What Does Allyship Require?

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” – Lilla Watson, Indigenous Australian artist and activist

As a woman in tech, I’ve been asked for advice on how to be a good ally and how to help make a more inclusive tech community. My response typically starts with some reiteration of the fact that as a white, able-bodied, young, upper-middle class, cis, hetero woman, I benefit from basically every other sort of privilege that there is. I have by no means written the book on how to be an ally as I am getting an education on that all the time.

I believe that there are a few things that you must do to be a truly good ally to the friends who need you. This does not represent all of what goes into good allyship; but I do not believe you can be a good ally without doing these things.

Allies listen. This means being quiet and making space for their friends to talk about the pain and problems that they experience at the hands of hierarchical social structures. Listen, internalize, and empathize.

Allies amplify others. By definition, they have privilege and platforms, and they cede their platform to amplify the voices of those who have to work hardest to be heard. This means not only inviting others to “lean in” the table; it
means sometimes leaning back yourself.

Allies are humble, not defensive, when faced with their mistakes. They make mistakes all the time and recognize it does not make them bad people. What is bad is to become defensive when someone, often the hurt person, tries to tell you why what you said or did was harmful. Understand you are not perfect but listen to what others say and internalize it to be better.

Allies contemplate their own behavior and evaluate their own biases. They think through the implications of their actions – sometimes beforehand, and sometimes
when it’s too late, when trying to determine whether corrections or apologies should be made. They don’t simply wait for instructions or corrections; they take on some of the mental labor of policing their own actions.

Allies apologize, and apologize well. When they make a mistake, they take ownership of it. They do not say things like “I am sorry your feelings were hurt.” They recognize that intent is different from impact, and that, just as I must apologize if I step on your foot with no intent, so must I apologize if I harm you with my comments or actions, however overt, subconscious, or micro- they may be.

Allies call attention to harmful behavior, especially by their own friends and family. Taking apart the ideas that reinforce social hierarchies starts at home, folks.

Allies “weaponize” the privilege they have for the benefit of marginalized people. They use the resources that they have – money, hiring power, networking capital, an audience, authority over company policy, indeed their social power
as men, white people, etc. – to not only support marginalized people but to dismantle the structures that enforce normativity of any kind in their community (structures like white supremacy and patriarchy as examples).

Allyship requires that you put yourself to the hazard. It demands your speech, your attention, your social standing, and definitely your time, money, and work. It requires you be open-eyed to the ways you fail at it and the benefits you gain from social power structures so that you can help work to take them apart.

The crucial thing to understand about being an ally: it is not optional.

On Anxiety and Serenity

When most people think about anxiety, they think of panic attacks. A panic attack is both a dramatic event to witness and to experience. It can heralded by the horsemen of heart palpitations, difficulty or inability to breathe, nausea, dizziness, sweating, and, of course, acute panic or worry. Many people feel as though they are actually dying. It’s searingly memorable.

My experience with anxiety – and, I suspect, that of many others – is less acute. It is not some antagonist that I encounter and defeat on occasion like a boss in a video game. It shares more similarities with chronic pain – a constant hum of worry that I carry inside me all the time, which can sometimes flare up if the weather serves or which can even occasionally leave entirely, but never for long. Like many who deal with generalized anxiety disorder, I have a personal fingerprint of stressors that I know can send me in the wrong direction – climate change is one; money is another – but anxiety is more inclusive than not, meaning that if I have an opportunity to worry about something, I tend to take it.

This means that much of the time, I have intrusive, worrying thoughts that are difficult to control. It can make my thinking feel frenetic and disorganized. Imagine the last time you left the house and felt like you had forgotten something important but couldn’t place it. Now, imagine feeling that way all the time, as the rule, not the exception.

Days like Friday, and indeed, the last few weeks have challenged me for reasons micro and macro. Like many, I met the inauguration with emotions that range from trepidation to outright indignance. There is a lot of build up to the ‘peaceful’ transition of power in this country, and we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. That’s a playground for anxiety.

I manage my anxiety through exercise, doing good work, being creative, getting quality sleep, and being mindful of the things that tend to generate anxiety for me and managing them. But sometimes, those things are difficult or impossible to manage – in case you haven’t noticed, you can’t go anywhere today to ‘get away from’ what’s going on (and I’m not convinced you should be trying to – in fact, it’s more important than ever to tune in and put ’em up). It’s on the radio, it’s consumed the Internet, it’s at the family dinner table, and it’s an adversarial climate at every turn.

Needless to say, my go-to techniques haven’t been working as well. Back in November, after election night, my anxiety full-on melted down. I went outside in the dark, went to my car, closed the door, and wept deep, loud, and wet sobs for a solid ten minutes.  That wasn’t the only time since, and it won’t be the last.

After a long time of accepting that periods like this were a fact of my life, I started to realize something very important: I needed “serenity now!” I know this sounds like a punch line at best and new-age bunk at worst, but listen: the experience of the last few months has made me realize I had made no room for peace in my life, so I couldn’t find it even if I wanted to. You need that place to exist, because it provides you the tools to be creative or productive in your worst moments, to mount the kind of resistance needed to battle the instruments of unpredictability, fear, anger and darkness wherever you find them.

It doesn’t mean you run away from or ignore pressing problems. It means you need to prioritize which you deal with first, how soon you attempt to solve or neutralize them, how much of yourself you’re willing to give to them. It means acknowledging them when they do present as anxiety, regarding them with a nod, and perhaps saying, ‘not right now.’ Maybe you’ve already set aside time to deal with them; let that plan appease them for now. Find an activity that brings you perspective, gratitude, or awe and guard that time against the worries that do nothing but thieve your energy and capability.

I am trying to think of myself like a river. My worries, tasks, thoughts, feelings, are all stones in the riverbed of my life. Hope, optimism, empathy, compassion, freedom from worry are gold. I make myself a sieve and separate the gold from the rest. I’ve surfaced the elemental human stuff. The worries are still there, but they’ll be constantly smoothed over and reshaped by time until, when I pick them up next, they’re soft to the touch. That’s what I mean by serenity.

I will be calm. I will be mistress of myself.  – Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility


 

Product Spotlight: Enhancv

Any variation on the product management interview is bound to have some variation of the following:

Name a product you like, tell me what you like about it, and tell me what you would change about it.

To speak to that, I want to do the occasional ‘Product Spotlight’, picking out some of the products I stumble on and writing about them. First up is Enhancv: a clean, dead-simple modular resume building app.

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Enhancv uses a freemium subscription model with increased customization options when you upgrade. You can tie it to your LinkedIn or Facebook account and it will automatically pull some basic information into the resume depending on which you choose; or you can opt to create a standalone login.

Let’s start with the likes:

  • For starters, I like the concept. Whenever it’s time to update my resume, I spend ridiculous amounts of time fiddling with the formatting and appearance, trying to create something as slick as what Enhancv produced in about twenty minutes. I also like that the modules forced me to pay attention to space and be more careful in my content choices.
  • Very intuitive interface; once inside the app, I couldn’t help myself but click the boxes to begin editing and switch out the dummy text with your own content. Formatting options are all in the left sidebar and the ‘$’ icon made it clear which I could use and which would require an upgrade.
  • All the while you are editing, the app provides hints and examples (e.g. ‘Here’s an example of a great summary’).
  • Change the layout between one column and two; rearrange the sections any way you wish.
  • Great customization ability even in the free version – two basic fonts, multiple color schemes, over a dozen section ‘types’ that act like widgets on the page unconventional section types (Books, Passions, ‘Day in the Life’ pie chart).
  • I don’t even mind the logo at the bottom and probably wouldn’t remove it even if I upgraded to Premium.

What I would change:

  • When I tie it to my Facebook account in order to change the picture (it gives you an option to upload a photo or use Facebook), it would be cool to be able to go through my Facebook photos and pick one – not just use my current profile pic.
  • I would love a way to host this resume live and tweet or share a short-link or link to it from my website without doing the legwork to do it myself with Google Drive. E.g. under the ‘Download’ button, simply a ‘Publish’ button. Perhaps a premium feature.
  • In the Settings menu, I stumbled upon ‘Tracking Settings’, with a little checkbox next to ‘Don’t anonymously track me for product improvement purposes.’ Of course as a product person I know why they do this and I’m happy to participate in the analytics, but I wonder if this will come across a little less ‘big brother’ as an opt-in message during sign-up rather than as a hidden opt-out.
  • Since people aren’t necessarily updating their resumes constantly (unless you’re me), I wonder how effective the subscription model for this? Would a ‘per-document’ fee be another option?

At any rate, take a look at what I came up with and be sure to check out Enhancv for yourself.

Thoughts on Ethics in AI

New applications of artificial intelligence technology keep surprising us, but they probably shouldn’t. After winning Jeopardy, IBM’s Watson computer went on to support applications to assist attorneys in building cases as “Ross” in bankruptcy law; advise doctors at one of the world’s foremost cancer treatment centers, Memorial Sloan Kettering; and serve as virtual teaching assistant “Jill” at Georgia Tech, its natural language processing capabilities convincing enough that students in the class were unaware until professor Ashok Goel revealed the nature of their TA after the final exam.

At the Denver Open Coffee Club recently (a local meetup for discussing tech and startup issues), we raised the subject of artificial intelligence (and automation) and humans’ relationship with it. Passions rose a bit as we talked not about the astounding capabilities and myriad applications we could achieve through thoughtful employment of artificial intelligence (well, there was some of that) — but about just how far, ethically, we as a culture were willing to go. It became less about the many people that a class of robot workers will likely soon render unemployable, and the ethical and economic questions that we will be forced to reckon with when that happens, than it was around the very human psychological rejection of decisions and judgements made by a machine.  The largest obstacle to a full embrace of artificial intelligence in our culture is not our lack of technological capacity but ourselves, said one of our group. When it comes to some things, humans seem to just want humans.

But still, humans built a sophisticated question-answering machine like Watson. We have many, many questions. Many are questions that we want and feel comfortable with AI answering. But it seems there is a boundary somewhere, something nebulous. A red line, after which the asker says, “I don’t want a machine to answer this. This question needs a human.” We don’t know where this line is and it’s probably different from person to person or even the same person on different days, but has to do with meaty, moral, ethical, judgment questions. Can you teach an AI to be moral? Do you want to, or would we just be doing that because when it comes to these questions, we’re afraid of the answers an AI would offer?

I would argue that it is less about where we want to divide those questions and more about how we define and separate real and artificial intelligence. What I find chilling in this question is the place where, after a lot of contemplation about what a human is, a human itself seems not unlike a machine. We are complex organisms, with mechanics inside that allow us not just to move about the world but to ponder it and our place in it, a sort of miraculous ability, but a mechanical one nonetheless, an ability derived from our cerebral cortex.

I wouldn’t argue that an AI exists today that could conceivably replace all of the cognitive abilities of a human, nor the capacity to balance rational thought with ethical judgment (unless I missed something in the news). In high stakes situations, I would still prefer a person to be in charge. Given time, though, I think it’s inevitable we wrestle more with these questions and place more responsibility on AI, allowing what we create the space to learn and make those judgments. The problem we’ll wrestle with then is whether and when, when given human or near-human abilities in cognition, it will begin to recognize its own self, its place, and begin a human-like sentient experience in its own right. I hope we’ll have confronted the relationship between ourselves, our morality, and our AI by then.

What’s in a product manager? Analysis of over 2,000 job requirements

As part of an effort to discover the path I’d like to take in technology in my career, and at the recommendation of several advisers of mine, I decided to do an exploration of the role of the product manager. I became very interested in the ways it seemed product managers are able to walk between different types of teams, bridging communication between customers and engineers, helping to prioritize business needs and keep things running smoothly. I like the idea of taking responsibility for a product and having a stake in its success and that of its users, the customers.

So I decided to look at some postings for PM roles to find out what it would take to get me there if I decided it was the route for me. I found the needs to be heavily dependent on the specific culture and goals of the company – many of them preferred niche expertise in the company’s vertical (e.g. “Prior experience working with medical devices is a must”). Some employers sought technical expertise, others preferring an MBA. I left this experience with no better sense of where to focus my energy if I wanted to lay out a path to product management, and figured that there had to be a better way to get a high-level view.

I started by compiling job requirements for any product management role I saw into a Google Sheet. I had some requirements/exceptions: 1) It had to have “product manager” in the title, though I did not focus on a specific level. 2) If something seemed overly technical, niche, or focused on physical products, I stayed away from that – opting to focus on strategic roles supporting technology products. I ended up with a list of just over 2,000 job requirements.

I manually scanned for some recurring terms, drafted a list, and used a Google Sheets function to count the density of the terms. Here’s a basic view of what I ended up with:

image (2)

 

Right away, I started mentally building a “lowest common denominator” job description in my head: 3-5 years of experience in business and/or product management; marketing skills and expertise; some technical or engineering background; agile experience; MBA preferred. I now have a more prioritized list of where I need to build my skills if I want to land a role in product management – a much more effective research and planning tool than scanning through all of the postings one at a time.

To add to this, I also separated some of the more qualitative terms – the “qualities” as opposed to the “qualifications” – that I could see emerging. The result is this:

image (3)

That’s it – nothing rigorous, but certainly it came in handy in getting a more holistic view of the profession. I know I have probably left some important terms out, so feel free to give me feedback. Are you a product manager, and what qualifications or qualities were most important in getting you there and, more importantly, making you successful?

 

How to Be Concise

As a child, I never thought twice before I spoke, and sometimes didn’t think even once. I’ve learned ways to control this (often the hard way). My childhood and adolescent memories sometimes feel like a film reel of cringe-worthy moments wherein my mouth fired off (and kept going) before my brain had caught up – but I find myself, as an adult, still working through this in different ways.

If you Google this problem, you’ll find a great deal of advice on how to stop rambling. It’s great advice that I know I need to work harder to take – tips like:

  • Don’t be afraid to pause and think through your thoughts before presenting them.
  • The stoplight rule: after the first 20 seconds, your light is green; for the 20 seconds after that, start slowing down; if you get past 40 seconds, your light is red – you’ve lost your audience. Even this seems too long, even though I know I break this rule all the time.
  • Focus on slowing the pace of your speech. You’ll have more time to realize when you’ve reached a good stopping point.
  • Lower the tone of your speech. It will give your words more gravity and make you sound more confident in what you are saying.

I work very hard to remember these rules in any conversation, whether on the phone, in a meeting, or making a presentation to a group, and by and large, I’ve grown more aware of my speech – though I admit, it is sometimes harder than others. Because while these tips are great, they don’t get to the root of the problem for this rambler: anxiety. At its heart, my habit of running on and on is born out of a feeling that I must continue to speak until I’ve sufficiently demonstrated my knowledge about a subject. I’m afraid of not knowing the answer to something; afraid to acknowledge publicly that I’m not sure, I don’t know, or I’ve never done that. Resistance to saying those words is a tough habit to break, but I think many have this fear sometimes. Ultimately, I just fear being dismissed by my audience. The tips above are great for learning how to appear confident. But freeing yourself from insecurity takes a little more sweat. I’m working on it.

Sources:

The Muse: Three Smart Ways to Keep from Rambling

Harvard Business Review: How to Know if you Talk Too Much