So why don’t we start at the beginning? Why don’t you share with me about your early years and where you come from.
It’s complicated… I am an American citizen. I was born in New Orleans, but we started moving around when I was two years old. In 1967, when I was 5, my dad went as a civilian to Vietnam, doing international development, which means they had this strange idea that, if you “developed” Vietnam economically, they wouldn’t want to be communists and the war would be over. We can see how that worked out. Meanwhile, my mother and I lived in Bangkok. So that’s really what I remember first in my life. After two years, my dad was posted to Bangkok. My little brother was born there.
When I was 9, my parents divorced. My brother stayed with my mother in Bangkok and I came back to the States with my dad. He eventually remarried, and he, my stepmother, and I lived in Pittsburgh, and then Connecticut. Then he started his overseas career again, and we went to Bangladesh. I had just started eighth grade, and when we got to Bangladesh, there wasn’t an American school I could go to. I did eighth grade all by myself via correspondence.
After a year of that, I was happy to go Woodstock School (nothing to do with the concert!), an international boarding school in the Indian Himalayas. I stayed there for all of high school. By that time I had already attended 14 different schools, so Woodstock provided stability and a community that saved my life in a lot of ways. Today it’s my point of reference: the people I went to school with are essentially my family. This year we’re celebrating the 35th anniversary of our graduation; a bunch of us will be meeting in India for that.
I visited the US once in those years, but I’d never felt particularly at home in the US even when I lived there. It wasn’t until years later that I learned to define myself as a third culture kid. This is what happens when you’re born in one culture and you’re raised in one or more other cultures: you become something else entirely. I’m certainly not Indian, I’m not Thai – but I’m not really American either. Now that I live in the US again, I’m a “hidden immigrant,” which has sometimes caused me problems, both personally and professionally.
I came back to the US for college in 1981. I did my first year at UC Santa Cruz, then my dad realized he couldn’t afford out of state tuition in California. I was an out-of-state student no matter where I went – we didn’t have residency [for tuition purposes] in any state. That made me feel even more alienated: I could be generically “American,” but no state would treat me as a native! And I wanted so much to fit in and feel at home in my supposed native country.
I transferred to the University of Texas, which in those days was very cheap, even for out-of-state. I ended up doing a degree in Asian studies and languages, with all my tuition paid by the US government because I was studying exotic Indian languages. They hoped that I would go work for the CIA or something. [chuckles] I spent my final college year back in India on a study abroad program.
I had just returned from that, had been back in the US for less than a week. I was visiting a friend in Connecticut and she said: “Well, we have to go on this picnic with this Italian guy because I told him I would, and I think he likes me, but I don’t like him, at least not that way.”
I basically took one look at him and thought: “You don’t want him? I’ll take him!”
We ended up a few years later married, with a kid.
He was doing his PhD in Mathematics at Yale, but, when you marry an Italian, it’s pretty much a given that you’re going live in Italy. And we did.
Italy is a lovely country and there’s a lot to like about it. I lived there for seventeen years – way longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in my life.
Meanwhile, I had accidentally started a career in tech before I even knew such a thing was possible. Here’s how it happened:
When I left college, I had no idea what I was going to do with myself. I had had various part-time jobs during college just to help support myself, and those always seemed to end up being around early electronic technology. It all started from the fact that I was a fast typist: I’d taken typing class in high school, and I preferred typing because my handwriting was so bad. So I’d get hired for anything involving a keyboard.
Around 1983 I took a job doing electronic typesetting, which at that time meant learning a markup language, although I didn’t know to call it that. I also did word processing on a Philips word processor. In a later job, I worked on a Wang word processing system. I simply thought of myself as a secretary who knew how to use equipment.
So, out of college, I ended up working as a secretary for a lobbying firm in Washington, which was just completely random. I had moved to DC because I didn’t know where else to be. It was sort of close to Enrico, whom I’d just met, and my dad had a friend near DC that I could go stay with for a while.
This was in the days of WordPerfect, and because I was always curious and willing to learn, and I wasn’t intimidated by technology, I became the person in the office who knew how to handle WordPerfect and make it do stuff. I still didn’t think of this as being a particular skill.
Then a friend of my dad’s decided that he wanted to get into being a small systems integrator. This was just at the end of the time you could still make money doing that. He wanted to offer desktop publishing as a service, along with teaching people how to do desktop publishing. This was a brand new thing then – we’re talking 1987 or ‘88. This is so long ago that Windows 1.something or 2.something was the sexy new operating system!
At that time, just knowing what a font was – was unusual. With the experience I had from my previous jobs, I figured out desktop publishing and I started A) doing it as a service and B) training other people. I was designing the courses and writing the training materials myself. I didn’t have any background in training, but people liked the courses, and they definitely learned. My approach was to have them bring in work they actually needed to get done, and apply what they were learning to something they would naturally do in their jobs.
My boss had also been in international development – that’s how my dad knew him – so all of his contacts were in international development organizations. So, weirdly, I ended up doing two jobs for the World Bank in Africa. I went to Cameroon with 12 boxes of equipment, installed it, and taught people how to use it. Which was really fun.
As part of training for that trip, I took a class in how to take apart and put back together desktop PCs. I was the only woman in the class, and all the other trainees were very surprised, like, “Oh, you actually know how to take out a motherboard?” I was like, “Yeah, it’s not that hard.” [chuckles]
I ended up giving up that job in 1989 because I married Enrico and moved to New Haven, and then I was home with a baby. So when we moved to Italy I had been out of work for over a year taking care of my daughter, and I didn’t know how to go about looking for a job in Italy. I just did the American thing of mailing out resumés to anything that looked promising, but I didn’t hear back from anybody. I had people literally laugh at me when I walked into their offices and said, “I’m looking for work.” That is just not how it’s done in Italy.
But eventually this guy called me and said, “Hey, I got your resumé a while back and you’ve got some interesting skills. I have a software company, we’re doing an OCR software. Do you think you could write a manual about it?”
“Well, I’ve never done that before, but I could probably manage.” Having written my own training materials for the desktop publishing courses, I didn’t think a software manual could be all that hard.
And so, I ended up doing this project for him and, after that was over, he said, “Well, I really like the way you work but I don’t have any more work for you right now.”
I’d also started to write articles for Italian computer magazines (in Italian!), so I was thinking, “Well, maybe I should try to write a book.” And about that time, Fabrizio called me back and said, “Hey, do you want to write a book?”
He was working on one of the first Windows software packages for recording CDs. This was back when CD recording was just becoming something that consumers would be able to do. The first desktop CD recorders had just been announced – before that, a CD recorder was a $100,000 piece of equipment the size of a mini-fridge, with really awful command-line driven software. Blank CDs cost $25 or $50 – screwing them up was expensive!
Fabrizio was producing CDs as a service for other people, and he saw the need for consumer software that would be easy for anybody to use, to go with the new low-priced recorders that were coming. I’m amused to see that Easy CD, the software we created, is still available – it’s in version 12 or something now. Even at the time, almost nobody knew that it was originally an Italian product.
Fabrizio was a Silicon Valley style entrepreneur, but in Italy, which is a really hard thing to be. So we wrote the book, published in 1993, called “Publish Yourself on CD-ROM,” partly as marketing for the software. By the time we finished that, he hired me full time to do documentation, translation, marketing, and a bunch of other stuff.
There’s a piece on my website about how I had been communicating online since 1982, when I got into Compuserve. So in ’93 when the book was published, we were using Compuserve to hear from people who were reading the book. Then Compuserve invited me to actually run a forum about CD recording. That was the beginning of my experience in communicating with customers and supporting a product online.
Fabrizio took his company to Silicon Valley, moved all the Italian engineers here, and hired American marketing and so on. I started travelling back and forth a lot because I was working closely with the engineers. And after eighteen months, he sold it for 48 million dollars, which was a lot of money in 1995. The company that bought us was Adaptec, and I ended up working as a contractor for them for six years. They wouldn’t hire me as permanent staff because, “Well, that’s weird, you’re sitting in Italy, we can’t hire you there.” But it was fine, they paid me a lot of money.
That went on through the dot com boom. By late 2000, I was making a second attempt to move my family to the Bay Area. I’d been trying for years to persuade my husband to move to the US with me so I could pursue my career. I said, “Let me get to VP level and we will never have to worry again.” Because even back then I recognized that executives are a protected class.
I felt increasingly vulnerable as a remote employee – it was a very unusual thing to be in those days, people just didn’t know or care how to work with me at a distance. Some seemed to think that I was pampered, working from Italy, and that my job was just a hobby to me. I started an MBA to try to prove that I was serious about my career!
A few years after acquiring us, Adaptec spun us off again as an independent software company. I again asked my family to move to California with me while I pursued this great opportunity in a brand-new company with a big job. At first my husband agreed to try it for a year or two, “but not this year.” I was traveling back and forth like crazy between California and Italy, overseeing the launch of a new website for the new company, and starting to organize moving my husband and child to the US, trying find a place to live and a school and so on.
I was working 14 hours a day, and I thought that doing great work would be enough to get me recognition and advancement. I was wrong about that, and I was really bad at company politics. Someone else, who spent her time schmoozing the executives, and (as I later learned) taking credit for my work, was promoted over me – she got my job and became my boss. It was utterly disheartening. And I was coming “home” to a hotel room every night and arguing with my husband over the phone about whether he would move to the US to join me. I finally said: “I can’t fight on both fronts anymore.” I told the company I was not going to move to the US after all, and I went back to Italy with my tail between my legs.
This was in March 2001. I kind of saw the dot com crash coming. I certainly knew I was in a vulnerable position with the company, because the woman who had been promoted over me was threatened by me. When cuts began to happen, I would be one of the first to go.
Then that July my mother-in-law got breast cancer, so I said, “Well, I cannot deal with major family stress and hating my job every day,” so I quit. My husband never got over that. From the Italian point of view, walking away from a salary – no matter how much you hate the job – makes no sense. But I’d have been laid off a few months later, so I really didn’t give up much.
After that I was decreasingly employed. For a while I got contract work from former colleagues. But Italy also entered a slump that it has never really come out of. There are just no jobs, especially not jobs in tech for a middle-aged foreign woman with opinions.
By 2007 I was getting desperate, I was running out my of dot-com savings. I had put away what seemed like a lot of money to me at the time, but I hadn’t made it big on any stock or anything, it was just savings from six years of good earnings. But from 2001 I earned less and less every year, and was increasingly dependent on my husband (again), which I hated. I really don’t like being dependent on anyone. I worked for Fabrizio again in his new startup, but he was paying me exploitative wages (less that I might have earned as a supermarket cashier!), and the commute to Milan from where we now lived on Lake Como was two hours each way – it was terrible and exhausting, but I couldn’t see any alternative.
In 2007, I got in touch with Dan Maslowski, an old friend from Adaptec days, who had ended up working at Sun Microsystems. He created a contract job for me to work on content and community at Sun. I started traveling to the US for that. It paid well, and it was exciting work, with great colleagues.
In the meantime, my daughter had gotten fed up with the Italian school system and had gone off to Woodstock School in India for her senior year. We knew that leaving the Italian education system probably meant that she would not be able to attend university in Italy and would have to do that in the US. She had effectively left home for good, which is very unusual for an 18-year-old Italian.
And all of a sudden, it was like somebody had flipped a switch in my head. I just woke up one day in Italy and thought: “What am I doing here? I’m not happy.”
In March of 2008, Sun Microsystems offered me a “permanent” job, but they said, “We can’t hire you in Italy, so pick a US office.” I didn’t even ask my husband that time. I just said, “Yes, I’m going.” I came back to the US, to Colorado initially. I figured I would eventually end up in the Bay Area because this is where everything is happening, but I didn’t want to deal right away with the expense and traffic.
Almost immediately after I moved to the US, acquisition rumors started about Sun. A couple of months later, we knew we were going to be acquired by Oracle, and everything was frozen: no promotions, no transfers. There went my chance to be transferred to California. If I’d done that with Sun, I would have gotten a cost of living raise and everything would have been easier, but now I was stuck in Colorado long past when I was ready to leave there.
My job was working with the OpenSolaris community. I was still doing a lot of content — some writing, blog management, and I had started to do a lot of video. I had very strong ideas about using video.
Even before the acquisition was completed, Oracle said: “You people who work on community, we don’t do community that way, so now you’re in marketing.” And the marketing director was like, “Well, your little videos are nice, but go write white papers.” I had been saying for years that white papers were just not popular anymore. And then the first white paper I wrote pissed off a VP, which in retrospect is amusing – I need to have words with him about that, now that we have both moved on to other things.
I could go on for hours about the Oracle acquisition (I’ve written about it), but basically it was not a good place to be. By summer of 2010 I was looking for a new job but I was also very sick with sinus infections. After two sinus surgeries and some medical leave, I quit Oracle the Monday after Thanksgiving. And as it turned out, my boss’ boss – that same marketing director — quit the same day. I was trying to message my boss that morning. I’m IM’ing saying “I need to talk to you, I need to talk to you.” She’s like, “Yes, I know, but Dan just quit.” I ended up driving down to Santa Clara to be in a meeting at which Dan’s resignation was announced, and eventually mine, and his boss actually spoke to me — for the first time ever — to thank me for my work. And I was thinking, “Gee, if you’d ever bothered to say a kind word to me before, I might have felt differently about this job.”
So then I started at Joyent, which had been one of the pioneering cloud computing companies. I followed some Sun engineering friends into it, and I was hired by one of the founders, Jason Hoffman. I ended up working there for 4 years, in a bunch of different roles, as is typical for startups and small companies. I was the Director of Training, and then I was the Community Architect for the new SmartOS open source community, and then they gave training back to me again as well – and I turned that into a money-making business for the company. Things were starting to look really interesting and good there. In 2013 I was reporting directly to Jason, the cofounder and CTO — and then he left the company. And, you know, when your executive ally leaves, all his projects tend to get canned, so I was, all of a sudden, in a very bad position. And that’s another whole realm of stories, but basically it was clear that I should move on as quickly as I could. In the event, it took a while.
One of the things I would mention, if people were asking me for career advice, is the need for a sponsor. I’ve never really had a mentor in my life but Jason stepped up for me as a sponsor and he got me into Ericsson. And apparently he really had to fight for me because I was being seen as a training person, and some of the Ericsson people who were supposed to make this decision were saying, “Well we don’t need any more training people.” But, I later heard, he really argued for me and got me the job, and even got me a hefty raise. Since then I’ve proved myself and my value to the company, but that first step really took some effort on his part. And I’ll always be grateful for that.
I’m so curious to hear what it was like pioneering some of those earliest concepts of community.
When I started, nobody knew to call it “community.” On the Internet Archive you can find the website I did for Roxio, the spin-off company, when it launched in 2001. I actually use the term “community” there to refer to our users – I was surprised to be reminded of that, years later.
I was a pioneer, but I didn’t realize it at the time – it all seemed to happen organically. First I was on the CompuServe forums, answering questions and interacting with people. An interesting side note is I did get harassed there, but only once [laughter].
Then people started saying, “You should be checking out the Usenet because people are talking about your products there.” I wasn’t even sure what it was, but I needed to be wherever people were talking about us, so I went and learned about the Usenet. It used to be possible to search all those old Usenet groups on Google, and you could find my name there going back many years.
Unfortunately, some of the most prominent posts were from this serial harasser who tried to bug me for years, calling me a liar and so on (none of which was true). In those days ISPs had terms of service that you weren’t allowed to use their services to harass people. I never did or said anything to the guy, but other people in the groups would get pissed off at the way he treated me and report him to his ISP. He kept getting thrown off his ISPs [laughter]. Which of course made him madder and he blamed me.
So I had started interacting with people on the Usenet and then some people said, ‘We don’t like dealing with the atmosphere of the Usenet [which was starting to become toxic with trolls], so why don’t you start a mailing list?”
So I started a discussion list for users of our software. I moderated it only to the extent necessary to keep people polite to each other. I didn’t care if they said negative things about the product or the company – I mean, I cared, but I allowed it, and tried to answer criticism rather than pretend it didn’t exist. If anything, the other users would have liked heavier moderation than I was doing.
So that was our foundational community, and people cared a lot about it as a community as well as a source of information about CD recording. At some point the company needed beta testers, so I chose the 10 or 12 most active and useful members of the discussion list to be beta testers. It was a very varied little elite group – we had everything from a literal rocket scientist to a pioneer in audio technology to a monk who lived next door to the Vatican – but was also a huge Star Trek fan and had been a DJ! [I was the only woman in it, come to think of it – and I created that group!]
Some people said, “Well, this discussion list is too active – I can’t handle this much email. Can we just have something in a newsletter form?” So I started newsletters as well. By the time I left the company, we had something like 160,000 subscribers. If I can get those numbers in my current job [chuckles], I’ll be doing really well.
I really enjoyed interacting with people – and to me everybody had an interesting story. Like what you said earlier, I just find people fascinating.
The marketing side of the company and the CEO wanted to market to the cool, hip crowd. To get photos to use on the new website, they went out in the street in San Francisco and hired six random attractive young people to be the faces of our website. I kept saying, “Yeah, but the customers who are actually buying our software, as opposed to pirating it, are grandmas who want to burn photos of their grandkids onto CD to save them.” The CEO did not want to hear that. But, sure enough, the first email I ever got to the webmaster at Roxio address was somebody saying, “Your site is very appealing and looks great, but I’m a 65-year-old grandma. What do you have for me [chuckles]?” Damn it. I knew it [chuckles]. I solved that by interviewing active community members [of all ages] and featuring them on the site – that’s where I explicitly identified them as members of a community. It may have been a first for a company website.
Over the course of your career what has been the most exciting parts of your work for you? What really activates you?
In much of my career I have worked remotely, without much day-to-day interaction with my peers. But I was always part of a team, and that’s what I really enjoy: not just doing cool stuff, but doing it together with great people. During the dot com boom I had the opportunity to build and run a team, then really haven’t had that again until now. And I’m loving it. I really enjoy finding the right people, putting them together, smoothing the path for us all to get things done together. Managing people is hard work, but I’m finding it very rewarding.
What I’m doing for Ericsson now seems to be pulling together of lot different threads in my life. Next Monday [Feb 22nd] we’re about to launch a new website — I’m the project lead on this. Part of what I bring to the project is knowing enough about the technical content (cloud) to be able to say something useful as a managing editor. But I also bring knowing how websites work, the basics of SEO, and all of the other components to go into making a big site work. All the experience I’ve gained over the years is coming together.
It’s also an opportunity to apply the philosophies I’ve developed over years of communicating with people online – things that were radical when I started doing them, like sounding human instead of corporate, and being aware that what happens online is a conversation, not a broadcast. It’s interesting to finally get a chance to bring all that to fruition.
What have been some of your biggest struggles throughout your time in tech?
When I was young I didn’t realize this stuff was happening to me. Keep in mind that I started my working life as a secretary at a K Street lobbying firm in Washington in 1986 – in those days an executive would pat you on the ass and no one thought anything of it!
Now when I look back on things, I go, “Holy shit! That was pretty damn sexist.” I was just young and naive and I also do have my share of geeky obliviousness, so there are things I just don’t notice or don’t think about. I never consciously tried to “be one of the boys,” but I have a salty sense of humor. I don’t mind dirty jokes, so that kind of thing never bothered me and I never thought of it as sexist (maybe sometimes I should have).
The most egregious sexism I ever experienced (I’ve written a long piece about this on my website) was when my Italian boss, Fabrizio, moved his startup to Silicon Valley. He took all the engineers (who were men) with him, so what was left of the company in Milan was mostly women.
Fabrizio felt like he had to leave someone in charge in Milan. And he went and chose the sales guy because he was the only guy left, which was just a joke. He was a good salesman, but he literally had only a fifth grade education and was just not very smart or experienced in anything except sales. Not surprisingly, he didn’t do well at managing the company. Fabrizio then hired a consultant to buck him up and make a man of him. That man was the most flaming, overt chauvinist I have ever met. The story on my blog is actually pretty funny because we ran rings around him, but all that happened because Fabrizio would not trust any of us women to run the company.
So, stuff like that happened. I did notice early on that I’d go to conferences where I was essentially the booth babe, and people would be astonished that I actually knew anything…the kind of stuff that happens to most women in tech, and has been happening for a long time.
You mentioned in your pre-interview that you wish you had been better at self-marketing in the beginning, because you’ve pioneered a lot of these very early concepts, and that narrative got taken away from you.
It’s a classic, “If I’d known then what I know now.” Because, years later, I would see people like Seth Godin talking about these things that seemed very obvious to me. It was like, “Yeah I’ve been doing that for years.” For our new website we’re implementing an inbound marketing tool. Our boss said, “Everybody has to do the certification.” I was really resenting having to take the six hours to do it, and then was irritated by a lot of the content of the training. I realized that this was because almost every piece of this “inbound methodology” they describe I’ve been doing for 20 years, and it may be fair to say that I invented some of these ideas. I just didn’t know what to call it at the time. (Ironically but not surprisingly, I made 95% on the certification exam.)
I wonder now: maybe if years ago I had had a better sense of marketing myself and my skills as a business, or had a mentor to advise me, I would have done what some of these “web gurus” were doing. There are people who’ve made a lot of money being “experts” with far less hands-on experience than I had. But – oh, well.
I’m curious to know how you’ve seen tech change culturally through different tech cycles, different booms and busts.
I don’t think it really has. A lot of the same people or same kinds of people are in power as before. As I was saying earlier, I figured out a long time ago that if you get to executive level, you’re in a protected class and you’ll never have to worry again. There’s not that many people who get there, and they mostly started out pretty privileged.
I wish I could say tech culture has improved in the 30 years I’ve been working in it, but I’m not seeing it. You still get half-naked women as “entertainment” at tech conferences, and that’s just one of the overt signs of how the industry generally thinks of women. People of color are hardly visible at all. Perhaps now there is hope for improvement because at least some people are beginning to agree that diversity is needed.
What do you look for in a job now, versus when you started?
I have very rarely really looked for a job, which sounds exactly opposite of the way I mean it. I mean I have rarely had the luxury of choice. My life has been buffeted along by other people’s decisions. I ended up in Italy because I married an Italian, and I was constrained by whatever I could find to do there. It wasn’t really until I decided to leave Oracle in 2010 that I had some choices. I didn’t really evaluate choices then, though, because I decided to follow my friends and went to Joyent, where I already knew people. Had I done a real job hunt then, I don’t know how it might have gone.
The first time in my life I’ve done interviewing in any serious way was January of 2013, when I started trying to leave Joyent. It was an interesting process, but didn’t work very well for me, I think partly because my resume is just all over the place and it’s hard to define who I am and what I do. Standard titles and job descriptions never quite fit, and many hiring managers are just not interested in someone where they have to think about “How do I fit her in?”
I did ask for help on that. Steve O’Grady of RedMonk knew me a bit, especially since I had spoken at Monktoberfest the year before on Marketing Your Tech Talent. I asked him for advice and he said, “Well, it seems to me that what you’re doing is developer community management.” He and his business partner, James Governor, helped me get some interviews and were very supportive. It meant a lot to know that they thought well enough of me to want to help.
But some weird things happened during that job search, a few things that made me think, “No, I don’t think I want to work for that company after all.”
At one company I had a pleasant in-person interview where they asked me “What would you need to do in the first three months of the job to build up our community?” I said, “I need to look at this information that you have about your customers and people who are already signed up,” and so on — basically outlining how the job needed to be done.
So I left with a good feeling and was waiting for a call back. A week or two later I wrote to the person who had set up the appointment, and she said, “Well, as part of the interview process, can you do all this?” — and it was basically what I had told them would be the first three months of the job! It would have been at least three weeks of solid work just to draft a project, and it wasn’t even really possible to do without access to all their internal information. Why would I do this for no pay?
I said, “This seems like a lot to ask for as part of an interview process — this is part of the actual job.” She wrote me back and said, “Oh, well, it’s just as well you didn’t put any time into this because we found somebody else for the position.” Really? The whole thing left a very bad taste in my mouth in regards to this company.
I’ve heard from others that this idea that people should work for free as part of the interview process seems to be a growing problem. I’ve got a friend who’s a really talented UI designer and she’s had the same thing happen, it’s like people basically asking her to do work for free, and claiming it’s part of the interview process. No.
How do you feel about the state of tech in 2016? Like what really excites you? What frustrates you?
There’s always a lot that’s exciting. I love tech — I always have, that’s why I stuck so hard with it even when it would have been easier to go do something else, or at least take my technical skills to some other industry. But in tech there’s always new and exciting things happening, and I really do believe that we can solve the world’s problems by good use of technology. But I don’t think that solving the problems of the person sitting next to us at a coffee shop in San Francisco is going to help. I wish people would get out more and get more experience of the world.
I’ve heard one fairly young person speak, someone who is quite wealthy because of previous jobs he’s had (deservedly so – he’s also brilliant and kind) and can do pretty much what he likes. He gave a talk in which he seemed to be groping towards these concepts that, I realized, have always been part of my vocabulary and thought process because I grew up with my dad working in international development. I grew up thinking about how do you help people help themselves, and with the core value that we should all be trying to help others.
People who have only experienced the US and the tech industry, even when their hearts are in the right place, they just may not have the experience or the vocabulary to express what they’re trying to do.
One of the things I like about working for Ericsson is that it’s got a very different perspective from any other company that I’ve seen. At some point I may have the chance to bring together even more threads of my life, not just my working life, but the way I was raised and things that I think are important in the context of the world.
Walk me through when health became a focus in your life and how that changed everything for you.
This is the first time I’m going to put this out there plainly: Even before cancer, my health has rarely been great. If I had been born in Victorian times, I would have been called “sickly.” My dad was actually told this about himself as a child – the family doctor said to his mother, “He’ll never be healthy.” I’ve had respiratory problems and sinus infections all my life, and about five years ago I was finally diagnosed as having IgA deficiency. This is a very common inherited immune deficiency – about 1 in 500 Caucasian people have it – which means that the immune defenses of your mucous membranes are weak. Lots of people with this deficiency never even know they have it. In my case, it has meant I’ve gotten respiratory infections, sinus infections, ear infections all my life.
My dad probably had the same thing (and it probably contributed to his death), but it was not never diagnosed and, even when you know, there’s not anything you can really do about it. All I could do was say: “Okay, I just have to deal with the fact that I get sinus infections and what have you.” A lot of the time people don’t even know I’m sick. I just keep going. I may be feeling like absolute shit but I don’t want to let it dominate my life, so I just do stuff. I probably overdo sometimes [chuckles].
The IgA deficiency means that I can’t just hope that infections will go away. “Just use the neti pot” doesn’t work for me – it has to be antibiotics, sometimes over and over again. I’ve become very attuned to my body and I have a good sense of when something’s wrong.
In 2010, after the Oracle acquisition of Sun Microsystems, I really needed to leave that job and the stress was very unhealthy for me. I had a series of sinus infections that nothing was working on, and ended up having two sinus surgeries and a lot of other horrific things done to me before it was finally cleared out.
I should have taken medical leave at the first surgery, but my manager was confused about our status – the acquisition was so recent that I didn’t have six months as an Oracle employee, and she said, “You’re not eligible to take paid leave.”
I couldn’t afford to take unpaid leave, and I was afraid I would lose my job and my health insurance, so I had to power on and pretend I was okay while I was really sick and taking an antibiotic that had horrible side effects.
When it came to the second surgery in October, I was that much sicker from stress and having tried to keep working. The doctor said, “Normally I would say, ‘Take a couple weeks and you’ll be fine.’ But you are in such bad shape at this point that you need to take six weeks off.” By then I had been an Oracle employee for 8 months, so I was definitely eligible for partially paid leave. I ended up taking five weeks.
After that surgery, the sinus situation was under control for a while, and now recurring sinus infections are just something I live with. But in the spring of 2014, when I was looking for a new job and the situation I was stuck in was (again) extremely stressful, I could feel that it was starting to hurt my body. I remember feeling one day like my body was burning, and thinking: “I’m going to get really sick if I don’t get out of this.”
I finally got to where I was waiting for the new job to come through and I was doing this juggling act of “Well, If I resign now, then I have to pay for COBRA, how much is COBRA going to cost?” Previously, when I had been in that situation, COBRA was going to be $800 a month. “How long can I afford that?” I finally managed to work it so that I resigned, I then had the remainder of a month of coverage and was okay until the new job began. I knew that as long as I kept hanging on at the old job, it was taking its toll on me physically.
I’ve done a little bit of research since then. As far as I can tell, there’s no evidence that stress quote-unquote “causes cancer.” There may be some evidence that being under stress can cause tumors to grow more quickly. You have to wonder, because I had a clean mammogram in April of 2014, and by the end of October I had a two and a half centimeter tumor in my breast. Something happened there. I’d been working for Ericsson since June. I had the stress of going into a new job and new situation, you’re the new kid on the block and so forth. That’s a good kind of stress, relatively, and I was happy. Maybe it was the earlier bad stress that caused it. There’s no genetic factor and little history of cancer in my family, so… just bad luck?
I had started to travel a lot (which I love doing) for Ericsson. I had been to Sweden three times, then I went to Paris for the OpenStack Summit in early November and I had just had the biopsy October 31st. I was thinking, I’m doing this conference. I’m seeing a lot of people I know. I’m attending sessions, working the booth, talking to people. And all the time I’ve got these biopsy wounds that are hurting and reminding me that I’ve got something I should maybe be worried about. It was very weird, you know? Here we are in Paris and it’s so beautiful and I’m having a good time with my colleagues. An old friend came to visit me, so I had some support – I told her what was going on. Then she had to leave the night before I did. So that final night I’m in the hotel room alone, looking out over the lights of Paris, and I finally get hold of the doctor who got the biopsy results. She goes, “Yeah, you have a little tumor,” [chuckles]. “But don’t worry. It’s small. We’ll take care of it. Here’s the name of the surgeon.”
Of course, you’re in shock when you hear something like that. I was meeting some colleagues for dinner and they were late. I’m standing outside the restaurant talking to this surgeon in California, making an appointment to get the initial pre-surgery stuff done, and it was just weird. They were still running late so I’m sitting in this restaurant. I started– “Give me something to drink, right now.” So finally these three colleagues turned up. Two of them are people I work closely with and knew well and the other one was someone completely new to me and I was like, “Hey, I have cancer!” [chuckles]. They were great about it. It was just very strange.
I had scheduled my trip such that I was going back through London to visit my stepmother. I took the train from Paris to London, spent the weekend with her, then I came back to California and just started dealing with having cancer. I’ve written a lot about it on my blog. The synopsis is: it’s no fun.
I’d had one or two scares before. My doctors made me start mammograms at age 35 because I have very dense breast tissue. I didn’t understand this at the time, partly because I didn’t get the nuances of what the Italian doctor said to me, but now I know that having really dense breast tissue makes you more likely to get cancer. So, with all those mammograms, of course a couple of times they had said, “Oh, there’s something here we don’t like, we need to do more tests.” So I’d been through scares before, and I’d always thought, “Anything but chemo. I don’t want to do chemo.”
I had the surgery [a lumpectomy] on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. I chose to have it then because I didn’t have plans for Thanksgiving – I could use that time to recover.
They took out the tumor and a couple of lymph nodes, and there was no evidence of any spread. Which was the best possible news considering how big the tumor was. Then they sent the tumor off for genetic analysis and that took a few weeks. By the time the analysis finally came through, we were on vacation in Australia (I had started arranging that at the end of October, before all of this stuff started happening). When we arrived in Sydney, I was still waiting to hear the results of this test. So while driving out of Sydney airport I called the doctor, and the doctor’s assistant said, “Oh, I have the results, was about to fax them over to the oncologist and yeah, you need chemo.”
So, we had the month in Australia, and we figured we should have as much fun as possible because the next year was going to be hell. We went to Uluru (Ayers Rock), the big monolith in the middle of Australia. That was just amazing and magical. Went snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef, and things like that. Had a really good time.
Then came back in mid-January and had to have a port put into my chest because, of the three chemo drugs they were giving me, one of them, if it gets on your skin, it burns you, so they have to administer the drug directly into a vein. The port sits under your skin and there’s a little catheter that runs into one of the big veins that goes from the heart. So that was another piece of surgery.
So, I went through all of that. I’ve written a blog post for the Ericsson Careers blog about this because the company was really good about it. I later learned that, in a way, they don’t have a choice. I think it’s part of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Companies that have federal contracts have to have a certain percentage of– their employees have to be people with disabilities. Just about the time I was starting to think, “Okay. I’m going to need to actually take a leave because I’m just feeling too horrible,” by coincidence, this email came around from Ericsson HR saying, “Voluntarily, please fill in this form about disabilities.”
I found an article in The Wall Street Journal from the year before saying Americans are suspicious about filling out forms like this, and it’s true – because you always fear that information about a disability or health condition might be used against you. We’ve all heard horror stories about companies finding excuses to get rid of people who have health problems and so on. This article said, “Here’s why that form exists and here’s why it’s a good thing to fill it out.” Then I actually went and looked at the form, and was amused that the very first thing listed [as a disability] was cancer. I was like, “Oh, okay, I’m officially disabled. They can’t fire me!”
So, it was partly that they couldn’t. But also, just the way everybody [at Ericsson] was being about it, I didn’t think they would’ve anyway. It’s a different kind of company with a different kind of attitude. While I was under treatment all the stories were coming out about [a certain big company] and how awful it was to work there. There was one story from a woman who’s like, “I got pregnant, I got cancer, I got fired.”
It took me a while to reach the point that I felt enough trust in the company that I thought they were going to do the right thing, and, when I did, it was a huge relief. I was definitely not at that point right away, because I’d only been with the company for a few months when I got the diagnosis. Jason [Hoffman] had gotten me hired, but he was only one person, no matter how well positioned. So, it was just a huge relief and, as other people have said since, it says a lot about the company that they did the right thing.
I was in chemo from the end of January until mid-June, and I only officially went on leave about a week before chemo ended, then I took off only five weeks. Because that was all I wanted to take off.
People [at work] were being very accommodating, letting me stay involved — I wanted to because I would have been incredibly depressed, bored, and lonely if I had just been sitting here at home with nothing to do. Feeling engaged and useful was so important to my mental health.
After chemo I had a month break from treatment, then radiation every weekday for six weeks. I was scared about radiation, too, because reactions are extremely unpredictable. They told me that I would probably have a worse time because I’m fair-skinned and I’d just done chemo – I could end up having blistering wounds, and this does happen, but fortunately, none of it happened to me. It was mostly just the hassle of having to drive there every day while I was still tired from the chemo.
I was just about finished with that in late August, when Ericsson was participating in a big way in the IDF conference in San Francisco. All of my teammates were coming in from all over the world for it, and I went to San Francisco for that. That was my reemergence into tech society. I had actually just completed a project to amp up some of the web content around our cloud, in record time for Ericsson — while recovering from chemo while everybody else was on vacation! I had hired as a contractor an old friend from Sun to help out with this. That went so well, that’s part of the reason that we were able to do this big web project that we just launched last week [Feb 22nd]. Not only did Ericsson not fire me — they gave me more responsibilities, and that just keeps growing.
When I was in Stockholm this January, we had a big meeting with the extended team of about 30 people and my boss showed a slide about “how are we going to organize around this big project.” And at the top was a box that said “Leadership,” and mine was one of four names in it. I almost cried, because it’s taken so damn long to be there.
So that’s where we are. Trying to keep everything together and do all these big new things and hire people. I’m just drafting a series of tweets about interns I need to hire.
How has that whole experience affected what you look for in a job or in your work?
Ericsson is very different from any other company that I’ve worked for. They really invest in employees, seem to expect that you are going to be with the company for the rest of your life – the company is about the people, which is really amazing. You can do all different kinds of roles and you could possibly live in different countries. Once people get in there they tend not to want to leave. There’s a good chance I will be with Ericsson for the rest of my career. I won’t always be doing [exactly what I’m doing now]. They’ve given me opportunities and responsibilities that I’m not sure I would have gotten anywhere else.
That’s really amazing and ties in really well to the next thing I want to talk to you about because so many folks in tech feel that their career is in danger after they hit approximately 35. Ageism is strong in tech right now. I’m curious from your perspective, in what ways has that affected you or people you know.
I became aware of ageism in tech in my first tech job. We were hiring. We brought in this guy who was maybe fifty, fifty-five, who mentioned that it was hard to get tech jobs because he was older. And I remember, even at my own young age, thinking, “That seems really stupid. He’s got experience, why wouldn’t we want him?”
So, ageism in tech goes back quite a ways, which is interesting and sad. All the evidence is that it’s a very real thing. I don’t know, in my own job search in 2014, how much my age was a factor. Probably it was. I only actually face-to-face interviewed with three or four companies. The one where I mostly had that impression was [big famous company]. I just had a general feeling when I walked on the campus, it felt like a slightly over-age college campus, a bunch of 30 year olds. They don’t really seem to have a place for somebody who’s 50 (unless, of course, you’re an executive). I’ve talked with friends in their 40s and 50s who have also felt that way when interviewing at some companies, especially startups. They may not blatantly say that you’re unwelcome, but the whole atmosphere can feel like there’s no place for you.
So ageism is definitely there and one way especially you see it come out is if you deal with social media. People just assume that “digital natives” are the only people who can do social media. No, actually experience helps there, too. If you didn’t keep hiring 20 year old interns to do your social media, you wouldn’t have these social media disasters that we always hear about in the press!
We’ve been interviewing people lately for our team at Ericsson, and I’ve actually been really pleased that our recruiter has brought in people who have not been afraid to say on their resume “20 years of experience.” It’s like—“Yes, experience! I like experience. This is good.” I’m happy to bring on young people and work with them and train them, but it’s also nice to have people I don’t have to train.
Yeah. It never occurred to me until this moment that someone would be afraid to put 20 years of experience on a resume here.
The received wisdom when you’re doing a resume is, “Don’t put your experience too far back, because that dates you. Don’t say what year you got your college degree, because if it’s pre-2000, you’re too old.” People are trying to find ways to fudge how old they actually are. I gave up trying to hide my age a while ago, because it’s pretty clear. I had things on my website about turning 50, so anybody who does a minimum of research is going to figure that one out.
I did draw the line at getting bifocals. My optometrist said, “You would be much better off for seeing and reading if you got bifocals.” I’m like, “I’m in tech. I cannot be walking around with bifocals.” Or gray hair.
I’m also curious about forms of sexism that you mentioned you’ve experienced in the workplace.
I’ve got that geeky oblivious thing, there’s probably been a lot of stuff over the years that I just haven’t noticed, or haven’t picked up on.
There have been times that I’ve worn makeup and skirts and heels. Lately I’ve had to give up makeup, partly because I have such bad seasonal allergies that my eyes get irritated really easily, plus one of the fun side effects of chemo is it makes your eyes really sensitive. Even now, every time I go outside my eyes start watering. There is just no makeup that’s going to survive that. But people don’t know that, and no doubt there are some who think that I’m making some sort of statement by refusing to wear makeup.
Clothing is always a huge problem. As Deborah Tannen says, there is no “unmarked” look for women. It’s very hard to know how to dress for work. For a while I was wearing low-cut tops and showing cleavage, until I realized that it was just distracting for people. I think it’s just biological. It’s like, if there’s breasts out there, we all look at them (women, too). Maybe it’s a survival thing: as babies, we had to be focused on the breast.
I was having a conversation once with a colleague. We’re having a perfectly sane, rational conversation and right in the middle of it, he stops and he’s doing this [staring at my chest]. I’m like, “Okay, I just can’t do this to these guys. It’s not fair [chuckles].” Since then I’m not exposing so much. [laughter]
Let’s go into another kind of form of isolation that we talked about earlier in your interview, about not being technical.
Being technical? As in, having a technical degree?
Yep, and the importance given to that and how it has affected your career.
My college degree was in Asian Studies and Languages partly because, back in the 80s when Reagan was cutting education funding, the US government paid me to study “exotic” languages, in hopes that I would go work for the CIA (I didn’t).
The things I do now for my job didn’t even exist when I was in college, so I could not have studied them. But many of the skills I use now I learned in the jobs I did then to earn pocket money. I was always interested in technology and I’m a fast learner. I have been a writer since childhood, and that helps in any job.
I took one programming course, my freshman year, but it went very badly. I’m now not sure if that was because I sucked at it, or the course or the professor just weren’t that good. I never considered any further technical courses. No one ever suggested it to me, either.
I never learned to code (unless you count HTML), but I am good at figuring out and using and explaining technology. Whether for jobs or for myself, I am constantly learning. In 2001, I paid for lynda dot com to learn how to use Dreamweaver, the best website production software available at the time. I started my own website to have a place to put my writing, but I also used it to learn about how to build a site, how to analyze and improve web traffic, etc.
There are lots of people out there who code without having computer science degrees. Should we really emphasize the CS degree that much? Yeah, there’s a lot basic engineering that you can learn in a CS degree, but it’s also a field that changes rapidly. Ironically, I have known engineers who insist on the value of a CS degree, while despising people who are academic computer scientists: “They don’t have real world experience.”
CS degrees are valuable, but they’re not the only things that are valuable. I particularly find it distressing that companies looking to hire new grads keep talking to the same universities. This tends to reinforce biases: the majority of people who are coming out of most CS programs at the moment are white men. So we just keep that cycle going where somebody who’s graduated from Brown says: ” I really want to talk to candidates from Brown,” and he hires candidates from Brown, and they’re going to be more white men. And so it goes on.
So I think it would help diversity if we thought harder about diversity of qualifications. A lot of companies are putting money into building the STEM pipeline. “Let’s get girls into STEM careers starting from middle school, and let’s help fund women to do CS degrees at university level.” That’s nice (and great PR), but it’s something a company will never be able to measure. There is almost never going to be somebody that you can say, “We paid for this program at some middle school, and this person ended up working for us.”
The emphasis on building the pipeline also takes away attention from the very real problems for the people who are already in the job market and in the jobs. What’s making it hard to retain them? We as minorities and disadvantaged people keep telling companies [what’s wrong] – or we try to. And yet the problems keep happening.
How did all this affect your personal life?
It’s hard to talk about this without getting into stuff that is too personal and potentially hurtful for others for me to be very specific right now. So I’ll try to distill it down.
It’s very, very hard to be a two-career couple, especially when you have kids. It’s rare that you can both be doing exactly what you want, where you want, when you want, and still maintain a life together. There have to be compromises. For most heterosexual couples, given the cultural assumptions about family roles and work, it’s the woman who does the compromising. I do know a few couples where the woman’s career has taken precedence, and the man’s career takes a backseat or he even becomes a stay-at-home father. It works fine for them, but we notice it precisely because it’s rare.
Even with couples who say they believe in sharing housework and childcare equally, women end up doing the lion’s share of it – we know this from research as well as personal experience. All the assumptions and habits we all grew up with are stacked against us. Maybe women just care more about having clean houses.
The only solution I ever found to arguments and resentments over housework was to pay someone else to do it! I came to that conclusion 20 years ago when I was working as a consultant and my hourly rate was far higher than the hourly cost of paying someone to clean my home – it made no economic sense for me spend those hours cleaning.
The best piece of wisdom I could give anyone about any relationship is: be with someone who values the same things in you that you value in yourself.
If your career is important to you, you need to be with someone who values that, who respects your right and need to do something in the world and supports you in that. Again, this usually requires compromise. And historically it’s been very hard for a woman to find a man who would even temporarily bend his own career trajectory to suit hers.
Many men (and women) of my generation grew up with stay-at-home moms, or moms whose careers were secondary to their husbands’. I grew up with feminism and being told that women’s needs and careers were equally important, but I didn’t see this demonstrated in my daily life. So for a long time I accepted that my husband’s career was more important than mine. When I began to really want to pursue my career, that caused tremendous friction in our relationship.
It eventually came to the point that no further compromise was possible: his job was in Italy, but I could no longer find work there commensurate with my experience, skills, and interests (nor can most Italians!). I accepted a job back in the US in 2008, and we finally broke up 18 months later.
I have some hope that there is a generational change going on. Many younger men and women have now grown up with mothers (increasingly, single mothers) who have important jobs. They understand instinctively that, yes, Mom works, and her career matters at least as much as Dad’s does. There’s still a lot of cultural pressure about how a woman is supposed to put her relationships and family first, but maybe younger men will be more supportive of their women’s careers. Maybe!
My last question for you if you have the time would be, what is some of the advice that you could share to folks, a woman just starting out. What do you wish you’d known in the beginning in your career?
There’s a bunch of standard advice people give that is absolutely true, for example: learning to negotiate for yourself is vitally important. My failures to negotiate salary earlier in life have scary consequences for my future retirement funds.
You need a sponsor as well as mentors. As a wise person has said: “Mentors help you skill up, whereas sponsors help you move up.” I haven’t had mentors, but I have had sponsors at two critical points in my career who have been almost literally lifesavers.
“Networking” sounds like a cynical term, but there’s nothing wrong with knowing a lot of people and using those connections – as long as you also pay it back, pay it forward, and help others wherever you can. We do need to help each other. Most people deserve it and it’s a good thing to do, but especially we need to help each other as women and as other under-represented people. Because it’s so hard for us to get into tech and stay without that support and help.
Anything you say ends up sounding sort of cliché, but believing in yourself and standing up for yourself… those are important, too. If I could go back, I would probably be less inclined to let some things go that I let go before, such as other people taking credit for my work. Of course, there were times when I stood up for myself and it did absolutely no good!
But, if you don’t try, you’ll definitely get nowhere.