00:16 – Welcome to “The Venn Diagram Podcast. It’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but it’s definitely not that other thing.” …we mean, “Greater Than Code!”
01:09 – Soo’s Background at NASA and Superpower
06:01 – Wanting Attending Conferences and Speaking and then When Speaking at Conferences Goes Wrong
16:10 – Creating Safe Spaces: From Conferences to Workspaces
21:29 – Allies and Advocacy; Talking Salary
24:12 – Safe Spaces vs Safer Spaces
28:16 – Forgiving People Without Labeling Them (i.e. Sexist, Racist, etc.)
38:28 – Having “Fierce Conversations” and Collecting Better Tools
Soo: Sharing experiences in open and safer spaces.
Sam: Listening to each other’s experiences. Sit with cognitive dissonance, be okay with it, and see what it has to teach us.
Jessica: Learning from other’s experiences.
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SAM: Hello and welcome to Episode 51 of ‘The Venn Diagram Podcast. It’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but it’s definitely not that other thing.’ I’m Sam Livingston-Gray and it’s just my profound joy to be here with my fellow panelists, Jessica Kerr.
JESSICA: Thank you, Sam and I am thrilled to be on this excellent podcast, which has a shorter than that. It is Greater Than Code.
JESSICA: And today, we have a guest and her name is Soo Choi and she is part of the DevOps Research and Assessment Team, also known as DORA: DevOps-Research.com. In the past, Soo has been a senior product manager at Chef, a director at Rackspace for OpenStack Products, a co-founder and COO of Anso Labs and a program manager at NASA. In her spare time, she chases two children around the northern California coast. Soo, welcome to Greater Than Code.
SOO: I am really pleased to be here. Thank you.
SAM: Now, I just want to ask you about NASA.
SOO: Oh, absolutely. It was a really, really interesting experience. One of the first projects that I worked on was untangling NASA’s financial systems, helping standardize the NASA travel policy because it becomes really interesting when you have scientists who need to travel out to the middle of a desert and camp to test different instruments. Then from there, I was put on a project to really understand what do we do when we send something to space like a satellite or some type of intergalactic explorer and we’re not getting data for maybe five to 15 years and what does that next generation storage and data center look like.
JESSICA: What does it look like?
SOO: It looks like the cloud. You know, it’s really interesting that you can’t really build infrastructure for these types of requirement, especially due to the fact that while whatever instrument is out there in space is setting back this data, it’s actually considered top secret until it lands into our facility. You can build these things but then it will be obsolete by the time the data gets here. Then also, what if that instrument just didn’t work. Unfortunately, projects have literally exploded on the landing pad at launch or there has been a misconfiguration, then you waste all of this time and money and what do we do to make just-in-time data centers and that’s my time at NASA.
SAM: Cool, so from the data goes from space to the ground and back up to the clouds.
SOO: Exactly. It’s the great way to look at.
JESSICA: That’s interesting that you have five to 15 years to plan, except you have to plan for something that would be secure and state of the art, five to 15 years from now.
SOO: Yes. I don’t know about you. I have a crystal ball but my crystal ball isn’t that great, no matter how much I try to scrub it so you end up doing a lot of theoretical conversations and you end up really having to sort of step out of your zone and instead of making like these crazy project plans, you need to actually spend some time talking to futurists — people who really actually love to think about these things and not just in the context of your one little project but what the world will look like in that short time span. Ten to 15 years is not even a blink when it comes to how the world works in the age of the world.
SAM: Oh, wow. I just had a horrible thought.
SAM: Does this mean that we’re getting XML from space?
SOO: Yes, all of your JSONs will be saved for us. I said that wrong. ‘All of your JSONs will belong to us.’
SAM: Very good.
JESSICA: Okay. It’s time for the famous Greater Than Code question. What is your superpower and how did you acquire it?
SOO: I think my superpower is in fact people with a purpose and a sense of urgency. I’ve been lucky enough to be working on and leading some complex projects and it’s pretty difficult to get everyone on the same page when scope is pretty large. I feel like that that’s what I excel at.
JESSICA: That’s really valuable. You also did that at conferences?
SOO: I really try to make sure that my number one direction when I’m at my prime directive when I’m at conferences is to learn as much as possible and then if I can help make connections and infect people with a sense of urgency with whatever topic that is thrown at us, then it is my job to do that.
But honestly, the superpower question always cracks me up. I don’t know why but I always get like a little grumpy about answering it because I’m not like this sad person who has a horrible backstory of our parents dying and I’m an orphan and I have emerged with this honed special skill. That always sort of bothers me and it makes —
JESSICA: Superpowers are free.
SOO: Yes, that’s a good point but I’m warming up to the idea.
SAM: Yeah, for what it’s worth for a while, my superpower was being able to identify actors who were on Babylon 5, even if they had been under heavy prosthetics at the time.
SOO: What’s the giveaway? Is it the voice? Is it the mannerism? Or –?
SAM: I don’t know. It’s just this thing. I look at it and I’ll be like, “That actor was on Babylon 5 in Episode 27.” I may have been more than slightly obsessed with B5 but next to that, years looks pretty dang and good, doesn’t it?
SOO: Practice makes perfect.
JESSICA: Soo, when and why did you start going to conferences and speaking?
SOO: I felt like at this point, I was really excited about the work that I was doing. Even before that, I’ve always been interested in public speaking because conferences are probably the big thing versus speaking at a meeting and presenting ideas to an audience and that was important to me, honestly to get what my directive was at that time, for whatever interesting complex project I was working on.
From there, it seemed like we need to share this information, those to open data project. At NASA, we’re heavily involved in the open source communities and what I loved about that was this idea of let’s just share ideas without a common cause. Before then, when you go to conferences, it’s really about like how do you make and monetize something versus just sharing ideas. That’s really how I got excited, then I got un-excited really quickly.
JESSICA: Do you mean that before open source conferences were about monetization?
SOO: Yeah. I misspoke. I really feel like I got involved in conferences because I was already a leader in the thing that I was doing at the time. It seemed so natural and I was really encouraged to go out and share our projects story out to a bigger audience.
JESSICA: Okay, so at NASA, you were encouraged to go share the story and you like how conferences have progressed into a dialogue.
SOO: Absolutely. I think that format is pretty amazing. I love the idea that you are going to sit in a room with like-minded folks who care about said topic and discuss it in a humane way versus lots of shouting. There’s no politics in open spaces, right?
JESSICA: We tried.
SAM: That’s the ideal.
JESSICA: And then you said bad things happened.
SOO: Yeah and I think this is why I really have been speaking about making safe spaces outside of work and then also, that drives down to why do we need safe spaces and what’s going on within our workplace were lacking diversity. I feel like all of it is connected and I feel like the more folks that I could reach about my experiences from the perspective of going to conferences and bringing that home of our whole environment, when it comes to diversity and women in tech and inclusion, the better off we will be as a whole.
SAM: It certainly seems like there should be a positive feedback cycle in there somewhere, like the more safe spaces we have, the more people will stay in tech and not burnout and then the better representation there will be and then at some point, we’ll need fewer safe spaces, right?
SOO: That’s right. But I feel like — and tell me if you’ve felt this at all — we do create these safe spaces at conferences and then our participants go back to where they work and it’s not a safe space any longer. How do we take our code of conduct? How do we take that atmosphere that we create and help them create that in their actual working conditions?
JESSICA: Or even better, help allies to create that.
SOO: That’s right and I feel like allies and advocates are very important to make this happen. We cannot have this burden on ourselves, right?
JESSICA: Yeah. I should rephrase that. Because ally is a verb not a noun so how do we help all of us ally with people to create the safe spaces that they need without making them do it themselves.
JESSICA: Oh, I wanted to back up. What year was it that you started going to conferences?
SOO: Oh, my goodness. I started going to conferences and I’m going to age myself and you’re going to think I’m old but in 2001, right after 9/11.
JESSICA: Oh, what a lovely time to start travelling.
SAM: It’s okay because my first conference was in 2000 so you’re not alone.
SOO: At the time, I was working for a UK-based telecom named Cable & Wireless, who actually line of business was really all of the telecoms for all of the British territories that are out there so I had a chance to travel to the Caribbean and to many places throughout the world on behalf of Cable & Wireless because there’s new thing called the Internet and we were a bunch of webmasters.
JESSICA: Wow. Cool. I know you talked about this in your talk. Do you want to tell the listeners the examples of problems you had at conferences?
SOO: Absolutely. Imagine that you start your day off by getting on a plane and then you get off into a new city and I actually got into a taxi and the taxi driver decided that I need to meet his mom and started drive me away from the city and I had to jump out of that taxi and walk to a payphone and the police can’t do anything because what he did wasn’t necessarily illegal and nothing negative has happened to me, physically. They gave me a ride to my hotel and then you go to said conference and you try to ask a question and someone talks over you.
You say hello to someone that you sit next to and then they follow you up in the elevator to your room. You try that night to prep for your talk and someone has found out your room number and just keeps dialing your room over and over and over again. Then after the said talk, you start answering questions about your talk that had nothing to do with your talk. It’s actually questioning not any of the content of the talk or the way that we are seeing the world to help find a solution for some of these complex problems but actually questioning my authority and what right I had to actually stand in the front of the room. Then you leave said conference and you go back home. Overall, imagine that happening within a 24-hour experience or in 48 hours and you’re just exhausted.
JESSICA: My God. Why did you ever go back ever?
SOO: And then what happens is that it manifests itself in very weird ways. You don’t know how to talk about it when you get back. You get a lot of positive feedback from your peers of, “I heard you talk at such conference,” and there’s also this wonderful kind of feeling where you’re special because you got to go and speak on the behalf of said organization. But inside, you’re just sad. That just really blew and you can’t figure out why because back then, we didn’t have the words that we have now to talk about said things. But you get back on the horse and you try again and little things like I am completely miked up and I’m ready to speak and a guy comes up to me and says, “Hey, there’s no coffee,” and I thought he was offering me coffee and I was like, “Oh, thanks. I am jittery enough. Don’t need any more,” and he literally held his cup in his pen and made a clicking noise and he said, “No, you don’t understand. There’s no coffee.”
SOO: Yeah, and I unleashed on him and I didn’t know at that time they turned on my mike as the audience was coming in and I wasn’t myself at my best. Then you get judged for that. You get judged by not being —
SOO: Yeah, that’s right, Sam. You get judged by not being an outstanding member of the community and not beholding the values because you brayed at someone and you try to explain what happened. In the viewpoint of the person that I was yelling at, he made a mistake but in my viewpoint, I am talking years of embarrassing situations at a comfortable situations of being harassed that come out and get triggered at that moment.
SAM: I’m sorry. That was not a mistake. That was somebody who chose to be a dick to somebody that he thought was in a service position and that’s not okay. It wasn’t okay, even if you were the person who was supposed to get the coffee.
SOO: Sam, can I make it even more worse? Explaining the situation, someone asked me, “What were you wearing?” and I was like —
JESSICA: Oh, my God.
SOO: And I was like, “Excuse me?”
SAM: You were wearing a mike.
JESSICA: Yeah, really.
SOO: And I was wearing a white shirt and a black jacket and he was saying that, “Maybe he thought you looked like the catering staff.”
JESSICA: On stage?
SOO: On stage, like right as I’m about to go on stage, that you have to justify why you reacted that way, even though from that slight, my reaction and I could be pretty ruthless verbally when I’m unhappy about something. It was probably like a little too far but then having to justify what happened is also another horrible place where you feel alone and you try to talk to other women about it and many are supportive and their first reaction is WTF. Then they start sharing their stories about things that have happened in them in the workplace and at conferences or even at the grocery store or in parking lots.
It really does become completely overwhelming so we’ve got to find a way to talk about these things in a constructive manner and again, I really like the idea of taking the safe places that we build at conferences and bring that back to the workplace somehow and how do we do that.
JESSICA: You mentioned one thing. Maybe it was in the pre-call conversation. I don’t remember. One clear way that we do that is when a woman or an underrepresented minority or just anybody tells you about their experience, believe them.
SAM: It’s not that hard.
JESSICA: Yeah, when people listen to your story about the coffee, someone who hasn’t had similar experiences might be like, “Oh, it was just one incident. What’s the big deal?” But that that one mistake in a context of tons and tons of other harassment and dangerous harassment and obnoxious harassment but it doesn’t even have to be dangerous or obnoxious. Just those little things over and over and over, it’s a completely different experience, then something like that is the exception.
SOO: Absolutely. We have to ask ourselves, “Why don’t we believe these people? What about us doesn’t, that we don’t actually value them maybe equally as ourselves and our experiences?” That’s why I’m a huge advocate to build a safe space. You actually have to do things like make sure that you have equal pay for your team and that’s a leap for a few senior executives when I talk one-on-one with them, because in my viewpoint there is a reason why we don’t believe these people and the people that we don’t believe are people that aren’t like we just met them. We have work side by side, killing ourselves on these projects and then for some reason, we question the experience that they had and they don’t understand that. Why is that?
Let’s go and let’s try to make it an equal and fair playing field when it comes to salary, when it comes to salary bands, when it comes to performance reviews, to make it a safe space outside of the conference area because that is the piece that conferences don’t have. We’re not gunning for promotions. We don’t feel like there’s a scarcity of resources or power or control at the conference. I feel like they’re more like themselves at a conference versus at work.
JESSICA: That’s a fairly interesting point that at conferences, we don’t have the scarcity culture so part of making a safe space at work then, becomes encouraging a culture of abundance at work of there is enough to go around, there is enough respect, there is enough listening, there is enough salary.
SOO: Absolutely and performance reviews, for instance and there’s tons of research on this, women get very vague feedback and there’s terms like, “You’re too aggressive,” or, “You’re too docile,” and there is not a clear —
SAM: Sometimes both, right?
JESSICA: There is no win.
SOO: There is no win in that situation and why is that. How do we just even that out to, at least make sure that we are showing that we value everyone equally.
SAM: Yeah, that actually goes back to something you said just a minute earlier about equality in pay bands. A great way to show that you value people equally is to literally value with your money people equally. It seems like it should be obvious that that’s not a revenue negative strategy because paying somebody the same as the other people that are on their same level, especially when there has historically been inequalities in pay, it seems like it would be such a great way to improve retention and avoid all of those costs associated with people leaving and you needing to be hire and retrain for those positions but that’s a whole another rant.
JESSICA: Your company can benefit from other companies biases.
SAM: And disproportionately so because if biased companies are the norm, then you’re totally fair company is going to seem like a shining city on the hill, by comparison.
SOO: Very much so. That’s exactly right. One of the shocking things to me is when I do tell audiences at conferences and I do talk to senior executives, when they ask me what they should do about diversity, whether they refused to believe that that would help. They question it and they say things like, “It’s actually a pipeline problem,” so my response is if everyone knows that you pay people equally, you would be amazed at the number of resumes you will get in a second. Let’s count it down: 3, 2, 1, whoosh! Of all the resume’s and referrals that you will get.
SAM: People will be to pass to your pipeline.
SOO: Very much so.
JESSICA: It’s a pipeline problem and you are the pipeline.
SOO: I feel like that would be an amazing factor with creating safe spaces. I feel like that that is very tangible and you could do metrics and KPIs on that, versus touting that you have a safe culture to speak what you want to speak about.
JESSICA: As developers, and we don’t have control over salaries, what can we do?
SOO: You mentioned allies and advocates earlier, if I was an ally, I would tell my female or underrepresented minority what I make and share salary stories because I have seen that happen way too often and the women are so sad. I think a lot has happened due to the fact that we hired by salary band based on someone’s former W-2. If you’re coming out of college, you get offered $60,000 but your male colleague is actually making $72,000, 20% more than you are and you’re getting promoted and you’re getting pay increases. You’re never going to catch up.
They’re going to do the things to build wealth way before you will. As in, get a mortgage, pay off their car, pay off their student loan debt. Twenty percent is a huge amount when it comes to equality in the workplace and you’re seeing that your colleague is doing better than you are and you just don’t understand why. But there is that current in there and I think we need to fix that.
JESSICA: There’s a total taboo and companies really encourage this because it’s to their advantage to engage in price discrimination on hiring us. They discourage us to reveal our salaries to each other but it’s your salary. You can talk about it. That is not illegal and they can’t legally fire you for it, if that makes anything.
SOO: It is and I feel like there’s companies like CA, which is a large organization who stopped asking people what they made before and —
JESSICA: Then, it’s not about the pipeline. You’re not part of the pipeline nearly as much the narrow pipeline if you’re not attaching yourself to it in that way of basing salaries on previous salaries.
SAM: And the nice thing about that too is that it if you can get into one of those companies, it completely offsets the compounding problem that you have, where either you start out at $60,000 and you stay at the same company, you get 3% to 4% raises or you job hop. But even when you job hop and you get 10% or 20% or 30% raises, which is not entirely uncommon, you’re still getting those percentages on top of what you started with. As the years go by, it just gets worse and worse and worse.
SOO: It’s compounded exactly. It is your math class or your in-action. Or as they say in your math, which makes me quite jealous because I feel like they have more math than we do. I’d like to hear other people’s ideas on how we advocate towards building safe work environments that aren’t just about, even though they are important.
JESSICA: I have one.
SOO: I think I’m honestly tired of the touchy-feely things and I want action and I want it now. I want a big company out there… Oh, that’s actually a good point, Sam. What do you mean by safer spaces versus safe spaces?
SAM: My partner works in the nonprofit world and has for many, many years and she has a lot of anti-oppression training that she’s gone through. One of the things that people in that world apparently talk about is making safer spaces versus making safe spaces because you can never make a space that is completely safe but you can, at least introduce some mitigating measures to make things better than they were. As long as you keep doing that, you’ll keep getting better and making progress.
JESSICA: Oh, that’s a great point.
SAM: It’s a really minor point about one letter but it seems like something worth talking about because if you want to talk about creating a safe space, that can seem impossible but you can do one thing to make your space safer.
JESSICA: Right. As developers. We don’t have control over our workspaces but we have influence. We can make them a little bit safer. As an example, personally I think I’ve been incredibly lucky and have had very few problems as women in tech and some of the things that have helped me, I think are I haven’t felt threatened like I need to be on the defensive, like I need to constantly prove myself and be able to justify my ideas in meetings so I’m able to be open and ask questions and thrive. Some of that has been my male coworkers having my back.
I know that if someone is in a meeting who doesn’t know me and gets the impression that I’m dumb and makes a comment to that effect, my friends and coworkers are going to laugh at that dude and that’s really helpful. On one hand, especially when there are clients involved and people that we didn’t hire, we can’t be sure that a meeting is going to be free of sexism or racism. But we can make it so that our underrepresented peers know that if there is sexism or racism, we have their back and we’re going to say something so that they don’t have to fight that themselves.
SOO: I think that’s right. I’m sort of thinking about the idea of safer spaces or safe spaces because I really like that because that actually puts your brain in a place where it’s a continuous improvement of my workplace versus this ultimate goal of this ultimate checklist. I also like that idea as I feel like we have excluded some of these small ideas because they seemed too trivial or they seemed a little too weird or unpopular but I feel like, maybe if we just start throwing ideas in the way that we brainstorm about solving our clients’ problems or solving this next technology problem or trying to improve our mean time to recovery, if we take that energy and think about how to make a safer space for our colleagues in a workplace, think of what we would accomplish.
SAM: Yeah and you know, we have the same idea in agile, in the larger agile world of doing a retrospective and figuring out a thing that we can tweak can change and then gather information on that. There’s no reason that we need to apply that only to our technical practices or to our workflow. We can apply it to our culture as well.
SOO: Absolutely. I feel like we can challenge the old constructs that are out there of what it means to have to go to work. We could change that construct that when you go to work, you will feel as comfortable in your work environment as you do in your home. I feel like if we can make our workplace, our home, the conferences that we attend within the devops community, within the whole IT Industry, as a whole, imagine what that would feel like.
There’s something else I wanted to talk about and I’m not sure how popular this is going to be but —
JESSICA: — Those are the best.
SOO: Those are the best? Okay. I have my talk that folks can take a look at and I showed it to a few of my people I really respect in the industry and they asked me and they challenged me on a few slides and those slides were about, “How do you forgive people who may not know or understand their privilege and may not know their actions are actually having a negative effect without labeling them a sexist, a racist or a connotation that means that they are a bad person versus doing a bad thing?”
Then we spun off into this interesting world of morals and diatribes around that and philosophy of good versus evil. We had to pull ourselves back but I removed those slides just because it seemed like a distraction but I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on how do we forgive these men and women and when people do things that actually hurt us and how do we share that and how do we give them immediate feedback, where they will take and move on and not alienate your entire community.
JESSICA: That is a great question. People are just [inaudible] behavior. Just as ally as a verb, but what I want to say, so is sexism. The point being… I mean, sexism isn’t a verb but I want it to be so I guess I’m talking about sexist behavior. You know what? If you have sexist thoughts in your head and you never speak them or act on them, I don’t care. I can totally work with you. This is fine.
SAM: Because you know what? We all have sexist and racist thoughts in our heads. It’s just part of the culture we grew up. It’s the air we breathe.
JESSICA: I sure do. It is and to say, you’re a racist is like saying you’re alive in America today. But to express that or act on it, that’s what we’re trying to change.
SOO: Exactly. How do we do that in a way where we would turn that person that did the negative thing and it’s caught what it is that did the sexist or racist or —
SAM: Oppressive, I believe is the general term.
SOO: Yeah and the oppressive thing and how do we get them to understand their actions, their reactions and recover from that? Then also teach someone else and recognize that behavior and help correct that person’s behavior. I call it the kindness chain but I’m not sure what we should call it. But I feel like that there’s got to be a way that we could start this chain reaction of this teaching in this moment and then hopefully, they will go on and teach and then everyone is an ally and everyone is an advocate and we finally put all of this to bed in the big women in tech, like big capital letters and it’s just all of us in tech.
JESSICA: That would be beautiful. There’s an opportunity there of if someone really does respect you as a person and you can tell them privately and quickly, “I know this was not your intention but when you said X, I felt Y and it’s because of the larger context in the culture in combination with what you said but if you could let not do that, it would help.” Then ideally, like you said, they take that as an opportunity to correct other people who didn’t know that.
It’s like the Party Parrot. In Stripe, at some point in Slack, I think I posted a Party Parrot emoji and it’s like this flashy, dance-y parrot thing and it’s very funny. But one of the people at Stripe get seizures from those flashy colors. Not seizures, migraines. But some people get seizures and because he told me about that, I immediately deleted the Party Parrot emoji and now I run around deleting Party Parrot emoji’s from every Slack that I’m in.
SAM: Or you can replace the Party Parrot with a safer one.
JESSICA: Yes, I do. I do have a different Party Parrot that’s like this slow, green Party Parrot. I think it’s really cute.
SOO: I like that Party Parrot, actually. He’s my favorite or she’s my favorite. I really like fierce conversations that are confrontation model, which as you name the issue, you select a specific example that illustrates the behavior and situation you want to change with that individual. I think it’s important also to describe your emotions around the issue. Then the next one I believe is you clarify what’s important and what we can gain, what we can lose if this isn’t addressed and not just for yourself but also taken in the context of the team that you work on, the company you work for. Then you might have contributed to this problem.
For instance, I might have not said and addressed the first two or three times that I witnessed this behavior but I feel like you have to also talk about your wish to resolve the issue and even though this is the fourth time that I’ve seen this, I really want to resolve this issue and you have to invite him or her to respond back to you and give them a moment to respond.
It is very uncomfortable to go through this and it’s very uncomfortable for the person on the other side too but I think that you will always come out with some positivity when it comes to your relationship moving forward. At least, you know where you stand on both sides, which I think that transparency is very important.
JESSICA: Oh, yes, so these conversations when they are resolved with mutual respect, build relationships. You mentioned in your talk that it’s harder to have these fierce conversations if the person on the other side doesn’t know the convention of fierce conversations.
SOO: That’s right and I feel like we have done a great job as an industry, making sure that everyone understands frameworks on the way that we work. We don’t do a great job of putting out frameworks or the way that we’re going to interact with each other when feedback needs to happen. If we had a framework and one of them that I like is fierce conversations or many others, for us to resolve an issue or to get it out there, it feels like the right move.
JESSICA: I like that, frameworks for interactions. It’s like having a debugger or observability.
SOO: Yes, absolutely. We have frameworks for everything. We have frameworks for conferences when it comes to a code of conduct. We know that we’re going to have breakfast and lots of coffee and then lunch and plenty of discussion around it. What we don’t have is some type of model that we all agree to and we know that we’re going to follow when it comes to giving feedback and that goes right into performance reviews. That goes right into accountability of once the feedback you’ve given the feedback and the other person has received it of what happens next.
JESSICA: Introducing this kind of framework for interactions, like the fierce conversations, is something that you can do to ally with the people who might need to have these conversations because it’s going to be easier for them to use the framework if they didn’t introduce it.
SAM: Interesting. I’ve been sitting here and thinking too about these things in terms of being tools in a tool box. Again, if I can draw a parallel between development work and what we’re talking about, as developers, we wind up with a bunch of tools like inheritance, delegation and if we’re talking about refactoring, we have a whole bunch of different tactical level of refactorings that we can do and we can employ at different ones at different times based on what seems appropriate in the moment.
Each of those is a tool and by adding more and more tools to your toolbox, you become better at handling problems more adeptly. Just in that same way, that sounds like these fierce conversations is a tool. It sounds like a very, I don’t want to say heavyweight tool but it’s a tool that requires a lot of energy to wield. That sounds like a really useful one. I wonder if there are other ones that we can look for as well.
I want to mention a wonderful blog post by Aja Hammerly called ‘We Don’t Do That Here’ and I’ll just leave a link for that on the show notes. I highly encourage our listeners to go on and look that up. Just this idea of collecting different tools is a wonderful way that we can get better at handling more social situations more adeptly.
SOO: For me, I feel like we can’t take this at a team by team basis but it does again, matter the culture of your organization if you let all of your teams to use whatever tool choice, for instance. But there has to be a basis of setting the tone and the culture that we give feedback and we know how to receive feedback in a constructive manner and also, pay everybody equally.
Those two things are pretty revolutionary because they’re not anything to do with making someone a better coder. This is not going to necessarily help you respond to incidents better. This is something that makes us, as a whole as part of the environment. The things like this don’t show up in a performance review or we don’t say these things to a CEO of a company. If we said to a CEO of a startup right now, “I think everyone needs that agile training,” money falls out of the sky. If you say, “We need to have feedback and confrontational model training,” you may have to write a business case but we have to make it okay to go ahead and spend money and resources on things in the tool box that aren’t tech related.
SAM: And going back to what you said earlier about being able to take feedback, that is something going back to what Jessica said about how we can ally and help make spaces safer, we can model taking feedback well and we can model it both in a technical context, which I find a sometimes easier to take feedback about a design that you’ve given because there’s just, in my experience less ego around that. You can also model taking personal feedback if you have the opportunity to get it.
SOO: Absolutely. It’s somehow tied with, if you have a culture of failure as acceptable. I have seen where failure is acceptable within an engineering organization within a team, you have blameless post-mortems. But when it comes to human reactions, people feel like they can’t fail on those and they need to express opinions and they feel stifled and then you have another group of people who have to deal with this emotional wake of this negative feeling of what happened from that situation.
JESSICA: Again, it kind of compounds.
SOO: Yep. It’s not an easy one but I feel like if we continue to have this dialogue and Sam love the term saver spaces and we continuously approve on that. I feel like there is a way that we can make all of our lives better.
JESSICA: We have reflections. That was just a beautiful ending note.
SAM: It was, yes.
SOO: Oh, cool.
SAM: Is there anything critical before you go to reflections that you want to cover?
SOO: There’s hope. There are shows like this where they have someone like me who is not an expert in this field in any way, shape or form. I can only talk to you about my experiences. There are plenty of other women and underrepresented minorities that you can have talk about this topic in a lot more authoritative way. Thank you for letting me share my experiences in my professional career because this doesn’t happen very often in an open space and a safer space like this.
JESSICA: Thank you for sharing them.
SAM: Yes, thank you.
SOO: That was my reflection.
SAM: I just wanted to mention that’s really all any of us can do is share our own experiences and that just means that we all have to listen to each other as many as we can.
JESSICA: Yeah, because when they described experience does not jive with your experiences, you could choose to be like, “I have to either reject my experiences or your experiences so clearly, I’m going to reject what you just said.” Or you could be like, “That’s totally different from my experience. I can learn from that. The world is bigger and wider than I thought it was.”
SOO: That makes me so happy that we can use the words to talk like that. I love it when someone says to me, “Huh? I forget that I came up in privilege where this was very easy for me. I didn’t realize how hard it is for other people.” That type of empathy versus negating that person’s experience makes me feel like I have just seen that person’s authentic self for the first time, even though I’ve worked with that person for the last 10 years in the industry.
JESSICA: Which means that any time someone shares one of these experiences with you, it’s an opportunity to build that relationship.
SOO: Absolutely because they are speaking on things that are affecting their mind and their heart and they want to talk to you about something that is risky and ultimately unattractive and so uncomfortable and they’re willing to share that with you and they’re not doing it to make you uncomfortable. What they’re trying to do is they’re being their authentic self to you of giving you feedback of what you’ve done and you need to be authentic —
SAM: And trust.
SOO: And trust. Oh, Sam, trust. Wow, that is just so important in these conversations for us to move forward on both sides.
SAM: I always just saying that when somebody shares that story, they’re trusting you. They’re trusting that you’re going to be able to hear it well.
SOO: Yeah and they trust you to help them to do the heavy lifting, to spread the word that you can help in the situation.
JESSICA: Yeah and they’re not trusting you to not feel uncomfortable. That’s a thing. It’s not about you can’t feel uncomfortable. It’s about how do you feel about feeling uncomfortable. If I feel okay about being uncomfortable in a conversation with you, then I can learn. So much of what we do isn’t about how we feel. It’s driven by how we feel about how we feel.
SOO: That’s right. I could totally relate to what you’re saying to that.
SAM: Yeah, I’ve been sitting here trying to think about this and I think about it in terms of cognitive dissonance. Somebody tells me a story that puts me or the people who are like me in a not so positive light and that creates cognitive dissonance because the story is at odds with my own self-image or the self-image that I’ve inherited from my culture. The problem is not that cognitive dissonance. The problem is what you choose to do with it.
I think that — this is my call-to-action, I think — we can all become better at just sitting with cognitive dissonance and being okay with it and writing through it and seeing what it has to teach us.
JESSICA: In fact, it is my personal opinion as of yesterday — I forgot what I was reading — that cognitive dissonance is not a weakness of humans. The fact that we can hold two contradictory observations in our head is a superpower because we can’t possibly see all the world. We can’t possibly model all the world. We cannot have one accurate model of the world in our heads but we can have multiple, sometimes contradictory models, that each apply better to different situations like the experiences I’ve had in my life versus the experiences you have had in your life. These are different slices of the world.
If we can hold dissonant models in our heads, then we can practice empathy as opposed to sympathy. This is the bit where sympathy is about how I would feel in your situation, which means my model of the world. Empathy is about I see how you feel your model of the world.
SOO: Yeah. For a lot of my career, I have been pregnant and I would show up to big client meetings and customer meetings pregnant and you should see their reaction of a woman traveling, that is pregnant on a plane and coming to see them and they’re like, “Do you need to rest? Are you okay?” which is funny because I’m always confused for a second because I’m massively pregnant right now, okay, yes. They’re trying to relate to me and they’re trying to be kind. But they’re having some cognitive dissonance right now of someone that they’ve only seen on video is negotiating a multimillion dollar contract with them and then they see me in person is what’s happening. I always found that very interesting that straight to about what’s going on physically with me.
JESSICA: That’s a surprise that they had when you didn’t look exactly like they pictured you.
SOO: Yes. If you are Korean, you would know that my name is the Jane Doe of Korea. It’s the kimchi of Korea. But a lot of times too, people don’t know because they didn’t grow up with other people of my nationality and they don’t know if I’m a male or a female. That’s always fun in chat groups.
JESSICA: Yes, sometimes it is.
SAM: Yeah, interesting. As somebody with a name that is applicable to both genders in our culture, I haven’t really noticed that but I think that’s because I am already on the side that most people will assume that I am in tech.
JESSICA: True. We’re not likely to be Sam or Samantha. Soo, thank you for joining us for this conversation today.
SOO: Absolutely and thanks Jessica. Thanks, Sam and please keep in touch and Mandy, thank you so much and I’m sorry, we had to reschedule but I really hope it was worth it.
SAM: It totally worked out.
SAM: Well, thanks listeners. We’ll be back at you pretty soon.
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