Episode 007: Overcoming Adversity and Battling Unconscious Bias with Neem Serra


Coraline Ada Ehmke | Jay Bobo | Jessica Kerr | Astrid Countee

Guest Starring: Neem Serra
The Women Techmakers group in St. Louis
Asynchrony Labs

Show Notes:

00:16 – Welcome to Greater Than Code
02:02 – Neem Serra Introduction

Neem Serra: “From Babies to Software Development”

03:23 – 2016 Election Thoughts, Fears, and Aspirations; Importance of Ally Support

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The Other America”

14:51 – Overcoming Adversity and Getting Into Science


26:27 – Switching from Science to Programming and Getting a Job

Software Carpentry
National Society of Black Engineers
HandsUp United
Project Euler

We are (currently) listener supported! Support us via Patreon!
Thank you, Matt Hucke, for your support!

33:53 – Volunteering and Being Empathetic and Inclusive

47:36 – Battling Unconscious Bias
55:17 – Programming in Swift

Swift Playgrounds Demo with a Twist


Astrid: Push through.

Jessica: Programming gives you power. Also, we love you, David Brady.

Coraline: Individual actions matter. Be allies to people who are facing discrimination or oppression.

Neem: Small acts of kindness matter.

The Techies Project

Please leave us an iTunes Review!


CORALINE:  Hello and welcome to Episode 7 of Greater Than Code. A running joke is to get the show title wrong in a new way every episode, but today just doesn’t feel right for jokes. We’re recording this the day after the presidential election and emotions here are running really high. We’re confused, we’re frightened, we’re angry and we’re ashamed and for good reason. But I strongly believe that the values that we, as panelists, guests, and listeners hold dear are more important now than ever. More than ever, we need to hear the personal stories of people who have succeeded in spite of adversity, people who have succeeded when the world told them it was impossible, people who have overcome tremendous obstacles to make a better life for themselves.

We need to hear their stories and be inspired to make changes in our own lives and to help others find their way forward. We need to step away from our screens and take a good and hard look at the world around us. Most importantly, we need to continue to practice empathy and show the world that we can come together, live our values, and make the world a better place. The time has come for us to be something more than our jobs, something better than our political system, something greater than our code.

I’m joined on the panel today by Jessica Kerr.

JESSICA:  Thank you, Coraline. That was beautiful. I am really proud and happy to be on this podcast today and of all days to be talking with all of you. This is a good thing. I am happy to be here with Astrid Countee.

ASTRID:  Thank you, Jessica. I’m really happy that we’re all together and we get to talk about this as well. I wanted to also introduce Jay Bobo.

JAY:  Thanks, Astrid. Jay here. I just want say that it’s a true honor to be on a panel with great people, who have an interest in connecting with others and learning more about ourselves and learning more about the world around us. I want to hand it back to Coraline.

CORALINE:  We have a very special guest today. We’re joined by Neem Serra. She has led Intro to Swift Workshop for CoderGirl and at Strangeloop, and taught a two-day software carpentry workshop for the National Society of Black Engineers. She recently gave her first public conference talk battling unconscious bias and we’ll share that to at least two more conferences in the near future.

Neem launched The Women Techmakers group in St. Louis and she still goes to work every day doing Swift development. Neem didn’t go to school for computer science. She had some great friends who encouraged her to take a chance at dropping out of grad school, move to the St Louis area from Michigan and learn to code and get a new job. She has a fairly unconventional background in general, which you can read about in her blog post ‘From Babies to Software Development’ which we’ll link in the show notes.

Neem, thank you so much for being with us today.

NEEM:  Thank you. It’s awesome to be here. I’ve been reading transcripts of previous podcasts and they’re all really awesome. So I’m a little intimidated by all the awesome people you’ve had before me.

CORALINE:  We’re really glad you’re here and I think that your appearance today, in particular, given what I said in the opening is really important because you have overcome quite a bit of adversity in your life and you’ve worked really hard to make your life better. Now, you’re sharing that and trying to make the lives of other people better as well. I really appreciate that.

NEEM:  Thank you.

CORALINE:  This is the day after the election, as I said. We thought, as panelists, that we wanted to kind of share our thoughts and our fears and our aspirations for just a few minutes because we can’t just move past this. We can’t just pretend that it didn’t happen. We need to discuss it. We need each other and we need the listeners, as well, the support of everyone. Does anyone want to share their thoughts first?

NEEM:  I grew up in a Muslim family. And so after 9/11, things were insanely terrible. Most of the women in my family wears hijab. At the time, I wore hijab so going back to school was really hard because people would just constantly call my brothers and I terrorists, people would try to rip off my hijab. They would do it in front of teachers who wouldn’t do anything. They did it in front of my friends and won’t do anything. People would call me a [inaudible]. They say all these terrible things and this is kind of what I grew up with as a teenager.

Unfortunately, we moved a lot while I was in high school so just starting at a new school was always incredibly hard because normally the new person is like, “Oh, it’s a new person. I want to know this new person.” And I would start with other new people and people would want to talk to the other people and they wouldn’t want to talk to me because I look different and I wore hijab.

I remember so clearly, we had moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan in my senior year of high school, and this was a second move for me in high school so I already knew what it was like to be the new kid. I was telling my little brother very bitterly, I was like, “You know at the end of the year, they are all going to be our friends. They’re going to need our help with homework and they’re going to be our friends and we’re funny people and we have funny stories. They’re going to be our friends but these first few months are going to suck.” And we would have competitions between the two of us because my little brother’s name was Osama so people wouldn’t want to be friends with him. His teachers wouldn’t want to say his name. They would say. “Oh, we’ll call you ‘Sam’. I don’t feel comfortable saying Osama. I’m going to call you, Sam.” So we have competitions to see who can go through school without having anyone talk to them, unless it was like academically important.

Now, with this election, for the past year and a half, I’ve been having these nightmares over and over. I’m transported back to high school where people were doing this to me and nobody was standing up for me. And the past eight years have been like, the first year has been cool and I’ve been loving it and I feel like I’ve had a lot of time to heal those wounds and be okay with myself and not feel ashamed for being brown or not feel ashamed for growing up in a Muslim family. Now, I’m terrified. I’ve no idea what to do.

The past year and a half has been hard because the other day, I was at the Walgreens and somebody told me to go back to Mexico or China. He can’t decide if I was Mexican or Chinese. I’m neither. But he just felt like he can yell this up out in the middle of the street. And I had a coworker tell me that he would have been okay if my family and I was deported because we had this Muslim background, despite my grandparents emigrated here in the 60’s and I was born in Mexico, Missouri. It’s things like that. Now I’m terrified. I have no idea what’s going to happen because there’s so much hatred and I really hope that there isn’t that much hatred.

CORALINE:  Neem, what do you need from allies?

NEEM:  I think the biggest thing for me was, maybe I was like 12 or 13, we were in a restaurant one day and it was in the middle of the Midwest. We’re on a road trip and my parents really didn’t want to stop anywhere because they’re worried about this kind of thing. We’re sitting in a McDonald’s and somebody just started yelling at us saying all these awful things and nobody said anything. That’s the thing.

Even now, as an adult when nobody says anything, they just see this happen in the street and they don’t say anything, you feel like everyone believes that and that nobody’s there to defend you. I still see this happen. People say awful things to me on a team and I feel like my team is my family and yet, the team will stay silent. It would be like, “I thought you could defend yourself.” Or, “I didn’t think it was that big of a deal,” and that’s what I need. I need somebody to stop being silent. I need somebody to say something and be like, “Hey, that’s not okay.” And I recognize that’s really a hard thing to do and you’re getting in somebody else’s business, but until we start being there and being empathetic for each other and understanding that it’s really hard coming up with a response when you’re being attacked.

I don’t see things going forward because this is something I’ve struggled with my entire life thinking that people are really, really good friends and then push comes to shove and somebody says something terrible to me and they stay silent. What do you do?

JAY:  Yeah, that’s a really good point. We had a conversation before on this similar topic and we talked about this notion of accomplices and allies. People who are going to be engaged and supposed to say, “I understand. I want to sit over here and say ‘it was such a horrible thing you had to go through’ but I’m not going to be engaged,” especially when you’re undergoing discrimination or some sort of really unfair criticism or just hate speech.

I think that’s one interesting point. I definitely did some comforting of my partner who was rather distraught this morning and she’s heavily engaged in politics. One of the things she mentioned to me, she said, “I don’t think that people understand that what’s most upsetting is knowing that you can run on a platform of hate and I know that I have half the country or more than half the country who was completely okay with this sort of rhetoric.” You know, it was like, “I thought we had moved forward but apparently we haven’t.” The funny thing too to think about is that for people who I think are somewhat privileged, they don’t see that in order to understand that.

A good example is this thing on Hacker News this morning and the whole talk was about jobs and globalization. I’m like, “That’s not what we’re upset about and that’s what not people are crying about. We’re concerned about this person here, our president elect is endorsed by the KKK.” Just to kind of hop in there, I think that’s what I felt this morning, in addition to not getting any sleep last night and having to console the people that I care most, is that the hate issue. That’s our foremost concern here. It’s the thing that MLK fought for.

Really that’s okay and when you’re privileged, you can get away with saying all types of stuff about people who apparently don’t matter and do just fine, apparently, in this country, and that’s what’s really concerning.

JESSICA:  I hear that when we hear racist speech shouted out in public or in a conversation, and we don’t say anything, then we just echoed it. We just said, “This is okay.”

JAY:  Yeah, definitely. I think it’s also obvious. If you’re in a relationship with someone and a person that you care about hurt, you can either be disengaged or you can be engaged. But I think that we have to sense like if my kid is in pain, then I go and I console them or I actively try to remove that pain.

I come to the aid of a friend or a family member or so on and so forth. It’s not just the empathy but I think it’s the engagement here and it’s, “Hey, I thought we have some allies. I thought we had some accomplices. I thought we were in agreement that our destinies were intertwined in the same way.” I think that Martin Luther King mentioned this in his speech ‘The Other America’. But it’s like, “Maybe not.” So where we go from here is going to be very interesting.

ASTRID:  I think it will be really tough because I know for the way that it makes me feel personally, it feels as though we have allowed for the subordination of other people based on someone’s opinion as though that’s okay, as though that somehow it’s still a representative of the America that we’re supposed to be reaching for and it feels very wrong.

I think you’re right, Jay, that people think it’s a lot of political issues that people are upset about but I don’t think it’s about trade or the economy. It’s much more about we have a person who ran a platform that said Muslim-Americans should have to register with the United States government, that they were going to go around, picking up illegal immigrants and deport them. That’s about ripping apart people who are Americans.

I think that the idea that you can say that some Americans get to have certain privileges and other Americans don’t and that’s fine because people will vote and say yes to that is really scary, like the idea that someone’s community can be voted on is very scary.

It makes me more concerned not so much about what Trump will do as a president but because he ran on that platform, it emboldens people who hold these views that they have a platform for themselves, which I can’t say isn’t true now. They used to be able to feel that there were people who held views that were misogynist, or racist, or whatever kind of ism you want to add to that. But those people were not in the majority and today, I don’t feel that way.

JAY:  Yeah, I definitely agree.

CORALINE:  I feel lucky in a way that I’m white. I have that privilege and I make a good salary so I have that privilege. But I’m not only terrified for my brothers and sisters who are people of color, who are immigrants, and so on but I also want to point out that the Republican platform specifically targets transgender rights as something that they want to unravel.

A bathroom bill, determining whether or not people like me can go to the appropriate restroom is going before the Supreme Court. This has real consequences for real people and I’m terrified. I’m terrified of what my life is going to be like. I have so much uncertainty and it’s going to be bad for everyone and I just don’t know how to deal with that.

JESSICA:  Astrid, you brought up that for some people, we fear that Trump’s election is a license to express hatred. It’s an endorsement of hate speech and hateful behavior. I want to say, “No, that’s not okay and there is something I can do about it,” as Neem and Jay pointed out. We can stand up and say no when we see that behavior a little bit.

ASTRID:  I agree with you, Jessica, that we can stand up and say no and that we should stand up and say no. I think the part that I’m a little bit depressed about is what Neem was saying is that it shouldn’t just be one person who was affected having to stand up and say no. Everybody should stand up and say no on behalf of the person because they are our fellow American. That’s what I didn’t see, that’s what scares me.


CORALINE:  So Neem, you overcame a lot of adversity in your life to get where you are now. In talking with you before the show and reading your story from your blog post, I was really fascinated by the journey that you’ve taken. Would you mind sharing that journey with our listeners?

NEEM:  Yeah, definitely. It’s a long journey. I originally went to University of Michigan for college. I was about a semester in or so, and my parents somewhat unexpectedly pulled me out of college. I wasn’t being quite religious in the right way and I wasn’t making a 4-point average. All these things kind of culminated in to them feeling like they were kind of losing me as the right kind of Bengali-Muslim daughter and I was becoming too Americanized so they pulled me out of college. It started this year of me not being able to contact the outside world a little.

My parents came…I don’t know. They came at it from a very, maybe cultural and religious aspect. I don’t want to say that anything about the religion or the culture was like the entire thing isn’t awful but the way that they came out it was particularly awful. So it started this year of not being able to talk to anyone, not being able to go outside without my parents because they fear that I would want to go back to American ways, which clearly I did. So I ended up having to steal a phone during that year and call the police and have the police come to my house and ask them if I could leave my house.

I wasn’t a minor at the time. I was 19. The police came and they were just really confused at the time and like, “Oh, well you’re old enough. Why can’t you leave?’ And my parents were not wanting me to leave. So all of a sudden, police came and I left with what I was wearing at the time, which happened to be pajama bottoms and a coat. I had my iPod in my pocket and all of a sudden, I was out in the free world but also homeless.

This kind of circles back to a lot of religious discrimination because a lot of my friends’ parents didn’t want me to stay with them because my parents could be terrorists and they might blow up their house. The person I was dating at the time, his stepmother bought terrorist insurance on her house because she was so sure that me just existing and being around her suddenly made her a threat against the Muslim world so that they would actually bomb their house or whatever. It was completely insane. I was suddenly very homeless.

I was trying to figure out a way to get back to college. Everyone in my life at the time was just like, “You have this weird year. You have really bad post-traumatic stress disorder. Your brain isn’t good enough anymore. You used to be a good student but you’re not good enough anymore. You shouldn’t go to college. You should be a waitress. You should be a maid.” Somebody suggested a lot of other less savory options and my world was kind of thrown for a loop.

Luckily, I had a couple of friends who actually stayed friends with me. That was the other thing. People dropped me really fast when they were like, “Oh, your life’s in turmoil. Yeah, we’re not friends anymore.” But I had a couple of friends who stayed with me. My best friend at the time was just like, “Oh, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard that you’re not going to college. You’re one of the smartest people I know. You should apply.”

So I applied to go back to school and unfortunately, the first thing I got was a rejection letter due to a clerical error, thank goodness. So, I ended up going to Michigan State University and being like, “Why didn’t you accept me?” Because I was really devastated and really confused in life so I actually went in person and they were like, “Actually yeah, we’ll accept you. This was totally a clerical error.”

A lot of things kind of happened all at once. I got married to the person that I was dating at the time because that meant that I wouldn’t be homeless anymore. I got a job off of Craigslist to be a nanny and I was so insanely lucky I got a job to be a nanny for these two professors at Michigan State. One of them was a computer science professor and they kind of changed my life.

All of a sudden, I had a home, I had a job, and I was saving up to go back to college. This professor just was like, “I trust you with my baby. I’ll trust you with my lab. Why don’t you work in my lab?” I was like trying to hide from the world that I had a severe post-traumatic stress disorder and that I was barely able to afford living basically. Then I went back to Michigan State University which is different from University of Michigan and I had a lot of help from a lot of awesome people so I got my Degree in Genomics and Molecular Genetics.

The professor I was talking to about before, Titus Brown, helped me get a whole bunch of scholarships to actually go to school and helped me keep a job all through school so I could actually afford going to school. They don’t really tell you that. They don’t give financial aid to people who don’t have good ties with their parents, like there’s a whole process you have to go through. You have to get three adults to basically vouch for you and vouch for your broken relationship with your parents. Then it goes to a board and they have to decide one way or another.

I really felt lucky that I had stumbled upon a psychiatrist at Michigan State who ended up seeing me for therapy for my entire time there for free, which was amazing. But he wrote one of the letters saying, “She doesn’t have a good relationship with her parents and you should give her a financial aid to go to school. This is kind of a dumb system but, come on. This is a promising person.”

So, kind of circling back to what we were talking about before. It’s very nice when you have a lot of people who give you a chance and I was very fortunate to have a chance to go back to school and I ended up going to graduate school too. I got my Masters in Evolutionary. I was in graduate school like you’re saying before and I wasn’t particularly liking it. And the same best friend who had told me that I was smart enough to go to college, had told me, “Why don’t you quit graduate school? You know a little bit about programming. I could teach you some more about programming. You can move the same [inaudible]. We could be roommates and get a programming job.” So between him and the professor who had helped me all throughout college, they both kind of encouraged me to quit and try software development. I was very fortunate that I moved to St Louis. After maybe a month or two, I ended up getting my first job at Asynchrony.

The other side part of the story is the same best friend that I’ve been talking about, we just got married a couple months ago.

CORALINE:  That’s amazing.

NEEM:  Yeah, I got a job and a husband, so it’s cool.

JESSICA:  And you’re still at Asynchrony, right?

NEEM:  I am still at Asynchrony. I left for six months and I went to MasterCard because it was my first job so I didn’t really know what else was out there and what things were like. Then after six months, I came back.

ASTRID:  That makes sense.

CORALINE:  Neem, I’m really interested about how you got into science.

NEEM:  I think it was really just having worked for the professor as a nanny and then him giving me a job in his lab. The lab was for Evolutionary Biology and Genomics. I started as a lab technician. His lab was completely new so I was kind of organizing everything.

After a couple months, he was like, “Hmmm, you seemed to be doing a good job at this. I’ll make you my lab manager.” He had taught me a couple of techniques. All of a sudden, I was training undergraduates and graduate students and had to do embryo extraction for chickens and just other things in genomics. It was really interesting.

After my first year of college, I was like, “Maybe I will switch my major.” I was [inaudible] community services because I really wanted to help the world then I was like, “Maybe, I’ll switch my major to Genomics,” and then I never looked back. It was awesome.

ASTRID:  Neem, you talked about how after you had left your parents’ home and you were trying to figure out what to do next that people told you that you should be a waitress or other types of manual labor type jobs that they didn’t think that you should try to pursue something that was more rigorous because you weren’t in the right state of mind to do that. How did you keep going after something when so many people were telling you otherwise?

NEEM:  It was so hard. I really can’t even describe how incredibly difficult it was because I was already unsure of myself. I’m homeless. I have nothing in the world except for this iPod photo, which kind of dates it but I had nothing. All these people who were successful or had all these things were, I felt like I needed to trust them because they knew better and I was doubting myself.

There was a little bit of me that was like, “I made it through so many things. I should be able to do this like other people can do this.” My mom went back to college when we were all in grade school so I was like, “My mom could do this when she had three kids. I should be able to do this. I just have to figure out a way to get the right money and get the right support.” Really, I was focused on the money. I was just like being able to afford living by myself and getting the right loans. But I really can’t say enough about having the support of people who knew me for such a long time being like, “You can do this.”

I stayed for a couple of weeks with one of my friends back from first grade who I’ve known forever and I stayed with her and she was like, “You’ve always been smart enough to do this. You can definitely do this. We can help you out.” She was like the kindness of others. When I didn’t have confidence in myself, that kind of gave me the confidence that I needed at the time.

ASTRID:  So when lots of people told you, you couldn’t do it, just a few told you, you could?

NEEM:  Yeah, I partly believed in myself. There’s a lot of doubt that I had but it was just those few voices that kind of drowned out the rest. I’m always eternally optimistic in life so I try to really focus on the things that people say that are really positive and good. So having those people that I had known for a while that I had trusted say those things, not after me prompting but just say those things and remind me. Some people, really out of the blue just sent me Facebook messages and like, “Just so you know, you’re a strong person and you’ve got this.” Those are really like those little building blocks inside my heart that kind of helped me decide, “Yeah, maybe I can do this.”

ASTRID:  That is something we can all do. We all know somebody who could use that word of encouragement that might make a huge difference.

NEEM:  Yeah, for sure.

JESSICA:  How is switching from science to programming? What was that like?

NEEM:  When I was very heavily in the sciences, I took a class called software carpentry and this was a two-day workshop that I recently taught for the National Society of Black Engineers at Fall Regional Conference. I took this two-day workshop and their whole basis of their nonprofit is to get people in the sciences to learn a little bit of programming skills because I had been working with other graduate students and other people who had been doing stuff and they have these long scripts. Over thousands and thousands of lines alone and really it was like 10 lines of code that was copied and pasted over and over again because they didn’t really understand the fundamentals of coding. They knew enough to get themselves in trouble and enough to copy and paste and kind of change things around but not enough of the good practices.

So I took this two days software carpentry class and I was like, “Oh, this is pretty cool.” I really like learning about version control. I like learning about making things into functions and passing primaries in. I like all of these things and I’d like to do this more. But then when you’re in graduate school, you have a lot of pressure to come up with results and not so much time to learn things that will help you to get faster at producing things so I felt like I ran into a lot of issues of like, “I really want to learn how to program better so I could do better data analysis.” And they would be like, “We already have good enough stuff. Just change it and make it work for you. You don’t necessarily have to learn it all the way.” And so that was a big reason that I decided to quit.

The professor that I was talking about, Titus, had been teaching a lot of software carpentry workshops and he’s big in the Python community. He was like, “That totally makes sense to me. You want to learn Python? I can help you out there.” But there’s a lot of turmoil in academia, at least, in the sciences of people producing a lot of research, a lot of papers but with a lot of really bad code that they don’t actually put out so other people can see. So the pushback of people to be like, “We should not only have our data be open. But we should also have our code be open so that other people can reproduce it. There’s no need for all of us to be so secretive and not do things nicely and work together. Put your code out there, give the people ability to make requests and change things, and we can write better software together.” That’s what really pushed me from going in from the sciences to more software development.

It was definitely hard. I felt like I have this Masters in Evolutionary Biology that I don’t use at all, for anything. The good side of it is I felt like it taught me how to ask questions a lot and really have good problem solving skills, which is very useful in coding. But it was not a smooth transition in any sense.

CORALINE:  Neem, how did you prepare for that first job interview? Did you feel like you had skills already to do the job? Did you cram for it? What did you do to prepare because that’s a huge transition?

NEEM:  Oh, yeah. For sure. It was a huge transition and I was terrified. I definitely didn’t feel like I had the skills needed for the job. My friend, now-husband, Mark had just gotten a job at Asynchrony and he knew a lot about and he was like, “They’re very big into Agile. They’re very big into test-driven developments so you need to focus on learning test driven development.” So I did a lot of programming exercise on and Project Euler and trying to do them in a test-driven fashion. I would do something on my own and then I would have them look over it and I would say, “What is your thought process? Why would you do this differently? How would you fix it?” So I just kept incrementally trying to get better and better at it?

I did a couple of practice interviews with the friends. I read a lot of books on coding interviews and I kept trying to do all sorts of little practice problems. I’m still kind of surprised that I got my first job. This sounds terrible. I’m still absolutely shocked. I’m like, “If I didn’t have those interviewers, maybe I would have fared differently.” I’m still really surprised because I was not prepared at all.

My first day, I was like, “I don’t know what’s going on. This wasn’t even the language that I interviewed in. I learned that particular language for the interview.” So I was kind of all over the place. I don’t know really what to say because I really still aiming shot that I got my first job. I learned a lot the first couple of months, for sure. But I think I got very lucky that I had some awesome interviewers who saw something in me that I didn’t know I had.

JAY:  I think your story is just really amazing. I think it’s very important for people to recognize that. I think we missed that, especially in the chat rooms and the message boards like Slack and so on and so forth, that everyone has this story and they have this very rich experience that adds to their life. It really takes its worth, like investing in other people and that’s what I really get from your story and I really want to say I appreciate you for sharing it with us.

The other thing, too, that I want to make just a small point is that as your interaction with the National Society of Black Engineers. One of the things I always find that is kind of weird, is that with groups like that that focus on a particular group, it seems that people who aren’t of that group, sometimes often think that they cannot participate in that or won’t be welcome in that space, which is weird because everything about the world at large, like minorities and other people, they constantly kind of live and work in spaces like that.

I just want to push again for allies and accomplices and say have these interactions that Neem is having. No one is going to say, “Hey, who’s this white guy that showed up?” You know, come in and participate. Come in and get to know people and you’d be really surprised that you’ll definitely be welcome for showing your face. But thank you very much, Neem.

NEEM:  Well, that’s definitely true. I volunteered a lot for HandsUp United which is teaching people who are in the probably 16 to 30-year old range of programming skills so that they can make websites for black-owned businesses in Ferguson. It was an awesome group — super awesome group. But I think the thing that a lot of people got out of it was a lot of the white mentors had just never really interacted with non-white people, especially people who are younger than them and just seeing them kind of thrive. So it was just a really cool experience to just have people hanging out and learning together about coding skills but also about life skills.

CORALINE:  I want to take a break from the conversation for just a moment to thank another one of our $10 level Patreons, Matt Hucke. Matt is a web developer, photographer, and author of Graveyards.com. He comes from Seattle, Washington and he’s @MattHucke on Twitter. Thank you, Matt, and thank you to all of our awesome contributors. If you’d like to support us, please visit Patreon.com/GreaterThanCode and that link will be in the show notes.

Neem, you do a lot of volunteering as we mentioned in the intro and we just started talking about a moment ago. I’m really curious as to what got you started with volunteering and why that means a lot to you, if that means a lot to you?

NEEM:  That’s a great question. My grandparents… I don’t know, necessarily say they were – well, I guess it depends on what you call volunteer. My grandparents do a lot of charitable work. My grandpa has an orphanage in Bangladesh that he created himself and then he added on a free health clinic. It’s an all-girls orphanage and he kind of expanded that. They used to be only for very little kids and he expanded it to be for older and older kids. So I was always very inspired by that. We were always very involved as kids helping my grandfather fundraise for it and really see all of the aspects of just like how something like $10 here can help people in Bangladesh so much more. So, I’ve always really wanted to kind of give back to my community and help people out.

A lot of my volunteer work has been mostly centered around helping people to learn how to code just because I feel like that uses my skills more than say, going to a soup kitchen and giving people soup. This actually is my intellectual skills to help other people and I want to help teach people things so that they can build awesome lives for themselves. That’s a big motivation for why I do it.

Then the most recent software carpentry class that I taught was awesome because all the students wanted to change the world. That kind of enthusiasm is so infectious and it just makes me so happy and it makes me go home and want to do more. I love having students like that who are just so hungry for information.

I’ve definitely had some classes that I’ve taught where people are very entitled and they were constantly checking Facebook or they felt like they weren’t learning fast enough or the things were too fast but they weren’t going to say anything. They were just going to say negative things after the fact. Those are the classes that make me really sad. I recently had a really bad class that was like that. It made me really sad. I was like, “Maybe I should never teach again.” Then the week later, I had a really awesome class and then somebody was like, “I took this class. You made it really understandable and I think this is what I want to do in life.” Those are the things that always make me really happy. So I always want to kind of help people just a little bit figure out what they want to do and how to get those skills in more of a safe environment where nobody’s making fun of you because the first programming class I took, we did pair programming in our labs and nobody would pair with me because I was the only girl and it was the worst. I hated programming because of it. I don’t what other people to have those experiences. So I’m constantly trying to change the world slightly. Maybe I’ll just change a couple of people at a time. But it won’t still prevent them from having those terrible experiences.

JESSICA:  There’s another thing that we can do as allies is when you see someone who is alone and doesn’t have a pair is seek and go ask them.

NEEM:  Yes. So much so or just in general, like even being on a new team, sometimes you’ll see one person on the new team will get a new lunch. They’re the new person, they get a lunch in their honor so everyone can meet them and then somebody else joins the team and they don’t have that. I don’t want to say it’s overt sexism or overt racism. It’s really just a bias of like, “This person is like me. I am excited. I want them to have this awesome experience,” and you don’t always think that for everyone else.

So kind of catch yourself and be like, “Am I treating people differently? When I go to a meet up, do I always go and talk to somebody that looks like me? Or do I always talk to somebody that looks different from me? Or do I find the person standing in the corner awkwardly, do I go and try to talk to them?”

I definitely know I’m biased when I go to meet ups. I don’t particularly go and talk to white people and it’s mostly because I’ve had a lot of bad experiences. I’ve always found that it’s a lot easier to talk to someone who’s a minority and will bond in an easier way. Also, like I’ll go and talk to women because it’s just a lot easier. Like I can bond over…I don’t know, like tampons in the bathroom or something. It’s a lot easier for me. I know that I’m biased like this and I’m trying not to be.

But then I talk to other people and they’re like, “Oh, yeah. You’re right. I totally didn’t realize that as a white male, I only go and talk to other white males. I see those other people but they’re not talking to me so I’m going to go and talk to them.”

JESSICA:  As a white male, you’re always going to have other white males to talk to. The only woman in the room doesn’t have such a selection.

NEEM:  And it’s frustrating because I don’t want to be that person that only talks to other women. I don’t want to cloister ourselves into this group where it’s us versus them. But at the same time, it’s scary meeting people and I’m an extrovert. I love meeting people. But it is scary because you never know what they’re going to say. So when you want to be vulnerable in the least risky way, definitely I’m going to start find the people who are the least risky to me. But I love it when people come and introduce themselves to me because that, in my mind, you’re my instant best friend.

When my husband has people over and I don’t know all of them, the people I like are the ones who when I come in the room, they introduce themselves to me. And I’m like, “Oh, cool. We are friends.” Just by introducing yourself, that has lowered the barrier. I feel like we can be friends versus a person who is in the room not talking to you. You have no idea what’s going on their head.

CORALINE:  I’m reminded of a story. I used to co-organize Chicago Women Developers and our main activity was a weekly women’s hack night. We held it at some space in a local tech incubator building. I remember one day, a young woman that I was mentoring at the time who is black was talking about the experience she had as the only woman and the only person of color at the boot camp that she was attending and how difficult that was for her and how she was being called on to kind of represent women and represent marginalized people in the group.

This particular boot camp has an empathy training class. But she found that to be really, really exhausting because she was being held up as a representative of all these populations. The emotional labor was really, really taxing.

That night, there was an older white woman, maybe in her 50’s, who said something along the lines of, “Oh, honey. Don’t worry about any of that. I’m a woman in tech too and I never have any problems. Just be yourself and everything will work out fine.” The young black woman was completely taken aback at the statement and horrified and speechless. When the woman saw her reaction, she turned to me and she said, “Well Coraline, don’t you agree?” And I was like, “No, I don’t agree. You’re invalidating her experiences and you’re white washing the real discrimination that people feel and experience. You are completely and totally wrong.”

At that moment, I was backing up the database of my AI project and I was so upset that I did wipe off my database out and I lost like three months’ worth of work. I didn’t have a backup.

NEEM:  Oh, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have left.

CORALINE:  It’s okay. But I think it’s really easy for people who are privileged to think that the experiences that they’ve had are normal and the experiences that they’ve had are universal. They say, “We live in a post-racist society.” Or, “Bad things don’t happen to us because they haven’t happened to me.” It’s this lack of empathy that is such a hard thing to fight.

When I think about going to a tech meet up and being the only woman or being the only transgender woman, I can totally understand wanting to find allies and wanting to be safe in those spaces and avoiding a lot of the people who are there because like you said, you don’t know where they’re going to come from and what they’re going to say and how they’re going to treat you.

NEEM:  After having so many bad experiences, you’re just like, “Well, am I being smart going and trying again?” Like in one of the first tech meet ups I went to, somebody asked me out and that was really awkward. Then when I said no, the rest of the meetup got really awkward. The person was like going around saying that I was a bitch and this happens at work.

ASTRID:  Oh, my God.

NEEM:  At other meet ups where people talk about how safe it is and how amazing it is and whatever, then somebody makes a casual misogynistic joke and everyone kind of laughs and I’m like, “No, that’s not cool.”

Also, I’m making it like I’m causing trouble in the meetup and it’s like awkward and I hate being in those situations so I just stopped going. It’s so much easier for me to sit at home and learn something on the internet and not talk to people because they say mean things.

Even the first time I went to WWDC, which is Apple’s big conference. I was waiting in line with a coworker. It was 3 AM, we’re waiting in line for the 10 AM big keynote and this guy asked me if I was really a programmer and he was like, “No, are you sure?” And he started to ask me all these questions and grilling me. I was like, “Why would I be here at 3 AM? Dear God, why is this my life right now and I hate that.

JESSICA:  How did your coworker react to that?

NEEM:  It was always hard for me because I understand that people have social anxiety and it’s awkward and they don’t want to really butt in or anything so it just kind of happened. After that his reaction was like, “Well, that was awkward.” I’m like, “Yeah, it was awkward.” It was way more awkward for me and I get that the other person doesn’t want to say anything. But I hate the apology afterwards like, “Oh, I’m sorry that happened.” It’s like, you’re saying that so you can absolve yourself of all guilt for not doing anything. But I still feel holy-shitty and I have to pretend that I accept your apology and there’s nothing that you can change in life and that drives me insane. It’s better than not saying anything at all but it’s still frustrating because it still puts everything on me.

I know that from this experience and from interacting with me a lot more that this particular person has gotten a lot better, in general, of just like trying to say things when they happen and defend people. I just have to remember that side of it of like people always get better at this. At first couple of times, you’re kind of stuck at it. But it’s so hard and I feel like most of my job is helping people learn how to be more empathetic and defend people better. You know, nobody gives me a raise for that, right?

ASTRID:  I feel that we all have to learn how to be more empathetic. I think, sometimes people believe that because they’re in a particular position or they belong to particular groups that they know how bad things can be so they don’t really contain or work on their own empathy until something happens that shocks them. You thought you understood everything but you don’t because there’s another circumstance in which you reacted in a poor way.

Unfortunately, this concept of empathy is still something that we talk about as being an additional skill that you need to have in order to be really good at what you’re doing, to be a really good programmer, or to be a really good leader. But I think that it really needs to be more central to that and it shouldn’t just be people who think that they’re part of the majority who are working on their empathy. It should be everybody because there are so many circumstances that you just don’t know.

There’s also people who belong to groups that we would call underrepresented or marginalized who may have some privileges, that they don’t see because they only associate themselves as being one version of that and they don’t know how they might be putting down somebody else’s story or not supporting somebody being a good ally.

I feel like what we’re talking about is just kind of highlighting the fact that there’s many, many ways that people can be made to feel as either welcome or they don’t belong so it’s really, really important to work on your own empathy and understand that there are other versions of people’s lives that are happening that you may know nothing about that you should try to be as open as possible to making sure that you are accepting the fact that you could be very [inaudible] to something that you think you know about.

JESSICA:  Yeah, and that’s hard. A lot of what an ally does is using our brain space. One of the things I’ve totally learned over the years is that just because the system works for me, doesn’t mean it works for other people. If I open my eyes and I watch for that, and I look for the people who are alone, I look for the people who are feeling left out, I look for the people who are interrupted just one more time during that meeting, maybe by me, then I can intervene one of the ways that I use my privilege to help this by interrupting the person who just interrupted them because interruption is cheap for me and it’s expensive for introverts. It does take more brain space.

ASTRID:  But I think it’s like a muscle and the more you use it, the easier it gets.

JESSICA:  And the harder it is to turn it off.

ASTRID:  Yeah, that’s true.

CORALINE:  Neem, I’m very interested, I know you just gave your first talk called Battling Unconscious Bias. I’m really curious to hear kind of an overview what the talk is about and why you wrote it?

NEEM:  At Asynchrony, they decided to do an internal conference. I was out to lunch with some friends and they’re like, “What can you give a talk on?” I’m like, “I’m not going to give a talk. This isn’t going to happen.” That kind of encouraged me to think of some topics. I went to bed that night, I woke up, and I had six different conference talk ideas.

Technically, the deadline was the night before but I knew they weren’t going to look at it until 8 AM so I rapidly putting in these conference talk ideas. When I was really hoping for was this talk on unconscious bias because I feel like I faced a lot of bias for a lot of different reasons, like being one of the very few women programmers here, being very small and short, and being brown, like all of these different things. But I keep finding that people do these things and they don’t actively mean harm. They’re unconsciously doing these things and until I tell them or they realize much after the fact, they don’t know that it’s wrong. So over the past three and half years that I’ve been in tech, I’ve gotten a lot of apologies from people being like, “Oh, my God. I did this thing. It was awful and I’m so sorry.” So I was like, “Well, it would be awesome to give a talk to give people an idea of the things that they are being biased about, that they don’t actually know about.”

I was really excited but also really terrified because while I was preparing for this talk, all sorts of people would come up and say really negative things. They’d be like, “Oh, you’re just going to talk about sexism the whole time. You’re just going to make me feel bad and guilty for being a white male,” or all of these things. So I was like, “Okay, so how do I convince this very skeptical potential audience that these biases are real.” When I started getting really into the data, I ended up having 60-some scientific studies as sources for my talk. I talked a lot about things that we do based on the names. Identical resumes, you have a white sounding name versus black sounding name, what happens, who is more likely to be hired? If you have a Parent Teacher Association on your resume versus some community-based volunteering activity, what happens?

So I just started seeing all these studies and I put it together in a way that showed people there’s a lot of data. I had a lot of anecdotes from different things that people wanted me to talk about at work. Basically, everyone I talked to at work, I was like, “What do you want me to put in this talk?” And I got so many stories of things that people have faced.

So it kind of gave a real feeling towards it. I wasn’t just showing the data but I was also telling the stories of people’s co-workers, people that they consider friends and family, so I kind of merged those two together to give a talk. Then I went through a lot of scenarios of like, “So, you are seeing this bias. What do you do? Do you apologize after the fact? How do you stop the conversation? At least redirect it away from the bias or address the bias full on?” So kind of giving people different avenues to just start addressing bias.

I’m not expecting everyone to immediately go and be like, “No, you shouldn’t have said this thing. Defend them amazingly well. We all go through this.” Depending on the day, sometimes I’m terrible at it and sometimes I’m really good at it. I’ve kind of structured the talk around that and it went really well at work. I was like, “Maybe I’ll try doing this publicly.”

And so I did the talk recently at an Agile Conference called Agile Gravy. The funny thing about this talk was right before the talk, five people asked me if I was on the right side of the hotel. They’re like, “Do you need help finding your parents?” One of the people who was kind of organizing the conference was like, “This is a conference right now. You’re not supposed to be on this side of the hotel.” And I was like, “I’m actually one of the speakers at the conference. I know I look really young and everyone else’s is dressed way more business professional than I am,” because I decided to wear a cupcake skirt because the kind of theme of the talk was being a cupcake in a donut world. It was just really crazy to have all of this unconscious bias towards me right before I was going to give a talk on unconscious bias.

Then two of the people in my talk were people who had asked me if I belonged in that conference. So I kind of started talking like, “Yes, some of you didn’t think that I should belong here, partly because of the way I dress, partly because of how young I look, all these things. But I want to talk to you about unconscious bias and hopefully give you some tools to address it in your life and just be aware that it exists.”

It’s been fairly amazing of just a lot of people coming and telling me how the talk changed their view of life, how they started to realize that they kept using ‘he’ as the pronoun when the group of people had women in it, and how they were trying to use ‘they’ instead to be more gender neutral to give everyone an idea that if we’re voting on team lead, I’m not going to keep saying ‘he’ so you only think that the guys can be team lead. I’m going to say they and everyone can be team lead.

It started a lot of conversations at work of within teams of like what have we been doing that has been biased against the person who has vision problems? Or against the person who doesn’t have full hearing, or the person who can’t stand up for a long amount of time, or the person who is going through different medical issues, or invisible illnesses? That was the thing that a lot of people kind of gave them the field to talk about like, “I am depressed, or I’m bipolar or whatever. I need to tell my team because I want them to be supportive of me.”

It gave people the opportunity to say, “I’m not lazy but I’m struggling with this disease and I need the help of all my coworkers and I need your understanding and your empathy to really understand what I’m struggling with.” You really opened up the space for people to tell each other that they had depression and really talk through it instead of feeling isolated and feeling like you couldn’t talk to people, or that there was a stigma against it. It’s been really awesome of just being able to facilitate that.

Even after the Agile Conference, I was talking to a different team at a different company and they were all opening up with each other and being like, “Actually, I have depression. And that day that I didn’t come in, I wasn’t trying to let down the team. It was that I really couldn’t get up and do anything. I felt terrible about myself and I was thinking about quitting. But it’s nice to hear that I could talk to my team about an invisible illness and we could support each other and help each other out and care about each other.”

I think that’s all people really want at work, right? The best work places are the ones where you care about your team members, they care about you, they want the best for you, and you want the best for them. You want to keep pushing each other to become your best selves, right?

ASTRID:  Right.

JESSICA:  I feel like asking one question about code. Just for [inaudible]. Neem, what’s your favorite thing about Swift?

NEEM:  Oh, good question. What is my favorite thing about Swift? My favorite thing about Swift is that they’re very intentional on how they design the language. They wanted do a lot of cool things for really experienced developers. But they also want to make it very easily accessible for people who are learning.

It’s very easy for somebody new to go and make an app and have it work and have that feeling of accomplishment. There isn’t a lot of extra set up and extra secret sauce that you need to know. You could just go and you can start doing things and it kind of gets you in the ecosystem really fast, which I didn’t feel was the same experience that I had with other languages. I really love that about Swift.

I just love making mobile apps. They’re pretty. They’re just so pretty. It’s so easy to make something very pretty and then do all sorts of accessibility things. They make accessibility so easy for a developer to put in. I love that.

When I make apps, I want to make it like you’re so deep within the code that often people forget about accessibility and they do a lot of built-in things just to kind of remind you. But also they do a lot of things for you so that accessibility is there for people who are like wheelchair bound, or can’t locate their phones, or need to invert the screen, or make font sizes larger. They do all that and it’s pretty amazing.

JESSICA:  So, Swift makes accessibility accessible?

NEEM:  Yes, seriously accessible and I love that. I think more things need to move towards that and just make it easy because if you’re going to make accessibility hard for developers to do, they’re just not going to do it. No project manager is like, “Yes, I want to spend tons of money on accessibility.” I wish they were like that but you don’t see it happen as much.

I like that they’ve been trying to really work on accessibility and do a lot of talks and make it cool. They show it in all their keynotes like, “Somebody who’s blind can order an Uber and it totally works for them.” That’s awesome and it makes you feel good and it makes you, as a developer, want to be that awesome and want to put in accessibility.

JESSICA:  Sweet. There is a gorgeous video that that I will try to find and link in the show notes of a person teaching how to code on the iPad that uses all of those accessibility features. It’s just amazing. The opportunity is —

NEEM:  Yeah, I love that they’re trying to do that. It just puts it in kids’ hands so easy. A lot of parents often come to me and they were just like, “I can’t do all the set up. I just really want to download something and have it work and have the kid just go.” They really did this with Swift and I love that.

CORALINE:  So, we’re coming to the end of the show and what we’d like to do at the end of every show is take some time to reflect on the conversation that we had, what we took away from it, and hopefully some calls to action.

Astrid, would you like to share some reflections?

ASTRID:  I was really inspired by your story, Neem, because I think that there are so many obstacles that you talked about having to overcome. It was never a simple answer as to, “Okay, I got this one thing so everything else is going to work out.”

I feel like that reminds me when you’re in those moments of feeling like nothing is happening in the way that you’ve wanted it, or that you’re not quite sure if you’re doing the right things or making the right choices that you have to push through because it only seems to be later when you’re in a better place that you can see how that opportunity grew you as a person, as opposed to if you stay in that place, will you allow that to become part of your story, how much that can hold you back?

There are so many things that you’ve talked about that could be a very legitimate reason to say why you never would become a developer or why you would never go to college or get your master’s degree? I think it’s really inspiring… I don’t know, that you weren’t trying to do like to throw a – you know if I crossed the finish line kind of thing, with telling your story. But I think it’s really inspiring because you have gotten to where you are just because you keep going and that’s something I want to remember.

NEEM:  Thank you.

JESSICA:  My reflection on today. Today is a day when I feel a loss of control. I feel a lack of power. I feel that the world is not as I would prefer it. I find myself loading my dishwasher very carefully and lining items up on my desk so that they’re exactly square and today I’m really glad that I know how to program because programming gives me control over something. It gives me control over the computer to a large degree.

Even something as painful as figuring out the AWS APIs, every time I make an API call and it works as specified, this is like a beautiful little piece of ‘the world does work’. It’s not completely wrong. It’s only half terrible and that is the power that I have. Of course, it feels good but also, this lets me change the world a little bit as I create my little bits of software. It’s a power also to share that with other people because software carpentry is a great example. I’ve taught some classes for them too and it’s really neat. Because scientists, grad students, and postdocs in science are doing all this research, and a little bit of coding gives them so much more power to work faster and do more and make their experiments reproducible.

Then as Neem pointed out, when we open that we have the power to give everybody else an opportunity to participate, to reproduce this research, and to learn from it. I’m grateful that I can code and also that I can share that ability with other people. Every time I can make them feel welcome and make their jobs a little easier, yeah, the world is not totally bad. Actually, it’s pretty great. Sometimes, I feel bad because it is so great for me.

Also, shout out to Dave who is not here today because of mental health. Yeah, this is a hard day. I’m glad we could talk about it. Also, it’s cool when you just want to be alone. The end.

CORALINE:  I’m really struck by how much individual actions can matter. Neem, through telling your story, a constant theme was a few individuals who bolstered you and helps you move along and encourage you that you were worthwhile and that you were strong enough and you were smart enough.

This is something that every single one of us can do. We can look around and see the people who question themselves, see the people who are struggling and give them encouragement and that encouragement can really change their life. This is at the interpersonal level. Also, doing everything we can with our privilege to be allies to people who are facing discrimination and oppression. I’m not making assumptions about people and not assuming that everything is okay. I’m not assuming everyone has it as easy as we do or struggling in the same way that we are. I think you’re story really, really crystallized that for me. So, thank you.

Is there anything you want to share, Neem?

NEEM:  The entire time while we’ve been recording this, I’ve been in conferencing at work with a wall full of windows. As my coworkers have been walking past, they’ve been given me air hugs because they know that this has been a really hard day for me. It’s things like that that have really made today a lot better. It’s just those little things that people can do, just coming by and waving. Really, all of these like air hugs that I haven’t actually gotten a hug – well, I did get a couple of hugs today. But I just love that and it’s those things that we can do for each other.

Also, in Silicon Valley, they started a thing called The Techies Project, which gives unconventional stories of people in tech. I absolutely love it. It was the only thing that actually made me feel like I really belonged here because you always read these stories of this person who’s been coding since they’re five and they’re amazing. These were all stories of people who had hardships like I did and had different people who help them out and had that awesome backbone to help them get through life.

So I wanted to start that in the St Louis area because we’re not really Silicon Valley. We have a different pace of life here and that’s been interesting so far. The website isn’t up yet. We’re definitely very far from being up. But it’s been awesome getting to interview different people in the area and hearing their stories and hearing the different things that people have done to help them be awesome and get where they are.

I definitely think everyone can help each other out. You don’t really have to do that much. You just have to say nice, kind things to people.

CORALINE:  Neem, thank you so much for being on the show today. It was really wonderful to get to know you a little better and to be inspired by your story. Thank you so much.

NEEM:  Thank you so much for having me and this has been really awesome.

JESSICA:  Thank you everybody for talking.

CORALINE:  So we’re going to wrap up Episode 7. One more reminder: if you like our show, if you believe in what we’re doing, please support us at Patreon.com/GreaterThanCode. Thank you all and we’ll talk to you next week.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.