Okay, so why don’t we start at the beginning? Tell me a bit about your early years and where you come from.
My early years, I grew up in New Jersey, in the farm country of New Jersey. George Washington marched down Main Street in the town that I grew up in, so it’s incredibly insulated, affluent area—very straight, very normative. I lived there until I went to college.
What was your childhood like? Were you feeling totally isolated in childhood or were you feeling pretty normal?
I had a sibling and we’re close in age. We’re a year apart – a year and four months. That alleviated some of the feeling of isolation, but it took 30 minutes to get to the supermarket by car so it was hard not to feel isolated. My parents divorced and it took them about eight years. They were locked in our custody battle and it was really acrimonious. That started when I was in second or third grade and went on for a while, so that was tough too. Yeah.
How did you first discover tech? What was the early entry point into the world you are in now?
My entry point to technology came really late. We had a computer in our house, a Compaq, but it was in my dad’s office. My brother and I would only get to play video games on it once a week. We played that video game Myst. It was really hard. I didn’t have a cellphone until the middle or end of high school. My first regular access to a computer was in computer typing class. I remember those.
Oh yeah. I was so good at typing class.
Yeah [chuckles]. The typing programs. It wasn’t really a huge part of my life. We didn’t even really have cable growing up. I think it may have come later than other kids. Really, these memories may be similar to other millennials like dial-up internet, first AIM screen name, going into chat rooms. My brother and I, we’d go into chat rooms and type in ASL [age/sex/location], try to flirt with people, and that was always fun. That was the beginning, I think, like teens. But even still, there was only one computer in the house and limited access.
It sounds very similar to my upbringing. What was your first AIM screen name?
Oh my God, dogluvr [chuckles]. But, it was–
Wow. That’s good. I was maybe too late to the game to grab sunnygirl sans numbers, so I had to do sunnygirl87 which is ironic because I don’t even like sunlight.
Then I became puddinpie, because I loved pudding and I loved pie. Puddinpie26.
Oh my God [laughs].
Yeah. So many good ones.
Yeah, I love how they’re so naive, like so earnest, all of them. They’re great.
Did you have early inclinations about what you wanted to do, or be, when you grow up, and did you have any family pressure in any particular direction?
Yeah. My parents are very– they’re lawyers. They, like I said, they divorced, and they both remarried lawyers. They’re very much people that have always been on a track and expect everyone else to be on a track. I think they expected that I’d be a lawyer. I wanted to be a writer or a poet, definitely had more artistic inclinations.
So walk me through the winding path of you getting into tech.
Oh my God, I’ve started interviewing people at SoundCloud and I get asked that a lot and you would think that would help me crystalize my own answer by now but I’m still finding my way through it. I graduated college in 2010, that was deep in the recession and I was living in New York at the time, the first job I was able to get was working at a Borders before they went out of business. I was one of the people at the front with a Walkie Talkie that was busting shoplifters, that was my first job.
And then Borders folded and I just kind of took any job I could get – I went job to job and eventually decided to move out to the Bay area like typical Bay area story, no job, no place to live. All of my friends were giving me the advice to apply for things in tech because it was casting a line into to a larger pond.
The first job in tech I got was at this company called Code for America. It’s like a non-profit tech company [chuckles]. Sounds like an oxymoron, it is an oxymoron. I was there for a year and a half.
I’m a huge music nerd and decided I want to work in music tech, and that’s how I got into SoundCloud. It’s pretty lucky, when I look back on it now. I didn’t have any connections and being in tech has made me realize how nepotistic it is, and it’s all about who you know. I applied completely blind with just a cover letter and resume, and ended up getting the job. I work on their Community team, which is tech jargon for customer service. [chuckles]
I’ve been doing that for the last two years. That was a really quick synopsis, but there have been other detours– I thought I wanted to work in book publishing when I graduated from school and I worked at Random House in New York City and I was doing book publishing for a while and then I think moving out here and being unemployed, it felt like tech was my only option, which is how it is, but I don’t know. It’s almost like I made the choice, but the choice also happened to me.
I probably use SoundCloud more than any other app total I think.
I know. Well, I have music tastes that tend to surprise people—so when people want to know what kind of music I listen to, I’m like… the only way I even know how to begin explaining this is just to point you to SoundCloud and go look at my likes.
Anyway. What are some of the most exciting things to you about either your job specifically or working in this kind of industry?
I work in a niche inside technology, like music tech is a niche within the broader tech industry. I am excited by the fact that I’m actually passionate about the area of technology that I work in. I could be working in consumer tech or something where I feel absolutely nothing about what I’m doing. I feel good about that.
What would have been some of your biggest struggles during your time in tech?
Oh, man. The feeling of loneliness. SoundCloud is based in Berlin and I work in the San Francisco office and that’s an office of 20 people. I was one of the first out LGBT people at the office so there was a loneliness in that. Then it took me a year to come out to everyone as being gender queer, which is on the trans spectrum, and asking everyone to call me by gender neutral pronouns. That was a further segmentation of loneliness. That’s been hard. There have been moments of friction and– misunderstanding and just ignorance along the way, for sure.
I’m curious to know, where you have found your support networks during these times? I know that you formed one on your own.
That’s a really good question. Yeah, I ended up forming a diversity resource group with two other LGBT employees at SoundCloud at the time, which is crazy in a company of 250 people. But there were only three of us, and that was a support network. I have a really rich queer community outside of work, a really amazing, supportive girlfriend. All those things definitely strengthen me.
What is it like in your experience being deeply involved in two different communities of two very different levels of privilege? You’ve got tech and you’ve got the queer community—what’s it like to straddle both?
Yeah. Even outside of non queer spaces, these days I’m just incredibly reticent to say that I work in tech. I think in queer spaces and at queer parties, I feel that friction a lot too. I feel like– there are queer people who work in tech, obviously, but I think most of the queer folks in the community want to think of themselves as activists and disruptors and—oh, cute cat.
Or artists. Not to say that you can’t be all those things, like an activist and a disruptor and a artist and work in tech, but I think there’s a perception in the queer community that you can’t and it feels a little like it’s– like you can’t hold both spaces. I have a dialogue with myself about this almost daily but I tell myself, “you are disrupting things just by virtue of stepping out, educating people on trans identity, and advocating for yourself and just getting in people’s faces and bringing things to light that would have never surfaced before.” I do feel like I’m disrupting and I do feel like I’m agitating things and I think that is a form of activism. But, in the two-minute elevator spiel of someone else who’s in the bar, I just sound like a yuppie, so it’s incredibly nuanced and a really frustrating thing to for sure.
What do you think are your biggest motivators?
At work or just life, both?
In life, what drives you?
Coffee. I have like a severe caffeine problem. [laughter]
I take a lot of pride in being a good child, and sibling, and partner, and friend. That’s something that drives me. I know that sounds a little corny but that’s a huge source of pride for me. Also just the fight to be seen, that too.
That moment when it finally clicks for someone. That’s happened a few times at work now, where after a lot of correction and a lot of nudging, they finally adapt, really ‘see’ you, and evolve in your direction. People start calling me “they” and they make me feel like they finally see me. That’s a motivator. That makes it all worth it.
How has coming out affected your perspectives on equality in the workplace?
I mean, I don’t know, I feel like there’s nothing I can say that hasn’t been said. Like, my workplace, Soundcloud, and other tech companies are incredibly white and male-dominated. All the leaders, for the most part, are white and male, and yeah, there are all kinds of ceilings that are yet to be shattered or even acknowledged before they can be shattered. Yeah, it’s hard working in a place where you feel the oppressiveness of all these different kinds of ceilings that exist for you, but you can’t really talk about it or acknowledge them, and that’s what it feels like. And I see those ceilings, and they’re not always just my own, but for people who are completely female identified, those ceilings exist and, yeah, there are just different kinds of ceilings and hurdles and it’s just funny because there’s also a ton of talk about diversity and inclusion right now. I feel like in the last year the discussion about diversity and inclusion in tech has just completely taken off, and for all this talk and conjecture, you would expect some more acknowledgement of the ceilings and hurdles that I’m talking about, but there’s a ton of talk and conjecture and it doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of change or momentum yet. So in terms of equality in the workplace, my perception is that there’s a lot of talk, but there’s yet to be much change. I mean, maybe the needle is just moving so slowly that it seems imperceptible, but I feel very impatient and weary a lot of the time with the theme of equality in the workplace.
Have you had any particular mentors or people that you’ve looked up to for inspiration, or even just people that have been pivotal in your career?
I have this theory about mentors. It’s like—you know when you’re dating someone and you really like them and you just want to define the relationship and ask them to be your girlfriend, boyfriend, whatever. I feel like my past experience with mentors is I’ve done that and then scared them away, so lately I’ve had mentors and I just don’t tell them they’re my mentors. I have people that I look up to and look toward for inspiration. But they’re not formal mentors because I think defining the relationship kind of ruins it a little bit. And yeah, there are just some badass women that work at SoundCloud – a lot of them have left – there’s a huge attrition problem. There’s a woman in our office who’s– it’s an open office floor plan and she’s taking calls and yelling at guys on the phone and making deals. She’s just taking up a lot of space in a way that I haven’t seen a woman do in a workplace– I’ve only ever seen men do that. She takes up space in every part of the office she’s in and it’s awesome. I’ve just never seen anything like it. There are just a lot of really assertive women that work at the company and that’s been cool to see.
What is important in a job to you now versus when you started? Like what do you feel is really priority to you, either currently or in the future?
I don’t want to settle for a job where I’m not a culture fit because I’ve done that too many times before. I don’t expect to stay at SoundCloud forever but I am a culture fit, for the most part, in the office right now. Like I come in and I feel accepted and I have friends and this is the first job where I’ve ever had that and I don’t want to settle for not feeling like a culture fit anymore because culture really makes or breaks a job. It sounds so obvious but it took me like four years to realize that.
How do your friends and family feel about the path that you’ve taken and the work that you’ve done? You’re not a lawyer.
I think they’re proud of me. My parents are not super adept with technology. Neither of them know or use SoundCloud or know what it is so they don’t exactly understand what I do day-to-day but they appreciate the fact that I’m in an industry that’s well regarded and I’m making my way so they seem okay.
That’s good. How do you think the culmination of your background and life experiences affect the way that you approach your work?
As I mentioned, I work on the Community team so that means just writing with users but I ended up moving into a specialization track and I’m writing with users that are in crisis and I have to moderate content that they report like if they are being abused or harassed on the site or if they see hate speech or unlawful content, sexually explicit content, basically all the ways that SoundCloud can be misused, I write at those users and I moderate that content. I definitely don’t think it’s a coincidence because I think my background allows me to be really compassionate and empathetic and I think having experienced discrimination and having had things happen to me that are abusive in the world I think it gives me a unique ability to moderate things—I don’t know, I think it all ties together in some strange way.
I’m curious to know what you feel like tech could do a better job of culturally.
Culturally? Like, broadly, it’s ideas of inclusivity. I mean I’ve interviewed at places in the past where you have to walk up a flight of stairs and there aren’t even accessible elevators and I just feel like there are all kinds of diversity that are thought of last or not at all. And there are the kinds of diversity that you can’t see. You know there’s mental illness and other kinds of illness that aren’t visible. So yeah, just broadening. I think diversity inclusion needs to be broadened and I think learning and development also needs to be brought in. There needs to be more rigorous sensitivity training done internally.
What are you working on this year, either for work or for yourself?
So I’m part of a support group for folks that are on the gender spectrum and we’ve all talked about making a zine and leaving it in lobbies of tech companies and just places around the city. So I really want to make that zine about gender and gender fluidity. That’s a huge goal. Yeah, also we’re working on bringing an external facilitator to this and having them do a training on trans-identity. A lot of people in the office, abroad especially, don’t understand what transgender means. Those are goals. I also played tennis for a lot of my youth and I really want to pick up tennis again.
Where do you see yourself in like 5 or 10 years? Do you think you’ll still be in tech?
I want to work on diversity and inclusion in tech, full time. I don’t think I’m going to be able to do that at SoundCloud, sadly, so I’m starting to look around and ask myself, where can I do this and how can I do this? Who will give me that shot? And eventually in ten years I hope that I will have gone to a company, learned the ropes, and then go out and become an independent consultant or started my own consultancy or something.
I love that.
So I think in ten years I’ll be working alongside or with tech. But, I don’t know if I’ll be in it anymore, strictly speaking.
I had a question but I lost it. Hold on. After a few hours of interviews, sometimes things start getting a little Swiss cheesy.
Let’s see, my last question would be about like lessons you’ve learned and any advice that you’d have for folks who are just starting out in the industry or come from similar backgrounds to you or going through similar struggles?
I am still telling myself this now, but I think if someone who grew up and was socialized as a woman, I still fall into this trap of thinking I’m not good enough—basically imposter syndrome. I always applied for jobs that are exactly at the level that I’m at or slightly below. I’ve never applied for something that’s above my qualification level. I would advise someone who’s a woman or non-binary person to aim high, because I’m still learning how to do that and I’ve been out of school for almost six years and I’m still looking at things and applying to things that are just at my level. And, I think if you aim high, you’ll get farther faster.