Let’s start from the beginning. Tell me about your early years and where you come from.
So while I wasn’t born there, I grew up in Georgia, metro Atlanta area.
We moved around a few different places in Georgia. Most of the time we lived in a town called Peachtree City, which is one of those suburban towns where there’s not a whole lot to do but there were golf cart paths throughout the entire city. So your family owned a golf cart, you drove it around and that was totally normal [laughs].
Growing up, my family never had a lot of money. No free or reduced lunch at schools and that type of thing. Some of those basic, everyday things people think of we couldn’t afford. At the same time, my mom worked for an airline, so we did grow up being able to travel a lot. It was interesting because, say my friends want me to go bowling, but I couldn’t pay the $5. But then they’re like, “Wait, how did you go to Switzerland?” [laughs]
Peachtree City was—I didn’t know if upper-middle class is the right term—but it was a relatively wealthy town because a lot of people who worked at the airport lived there. So we weren’t in the best part of town, but it wasn’t a dangerous area—it was just a little bit lower income. We had good schools which was really important.
Neither my mom’s family nor my dad’s family were from Georgia. It was just a place they picked on the map when we were moving there, but it was important to them that if we were going to stay there, that it be a good place like that to raise children. So most of my formative years – I think it was from fifth grade through high school – I was there.
I was never the popular kid. I did band in middle school. I was kind of the the nerdy kid. I didn’t recognize that I had gender issues at the time, although in retrospect it’s like—oh, that makes sense why I didn’t care so much about my appearance because I didn’t want to look like that in the first place [laughs].
I was also raised in a conservative religion which I just thought was normal—I thought that this is how life works, these are the parameters of life, here’s how you live, here are your values. I just kind of went along with that until high school when my parents started having marital problems. My dad ended up moving out of the house my senior year of high school, and their divorce was finalized I think two or three weeks before my high school graduation. That was one of the first big awakening moments of my life because I was like—this marriage that I thought was going to be forever—some axiom of reality almost—fell apart. It made me wonder, “What else in life have I just been taking for granted like this? And what else do I need to question?”
The answer in my head was, “Everything.” I needed to understand, “What do I actually believe?” Not just, “What was I told?”
What was your path out of Peachtree City?
In parallel with that, when there’s family issues going on, you don’t really think about things like hope – where do I want to go to college, what do I want to study – because you’re dealing with things at home. And so I ended up going to the college that my family wanted me to go to, which was a religious school, and it was not where I should have gone [laughter]. I realized that very quickly once I got there.
After a few years there, I realized I do have a choice about my life– maybe circumstances out of my control brought me here, but I can choose whether to stay here or not. I realized I had a choice and was like, “Okay, let’s go for it.”
Yeah. So, at that point I sent off a transfer application to University of Georgia without having ever visited there. Luckily I got in, and so while at the University of Georgia, my process of self-discovery continued.
But now, I was in an environment where I was like, “Okay, now I need to have this typical college experience.” By that, I don’t mean the partying. I never got into the partying scene, or anything like that, but just meet people, have new experiences, learn things, get different points of view. At that point I was done with church, but now was the process of figuring out, “What do I believe now?”
So, once that set of discovery was underway, then the gender issue was like, “MY TURN.” [chuckles]
Again, before that, I didn’t really realize it was there, even though in retrospect it’s like—yeah, it was there. [chuckles] So, that’s when I first started really exploring like, “Okay, what are these feelings? What does this mean? What should I do about it?”
I was very fearful, because even though I was in a college town, it was still the Deep South. I explored a little bit in my head, I tried a little bit out in public. I got involved at the LGBT organization at the school. I made some mental progress and dabbled a little bit, and got a better understanding of the world. But before I knew it, two and a half years passed and I was graduating.
Then reality is like, “Oh guess what? The professional world is not like school.”
Were you into tech at all at this point?
I knew my parents couldn’t afford to help me pay for college, so in my first semester I immediately looked for jobs. I got involved with Unix Users Group, and ended up getting a job referral through them after that first semester. I was like, “Okay. Even if they don’t necessarily know that I want to work in computers, it pays a lot better than other student jobs.” I definitely had some skills from that, plus just playing with computers growing up. I wasn’t quite the younger end of the millennial generation, where they grew up with all that, but there was AOL, and those kinds of things. I definitely had some of those basic skills.
So you graduated and started your move toward adult professional life. What happened next?
At that point I moved back in with my mom, because I didn’t know what exactly I wanted to do even then. I just needed to focus on finding a job and it was really hard. I thought that because I had a degree then of course I’m going to be able to find a job. It won’t be perfect, but I’ll find something. That doesn’t work quite that easily, especially if you have a degree that was prepping you for grad school—not the job world.
While still living with my mom, she decided that she wanted to move to Phoenix to be closer to family, because her sister lives out there. So, I was like “Okay, well, I still don’t have a job, so I guess I’m along for this ride too.” So, I move to Phoenix and am still looking for a job and ended up in a call center on the phones. Not the funnest job in the world, but it was like, okay, at least I got a start. I have my own income.
So you got your start in a call center.
Yep, and even though the job wasn’t what I enjoyed, it got me started on a clearer path. My job was being on the phone. That said, I still had some of these computer skills from college. While I was on the phones in the call center, I was like, “This process could work a little bit better. This report would be so much more useful, if it gave this extra information.”
I would ask them, “How did you produce this? Could we make this better?” I would just do little things like that. Then after a while, they took notes of, “Hey, Michael (my former name) is doing these cool things, and we have this idea for a project we’d like to do,” so they pulled me off of the phones, and assigned me to a technical project.
Throughout the day, maybe two or three times a day, they would pass out little sheets that showed stats, because it was a very competitive, numbers-driven environment. They wanted a way to display those numbers much more frequently on the computer. And they knew I had some web development experience from college, and so they put me on the project and said, “Once this is done, you go back on the phones,” which wasn’t what I wanted to hear. Luckily, that project did not end up sending me back to the phones, because it worked out well enough.
So then I ended up working on their operations team, which slowly morphed over time as the team grew, and I started doing some other application development for them. Eventually at a team’s request I was able to transfer up to the office in San Francisco to provide more technical support.
So that’s how you ended up in Silicon Valley.
Yeah. And so that was great for a while. Then the manager who had brought me up here ended up leaving the company. It wasn’t bad. They just didn’t really know what to do with me at that point.
One of my teammates at the time ended up interviewing at Facebook. The position was a little too technical for him, so he gave them my name. They called me and I was like, “Well, I wasn’t even looking but Facebook’s calling me. I may as well at least talk to them.”
Yes [laughter]. Yes you should.
So I talked to them and ended up interviewing with them. It was going great. At the interviews it was really smooth, and I was like, “Okay, these went great. When do I start [chuckles]?”
They told me no. I was like, “No!” But the “no” was delivered really well. At a lot of places you get told no and you’re like, “Well, why? What was wrong with me?” But at Facebook they told me, “Okay, we thought you were a great cultural fit. You were a little bit weak on the coding interview. If our needs were different, then maybe that’s the kind of thing that we could bring you on and train you in, but we need more experienced people right now.”
So Facebook told you no and yet here I am talking to you from your office at Facebook?
They told me to keep in touch. I thought they were just saying that to be polite. Then, about a month after that, I got an E-mail from the recruiter just checking in to see how my job hunt was going. I was like, “Wait, are you serious about wanting to keep in touch?”
Then, a few months after that, I get another email saying, “Hey, can we set up a call?”
I get on the line with them, and they’re like, “Well, remember how we said if our needs were different? Well, our needs are different now. Are you still interested?” I was like, “Yeah!” They said, “Okay, well we talked with the team that had interviewed you before to see if they were still interested in you, and they gave a resounding yes, so we would like to extend you an offer without even re-interviewing.”
Wow. That’s amazing.
I was so glad I took that call in a private room, because I did a happy dance, and it would have been really embarrassing to be seen in public doing that. [laughter]
That’s kind of what kind of got that ball in motion. When I gave my notice, and I told them where I was going and they didn’t even attempt to counter. They kind of knew, “Yeah, this is a lot better opportunity than anything we can provide.” So then I was like, “okay, it’s time to go to Facebook.”
And at the time the gender stuff wasn’t even on my mind. The reason I thought when I moved from Phoenix to San Francisco, I was like, “Well, maybe it’ll be a better environment, it’s much more LGBT friendly there.” I was still terrified and even though the SF office was better than Phoenix culturally, it was still a big corporation and so I still didn’t feel like I could do anything about my gender issues. And so coming to Facebook, that wasn’t even an option on my mind.
But then I started seeing the information they were sending out about orientation, and one of the things in there said the dress code was that we want you to be your authentic self, so wear whatever you want. It was like, “Okay, this sounds good, but do they really mean it?” And so I showed up to work on my first day with my nails painted.
I figured that’s transgressive enough that I could kind of test the waters, and see if they really meant it, but not so much that if it was a major problem I would get sent home, or fired or something like that. And nobody said anything for like, two weeks, and then somebody said something nice about it. So it’s like, okay, this is different.
And then throughout orientation, and me even continuing throughout Facebook, you hear a lot about how we want people to be their authentic self and bring your full self to work because by doing that and not creating separate work and personal personas, you get to know your co-workers better. You have more relationships with them and get along with them and you understand and relate to them better. And so I was like, “Okay, cool.” But having grown up and you know, mostly red states, I had a lot of like baggage about what’s acceptable in society and here’s what you can do, here’s what you can’t do.
It’s like out here I’m suddenly getting a different message—not only it’s okay to be yourself but we want you to be yourself. This one thing that we talk about here is that at Facebook we don’t want to just serve a certain class of people. We want to serve the whole world. And to be able to serve everybody, we need to be able to represent everybody. And that’s really why diversity is so important to Facebook because if you don’t have representatives from all sorts of populations, then how do you really know what they need and how to serve them?
And so even for the first couple of months, I didn’t know if I believed it. And it’s not because of how they were delivering the message. It was because these beliefs that I had about myself and what’s possible were so limited from the past.
And so the longer I was here, I was like, “You know, maybe this is possible. Maybe this is what they mean. They really seriously mean this.”
So I started here in July of 2014, and by September was the first time I ever talked to a gender therapist because I realize that it was important to me not to ever die with regrets or have something that’s just… you didn’t do that you wanted to do. Nobody wants that life. You want to have a fulfilled life.
It’s not really now or never, but kind of like now is the best time to do it. So if I’m going to do it, I really should do it now.
So you decided to start your transition while at Facebook.
Yep. I talked to the gender therapist in September, and started on hormones in October.
It sounds like a quick turn around, but it was a lot of time of letting go of those beliefs that were limiting me. Earlier in my life those limits were coming from outside environments, whether it was church, whether it was society, whether it was school. Once those external limits were gone, then the new question was whether I can get past my own self-imposed limits.
Since then it’s been really amazing to see how it’s gone. Because being here really is what finally put me in place where it felt like I could do this.
In the past there were worries, doubts. Will my family reject me? Will I get fired from my job? Even at my last job where I was in San Francisco where transformation would be easier, I still had that fear. Being at Facebook is the very first place in my life, that I ever felt like, this is something safe to explore and to do.
It was definitely not a punctuated process for me. It was something I started doing over time. Makeup over time, toward the end I sort of started dabbling with outfits a little bit. Throughout this whole time when I’m discovering who I am, and how I want to express myself, everybody was cool about it, because there’s so many different kinds of people both in San Francisco and at Facebook, that everybody understands and accepts this is who you are.
I just kept doing it because it’s like, “Oh, people are being nice to me and it’s okay.” Once, I came to work in a skirt and I still got invited to play ping pong. I was like, “Okay, cool!” [chuckles]
I just kept slowly making progress and progress as I became more comfortable and overcame any fears through so many supportive people. One of the biggest things I’ve learned through this journey is that it’s not something you can do on your own. You really have to look to those who have gone ahead of you, rely on those who support you.
Here at Facebook we do have a very strong LGBT employee resource group. And so there’s a lot of support there and there were other trans employees who I could go to and get their personal stories. Before it’s like okay you read these things on the internet about these strangers or these medical references, but I can’t personalize that. But here I was able to meet other people who have gone through these things and I can say, “Okay, here’s the way my story is similar to yours, here’s how it’s different.” And being able to see that and see how it actually plays out in life, and just bounce my ideas and thoughts off of these people really helped me move forward because otherwise it was so theoretical to me.
At some point in the process I went to a ladies wine night at a friend’s house and introduced myself to everybody as Addy. After that I was like, “I want to Facebook friend all of these people.” And I was like, “Oh, crap, but my name’s not Addy on Facebook.” So I was really torn because my Facebook account is kind of like my social hub – like all of my different social groups from my entire life are on Facebook. People from church. People from multiple colleges. People from various jobs.
I realized is that if it got to the point that not coming out was interfering with me being able to live the life that I wanted to live then that was the time to do something about it. So I was like, “Okay, well, here we go.” And I updated my name on Facebook.
I get in the next day and I’m like, “Okay how’s everybody going to react, how’s this going to go?” The only question people had for me is, “okay what would you like us to call you now?”
My boss automatically switched pronouns, if he messed them up he corrected himself, so it was just super smooth. That was what surprised me going through all these things—I was so afraid of how are people going to react. Who’s going to reject me, who’s not, and the response was remarkably positive. Some people from past jobs were a little awkward about it and some members of my family, like my Mom, really struggled with it. But in my family’s case they realized that even if they don’t understand it, or maybe don’t think it’s real so-to-speak, they did recognize that I was a lot happier. I’m like, “Okay, we’re going to ask some questions about these things but I was markedly happier.” So they’ve been supportive, so I just kind of going from there. I was like, “Okay, this is cool. Everybody’s supportive.” Since then it’s been great to see other people go through this process because one of the things that I mentioned that I learned was that you can’t do this alone. I fully recognize that I got help from so many people. It was important for me to be able to pass that on to others because I couldn’t do it on my own. I kind of owe that to other people to do it too.
I’m not politically active. Most of my help is kind of more personal. As new people join Facebook or realize that they’re struggling with gender issues, a lot of them get referred to me. Then I can kind of walk them through, “Okay, here are the great benefits we have. Here’s our local trans group at Facebook. Here’s what my experience has been so far.” So I think there are four people that I am mentoring right now.
That’s so great.
They identify at different parts of the spectrum, and they are at different points to the process. But look, this is important to me, so it’s really become a great little community. And it’s really fun to watch them as they go through some of the same steps that I did, because it gives them so much more perspective. Because when you’re the one going through it, like, “Oh my gosh, can I handle this?” And you see them going through and it’s like, “Oh. Is that what it looks like from the outside?” [laughter] And so it helps me both help them through it as well as understand my own journey, and put into perspective what I’ve done, which helps as I consider the next steps, because I don’t know exactly where this is going to go from here.
I’m kind of taking it one step at a time. I’m like, “Okay, I’m happy with what I’ve done so far. I don’t regret any of this.” I don’t necessarily know answers to questions like, “Do I want surgery?” I don’t know. And I realize it doesn’t matter. At this point, I can think, “What is the next step, and is that something I want?” And then it’s go, and then we’re moving forward. One day the answer to that question will be no, and then I’m done. [laughter]
This is where I’m at just now—I started hormones in October of 2014 so it’s not been quite a year and a half. And it really is kind of a second puberty. It will continue for a long time, both physically and mentally.
It really is a unique experience, because not very many people get to see from both sides of the gender equation.
I would love to hear more about this.
It definitely gives me a little bit more perspective on things. In some ways, it highlights for me the way the genders are treated differently. And it kind of upsets the feminist piece of me. I understand I’ll lose male privilege, but it’s not that I’m going to lose these rights. It’s like, well, everyone should have these rights. So, it makes it important for me to support those causes as well.
But I’m also learning the way that the two genders are similar. Everybody’s human and psychologically men and women are more similar than different. When you’re only on one side, you, to a certain extent, you romanticize or think of the other side as foreign, and it’s not. We’re all human.
So it’s been really interesting from both of those perspectives just to see how many interactions with others are different, how they’re not. And that’s kind of where I’m at. Today is just kind of continuing to learn and grow.
Where do you see yourself in five or ten years? Do you think you’ll still be in San Francisco in tech?
I don’t know. Throughout my life and all these different places I’ve lived, I’ve thought, “You know, this is a great place and I get to have these experiences, but not forever.”
Do you think you’d go back to the South?
Oh gosh no!
Yeah, me neither. [laughter]
Not for the reasons you would think. Like if people ask me, “Oh, should I move to Atlanta?” then I wouldn’t have any problem recommending it to them. I feel like Georgia is the past, for me.
It’s definitely important to me to keep moving forward in life. While I love my friends that I have there, it’s important to me that I keep moving forward and having new experiences and not just going back into the past. I want to keep moving forward and developing.
So I don’t think that that’s the right place for me, even though for other people– I mean it is a great city. It’s the economic capital of the South. But I don’t think it’s my future. San Francisco’s been the first place I ever thought, “You know, maybe?”
A long time ago I gave up trying to predict what the future will bring, because every year when I look back I could never have predicted where I am.
I do think that, for now, this is a great place for me to be. Facebook has so many opportunities both for personal growth and professional growth that I really have no reason I want to leave right now.
It’s actually kind of funny, the experience here almost feels like a time vortex. I’ve been here a little over a year and a half and I’ve done so much more here in that time than in multiple years at previous jobs. So I would like to keep that accelerated rate of growth and development as long as I could possibly manage it. And so I hope to be here for a long time.
There’s been so much conversation lately about how diverse teams perform better—how different perspectives are being brought to the table to inform a better product, especially for a company as global as Facebook. How do you feel like your background and life experience impact the way that you approach your work?
I think what I’d say to that one is that having grown up with scarce resources—when I was in the call center and we were building out that reporting and technical infrastructure, since it was all new to them, they weren’t necessarily committing funds to us, so there was this idea that resources are scarce, but you still want to keep doing more, growing more. It required me to develop creativity.
I was like, “Okay, well, how can I do this better? How can I make this faster? How can I make this handle more without being able to get additional resources?” That was my biggest thing that I got out of that last job—sometimes you just have to find creative solutions. You can’t always have tons of money or tons of resources to devote to a problem. And so you have to be like, okay, well, just because I don’t have the resources to do what you’re asking doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still try, doesn’t mean it isn’t still what we need to do.
And in my personal life, I don’t want to be held back by, well, I only have this much experience, or I only have this car, or that asset, or whatever. It’s like, I don’t want that. That’ll hold me back from continuing to learn and develop, and so I have to be creative and find a way to do more with less. And then when I get more resources, then great, I can use these more efficiently, and do even more. And so I think that’s really how my background has helped me here, is just that I can get pretty scrappy and figure some things out that other people wouldn’t have thought of because they didn’t have to struggle to be able to do that.
I love that. My last question—What advice would you give, based on lessons that you’ve learned, to folks from similar backgrounds hoping to get into tech?
I think the biggest one would be not to hold yourself back, because so many times we think that because of our circumstances that that’s all that we’ll ever have. It kind of sounds cliche to say “American dream,” but it kind of really is. That you believe in yourself, you know what is important to you what you’re passionate about, what you want out of life, not what you believe is possible based on past experiences. That’s what really helps me move forward because life’s been a surprise for me so many times.
A lot more is possible than you believe if you take advantage of opportunities. Sometimes they come by, and if you don’t take them, then they’re gone. So just keep your eye out for those, and when they come along don’t wait and say, ‘Maybe one day.’ Because there isn’t always a one day. Life is only so long, and everything in life changes. That is kind of what life is: it’s change. So take advantage of the opportunities when you have them. Learn all that you can. And just keep trying and learning.