Why don’t we start from the beginning? Tell me a bit about your early years and where you come from.
I was born in Redding, California. My parents lived in Hayfork, which is a small town about an hour and a half outside of Redding. My dad is a Seventh Day Adventist minister and my mother is an RN. So I grew up in a very kind of traditional, middle-class, American home. I grew up mostly in Northern California. My dad moved around a bit because of working for the church. I lived in Redding, lived in the Napa area for a while, moved back to Redding. I did junior high, high school there in Redding. I don’t know, I guess during that time I had no clue where my life was headed. I was obviously dealing with a lot of gender stuff, even at a young age. But growing up in a pastor’s home, you’re not really able or ready to deal with that. So things didn’t really connect with me on the identity front or even the career front until much later in my life. I homeschooled for a while when I was a kid. Mostly because I did really well in English and reading and those type of things, but not so good in math or the sciences, so I was constantly fighting this battle over either being really behind everyone in terms of math in school, or being really ahead of everyone in terms of reading. We would have lesson plans and I would finish and then just be sitting there bored for 25 minutes. In fourth and fifth grade that’s not a really fun place to be. So I homeschooled third, fourth, fifth and sixth grades. Went back in seventh grade.
What was it like coming back in the middle of middle school?
It was really different. Going from homeschooling we had these booklets. So you would work through the booklets and then basically for a school year you had to finish 12 of them. You could do them at your own pace, so I would actually do most of them really early, I would work really hard and finish my entire year of school in less than a year of actual school. Which was great, because as a kid it gave me much more time to read and study the things I wanted to study, and tinker with computers. Growing up I had a Commadore 64 that I liked to screw around on. It gave me the opportunity to have a lot more free time to play with things, which was kind of fun.
So you were tinkering with computers. What were the early inclinations that you may be interested in tech?
It’s one of those things that I can look back now and identify stuff, but at the time I had no clue. Hindsight is 20/20, you know? I remember in junior high once I did go back to school—- it was when the TI graphing calculators were really big, and it’s amazing because they haven’t changed at all, even now, but the TI-83 and the TI-85 I think, or whatever they were— I used to take some of those with my friends and we wrote choose-your-own adventure RPG games in the style of those books, where there would be story things that were happening and you would choose where to go. It’s essentially like what twine games are now, especially in the queer women’s community. There’s a lot of twine gaming stuff. But we were doing that on a graphing calculator and passing it back and forth in class to play each other’s little games. That’s probably one of the most crystallized moments.
I played a lot of video games and computer games. Being somewhat gender-weird and feeling like an outsider, spending a lot of time at home on the computer, and lived on message boards and in online chatrooms and in game lobbies, playing games with weird people from all over. I guess technology always kind of was a connection to other people. It was definitely me reaching out trying to connect with people like me, other weirdos. It was a way of connecting that was really easy for me. Tech allowed you to be whoever you wanted to be, which was kind of cool. I think those are some of the earliest times when I noticed that I was somewhat good. I built a Windows 95 machine by myself and would take apart computers and rebuild them. I don’t do anything with hardware now, but looking back I can see the little kernels of getting interested in some of this stuff.
So, take me from getting a Master’s in Fine Arts and Theatre, and then eventually becoming a self-taught coder. Walk me through college, and that kind of wild transition.
So I went to college after high school. In high school I played in a lot of bands and was really interested in extracurricular stuff, and didn’t really have an academic focus. I learned that I kind of liked English a little bit more than I thought I did. But the big thing that I loved was theatre. I got to college, and first quarter I decided to audition for the play that the school was doing, and ended up getting myself cast in a devised ensemble theatre piece that we created ourselves, rehearsing 20 hours a week on top of our freshman load of classes. So I really fell into the theatre.
I changed my major 13 times in college. The first time was before I even got on campus, because when I registered switched my major and my minor, and so I had to change my major before I even started classes. Then I largely changed every quarter. Sometimes it was like minor changes, like I changed my minor out, I started off as a History major with a Religion minor. I dropped the Religion minor and then I added a Photography minor, then switched and did a Photography major and a History minor. Dropped the History minor, added a Graphic Design minor [chuckles]. It was just incremental weird changes. But again the kind of consistent thing in my life was theater. I was in theater rehearsals pretty much every quarter of my college experience.
By my Junior year, I was TA-ing for the Intro to Theater class. Freshmen when they would come in or— we made people who were trying to get teaching certificates take the class. For the education students, it’s a class which helps you get comfortable being up in front of people. I was the TA for that class for two years as an undergraduate, as a Junior and Senior. I kind of realized that I really enjoyed the classroom, I really enjoyed I had that realization that ultimately I liked learning. It didn’t really matter what major I was. I just enjoyed being in class. It kind of became clear that I needed to go to grad school. I very quickly settled on an English degree with an emphasis in Theater. I declared that my Junior year, winter quarter, and I graduated at the end of a regular four-year college program, which is kind of absurd [chuckles].
I was in an honors program which allowed me to get rid of most of my general ed and just take one honors course a quarter. It was Greatbooks focused. Some of them were more scientific, some of them were more literature-focused. We had one called Pattern which became relevant later on. We read Godel, Escher, Bach and we read Flatland and we talked a lot about things that would become more important as I became a software engineer. Just in terms of pattern recognition, how you build things and build systems that talk to each other. It’s funny because because that was actually the class that I hated the most out of my entire honors course. It just didn’t seem as relevant to me. It’s funny that that’s the one that now is probably the most relevant to my work.
I Graduated in 2010 and had, in January of 2010, applied for a master’s program in theater education. One of the three programs in the nation that really focus on this,and it was in Richmond, Virginia so I moved cross-country. I’d only ever lived in California. Moved to Richmond, Virginia and did two years of graduate course work there. That’s also when I started to come out and transition. It was kind of during that time, and then graduated from there in 2012. So I went straight from undergrad into graduate work. Graduated with a master’s degree at 22, 23.
After grad school, I moved back home with my parents and promptly couldn’t get a job doing anything, anywhere for any money. I had applied for teaching positions all over the nation. I had applied for adjunct for full teaching positions. I came pretty close to one position teaching theatre, actually at my undergrad, which was a conservative, private, Christian college. It was right before, and during as I was dealing with gender issues. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t get that job, looking back on it. So I moved home with my parents, and got a minimum wage job in San Francisco, doing customer service. I guess it was a little bit more than minimum wage. San Francisco minimum wage is $12, and I was making $14. I worked for a company called The Civic Center Benefit District, literally cleaning the streets, interacting with the homeless population in San Francisco, helping visitors to the Civic Center District find their way to the symphony, the opera house, picking up syringes on the ground.
It was not fulfilling work. It was not work I felt good about doing. What the company would say, and what the company would make us do were two very different things. They said that our job was just to advise homeless people about city ordinances. Then they wanted us to actually enforce and get people to move on and not camp in front of businesses that were paying the Benefit District money. So I really struggled with it from a moral sense, but I needed the money and I was getting to the point where I didn’t want to live with my parents any more. I had started transition. I needed to start my own life.
A friend of mine who is a Software Engineer for Intel and the Yocto project. She came down and visited San Francisco, and we went out for drinks one night. She was like, “You should teach yourself how to program. I think you’d be really good at it.” I was like, [chuckles] “Are you kidding?” I didn’t deliberately take a math class in college. I have not taken a math class since high school. My junior year of high school, and I intentionally planned it out that way. I took the honors programs that I didn’t have to take any math. She was like, “You don’t need to know math to be a good software engineer. That’s a lie.”
So she planted this seed gave me some stupid trivia question. The question was essentially like, “There’s a wall and there are two light switches on one side and three lightbulbs on the other. You start on the side with the light switches and you can only go to the other side once. You have to figure out which light switch goes to which bulb.” The solution to me was very apparent. You turn one light switch on for a little while and then you turn that one off. You turn the other one on, and you go to the other side, and you check which one is cold. There are two off; one of them is warm, one of them is cold, and then one of them is on. It tells you which one’s which. I came up with that answer in about five minutes. She looked at me and she was like, “You need to go home and start learning how to program right now.”
After the hackathon, they didn’t really want to keep going. And this was a project that I cared a lot about, and I wanted to use it to keep learning. I felt like I had gone to a point where I knew a lot of building blocks, but I didn’t know how to build a house yet. I knew how to hammer some nails and do some screws into a few boards, but I didn’t know how to actually build a table. I had gotten frustrated, but finally I had this idea. I had this thing that I could actually build. So many people, when I started to teach myself, they were like, “Oh well, just build something.” I didn’t even know where start to build something. But finally I had an idea, and so I kind of started and had some terrible best practices in the original version of it, but worked on it for a couple months and took it to another hack-a-thon and got some people to help. In February, we launched the first iteration of it, RefugeRestrooms. During the month of February we got 35,000 unique site visits. And we were featured in AutoStraddle, Bustle, HuffPost Gay Voices, Advocate.
Mind you, at the same time I was working full time at this minimum wage job. I was pushing code in the morning before work. I usually worked a 2:00 to 11:00 PM shift. I was pushing code during my lunch breaks. I was pushing code after, on the way home on BART. I was coding until 1:00 AM, making bug fixes, because people are complaining about stuff, and then going back to work the next day. I was working eight hours at my job but then a full total of like 14 or more hours a day actually on this. My job really wasn’t well supervised, so I snuck into the library with my computer and pushing code while I was getting paid to clean the streets of San Francisco. I was working really hard. It was really exhausting. I was responding to press inquiries on my way walking to work. It was absurd.
I got to the point where something had to give. To get to the next level in my software engineering I needed to get paid to write code. I needed to spend all day writing code instead of spending all day trying to do other work. I started applying for jobs and applying for internships and entry-level positions and didn’t make a whole lot of inroads. Almost had a job with a non-profit, but they decided to go with someone who had more experience. I actually posted on Twitter. I was like, “Hey, I need a job. I work hard. I’m a self-starter. I completely taught myself. I launched this project from scratch. Someone take a chance on me.” I got a bunch of responses. Some of them started to go somewhere, some of them didn’t. but got a response from someone who worked for a small startup about 16 people—YC funded. They had just raised series B. They usually worked with interns from a school, and they were getting ready to have a new intern term, but they were open to hiring an intern not from a school—and asked if I would be interested in that. I said yes. I did a take-home problem for them. Came in, did an interview with them—an in-person interview for half a day. A week later they gave me an offer, and the offer was over twice what my salary was at my old job [chuckles]. I tried not to say yes too fast [chuckles]. Gave a week’s notice at my old company and very quickly moved into tech. My last day of work working at my old company was Sunday, and I started at the new company on Monday.
Found myself doing this six-month internship at a company that has actually ended up doing quite well. I work for a company called FutureAdvisor. We were acquired in October of this last year by BlackRock—the largest financial asset manager in the world. After being an intern for six months, I got promoted to full time very quickly as teams grow and change. I am now the most tenured member of the front end team. There’s only four other engineers who have been at the company longer than me—which is a cool feeling [chuckles]. Yeah.
Tell me what you were expecting to get out of tech—you were hoping to get out of tech, and then tell me how it’s changed your life?
The biggest thing I was hoping for was a little bit of stability. When you’re working minimum wage, trying to live in the Bay area is really hard. Stuff has gotten even more ridiculous over the past couple of years, but even three years ago, it was still pretty ridiculous. I had an amazing deal for housing. I had a two-bedroom apartment in Berkeley that I was sharing with someone, and it was 1,300 dollars for the entire apartment, for the two-bedroom. I was paying 650 plus utilities, so my rent was 700-something. My take-home from my minimum wage job was 1,600 dollars a month. Almost half of my paycheck was going to rent. Then commute bart into the city, that’s about 250 bucks a month. Food is another 250 bucks a month, if you’re living really bare-bones, which meant I had 200 dollars a month of squeeze room. That’s exhausting. That gets exhausting to live that way.
Being trans, and having trans health care needs that are more expensive that a lot of insurance still don’t cover. It’s gotten better, but you just have a lot more extra expenses. So, I was really struggling, and so I was hoping for some amount of stability, being able to start to craft a life for myself. During this whole process, I ended up having a lot of housing instability. My roommate was going to leave the lease, and I could take over and get my own roommate to come in, which I was really excited about. And then, five weeks before the lease was up, he was like, “So, I decided to stay, so I’m showing somebody else your room today.” And I went, “Oh, okay. Well, I guess I’m looking for someplace else?” I’d been subletting the room from him essentially, he was the main lease holder. I subleased a small basement room in Bernal Heights for a few months. I lived in a warehouse in San Francisco for a little bit. I moved three times within the space of 1.5 months, which was really brutal and exhausting.
So, I’ve finally kind of gotten to a little bit of a more secure spot. I make a lot more money each month now. And working for a company that got acquired, I had suddenly extra money that I had to figure out what to do with. Two years ago, I didn’t have any money saved for retirement. I have $80,000 in student debt, so it’s really I’m just really swamped. I’ve started to make progress on my student loans. I had student loans at Sally Mae and student loans at the government. I’ve now completely paid off the Sally Mae loans, so I just have the government loans now. I actually, with my acquisition money, because I had already hit my one year cliff when we got acquired. I used that money as a down payment on a house. So, I’m a homeowner in the Bay Area now. And as long as I make my payments, I have housing stability for the rest of my life. I’m still getting extra stock payouts every month, and there are bonus pools built into our acquisition deal and stuff. And if those things work out in my favor, I could have the house paid off by the time I’m in my mid 30s, which is absurd. There’s no way I could have even conceived that.
I was working minimum wage, did not have good health care. My deductible was 1,500 dollars. Surgery was a pipe dream. Being able to get bottom surgery. Suddenly working for a company that has really good health care, because it’s in tech, and they care about employees. My deductible is 200 dollars. My max out of pocket is 2,500 dollars. I got surgery for 2,500 dollars, which is absurd. It’s absurd. To go from, that wouldn’t have ever been a possibility for me, to suddenly, it was within my grasp. It was one of those things in my wildest dreams, I hoped could come from taking a career change in tech, but you have no clue. You have no clue what’s going to happen. Being someone who’s trans, being a trans woman, there’s a lot of prejudice, so you never know if you’re going to even be able to get a job in tech. You hear that things are somewhat better in tech. You never know, right? And I do think I kind of lucked out that my company really makes an effort for diversity. When I started there were five engineers and counting myself, three of us were women. I guess six counting myself so half of the team was women. That’s absurd, like that is absurd in startups. So, I kind of lucked out and I think finding the right spot I could kind of thrive in, it’s not been without it’s difficulties. As the team has grown and changed and brought on more people and new managers come in and whatever but…yeah.
This is such a good story. I’m so happy for you.
It’s been really incredible.
I want to know more about your experience as being trans in tech. I also want to know what it’s like being someone with anxiety and depression in tech. I’ve talked to several trans folks in this project and I’ve also talked to a lot of folks with anxiety and depression. I want to know more about both of those for you.
Sure I guess I’ll talk about the anxiety first.
That is something on a day to day basis that does affect me. For awhile, I was pursuing getting actual medication for it. Let’s see. I’m trying to figure out the best way to get into this discussion. Maybe the best way is to, again, talk about the difference from working at my minimum wage job before to now.
When I was working a minimum wage job and I had a really bad mental health day, I still had to try to go to work. I still had to wake up, force myself to get out the door, because I literally could not afford to take a day off. You only have so much vacation hours, you only have so much sick hours. So, you literally can’t afford to take time off. You’re also in a situation where because of money situations, your anxiety is increased. So, it’s a tightrope walk. Right.
Getting a job in tech alleviates those money concerns. Like, my team has a “unlimited paid time off” policy. We also have sick days that our policy is, if you are not feeling well, don’t come into the office. I haven’t explicitly talked about mental health stuff with many of my coworkers, but the culture of my company is where somebody just sends an email and says, “Hey, I’m not feeling well. I’m going to work from home today,” or, “I’m going to go home,” they’re not met with a lot of questioning of that. In many regards, it’s a much healthier place.
On the other hand, though, the stakes of my job are a lot higher now. Before, I was getting paid to pick up syringes off the ground. Whether or not I picked them up today or tomorrow, there are going to be more syringes tomorrow. There’s going to be more trash tomorrow. It’s a never-ending process. If someone wasn’t there to tell a homeless person to move down the street, I actually felt better about my day. Versus, I work for a company that, we have millions of dollars under management. We now are working with BlackRock— are working on major, major business deals. Our first business to business deal was announced a couple months ago. So we’re now partnering with other large banks to provide our service to their customers. That’s incredible, right? We have millions and millions of dollars under management. The stakes are all higher.
Granted I work on the framing mostly and I’m not dealing with the back-end algorithm that could really mess up someone’s financial future for the rest of their retirement. So the stakes are a little bit lower for me. But tech is a very fast-paced world. It’s go, go, go, go, go, go, go, which I think can be really hard as someone who struggled with anxiety and depression. I don’t know, I guess it’s been a mixed bag for me in terms of that. It’s been really rewarding to work on a team where I’m respected and where my opinion is valued and where I’m seen as someone who knows what I’m talking about. From a depression sense, it’s good to work at a place where I feel like my work is important and valued. We’re not working on Uber for ice cream cones. We’re working on something that, I think, is making the world a better place. We’re making retirement more accessible to people who couldn’t get there without us. That’s been something that’s helped my depression. Definitely.
Being able to create stability for myself has helped immensely. Being able to buy a home, being able to get surgery— those are the things that qualitatively improve my mental health, vastly. Since I bought my house—granted it’s only been a couple months—I bought my house in November, but my level of anxiety and depression shot down immediately. I’ve been a medical marijuana patient for a year and a half or two and used that to treat a lot of my anxiety. I was on Lexapro for a while, but realized that when I tend to have anxiety attacks, I tend to forget to take my medication. Which, taking an SSRI every day, you have to remember to take your medication. And so the way that that was treating the way that my anxiety manifest wasn’t really actually very helpful. But the amount in which I’ve had to medicate My anxiety and depression has dropped enormously, especially recently, which is great.
I think in general, people who work in tech, people who are engineers, are weird people. We are the people that are on the autism spectrum, we’re the people that struggle with anxiety and depression. So I feel like when I go to work, I’m working with people who, on some level, even if you don’t talk about it, they get it. They get when you’re having a hard time, they get whatever. Which is very different than I feel like working in some other sectors, because again, the people who developed good computer skills and learned how to talk and work with machines, are the people who didn’t have good people skills growing up [chuckles]. So they were the weirdos, with anxiety and depression, who didn’t want to go out and socialize and hang out at parties. They’re the people who just go home, and cuddle on the couch and watch TV every night. So I feel like tech has been a good place for me as someone who struggles with anxiety and depression.
Again, I think my viewpoint is probably a little bit skewed because I work for a company that I think is really positive. I also didn’t have to do a transition at work. All of my documentation and stuff were changed before I got into tech. I just came in with all of my documentation saying Teagan, with everything saying Teagan. I didn’t have to try to transition on a job place and come out to people. I just started work. I don’t keep it a secret from people. It’s pretty hard to because— I don’t know, I wrote this web application that indexes and maps neutral restroom locations and if you Google my name it’s the first thing that comes up. This advocate article with me. Whatever disillusioned hope I ever had of being stealth or whatever is not something that’s a reality for me. And I wouldn’t want to be anyway. It’s not something I bring up with people a lot, unless I become friends with them through the workplace, but I don’t try to hide it. If it comes up in casual conversation, like I sometimes just say, ‘Oh, you know, because I’m trans, like blah, blah, blah this thing that I deal with’ or whatever.
I will say the acquisition process was a lot more stressful because of being trans and specifically because of healthcare. We had a really good health clinic and healthcare plan and policy for trans healthcare. I had already scheduled my surgery. Everything had been approved. Everything was in place, and then three months before surgery we get acquired. So suddenly, all of that is up in the air. When I’m having conversations then with my superiors about how I’m feeling about the acquisition, I have to be blatant and upfront about, ‘Look, these are all of the things.’ Where other people are just being concerned about money or about if they’re still going to have their job or whatever, there’s all of these extra levels of concerns that I had. Going from working a small San Francisco startup to a huge mulitnational corporation— it’s very different. In terms of how trans people are treated, you never know how that change is going to happen. So it made the process leading up to surgery be really stressful. I was not productive, and it was just from a very logistical standpoint of that all of our benefits suddenly changed. And so there was disability stuff to figure out, and there was leave stuff to figure out that then all had to be redone, and rechanged, and refiled, and you’re working on the clock. Right, because our benefits changed over January 1st, and my surgery was January 19. So that was an exhausting kind of moment. In general though, I think it’s been really good.
There’s another kind of genderqueer person who works at my company. There are two other gay men— so our engineering team is probably about 21 or 22 right now, 22, 23. Four of us are LGBT, so again I think it’s a little bit of an abnormal sample, not representative of tech everywhere. But it’s pretty cool, right, to be able to go to work and be seen by your co-workers. You know, there were other people at my company. So working in a really nice diverse workplace, I think has made it fairly easy to be trans in the workplace. I do notice some elements of— I feel like it’s been kind of creeping up as we grow and become more corporate in our culture, that men’s voices are being heard more than women’s voices. I think we’ve done some hard work to make sure that’s not the case. We have three, four engineering teams, one of them is managed by a woman. Our director of Algorithms is a woman. I’m the most senior engineer on the front-end staff, so we’ve done well and we’ve hired additional women, but I do notice management tends to pay more attention to the male members of the team, and it’s not— I don’t know. I don’t know, maybe it has gotten to the point where people are actually getting paid more than other people. I don’t know. Salary is such a weird thing in tech.
Maybe one last question would be, what kind of advice would you have for people that have faced similar struggles in either gender confusion or poverty, or all of the things you’ve been through, what are the biggest lessons that you’ve learned that you wished you’d known in the beginning?
I don’t know. It’s hard. I don’t want to be the person who says “Work hard and it’ll pay off,” because that’s kind of bullshit. And I do have a lot of privilege, and i try to be cognizant of that. I’m white. I come from a well-educated background. I’m suffering from a lot of student loans because of it now, but I was able to go to college and learn a lot of things about the world, which has made it much easier for me to succeed now. And so I think I want to recognize those things because it’s not just a situation of “Do good work. Work hard and it’ll pay off.” It’s not that.
Absolutely, the privileges and the things that— the situations that we come from affect our ability to succeed. You just have to hustle. Life is a fucking hustle. And, obviously, there’s mental health stuff and physical ability is— stuff and not everyone can do what I was doing in terms of working 14, 16-hour days to literally just push through. I don’t know.
Listen to yourself. Figure it out what it is that you want. Set some goals. Start working towards them. Evaluate, move forward.
Find a mentorship. I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’ve done without mentors across different parts of that journey. Whether it was Beth really on pushing me to even sit down and write my first line of code, or my friend Matt much later on when I had the internship, starting to talk about career development and where I wanted to go and how to maneuver to get promoted to full-time and to start a career track. Find people. There are career people, there are women that have been doing this, and they can help. Maybe not tell you what to do, but provide a sounding board, give wisdom from their own experience. I found that kind of stuff is really helpful because I could ask questions like, “Am I going crazy or is this something that is actually happening? Is this something that I need to be concerned about with the way that this manager is acting?” Because it can be really easy to get caught in your own struggle and your own moment, so being able to get a little perspective and jump outside of that is really helpful sometimes.
I pay for a therapist every week and it’s the best decision I ever made [laughter].