Madeleine Albright

In early 2017, I received a letter. It was a handwritten card from a hero of mine. Excited and surprised, I waved it around, running to find my husband. “She wrote me back! Madeleine Albright wrote me back!”

The year prior, I had begun a project where I occasionally send letters to women who inspire me, and I tell them how they’ve impacted me. One of the first women I thought of was Madeleine Albright.

I don’t have a copy of the letter I sent, but it was on a card that said “Accordion to me, you’re awesome” next to a drawing of an accordion.

Inside, I wrote to Madeleine Albright that she changed my mind in an instant when I went to see her speak on her book tour for Prague Winter. It was undoubtedly a simple moment for her that in no way stood out from her remarkable life. She merely started a sentence, so casually, with the phrase, “As a feminist…”

When I was a teenager, there was a massive backlash against feminists. The social zeitgeist at the time said that feminists were always yelling, always angry, hated men, hated themselves, and were probably lesbians. I had the sense that they were also unemployable, maybe because they were also portrayed as badly dressed. But also, who would hire someone who was shouting all the time?

I didn’t tell Madeleine Albright all this—there wasn’t enough room on the card. But I summed it up, and told her that I had refused to apply the label “feminist” to myself before seeing her easy embrace of the word. My feeling was that by being capable and competent, I was doing more good for other women than I could if I was angry and yelling in peoples’ faces.

But Madeleine Albright wasn’t angry. She wasn’t shouting. From my seat in the balcony, she looked tiny, old, and refined. I also didn’t have a lot of women heroes growing up, but seeing her speak, I was just in awe of her. In that regard, she was also proof that society ought to re-examine the habit of more or less discarding old women. I’ve listened to a lot of people talk in my lifetime, and no one else has been as sharp, clear, and brilliant as Madeleine Albright.

After that day, I proudly proclaimed myself a feminist and haven’t looked back. Of course, society has moved on since I was a teenager, so people were more surprised that I’d only just adopted the label. But it was a big deal for me and only came about because I admired her so greatly.

It was with great excitement that I read her recent opinion piece in the New York Times about the war in Ukraine. Hope soared within me that she’d write more, her clear voice cutting through the news cycle to add perspective and clarity on these events. Alas, it was not to be. I read her obituary exactly one month later.

Rest in peace, Madeleine Albright. Accordion to me, you’ll always be awesome.

The letter is framed in my office—it often brings me courage, joy, and inspiration.


Muddy shovels

I was shoveling some dirt and thinking about software reliability this afternoon. It’s been rainy lately, so the dirt was pretty wet. Going in, I knew the dirt would be heavier because of the added water. What I didn’t count on was the mud that would stick to the shovel. For every shovel-full, I was carrying extra weight and doing extra work.

This struck me as a great analogy for reliability issues. Every time the system misbehaves, it’s extra work on top of everything else you’re trying to accomplish. It wears you out faster and makes your progress slower. And to carry the analogy a little bit further, you occasionally have to stop what you’re doing to scrape the mud off the shovel because it’s not worth continuing otherwise.

There are probably lots of areas of life where we carry an extra weight that’s not getting us anywhere. What does this bring to mind for you?


Healthy Self-Doubt

Let’s talk about Impostor Syndrome.

At some point in my software engineering/leadership career, it became evident that I was expected to have Impostor Syndrome. Indeed, it became clear that all underrepresented people in tech were expected to have Impostor Syndrome. I noticed this mostly in groups of women where especially the younger women would talk about “my Impostor Syndrome” as one would talk about “my arteries” or something else we just expect people to have.

I have a problem with this, and I’ll explain why. But first, a bit of context. I’ve been a woman in tech since the Dotcom Boom of the late ’90s. Throughout my career, I have been the only woman a lot: in meetings, on a whole floor of the office, in a codebase, on conference calls, at team lunches, you name it. As a Manager, then Director, and then VP of Engineering, I stood out even more. I’m currently the CTO of a startup, and a very small percentage of these roles are held by women. Despite that, I don’t have Impostor Syndrome. I’m confident that I bring a lot of qualifications to my job.

What I do have is what I like to think of as healthy self-doubt. There are plenty of gaps in my knowledge, but I’m confident that I can ask the right questions, figure out the solutions to problems, and understand what I need to learn. I’m confident that I can have gaps in my skillset because I can build awesome teams and rely on others to meet common goals. Where I can’t hire, I can learn. I don’t need to know everything or be everything to be successful. Does that mean I’ve never failed? Heck no! I’ve failed a bunch! So have all the people around me, regardless of demographics.

Healthy self-doubt is an important tool. It pushes me forward and keeps me from complacency. There’s no “resting on your laurels” in software careers. Success requires continued growth, evolution, and learning. Healthy self-doubt helps me know where to focus my efforts, it helps me prioritize. It helps me figure out when I’m in over my head so I can acknowledge that and then do something about it.

Impostor Syndrome, on the other hand, is really rough. I can only imagine what it must be like to worry that you’ll be uncovered as a fraud at any moment. If this is you, please know that I’m not trying to invalidate that in any way.

However, I believe that much of what we classify as Impostor Syndrome is actually healthy self-doubt and I would love for us to distinguish between the two. The danger with calling everything Impostor Syndrome is that it reinforces otherness. The word “impostor” reinforces the message that you do not belong here.

My point is this: if we expect everybody who is a little bit different to think of themselves as an impostor, we’ve totally lost the plot on this whole inclusion thing. Let’s add the notion of healthy self-doubt to the conversation so that we can distinguish between that which propels us forward and that which holds us back.


Advice for New Developers

Dan Moore over at takes truth in advertising very seriously. The site is chock full of letters written by Dan and others, offering advice and stories to people who are jumping into software development.

I had a great time thinking of my early experiences and putting some of them down in my own letter to a new developer, which you can see on Dan’s site. I highly encourage those of you curious about the profession to go read some letters, and those of you with experiences of your own to consider contributing.


Happy Women’s History Month

I have little to add to the conversation on COVID-19, but I do have a long-standing thought about Women’s History Month, so I’ll share that instead.

Several years ago, the company I worked for asked some of us women leaders to write about inspiring women for a public blog post. They specifically asked for women in STEM fields. I replied that I thought Sally Ride was cool when I was in school, as the first American Woman in space. I added that when I thought back, my heroes were not in STEM at all.

My real answer, which they didn’t print, was that my two absolute heroes when I was young were Harriet Tubman and Pippi Longstocking. Now the casual observer may not find a lot in common between Harriet and Pippi. One, after all, escaped slavery and risked her life helping others escape on the Underground Railroad. The other was a sassy little redheaded girl who sat backward on her horse.

Harriet Tubman

Despite a head injury that caused massive headaches and seizures, Harriet Tubman made 13 expeditions to free slaves, and then joined the Union Army during the Civil War. She led an armed raid that freed 700 slaves. Something we learned in school that has always stuck with me is that she occasionally had to get tough with the people she was helping escape if they panicked and put the group at risk—including threatening them at gunpoint. That’s some serious grit right there and I remember it being a really weird lesson to learn as a child, since all the other heroes we heard about were nice to a fault and bad things were glossed over. Because of that, Harriet Tubman always seemed more real to me than the presidents and other people our history books put on pedestals. And way more of a badass.

As for Pippi, I mean, she lived alone and she did whatever she wanted. She was strong enough to lift policemen by their lapels. Her friends were pretty wimpy, but Pippi was always kind to them and and ready to lead them on big adventures. My one quibble with Pippi was that she didn’t like math and insisted on calling multiplication “plutification”—that really pissed me off as a kid because I loved math. But she had a monkey and that more than made up for any failings.

To my two childhood heroes, I’ll add one I discovered as an adult. Beryl Markham was an early bush pilot in Kenya who is most famous for being the first person to fly West across the Atlantic Ocean. She also had one of the most remarkable childhoods I’ve read about. Beryl hunted with local children and had some harrowing adventures I’ll just mess up if I try to repeat here. Fortunately, she was an incredible writer and you should read her book, West With the Night.

What ties Pippi, Harriet, and Beryl together is that each one of them bucked convention. They weren’t afraid to get into scrapes or do the unexpected thing just because it was difficult. They were physically strong, mentally tough, and fiercely independent. That is what won my admiration and holds it to this day.


On the Code Again

Today, I poured a glass of wine and came upstairs to what has so far been my favorite coding spot. I have a beautiful view of my backyard and the flowering cherry tree of a neighbor’s backyard. I fired up my laptop and a React Native training video.

Alas, the zoo had other plans: the dog and one of the cats wanted attention. Ada (dog) and Frankie (cat) let me know this right when I was trying to figure out why the Android emulator made a truly horrendous buzzing sound every time I clicked into a text box.

There are two main reasons the pets come to bug us. One is that they want to play. The other takes a longer explanation: our very nervous dog sometimes doesn’t eat and the only way we’ve found to let her know that we want her to eat is to give her a treat when she finishes a meal. So every time Ada finishes a meal, she gets a treat. The cats complained that this was unfair, so now they also get treats when the dog eats—though we do require them to sit for it, with which they’re mostly fine in a feline sort of way.

So Ada, Frankie, and I headed downstairs to check on Ada’s food bowl. It was full, which meant they wanted to play. If I was going to get any learning done at all, it had to be done. Frankie and I played with a fishing pole toy while Ada dog chewed the leg off of a squeaky moose toy.

So, my coding exercise so far has resulted in:

  • 5 minutes of learning
  • 2 minutes of navigating settings in an Android emulator to turn off the blasted noise
  • 10 minutes of playing with Ada and Frankie
  • An unknown number of minutes on Twitter, which for some reason I went to when I got back to my laptop
  • However long it took to write this blog post
  • But before that, I had to watch this because I Googled “Willie Nelson” after writing the title

In other words, the coding is off to a brilliant start!


A Prediction

With social distancing and quarantine measures underway, I have a prediction. As we all experience less of the world, we’re just plain going to get weird. My friend Katie warned me that this will happen when I work from home for a while, and it applies to the current COVID-19 related isolation as well.

So my prediction is that the number of sentences that begin with, “This might sound weird…” is going to increase a lot over the next several weeks. After that, the phrase will nearly drop out of usage because the concept of weird will either cease to exist entirely or morph so much that we’ll make up a new word for it.

OK, that last part is probably going too far, but I do think the graph will look something like this:


Fresh Starts

Spiraea blooming

Welcome to the new!

Having spent several years silently admonishing myself for neglecting my little piece of the Internet, I have decided to make a fresh start. For those of you who have visited in the past, welcome back! If you’re new, I used to scribble down thoughts here a lot and I’d like to get back to that.

A lot has changed since I was a budding software engineer struggling with cross-browser compatibility issues or, later, a seasoned software engineer/leader diving into thornier topics. I will selectively import old content. I may or may not keep this up to date. What I am doing is setting myself up to share some thoughts because I’ve got a lot of them.

I’ve recently given notice at my job and am in the process of beginning new adventures (more on that later). With the decrease in work responsibilities, the little voice inside my head that tells me to get my thoughts into sentences and paragraphs has gotten louder. I missed that voice. She has steered me well in the past.

It’s good to be back.