In this episode, Courtney Eckhardt talks about incident response: how we talk and interact with people who are affected by crappy things. She also talks about disabilities in the workplace and professional spaces, the tension between accessibility and security, and incident retrospectives and defensiveness as a natural instinct to feedback.
A Word From Our Sponsor:
Check out this new podcast called The Local Maximum – it’s hosted by Max Sklar who is a Machine Learning Engineer at Foursquare. He covers a lot of fascinating topics: AI, building better products, and the latest technology news from his unique perspective. Max interviews a wide diversity of guests, including Engineers, Entrepreneurs, and Creators of all types. You can see their bios at localmaxradio.com, and subscribe to the Local Maximum podcast wherever you listen!
Courtney Eckhardt: @hashoctothorpe
Courtney Eckhardt has spent time working in system administration, tech support, internet anti-abuse, and incident response. She was one of the founding members of the feminist makerspace Seattle Attic and served on its board, and she’s participated in the Apparel Manufacturing Boot Camp at Albuquerque Fashion Incubator multiple times. Courtney is currently an incident response specialist at Heroku, and she gives conference talks about incident response, incident retrospectives, and having a healthy operations culture.
01:16 – Courtney’s Superpower: Explaining things.
06:50 – Incident Response: How we talk to people how are are affected by incidents
Other Great Incident Response GTC Episodes!
13:52 – Disabilities in the Workplace and Professional Spaces
20:25 – The Tension Between Accessibility and Security
23:20 – Developing Coping Skills in Response to a Troubled Childhood / Combatting the Feeling of Being Othered
29:16 – Incident Retrospectives and Defensiveness as a Natural Instinct to Feedback
35:29 – Showing Vulnerability
“In order to understand what another person is saying, you must assume it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of.” – George Armitage Miller
43:56 – Emotional Response
John: Trauma doesn’t stay in the past. Trauma has a continuous effect on our lives.
Coraline: Thinking about therapy and frame it as a blameless retrospective.
Sam: Referring to “post mortems” as “retrospectives” and buying the book Agile Retrospectives. (Future book club episode?!)
Jamey: Even if you’re not changing things in a higher level, you can still help on a direct level.
Courtney: Group therapy and handling retrospectives.
Want to help keep us a weekly show, buy and ship you swag,
and bring us to conferences near you?
Support us via Patreon!
Or tell your organization to send sponsorship inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Are you Greater Than Code?
Submit guest blog posts to email@example.com
Please leave us a review on iTunes!
To make a one-time donation so that we can continue to bring you more content and transcripts like this, please do so at paypal.me/devreps. You will also get an invitation to our Slack community this way as well.
Amazon links may be affiliate links, which means you’re supporting the show when you purchase our recommendations. Thanks!
JOHN: Welcome to Greater Than Code, Episode 110. I’m John Sawers. I’m here with my friend Sam Livingston-Gray.
SAM: Good morning and I am super thrilled to be here with my friend and as of tomorrow my coworker, Jamey Hampton.
JAMEY: I’m excited. It’s just an exciting week and I’m really pleased to be back on the show like everyone, including my friend, Coraline Ada Ehmke.
CORALINE: Hey, everybody and we have a very special guest today, Courtney Eckhardt. Courtney has spent time working in system administration, tech support, internet anti-abuse and incident response. She’s one of the founding members of the feminist makerspace, Seattle Attic and served on its board and she’s participated in the Apparel Manufacturing Boot Camp at Albuquerque Fashion Incubator multiple times. Courtney is currently an incident response specialist at Heroku and she gives conference talks about incident response, incident retrospectives and having a healthy operations culture. Welcome, Courtney.
COURTNEY: Thank you so much. It’s really exciting to be here with everyone.
CORALINE: We’re going to ask you our standard question and that is what is your superpower and how did you develop it?
COURTNEY: My superpower is explaining things. I can explain most things that I understand, at least at a high level to most people, which leads —
CORALINE: What do you mean? I don’t get it.
COURTNEY: Oh. That leads to a secondary superpower of being able to answer rhetorical questions with helpful answers.
CORALINE: What is a rhetorical question?
COURTNEY: Gosh, I don’t know. How did I get it? I got it and this is kind of a little bit dark, I got it because I have a really bad grown up situation growing up. It led to me being an extremely weird child and there were a lot of reasons for me to develop an ability to explain things so as to make myself seem less weird in a bunch of different contexts. Then I went into tech support. I have to do it for a living, which really just polished the skill that I already have.
CORALINE: Such a valuable skill. I think we still have this remnant or the revenant echo of technical people as very in-sore, as bad communicators. That’s not the case. You can’t be successful without being able to explain things, without being able to answer people’s questions, without being able to translate technical jargon into everyday language. It used to be rare but we’re finding that the most successful people have this skills and help the way they really are.
COURTNEY: Yeah, definitely. It frustrates me endlessly that so many people I have worked with over the years take pride in not being able to explain things of like, “What I do is so difficult I couldn’t possibly explain it to you,” and it leads to this feeling of superiority and breakdown in communication and I don’t think it’s good for anybody.
JAMEY: That’s interesting because when you first said taking pride in not being able to explain, my gut reaction was like, “Why? Who would do that?” and then you immediately explained and I was like, “Oh, yeah. I totally know people like that.” If anything I worry that if I explain technical things to people, it’s not that I’m worried that they won’t get it. I’m worried that they’ll find it really boring, like my fiancé asked me, “What did you do at work today?” and I’m like, “Do you really want to know what I did at work today?” And he’s like, “Yes,” and then I told him the story that feels really boring to me and he’s like, “That’s so cool,” and I’m like, “Oh, is it? Cool.”
COURTNEY: I love being able to make people feel less intimidated or wither about what it is that I do. I enjoy being able to explain what I do at a high level. My physical therapist is a very specialized person in a different field and understands what it is that I do and no longer feels quite as awkward about the difference between our professions.
CORALINE: I tried to explain to me therapist what I do, although most of the time, if I am talking about my work, it comes down to harassment issues and she told me once, “It sounds like you have an abusive relationship with the entire internet.”
SAM: That’s fair.
COURTNEY: On point.
JAMEY: Do you think this is a phenomenon that’s unique to the tech industry or do you think that other people that are highly ‘technical’ in other fields like a surgeon, would also experience like, “I don’t know how to tell you about this?” Or do you think that they… I don’t know. I’m now I’m trying to put myself into the head of someone who knows a lot about something that I don’t know about. What do you think?
COURTNEY: I feel like a lot of scientists can sort of wind up not wanting to talk to people who aren’t scientist about what they do.
CORALINE: I think there’s a culture in science too that was like this whole publish or perish thing where they have to be super tehnical and they have to be super insular or there’s pressure to be super insular in the papers that they write. I think that lead for a lot of technologists in these conference talks where you have to be able to express an idea to an audience of unknown skill level. I think that maybe even more important to not feel.
COURTNEY: This reminds me, actually, so I mentioned in our pre-discussions, Suzette Haden Elgin, who is a linguist and she spent most of her professional life sort of walled off from the rest of the people in her very small specialty because her focus was on pedagogy, not pedagogy in a sort of institutional sense but in writing books for regular people so they understand the tools that they use as human beings. That meant that most of the other linguists didn’t really want to pal around with her because she made what they did seem accessible, instead of special.
JOHN: Yeah. I find that tendency to want us hoard the information so that you seem more intelligent is definitely prevalent. Although, and I don’t know how I ended up with this tendency of wanting to tear that down but I always feel like, I think much like you that if someone feels like they could never understand what I do, I want to explain to them what I’m doing because they’ll immediately go, “Oh, okay. Yeah, I get that,” and I want them to not just like hand wave away all the internet stuff, all the coding stuff and just say, “Oh, that’s something for you to deal with.” I think it’s cool when they understand what’s going on there.
CORALINE: So Courtney, how does that relate to incident response, which is your primary role?
COURTNEY: A very critical part of incident response that I don’t think that we think about enough in this industry is how we talk to people who are affected by our incidents: what we say to them, how we say it, when we say it, whether it’s PR, customer service or some other thing. I feel like we can name large companies who posted really unhelpful things on their status site and never really let people know what happens and leave a lot of customers feeling really insecure about what went wrong and is it going to happen again? And how do I know whether I was affected?
One of the things that I strive for in my position at Heroku is to make sure that we are not necessarily getting too far down into the technical details because I think that also can lead to disservice but that we’re transparent and honest and that people can feel that we are telling the truth, at least at a high level. We’re not snowing them.
SAM: Yes. One tension that I often see or I think I see playing into those conversations is this idea that a large corporation, let’s say a credit card company, gets breached and millions of people’s personal details are leaked and they have to tell people that it happened because they are required to tell people that it happened. But the instinct, especially in that kind of organization is to cover your ass as much as possible and to avoid liability. How does that tension play out in the conversations that you’ve been part of?
COURTNEY: Security incident response is actually a slightly separate field from mine. It’s adjacent but it partakes a lot more understanding of bad actors and the dangers of saying too much or saying something too soon of which is not my core skill set. Mine is more around operations and being honest about what we’ve broke or what fell apart, that maybe was not something that we personally broke and how that affected people.
I have talked sometimes to my friend, Leigh Honeywell about this. She and I both have a very similar perspective about how these communications should happen but the content is something that I’m not very familiar with. I’m much more familiar with the cover your ass kind of thing about an SLA. We don’t want to have people making complaints that we breach our SLA and maybe, us having to give them money.
JAMEY: I wonder if this is a double-edged sword because I’m picturing a scenario where you kind of describe a scenario where there’s no accountability and they’re not talking about what went wrong and people aren’t trusting you which I understand but I wonder if there’s an opposite of that where people are mad about hearing the real reason like, “Oh, why didn’t you just not let that happen?” or whatever.
I remember there was some big problems at GitLab a couple of years ago and they were very honest about what happened and it traced back to a person and they were like, “We’re not going to fire this person because it was a mistake and they learned their lesson,” and people were really mad that they weren’t going to fire that person. I thought it was really irresponsible but I wonder what you have to say about the pros and cons, I guess of both sides of this.
COURTNEY: Usually, when I’m writing this kind of communication, I try not to make it about a single person because in a complex distributed system, it’s never about a single person. It’s always about what that person knew or didn’t know, what tools they have or didn’t have. The fact that they had to type a really long command in line and not get a single character wrong and all of those are ways that the company and the system around that person failed them. It could have been any one of us in that situation.
It’s not that I try to pretend that there wasn’t a single person who push a button somewhere but I try to make sure that the conversation doesn’t focus on that. That the conversation in public and in private is about all of those things, around the edges of where that person was, that affected what they did and knew in that moment.
JOHN: I know we’ve had several guests on the show that we talked about instant response and human factors and things like that, including Steven Shorrock and John Allspaw and one of the things that they emphasize that was sort of a new concept to me but made perfect sense as soon as it was explained to us, you can trace things back to a human often when you’re doing a root cause analysis but often, that’s not really the root cause because there’s all the context around that human about what they were doing and what led them to think that what they were doing was the correct thing.
That message, I think is a core thing that needs to get out to the public more because if the public understood that, just because you’ve identified one person pursing typing the wrong command, it doesn’t mean that you know exactly what happened and why it happened, that it would never happen again if people wouldn’t do that again. If we can get that message out a bit more, I think it would help.
COURTNEY: People sometimes ask me, I don’t know if any of you remember the giant ELB outage of, I think 2012, around Christmas time and Amazon unusually posted a long explanation of what had happens. In that particular case, a new hire was accidentally given production credentials to do a bunch of new hire practice including dropping a state table which this poor new hire dropped on the production ELB state database in US East. A lot of people asked me because I work at Amazon at the time and they didn’t fire that person and they didn’t know what they were doing or slightly more sophisticated question, didn’t they fire the person’s mentor who gave them the wrong credentials? And the answer is, no they didn’t because none of that was the fault of either of those individual humans. I’m actually often pleased to be able to answer that question and saying, “No, those people were not fired because it wasn’t their bad.”
JAMEY: I saw a quote once and I wish I knew… I’m going to see if I can find it so we could include it the show notes because I’m not sure who said this but it was like some company just had some outage and that cost like $20 million or something and they were like, “Aren’t you going to fire that person?” and he was like, “No, I just spent $20 million training them to never do that again. Why do I fire them now?
COURTNEY: I kind of love that but I also object to the idea that you can train someone to not make mistakes.
SAM: You can train them not to make a specific mistake again, probably.
JAMEY: You can train that person to have anxiety if they’re not very careful.
JOHN: I guess that’s what we should be shooting for.
CORALINE: We mentioned anxiety and anxiety is definitely a factor in my development experience and I feel like there’s a slap for people who are in fact in disabilities and I’m invited to this [inaudible] and I was like, “Well, I don’t have any disabilities,” and they were like, “You can just talk with women and health issues,” and I’m like, “Yeah but I don’t think of it that way,” but it really is, right? And then it’s one of those invisible disabilities but there are other visible disabilities and people who are struggling. How does that factor in?
COURTNEY: Whenever I talk about disabilities in the workplace and professional spaces, I mention that I’ve never worked with someone with an obvious physical disability in a public company. I’ve only worked with someone with obvious mobility aids or other issues that are visible from a conversational distance like a 10-foot distance in public sector jobs. I have a coworker right now who has lower vision. I worked with some folks with hearing issues and of course, the mental health issues that Coraline mentioned and something that I also struggle with but there’s a difference to being, for me, the one person with an obvious physical need.
It’s funny how sometimes, it’s really clear for people, for strangers that walk up to me on the street and see my knee brace and be like, “What did you do to yourself?” By the way, that’s a terrible question. I did not do it to myself but sometimes people don’t notice and I’ll be sort of hang around with coworkers that’s time to go somewhere and a lot of them go bounding down the stairs and I go find the elevator.
I had this experience at AWS re:Invent actually this past week. One of the parts of my job currently is that I am the relationship owner for Heroku and AWS. AWS re:Invent, in case you aren’t aware of it, is a gigantic conference that’s held in like six hotels, up and down the Las Vegas strip. The distances involved are ridiculous and unbelievable. I measured on a map and the distance between one of the residential towers in the Venetian to the conference space in the Venetian is half a mile indoors. When I’m there, I get a mobility scooter because I can’t cover those distances in a way that’s good for my body, especially not with the time constraints of the conference. Up until this year, I was the only person that I saw with a mobility aid and a lanyard and this year, I also needed to get scanned by security personnel every time I came in or out of the space because they had no detectors at the entrances. There’s no way to go in or out with a mobility aid of any kind because they’re basically all metal and not trigger the metal detectors.
This is something has been super on my mind lately. That was just last week as we’re recording this. For me, I’ve been thinking about what it means to have something that I couldn’t opt out of. Other attendees could not bring their laptops in the conference space and walk through and the metal detectors won’t have an issue. There was no way for me to literally, do my job without getting searched each time.
CORALINE: That can be really [inaudible] in a way.
COURTNEY: Very much so, especially in previous years, being the only one on a scooter with a lanyard. For anyone who has not been to Vegas, other people who rent mobility scooters in the casinos, tend to be retirees who were there on vacation. It’s a very marked state to be not the normal kind of able-bodied person as it were. Also, not the normal kind of person with this issue.
JAMEY: That’s really interesting. I had not thought about it from that perspective of feeling others, even from other people that are going through something similar to you.
COURTNEY: I never knew whether to nod at the other people on scooters or not. We were not part of a community actually but we sort of were but we were part of a marked state that was not even the same marked state.
SAM: Yeah. That reminds me of something that I’ve seen people talking about on Twitter from time to time, which is people who use mobility devices and especially, wheel chairs face this additional stigma of like if they use a wheelchair because they have balance problems but they can stand up, then when they are seen standing up out of the wheelchair in public, they are accused of faking it and not having a real disability in heavy air quotes. Did you experience anything of that? Or does the scooter mitigate some of that?
COURTNEY: In some way, the scooter mitigate some of that like there is an expectation to mobility scooter that you’re not using it for every step. It’s for sort of distances and maybe outside the home in most cases. Partly because a lot of mobility scooters are larger than an electric wheelchair in footprint. They weigh more and they’re much more awkward in a bunch of small spaces and stuff. Not having had a chair of my own, I recognized that there are chairs that are larger than the ones I’m thinking but a lot of them are smaller. Because of the layout of the conference space, they wind up parking the scooter in the hallway and then walking into the conference room that I’m there for. It’s this peculiar thing where I switch what kind of person I am because I walked through the door and the people in the room don’t know that I’m also the person who was on that scooter.
SAM: Yeah. I actually had a similar but much milder experience at RubyConf a couple of weeks ago where I had been walking around Disneyland and got a blister and my foot was really hurting so I actually went out and bought a cane the day before the conference and so for the first two days of the conference, I was hobbling around with a cane and then by the third day, it felt fine. It felt really different to navigate that same space just with that one tiny little change.
COURTNEY: Did the cane make noise when you walk?
SAM: Only at first and then I remembered that you can tighten the little screw down so that it doesn’t go clink, clink, clink every time.
COURTNEY: I’ve been on crutches for long stretches several times at this point and I have never had people get out of my way, as well as they did when they heard the crutches coming.
SAM: Yeah. I did notice that I got more space when I was obviously walking differently.
CORALINE: I think if I have a mobility, if I sat, I would have to rig up like an Arduino or Raspberry Pi or something to make the Jetson’s car noise as I —
JOHN: I think you bring up an interesting point, though talking about the security scans that you were forced to go through. It’s the tension between accessibility and security where normally, there’s just regular accessibility is tough on security but then, if you have a disability, those security issues can be even more onerous. If there’s a captcha that doesn’t have an audio option and you’re low vision, maybe you just can’t log into the website and you’ve got all that extra screening stuff that draws even more attention to you when you’re in a chair or have some sort of device like that. I can imagine there’s a lot of tension there.
JAMEY: I feel like we’re not being able to do a captcha will be particularly othering because we’re literally accusing you of being a robot and not a human.
COURTNEY: Yeah, that makes sense to me. There are some folks working in sort of UX and security. That’s starting to be a thing and I can’t wait to hear more about what those people are going to say.
JOHN: I think security could use a lot of UX love, so I really hope that a lot of people do that.
CORALINE: I’ve been seeing on Twitter, maybe over the past couple of years, people talking about accessibility being a critical feature in software design, as opposed to an afterthought where it’s like, “We’re building a website and let’s make it accessible.”
JOHN: By the way, we’re relaunching tomorrow.
COURTNEY: It’s funny how much buildings are like that too. Nowadays, the giant statement staircase in front and then there’s usually several statements staircases inside. I know, at least on RubyConf, you saw a little tiny stairs everywhere and then, you look for how to get there on wheels and how to get there on wheels is in the back around a corner and not signed and maybe not maintained. Often the problem with your wheelchair access is it’s very, very poorly maintained.
JAMEY: I wonder if it’s an intersectionality issue also because one thing that I really appreciated about RubyConf this year is that they had a gender-neutral bathroom and it wasn’t even that far away from the conference like it sometimes is but it was up a whole bunch of stairs. I think that, perhaps they’re not thinking about like, “We did something for this Person A who is in this demographic and for Person B who is in this other demographic but what about someone that’s in both?”
COURTNEY: Yeah, I was really lucky at RubyConf. I think that some of you know Jennifer Tu, who’s a friend of mine and I arrived actually a day late and missed a bunch of really good talks that I have to go back and watch it on video. But she looked at all the stairs and she was like, “Courtney is not going to have a good time. I need to go and use my building exploration skills to try to figure out where all the elevators are,” which she did. I was very grateful. But I one point, she was like, “The speakers lounge is up there and I don’t know where are the elevators to get there,” and I have suddenly decided I do not care that much and I never went to the speakers lounge.
JOHN: One of the things that you mentioned early on in your superpower talk was how your superpower came out of your troubled childhood and that applies to me as well. I think for a lot of us, it probably does. Those coping skills that we develop in whatever crap we had to go through to get to where we are, are the things that can really bring value to other people and fulfill us, let’s say. I’m wondering if you want to talk about that a little bit.
COURTNEY: Yeah. I have been sort of mulling over what you said a little bit ago about not wanting people to feel intimidated by what you do and that you personally, John — I’m not sure where that came from for you — I know that for me, that came from a place of being a kid who was deliberately isolated from a lot of culture and a lot of people. The sort of black humor version of this is that if living off the grid and home schooling had been a thing when I was growing up, that’s what my parents would have done. It meant that a lot of people will relate to me as if I was this, a very strange, intimidating but also, annoying kind of alien, like a space alien.
I used this standard joke that people say, I was raised by wolves. I don’t know which fork to use or whatever. I think that’s definitely a thing. I don’t want to belittle that experience because I was very lucky in not having the particular fork experience because I literally got training in it in high school. But I said, raised by wolves at one point to a friend and she said, “No, you were raised by cartoon villains. You were raised by the person in Disney’s hunchback who’s singing to the hunchback, ‘No one loves you but me. No one can be trusted but me. Only rely on me.'”
I really didn’t want that. I really didn’t want to be that distant from everyone else and we were just talking about othering and that’s a different kind. It was a social and cultural othering that I really worked hard to try to make less prominent for me.
CORALINE: Do you think that’s part of what attracted you to a career in tech?
COURTNEY: The career in tech was actually a complete accident. I dropped out of school in 1999, in Cambridge, Massachusetts and that was a time when Akamai was hiring people off the street to work in their [inaudible]. I was their first full time [inaudible] worker and that’s how I went into computers. My original goal had been geneticist and at this point, at the age of 39, I am pleased that I didn’t do that because at this age, if I were a geneticist, I would just be probably starting to be able to do my own research, instead of doing research for other people. There’s a lot of cool things I’ve been able to do in my life that I would just be getting started the cool, self-directed part of that life.
The othering is definitely part of the feeling of being other. The feeling of wanting to reduce that is definitely part of what made me really effective in tech support: talking to customers who were bewildered, upset, confused and usually, hurt. A lot of customers who are in a place where they don’t understand what’s going on, at the bottom of that is that they feel that they can’t get things done and they’re unwelcome and they don’t know where to go for help. Being able to make that better can be really rewarding but also, I spent six years in tech support and I might be done with that as a career now.
SAM: Yeah. That experience of being bewildered and left out reminds me of actually something that I saw on Twitter just this morning. It happens that yesterday, as we record this, Rudy Giuliani tweeted something and he tweeted in such a way that he left out a space between the period and the beginning of the next sentence, in a way that created a clickable link to a domain that was not registered and somebody went and register that domain with a message about Trump being a traitor to our country and then Giuliani lost his shit about this and accused Twitter employees of allowing somebody to interject in his message because they were all anti-Trump bigots or something, which on the one hand is laughable but from another’s perspective, this is somebody who generationally and fundamentally that does not get some basics about how the internet works.
CORALINE: Yet, he were tapped as a potential candidate for a cyber security adviser.
JAMEY: I saw that too. It’s super interesting to me because it’s the same joke as screenshots of someone’s grandma who accidentally posted their real search to Facebook as a status update, except that it’s like important people in the government and make me hurt in my soul.
SAM: Right, yeah.
CORALINE: Yeah but that was a failure of communication because Giuliani has no idea of how that happened and I wonder if anyone tried to explain it to him in terms that he could actually understand.
SAM: Yeah. If I take my own personal politics out of it, which is hard in this case because I feel very strongly about these people but if I take them out of it, what I can see is an old person who made a mistake and feels… I don’t know how they feel about it but they’re acting out in a way that suggests that maybe they don’t really know what’s going on and feel really defensive.
COURTNEY: I always have the super strong urge to look them up and be like, “Hey, I can make this makes sense for you.”
JAMEY: I definitely understand your point about someone just feeling so much like they don’t understand something, that they can’t relate to it but I also wonder how much there is to say about making a mistake and then, being genuinely reflective about it, rather than just being defensive about it.
COURTNEY: Yeah, that’s something that I talk about a lot in my talks on retrospectives and when holding them with coworkers, that sort of thing. Incident retrospectives are one of the things that I worked on standardizing at Heroku. If I’m looking someone up and saying, “Hey, I can make this makes sense for you,” it does also take work on their part to be open to that, to take it in, to sort of sift with it like you were saying in reflection, instead of letting their defensiveness sort of run down. That’s an emotional intelligence, emotional labor kind of skill too.
JOHN: Yeah. Receiving feedback, especially negative feedback, it takes a lot of emotional muscles to do that well and not make it worst really.
COURTNEY: Yeah. Luckily in my work at Heroku with retrospectives — I feel I keep name dropping the company a lot, sorry. Luckily, we don’t have a lot of problems with defensiveness in most of our retrospectives. Most of the folks that we have now are very committed to the idea of retrospectives. It would be interesting, sort of complimentary problem but we do have is that sometimes people win themselves, which is not something you want in a blameless retrospective either.
CORALINE: I definitely experienced that at my current job. I’ve been there for about a year and a half now. I brought system down exactly once and a woman was like, “Oh, it’s not a big deal. It happens to everybody,” and I’m like, “Yeah but not me. It doesn’t happen to me.” I wrote up the postmortem document and when I laid out the simple mistake that I had made, that cause that outage, I was like, “I’m such an idiot. How could I possibly do that? I should know better than that,” and we had the postmortem, which I appreciate you calling a retrospective, as opposed to a postmortem. I’m sure that’s deliberate and no one put on a defensive but I put myself on the defensive.
JAMEY: I think this comes right back to what we’re talking about right at the beginning. I was thinking about this when we’re talking about how it’s not one person’s fault when something bad happens. We discussed it in the context of if someone else did something, it’s not just their fault but it’s also not just your fault because there should be a structure around you that also protects you from doing stuff like that too.
SAM: Whose bright idea was it to give me production access to the database?
JAMEY: You’re right, Sam We can just blame someone else. We can always just blame someone else.
SAM: John, you said something a minute ago about taking feedback requiring a lot of emotional muscle. I also want to point out that this is not a skill that once you acquire it, like most skills, you don’t acquire it linearly and you don’t acquire it in all contexts at once. For years, I’ve done a lot of good training in how to take professional feedback well and without getting my ego involved in it and I got pretty good at it. Then in other contexts, socially or personally, it’s terrible. You say the slightest thing and I just get super defensive and clam up and I’m like, not talking to you for a week. It can be really hard not only to acquire the skills in the first place but then to be able to port it to different contexts. If you’re struggling with this, you’re not the only. That’s going to be your fault.
JAMEY: I take responsibility.
COURTNEY: I found that one of the first times that I learned on what you’re saying about how to stay with your defensiveness and sort of not let it out, I’d learned that as part of spending a lot of time reading the angry feminist internet in the mid-2000s, one thing that a lot of people were saying at that time which it took me a long time to really understand was, “If it’s not about you, it’s not about you. Don’t make it about you,” and what that means is that in terms of activism and in terms of describing oppressions or emergent properties of groups, you need to talk about generalities. You need to talk about tendencies. You need to talk about wider pressures that doesn’t mean that every person who could be described by what you’re talking about is a member of that sect.
Using myself as an example, white women historically have not been good allies to women of color, in intersectional struggles around feminism and racism. That means that I need to sit with my complicity, probably unconscious complicity in that but it doesn’t mean that if a black woman calls out a bunch of white women for doing a particular thing I’ve never done, it doesn’t mean that she’s talking about me and critically, it does not mean I need to respond in any way. It means that I need to notice this, acknowledge it, try not to be like that myself. Learn from an example that’s being called out in front of me. This is a free training opportunity. I love it and not say anything back. This is something that the #NotAllMen or #YesAllMen talks about a lot, where if you haven’t done it, don’t tell us. Just keep not doing it.
SAM: Right because the first response is, “Well, I’m not like that,” or, “We’re not all like that,” and then once you get over that, something that I still sometimes struggle with, is that second level response of, “I see you. I see that. You want to make it a joke or something,” to show that you understand it, to show solidarity but it often comes across as like, “I want my ally cookie for getting it, for being woke.”
CORALINE: I was thinking a little about the defensiveness remark and how’s our natural instinct be defensive if we recognize we’ve done something wrong but I think the flip side of that is how difficult it is to show vulnerability, that admitting that you did something wrong requires a certain level of vulnerability that I think is really hard for some people to wrap their heads around.
COURTNEY: That can be especially hard. It’s probably true that everyone in the world has been bullied at one time or another, so we’ve probably all had some basic experience of injustice but depending on your personal experiences, you may have had a lot of experience in injustice and then, it’s very difficult to be vulnerable and know that the response to your vulnerability might be additionally injurious to you.
CORALINE: I definitely experienced that in the past for being a visible, vocal person and trying to make a difference in the world. I had an experience recently. I was at our engineering summit at my company and there was a young woman of color who approached me about the behavior of a white woman at one of our company events and how it made her feel really uncomfortable. She came to me and the first thing I did was I’m going to listen and then after I listened and I was like, “I hear you and your feelings are valid. Do you want me to go talk to her?” That was a really good conversation and I felt good about this person in my company without vulnerability.
We ended up going outside to have a cigarette. I made a passing remark about my bipolar and she let up because she also struggles with bipolar disorder and it reminded me that there’s value in me being vulnerable even though it opens me up to additional harassment and having to read people like dissecting my mental health publicly. But being vulnerable actually helps people, being vulnerable other people can see themselves reflected in your experience and it requires strength to do that but that can be life changing for people.
COURTNEY: Yeah, totally.
JAMEY: I like what you said about everyone has been, maybe bullied but some people have more experience of injustice because I think that the more experienced people have with injustice, the harder it is to talk about because I think there’s this perception that are like you just complain about everything or like it can’t possibly be as bad as you’re saying that it is or like this perception of being dramatic or exaggerating or making stuff up to people who have experienced it, it feels attention-y to them. I guess I’m not sure where I’m going with this but…
SAM: How about believe people when they tell you something?
JAMEY: Yeah. I think that’s a good place to start. I wonder how we can combat that feeling in general because, I think that if everyone believed everything when you tell them something, maybe it would be better but I do think, as you’re saying earlier, that a lot of it is internal. Even people that have always believed me when I’ve told them stuff, I have this fear of coming off as complain-y too. I think it’s like a bigger attitudes thing even that potentially.
COURTNEY: Something I was thinking about as you were saying that is that there’s a way in which everyone has sort of a sense of what’s possible, what’s real and it’s informed by their experiences and people who have a lot of privilege and maybe have only experience a little bit of bullying and have not experienced greater kinds of abuse or oppression, flatten what they hear into what they themselves have experienced because it’s difficult to perceive things that hadn’t happened to you.
If someone says something to me that’s very outside my personal experience, it has to be a deliberate effort on my part to set aside what I know to be possible for me in the world and think about what they’ve just told me in their context. Again, name checking one of my favorite people, Suzette Haden Elgin, in one of her early books, she talks about of what she calls Miller’s Law and it’s coined by George Armitage Miller. I used this in almost all my talks, too. The law is the only way to understand something that someone else has said to you is that it seems completely ludicrous on its face. It is to believe that it must be true and then try to figure out what it must be true of.
CORALINE: That really speaks to part of my experience when I was passing and trying to live as a guy. I didn’t experience a whole lot of active or visible harassment or reminiscing along those lines and that wasn’t until I changed, so I had this abstract notion that yes, sexism is bad and it must be horrible to experience. But actually being in the position where I started to experience sexism and started to experience transphobia in a more blatant way was really confirmative because I didn’t realize, like you said that those things were possible. I knew they are real but they’re always abstract.
JAMEY: I think the potentially experiencing harassment in one kind of lane, I guess make people more empathetic of other people. I can’t know what it is like to be black and experience racism but I do know that people are shitty and so, I think maybe I have a better than someone who is privileged in all lanes, like a better idea of like, “I’m sorry that this happened to you. I’ve never experienced that but I know that people are shitty and I totally believe that they would be that shitty to you and I’m sorry.”
COURTNEY: The sort of negative example that I think of about this a lot is that Big A –Atheists — the sort of movement atheist, which tend to be a lot of white men whose only experience of any kind of institutionalized. I’m not even going to say oppression, disadvantaged is being atheist and it is the worst injustice if you [inaudible]. They’re like the absolute worst. There’s no worst injustice than that perpetrated upon the atheists by [inaudible].
JAMEY: I have a story about this. I’m calling out my dad. My dad is a very good ally to me but I’m calling him out on this one because we had this conversation several years ago where he was like, “You can’t understand what it’s like to be around a lot of people and they’re all Christian except you,” and I was, “Really? I can’t understand that?” and he was, “Oh, no.” It was a good conversation. I was actually mad about him at the time but it was a good conversation because I think I was actually able to get through to him and be like, “Wow, what must it be like to be the only person in a group of people that’s different? I would never understand.” But I think that maybe… I don’t know, maybe snarky-ness is a response because it kind of worked for him but I’m sure that there are other people that it wouldn’t work for that aren’t [inaudible] but I’ve experienced what you’re describing. My dad listens to this podcast and I feel a little bad but not that bad.
CORALINE: Your dad listens to your podcast?
COURTNEY: That’s great.
CORALINE: I don’t know if I wish that my dad listen to this podcast or not. I don’t think I have ever… maybe I have called him out a couple of times for his politics but luckily my dad doesn’t follow me on Twitter. He’s on Twitter and I self-censor the thought on myself on Facebook. It’s all like, “Look, pictures of me in Paris,” and not, “Look, the administration wants to kill me.”
JOHN: I had a little story that sort of popped up after the conversation moved on from the sort of difficulty of taking feedback. I can interject that now. We can edit it in or we can…
CORALINE: If we can back to it, then it’s fine.
JOHN: One of the things I was thinking about earlier when we were talking about the difficulty of taking feedback constructively. It’s definitely something I’m still working on. There’s a lot of head room for me to do there and this happened last week. I got some very, very mild negative feedback from the superior about something that could have gone better or something that could have been thought through more thoroughly before it was executed. In the moment, I took the feedback well but then there was the sort of lingering emotional impact for a day or two after and I knew this was going to happen. Thankfully, I had enough experience with this that I knew was going to happen but my emotions kept saying, “Well, maybe this isn’t the company for you. You know, things aren’t going that great, so maybe spend a little time like thinking about other places that you can go.”
I think if I hadn’t known that that was going to be a response I had, I might have started polishing up my resume or reaching out to people but thankfully, I knew enough about my own response that I could say, “No, no, no. This is just going to be a day or two. I’ll process through it. It’ll be fine,” but I find that knowledge of my own emotional response to a certain situation was really helpful there in not overreacting or not doing anything unconstructive, even in my own life, not necessarily even in a work situation.
CORALINE: How do we teach that?
JOHN: One of the things that I do is try to keep being familiar with my own emotional responses and one of the things I recommend is doing an emotional retro at the end of every week, where you look back and say, “Tuesday was a little sad. Wednesday, I was totally angry. Friday was really excited,” and just feeling those feelings. You probably don’t do it in the moment because it’s really hard to do in the moment and maybe, you can go back for just a couple of days and work through the feeling and sort of understand it a little better.
Then once you’ve done that you get that sort of everyday experience with what the ebb and flows feel like, which makes it then easier when bigger things happen for you to say, “Suddenly, a pattern I’m noticing in every time X happens. I respond with why and maybe, I could not do that this time.”
COURTNEY: I feel like there are a lot of people blogging about activism and how to deal with your own bias — that talk about how to manage these feelings in yourself and that the first thing to try to learn is to sit with your own defensiveness, which it sounds that’s exactly what you did, John and it was definitely, the learning to do that was transformative for me. I feel like I figured out a lot of other ways to handle situations like that that after I figured out how to sit with my own defensiveness, the rest of it almost came naturally.
The other thing I was thinking about with the sort of knowing your own responses to these kinds of situations and how sometimes were surprised by the responses of our brains, there’s a single paragraph in the book ‘Trauma and Recovery’ that I have been thinking about a lot lately. The context of this paragraph is that the author doesn’t draw a distinction between people who experienced something like being a political prisoner or prisoner of war and someone who is in an abusive, romantic relationship or of an abusive family that she finds that the experiences on the outcomes are so similar that it is fundamentally the same kind of experience.
This is in the chapter on captivity. She says, “Prolonged captivity disrupts all human relationships and amplifies the dialectic of trauma. The survivor oscillates between intense attachments and terrified withdrawal. She approaches all relationships as the questions of life and death are at stake. She may cling desperately to a person who she perceived as a rescuer, please suddenly from a person she suspects to be the perpetrator or an accomplice, a sheer great loyalty and devotion to a person she perceives as outlier and keep wrath and scorn on a person who appears to be a complacent bystander.
“The roles she assigns to others may change suddenly as the result of small lapses or disappointments for no internal representation of another person is any longer secure. Once again there’s no room for mistakes. Over time, as most people failed and survivors exacting tests of trustworthiness, she comes to withdraw from relationships. The isolation of the survivor best persists even after she can spree.” That last sentence gives me a feeling of sort of moment to silence, like a rock dropped in a well.
JOHN: I’m going to go get that book.
COURTNEY: Yeah. It’s an amazing book. I read that one chapter having open to it by accident and put the book down and have been thinking about it for the last nine months. That’s what I think about when we talk about these sort of surprising responses by our brains, like a small thing that didn’t go how we expected, a small piece of negative feedback, a setback and suddenly, our brains are like, “Oh, God. Must run away.” Because things are really, really, really bad, you should have to talk to your own brain down from that edge.
CORALINE: Brains are so mean.
JOHN: Yeah. I think when you talked about sitting with a feeling is, I think one of those keys. Because I think, most of us — certainly me — the first reaction to a feeling is, “Get away, get away, get away,” and that leads to all sorts of behaviors aren’t necessarily constructive but when you can stop that avoidance behavior and sit and just say, “This is the feelings. This is what it is. I’m just going to sit here and we’ll keep going but I don’t have to do anything about it,” suddenly your options open up. Maybe, the feeling just evaporates and it goes away in the situation passes. You know, sometimes you realize that there is a thing to do but you can spend your time thinking through what that is going to be.
JAMEY: I’ve definitely experienced that too, like the idea of I have a feeling and my logic side is like, “This feeling is dumb and doesn’t make sense and therefore, I shouldn’t be having it and I’m going to stop having it,” and this idea —
JOHN: Because it used to work all the time.
JAMEY: Yeah, exactly and this idea of like, “Well, this feeling doesn’t totally makes sense to me but I’m obviously having it, so I just have to deal with that.” It’s like kind of… I don’t know, like freeing in a way in some ways.
JOHN: Yeah, you’re not always fleeing.
JAMEY: Like allowing yourself and to be like, “Even though I don’t think I should be doing this, I’m accepting the fact that this is reality and this is what’s actually happening.”
SAM: I’ve been trying to be a little bit more consistent about actually meditating regularly these days, I mean for one to three minutes at a stretch because that’s what I can manage right now. But I had this experience last week of sitting down and I woke up early that morning and I was super tired. I was just like, “Got to get up, got to take a shower, get dressed, do all the things, get ready for work,” and then when I sat on my computer, I meditate for one minute. The alarm went off and so, I stopped and I actually sat down and checked in with myself. Within two seconds, I actually noticed again just how painful my body felt and I was like, “Wow, that’s sucks,” and then my next thought was, “So this is the thing that’s happening that I had sort of been ignoring on but now that I’m here and I noticed it, what can I do differently? What can I change? How can I give myself space to take care of myself, knowing that this is now happening?” And just stopping and taking the time to sit with something and check in gives you that power to maybe choose how you respond.
CORALINE: I think naming it has a lot of power too. I remember there was a situation earlier this year. I’ve been having a really rough time and I was talking to my therapist and I was like, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me because all the colors have been drained out of life and all the things that used to giving pleasure, none of it gives me pleasure anymore.” She was like, “Coraline, you’re having a depressive episode,” and I was like, “Oh. Oh, yeah. That’s something that happens to me.” Just naming it allowed me to enter it with a little bit of distance between myself and the way I was feeling. I felt so stupid for not having recognized that that was happening but it’s overwhelming. I couldn’t take a step back from it but naming it, allowed me to take a step back and was really vital and helping me recover from that episode.
JAMEY: I like that you both restored power in your descriptions of it.
SAM: That to me was one of the worst things about my own experiences with depression is that for me, it’s not that I feel bad all the time, although when I do that really, really sucks. For me the most insidious part of my depression is all those times when I just don’t feel anything and my depression is telling me, “It’s always been this way and will always be this way.” If I can stop and actually actively named my depression, then I can remember that it does that to me and realized, “Oh, it hasn’t always been this way,” and I can go look for evidence again that contradicts that story but I have to be able to notice it.
CORALINE: All of this reminds me is kind of like an emotional incident response, right?
JOHN: Yeah, there’s a training… I’m actually trying to find a time slot for called mental health first aid. They do training for police officers, as well as regular citizens on how to deal with someone who is having a mental health crisis, so that you do not make it worse, so they can be taken care properly. I’m particularly glad that they’re giving these training to law enforcement officers because usually, the situation go so poorly. But it’s the training I want to get myself just because I would love to be able to help out better in those situations.
CORALINE: I think an important part of that too is not just necessary when there’s a crisis. I think part of the way that we as a society dealing with mental health issues is we wait until all is life threatening and then, we attempted an intervention and we don’t get the constant level of support or the constant checking in or the consent care for the things for short term or less.
SAM: Because if you can stand up sometimes, you must not really need that wheelchair.
CORALINE: That feels like a great way to end the episode, Sam. That was fucking brilliant.
COURTNEY: Quality call back.
SAM: Thank you.
JOHN: At the end of episode, we would like to do reflections where we talk about the things that we’re going to takeaway from this episode or the things that have made us think more deeply about a certain thing. I think my reflection is just about how the history of a trauma, like from it, it doesn’t stay in the past. Trauma is a continuous fact on our life. It’s something that those of us who experienced it or dealing with at all times but it’s not all negative because it can be a thing that will teach us how to deal with other people who have had the same traumas or similar traumas. It can teachers how to understand those people and their experiences and give us new skills that we had to develop on going through it, that are maybe now useful to us in the future. While trauma is a terrible thing and I hope that no one ever goes through any of it, there are some gems in that pile of manure that it is.
CORALINE: I think for me and it’s really interesting how we started talking about, Courtney, our professional career and how quickly that sort of shifted in to this slight difficult but important emotional space. I like the idea, [inaudible] a joke at the end here but I want to think about therapy and frame that as a blameless retrospective. I think that’s kind of what they do except for the blameless part, so I want to take some of the lessons that I learned from my day job along with retrospectives or postmortems as we call them and just figure out how I can apply that to my own mental health, so thank you for that.
SAM: Damn it, Coraline. You stole my reflection.
CORALINE: No, I’m sorry.
SAM: I was going to actually say, I was going to take something from tech and apply it to therapy, which is that you actually called out earlier how Courtney, you refer to postmortems as retrospectives and that sort of stuck with me and I was realizing actually, what I could do is use this as an excuse to actually buy the book on Agile Retrospectives and go through it, specifically reading into the context of therapeutic change and wondering and specifically looking through there to see if there are any tricks that I can borrow from tech and use them so that I can apply those skills that I have in a professional context to my own personal development.
JOHN: Oh, I’m so going to do that too.
JAMEY: We can do a book club episode about it.
JAMEY: It’s a good idea.
CORALINE: So much brilliance on display today.
SAM: I bet we could get Diana for that.
JAMEY: That would be awesome, honestly. For my reflection, I’m going to throw back a little bit earlier in the show. The story that I keep thinking about is Courtney [inaudible] in the show about her friend Jennifer going to RubyConf and scouting out the stair situation and everything for her because I think my first response, I went to this kind of series of thoughts in my head where I have everything and my first thought was like, “Oh, what a good friend,” and then my second thought was like, “She should have to do that because this is bullshit,” but then I circle back around and I was like, “Oh, it is bullshit and how important it is to have such a good friend.” I guess my reflection is a kind of an action item for me. I was actually on the organizing team for RubyConf and it’s been really rewarding for me to try to make changes in actual architecture of how things are run and I think that that’s really important but sometimes, it’s not as possible as you’d like it to be or you push for things and they still don’t happen. I think it’s a really cool and good action item to be like even if you’re not changing things on this higher level, you can still be helping people kind of more direct level and sometimes, it’s easy to forget that when you’re so busy, trying to change things all over the world, that you can still be a good friend and do something good for your individual friend.
COURTNEY: Several of you said like you want to start thinking about technology tracks in therapy and I’m thinking about maybe, I should go try and learn something about group therapy and see how that informs how I handle retrospectives.
CORALINE: I love that idea.
JOHN: But there’s a gold mine in there.
SAM: Well, thank you. As always, this has been a really interesting conversation that did not go where I thought it was going to go and that was wonderful. Listeners, we’ll be back at you soon.
JOHN: Check out this new podcast called ‘The Local Maximum.’ It hosted by Max Sklar who is a machine learning engineer at Foursquare. He covers a lot of fascinating topics: AI, building better products and the latest technology news from his unique perspective. Max interviews a wide diversity of guests, including engineers, entrepreneurs and creators of all types. You can see their bios at LocalMaxradio.com and subscribe to the Local Maximum Podcast wherever you listen.