague only.
- When at Lake Tahoe I told everyone my design for the Lego-bartender challenge and I might as well not have spoken. An hour later a guy comes up with the same idea, and I can’t help but saying. “Yeah! That’s what I’ve been saying!” and flipping open to my notebook to where I’d drawn out the exact plan he was in the middle of describing to enthusiastic reception
- When the male recruiter finally and eventually got fired for not producing any results, and all the C-Suite executives seemed to notice me in the room for the first time ever, a bunch of heads swiveling comically like meerkats
So what, right?
It is hard to define, and maybe part of my hurt over this incident is that I really was killing myself for this job. I accepted the job with them knowing I would need to begin from Baltimore and locate housing in DC. This meant for about 60 days I communted from Baltimore MD, to Alexandria, VA. This meant I was on the road for between 3-5 hours a day on top of my work schedule. Our other main office was in California, so I’d use the sometimes up to three hour car ride home speaking to west coast candidates.
I will say that it is really something to be just busting ass like that and have everyone act like your male colleague is the only person on the team. ESPECIALLY since I became suspicious of him early on. He was rarely reachable or in the office that I could tell, he would offer to take portions of work and then I would never hear updates or results, and seemed to be kind of loafing.
There are exceptions and moments of real kindness here where I was painfully aware of someone going against the bro-flo. Maybe not coincidentally, a lot of these encounters were with other people in the office who were minorities in one sense or another.
- The guy who I interrupted in the lego competition to say he was saying the idea I already pitched: was very nice to me after this, and it was painfully obvious was listening to me more than others around
- The smartest guy in the office by my estimation who was developing our distributed systems platform was actually the first person to encourage me to learn code. When he found out I was doing it, he had good advice. And considering how much many developers disdain recruiters, he was kind and approachable in his advice. He actually gave me a gem that was so on point I had no idea: that it doesn’t matter what software languages you learn.
I’ll also add for anyone tempted to say, not everyone can cut it in a startup. You aren’t always going to get credit for your ideas. These are fast-paced environments.
Buuuut, I really have to just stop that line of reasoning in its track. My job immediately prior to this was equally fast-paced – the only difference is that people knew what they were doing. It is a fair critique to say adjusting to the chaos and contradiction of a startup isn’t for everyone.
But that really wasn’t my issue. My issue was politics, a cult of personality, and for the first time like being a female was a gigantic gaping vulnerability to be managed if I were to survive there. It was the first time where I felt like possibly regardless of my performance and effort, factors around me could dictate my future.
So much has changed. It has been years since this experience, and up until very recently, I believed I’d written it off as a bad one-off encounter, where the twenty-something CEO essentially left college and then built his own frat culture. Can I imagine all that money and power going to your head if you stumble into it in your early twenties? Sure can. I probably would have been insufferable too if it were me.
I’m now easing my way towards being a mid-level developer, aided in large part by living inside code. Code is my weekends, code is some of my weeknights, code is my volunteer activities. I am blessed to have many geeky friends that humor me and we get into the weeds with obscure technology jabs and inside jokes. A cliche, I know. This field is so grueling though it creates kind of a subculture like you see in other professions. (For me it brings to mind some of my many friends in nursing, and how binding some of the shared experiences of the profession are.)
I recently accepted a job at a startup that I really originally expected to give a hard pass. I didn’t want to work for a startup again. I had extremely low expectations but made myself continue the interviews because I thought the interview practice would be beneficial for me. If I could sum up why I said yes this time around, aside from the hard advantages of the job itself, I would say there are four striking human factors:
- I got to interview with multiple people my dad’s age. Where were all the frat boys?
- I got to speak with a very impressive female VP of Engineering. There aren’t all that many of those
- Not one person cut me off in the middle of what I was saying. Particularly not any of the men. I cannot tell you what a night and day difference that alone is from my last startup environment. I’ll add that just being heard made the difference! After letting me finish, a couple of times they corrected my answer and offered a simpler path on interview questions. I can totally live with that! It is just being able to get the answer out in the first place.
- One of the first things in the company blurb says something to the effect of, ‘Check your ego at the door.’ My old startup CEO would have unequivocally failed on that one, and the culture he built reflected it
I should also say, this experience isn’t unique to women. I have a friend who is a person with a disability and said he gets treated the exact same. “So and so (a non-disabled person) just took credit for this idea I literally was talking about last week, and he was paying no attention to what I was saying. Now he’s acting like he came up with this idea.” It isn’t the biggest transgression but can you just imagine that happening to you over and over like Groundhog Day? That is basically what I’m getting at, and what my friend was getting at.
I’ve always had a clear compass, and so I did not start to question myself on, ‘Maybe that really was so-and-so’s idea.’ But not everyone is like that. I imagine for some people if you get quite literally marginalized it could affect even how you see yourself.
All to say, I have a lot of hope, a lot of passion, and a lot of fear going into my new adventure. My gut really tells me this will be a different ballgame, but these memories have resurfaced with a vehemence that has shocked me.
Wish me luck, and I will hopefully return with a very positive ‘A tale of two startups’ part II.