226: Incarceration and Technology with Kurt Kemple

March 17th, 2021 · 1 hr 21 mins

About this Episode

01:49 - Kurt’s Superpower: Lifting Others Up: “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

07:00 - “Self-Taught” vs “Self-Guided” vs “Self-Motivated” Developers

11:32 - The Intersection of Incarceration and Technology

  • Destigmatizing Incarcerated Folx
  • Hiring the Formerly Incarcerated
  • Providing Stability to Folx Coming Out of Incarceration

22:15 - Having Privilege Working in DevRel to Raise These Issues

  • Bias and White Privilege

26:51 - Helping and Advocating For the Formerly Incarcerated

29:32 - The Interview Process as it Relates to the Formerly Incarcerated

  • Background Checks
  • Rolling Jobs

36:26 - Always Be Applying (ABA); Technical Interviews and Fabrication/Bending Truths

45:29 - Problematic Binary Identities

47:07 - What can companies and hiring managers do? / Problems with Hiring in Tech and Tech Interviews

  • Make No Assumptions
  • Avoid Feigned Surprise
  • Don’t Treat People Differently
  • Don’t Take Advantage
  • Don’t Interrogate

01:05:19 - Contextualizing Advice


Kurt: Community is what you surround yourself with.

Laurie: Having empathy and understanding as a hiring manager for people who have perceivably negative things in their background.

Jacob: Polyglotism and not being so gatekeep-y.

John: Being reminded of how terrible our carceral state is here in the U.S.

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JACOB: Hello, everybody and welcome to Episode 226 of Greater Than Code. My name is Jacob Stoebel and I’m joined with my co-panelist, John Sawers.

JOHN: Thank you, Jacob and I’m here with Laurie Barth.

LAURIE: Thanks, John. I’m excited to introduce our guest today, Kurt Kemple.

Kurt Kemple is a technical writer, speaker, and software developer living in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He’s very passionate about the intersection of technology and incarceration. Currently, he works for Apollo GraphQL, as a Developer Relations Manager and when not working he can be found by the ocean or relaxing with his family, which sounds really incredible.

So Kurt, I'm going to have you start us off by answering the question we ask all of our guests, which is what is your developer superpower?

KURT: Well, first thank you for that awesome introduction. It's a pleasure to be here.

So diving into what is my superpower, I thought about this a lot and I'm not really someone who I feel has some innate skill or ability that really makes me stand out in any particular area. But I think one thing that I do really well is I care very much about lifting up the people around me. I work actively to generally help others more than I'm helping myself. I think the rising tide lifts all boats kind of mentality and I think that that is definitely something that sets me apart is I gauge my success by how successful folks around me are.

JACOB: That sounds fantastic. Was that something you felt like you've always done, or was it something do you consciously develop, or did it just sort of come around?

KURT: I think it evolved out of situations in my life. I've dealt with a lot of stressful situations and pretty tough upbringing and I think a lot of it is just finding opportunities to make sure people don't have to experience those things and not being so drastic that it's always in relation to something very life altering. But there's something about removing roadblocks for other folks that you have the ability to do that is very rewarding to me and I think I just started to realize that later in life that that's something I value greatly.

LAURIE: That's really interesting to hear because I think in a lot of areas of technology and in the industry, we often hear people saying like, “I had to do it, so you have to do it, too.” I've heard that with sort of the toxic interview, it's almost like hazing mentality and the tools may be abstracted, but if you don't know the super, super low-level piece of it, then you're never going to understand it the way I do sort of mentality. A lot of this gatekeeping stuff comes from that. So it's really refreshing to hear that you feel sort of the opposite of that.

KURT: Yeah. Like I remember very distinctly, many times starting out programming, like getting the response: RTFM. It's like, people, they don't want to help for whatever reason. They want you to – it's like almost like a badge of honor; forcing folks to figure things out for themselves. There's something to be said with taking on learning as your own responsibility, but part of learning is knowing how to get answers and ask for help when you aren't figuring it out and so, I definitely really cannot stand to see that kind of lift the ladder up behind me mentality, or pull yourself up by the bootstraps type mentality.

JACOB: So who are those people around you in your role with Apollo? Who are the people that you would measure the success of?

KURT: Yeah. So it's actually spread out across multiple things, but I'll start from Apollo. I'm a manager of the developer relations team so definitely my direct reports absolutely care about how well they are doing as well as the DX organization, it extends out to their world.

We're all part of developer experience and we want to make sure that things we're doing is helping lifting up the education team and DX as a whole. And then of course, that spreads out into Apollo, which is just by helping developers be successful with Apollo, we're actually helping a policy succeed.

But when we talk about developer relations, really that's just communities I'm involved with at all. So that could be anybody from the communities that I'm a part of, whether that's content creation, DevRel, things around GraphQL, or developments, it could be anything related to that. Pretty much any person that I have interaction with, I start to look at ways in which I can help them move forward.

JOHN: It's funny the phrase “bootstrap” is so embedded in our culture because it's coming from – it’s technical terminology at this point, but it's so interesting and I think important to think back to the origin of that phrase, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” was satirical because it's obviously, not possible to do that for you. You can't lift yourself by grabbing your boots and that's the whole point, but it's almost like turned over on itself and becoming oh, that's just what you do as economic policy or a social policy despite the fact that it was originally the complete opposite of that.

KURT: Yeah. It's funny. I never really thought about that, but it's very true. They took something that was meant to be like satire, like, “Oh yeah, just pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” and then turned it into something serious. I still view it as satire. To me, it's the silliest phrase ever, but a lot of folks take that very seriously.

JACOB: What else is satire or was originally satire was the word, “meritocracy”?

KURT: Oh wow.

JACOB: Yeah. It was basically like oh, the new aristocracy of people who think they're on top because of their merit; it's the meritocracy. It's something else I think about is the phrase self-taught; ex self-taught developer, self-taught engineer, or the million Medium posts of how I taught myself to code in 12 weeks. What does that mean, taught yourself? Do you have no interactions with any human?

JOHN: You didn’t think a human produced?

LAURIE: Yeah. The self-taught thing is actually really complicated and nuanced in my mind because a lot of people like to claim it and say, “Well, we're all self-taught because we all read blog posts and have to teach ourselves other things because as a developer, you're always learning new things and so, we can all claim that title.” And then there's the area of people who consider themselves self-taught, but they were working one-on-one through DMs with someone that is a working developer and they know really well.

But then there's actually a last category of people, which is what I feel the label was sort of designed for, which is they never had any formal classroom experience that taught them like, the variable goes on the left side of the expression. So they had to learn just those super fundamental syntactical things through reading and through example videos and potentially sometimes asking questions, but it was a very async process. I think that's what self-taught is designed to imply that there wasn't a curriculum laid out in front of them and that they didn't have a helping hand along the way.

I think there's something incredibly powerful about that and I hate the idea that it's been co-opted as well, everyone's self-taught, I'm like, “No, I got to sit in a computer science program and have teachers tell me what I needed to know in a certain order.” Was that necessarily the best way for me to learn? No. Did I have to go in and teach myself how to do things after that fact and for the rest of my career? Absolutely. But did I have some of those baseline foundational things conveyed to me based on someone who knew the order of operations of learning this topic? I did. So I am not self-taught in any sense of the word.

KURT: Yeah. I think that's very interesting point and what I've been using. So I'm the other end of that spectrum. No official – that's actually not true, I took intro or intermediate web development course when I was incarcerated. But this was basically, here's a book on HTML, CSS, and JavaScript and good luck.

But aside from that, I had no real formal education, but I've adopted the term self-guided, which I feel is a better descriptor of that. Because it's more about guiding yourself through a curriculum to learn programming and it's like, you're pulling bits and pieces from wherever. You can find it to create your own curriculum is essentially what you're doing. But I did learn from lots of other folks along that journey, both through asynchronous communication and DMs, watching videos, reading, blog posts and stuff. So it's not like I was in a room with no outside influence and had a computer and was like, “I will code.” But I think I really like that term, self-guided, because that's a better representation, I feel like of what actually happened.

LAURIE: I love that and it reminds me of when I was in high school where you get to take independent study and it's sort of the same concept of you get to go in-depth on a topic, but you're determining what shape that takes and where you go and what you focus on.

JACOB: What successful means.

KURT: Yeah.

JACOB: And then no one will probably care, to be truthful. No one will actually care if you don't do it.

LAURIE: Yeah. Yeah, that's the other thing; self-motivated is a big part of that. Like, no one's grading papers or assignments. There's no papers in coding.


No one is grading assignments. You don't have deadlines that are imposed by other people. If you buy the course and you never watch a single video, the only one accountable for that is sunk cost fallacy of having wasted the money. There's nothing forcing you to power through and that's actually a great way to prepare yourself for coding on the job. Because it's like, technically, there's just this ticket and you need to be looking at it and feel the sense of oh no, I need to get this done because no one can actually force you to do it! [laughs]

KURT: Yeah. That's very accurate. [chuckles]

JOHN: Concurred. It sounds like from your bio there that the group of people that you consider yourself to be responsible for helping to lift up is beyond just the team that you're responsible for. So I’d love to hear more about the other groups that you're working with on that level.

KURT: Yeah. So, I think it's interesting when we talk about community and groups and to me, community is not like a thing with guidelines and boundaries, community is whoever you surround yourself with and so, to me, there is no React community, or GraphQL community. There's just people in my community who happened to know React, or GraphQL and I think it's an interesting way to look at community because it breaks down a lot of barriers.

But if we do talk about specific groups, I am very into the intersection of incarceration and technology and the reason why is because I myself am formerly incarcerated and getting into tech had such a drastic effect on my life. So it’s just naturally, I want to and again, a lot of this motivation for lifting others up stems from this. I feel like I am often sitting on a gold mine and I feel selfish when I know that there are people who were in a similar situation who are coming out of prison and don't have any idea that this industry exists, that they can have a future in it with some self-guided learning, some hard work, and a lot of perseverance. It's by no means easy, let's be real.

Coding is a very difficult skill, but most folks can accomplish that goal of learning it and it just feels like if I'm not actively working to help expose people, who are coming out of incarceration, find this industry and see if it's a fit for them, then I feel like I'm just like holding something that I should be freely giving away. I think a lot of where it comes with lifting others up is that feeling of, I'm holding something that other people should have access to and that's education, information.

When we talk about self-guided, it's actually one thing about picking your own curriculum that is anxiety inducing is, am I picking the right things to learn? The industry is huge and you could pick so many different things and I lucked out that I was introduced to something that was a good path into tech for me.

I would like to provide folks coming out the information that the industry exists, but also a little bit of guidance around some of the different ways that you can go and break into it. So I'd say that is definitely a community, or a group of folks in my community that I care deeply about is those who are transitioning from incarceration back into society.

LAURIE: I'm curious if – obviously, this is an experience and a community that a lot of us don't have a lot of insight into and it's great that you do and you have those connections. Can you talk to us a little bit about the kinds of things that we all can do to make that transition easier to support those groups of people, whether it's in an organization or outside of that?

KURT: Yeah. I'll say there's really two avenues where you can do a lot of good. One is in de-stigmatization. So it's sharing information about incarceration, figuring out who these people in the community are, building relationships with them, checking at your companies, and seeing if they're adhering to the laws around hiring formerly incarcerated folks.

A lot of times background checks will violate labor laws within states and companies don't check that. They say, “Give me the default. I want all the information.” It's up to the company to actually check and make sure that they have the proper configuration that they're not losing people based on laws.

A good example of this is in California, they can only look 7 years back on your record for criminal activity, barring certain types of activity. But for most things, only 7 years. However, there's companies that will do background checks and pull stuff up from way back. I had this happen with a company and I was like, “Hey, just to let you know, you're not allowed to pull up information from when you did. You showing me that you found my background is actually admitting that you're violating the state laws.”

Now here's where the problem lies. It takes people who are the ones, the vulnerable being affected by it to push this forward because our only recourse is to hire a lawyer and to fight it in court. I'm jobless, have just come out of prison; I don't have any money for a lawyer to fight some company, to do that and then do you want to go now work for a company that you had to fight for the job in court?

So it takes people who are not in that situation asking their employer, “Hey, what is our policy on hiring formerly incarcerated? What programs do we have in place to make sure we're not dropping them out of the pipeline?” That's a huge one.

And then the second one is most people don't really want to go back to prison. That's not always true. You have people who actually do want to go because it's a place where they can get more stability and safety and stuff than they can. That says a lot about the United States as a whole, but most people, they come into prison with high hopes.

I wasn't the only one in that web programming class like, I wasn't the only one learning how to train dogs, learning welding, carpentry, plumbing; taking every course that was available to me. There's a lot of other folks, too. But what people don't have and why recidivism is so high is there's no stability. So we get these skills. We get out into the world. We have no income. We have no job history for years because of this. Companies that would hire folks for the skills that we have learned are doing background checks and turning us down because of them.

So it's like yeah, we're learning skills, we're learning stuff, but none of it can actually be used until x amount of years after you get out and you're just kind of left floating there. So finding programs, local programs that are based in civil activities, providing housing, providing food, providing access to equipment and education, further education for folks coming out of incarceration. Those are the two best places that you can by far have a huge impact.

$50 worth of food can be the difference between somebody going back to prison or not. Because if they don't have it, they're going to revert to what they know and what they know is crime often, and then boom, they go back. Of course, if we look at who's the most affected by this, it's marginalized communities. So focusing on those communities is especially going to be impactful.

JOHN: Yeah. I would also imagine that the lack of a support system in the outside world is also a huge factor there. Like you were saying the $50, people that have a support system can probably make-do relying on other people that they know to help out, to get by through that part where they need that extra money for food. But if you don't have that, there aren't really any other options.

KURT: Yeah. It took me almost 3 years to land my first job coding as a software developer and I can pinpoint multiple times during that 3 years where I came very close to committing a crime again and that's wild to think about now. Now, I would never in a million years do anything, but I also have stability.

It’s just a living example, somebody directly in front of you just proving that the prison system, prison industrial complex is really just a money-making machine that is not incentivized in any way to help provide you with stability and keep you out of prison. Most of our prisons are actually owned by private businesses and private businesses need revenue and for a private prison, what do you think the revenue stream is? Prison labor, slave labor, me working for 14 cents an hour. That is how they make money. So what is the real incentivization, or real incentive, I guess, is the actual word to actually have programs to help people be stable when they get out? To provide learning and education around things they'll actually be able to get jobs for? To not have lobbyists literally fight to keep laws around hiring formerly incarcerated as strict and terrible as they are?

So the prison industrial complex literally sends people to Congress and have them lobby against improving these systems and then they pay people at the state level and it's just like all the way down. They pay judges to make sure they send non-violent offenders into the prison system. It's a nightmare of a system, but to circle back to that, that $50 makes a huge difference and can really be the differentiator.

LAURIE: For what it's worth, I appreciate you being so candid about all of this. I think it's a topic that some of us are tangentially aware of, but don't necessarily have the specifics. I remember some of this from my poly-sci degree and it was horrible then and it's worse now.

KURT: Yeah. It's not fun or pleasant, but I am privileged enough to be in a position to candidly speak about it and so, again, if we use manager speak, [chuckles] circle back to lifting up others and feeling like I'm holding onto something.

This stuff is really stressful. It's hard to talk about even with as much as I do, but I find that the DMs that I get from folks who are struggling and trying to get into tech. When they reach out to me and they're like, “I found your blog posts or this podcast or video and it gave me hope,” I'm going to keep trying that's that motivates the ever-living crap out of me and it far outweighs that pressure.

But another thing, too is not everyone is in a position to be able to speak about this. It's just, I've developed enough of a brand and identity in the industry. I have enough of a work background. The incidents have happened so far in the past now that they can't really be held against me for finding future work. So not everyone has that situation.

LAURIE: I'm curious if you feel like being in the developer relations space has impacted your ability to have those conversations and have those interactions and be more visible compared to some sort of a more IC coding role where you don't necessarily have the same kind of network effect based on the work that you're doing day-to-day.

KURT: Yeah. Oh, that's a really interesting insight. I mean, yes, the faster the audience grows that I can reach, clearly, it’s the more people I can reach with this message. So I definitely think DevRel has put me into a situation where I can reach more people faster because my network is growing faster than it was as an individual contributor. So yeah, a 100%.

I think it's also interesting to find the balance between like, we all know how tech folks feel about people being people and having lives outside of technology. So it's like finding that line of growing your audience while producing information about things or causes that you care about and stuff without causing a lot of churn in drop off is a feat in and of itself. Every time I tweet about prison or something like that, I watch my followers drop. It's just like you can set a clock to it. But it's an interesting balance to try to not overshare in that regard and just continue to lose audience because then that affects things like algorithms and how many people I reach and stuff. So it is interesting. I never really thought about that, though.

JOHN: Yeah. I mean, it's interesting that like the way you talk about the work you're doing. At this point, you have the privilege to be able to talk about those things when so many people don't and that's certainly a powerful way to use that privilege that you currently have.

What you're talking about there is losing follower count, which affects your job a little bit and trying to balance how you're talking about these things without cussing yourself too much. But it's interesting that those are the costs that you're weighing about speaking out and you know what those are and you also know that so many other people can't speak out because their consequences are going to be so much more drastic.

KURT: Yeah, absolutely. When we start to look at this through the lens of bias in the industry. I am cis white dude; I have the benefit of like failing upwards. So it's like me going to prison, I get to spin it as this redemption story and I get to be the symbol of hope for prisoners coming out and breaking into tech. But it's not the same story for a lot of folks that I talk to who don't look like me or aren't basically white men. It gets really tough the further you get from that.

So I also want to call out, too that a lot of times, the privilege to be able to speak is based on literal white privilege; I always get the benefit of the doubt. It's interesting, but yes, I get the benefit of doubt. I get to fail upwards. I'm formerly incarcerated, who's now the DevRel manager of Apollo. But I know so many other formerly incarcerated people who are way better at this stuff than I am and they still haven't found a work yet.

So those disparities exist and when you compound other issues that the tech industry faces against that. Like, the hiring rate for formerly incarcerated Black women is like 4% or something ridiculous like that according to last statistics, from what I could find, which was about 2019. That's 4% compared to white males, which is about 43 or 44%. We have to take that into account, too. That privilege is steeped in white male privilege as well.

JOHN: It's like the prison association just magnifies all of those existing inequities.

KURT: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. You're an ex-con, or a felon—I get to be formerly incarcerated, not a felon.

JOHN: Yeah, the language matters a lot.

KURT: Oh, yeah.

JACOB: So what are some of the details of how you're helping folks? It looks like you have, it’s a Twitch stream? I just pulled up your Twitter account just a minute ago, but tell me details.

KURT: Yeah. It's interesting. So when we think about helping people, I have stream, which I do a lot, a lot of blogging, involved in a lot of communities. Most of the work that I do. So if we're just talking about community in general, also the Apollo stream; I do a lot of streaming for them. My calendar is open; folks drop in there a lot.

When it comes to helping formerly incarcerated, that's a lot more scaled down and on a one-on-one basis because every single person has a different situation. Also, a lot of them can't come forward and say that they're formerly incarcerated. There's an entire network of folks. Some of them can and they have, but there's an entire network of folks who I'm working with regularly and just, nobody knows because they can't really share or express that information.

But I really focus on a couple of things, which is helping them figure out their path into tech, what it is that they'll like. So trying to get them guided on that, helping them build their network, teaching them about things like learning in public and how to do that. We work on freelance, because it's really hard for folks to get jobs, full-time employment so we focus on freelance work and how to look for red flags, clients, promote yourself, and stuff like that.

It's generally different for each person because it all depends on where they are on the scale of their education into tech, how stable is their environment at home. It's just a lot of things that go into it. I am working on starting a nonprofit to formalize this training, but it's very slow going. I just really don't have the time that I would like to dedicate to it.

Some other ways that I've been helping out is there's a really cool nonprofit project called The Marshall Project. They take a data-driven approach to exposing issues within the criminal justice system. I do a lot of stuff with that. I sponsor and support a lot of prison reform lawyers. They don't get paid a lot and stuff like that so monetary support for them, monetary support for the people who are coming out, who need that.

There's really where I spend most of my focus, but if you ask anyone, I'm available. If somebody wants or needs something from me, I try to make myself available I talk to a wide range of people from all different communities about all sorts of different things. But I don't really have a centralized way, a singular path into helping folks out. It's pretty disparate, honestly.

LAURIE: This is a slightly different topic, but it's something you touched on and what you just said. I'm wondering if we can talk about the interview process as it relates to being formerly incarcerated and revealing that information. Because I think one of the –

I had an interaction with someone a couple of years back who said, “I got all the way through the process. I didn't tell them they offered me the job and now I have to tell them because it's about to come up on a background check,” which the efficacy of that we can discuss for a long time. “But it's about to come up on a background check, what do I do? How do I have this conversation?” I think we all know that especially for entry level positions, there's thousands of applicants and the minute you give them one red flag, they're like, “Oh, well, we have 500 other people to talk to.”

So what has been your experience with talking to people going through this and how they can navigate what is already an incredibly stressful and difficult process, even not having some flags that unfortunately, don't get perceived the way that we wish they would?

KURT: Yeah, this is a really great question.

It’s the most – I won't say the most, it is an extremely stress and anxiety inducing situation. I've developed a system over the years from having dealt with this, but in the beginning, it was very chaotic. You would just get through the process; you don't say that you have a record, you don't come upfront and say it. You never do that. If they're going to do a background check, let them do it.

I've had situations where companies have made me fill out paperwork for background check and then they never, I guess, submitted it because they never came and said anything about it, or maybe at that job, they were following their state's laws and it didn't come back. I would say it's a multi-step process.

So first things first, never say that you have a background upfront. Second of all, is investigate the state laws around hiring the formerly incarcerated for that company for where they are located. Where is their business set up at? Understand those state laws?

The next thing that's going to happen is if you get through the interview process and they're going to do a background check, so what they always do—this is the most annoying thing. Oftentimes, you will sign your offer letter. You will have a start date. You will do all this and in there, it says contingent upon a background check. This puts you in this situation where, especially if you're at an existing company, you want to give them time. Do you put in your leave and throw all of your eggs into this basket only to then come on and then they do the background check and then it comes back and they fire you? It puts you in this just purely stressful situation for about two weeks.

But a couple of things that you can do to get ahead of it is I started doing things where I will message them and I get real creative and I'm like, “Look, I've had issues with discrepancies, with insurance and other things, not going through before I've signed my start date and then there were problems, disagreements. I need to know all the paperwork. I need to have that signed upfront and have everything taken care of before I will decide on a start date. I want to make sure I give ample time to leave.” So sometimes that will work and that will get you a lot closer.

When that doesn't work, the other thing that I do is anytime they're going to do a background check, you have to consent to it and part of that consent is they'll tell you the company that they're going to use. If I've made it this far, I will then pay out of pocket and go get my own background check from this company. For most of them, you can do that. Now what it is that even if a company reaches out, I will put them off until I get the background check so I can see what has come back about my record so I can better prepare my statement for how I want to discuss this with them.

If you make it through all of that and you get there, sometimes they just still are going to say no, or they'll just ghost you and I've had that happen to me, too. Just literally been ghosted and it's just hard, it's stressful. There's not a lot you can do with it. The best thing that you can do is understand the laws around the different 50 states, figure out which ones are the most forgiving towards you and your situation, apply for jobs—ideally, remotely—within that place. If you're in that position, a lot of people aren't in that position, but it's just stress-inducing nightmare.

One thing that I did do is I always had backups. I would have offers from multiple jobs and accept multiple offers, which sucks. But then if I get one, I stay in and I don't, but I would stagger the start dates.


KURT: Yeah. I learned that from my 3 years of trying to get my first job because even trying to work at Target, Walmart, all these places I check yes on that have you been convicted of a felony in the last 7 years and I'd never hear from them. So I just stopped checking it.

I would get a job at Target. I would work there for three weeks and then they would be like, “Hey, background check came through. Wish you wouldn't have lied to us. You're one of our best workers, but now we have to let you go.” It's like, “Well, cool. You wouldn't have hired me anyway. I'll take my 3-week paycheck. I've already got a job lined up at McDonald's. So I'm going to go work there for three weeks now.”

My first 2 years out of prison, I had like at least 10 W-4s, at least 10, probably closer to 20 my first year and then I got a little bit smarter about places that I was picking through the second year so I was able to stay places longer. But you just have to do whatever you have to do or you have to resort back to crime, really.

That's always, my advice to folks is rolling jobs like, ABA. Always be Applying. Always be applying for jobs and lining them up so if they come at you, “We did your background check. We're going to let you go.” You can just go to the next place and you don't have to go so long without having income.

LAURIE: That sounds like an incredibly stressful way to live.

KURT: It is a very stressful way to live. Yeah, it absolutely is. And that kind of comes back to tech can change lives. Even my first job was a really crappy paying job doing pretty boring work, but I was so happy when I actually got my first job. It changed my whole life. Literally changed my life and then after learning about the industry, finally getting my job, talking to other industry professionals, I was able to realize how drastically underpaid and overworked I was. Slowly started to work my way out of that and up to a standard developer salary for this day and age.

I make money today that I never dreamed in a world of possibility that I would ever make in my entire life ever. Never thought that this would be the life that I live today and it can really change folks' lives and that's why I'm so aggressively trying to help folks.

LAURIE: It's interesting that you talk about Always be Applying. There was some Twitter threads stuff going around a couple of weeks back about that in relation to the tech industry and talking about you should always see what's out there and see if there's better possibilities. My first reaction was interviewing is the most stressful part of working in tech, who would voluntarily do that if they're not looking to leave a job?

I suspect it is slightly less stressful in some ways, if you're applying to retail positions, but more stressful if you're dealing with something like a record. Just having to have that in the back of your mind and always trying to find a new job and that new security is – I mean, we talk about people in tech who do it every 1 to 3 years and that already seems like way too often. Every three weeks is just unfathomable to me.

KURT: Yeah. It's like you said, it's a lot of stress. By the time you figure out who everyone is, you're onto the next place. You get so tired of hearing, “You're one of our best workers, but we have to let you go.” You can only hear that so many times in a year before you just never want to hear that phrase again. It's just very aggravating for sure. I will say that that was less stressful than tech interviews in my opinion.

LAURIE: Oh, that's damning!

JOHN: Yeah.

KURT: Yeah, that was way less stressful. The anxiety of technical interviews, especially when they're asking me questions about my background, because I have to fabricate basically 10 years of my life and that was one of the hardest parts.

So one of the hardest parts about having a record and not being able to share it, especially in an industry where everybody wants to know how you got there, it's very hard to build that lie around what you do and it starts to really weigh on you. I made me really depressed constantly having to lie. “Oh, how'd you learn how to code?” “Well, actually I was in prison and they had a course called Intermediate Web Page and I took it.” I can't say that. I can't say that.

So I have to fabricate and then I just bend the truth, which it was true. Like, “Oh, a friend of mine was going to take this course, I decided to take it with them.” That was true. I just left out that that decision was made in prison. It's like, “Oh, I got my first taste of it and then I just started buying books to continue to learn and use any opportunity I could in front of a computer to continue programming.” Also true. Just didn’t mention that for the next about year and a half, I didn't have access to a computer and I picked that back up when I got out.

Yeah. It's just about bending those truths and it's like, “Oh, well, where did you work?” Not a full lie, I'm like, “I did a lot of freelancing and consulting,” which I did. I did IT and website development and stuff, freelancing and consulting work, the little bits I could get. Doing a local plumber's website or something like that, helping somebody get all the viruses off their computer. Wonder how those got there. But it's stuff like that. So that's what I had to do. I had to fabricate this false history.

Part of me coming out and talking about this was also selfish. It was just very depressing and I was tired of lying all the time. I was finally in a position where I felt that while coming forward about this part of my life could still have negative impacts that I have enough of a time distance and enough of an identity that I could probably still have a future in tech.

That's what I did. I was at Major League Soccer and I let my team know and the people around me know and then I posted a blog post about it and that's really when everyone started to find out. This is only 2018, 2019. I got my first job in tech – or 2018. I got my first job in tech in 2013 so it was like 5 years, I went with only telling a couple people.

LAURIE: I was about to ask if you still have to lie because I feel like the minute you Google you, that's one of the first thing that comes up, this really incredible post about your experience. It's like if someone didn't check your Twitter, I'm questioning the due diligence that they did and just relying on a background check seems a little odd if they haven't even looked up your social media. Your public technical, social media, not looking to see if you have a Facebook with lots of beer cans behind you sort of thing.

KURT: Right. Yeah. No, absolutely. But you'd be amazed. I mean, people don't look at your social media first. It's interesting when we think about especially tech hiring; your resume in a pile and before you even get to that pile, you're just a resume that gets pumped through a system a lot of times. It's like until you build a network that is often yeah, you are a victim of that a lot of times. They're not going to know who you are personally before they see you on paper and that's very detrimental, but you would think they would do a little bit of research and look that up.

It's actually funny, you brought up a good point, which is if you search, you'll bring it up. I worked so hard to actually get my actual prison from North Carolina thing pushed off the first page and build a public profile and now it's right back at the top, but because I put it there. So that is really funny.


LAURIE: But that matters, right?

KURT: It matters.

LAURIE: It’s like voluntary disclosure versus something that you don't have control over, that is a huge, huge difference. I’m thinking of the Meghan Markle thing right now, where everyone's like, “She sued because they published a letter with her father, but now she's disclosing her pregnancy,” and I'm like, “Yeah, very different! One she chose to and the other one, she did not.”

KURT: Exactly. Yeah, that's a huge difference. But it's just really interesting to think about that I'm back at the top of Google now for being formerly incarcerated.


But under much better terms and I get to tell my story and explain why. Not just be like a mugshot with some records.

JACOB: If you had asked me before this episode, “Have you ever worked with an incarcerated person while you’re working in tech?” I privately would have told myself, no. I mean, I probably would have said, “I'm not sure,” but I think my implicit bias would have said no.

KURT: Yeah.

JACOB: And I think this is making me realize I probably have and I think probably a lot of our listeners have, too and it just either a, it didn't come up at all, or b, was handled in a way that it didn't get around to the rest of the workforce, which is probably the best thing.

KURT: Yeah, there are some companies. I have found the companies that do you actually advocate for formerly incarcerated. They do it really well and only because I'm so vocal is why my team knows. Even at Apollo, they're very careful about it. We talked about my background actually coming up and then they were like, “Well, this wasn't supposed to show up, but even regardless, we're not going to hold this against you even if it was within the timeframe.” It was very nice and this is between us, it won't matter and I'm like, “Well, I've kind of let the cat out of the bag so it's not a big deal if it's between us,” but I loved seeing the approach that they took.

You're right, you probably have worked with people who were incarcerated before. It's a large percentage of people who have been to prison in the US. A very large percentage, way more than it should be and so, it's really interesting to think about, but you're right. It hasn't come up. Most people who have been incarcerated aren't going to just leap out and be like, “Oh, that's an interesting thing. Let me tell you about the time I was locked up and how this was.” They're going to keep that to themselves because you never know how people are going to take it. You just don't know how people will react and some people, even if they are cool with it, will still look at you differently and I've had situations like that happen and it's tough to deal with, but it's a part of life.

Again, I'm not trying to make this a sob story. I did things that put me in prison and I did my time and I I've paid my dues to society. Rightfully so. Well, there's a whole thing about the sentencing and what we should be doing in the US, but according to law, I paid my dues and I was released and really, the buck should stop there, but you don't stop doing time when you're released.

You continue to do it pretty much forever because the US again, we have the stigma around prisons and why do we have that? Because the prison industrial complex is pushing this agenda that we have a lot of crime and we need a lot of cops and we need to lock people up and people who come out of prison are in prison or felons and bad people and deserve to be there. This is instilled into us from the time that we're kids and that's why I say the two most important things are providing stability for folks getting out and helping de-stigmatize having a record and helping break down the prison industrial complex. It's the only way we see a future where this is not an issue.

LAURIE: This could probably be a whole other episode, but you saying that and talking about there are felons and they're bad people in there and it's instilled in us. It's the idea of a binary identity, which exists in so many different places in our society. There's good and bad, and there's right and wrong, and there's the reason that people hate using this term, because it's incredibly racist and problematic. It's black and it's white.

All of these things are rooted in the same ideology, which is that to simplify the way that our brain experiences life, we can categorize things into one is good and one is bad. That's not the way the world works and that's not who people are. People take bad actions and they take good actions, but that doesn't make them bad people or good people. A lot of the reason we do that is because we like to tell ourselves we're good people.

And I'm sure you've heard this phrase, I'm sure all of us have heard this phrase, but the phrase, “You didn't make good choices. You had good choices” is the same as the meritocracy argument, which is like, you had the ability to get somewhere because you started on third base, you had the ability to make all the right decisions and do all the things because you had stability and resources and comfort. Without those things, would you have made the same choices as the person that you're looking down on? Probably honestly, probably and you just have no idea what that's like. So I appreciate you pointing that out because I think we've had episodes in the past about binary identities and what problems that causes.

JOHN: So Kurt, you called out something that's pretty interesting that was going by and what you were saying earlier about how Apollo treated you when they found out about your record and the way they went through that. So I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit more about if there's someone who's a hiring manager, maybe in a small company without a giant HR organization and strict policies around the hiring. What is a good way for that person to handle when they find out through the background check that the candidate that they really like has a record of some sort like, what's the good path there?

KURT: Yeah. There's two things there. So I want to answer that question, but one thing I do want to actually circle back to very quickly, which is what you said about bigger companies with stricter policies. In my experience, it's actually the bigger companies that you have an easier chance of getting a job at. They have huge HR departments and law teams and want to protect themselves and we'll make sure that they're actually following the proper hiring laws and state regulations for wherever it is they are.

I had no problem getting a job at AWS, but when you flip it in reverse to these startups and they outsource their HR to these other companies, that is actually where most of the trip-ups happen because they don't have – well, a lot of times it's ignorance of the situation. They're ignorant of the fact they're violating hiring and labor laws and they don't even know.

So I just want to state that is something because that was something I learned, too that actually shifted my job search function was I would actually target more organized companies because I stood a better chance of knowing that if they did do a background check, it would actually follow the state guidelines.

But to answer the question, that's a really good point and a really good question, I mean and a tough one to answer. I think just number one is making no assumptions. There's a couple things and this actually kind of relates to some other stuff. So there's going to be – you can't be defensive. I've discovered that a lot of times when people find out that you have a background, they feel somewhat lied to and it's like, “I didn't come up front about it up forward,” but it's kind of a bomb when it lands.

Again, we have the stigma about people with records and then they see it, their first instinct is to be like, “Well, why don't you share this with me?” The obvious reason that it wasn't shared with you, but you might not be realizing it at the time, is because I don't know if it's going to matter getting this job. It's something that could hurt me and I don't want to reveal it until you've had a chance to get to know me. So just know that, the reason that they did not share it with you is because they wanted you to know them as a person and go through the interview process before you find out about something like this. They're just trying to get a little bit of empathy from you.

The second thing is to avoid things like feigned surprise, like, “Oh my goodness, I can't believe you have a record,” or “I never would have guessed that you would have a background.” Things like that, they start to split somebody's identity and make them feel like again, we talk about this good and bad binary and that's going to really cause them a lot of stress and anxiety. You want to avoid things like that.

And then the last thing to do is just to continue to treat them the exact same way that you did before you knew.

If you can do those things, that person is going to feel safe and they're going to have a great experience working with you.

JOHN: Great. That's super handy. I imagine that there's some people out there having that question like, “Oh I've never been in that situation, but what's the best way to handle that?” So it's definitely good to know.

LAURIE: Totally outside the episode, but Mandy Moore just released a screenshot of a place that wanted to interview her about her entire career and she said she wouldn't talk about the abuse allegations against her ex-husband and they canceled the interview and they said it would be essential to the story. She said, “If you only want me for my trauma, when I have a 20-to-30-year long career, then I have no interest in having this conversation,” and how upsetting that was. It’s like one person is not their worst – I mean, not even a mistake. Like, one person is not their association with another person's bad actions.

KURT: Yeah. That actually brings up a really interesting topic, too, which is people trying to take advantage. When you talk about lifting others up, I often find myself in situations where people are just blatantly trying to take advantage of me and my willingness to help folks. That happens all the time.

JACOB: How so?

KURT: Just a lot of things like, private companies will want me to do webinars or talks on things about breaking into tech and just different topics, or ask me for access to my network or do I know formerly incarcerated folks who might be interested in contract work? I can tell that they're asking because they feel like they could get them for a cheaper price. You know what I mean? They're not going to have to pay them as much and it's like a lot of shady business practices and stuff like that. I get that on the regular. It's pretty frustrating.

LAURIE: Oh my gosh. It's Women in Tech in a different outfit. [chuckles]

KURT: Yeah.

LAURIE: It feels the same hearing you explain it. I'm like, yup, yup, yup, yup.

KURT: Yeah. It's been an interesting side effect of this.

JOHN: Yeah. That reminds me of we had Veni Kunche on the show a while back talking about the diversified tech system platform that she's built and how people paid to post jobs to her audience. But she does a lot of work to vet those companies to make sure that they're not going to just come in the door and be kicked out again in eight months because there's no support for actually having those sorts of people joining the team.

So it's such an important trust relationship there with the community you represent, especially because most of them need to be somewhat on the DL as being part of that community. It's like, if you're a Black woman, it's no surprise that you're a part of that community, but it's still so important for you as someone, who's much more public and representing them, that you have to be so careful about who you're connecting to.

KURT: This has been one of the biggest holdups for me starting this nonprofit and providing training is there's a lot of issues with exposing people through this. So it's like the end goal would be for them to leave and be able to seek training, or employment, but the real problem comes afterwards when you are trying to help them seek employment or freelance jobs. It's like you have to disassociate your network and attachment with them from that nonprofit. If a lot of people know that I'm doing that nonprofit, then they're going to automatically start to assume everyone who I provide through my network is going to be coming from this program. So there's just like a lot of things.

I've been very much trying to figure out how do I prioritize these folks and vulnerable people, in general and I think a lot of that has to do with, I don't know, I'm like why I've been so hesitant to move forward with this? I don't want to start a nonprofit with the best of intentions, but that the impact of that nonprofit ends up being more harmful than good and it's like, who does that really benefit?

That's why so far, I've been sticking with this more kind of like one-on-one. I know it doesn't scale well, but that's okay. If I help some people that's better than helping no one, first of all and second of all, helping a few people and having that be really beneficial to them, as opposed to helping a bunch of people and it might end up good for you, or it might end up bad for you and we don't really know, it seems very risky to me.

So I think it's why I've been working very slowly at that and really trying to figure out what does that process look like once they're done training because there's still a lot of unknowns there.

JOHN: Yeah. It's a conundrum that most training programs and diversity programs don't have to deal with because most of them, they want to highlight the intersections of the people that come through their program because that's part of what they're after and raising the profile there and you have the exact opposite situation, which is how do you smuggle them in before prejudges?

KURT: Exactly and so, completely flips the game on its head. I think it was you Laurie, that tweeted if you had your salary, your developer salary and you could do anything, what would you do? I would actually become a prison reform lawyer. I think the real goal is to stop the flow of folks going in. The band-aid is helping folks come out. The real work is stopping folks from going in to begin with, but I can't go back to school for another 8 years to become a lawyer and then move forward with that direction.

So that's what I want to talk about. I've been helping sponsor prison reform lawyers and look for ways to get involved with that. I've offered volunteer time to The Marshall Project to help with them and their data collection efforts and stuff like that. Again, taking myself out of the center, the nonprofit I'm very centered in that scenario and I feel like I can have a bigger impact in more areas by just contributing as opposed to being the creator of the thing. So right now, that's kind of where my mind is at while I feel out this nonprofit and see if I can develop something I'm comfortable with, from that.

LAURIE: I was just going to say, I was doing that math and you just said 8 years. Does that mean you have your GED? This may not be a thing that I know.

KURT: Yeah, I have my GED and no college education. I went to college for a little over a year for graphic design, but could not afford to go anymore, so stopped and then that's like my education. In order to get a law degree, I would first have to get a Bachelor's so I need 4 years of college—I don't know how many of my credits would be transferable from graphic design—and then I would have to go to law school afterwards and then still deal with certain states. If I can even take the test for the bar, or be on the bar being a convicted felon, which in most states you can, but there are still states where you cannot.

LAURIE: So the reason I asked and it wasn't to do the math, but it was more, that is another community that you belong to that, I think perhaps in the past had a very different set of opportunities available to them in tech. And as tech has become higher paying and we've done a lot more recruiting from the Stanfords and the MITs and Harvard and Yale and all of those things, it used to be, you could break in – it goes back to the self-taught like, you could break in without any undergrad degree and now that's getting harder and harder and harder and harder.

So I'm curious if—obviously, it's hard to decouple those based on your experience because you were formerly incarcerated and you didn't have that formal Bachelor's degree. But have you seen situations in which that has been a different community that you're a part of, or that has impacted the opportunities that you can pursue?

KURT: Yeah. I wouldn't be able to separate maybe if I went back and thought about it, but in my mind, every time I've been ghosted has primarily been – well, it stopped me from not applying to a lot of places. That's for sure.

It's blocked me from feeling confident enough to even apply and that was definitely in the beginning before I knew the industry and how bad most job application postings are and realize that the requirements they often ask for are way beyond what you actually need to do the job. But I didn't know that. So I would see like needs a Bachelor's degree and I'd be like, “Nope, not applying to that one.”

So I guess, I did miss out on a lot of opportunities just from that. But most times, I feel like if it came down to decision and I went through the interview process and they did a background check—I just always assumed it was the background check that I got ghosted.

JOHN: Yeah. Usually, if the degree is going to be a factor, it's right at the front of the process.

KURT: Early on, yeah. But it could be a deciding factor, especially with entry-level folks. Two people made it through the interview process. They both did really well. It really comes down to what the person who makes that decision cares more about, do they care more about this on paper or some sort of like behavioral give that seems this person would be better to work with. It's like, what do they care about and so, it can definitely have huge effects.

This gets into a whole another discussion, but that's just the tech industry and hiring in general is just terrible.

LAURIE: Broken!

KURT: Beyond broken. Yeah. It's just like you know?


The fact that it can come down to whether or not you get a job based on the preference of the person who's looking at the things in front of you is just super problematic. But I definitely feel that I'm sure, there's a lot of cases where people would see one has a degree, the other does not and they're going to go, “Oh, taking the CS grad anytime, because we're about to go write all these algorithms.”

LAURIE: Kurt, do you know my favorite story about ridiculous things that should not be a thing?

KURT: Oh, I can't wait.

LAURIE: So I was interviewed for a job, internal transfer. I got the job. They sent the paperwork to HR and HR said, “Sorry, you can't hire her because she has a Bachelor of Arts and Mathematics, not a Bachelor of Science and Mathematics.” Literally not even joking, this is a real thing that happened.

I was halfway through a Master's of Science in Computer Science because I was annoyed by the fact that they cared that I had a Bachelor of Arts and they said, “So because she doesn't have the right degree, she needs to have the right amount of courses that would be equivalent to the degree.” In that case, that was 16 computer science or math specific hard science courses, which is more than the Bachelor's degree was required!

So if I had that, I would have had a Bachelor's degree of Science and Computer Science or a Bachelor's degree of Arts and Computer Science, because I went to a liberal arts school and they are not accredited to give Bachelor's of Science regardless of what your major is. So on the scale of ridiculous things that happen in tech, just add that as a fun story to remember.

KURT: It's like what goes through their heads? It's like, “Oh, well, we must adhere to this policy because clearly, the policy makes more sense than somebody who has worked here, has a proven track record of doing their job well, has already moved to the other team and everyone is cool with it, but wait a minute, you don't have enough credits.”

LAURIE: I got blocked. I didn't get to move. To be fair, it was the federal government so that's sort of how the world works, but still.

KURT: Yeah. Still, it shouldn't work like that and it's symptomatic of the ridiculous hiring process that we've developed as a tech industry. It just like, I don't know, I've worked in construction. I've worked in the restaurant industry. I've worked at a lot of other places and none of my interviews have ever felt really like somebody was trying to prove that they knew something I didn't, or like catch me in a gotcha. You know what I mean?

This is what I mean by tech interviews are more stressful than even when I was interviewing at all those other jobs combined, because I never felt like I was being interrogated and that's the difference. Honestly, tech interviews feel a lot like when I was actually being interrogated. That should tell you something. It just feels like they're constantly trying to trip you up, trying to get you to say something that disagrees with what you said five minutes ago, prove they know something that you don't. Does all of this sound familiar?

LAURIE: I mean, Kurt, if you're a personal brand is that you're kind and you help people and you were formerly incarcerated and you do cool things now, you know that mine is just railing against tech interviews, so.

KURT: Yeah.


LAURIE: This is a known thing.

KURT: Well, that's amazing. But it's a very aggressive interview process. It often pits folks against each other as opposed to working with each other. I just have never been a big fan of tech interviews.

LAURIE: Terrible for anyone who has ever had anxiety in their life or deals with any kind of PTSD or trauma. Yup. No, it's really –

My favorite tweet about this is that Tatiana explained that she felt it was equivalent to – it was an abusive relationship and that it's string you along for seven interviews and then they're like,” Oh, well you don't have the skill that we need,” except you would have known that I didn't have this skill because it was on my resume and it's been in every conversation, but you just put me through all of this just to say no, because you told yourself that it was better for me and you were giving me a chance and all of these things.

A lot of people came back and they were like, “That's going to step too far,” and I was like, “You know what? I honestly don't think it is.” It really is that bad and that's horrifying and it's why so many people stay in toxic work environments because the idea of going through a toxic interview process doesn't feel like something they can possibly do.

KURT: Yeah, and those folks who are saying it ain't that bad are probably the ones who are normally on the other side of that table, so. [chuckles]

JOHN: Yeah. I always find I have to hold my tongue when people are in otherwise, decent situations or even when they're in bad situations, my automatic recommendation is, “Well, start looking for something else,” but I always have to back up from that and not say that because if there's any sort of difference in privilege between us, I can't give that advice because it's such so much more work for them than for me. So I have to be very careful.

KURT: Yeah. That's another really awesome point and something that I have worked a lot on over the last 2 years in helping folks, which is contextualizing my advice and making sure that anything that I share comes with the statement that this was my experience, it may not be your experience, and then also reach out to other folks who share similar situations to you to trust, but verify this advice and make sure that it lines up with their experiences as well.

Also, why I always try to connect people that I'm working with to people who are more representative of them than myself, if we're that far off. It's hard for me to share advice with a Black woman because I don't have that lived experience, I don't know a lot of the issues that they'll hit and even being as aware of the harm that I can cause in my privilege as I am, I still will cause harm. So it's about connecting folks; a big part of what I do honestly, is just connecting folks quietly.

JOHN: Yeah. That's a good point. When you're poised to give advice, having that second thought of, “Okay, I can give this advice, but I need to put all the caveats on there to point out that this may not be your experience.” But then being able to follow that up with someone else in your network who is going to be able to give something much more accurate and representative is I think is a really useful second step there.

KURT: Absolutely.

LAURIE: This was a conversation probably a few months back where people had a similar association with people coming out of bootcamps right now and people trying to enter the tech industry right now. Anyone who did it even 3 years ago probably doesn't have the relevant advice or lived experience to understand what it's like with the oversaturation of people coming in with very, very similar skillsets.

Especially true in the frontend area because there's so many bootcamps that have just popped up in the React space specifically, because there are a ton of jobs that are needed there, but there also need to be senior resources to help those junior resources—I hate the term junior. But it's a similar thing where it's like, “Yeah, I did it 5 years ago.” “I did it 10 years ago.” The amount of time in which your experience is relevant is getting shorter and shorter and shorter every day and it's very, very challenging to tell someone, or give them advice on this is how you stand out in an interview process, this is how you stand out in a resume when you just have no idea what the current environment is like.

KURT: Yeah. It's interesting because it's repetitive. I call this the JavaScript bubble and l it's popping. It's at the point where it's popping.



KURT: It is. We're meeting the inflection point where there are so many people, it used to be that getting a job doing JavaScript development was a bit easier because like when Node first came out and JavaScript aren't being used in all these different places and we started building entire frontends, SPAs in JavaScript, JavaScript, JavaScript, JavaScript. Everyone started to learn JavaScript and we saw this with UX designs.

I don't know how many folks remember this, but there was a time when UX design was first coming to be a thing. It was a very high paid, very sought-after role, and then a lot of schools started to focus curriculum on UX design and eventually, so many people entered the industry and eventually, enough people will become senior in that industry. That runs out right. The market flips.

Now it becomes, there's too many people for the jobs that are available and while I think JavaScript, we're getting there, but eventually, this is going to happen as well. All the boot camps focus on JavaScript. All of this is coming out. Those people who came out of boot camps 2 or 3 years ago are very close to becoming seniors and it's like, eventually, we're going to hit this inflection point where choosing JavaScript as your starting language might actually not be the best opportunity anymore.

I think—here's my little prediction—is that really things like Python and Rust will probably be the most beneficial over the next few years, Python for the machine learning and AI stuff. Almost all of that is written in Python or R for data science. And then Rust just because it's becoming the next JavaScript. You're being able to run it in a lot of places. It's also way faster and a lot of other things typed and stuff.

So that's my prediction is that eventually, a couple of years, JavaScript jobs will be much harder to get even at senior level and the easier path into tech will be less about frontend and more about machine learning and backend development with Rust.

JACOB: My prediction is that companies that can somehow figure out a way to hire the roles they need without firm requirements on prior technology experience are going to excel. So it’s like I need Python developers, but I can hire former Ruby developers, then suddenly, your pipeline gets so much bigger.

KURT: Absolutely.

LAURIE: It's interesting because Rust, specifically as a language – so I've done Python, Java, JavaScript, and PHP for a little while and those comparatively, I consider them siblings. Rust, to me, is much closer to a C type language. It requires a lot more knowledge of what's happening under the hood when you're coding it and it's a great language, really great air handling all of that, but there are pieces of it that are just harder than using something like JavaScript, harder than using something like TypeScript. So it's going to be really interesting to see that evolve.

Kurt, I agree with you. I think Rust is going to be everywhere, but I think Rust is going to be everywhere in the tooling and systems space. So many of those software technologies are open source and therefore, aren't funded and actually getting a job that pays you to write in Rust is going to be – I'm interested to see how it evolves. I think you may be right, but there's this really weird kind of give and take of where Rust excels and where we tend to pay people to build proprietary things, and I'm very curious to see what the overlap is going to end up being.

KURT: Yeah, that's very true and again, this is based right on my experience and what I've seen. I'm just thinking about the emergence of FOSS, which is Financed Open Source Software. Us, at Apollo specifically, we're using Rust for a lot of things in our backend and UCLI is built in Rust and those are people who are paid to write open source software.

I think as the emergence of FOSS continues to grow, combined with the flexibility and adoption of Rust, I do think that it stands to be a pretty good – Now I did say backend, but I should step back. I don't mean APIs. I don't see a lot of APIs written in Rust. Much more of like what you're talking about; systems infrastructure, command line tooling, stuff like that. I just kind of bucket all of that into the backend. Probably shouldn't.

LAURIE: I call it middle end.

KURT: Yeah, middle end. There you go.

LAURIE: It's the backend of the frontend. It's the tooling ecosystem. The other reason I call it that is because it's really hard to describe what the heck I do every day.


It's not frontend, it's not like CSS, and it's not backend. I don't touch databases anymore. I don't make fetch calls. I build middle end. [chuckles]

KURT: Yeah, that's funny.

LAURIE: We need a better term for it though, because no one can describe it and it's a very large, ever-growing set of software that needs to be built. It's basically software that allows other developers to be productive.

KURT: And just to touch on what Jacob mentioned before, I completely agree that companies who are smart enough to recognize not about the technology specifically are just always going to excel. And those who are even willing to have polyglot environments and let teams figure out what is the right technology stands so much of a better chance to be successful in just about anything.

JACOB: Yeah, it's the environment to know that when I hire someone with not the specific technology that I need them to eventually do, are they going to be successful? Because I don't actually know what that means, but I think that's a really challenging question.

KURT: It is, but I think a good example of this might be a backend engineer. You're familiar with caching and why that's important and performance, database operations, and how you structure and organize your APIs. It's like remove Python and drop in Ruby or Java or anything and all those principles still remain and are very important and yes, the surrounding technology has changed, but you've also surrounded them with a team of people who are extremely familiar with that technology.

There's something to be said that is definitely in my opinion, easier to ramp up in a new language in an environment like that than it is to completely adopt a new part of the stack or something where it's like the underlying things that are important and that you just have to understand and have experienced dealing with. Those are really heavy.

JOHN: Yeah.

LAURIE: I agree with all of that except Rust. Rust is my exception to everything right now because it's such a mindset shift and mutability and ownership [chuckles] is just such a wild thing that doesn't exist in any other language. I'm sorry, I'm being a total nerd right now.

But no, I absolutely agree and I think anyone can learn any language. I think people can read Rust if they know JavaScript. I know how to write five lines of Rust so this isn't even me gatekeeping something I understand. I'm saying I don't understand it yet, it's hard and I've learned a lot of different languages over the years.

I used to do exactly what Jacob was just implying because I was a consultant and so, I had to learn whatever language the client was using. I've done that for PHP and I've done that with Python and Java and that sort of thing. I actually don't think I could do it with Rust. I really don't think I could, unless I was given a couple months to sit down and study. It's hard. It's awesome, but it's hard.

KURT: That's fair. I mean, that is also transitioning levels of abstraction when we go from something like JavaScript to Rust, which is very valid. I had to spend a year working in C++ and it was horrible for me, personally, just for me. I don't like being that close. I want my garbage collected for me. I don't want to know what I've put into memory. I really don't care. I mean, I care about performance, but I don't want to be responsible at that level for it. I had a lot of issues with C++ and memory leaks, just going to say.

LAURIE: Yeah, I've never had to learn a C language and I think that's part of why Rust is so hard for me. I always assumed Java was very similar to C and I think in a lot of ways, it is, but the automatic garbage collection is a really big distinction between languages.

KURT: It really is. That's funny.

JOHN: So at the end of every episode, we like to do what we call reflections, which is each panelist and guest get to chance to reflect on the things that they enjoyed most about the conversation, or the ideas that they're going to be thinking about for days afterwards. So who'd like to start with that?

KURT: I can take it. I’ve got something that I've been thinking about. We started off talking about community and I said something that I've been running through my mind since, which is communities are things that you’re a part of. Community is what you surround yourself with and I think that that's been an interesting distinction for me and has helped me break down barriers between different parts of my life and make it easier for me to connect those different parts of my life.

It's something that I think I'm going to express probably pretty soon in some form of writing or another because it's just a change in mindset that I think has been really beneficial to me and allowed me to be more of my whole self, especially online, than I had been previously so.

LAURIE: I think my takeaway is that we all know and have experienced the fact that interviews can be a bit of a landmine depending on who you are and what you're trying to accomplish. Having empathy and understanding both, as a hiring manager, or someone who's involved in making these choices, or someone who's a fellow perspective candidate for roles. Having empathy and understanding for the fact that this is infinitely more challenging to navigate if you have things in your background that employers have not previously looked kindly upon.

Knowing that those people not only have to navigate that, but they also have to know their legal rights in a country that isn't really great about providing that and that if you get an opportunity in the future and you look up those rights and you know the fact that they shouldn't be able to look x number of years in your background, even if there's nothing there for them to find and you can push back on the behalf of someone else in the future. You can have an impact and paying attention to knowing those rules when you aren't required to know them can be really important and really helpful.

JACOB: So we talked a little bit about polyglots and some one thing that really appealed to me to the job that I'm in now is during the hiring process, they seemed pretty not concerned with specific technology I was talking about. That was really a positive for me. So we write Python in my job and what I'm thinking about is what's work that I can do on team that if we hire somebody new who is new to Python would be able to get up to speed as fast as possible? What are the implicit idioms of Python that could be made more explicit? Or what are the things that could be done that make it not quite so gatekeeping?

And then that what that transition needs to is another thought is okay, I was thinking earlier about how there's probably someone at my company who was formerly incarcerated and I just don't know it. What are things I could do on my team that would make their life better in some way, but without them having to tell me, without I need to actually know who that specific person is? What are some things that would just make their life better working with me?

JOHN: Yeah, I think coming into this conversation, I'm aware of how terrible our carceral state is here in the US. But I think it's also valuable to get Kurt's perspective on that and to be reminded, on a personal level, what that experience is just to help keep that concept alive in my mind so I can be more aware of the people that are in that situation and ways that I can make that easier for them.

Also, to do simple administrative things like checking in with my HR department and finding out what their policy is on these things, if nothing else, just to know and even more, if there's ways that I can push back on those to say that that's not really something we need to care about, like, why is that requirement there? So I think that’s really helpful for me to keep in mind.

Thank you for joining us, Kurt. This was a fantastic conversation.

KURT: Yeah, my pleasure. This was a blast. I really enjoyed talking with you all.

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