238: Contributing to Humanity and Mutual Aid – Solidarity, Not Charity
June 9th, 2021 · 56 mins 36 secs
About this Episode
01:00 - Mae’s Superpower: Being Able to Relate to Other People and Finding Ways to Support Them
03:42 - Contributing to Humanity (Specifically American Culture)
- Title Track Michigan
- Climate Change
- Clean, Accessible Water
- Hate & Divisiveness; Understanding Racial Justice
07:01 - Somatics and The Effects of Yoga, Meditation, and Self-Awareness
12:20 - Mutual Aid: Solidarity, Not Charity
- Ruby For Good
- Harm Reduction
- “We keep us safe.”
- Rainbow Gatherings
- Burning Man
- Big Big Table Community Cafe
33:17 - Giving vs Accepting Help; Extending and Accepting Love, Empathy, and Forgiveness
- Collective Liberation
- The Parable of Polygons
- Listening: What could be of use?
- 99 Bottles of OOP – Sandi Metz
48:25 - The Mental Health Challenges of Being a Programmer
- Celebrating Small Wins; “Microjoys!”
Casey: The word mutual aid can be more approachable if you think about it like people helping people and not a formal organization. Also: help and be helped!
Jamey: Valuing yourself and the way that helps the communities you are a part of.
Mae: Engaging with users using the things you're building is a reward and a way to give yourself “microjoy!”
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JAMEY: Hello and welcome to Episode 238 of Greater Than Code. I am your host, Jamey Hampton, and I'm here with my friend, Casey Watts.
CASEY: Hi, I'm Casey, and we're both here today with our guest, Mae Beale.
Mae spent 20 years in and out of nonprofit-land, with jaunts into biochemistry and women's studies degreeing, full-time pool playing, high school chemistry and physics teaching, higher ed senior administrating, and more. She went to code school in 2014 (at 37 years old) to gain the technical skills needed to build the tools she wished she'd had in all the years prior.
So glad to have you, Mae.
MAE: Thanks, Casey. Thanks, Jamey. Same for me.
JAMEY: So you may be ready for the first question that we're going to ask you, which is, what is your superpower and how did you acquire it?
MAE: Yeah, thank you. I think that my superpower is being able to relate to other people and find ways to support them. How did I get good at that? Well, I've dealt with a lot of pretty complicated people in my life that you have to do extra thinking to figure out. So I think I got my start with that and I've done lots of different things in life and met lots of different people and felt lots of different feelings and thought lots of different thoughts. So I think that's mostly it: living.
JAMEY: I was going to say that I know from knowing you that you've done lots of things, but even our listeners who don't know you probably already know that just after listening to your bio, so.
MAE: Yeah, and there's plenty more that didn't make it in there. That's something that is fun and a joke is no matter how long people know me, there's always still something that they didn't know and so, that's fun for me. I like to surprise other people and I love being surprised by people. So it's like a little game I have with all my fun facts.
JAMEY: I love that.
CASEY: I've got a question: what's on your mind lately.
MAE: What is on my mind lately? So many things, I don't even know where to start. One is where and how can I contribute to the future of humanity [chuckles] and American culture in particular and in the circles that I'm in, drawing it down even more. So I think about that a lot. I think about my house a lot. I just bought a house and I'm going to do each room with a color theme so it'll end up being, you walked through the rainbow. Pretty excited for that, lots of things there. And I think a lot about how to empower others and be a more and more effective communicator. I think about that a lot. Probably those are the top ones and maybe Dominion. I play that every day. So I think about that a little bit.
CASEY: [chuckles] Love that game.
JAMEY: Me too.
CASEY: This is great. All three are really interesting. I want to start on your first one. What opportunities do you see lately, or what have you done recently, or what do you hope to do to help the world help American culture help make an impact? What are you working on?
MAE: From where I sit, it seems like the most important things that any of us can attune to about even a portion of is the environment and whatever's going on with our ability as humans to respond to climate change and water, like clean, accessible water for people, and hate and divisiveness. Those three things I think are our biggest challenges. So I try to do things that end up in those spheres, if not in things that ideally have some mix of those rather than having them be silos.
One of my jobs is working with Title Track Michigan, and they are a relatively new nonprofit that brings creative practice to complex problems and is specifically focused on water protection, racial equity, and youth empowerment. Once all the uprising started in 2020, we created an Understanding Racial Justice course for white people in Northern Michigan and so, I've been helping to facilitate those courses and taking as many opportunities to rethink my orientation to all those topics as well.
CASEY: That's so cool. You found a group that does all of those things in one.
MAE: Amazing, right?
CASEY: Wow. Title Track Michigan, huh?
MAE: Yeah. I found them because my life radically changed a few years ago. A lot of things changed at once like, not just a lot, all of the things. So I went on this walkabout just trying to find ways to be of service in the world without expectation, watch who I met, and where I ended up. I ended up in Michigan and getting introduced to these people who then were creating a new nonprofit Title Track.
Another thing I do is I have a consultancy that I have a flagship enterprise product for nonprofit, small business administration. That is a little bit of a Trojan horse for change management and organizational development and sustainable longevity planning for organizations.
So the fact that I ended up there with them at that time and way more cool synchronicities happened. That's how I met them. So it just feels right and great to have landed in that space and then to have 2020 be what it became, we were already formed and positioned to try to be of help.
JAMEY: This is an abstract question.
JAMEY: But what does it feel like to feel like you're doing the right thing in that way like, the right place to be? I got the sense from you telling this story that things just came together in the right way at the right time and that's a beautiful thing when it happens and you said it feels right. What does that feel like?
MAE: Mm thanks, Jamey. Well, my first thought is another thing that Title Track does in that Understanding Racial Justice course and a lot of circles I've ended up in have a focus on somatic and so, body centered awareness and engagement. So I used to always think my answer was going to be emotional when people ask me, “How do I feel?” and now I hear and think of my body first so that's cool. I'll answer a couple of ways, if that's okay.
When for me synchronicities happen and I feel most alive, or of use, which is important to me, my heart literally feels bigger and almost breathing like I can feel air. I don't know how to explain that. I definitely will be smiling more, my back is straighter, and I usually have a lot more to say. All of a sudden, I'll have a lot to say. Other times, I have nothing to say!
For how I might've answered that question previously would be closer to having a lot of things to say, like I'm a lot more creative, making connections, getting excited, and wanting to create new things together with other people.
How about you two?
CASEY: Just hearing you describe that, I have thought back on times I felt really proud and engaged and I noticed my posture improved, too. That's so interesting. I've had a nerve injury for 2 years. My hands go tingly sometimes. So I'm working on my back and noticing posture all the time. Interesting how my mood like that could affect the posture. I believe it, too.
JAMEY: I'm not sure that I would have called out posture specifically in that way, but now that I'm thinking about it, I think what I would say is I feel lighter.
JAMEY: So to feel less bogged down, I can see in what way that's related to posture. [chuckles]
MAE: Totally. Yeah.
CASEY: We all have a lot to say on this, I love it.
This reminds me of the Flow State. So when your skills match a need and it's challenging the appropriate amount, you're in a great concentration state, but if your skills aren't enough, or if the need isn't important enough—either one—feels a little way less good, not good.
MAE: I lived at a yoga retreat center for a little while in Massachusetts called Kripalu—it's the largest yoga retreat center in North America. I had never done yoga and I was like, “Oh, cool. I'll just go live there [laughs] and see.” Anyway, I was there for three months and they have a part of their organization dedicated to optimal human performance. They have a partnership with Tanglewood and some other places around there to see if yoga and meditation can induce more Flow State, more of the time for top performing musicians, and just to be able to have more “scientific evidence” about how physiologically we can do things to get ourselves closer to those states more often. Pretty cool work.
JAMEY: Yeah. That's really interesting.
CASEY: I was just doing some research on the effects of different types of yoga and meditation on anxiety. I was trying to read some of the primary sources. I like to go to PubMed first—that's my go-to. Some people do Google Scholar. It's interesting, the framing sounded in a couple of papers like, “Well, it's not as good as CBT,” and my takeaway was, “Well, it helps an amount, huh? Great, good.”
So people who can't get access to CBT should consider that and that's true anyway. Science has shown this thing we knew was helpful anyway, is helpful in an empirical sense and that’s great.
MAE: Totally. Casey, for anybody who might not know what CBT is, would you be willing to…?
CASEY: Thank you. CBT here is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is one of the most common and effective forms of talk therapy you would do with a therapist. It focuses on what some maladaptive, unhelpful thought patterns are and helps you change them.
MAE: And that's coming from a psych major, right, Casey?
CASEY: That's right. I talk all about that in my book, Debugging Your Brain. It's funny, but you're flipping the script here. Usually we do this to our guests.
MAE: [laughter] Great!
CASEY: Love it.
JAMEY: There's another project, Mae that I know that you've worked on that. I'm a little bit surprised that you haven't brought up yet, but I'm going to bring it up, which is your Mutual Aid program.
MAE: Thank you.
JAMEY: I think that when you are talking about doing something to make an impact on the world, like that was the first thing I thought of since I know you're involved with that and I would love to hear you talk about it.
MAE: Yes. Thank you. Thanks for bringing that up and I did want to talk about that and I was looking forward to hearing what you have to say about that topic as well.
So when the pandemic started, you may have seen these, or become involved, but there was a whole bunch of spreadsheets starting like Google Sheets of people who had some needs and people who wanted to offer some things. Google spreadsheets are really easy first pass for people with low tech skills and no budget to just come together. But I started being invited to all these different spreadsheets from around the country that include people's name, address, phone number, CashApp name, their exact vulnerabilities and identities, and current struggles in a spreadsheet that's downloadable.
It really freaked me out and I started coding that day about how can we start to do something to make these people not have to have their identity so exposed and through like WeCamp networks, Ruby for Good networks, and different Slacks I'm in of varying programmers, I started saying, “Does anybody else want to get involved?” and several people did.
So we have built a platform to support mutual aid groups and what we did immediately was find some groups to figure out what their needs were instead of just what we might imagine. They were doing a lot of, we call it dispatch moderated setups where people fill out a form and then volunteers read the forms and then match people and do all the communication manually, but not having peer-to-peer things go on.
The system was originally designed to support that dispatch moderated set up and once people started to go back to work in the fall and there weren't as many people able to devote as much time to volunteer, and as varying groups, especially ones that hadn't been around as long, realized they would probably need a lot more training in social work, ask things just to be more effective and figure out how to route people correctly within their community to services that might be able to help them a little more.
Since the fall, we've to coding peer-to-peer solution. We have several different mutual aid groups around the country and right now, most closely working with groups in Michigan and New York state, just because that's where our networks are. Getting to launch some peer-to-peer stuff, but mutual aid itself has become a buzzword and like, what is that anyway? [chuckles]
So that topic I love talking about. There's like a mutual aid saying, “Solidarity, not charity.” The whole thing is we're all in it together and we're not going to rely on different structures, or institutions that were set up most often in ways that institutionalized various forms of oppression. Just empowering people to connect with each other, have stronger networks, and build more resiliency is what's up with it, but mutual aid has been around for over a 100 years, at least as a term and a thing, but it generally, almost always springs from communities that have been disenfranchised.
So when the pandemic started and a lot of new groups formed, not everybody had already checked what's already happening and a lot of different people, especially in communities of color, were surprised by like, they didn't hear that term, that's just what they do. There's been a big—along with everything else—learning of how those structures already were in place and how we can continue to grow them, and support each other as we navigate this world we're in.
Jamey, I was going to ask you about your involvement with mutual aid, too and if you had anything to add to that definition.
JAMEY: I was going to say that I really liked what you said about finding new ways around things that have been institutionalized. Because I think one of the things that's so beautiful about mutual aid is the way that people can help each other realize what kind of help is available and what kind of help they even might need.
A story that I really like to tell that and I think about a lot is I have a friend who's involved in mutual aid in Buffalo, where I'm from and he does repair work and just is very handy in that way. So he does a lot of mutual aid repair for people and he told me that the way that this started for him is that there was a request in our mutual aid Facebook group where someone was saying, “I really need $200, or something like this because my window is broken and I need to buy a space heater because it's been getting really cold. So I need this money to buy a heater and all of this stuff.” My friend came in and was like, “Okay, but what if I just fixed your window?” It had not occurred to this person that she could ask for that.
MAE: Oh, boy.
JAMEY: She was coming up with all these solutions around it. So this idea of like coming together as a community and saying, ‘Yeah, I can help you, but can we help a little bit closer to the source than what you even just asked for?” I think is really powerful.
MAE: Yes. I love that, Jamey. Yeah, it's the closer we can be in community with each other, the easier those asks are. Something that you said about figuring out your own needs, there is a thing and it's related a little bit to some of the other topics we've talked about where there's like the white savior thing. People want to do something for people who they think are less – they have less than them. There's a power dynamic there and mutual aid—mutual, that's the main part.
So you really aren't doing mutual aid if you're not accepting help. All of us have things that we could be supportive with and things to offer. I love also having that not – there's a lot of mutual aid that is about just giving money and/or like reparation stuff. But I love when money isn't part of the equation and quantification of value isn't part of the equation. It's just like, “I have something to give and I could use something and this is how we're going to stay in community and in network and lower those barriers to have offers and asks be even easier in the future.”
JAMEY: For sure. I think it's about meeting people where they are, too, because I agree about some programs are focused on money, and some people have money and can put that into the community and that's great. But maybe they don't have time to show up and do these things and other people might think like, “Well, how can I help because I don't have money,” but they have time, or they have skills. I think that everyone bringing in and saying, “This is what I have to offer with what's going on in my life right now,” and maybe it's money, or maybe it's time, or maybe it's something else that I didn't even think of that they're going to offer. [chuckles]
MAE: Totally. When you were saying that, I just got a chill thinking if really every single person just that question you just said, “How can I help?” If we all did one thing, this is how to effect broad change.
CASEY: How can people find the mutual aid groups near them? If they just search mutual aid, that probably gets a bunch, but they don't all say it, right?
MAE: Yeah. It's a really great point. There have been some different efforts to link together mutual aid networks and there's a map, but not every network is on it because not every network even knows about it. [chuckles] So because mutual aid is so grassroots, it's not –
MAE: A number of them have form 501(c)(3) is just to not be doing illegal financial transaction stuff that is problematic by having all this money go through their personal Venmo, or something. But that is what a lot of people have done. So mostly there's the Google option and the term mutual aid is getting used more and more, but there are some other phrases. I'm forgetting it right now. What's the name when they hand out medical supplies? Harm reduction, there's a bunch of harm reduction efforts. Also, in cities where there are a lot of homeless shelters, there's things around encampments and like becoming community with those folks to advocate.
Another piece, major piece of mutual aid that I forgot to name is it inherently has a political engagement component in it. So one of the reasons why it is this solidarity thing is you're seeing all the humans as inherently equally valuable and that you're identifying the structural things that led to people having a different experience, or a different privilege, or a different outcome to what's going down for them. So then by identifying those together, you try to change the system to not create the problem.
Whereas, to go back to that phrase charity, a lot of charities—which are awesome, I'm not trying to knock those—but a lot of them have more of a it's your fault, or shortcoming, or need that has put you where you are. Mutual aid is the way in which this is all rigged and on purpose, or not on purpose, or just the impact of the structures is how you ended up where you are so let's rejigger.
JAMEY: A phrase that comes up a lot, in the protest community specifically, is, “We keep us safe and we say that at protests about security, medics and things, and wearing masks—I've seen people start to use that phrase. But I think that that's a phrase that really speaks to like what mutual aid is about, too. It's about we are doing something together for ourselves as a community, and we're not looking for something from the outside that comes in a hierarchical structure. We're just making this decision as a group of people to take care of ourselves and our neighbors and I think that's what I really love about it. [chuckles]
MAE: Totally. Yeah, absolutely. And back to what you were saying, Casey, the how can people find those things? There's also just, “Hey, I've got some extra seeds,” or put a cabinet in your yard with some food in it and say free food. You don't have to associate with a “mutual aid group” to do mutual aid. It's like, that's just a blanket term, basically that offers a little bit of a cue about what those people might be up to. But it's really, in whatever way you are sharing and developing relationships with your fellow community members. This is mutual aid.
JAMEY: I thought of another example of that.
JAMEY: We have this in Buffalo, but I think it's a thing that we're seeing other places, too. Separate from our mutual aid network, we have a Facebook Buy Nothing group.
JAMEY: And people will post like, “Oh, I have this, I'm going to get rid of it. Someone come pick it up.” “Oh, I was going to donate these spoons from my kitchen. Someone can have them.” When you said seeds, that's the kind of thing you'll see on Buy Nothing and I think that's been a revolution in anything even separately from it, because I do think that money plays a part in a lot of mutual aid stuff, because folks need money for things. But in Buy Nothing, it's pointedly without money and I think that that's a very fun and cool dynamic, too.
MAE: Totally. Yes. I have a couple of things I would love to say them. One is that the bringing up Facebook has started to support mutual aid. But also, I don't know if y'all have seen The Social Dilemma and just become aware of all of this tracking that's going down.
There's something that is another motivator for us on the mutual aid repo is this is open source code that anybody who wants to use it can stand up their own instance and if you partner with us, connect with us, we will help you if you need us to. But it's intentionally not a multitenant app so that people have small datasets that they own and there isn't like this aggregate thing going on about local data. It’s basically a small tech for the win, which is also pretty mutual aid-y.
Our group, like the programmers who are most involved, meet a couple times a week and know about what's going on in each other's lives. We are mutual aid for each other, too. The energy of what, how, who we are, and what we're doing is getting put into the thing that we're building that hopefully has that same effect. So there's this nice spiral thing going on in there that I'm proud of. I think there's a lot about what we referenced earlier, institutionalization of oppression, that has to be like, there are ways to create other options and they take cultivation of and building new structures. Stuff like this as an example of that and an experiment in it.
Another one that it reminded me of is when I was younger, I used to go to rainbow gatherings. I don't know if y'all know about these. It's a super hippie thing and there's regional gatherings, but there's a national gathering at a national forest every year. All these people just show up and then they build earthen stoves. There's a bunch of people who do not participate in main society; they just go to these different gatherings and travel around as a…
There's plenty more to talk about rainbow tribe and even the usage of that word tribe and what goes down. I'm not going to try to touch into that, but something I love about it is there's a whole exchange row where people just sit out with things and there's no money. You're not allowed to use money.
I think I was 18 when I went to my first one and I was just like, “What? This is amazing.” Like, just to imagine my life not through a currency, or that evaluated exchange, it was so inspiring to me. It still is and so, some of what you said, Jamey, reminded me of that.
JAMEY: I relate a lot to that, too. Burning Man events are also no money allowed.
JAMEY: When I first entered that space, that was one of the things that really spoke to me about it too. In fact, it's also no barter allowed in Burning Man. It's a purely gifting economy where if you give someone something, a lot of times they become inspired to gift you something back right there and there's an exchange that happens. But culturally, the point of it is that there's not supposed to be any expectation of exchange when you gift something to somebody.
MAE: Do you know about that restaurant in San Francisco that is free, but you pay for the person behind you if you want?
JAMEY: I don't know about one in San Francisco specifically, but we have a program like that similar in Buffalo. It's called Big – I'm going to look it up so I can link it up.
MAE: How about you, Casey? I’m getting excited so I keep saying things.
CASEY: I’m reflecting on the award mutual aid a lot through all this. I like this idea that mutual aid as it is in action and that mutual aid groups do mutual aid, but individuals can, too.
CASEY: That's a pretty powerful theme. It makes the term more approachable, especially since it's a jargon word lately. It's just grassroots-y helping each other out, however that looks.
CASEY: I'm thinking a lot about what communities I'm a part of, too, that naturally have that phenomenon. It's like, I'm queer, I’m in a lot of queer groups. I’m in interest groups like musician groups and they help each other do stuff. They carpool to the practice or anything like that that’s this. There's also a formal ones like D.C. Ward 6 has mutual aid groups that are named that. That's its own thing. And then even my Facebook friends, I just post like, “I have a crackpot, who wants it?”
CASEY: But before today, I might not have used the word mutual aid to describe any of that because I'm not part of a formal approved mutual aid group, which is not the point of that term.
MAE: [laughs] Yeah.
CASEY: Just people helping people.
MAE: When I was thinking about getting into tech, I, as a pretty outspoken woman who will address injustice directly if I see it, when I see it in myself and others, I wasn't sure if that was going to be a place for me. I had had some not awesome experiences with tech people before I was in tech. So I reached out to a bunch of people who were already in the biz and they spent hours talking to me about their experiences, answering all of my questions, and offering to help me.
As I took the leap and went to code school and participated in a meetups and just, everywhere is mutual aid in programming, everybody is helping each other. “I have a question,” “I'm wondering about this.” This podcast is mutual aid, in my opinion.
It's been really inspiring for me to be a programmer because I feel a part of a worldwide network of people who try to, especially with mixing in the open source piece, build things and offer what they can. It's awesome.
CASEY: I have a challenge for people listening to this podcast. This week, I'd like you to help someone and accept help from someone, both in the spirit of mutual aid.
CASEY: I'm not surprised; accepting help might be the harder half for a lot of people.
JAMEY: I think that's true. [chuckles]
MAE: One way I've said it before is that that is your gift to the giver. The giver doesn't get to be a giver [chuckles] unless you accept the gift from them and that people can, including myself at times, tend to over-give and that is its own challenge. So if you need to stay in the giving frame, [chuckles] you can be like, “All right, well, I'm providing this opportunity to the other person.”
CASEY: Sometimes I've playfully pushed on an idea to people. I'm trying to help them and they say, “No, no, no. I can't accept your help because I would be indebted,” and I'm like, “You would deprive me of this good feeling I would get from helping you? Really?”
CASEY: Thinking of it a little bit, I'm not like – [overtalk]
CASEY: Right. I'm just thinking that way a little bit, flipping it, helps some people accept the help then.
JAMEY: I think that people have so much harder of a time of extending love and empathy, and forgiveness, and all of these nice things that we might really value extending to other people, but not to ourselves.
MAE: Yo, that's for real, Jamey and still on this theme, the seeing each other as equals as in community. My Mom used to say this great phrase, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” She was raised Catholic so it's got that in there, but I love that of this could definitely be me.
There's a cool Buddhist practice that I learned from Pema Chödrön about you extend release of suffering to others and then you widen the circle to include yourself in it, but you don't start there. So similar to how you're saying, Jamey, that that is a challenge for a lot of people, it's just built into that practice where when you can't give yourself a break, [chuckles] imagining others in that situation and then trying to include yourself is an angle on it.
JAMEY: I like that. I think also related to Casey's example of his joke. It's thinking about how what you do affects other people, I think sometimes we're better at that and if you're treating yourself bad, especially if you're in one of these tight mutual communities. If you're treating yourself bad, that's affecting the people around you, too. They don't want to see you being treated bad and they don't want to see you being miserable and they want the best for you. When you're preventing yourself from having the best, that's affecting the whole community, too.
JAMEY: I hadn’t really thought about it like that until right now. So thank you, Casey, for your joke.
CASEY: Powerful thought. Yeah. Like the group, your people, your team, they need you to be your best. So if you want to help your team, sometimes the best way is to help yourself. It's not selfish. It's the opposite of selfish.
MAE: Exactly. Another thing I've heard a bunch of the different activist groups, some phrasing that people have started to use is collective liberation and no one's free till we're all free and if we are suffering, the other people are suffering and vice versa. So figuring out how to not be so cut off from ourselves, or others, or that suffering and seeing them as intertwined, I think is one of the ways to unlock the lack of empathy that a lot of people experience.
CASEY: There's a really cool visualization I like that that reminds me of. It's called the Parable of the Polygons and you can drag around triangles and squares. You can see how segregation ends up happening, if you have certain criteria set up in the heuristics of how they move. Or if some people want to be around diverse people, it ends up not happening, or it ends up recovering and getting more integrated and mixed. It's so powerful because you can manipulate the diagrams. There's a whole series of diagrams. Look it up, it's the Parable of the Polygons.
MAE: Cool! That is awesome.
CASEY: So I want to be around people who aren't like me and that helps. It helps with this phenomenon and the more people do that, the better.
MAE: Yeah, and having grown up in a small city, that's pretty homogenous on multiple levels. When I went to college and learned that people thought differently, my world was this very rigidly defined, this is how things are. [chuckles] My biker dad, that's still his way, his lens. When you start to experience people who are not like yourself, you let that challenge your assumptions, then you end up transformed by that.
I was a double major in college—biochemistry and women's studies—and I remember being in an organic chemistry class and the professor said, “Well, if that's too hard for you, you can go take a sociology class.” I raised my hand and was like, “My sociology classes challenge me on every single thing I think about the world. Your class requires me to provide rote memorization, which I'm awesome at luckily and that's how I ended up in your class.” But that is not harder. That's that story.
CASEY: The last episode that I recorded was with Andrea Goulet. One of the things that kept coming up was the old-timey programming interview questions were all about math.
CASEY: Which isn't necessarily what programming is about. That reminds me here of rote memorization in that class versus complex systems thinking in sociology.
CASEY: With these two choices, I might choose a sociology person to do architecture work in my software than the rote memorization person.
MAE: Totally, definitely, every time. Yeah, and that's a different lens that I have coming in to the industry from having been an administrator for so many years is our perception as programmers about what's going to be helpful is very different than someone whose day job is to do repetitive work like very, very, very simple apps.
When I was in code school, I really wanted us to figure out how to make even our homework assignments be available for nonprofits and that's how my whole system in business ended up getting spun up. Oh, it was before that. My job before that, when I interviewed, I said, “Well, how long do you need someone here for? How long would you need me to commit?” and he said, “A year,” and I said, “All right, well, I'm not sure I'm the best candidate for you because I'm going to go to grad school and get a degree and be a consultant as businesses and nonprofits.” And then I was at that job for 8 and a half years before I went to code school. [laughs]
But the thing about what could be of use just requires so much humility from programmers to defer to the actual employees and the workers about their experience and what could help them. Because so often, we think that we're the ones with the awesome idea and we can just change their lives and disrupt the thing. A lot of the best ideas come from the people themselves.
I went to a project management training in Puerto Rico and it was a very rarefied environment of people who could pay for people to get PMP training, or whatever. The people that were in my cohort were factory project planners and not a single one of them knew anyone who worked in the factory. Like, they didn't get to know them as part of that project and they didn't have anyone in their sphere and my parents were paper mill workers. So when I'm sitting there and listening to these people talk about the worker and their lack of wherewithal, I guess, there'll be a gracious way to say it right now, I was just appalled. I try to take that into any time we are building software in a way that honors all people.
CASEY: Yeah. My favorite leaders are the ones that listen to their employees and the users. I am happy with my roles in leadership positions, but the thing that makes me happy with myself is listening and if I ever lose that, I don't trust myself to be a good leader, or manager.
CASEY: I could. I know it's easy when you get promoted to stop listing as much. It's the incentive structure of the system. I wouldn't blame myself if I lost it, but knowing I value it and don't want to lose it helps me hold on to my propensity to listen.
MAE: Yes, Casey! Totally that.
CASEY: Sometimes people have asked me, “What makes you think you'd be good at leading this?” That is literally my answer is like, “Well, I won't forget to listen.”
JAMEY: I think that it's weird the way that people create this hierarchy of good ideas and better ideas and which idea is better and put that kind of value judgment on it. When really, when you're dealing with software and trying to create something that works for the people that are using it. It's not about whether your idea is good or bad, it's about whether it's the right one for that group of people.
My background, my first tech industry job was in agriculture and so, all of our customers were farmers and people that worked at farms, To admit I don't know what it's like to work on a farm in that way, it's not a value judgment about whether you're smart, or good at programming, which people act like it is. It's just a true fact about whether, or not you've ever had that experience.
CASEY: Sometimes I run workshops where we think about all the pros and cons to different ideas and when we need it, we pull out a matrix. We get a spreadsheet that has columns and rows, and rows are the ideas. A lot of decisions are made with one column, naturally like, “What's the best?” You just say like, “1 to 10, this one's the best.”
But when we break it out, we have lots of columns, lots of variables like, oh, this one's easier to build, this one's higher impact. And when we break it out even further, we can weight those columns then do the matrix math and people like that, actually. Even people who are math averse. They can fill in the numbers in each of the cells and then they trust the spreadsheet to do the thing. That gets us on the same page.
It depends on the context, which columns matter, which factors are important and that can completely change the situation. Even if you all agree on this one's harder than that one, the outcome could be completely different. The columns, or the context in my matrix model.
JAMEY: We’re reading at work 99 Bottles of Object-Oriented Programming, which Mae knows because we work together, which we haven't said yet on the show. But we're doing a book club. Your description of the matrix columns and what is relevant reminded me of the thesis of that book because it's like, there are tradeoffs. It's not that one tradeoff is necessarily more valuable than another tradeoff, it's just like what makes sense for this context that you're using and building it in, then you have to think about it in a nuanced way if you want to come up with a nuanced answer.
MAE: I am so grateful to and inspired by Sandi Metz. Her ability to distill these concepts into common sense terms is so genius and moving, welcoming, accessible. So grateful, so really glad you brought that up, Jamey.
One of the things that really stuck out from various talks of hers that I've been to is even if you aren't changing that code, that code does not need to change. That's bad code, but it works. That's great code, [chuckles] like working code, and splitting some of the bikeshedding that we do on code quality with business impact is a teeter-totter that I really appreciate.
JAMEY: I like the way it puts value on everyone and what they're working on. Because my big takeaway from starting to read this book has been that I tend to write fairly simple code because that's what I find easy to do. [chuckles] I always felt well, other people write more complicated code than me because they know more about X, Y, and Z than me and I don't know enough about it to write something that elegant, or that complex, or et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
I had placed this value judgment on other people's code over mine and to read about code that's dissecting the value judgments we put on it and determining hey, just because maybe it's not always the best thing to overengineer something Maybe it doesn't have to be because you don't feel smart enough to overengineer it. Maybe it can just be because that's not the right choice. [chuckles]
JAMEY: I thought that was really valuable to think about.
MAE: Love that, Jamey.
JAMEY: Boost people's confidence, I hope because I think a lot of people need their confidence boosted. [chuckles]
MAE: Yo, I had no idea what I was getting into as far as the mental health challenge of being a programmer. To maintain one's self-respect, especially as an adult who was successful in her career prior to then be like, there is a whole thing about the adult learner. But to have your entire day be dealing with things that are either broken, or don't exist yet, that's your whole day. Nothing works ever basically and the moment it does, you move on to the things that aren't, or don't exist.
So it's so critical to try to remember and/or learn how to celebrate those small wins that then somehow feel like insulting that you're celebrating this is just some simple things. [laughs] And then it's like, why are we making a big fanfare? But those microjoys—I've never heard that phrase as opposed to microaggression, or something. Microjoys, if we could give each other those, it could go a long because the validation is a very different experience than I have seen, or heard about, or experienced in any other industry. It's a real challenge.
JAMEY: Not only is everything broken, or doesn't exist. But once it's working, you never hear about it again until it's broken again. [chuckles]
MAE: Yeah. [laughs]
CASEY: That’s so true and it's such an anti-pattern. At USCIS, you would have every developer, who was interested, see an interview—we’re working on an interview app—watch the user use the app every month at least, if not more and they loved those. They saw the context, they saw the thing they just built be used. That's positive feedback that everyone deserves, in my opinion and it's just a cultural idea that engineers don't get to see users, but they should. They do at some companies and yours can, too.
MAE: Yes, Casey! We are working on that at True Link financial as well. Figuring out how to work that more in so that we all feel part of the same team more and we're not like the IT crowd and in the basement and all we have to say is, “Hello, have you tried turning it on and off again?” [laughs]
JAMEY: Casey, I love that because even as you were telling that story, I was like, “Yeah, it's useful to see how people use it because that'll help you make better decisions,” and blah, blah, blah, which I feel strongly about. And then what you actually said at the end was, “and you get satisfaction out of being able to see people using your thing.” I hadn't even thought of that dynamic of it.
CASEY: Yeah. It’s both, happier and more effective. That's the thing I say a lot. These user interviews make you happier doing your job and make you more effective at doing them both. How can you not?
JAMEY: What’s not to like?
It's true, though about knowing that people use your app. I started in consulting and a lot of the things I worked on felt a little soul crushing and not because I thought that they were bad, or unethical in any way, but just like, who is this for? Like, who cares about this?
One of my most joyful experiences was one of the other products that wasn't quite like that, that I worked on when I was in consulting was an app called Scorebuilders and it was for physical therapy students have a specific standardized test they have to take and so, it's study prep for this specific test. There's like two, or three and we had different programs for them.
And then I, a few years after that was, in physical therapy myself, because I have back problems and they have interns from college helping them in the physical therapy office that I went to and they were talking about studying for their test, or whatever. I was like, “Oh, that's funny. I haven't thought about that in a while. Do you use Scorebuilders to study in?” They were like, “Oh yeah. We all use it. That's what you use if you're in this program,” and I was like, “Oh, I built that,” and they were like, “What?!” They were calling all of the other people from the next room to be like, “Guess what?” and I'm like, “This is literally the best thing that's ever happened.” [laughs]
CASEY: Yeah! That's such a good story in the end, but it's such a bad story. You never got to meet anyone like that earlier, really?
CASEY: That's common, that’s everywhere, but that's a shame. You can change that. [overtalk]
JAMEY: I just realized since it was consulting and not like, I didn't work for Scorebuilders.
CASEY: Oh, I’m sure. It's even more hard.
CASEY: I'm so glad you got that.
JAMEY: Thank you. It happened like 5 years ago and I still think about it all the time. [laughs]
Well, we've been having a great discussion, but we've pretty much reached the point in the show where it's time to do reflections and that's when everyone will say something that really stood out to them about our conversation, maybe a call-to-action, something that they want to think more about.
So, Casey, do you want to start?
CASEY: Yeah. I said this earlier, but this is my big takeaway is the word mutual aid can be more approachable if you think about it like people helping people and not a formal organization. Especially since it is, by definition, grassroots-y. There is no formal stamp of approval on a mutual aid group that formalizes it. That's pretty powerful.
I'll be thinking about what communities I'm part of that do that through that lens this week and I challenge listeners to help and be helped sometime this week, both.
JAMEY: I think one thing that I'm going to really try and keep in mind is what we were talking about, valuing yourself and the way that that helps the community. I really liked Mae’s story about including yourself after other people and using that way to frame it in your mind. Because I think that that will make it easier and thinking about like, this is something I struggle with all the time. I think a lot of us do. So I think that I really want to take that one into my life. Next time I realize I'm treating myself unfairly, I want to think, “Well, how is this affecting the other people around me who probably don't want to see me to do that?” [chuckles]
MAE: Thanks, Jamey. Yeah. I have so many answers of reflections! The one I know I'm going to use immediately is this most recent one of engaging with users using the things you're building as a reward and a way to be able to get microjoy. I'm definitely going to use that word now more, microjoys, but I agree with both of what you said, too.
JAMEY: Well, Mae thank you so much for coming on and chatting with us. This was really great and I think people will really appreciate it.
MAE: Yay. I loved it! Thank you both so much. What a treat!
CASEY: I feel like we could keep talking for hours.
JAMEY: I know.
This is how I feel after a lot of my episodes.
Which is always good, I guess, but.Support Greater Than Code