A few weeks ago, I attended my second annual Quora retreat, in South Tahoe. I had a great time, and after working for the company for a year, I know a lot more people than I did last May. :)
Being who I am, though, I didn't spend the entire time socializing. And during my down time, I started tinkering on a project that's been on my wish list for over 5 years (not kidding — it was one of the first things I brainstormed when I joined Tinker/Heighten in 2013!)
Basically, I got tired of keeping tabs open for months on end just so I could catch up on that cool new webcomic or blog I would discover with a 10-year backlog (looking at you, Octopus Pie). After a few hours at the retreat and a few these past few weekends fixing bugs and working on art, it eventually became Longbox, the Chrome extension that I just published tonight.
The concept is pretty straightforward: just go to the first entry on a site you want to read, then click the Longbox icon in your Chrome toolbar and add it to your reading pile. Now, read the site as usual, and Longbox will keep track of the most recent page you read. No need to keep a tab open for days and weeks on end until you catch up, or manually add and remove bookmarks every time you read -- next time you want to dive in, just click on the site in Longbox's reading pile, and pick up right where you left off!
It's pretty simple, and could've been a regular web app except for one small problem: it relies on a script that keeps track of your current page on a list of sites you give it, and that isn't something browsers let you do, even with iframes, due to the risk for malicious behavior. So I made it a browser extension, and if there's enough demand, I may consider porting it to other browsers as well.
It's been a while since I've posted something here. I thought coming out would somehow make me less prone to procrastination or somehow magically give me more time to blog, and that certainly hasn't happened, but there are things that are worth doing, and you make time for what you value. So. I'm going to try to write more and maybe spend a little less time on social media.
We'll see if that actually happens or not. 😆
Late last July, shortly after I wrote my previous post about coming out at work and how positive and affirming that experience was for me, I was laid off. The company was facing a difficult pivot, and as a result had to let me and a handful of other very talented people go. I don't begrudge them doing so; they were attempting to tackle some really difficult problems and needed all the focus and runway they could get in order to succeed, and I wished them well (they've since been acquired by LinkedIn, but that's another story). They gave me a generous severance package that enabled me to focus on quickly finding another job, and I did, joining the UI Engineering team at Zenefits (a company that has, sadly, been in the news a bit too often for unfortunate reasons in the past year, but which seemed to me to have moved past their troubles and was on a good path*). I had a lot of respect for my boss, Matthew Eernisse, who I'd been following on Twitter for years before ever meeting in person (I didn't even realize he was the same MDE I followed until he gave me his Twitter at the end of the interview), and that ultimately helped me make the decision.
* (It wasn't, in fact, on a good path, but there was really no way for me to know this.)
My boss worked to foster a culture of fun, respect, hard work, and constant self-improvement, and there's definitely a blog post I need to write about what it was like for the first time working on a team of people that never knew me as anyone other than Rylee, female engineer. I had a lot of great experiences there, both personally and professionally, and I'm glad for it. But last February, they laid me off, along with nearly 50% of their workforce, so this is not that post.
Instead, what I want to write about today is my experiences, both last summer and this past spring, interviewing for a senior engineering role as a woman of transgender experience.
Last summer, I commented on my Tumblr about how the whole job-hunting process felt, and it still held true in this most recent round:
I hear all these horror stories about interviewing while trans, and I’m sure there’s plenty of truth to them… in fact, I’m pretty sure that a couple of the rejections I’ve received this week were at least in part because I’m not a "good cultural fit" for the team. [editor's note: this phrase is often code for "not like the rest of us"]
But, by and large, the people I’ve talked with have been amazing. My gender just isn’t even relevant to a lot of these conversations, especially with companies that have diversity efforts.
Then there was the follow-up email I just got from Coursera this afternoon after a very promising preliminary lunch interview:
As a close friend said when I showed her: "God bless Northern California!"
The thing is, I live in the San Francisco Bay area, and have a skill set and body of experience that mean I get a LOT of inquiries from recruiters, even when my profile states very clearly that I'm not looking for a new job. In fact, between those inquiries and the personal introductions MDE made for each of us that were leaving his team, I'm pretty sure this last round of interviews was busier than my calendar when I'm actually employed.
So the upshot was that I had no shortage of interest, and was in the enviable position of being able to be very selective about the companies and roles I chose to pursue. So I eventually narrowed my focus to companies in the peninsula area (around Palo Alto) and not in San Francisco proper, where it's difficult and expensive to park and where traffic is often infuriating. Twice bitten in the span of a year, I further narrowed it to companies that hadn't had any layoffs or bad press in the recent past (bye, Uber). I was particularly interested in those companies that saw my gender (and, more broadly, my trans status) as an asset and not a liability. But even so, there were times that I feel like I may have been evaluated differently than if I were a cisgender male applicant.
Sometimes an email exchange would be positive, then a phone call would go badly. Sometimes that initial phone screening would go well, but an in-person interview would go sideways the minute my interviewer laid eyes on me. I have one very specific experience that I'm not going to share in great detail, but the change was very evident to me. I'd had a few phone calls with a certain company's founder, all very enthusiastic to meet me, but when I stepped into the office for the on-site interview, I could tell right away that things weren't going to go well... of the 20 or so people in the office, I was the only woman. My interviewers were respectful enough, but I definitely got a vibe from a few of them that suggested they weren't sure how to interact with me, perhaps for fear of offending or perhaps due to their discomfort with me personally. Or maybe not, and it was all in my head. Certainly, the feedback I got a few days later indicated that I "didn't have enough technical depth," despite my feeling that everything I'd said was extremely on point and relevant to the job posting (aside from one question that I flubbed in my nervousness by confusing Backbone with Bootstrap). But I didn't know, not really. I couldn't know for sure; that's sort of the problem, and the point.
Institutional bias is one of those things that's extremely subjective, often contentious, and hard to prove definitively. Multiply it by having more than one minority attribute, and it gets even harder. Am I perceived the way I am because I'm a woman? Because I'm trans? Because I've got a few more years under my belt than some other applicants? Because I don't have a CS degree? Who can say for sure?
There are of course other minority attributes that multiply these things still further, those of skin color, native language, nationality, religious upbringing, and mental/physical handicaps, but as those aren't my lived experiences, I can't comment on them, only point out that I still operate in a world of relative privilege. Intersectionality is a topic in and of itself that bears more discussion than it gets (and more, sadly, than I'm going to give it in this post).
Look back at that calendar I shared earlier. See that appointment on March 3rd?
Yeah. Quora. Crowdsourced Q&A. A social network for people who like to read, like to write, and like to think deeply about the world. (and yes, also a place where people ask questions like "Is Tom Selleck gay?" — apparently inquiring minds want to know :eyeroll:)
My experiences that day surprised me, in a good way. I really hadn't given them a ton of consideration, they really weren't on my radar at all in fact, but I'd enjoyed my initial internet and phone interactions with their team, they were in my target location, and the company was poised for growth in a really compelling way. I've worked for very small startups and for midsized, well-established companies;
until that point I'd never worked for a company on the cusp of moving from the former to the latter.
More to the point, when I walked through the office, you know what I saw?
A really appealing cross-section of humanity.
Men. Women. Older folks. Younger folks. People from here. People from elsewhere. A literal wall-sized world map with the hometowns of every employee virtually covering the globe.
My interviews were all very positive and encouraging as well. Challenging, certainly, but in a very good way that made me feel like I'd shown them my best.
Apparently they felt the same way. I've been here for nearly 3 months, and couldn't be happier with my choice.
This past spring, I had the opportunity to take part in a photo shoot and video interview project to promote awareness of transgender people in the workplace, sponsored by the Trans Employment Program at the SF LGBT Center. A few dozen of us came dressed in our typical work attire, and told a little bit of our stories of being out at work. The goal was to use all of this material to put together an ad campaign that would both promote transgender visibility, and encourage employers to not shy away from hiring trans people. Everyone involved was wonderful to work with, and I had a lovely afternoon, feeling empowered, confident, beautiful, and above all, visible.
I wish I could go back 20 years and show this video of myself and so many other amazing, successful trans people to 22-year-old me, just to give her a little hope, to make her realize that she’s not a freak or a deviant for being the way that God made her, and to make her believe that this life I’m living today is even possible for her. This is why visibility matters so much to many of us within the trans community; after all, “you can’t be what you can’t see.”
Here’s what I wrote about the campaign when it first started taking off on social media:
I’m fortunate to work for a startup that has always striven for diversity in hiring, and hasn't fallen into the "cultural fit" trap. I'm proud to work with the Trans Employment Program to promote the message that trans people are talented, capable, and valuable members of any team.
I want hiring managers to understand that employing a diverse team isn't about political correctness or tokenism, but can engender a vibrant synergy and productivity that's not likely to arise from a monoculture.
And I want to show young trans and gender-non-conforming kids that software is a welcoming place, where they can be accepted for who they are and where their knowledge and skill are recognized and rewarded.
Since coming out at work in October of last year, I’ve been surprised to find myself becoming a slightly different person at work – a little more open, a little more chatty. I laugh more. I find myself more comfortable taking the lead in engineering efforts.
For many of my co-workers, I’m probably the only trans person they’ve ever had close interactions with, and I’m grateful that I’ve been able to open their minds in many cases to the complexities of trans life.
Overall, I’ve been very fortunate to have had such a positive, affirming coming out experience. People are gracious, they are compassionate, and they are making space for me. It’s been astounding, and wonderful, and makes me want to continue to find ways to pay it forward.