Palagpat Coding

Fun with JavaScript, HTML5 game design, and the occasional outbreak of seriousness

Queer New World: Interviewing While Trans

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Business woman handshake

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:

Interview coordinator asking for my preferred pronouns

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.

A Google calendar view of my interview schedule
My calendar for February. Note that I was laid off on the 9th.

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?

A zoomed-in image of my Google calendar for March 3, 2017
Addepar was frendly, but they're not who I'm talking about.

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:)

A blurry photo of my Quora on-site interview schedule
It's blurry, but then I snapped this picture in a hurry.

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.

A photo of Quora's employee hometown map
Okay, we're under-representing the southern hemisphere, but still.

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.

More on that soon.

Queer New World: #TransAtWork

Thursday, July 7, 2016

HireTrans

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.

The campaign went live on May 31st, to coincide with the beginning of Pride Month. It got picked up by Buzzfeed, Mashable, and many other news sources, which was really cool.

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.

Queer New World: Lesbians Who Tech 2016

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Conference badge for LWTSummit 2016

In my last post, I began to tell the story of this new journey I've embarked upon, navigating my career anew as a transgender woman in the tech industry. Today I begin the next chapter of that story, an ongoing series I've dubbed "Queer New World." To say that the past five months have been transformative would be an exercise in understatement. I've learned (and come to understand) many things I never expected, and though there are certainly growing pains, the experience has thus far been one I wouldn’t change for anything.

Case in point: this past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the 2nd annual Lesbians Who Tech Summit in San Francisco.

In the past few years, I've made quite a few dear friends on the Internet (hello, friends!), and I'm grateful for each and every one of them. But due to my work and family schedules, it's a challenge to get out into the local tech community and meet people face to face. So even though I work with a fantastic team and love coming to work every day, Heighten is still a relatively small startup, and there's only one other LGBT person in the office (that I know of, anyway). She's a good friend and was a tremendous help and support in my early stages of transition and coming out (a story I plan to tell here at some point), but beyond the two of us and my friends online, I didn't know any other LGBT people in my industry.

You start to feel a little like the last unicorn in the world when you don't ever see anyone else like you. So Thursday night, sitting in the historic Castro Theater with 1500 other queer women and allies, my world suddenly got a whole. lot. bigger.

Where to Begin?

I had a lot of amazing experiences as part of this conference, but I want to focus on three in particular, which I think are emblematic of the experience as a whole.

Learning Lost History

I'm a software engineer. I've been working professionally for 17 years, and thought I knew a lot about the history of my industry. But until Friday morning, I didn't know who Edie Windsor was, or why she was important. Chalk part of that up to my ignorance about a lot of LGBT history (hey, I'm still learning). I didn't know she was among the first senior systems programmers at IBM in the 60s. I didn't know her team was working on IBM's operating systems before the company "gave it all to Gates" (her words, not mine). And I didn't know she was a lesbian, that she & her wife were a cornerstone of New York City's LGBT community, or that she was the principal plaintiff in the lawsuit that overturned the Defense of Marriage Act.

What a privilege to be in that room with her, and to hear her tell her story! In our modern era, when software development is so often seen as a career for straight white men, we forget that it didn't start out that way. The real history is much more diverse, much more compelling, and even after two college degrees and scores of CS classes, I didn't know any of it!

We can do better.

Making Connections

So like I said ealier, I've made quite a few trans friends online, and several of them are in tech. But meeting some of those friends in the physical world for the first time was somehow a completely different experience. There's something very... I don't know... tangible? About meeting face to face. Electronic friendships are great, and can be deep and meaningful, but somehow, meeting those same people offline, every time it happens, somehow deepens my emotional connection to them.

Several years ago, when I was first coming to terms with the fact that my being trans wasn't something that I could wish or pray away (God knows I tried), I had just this sort of experience. I was in Utah for a conference (UtahJS; long-time readers may recall that I got to speak on game design), and while I was there, I got the chance to meet a fellow trans woman that I'd gotten to know pretty well online (we followed and commented on one another's blogs). She met me in the food court at the Provo Town Center mall, we played chess, talked about life, and she looked me in the eyes and assured me that everything was going to be all right. That I was going to be all right. That being transgender didn't make me a monster, or a sinner, or unlovable, and that it was absolutely possible for me to embrace my truth, and thrive. We've since fallen out of touch (she's gone stealth, and I don't ever see her online anymore), and I don't think I ever got to tell her just how much that hour meant to me (even though she absolutely destroyed me at chess).

Anyway, back to last week. I was able to meet up with a couple of trans friends from a Slack server I frequent for LGBT people in tech, and we grabbed lunch together and talked. Compared notes a bit, got to know each other a bit. Nothing as profound as that chess game happened, but I do feel a more personal connection to those two now when I see them online. They're somehow a little more real to me than they were before.

And they made me feel like a part of a community.

Hearing People's Stories

There were so many meaningful moments I could touch on, from the stories told from the various venue stages:

  • Keynotes from amazing women at Apple, Pierson Labs, and Genentech talking about their efforts to build a better world through communication, education, and medical innovation
  • February Keeney's talk on how her transition from male to female has proven to be an "A/B test in gender", and how she's working with Github to change the industry
  • The Trans Tech meetup with CEO Angelica Ross, who showed a clip of the (really lovely) show Her Story (in which she co-starred), and discussed the questions it raises about the sometimes-thorny intersection between the transgender and lesbian communities
  • The high-energy delivery of Tania Katan, telling the extremely entertaining story of how she came up with the "it was never a dress" campaign

... to all the stories, large and small, told by every single person I met. Because ultimately, whatever else we may be, we human beings are storytellers. And all of these stories we tell create the world in which we live.

I'm so privileged to be a part of such a singular community. I'm glad to play some small part in the brighter future to come.

And I can't wait to see what's next.