239: Accessibility and Sexuality with Eli Holderness

June 23rd, 2021 · 45 mins 38 secs

About this Episode

01:35 - Eli’s Superpower: Germinating Seeds & Gardening

03:03 - Accessibility in Tech

09:16 - Having Conversations with Leadership/Management

  • Trust & Honesty
  • Communication
  • Shame & Guilt; Managing Expectations

18:26 - Team Culture and Support

  • Setting Good Examples
  • Reducing Stigma
  • Removing Onus

20:09 - Human Performance & Safety

  • People are the source of your success
  • Pretending Out of Fear and Rejection
  • Context-Switching

29:09 - Being Who You Are – Sexuality in the Workplace

37:33 - Sobriety & Drinking Culture


John: Your marginalizations are not problems to be managed. They’re just who you are.

Mandy: “I own me and therefore I can engineer me.” – Virginia Satir

Rein: “I own everything about me, My body including everything it does; My mind including all its thoughts and ideas; My eyes including the images of all they behold; My feelings whatever they may be… anger, joy, frustration, love, disappointment, excitement My Mouth and all the words that come out of it polite, sweet or rough, correct or incorrect; My Voice loud or soft. And all my actions, whether they be to others or to myself.” – Virginia Satir

Eli: How complicated and complex but beautiful it is to be a person. Make space.

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JOHN: Welcome to Greater Than Code, Episode 239. I’m John Sawers and I’m here with Rein Henrichs.

REIN: Thanks, John! And I’m here with my friend and a very special co-host, Mandy Moore.

MANDY: Thanks, Rein. Hi, everyone! Today, we’re here with Eli Holderness.

Eli has been in tech for 5 years since graduating in 2016 and has become disabled with CFS a few months into their career, which has really affected how they view the industry and what jobs they've been able to take. They're also genderqueer, bi, ADHD, and Jewish, and they're excited to talk about finally having a job where they can bring their whole self to work. They're quite an extrovert and have been blessed with a strong queer support network since university, and are keen to break down the barriers into tech that shut out other marginalized folk who aren't so lucky as Eli has been.

Welcome to the show, Eli.

ELI: Hi! Yeah, I'm super excited to be here and really honored to be here for Mandy’s first in on the panel.

I don't really have a thesis statement for what I want to talk about today, other than I guess, general topics around accessibility and tech, and an interesting aspect of that is things that have changed over the last year with the recent horribleness.

MANDY: That sounds great. But first, we have to ask you the question we always ask everyone and that is what is your superpower and how did you acquire it?

ELI: So my superpower is, if you give me a seed, like a plant seed, I can probably germinate it and it's a double-edged sword. Recently, I saw my parents. I was lucky enough to see my parents early in the year and my mom was making a tie out with Seville oranges and she said, “I've got all these Seville orange seeds. Do you want them?” And long story short, now I have a whole crop of orange seedlings on my windowsill because I just cannot stop myself.

I'm not really sure how I acquired it. I think I might have inherited it from my grandmother who grows tomatoes and is a really keen gardener, but my bedroom is slowly being taken over by plants. It's kind of a problem.

MANDY: I know the feeling. Ever since the pandemic, I ended up buying 2 plants and now I think I have 15 plants? Yeah, they just keep multiplying, but I'm enjoying having them around. So that's a great superpower to have because I’m either a hit, or miss when it comes to either plants thriving, or plants die.

ELI: I've had really bad luck with succulents actually, which is supposed to be the typical you couldn't kill it if you tried, but apparently, maybe I've just got reversed superpowers when it comes to part like it's opposite day every day with me. But no, some of my oranges are doing quite well, so maybe you're manage to keep them alive. That’ll be nice.

So one of the things I wanted to talk about is just experiences of accessibility and tech. I work 4-day weeks and I have done for a couple of years now. That's about what I can handle with my CFS, which is chronic fatigue syndrome. It basically means my body just sucks. My body is an extended practical joke that God is playing on me. And how various things I hope will change after the pandemic, or we will hopefully see some of the changes in our working patterns maybe persist in ways that they've been helpful to people for accessibility, like being able to work from home obviously is a huge one.

But I think there's also been maybe a change in attitudes to meetings, how we schedule our time, and deliberately blocking off time just to work in your calendar so that you're not interruptible and various like, how those things actually can be super necessary for some people, even though we're only now coming around to them as norms in the industry.

I don't know if you folks have experiences of how your work has changed and if that's made your work easier, or more difficult.

JOHN: My work actually didn't change much as far as the pandemic. My team has been remote for the last decade.

ELI: Oh, wow.

JOHN: So it didn't change things for that. Although, the rest of the company outside of technology all went remote. So we've been using that opportunity to try and help the rest of the company get up to speed on things you can do to keep the team together while they're working remotely, because we've been building that expertise for a while. That was nice to be able to help other people, get up to speed on what that was when it all happened on such short notice for everyone.

And I think I've heard so many people talk, much like you, about hoping that the remote work situation continues afterwards because we've all just had this huge example of work can get done just fine without an office so why are you insisting on an office? Yeah, I think a lot of people are really hoping that sticks.

MANDY: Yeah. For me, I feel the same. I've always worked from home. It's funny, my daughter's going to be 12 so I always base the number of years I've worked from home on her age because it was literally when she was born. So it's been 12 years that I've done this.

But I will say that over the pandemic, a lot of other people are now coming around to knowing that working from home, while it is a privilege, it's not exactly easy. I've had to put a lot of boundaries in place with my clients and take a lot more self-care because I feel like the pandemic has been a very unique situation. For me, at least, it's not the same as it used to be working from home. Working from home, I had more schedule and regimen and stuff, but now, as I said, my daughter, she's doing remote schooling this year. So there's that,

I also, for my mental health, need to work out every day and I just do that when I feel like right now is a good time where I should take a break. I need to get up and do that kind of thing. Back before I used to be like, “Okay, 3 o'clock is the time where I go and work out.” Now it's like, whenever I need a minute, or I'm feeling overwhelmed, or I need a brief break, I go and do it.

So I've kind of had to put more boundaries in place and a lot of people are now a lot better about that. I'm not getting excessive pings on my phone, or text messages, “Where are you? Where are you?” I stress to my clients asynchronous like, “I'll be back. I promise, I promise you I will be back, but please don't call me saying, ‘Where are you? Where are you?’ [laughs] because I need some time away from the screen.”

I find myself much more productive when I sit down and do an hour, or two and then go do something, like the dishes, or the laundry, and then come back for an hour, or two, and then go prepare dinner, or do a doctor's appointment, and then come back for an hour, or two and break up my day in that way.

So I think that the pandemic has allowed us to be a lot more accessible in that way and a lot of companies are being much more like you don't have to have butts in chairs from 9:00 to 5:00, or 8:00 to 4:00, or whatever hours those are.

ELI: It's interesting for me because one of the things that I lost when we went to work from home because I've always been in an office until this past year, but I, with my ADHD, really benefit from externally imposed structure. I actually gave a talk at a conference back in March, Python web conference, about working from home with ADHD.

Having to be work from home and not have the structure of an office has really made me confront a lot of the ways that I was coasting based on that external structure and not really addressing maladaptive behaviors I had. So when we started working from home, I found myself just really procrastinating until I was able to put in place things like, “Okay, don't contact me at this time because I'm going to be head down on a piece of code,” and if I get distracted by something, somebody coming in with a support ticket that needs to be done, I will be thrown off kilter for the entire rest of the day and broke my flow, like break my hyper-focus.

So that was something where actually my chronic fatigue was less of a factor in my ability to work over this past year than my ADHD had been, which it flown under the radar for almost my entire life. But one of the things that's been really nice as well as that, the place that I'm at now at the moment, I can just say, “Oh, my brain is full of BS today. I'm not going to be very productive.”

A huge part of being able to work as well as I do at the moment is having people who are willing to work with me in the ways that I need, which is really nice and letting me have a 4-day week, which is surprisingly uncommon. I have been turned down from a lot of job interviews and whatnot for needing a 4-day week and that's something I hope we see less off going forward as our industry accepts that a more flexible working pattern can still be useful, productive, and valuable.

MANDY: Yeah, I agree. So how do you bring up conversations with people you work with, or your bosses, or management team? What do you say? How do you tell them what your individual needs are and what are their reactions?

ELI: So the place I'm working at the moment, Anvil, it's a really small team. There's 8 of us and it's pretty flat structure as well. While I have the two co-founders, Meredydd and Ian, they run things as it were, but it's not a traditional, I guess, management. I don't feel beholden to them in the same way that I would to like, they're not my boss exactly, but they do pay my salary, but they're not my bosses in that sense. So if I say to them, “Look, I'm not going to be able to get this thing done because I just can't focus today,” or multiple times I said, “Oh, my brain is full of BS. My brain is too full of sludge today. I'm going to take a nap.” I did that today. The trust is there for them to say, “Okay, go do that and you'll get your work done when you get your work done.”

So when I bring things up, like we have regular check-ins, or whatever, I might say, “Oh, I've been in a rut lately and I think I really need to change what I'm working on,” or how I'm working on it. This thing isn't working, that thing isn't working and whether, or not it's because of one of the weird ways that my brain, or my body is, they just handle it as if it were a need. There's no fuss just because it's a rising from a way that I am outside the norm, which I think is the ideal way to handle it because obviously, every person is unique and what we define as norms, or any vague clusterings of behaviors and traits that we see in people. It's just the most common way for a person to be, but everybody is going to differ from it in some way.

I have had experiences in the past when the trust hasn't been there and I've said “Something's not working,” or “I'm struggling,” and a manager has just not, I guess, believed that I was being genuine, thought I was skiving, and that has been some of the worst experiences. I think that's where some of the dark side of inaccessibility and it's not just in tech. That could be in any workplace is when there isn't trust between you and the person that you serve, the person you're working for, the person who's representing your employer to you.

When I say my views on accessibility have really shaped the way that I view the industry and what jobs I've taken, that's one of the key things that has to be there is my managers have to trust that I'm being honest about my abilities and my needs. And that's true for anyone, but I think it becomes particularly weighty when you're talking about things that arise from marginalizations.

JOHN: And do you find that that's trust that you have to build up in relationship with those managers, or it has to be there from the beginning, because from the beginning, you're going to need some way to work with them and build some flexibility into your working relationship?

ELI: So the relationships I'm thinking of where that trust has been present, and they've been really fruitful and positive relationships, it has been there just from the start, or given on faith, as it were. As I say, I became disabled fairly early on, it was three months out of university—fantastic, right—and I had just had a new manager. There has just been a shakeup in the management chain and the manager who I was then placed with had never known me not being ill and I was dealing with suddenly being ill, not knowing what was happening to me, and so on. I think it would have been a very different experience had he trusted me that I was being honest and not just trying to skive and get away with being in a cushy software job without doing any work, which is very much how that situation did play out.

I think if the trust isn't there from the start, it's going to be very hard to earn and I think that part of hiring somebody and expecting them to work with you, if you don't trust them to be able to do that and manage their needs, expectations, and abilities, you have no business hiring them, in my opinion.

JOHN: It struck me like, as you were saying that, that if the person is coming to that situation as, “Oh, you've got to always keep an eye on people because they're always trying to get one over on you and find ways to not work very hard,” or whatever. That person is never going to have a fantastic relationship with their rapports and then once you add in the other marginalizations on top of that, it just goes down and he'll leave him faster.

ELI: And that's something that I think we've seen over the last year with reluctance, or resistance to moving to work from home, where if somebody who is managing has been very used to being able to walk around and see what's on everyone's screens and have this sense that they are keeping an eye on. They’re making sure nobody is secretly playing Minecraft for 8 hours a day, or whatever. But moving to work from home requires that trust and it reminds me of there's some advice I've had about having a long-distance romantic relationship where you've got to be really, really good at trust and communication. Those are two things that you should have in any serious relationship whether romantic, or not.

I think that maybe working from home over the last year has exposed, in some relationships, but I think about work relationships where those things haven't been present. But it's not that working from home created them as that it exposed them and the companies, I think that are doing the best now at maintaining and building those relationships between co-workers in their management structure are ones that probably already had that and probably has set themselves up for success by just having a healthy environment to begin with.

MANDY: So I have a tendency when I start with a new client—I'm an independent contractor; I work for several companies—my tendency is to always under promise and over deliver and then I do that and I'm really good at doing that. But then things inevitably come up, I get sick, and then I feel like I'm letting them down because it's like well, they expect the bar to be here and now it's down here. And then I'm disappointing them and they're like, “Well, where's the Mandy that we hired?” and it's like, well, you did hire that Mandy, but that Mandy is not here today.

Do you have those feelings, first of all, and if you do, how do you deal with them?

ELI: Yeah, the guilt. Whenever I have to take a day off sick, my goodness and it has definitely been compounded by the experiences that I've had of not being trusted. If I say that I need to take a day off sick and people go, “Oh, well, couldn’t you come in anyway?” I've been very fortunate in the last couple of jobs that I've had where I've had really, really supportive relationships with managers that were full of trust. So I'm slowly starting to creep back from that a little bit.

One of the ways that I think I got to that point, though, or one of the things that really helped me was upfront managing expectations. So I take days off now when I get sick, as opposed to having overdone it with fatigue and it’s got to a point in my fatigue where I need to take days off just to rest by cutting back to 4 days a week.

That's one of the things where I say actually, I'm going to factor in that Eli isn't here today, that Eli won't be here one day a week. So don't hire me on that day and that was a choice I made because I wanted to stay in work, essentially. That was the only way I could consistently, in good faith, promise to be able to deliver a consistent amount of at the time being in the office. That's the big thing that I've done.

I think there's a lot of shame that comes with having a chronic illness, not being at your best 100% as well. I think that in the tech industry, in particular, there’s this mentality of you’ve got to hustle. The rockstar developer and admitting that you can't be that. I even said the word admitting as if it was a failure, but stating that that's not possible for you can be seen as and can certainly feel like it being a failure and that's not fun, but at the same time for me, it's certainly true. I'm never going to be a rockstar developer putting in 70-hour weeks and cranking out loads of code. That's just not me. So tackling that head on and just admitting it and saying, “If this is a problem, then it's not going to work out.”

I have had a lot of places that I have been pinged by recruiters and then I say, “I can do a 4-day week. These are the terms that I can work on,” and they don't want it and that's their call to make. I hope that that will change. I hope that will change soon as a result of the recognition that flexible working [chuckles] is good actually for parents, for people with disabilities, for all kinds of people.

But that's one of the big ways that I've managed those feelings and cut down on the situations where there's feelings of rise, but it's definitely it's something I massively relate to. I still do struggle to take time off and I'm really lucky at the moment to have. I had my checkup with Ian this week and one of the first things he said was, “When you're going to take some time off soon?” because I've been working a lot recently and that was really lovely.

So having supportive coworkers and they lead by example as well, they take time off just whatever, and it's great and it doesn't make us less productive, or I think it makes us healthier as a team and it certainly helps me navigate all the issues that I have surrounding it, which are myriad.

JOHN: You touched on an interesting point right there at the end there about how not only is it useful for you to have obviously management buy-in with working and the flexibility that you need, but having the team culture of everybody around you, also them taking the time that they need and working on the flexes that they need to flex is an incredibly important part of supporting you in feeling like it's okay for you to do those things.

ELI: Yeah. It reminds me of, I guess, the push to put pronouns in your bio, or your screenname regardless of whether, or not you are somebody who people get your pronouns wrong. Because there's this phenomenon where strictly speaking, something is allowed, but if it's outside the norm, you still feel odd. You might feel ashamed of doing it. So even if you are allowed to take mental health days at your place of work, if nobody else does, you're still not allowed. Socially, you're not allowed almost.

So setting healthy norms opens doors for everybody, including those who need the doors open for them, as it were. Like me. [laughs] I don't always have the energy to advocate for myself because of the reasons that I need to advocate for myself.

Leading by example on the part of the people that I work with and the people who have the clout organizationally, even though we have quite a flat structure at Anvil. That's one of the things my manager at my last place as well, was really, really fantastic about was setting good examples. Definitely reducing the stigma around taking care of yourself, removing the onus from the person who will have the hardest time advocating for themselves.

REIN: Well, I think there's a pretty general statement here, which is that managers that don't trust their employees are bad managers.

ELI: I think it's very hard to be a good manager if you don't trust your employees. I'm thinking of, it's not in tech, but I did work a retail job and I think across that industry, that's just it. That’s not a thing; you're not trusted by your manager if you work in retail just as a default. The places where you are a unicorn land rare.

I think I would agree with that general statement. I hesitate to make sweeping statements just in general because humans are so fast, complex, and complicated that there will almost always be a counterexample to whatever sweeping statement.

But I think trust has to be the basis of any healthy relationship. If you're working together towards some shared goal as a relationship is whether, or not that's to have fun hanging out, or to get some work done, you have to trust that you're both committed to that, I suppose and lacking that trust for why you hired that person, why they're working for you, I suppose.

REIN: In human factors on safety science, there's an old view of human performance, which is that people are a problem to be managed. People make mistakes; they have to be trained, they have to be watched, they have to be supervised. They can't be trusted to make decisions. People are a problem to be managed. The way you get a safer workplace is by dealing with problem employees and making sure that they don't screw up.

The new view of human performance and safety is that people are the source of your success.

ELI: Thinking about humans as problems and eventually, by eliminating any aspect of humanity that causes problems, you're just going to end up with nothing. It reminds me of that bot that was trained to debug code basis and it just deleted the code base. It was like, “There's no bugs because there's no code!” And there'll be no problems with us no humans, but there’ll be no success either.

REIN: So I think that managers who look at people like they’re a problem to be managed are the source of a lot of these issues.

ELI: Yeah, that definitely resonates with me in the sense that that's how I felt in my negative experiences, especially when it comes to managing my ability to work and viewing my marginalizations as problems to be managed instead of just ways that I am.

REIN: Yeah.

ELI: Which is a difficult one to navigate with chronic fatigue. I didn't always have this disability and it has limited my life, but it's also, I think made me think very deeply about things that I wouldn't have otherwise. So in my case, I think there's been a silver lining and now it is a part of the way that I am and you can take it, or leave it, but it's a package deal with me working for you, or me being friends with you, or me being part of your D&D group and it has to be accepted and can't be managed away.

I think that's been the case as well with my other marginalizations Mandy rattled rattling off the whole litany of various things that I am and I have definitely had instances.

So for example, with my Jewishness, where I have been expected not to bring it to work almost. Of course, in the UK, we don't actually have separation of church and state, we are actually a Christian country. Everyone does Christmas and you've got all the loads of the bank holidays and what not, Easter.

Whenever I would make a remark that I did not fall into this norm, and actually I would be celebrating Passover instead of Easter and it was a slightly different time, it was viewed as like I was causing problems for being different almost even though it was just an aspect of the way that I am. So I think that's an attitude that definitely pervades and it's definitely harmful on more axes than just disability and ability to work.

MANDY: I actually think that that’s an attitude that that needs to go. I've worked for people where I've totally been afraid to be my best self because I'm afraid they'll fire me. Like, I pretended to be a conservative for a very long time with a client and boy, was that stressful! [laughs] For me, a lot of it is fear and being rejected and then all of a sudden, I don't have a job and then all of a sudden, I can’t pay my bills and then it just spirals from there. So it leads to a lot of almost pretending to be someone that I'm not for fear of looking good, or looking a certain way, or being perceived as a certain person and it becomes really, really stressful.

ELI: The way that I handled being genderqueer is I just based on vibes whether, or not I'm going to come out and at what stage. So at my current place, on my first day, I was like, “By the way, I use they/them pronouns. I’m genderqueer,” and absolutely plain sailing. It was totally fine. A couple of jobs ago, I decided not to and let everyone just assume that I was a woman, which is how I present essentially, or that's what most people assume by looking at me. Part of the reason for that was that the CTO was a Trump supporter who, it was one of the people who had jokes for everybody in the office. He had little funny jabs that he would make. “Funny jabs” and his funny jab for me was that I drank instant coffee and it was not real coffee. I just thought if he is going to make fun of me every morning for not drinking real coffee, what kind of fun is he going to make of me for not having a real gender and I thought, you know what, safer probably just to not bring it up. It is stressful and I felt dishonest and I'm not sure if I were in the same situation now, I'd be looking for another job, but I'm not. [chuckles]

But being able to bring your whole self to work, I definitely tried before and been rebuffed and this is the first time that I think it's sticking with my current place, which is such a joy, honestly. I cannot overstate it and part of it is an intentional effort on the people creating and it's enshrining the culture to allow that.

I think there's probably some truth to the idea that with norms the way that they are and with norms that don't allow you to be your whole self and that will punish you for being certain ways, it does require an active effort on people creating culture to go against that, which is a shame because if you're trying to get a business up and running, that might not be your highest priority, but as soon as you let it slip even a little bit, it's just going to spiral.

JOHN: Yeah. You're right that it takes intentional effort that a culture like that does not happen by accident, or just falls into that. [laughs] One of the things I'm curious about is were are you able to suss out that aspect of the culture before you started this job, or did you get there and then realize that you'd locked into it?

ELI: One of the things that was funny about what I was interviewing for this job was that I'd actually met one of the founders. We met at a social event in Cambridge briefly and I think not caught his name, not followed up, but we met, talked briefly, really vibed. And then when I went to this interview for oh, it’s a developer advocate job, that sounds great. The company looks nice. The product is cool. And I went into the interview and I was like, “Oh, it's you!” Somebody that I’d met briefly, really got along with.

One of the things that Anvil did and that Meredydd and Ian did was, very deliberately, make sure that they were trying to be gender inclusive in their hiring from a very early stage. So even when I interviewed, there were four people and one of the core platform developers was a woman. I say was as if she's not with the company anymore; she is. [chuckles]

Very early on in me working at Anvil, one of the things that one of them said to me was we were very conscious that if we got to a stage where it was 10 men and we're trying to hire our first woman, that woman being interviewed is not going to be inclined to take the job and be the only woman in the room with 10 guys.

I guess, I got lucky in the sense that they found the woman candidate, Bridget, who was incredible and that they didn't happen to end up finding that the best candidate every single time was a guy. But they’re certainly intentional and it's something that we send her when we're trying to find new people as well because it's done us well so far! It's something that I have looked for in the past as well is when I’ve said, thinking about which jobs I'm able to take, trust with the managers and the ability to be myself, because it's so exhausting when you have to create and impersonate a whole other person.

MANDY: There is a lot of context switching.

ELI: Oh, yes. I’m trying to remember who's out where. My fiancé is genderqueer as well and there was a time when we were each out at each other's jobs, but we weren't out at our own jobs. So we were each being read as a cisgender at our own jobs, but with a genderqueer partner and it was just so confusing. I barely got enough brain to handle my day job, [laughs] let alone being two, or three different people in different places.

MANDY: Now, I'm curious about that, if I can ask. So I'm actually going through that right now. I’m bisexual and not a lot of people know that and it's like, “Do I need to make a grand announcement?”

ELI: I just like to pepper into conversation that I think Lucy Lou is really hot, or something. I don't know. It's a hard one. That's how I came out to my parents is that I was just loudly interested in women in front of them and never really said anything, but it's too much to my memory. I got very lucky with my parents as well because my younger brother is transgender as well. He actually came out before me and paved the way and so, when it came time to come out to them as genderqueer, I just gave him a phone call. I said, “By the way, I'm genderqueer. My friends are using they pronouns for me. You can, if you want,” and just left it.

No, that is a difficult thing. Coming out, it's hard at any stage because that I've always felt is that I fear I've deceived people, but actually it's not me. It's the norms and assumptions that are being made completely in good faith by people that's not necessarily the people are being malicious when they assume me to be a woman, or assume me to be straight, but that I have to inform them that they're wrong and that's scary.

I don't like conflict and oh, there's a potential for conflict here because I have to tell them that they're wrong and nobody likes to be wrong. Nobody likes to have made an incorrect assumption. It's difficult every time and I think the way that I get through it these days is just by being obnoxiously confident of people. Just saying, “Oh, if you were taking it back. I'm sorry, get over it.” [laughs]

MANDY: Yeah, I’ve just been slowly peppering it into the people I trust and it’s like I do feel that level of deceit. I’m like these people have known me as a straight woman for—I'm not going to disclose my age—this many years and now all of a sudden, she's not? Like, is this a phase, is this a – you have those people and then to me, people who have been queer, or bi, am I gay enough? Am I – you know? [laughs] So it’s like there’s this whole spectrum of I don’t know where I am, somebody please help me! [laughs]

ELI: Oh, that am I gay enough? I still have that. So I'm genderqueer and I've had top surgery. I wanted to have a flat chest and I was able to do that and sometimes, I still go, “But I'm not trans enough to have done that.” [laughs] The level to which you can absorb that kind of rhetoric, it's really quite impressive actually. Am I gay enough? Gay enough of what? Yeah, and the thing about is it a phase, “Everything's a phase, mum, show me the permanent state of the self, there's no such thing.”

MANDY: One of my favorite affirmations is I am allowed to change at any time. I like to look at myself in the mirror and if I decide I'm with a woman and then all of a sudden, it doesn't work out and I want to go back to being with a man and I'm stringing. Again, I am allowed to change any time. I don't owe anybody that and I'm working on that. It's taken a lot of therapy for me to get to that stage, [chuckles] but all I owe is to myself.

ELI: I have a friend who had been going through a crisis of identity and basically to me, it seemed very clear that they were much, much happier in one label than the other and so, to me, that's what automated the decision. But obviously, it's not so clear when you're in the middle of it and one thing I said to them that I helped was, “Even if you turned around tomorrow and said, ‘Oh no, I'm actually this other thing.’ If you lose any friends for that and somebody says, ‘Oh, you are fraud. You were lying to me all this time.’ That wasn't your friend to start with. It will be okay.” You are allowed to change. You are allowed to decide where and how and what label makes you comfortable and which behaviors in yourself you want to celebrate, or accentuate.

MANDY: Yeah. I feel like that's very important to hear. As I've been navigating this, this past few years, I’ve realized I'm not alone. So I think some of the listeners out there, if you are going through new identity crisis, or I’m not going to call it an identity crisis, but if you're struggling with who you are, I think everybody is to one extent, or another. Even as a person, not just a gay person, or not just as a straight person, or not just as a political person, I think everyone out there is just struggling; who am I and right now, especially.

ELI: Yeah, that’s something that with this friend I was discussing is the idea of an objective truth about yourself and whether, or not that exists. Would I be a ciswoman if this thing of my past was different, or I'd had a different balance of hormones while I was in the womb, or any of those ways that people try to find causes, or pathologize, or rationalize the ways in which humans are complex, different, and unique.

I think I found comfort and peace in the idea that there isn't necessarily an objective truth buried at the heart of me underneath layers of experience, or whatever. I am who I am at this moment; that is broadly continuous one moment to the next, but it might change. At some point, I will have found that I've crossed a boundary over time maybe. I used to identify as a woman and then I don't think anything about myself abruptly changed, but one day, I was like, “No, actually I'm not. Yeah, women are great, but I'm not one. I'm not one of them.” That's not dishonest and it's not disingenuous to change over time, or to find that your surroundings have changed around you and that you relate to them differently.

So for example, going back to the oh, what if the objective truth about myself, if I had grown up in a culture where being a woman looks different than it does now, or than it has in my life, I might have thought differently about my gender over time. But that doesn't mean that the way that I am is not real.

REIN: This gives me the opportunity I've been looking for to name drop Virginia Satir.


ELI: Ooh.

REIN: She wrote a poem that I really love called I Am Me and I'll just read a little bit of it. It says, “However I look and sound, whatever I say and do, and whatever I think and feel at a given moment in time is authentically me. If later some parts of how I looked, sounded, thought, and felt turned out to be unfitting, I can discard that which is unfitting, keep the rest and invent something new for that which I discarded.” And later it says, “I own me, and therefore, I can engineer me.”

ELI: As someone with a customized body, I love that. [laughs]

MANDY: I love that.

ELI: I love that as a way to approach therapy as well. I'm somewhere for whom, I'm very lucky in the what is recommended as the basic bitch first line therapy here in the UK, cognitive behavioral therapy, works well for me. And that is very much, I am objective looking at my thoughts and trying to encourage the ones that I agree with and discourage the ones I don't; engineering debug my brain.

REIN: It might not surprise you that she was a family therapist.

ELI: I like that. More therapists should be poets, [chuckles] in my opinion. I've had therapists that have said some incredibly profound things. I like the idea of as well, the imagery of discarding things which no longer fit you whether that's labels, or behaviors, or friendship groups, or political alignments, or whatever in the same way that you would with clothes.

This is something where I've recently read Marie Kondo's incredible book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying, and really loved the idea of everything you own which sparks joy and that you can look at something which no longer fits you and say, “Thank you for the role you've played in my life. It's over now,” and put it away and donate to charity, or whatever. I think applying that same method to non-physical aspects of our lives that we've outgrown that need to be put away, I think it certainly helped me to avoid the sense of shame, or guilt, or feeling disingenuous that comes with growing and changing as a person.

MANDY: I feel the same applies to sobriety, which is also a thing that I struggle with. Like, drinking alcohol? It was fun while it lasted. We had some good times. We had some not so good times, but it no longer serves me so we're not going to do that anymore. [chuckles]

ELI: Yeah. That's another axis on which I want to circle back to accessibility and tech because here in the UK, we have a really strong drinking culture and from my understanding, it varies across the States and but here in the UK, it is very much we are getting drunk at house parties from our early teens.

The first place I worked had a very strong drinking culture. All of your work relationships were to be strengthened down the pub over a pint. Every work party was drink-y. I have a friend who is teetotal not due to, as far as I know, any religious, just a completely personal choice and actually that was one of the factors in them leaving that role at that company was because they were not allowed to be their whole self at work because being at work meant drinking to a certain extent, if you want it to be successful, popular, get the good projects and obviously, that locks so many people out. People who are sober for whatever reason. People who might not be drinking because they might be pregnant. People who just don't like to drink. [overtalk]

MANDY: [inaudible] drinking.

ELI: Yeah. People for religious reasons, or health reasons. It's one that I think again, sing the praises of my current place, when we hang out COVID safe ways we dislike lunchtime picnics and stuff and we've got new parents at our company who we want to be able to include in social gatherings and make sure that it's not predicated on drinking and being out late to be able to socialize with your coworkers, if you choose that that's something that you want. I think it's probably another thing where you have to take an active stance on it. So it's not to just absorb paradigms from the greatest society that you're embedded in.

MANDY: I'm not going to say I'm not nervous for running conferences on Zoom because conferences do have a very big drinking culture and that’s a socializing thing and I’m very nervous about how I'm going to navigate that. It just seems like it's everywhere, but I’ve come to the place where I’m just going to say no and I have some fancy mocktails I like so that's what I'll be doing. [chuckles]

ELI: Yeah. Something I really liked recently was—I do drink and I do like to drink—but I was at Python web conference and after the day it was done of talks and things, there was fun social event afterwards and it was all virtual because it's March and it was somebody making cocktails in their kitchen and showing us all of his fancy cocktail gear and the virgin ones, the non-alcoholic ones were given equal parity, like time and attention were paid to them. It was just presented as completely not noteworthy at all that somebody might not drink alcohol and I think that was a really nice way of framing it. It was just, here is the alcoholic question and here is non-alcoholic version and there's no value judgment being made about the two. I think that was also an active choice on behalf of the person doing that presentation and the people organizing the conference.

But so many different ways that not paying attention to these things can lock people out of the industry and contribute to that good old leaky pipeline that we all know and love.

JOHN: When we come to the end of every show, we like to do what we call reflections, which is to talk about the things that struck us about the conversations, or the ideas that we're going to be thinking about later.

For me, something you said Eli, just recently was that your marginalizations are not problems to be managed rather they're just the way you are, they're just who you are is such a powerful statement about identity and how it should be thought about and treated that I really didn't like the phrasing of it is something that can be just repeated to drill it into everybody's head.

MANDY: For me, I really liked the Virginia Satir poem that Rein shared, especially the last bit of “I own me, and therefore, I can engineer me.” I think that is so relevant and such a good way for everyone to keep in mind. I really believe that people shouldn’t be afraid of change. No, let me say that again because I think you can be afraid of change, but it's going to be okay and you are allowed to be afraid of change and it can be overwhelming and it can be scary, but you can get through it and I’m going to get through it.

Thank you for allowing me to tell a little bit of my truth for the first time and in the tech world and on this podcast!

JOHN: It's really great to have you on the show, finally. Your show.

REIN: Yeah, you know in Lincoln, the welcome to your house scene? This is like the welcome to your podcast scene.

MANDY: It’s not just my podcast. It’s all of ours.

ELI: Bugs Bunny meme. Oh, podcast.

REIN: I thought I might close this out by reading another part of that poem. She says, “I own everything about me. My body including everything it does. My mind including all its thoughts and ideas. My eyes including the images of all they behold. My feelings, whatever they may be—anger, joy, frustration, disappointment, excitement. My mouth and all of the words that come out of it—rude, or polite, sweet, or rough, correct, or incorrect. My voice loud, or soft. And all of my actions, whether they be to others, or to myself.”

MANDY: I love that. Thank you.

Eli, how about you?

ELI: I guess I'm just thinking about all the different ways that people can be and how complicated, complex, beautiful, different, and diverse it is to be a person, the same person over time even. If space isn't made for that, including, or not including things that we understand to be marginalizations in our current model, it harms people and the places that put effort into making space for people to be people in all the messy, complex, weird ways that they are. I've got to do better! That's well deserved.

REIN: Yeah, it turns out that that's good business, but it's also the right thing to do.

ELI: Fully agreed, yeah.

MANDY: Well, again, thank you so much for coming on the show, Eli. It has been absolutely wonderful having you and I’m so glad it’s been you here to be on my first episode as a panelist of Greater Than Code and for listeners out there, I hope you like what you’ve heard and maybe you’ll see a little bit of me in the future. But if you would also like to talk to the rest of the panel, we do have a Patreon at patreon.com/greaterthancode. You can join it for as little as a dollar and if you cannot support it, or you don’t want to support it, just get in contact with me and I will let you in anyway.

Thank you for much for listening and hopefully, I will talk to you very soon.

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