So why don’t we start at the top—tell me a bit about your early years and where you come from.
I was born in San Bernardino, but I grew up in Colton, a train town right next to it.
My grandfather was a farmer in Mexico. He came to the US to work for the Santa Fe Railroad Company, and that’s how we ended up where we did. The train yard was maybe four or five blocks from where we grew up. My father was also born in Mexico but grew up mostly in the US. My mother was born is San Diego. Her father was in the Navy, and he was stationed down in San Diego for a while. She moved back to San Bernardino at one point because of an illness with one of her siblings. So she grew up mainly in San Bernardino and my dad grew up mainly in Colton. They had four children. I’m the youngest. We’re all four years apart, so it’s pretty easy to tell our ages apart.
At a very young age I experienced a pretty significant trauma. I have a burn on my arm.
Oh yeah. I didn’t notice until now.
Most people don’t notice it. The story of the burn on my arm from what I was told (because I don’t remember any of it) is they used to have bottle warmers with super long cords back in the 80s. I was wearing some pajamas crawling around, and I pulled the cord down and the scalding water landed on my arm and soaked into the pajamas. You have this super hot heated water—not boiling—but hot enough that when pressed against my skin for so long— it basically melted my skin. I think what they said was they ran cold water over it and then took me to hospital and when the doctors went to cut the pajamas off, my skin had stuck to the pajamas.
Oh my god.
They bandaged it, and they sent me back home and I was just crying constantly in pain for a couple of days. We had a family friend was a doctor and he said, “No, this is wrong. They totally messed this up.” And so he sent me to a burn center where they undressed the burn and then they put my arm in a bath – like some kind of medicinal bath – and they went and they scrubbed the dead skin off; this is something they had to do several times. Basically, every time the burn would scab over, I’d have to go back to the hospital, put it in the bath, and have it scrubbed off, have my skin scrubbed off. I mean, if this had been taken care of properly, I probably wouldn’t have any visible scarring at all. This is a symptom of not having the burn properly taken care of.
“I got hurt a lot when I was little.”
I think that whole experience shaped me, shaped my personality. It’s something that I didn’t know until the last couple years. I knew about the burn experience, but I didn’t know a lot of the details. One of the things I talked with my therapist was about was the burn experience. She thinks it had a pretty significant effect on my personality. I tend to be a little more introverted, very protective, and defensive of myself. That plays into a part of my personality, and how it became a part of who I am. Maybe if that hadn’t of happened, I could have been a much more outgoing person. I don’t know.
So that was like a very early trauma experience for me. There’s lots of other stuff that’s happened in my life. I don’t think we’ll have enough time to talk about all of it, but that was one of the significant things.
Yeah, totally. I’m all ears. I’ve actually been reading for myself a lot last year. I read a lot about things that were relevant to me and my growth, but I read a particular book that affected me in a lot of ways. About how childhood traumas—whether or not you remember them—you tend to cope, depending on when they happened, you tend to cope in one way or the opposite way. And, you may not even remember it, but it ends up just completely defining your personality profile, people you gravitate toward, etc. I have no idea what happened to me, because I don’t remember. I can make assumptions based on how I grew up. But it’s really fascinating, and horrible, and heartbreaking to hear so many stories of people having—based on very, very early things that they may not even remember—can completely shape them as a human being and how they cope.
I think it’s interesting. I don’t know why this happened, but it may have been one of those things where it’s like, “Oh, we don’t want you to feel different, so let’s not make a big deal about this. You’re no different. Nothing different has happened.” And, so I thought, “Well, this hasn’t had any effect on me. I am just the way I am, because, I’m no different than anyone else.” But, it took some additional processing as an adult to be like, “Yeah, I am different, and that’s not a bad thing.”
When I was a child, I guess there was a common theme of being different is bad, so “let’s not imply that someone’s different.” Instead of an attitude of“being different is great.” You’re adding this different spice to the recipe, and that’s valuable. I think because of that, when I was growing up, I thought, “Well, this is not a factor.” As an adult and re-processing things, I’m like, “I think this is a pretty big factor.” And, there are other people who struggle with this kind of stuff, too, I know. My sister—her husband’s a firefighter—and she invited me this year to go to a burn survivors retreat in Southern California; she invited me to talk about my experience. I’m really looking forward to doing that.
I’m in my 30s and I’m just barely starting to explore this part of my life. It’s like I don’t know what my story is because I haven’t really started to explore it until, like at this point. But yeah that was one experience.
I got hurt a lot when I was little. My brothers and I always used to get into trouble. We had off-road vehicles—ATCs, three-wheelers—we used to ride all the time. We grew up in a part of Colton—the south of the freeway part—which is the not good part of the city. Partly because the Projects were across the street and it was mixed in with industrial. You had the train yards, you had factories, there is a cement manufacturing plant nearby. We lived in probably one of the worst places you could grow up as far as health, safety, things like that. We couldn’t play at the local park because my parents said, “It’s too dangerous.” I remember going there one time and finding hypodermic needles in the jungle gym thing and being like, “Oh yeah, this probably not a good.” As a kid I thought, “Oh, okay, that’s gross. But I’ll still keep playing,” But, yeah we didn’t get to really go to the park to play because my parents said it was too dangerous, instead we played on this train bridge that we used to call the Black Bridge. It was safer than the park, but it still wasn’t very safe because it was an active railroad bridge.
The end of our street got this reputation as being an illegal dump. What that meant is you had large construction equipment—I remember an old school bus—just all this stuff would just get dumped at the end of our street. It was just a mass of stuff. As kids, we were like, “This is awesome! It’s like giant Tonka toys in our back yard.” They had like a crane—it was this old demolished crane, just falling apart decrepit thing—but, it still had the levers you could pull the switches, and we would jump in that thing, and we’d pretend that we were driving this truck. I remember the school bus had all the windows busted in. Glass all along the floor, and we were in there playing in it. Sit in the bus driver’s seat; pretend you’re driving the bus. Usually my oldest brother would be left in charge, and so, he would take us out there with his friends, and we’d all just mess around. That wasn’t very safe. My brother had to go to the hospital because he got glass in his eye from playing in the bus.
One time, I had to go to the hospital because we were playing the good old game of “The Floor is Lava!” And we were jumping from one thing to the next. There was a toilet bowl – yes, someone just came and dumped a toilet bowl at the end of our street – and I jumped to the toilet bowl and suddenly, it shattered and slashed my leg. And so—I just think this is such a funny story because this is a toilet bowl in a dump that I’m getting cut with. [laughter] And as an adult I realize how unaware of the consequences I used to be.
Oh my God.
And I freaked out and I remember going, “Oh, I’m gonna to die, I’m gonna die, I gonna die!” because I’m bleeding out and I crawled my way home. I’m crying, and I’m freaking out, and finally I get to my front door and no one is answering! So I’m screaming and crying and eventually my brother came from around the house and he’s like, “What’s wrong?” and I guess they’d locked the front door cause I was crying and screaming. They didn’t want to deal with me. They didn’t realize I was injured. So, once they eventually saw what happened, they took me to the hospital where the wound got cleaned and stitched up.
Nothing terrible ended up happening to me, but I just think it’s kind of like a funny story about how little I knew of how abnormal this stuff was. I think—I think that’s an element of growing up in poverty, like growing up in this environment of not having safety. It’s just something you accept. You kind of just think of it as the norm. You think everyone lives this way. I thought everyone lived this way. I thought everyone dealt with this kind of danger.
“I think that’s an element of growing up in poverty, like growing up in this environment of not having safety. It’s just something you accept. You kind of just think of it as the norm. You think everyone lives this way. I thought everyone lived this way. I thought everyone dealt with this kind of danger.”
This wasn’t something I typically share with co-workers when I was in San Diego. Instead we would talk about the newest tech gadget that’s coming out, what skills we should be training in, what cool projects we were working on. But people didn’t talk about the personal too often. But at the same time, I got a sense there have been people among us who have had rough lives.
Then I moved up to the Bay Area, and I feel like it’s been really hard to find people who had that kind of life. I share with co-workers about my arm burn. I talk about the experience and about what happened to me as a way to introduce myself. It was actually in the context of in the beginning of our stand-ups.
I started a tradition of beginning stand-up with a brief improv game, and one day the game was to say something about yourself that no one else knows. So I told this story of my arm. Then I also shared over lunch with one co-worker my story about the toilet bowl and the dump at the end of our street, and he just didn’t know what to say. Maybe he’d never really known anyone that had gone through that kind of experience or grew up in that kind of environment.
You mentioned in your pre-interview that as a kid, you got into tech and computers as a distraction from real life.
Computers made me really happy. I think it made me special. It enabled me to stand out from the rest of my family and get attention that I was desperately wanting. When I was born, my mom was a stay-at-home mom, but when I old enough for daycare, she returned to college to become a teacher. So by the time I started elementary school, I went to the school my mom taught at. Back then, every classroom had like an Apple II computer—my first ever exposure to a computer was an Apple II.
“The computer wouldn’t yell at me. The computer wouldn’t put me down. The computer wouldn’t bully me. The computer wouldn’t make me feel bad about myself. The computer was safe, right? I think for me that was a big draw, that computers were safe. They were a safe space for me to spend time to express myself.”
My mom would stay after school, grading papers, and I had nothing else to do, so I started reading books about BASIC and I started programming little things in BASIC on the computer. Usually it was like, “What’s your name?” and you enter your name. Then it would say, “Hello ‘name’.” Because I had all this free time, I started creating these longer and longer scripts. I didn’t really make anything significant in the Apple II. I think it was because of lack of resources. All I had was this BASIC consumer retail book from Apple. I didn’t think, “Oh, I could go to a library and find a book and learn how to do this better.” And I didn’t have a mentor or someone who’d say, “You can do this, this, and this.” I was limited to what I could visually observe by putting stuff in the computer and seeing what comes out. That early exposure to computers made me feel special: something that I can input and get something out and get some creative expression too. I totally believe software engineering has an element of creativity in it.
But yeah, the computer wouldn’t yell at me. The computer wouldn’t put me down. The computer wouldn’t bully me. The computer wouldn’t make me feel bad about myself. The computer was safe, right? I think for me that was a big draw, that computers were safe. They were a safe space for me to spend time to express myself. I think that was a big part of my draw to computers with those early experiences.
Walk me through early computer use to deciding to pursue it as a career and going to college for it. Did you have pressure from friends and family to go to college? What were their expectations?
I did, so, this is funny. So my mother was a teacher, and actually I didn’t want to go into computer science as my first job. I wanted to be a teacher. My mother at one point let me teach lessons in her second grade class while I was still in elementary school. The lesson I remember teaching was on how to do origami, and she gave me a bulletin board, and I thought that was the awesomest thing in the world. Again my own bulletin board space, I get to put the little wavy cardboard things around the edges, and then I’m gonna teach these kids how to create something, and then we’re gonna take all of their creations and we’re gonna put them on the bulletin board, and it’s gonna be awesome. I think this is a pivotal moment in my love of learning teaching. Kind of the concept of continuous learning.
“We didn’t afford a home computer for a long time, but I had an uncle who put computers together. He put together a computer for my parents. Kind of a little Frankenstein computer. Nothing name brand at all, it was totally pieced together from a bunch of cheap parts. It ran Windows 3.11. First time seeing a GUI interface, first time seeing control panels and settings and software programs all this stuff. I spent a lot of time fiddling with it.”
I remember another teacher, my math teacher in sixth grade let me teach a lesson on radius, diameter, circles, things like that. So I had several of these experiences where I was experimenting with leading as a teacher, leading students, helping people learn. At one point, I was talking to my parents about how I wanted to be a teacher, and I remember my mom saying, “You know, I don’t think you should be a teacher.” She said, “I think you should do something greater than that.” I’m not exactly sure why she said that to me. It may have been seeing how I interacted with the computer. That’s another thing, that throughout my life, my family regarded me as the computer whiz. To them, computers were like foreign entities. To me it was like something that naturally fit. Although my mom saw me having passion being a teacher, she also saw me having a passion for computers, and I think that’s why she told me, “Why don’t you try this other thing. Why don’t you focus on this other thing, because I think it’d be really great for you to get into something like that.”
We didn’t afford a home computer for a long time, but I had an uncle who put computers together. He put together a computer for my parents. Kind of a little Frankenstein computer. Nothing name brand at all, it was totally pieced together from a bunch of cheap parts. It ran Windows 3.11. First time seeing a GUI interface, first time seeing control panels and settings and software programs all this stuff. I spent a lot of time fiddling with it.
My brother used to work at Software, Etc. One year, he bought me this amazing Christmas gift. We didn’t always get along really well, so I was like, “This is really expensive, it’s huge.” It was a sound card. Back then, at least from my point of view, these things were like gold. Again, another piece to put into our Frankinstein computer. I remember putting the sound card in, and hooking up some speakers. I remember putting the sound card in and it didn’t work. This was before the days of plug and play. I had to go into the .ini file and look at the settings there. I had to call the tech support line at like six in the morning because the company was in Eastern Time Zone. My dad was like, “Long distance is too expensive during the day.” It wasn’t even an 800 number, so I had to wake up super early so I wouldn’t waste long distance minutes being on hold. Anyway, tech support walked me through putting things into the .ini file. It was like magic; suddenly I was getting sound out of my computer. It was amazing. All my games had sound. It took our computer to a whole other level. Taking just the visual and adding audio to it, that, I think, furthered this passion I had for fiddling with computers. To have a computer at home where I can take it apart and open it up and play SimCity with sound took it to a whole other level.
Again, this is all me almost bonding with the computer, getting to know it better, realizing the tricks it can do. I didn’t do a lot of programming though, just configuring and stuff. We got dialup and AOL when I was in high school. I remember people running all of these software programs that would stream stuff into the chat window automatically, and I really wanted to learn how to do that. Back then, the Internet wasn’t full of tutorials, forums, and websites, as it is now. Every time I’ve ever gone into one of those bulletin boards I’ve found it to be a rats nest of people saying things and doing things. It was hard for me figure out how to take step one.
They had this thing in AOL called the Community Leaders, and they let underage kids get free AOL in exchange for monitoring their bulletin boards, the junior bulletin boards. And so I did that for a while and was able to get the Internet access that way, and I thought that was really cool being connected with everyone. Eventually the Internet, AOL, chat rooms, and stuff like that became a huge part of my social life. To a point where my parents were worried about me spending too much time with computers. I think they were worried because I was in junior high, and I didn’t have a whole lot of local friends. I had a friend from Ohio. I had a friend from Los Angeles. I had a friend from Texas – all across the country. I would spend hours at a time on the internet chatting with these people, playing games, and stuff like that. My parents were worried to the point where my mom one time took the whole computer and put it in the trunk of her car and drove to work. Like pulling the needle out of a heroin addict, right?
It was really painful for me, having that taken away. Especially because I was confused as to why it was a bad thing for me to have that kind of social life. Again, I think it really fit my introverted personality, to be able to socialize on the Internet. I was also learning lots of things. It’s when I started learning about how to make web pages. I had my own webpage as a freshman in high school, and I started making webpages for friends.
I used to do online role-playing. So I would write out the roles or the characters or whatever, kind of D & D style. That’s when I also started getting interested in how to make dynamic webpages, not just static ones. And I was trying to learn Perl. And I did some Perl programming back then which was really difficult. I asked my uncle, “I want to learn how to do this. Are there any resources? What should I do?” and he connected me a student who was a computer science major who would basically just say, “Go get this book,” or “Go look at this website.” And I would just have more questions and it was kind of like I could have used, I guess, a little bit more hand holding at that point.
“And so, ironically, recognizing it as something that’s not normal actually helps me. It puts my efforts into perspective. I shouldn’t feel bad because I wasn’t writing complete pieces of software at age 16. I had adversity I needed to overcome before I could get to the point of being able to learn how to write software. Acknowledging adversity, that what I went through is not something a lot of people in software probably went through, makes it easier for me. I put less pressure on myself. I feel more motivated. I feel more successful. I feel more accomplished. And, that enables me to continue to do the things that I love doing in my career.”
There was no computer science at Colton High, so I took a class on programming at the community college when I was still in high school. I learned Pascal. Later I went to UC Riverside and took some more classes on programming. And I loved doing it. I also wanted to go to computer camps and stuff we couldn’t afford, so we were really dependent on the public education system. I wish I had access to more resources, and especially a little more mentorship. My parents did their best to get me the resources that would help me learn how to do this stuff because they knew I was excited about it. I think I had a lot more potential that I wasn’t tapping into. And there were a lot of battles that were almost impossible for me to overcome. Again, I didn’t even understand that the environment I was growing up in wasn’t normal.
And so, ironically, recognizing it as something that’s not normal actually helps me. It puts my efforts into perspective. I shouldn’t feel bad because I wasn’t writing complete pieces of software at age 16. I had adversity I needed to overcome before I could get to the point of being able to learn how to write software. Acknowledging adversity, that what I went through is not something a lot of people in software probably went through, makes it easier for me. I put less pressure on myself. I feel more motivated. I feel more successful. I feel more accomplished. And, that enables me to continue to do the things that I love doing in my career. Helping people learn, learning more myself, mastering the craft that is software engineering, and trying to make things better for people who came from backgrounds similar to mine. We haven’t even talked about what it’s like dealing with also being gay.
Let’s go into that. Did you want to come out prior to college?
I wasn’t even out to myself. I grew up in a Mexican-American household. Machismo’s a big thing. My family—nice things were not always said about gay people. And so, here I am hearing those things said, there’s no way that I am going to come out. There’s no way I’m even going to come out to myself. I told myself, “This is just a phase. You’ll get over it.”
I’ve known people, also Latino, who came out to themselves but didn’t come out their families. But there was no way I could do that. I believed that it was just a phase. I thought that eventually I’d like girls; eventually I’d feel that same drive. Or I thought, this is what all guys feel—I’m just not as motivated as them.
I remember I came out to my parents—I think it was my freshman year of college. Like, Christmas or spring break or something like that. I came back from school and I told them—initially I identified as bisexual, so I first accepted at least that I was attracted to men, but didn’t want to let go of that other part that I may be attracted to women. So I came out to them as bisexual initially, and they didn’t have a terrible reaction. I remember my mother saying something like, “We love you and we care about you, and we’ll always accept you. What we’re worried about is how other people are going to treat you. How hard your life’s going to be now given like the discrimination and the downright hatred some people have towards those kind of people.” I was expecting the worst when I came out to them, and I was relieved to have them accept me.
What was it like suddenly being out in your freshman year of college?
It was really exciting. I was like 1600 miles away in Iowa, three days drive from home. So I’m in a completely new environment; it was liberating. It was also the first time I had the opportunity to shape my identity without restrictions, and I discovered some of that social awkwardness that is still in me. Like even though I was outgoing, the introverted part of myself, at times, got the best of me. On one hand, I felt more extroverted because of that feeling of excitement, of feeling free, of feeling liberated, being able to shape my identity. But I also didn’t—still didn’t feel completely safe. Still worried about people judging me. There’s kind of this to-and-fro of getting excited about doing something new. And then, almost an emotional backlash later of, “Oh wow, did I fuck up? Did I make a mistake? Are these people not going to like me anymore because maybe I was being too gay?”Like maybe I was taking it over the top? I did stuff like dye my hair a different color. I tried wearing different clothes. I watched a lot of gay cinema. In the late 90s, early 2000s, I think there was almost a Renaissance of all these gay movies that came out. I was watching one and after another, especially since I think Netflix came out.
“I wasn’t even out to myself. I grew up in a Mexican-American household. Machismo’s a big thing. My family—nice things were not always said about gay people. And so, here I am hearing those things said, there’s no way that I am going to come out. There’s no way I’m even going to come out to myself. I told myself, ‘This is just a phase. You’ll get over it.’”
The extroverted part of me kind of took it really far and then we’d dial it down a bit. I had friends who I thought we were really good friends, and we hung out a lot. And then the next year they wanted to room with different people. I think it was maybe a little too much. And so that maybe strained those friendships, being a little too different. I don’t know. I just noticed like a distance after freshman year. It’s Iowa, right? It’s a small college town in Iowa. I’m this kid from California. The roommate I had my freshman year, He said to me, “I was expecting this blond-haired, blue-eyed surfer dude.” And here he got this kind of chubby, gay Latino as his roommate. So maybe that’s an element of the culture shock I’m talking about, like I didn’t know what to expect with Iowa, and at the same time Iowa didn’t know what to expect from me. It took time.
The period of first and second year socially was a little rough. It was more like my junior, senior year that I met people that I really meshed with and got along with. And also, I think I toned down the gay thing. I found a balance with my identity. I found the things that I really thought were me, and not just all this new stuff that I’m learning about and experiencing. And I still had the parts of me that loved to play video games, loved to watch movies. My sense of humor—that it’s a little obscene, a little twisted, but not just too gratuitously obscene. Things like that.
I met people who I could make laugh. I met people with shared interests and people I could geek out with too. That’s the other thing. I think my freshman year—It was a large group of people who weren’t really nerds. They weren’t really geeks. It wasn’t computer/video gamey people. They were into sports. They were into athletics, and it’s hard to stay connected to those kinds of people unless you can find some kind of commonality. I was doing things that they weren’t necessarily interested in.
How do you feel like that culmination of those life experiences—like growing up in poverty, coming out as gay, tough family situation, childhood traumas, all of that—how do you feel like that affects you today in both a personal and professional way?
I think that it makes having a space very important. It’s one of the consequences of those traumatic experiences is there’s just too many things that can go wrong. There’s almost like this embedded belief of there’s too many things to go wrong.
I think you mentioned before, risk aversion. Like, risk aversion was a huge thing for me. I did not like taking risks, and that’s been one of the pieces of the adversity I’ve had to deal with and I’ve had to try to overcome. If you’re risk averse, it holds back your potential. If you’re risk averse, it holds back the opportunities you can potentially take. Moving up here to the Bay Area from San Diego was a gigantic risk. A lot of this was attributed to the successes I had in therapy. That enabled me to take that risk. But here I am having to spend years in therapy working on lots of little things that have created this nest of triggers or behavior patterns that make it so hard for me to overcome or to take a risk. Had I not had to deal with any of that stuff, I probably would’ve moved up to the bay area as soon as I was out of college. I probably would have taken a risk.
“It makes having a space very important. It’s one of the consequences of those traumatic experiences is there’s just too many things that can go wrong. There’s almost like this embedded belief of there’s too many things to go wrong.”
Moving to the Bay Area wasn’t an option I considered after I graduated from college. I thought “There’s no way I could make it up there there’s no way I could be successful.”I remember looking for work in Southern California, and it took me like three months to find my first entry-level job as a software engineer. I was already giving up hope. I was already like, “Wow, I’m never going to be able to make this work. I have this degree and I’m never going to be able to find anyone that I can help, really.” And I think that’s something that was a consequence of all that adversity. And it’s something that I’ve been slowly getting over, being willing to take risks. When I do take risks, seeing the rewards that come of it, and that like, “If I take this risk, I’m not going to be abandoned by everyone. I’m not going to be physically hurt. I’m not going to get hit. I’m not going to be in a lot of pain, right?”
Like kind of anticipating pain, and anticipating trauma is one of the big things that holds me back from taking risks. And every time I take a risk, and I see that it’s not resulting in pain, and it’s not resulting in trauma– and in fact, usually it results in very positive experiences. And it results in making really wonderful relationships that also add to that positivity. It just reinforces kind of—It’s like a changing of your reality of from the world is a dangerous place to the world is mostly safe. The world is mostly positive.
“I was nervous coming here for this interview. Those things are running through my mind simply because it’s part of my behavior patterns, my mental make-up. Kind of like someone who has a permanent injury where maybe they have a limp on their leg. You can’t really do anything about it, it’s there, but you learn to still walk, you can still do your job, you can still do all these other things. But you have to be aware of it. It’s also something that with work can get better.”
I have run into situations even since coming up here where I see everything is positive, everything is great, and then, something comes along that just is a huge unexpected threat. It’s funny because it’s from like the least likely of places like maybe other minorities, maybe people who you’d think would identify with you, maybe they share the same experience and yet like they’re not making safety a priority. And I’ve had to stand up for myself and set boundaries not just for myself but for all the other people who may not have the strength. Maybe they’re not far along enough in that process to stand up and say, “This is wrong.” And that’s something I’m still going through, too.
Admittedly I was nervous coming here for this interview. Those things are running through my mind simply because it’s part of my behavior patterns, my mental make-up. Kind of like someone who has a permanent injury where maybe they have a limp on their leg. You can’t really do anything about it, it’s there, but you learn to still walk, you can still do your job, you can still do all these other things. But you have to be aware of it. It’s also something that with work can get better. Kind of like physical therapy. So yeah. It’s hard to talk about.
I really focused on my career, and I think also the other part was my relationship with my husband in my 20s. It was my career and my relationship. Now I’m getting to this point after being in therapy so long I’m actually calling it my story, taking a magnifying glass to my history and talking to friends and family about my experiences and saying, “Hey, wow this did probably affect me. And this maybe explains some of the reasons why I’m this way and that way, and I also don’t think I’m the only person who’s had these types of experiences.” I’m willing to say things that aren’t popular, or may have consequences. That’s kind of a weird thing about me I guess. Even though I’m terrified of pain, I have experiences where the only solution I had was to invite it. The only solution was to stand up and get ready to face the consequences. But in cases where it doesn’t go so well, it is really hard for me. It is very painful. It just activates, it just runs through all of those old wounds that I’m still working on and still processing.
“Even though I’m terrified of pain, I have experiences where the only solution I had was to invite it. The only solution was to stand up and get ready to face the consequences. But in cases where it doesn’t go so well, it is really hard for me. It is very painful. It just activates, it just runs through all of those old wounds that I’m still working on and still processing.”
That’s why I have a support network. I have friends, and family, and my therapist, and other people that I’ve explicitly called and said, “Hey, if I need someone to talk to. Are you willing to listen to me? And can I trust your confidence, your confidentiality?”My husband, of course, a big part of my support network, a big core. And that’s how I’m rolling right now. It’s a long story, both exciting and scary to tell at the same time.
Well, I thank you for being so open. And if I’ve learned anything from just starting this project and being terrified to do it, it has been received so well, that I can only hope that it’s gonna be hugely positive for everyone involved.
I think this is a wonderful conversation to have. I think it’s a wonderful conversation to have about understanding where people start from. Because how can we measure someone’s accomplishments without recognizing that not everyone starts in the same place on the race track. Some people start a mile or two back, and then when they don’t finish in first place, we say, “Well, you didn’t do very good.” When the reality is they ran faster, and they ran longer than any of those other people. The person who ran first place, they just started at a different location. And I think that’s an important part of this conversation, about what is that mile or two back, what makes up that distance. It’s going to change people’s mind. It’s going to change people’s perspectives. And I really think it’s going to help us get better solutions, as far as diversity in tech. Some of the solutions don’t make any sense, and I think it’s just because we’re solving it without looking at what the actual problem is, or where the actual—I don’t want to call them shortfalls, it’s more like why there are differences, and how can we value those differences. I think that’s really about valuing differences.
What advice would you have for folks that come from a similar place, or have been through similar struggles to you, and are hoping to make it in this industry, or just make it work? What do you wish you could have told yourself in the beginning?
There’s a common thing about imposter syndrome, and having confidence in yourself and stuff like that. I think that’s all true. Working with a therapist really helped me, so I would say if you’re struggling, seriously consider meeting with a mental health professional. There’s nothing shameful or bad about it, in fact I think it’s a great way for people to take care of themselves. I think we should all get mental health check-ups regularly, totally embrace that. Therapists are helpful. You choose your therapist; you don’t just accept whichever one you get. Find a good fit and then you work with that person. You are building a support network. I think it’s very important in this industry especially for people who face the kind of adversity that I faced.
I wish when I was younger I had met someone who was like me now. Someone who did struggle growing up, but eventually got to the point where I’m at. If they told me,“You know, it’s gonna be hard. It’s gonna be scary—you’re gonna feel scared, but you need to know your potential. You need to know that you have lots of potential and you can tap into it, and you are going to blow everyone else away. You are gonna do amazing things.” I wouldn’t tell myself that it’s an easy place to get to. I would say, “What do you want to learn? Let me hook you up. Let me connect you. Let me call people.” We really need more mentors like that. We need more people who are inviting others to the table who have similar backgrounds, saying, “Okay, what are you struggling with? Let’s help each other solve this problem. You’re having problems in interviews, doing white-boarding, or whatever. Let’s practice white-boarding together. Let’s get you up to that level. Let’s get you some additional help where you can get the jobs and get hired, and get into the industry. And then start doing the same thing where you start helping other people get up and reach the same bar, and help other people learn.”Not exclusively people who maybe didn’t have adversity or whose adversity is different. Invite everyone to the table, but don’t ignore the adversity.
“I wish when I was younger I had met someone who was like me now. Someone who did struggle growing up, but eventually got to the point where I’m at. If they told me,’You know, it’s gonna be hard. It’s gonna be scary—you’re gonna feel scared, but you need to know your potential. You need to know that you have lots of potential and you can tap into it, and you are going to blow everyone else away. You are gonna do amazing things.’ I wouldn’t tell myself that it’s an easy place to get to. I would say, ‘What do you want to learn? Let me hook you up. Let me connect you. Let me call people.’ We really need more mentors like that.”
One of the things I started at Solar City was a continuous learning group I call Knowledge is Power. Our first book was the Solar Energy Handbook. We’re now reading a book on Raspberry Pi, and we’re programming on Raspberry Pi as a group. I think there’s about 30 people right now in it. One of the first things I said when we started was, “I want everyone to know that this is a safe space, and that includes level of ability. Let’s not make fun of anyone if they don’t know about something. Let’s not laugh at anyone’s questions. There’s no such thing as a stupid question here. Every question is great because no matter what level it may be at, it gives not only the person asking it an opportunity to learn, it gives the person answering it opportunity to teach. This is a safe space for all levels. And this is also a safe space for all other groups that maybe face adversity in other places.” I wasn’t sure what kind of reaction I would get – but I had people thanking me in private messages and stuff, “Thank you for saying that.” And I was like, “Yeah, it’s kind of where we start, it’s where we begin.”
One of the goals is not just to learn, but also to create a safe space. How do we do that? How do we start that? I wish that I could have found someone when I was starting out who was doing the same thing. It would have helped me in multiple ways, not just with technology. I probably would have told this person, “Hey, I’m gay. I trust you more because you’re establishing this as a safe space to work together, and to get to know each other.” Also at Solar City we just started an employee resource group for gender and sexual minorities. It’s another way hopefully, of making the people who want to help visible, and giving people the opportunity to help just by connecting.
“I think it’s a wonderful conversation to have about understanding where people start from. Because how can we measure someone’s accomplishments without recognizing that not everyone starts in the same place on the race track. Some people start a mile or two back, and then when they don’t finish in first place, we say, “Well, you didn’t do very good.” When the reality is they ran faster, and they ran longer than any of those other people. The person who ran first place, they just started at a different location. And I think that’s an important part of this conversation, about what is that mile or two back, what makes up that distance.”