The purpose of Tech Tuesdays is to provide non-technical employees or founders of startups with background on how technology works so that they can better communicate with engineers and also better understand technological constraints and opportunities. With that in mind I will take a fairly…
I’ve been heart broken over Trayvon Martin’s senseless death. As a human being and a parent, my heart hurts for his family and friends at their shocking loss. As an American, I’m angry, and again heartbroken, that this can happen essentially unchecked by local law enforcement.
“All of us have to do some soul searching to figure out how this happened…If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” – President Barack Obama
I’ve been thinking about Trayvon a lot. How can this happen? As people, and as a society, we judge people by what’s on the outside. I know I do. And those myriad tiny judgments we make everyday all day can go unnoticed, or they can hurt or hold someone back, or, in the worst-case scenario, they can have tragic results.
And I think, that even though an African American man has achieved the pinnacle of professional success in America, that millions of black men are judged millions of times a day. That if you wear your hood up on your sweatshirt – the same garment that many of us in the tech community, including accomplished CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg and Dennis Crowley, wear all the time - to buy your candy and soda down at the Sevvy, that someone may think you look suspicious. That if you’re black and just trying to live the American “dream” like anyone else, sometimes you may feel like you’re swimming upstream.
I can’t imagine how hard that must be. Growing up white and middle class in America, I don’t remember anyone ever giving me a hard time on my many walks home from 7-11, even when I was participating in
questionable illegal activities like trying to get someone over 21 to buy me wine coolers. Don’t judge. It was the 80’s ok? Wine coolers were cool!
While the tech start up community is pretty diverse as a population, at the top it’s still mostly a white male’s game when you look at who’s leading the companies and who’s doling out the funds. Part of this reflects the applicant pool, and part of it is because we judge people for what’s on the outside. Thankfully, I’ve never heard anyone in the tech community judge someone by the color of their skin. But some of the things I do hear are: wrong gender, wrong school, wrong kind of degree, married, has kids, too old, too young. They’re not like me. They can’t possibly get the job done. We do it a million times a day. We institutionalize it and call it pattern recognition.
I’m not saying special allowances should be made for anyone who’s not a white male, that past success doesn’t sometimes predict future success or that I don’t love white dudes. What I’m saying is that a diverse team helps you to build a better product. And I’m proud to be a part of the tech start up community. I like to believe that we’re more evolved than most when it comes to at least trying to level the playing field and making sure people don’t swim upstream just for the color of their skin. But we can do even better.
To honor Trayvon in a small way, I’ve done some soul searching and I’m going to be extra mindful of when I judge people for what’s on the outside. Whether it’s in the workplace or walking down the street. I’m not perfect, I’m still going to feel a judgmental pang of superiority when I see pictures of Angelina Jolie feeding her kids Cheetos. But I’m going to do my best. And I invite everyone in the tech community to do the same.
Perhaps you’ve heard: I quit Amex and now work with tech start-ups. You know what else I do? I am a sought after, unqualified, and unpaid(!) counselor to other people who want to quit their big corporate jobs to work at a tech start up. So sought after, it’s time to make this advice scalable. Here goes:
Start-ups are not for the faint of heart, intolerant of dirty work or needy of structure. But they sure are a lot of fun.
Know WHY you want to quit
Is it just your current job/boss/company that’s bringing you down? Would going to another big company make things better? If you’re at Amex, can you go to Chase and make [a lot] more money and have a bigger title and be happy as a clam? Or does that make you want to saw at your wrists with a plastic knife? Do you want to build something and don’t really give a shit about your title and not mind taking out your own garbage? Start up life may be for you!
Start up job seeker, know thy self
Was the last time you got your hands dirty when you paid your dog walker to scoop your dog’s poop? Oh, wait, that wasn’t your hand, was it? If you’re several years into your career and used to managing instead of doing, think about what you’re ready to actually DO. Like if you’re a marketing VP, do you want to run a Google AdWords Campaign? Me neither. Are you someone who’s used to doing tons of research and getting buy in from several parties before you make a move? Start-ups don’t care about your stinking research, just get some shit done already. If you’re an investment banker a year in, you’re working hard, but the gravy train (and late night car service) stops at the door of your start up.
Your Risk Tolerance/Financial Needs
A lot of people tell me that I’m brave and inspiring. Puh-lease. What I am is POOR because I quit my job without another one lined up. I do not recommend this. What I am also is married to someone with a decent salary and health benefits that I can mooch off of. And I saved some money before I quit. I recommend both of these things. What I’m saying is: a lot of start-ups live by the “hire slowly, fire quickly” mantra, or you may hate them, or the thing may just blow up. Do your research. Make sure the start up is funded by quality VCs, which means they’re more likely to pay you and stay in business for a long time and operate with some modicum of professionalism. Check their references. And have a back up plan. And as I always tell people: if you’ve been in a job for several years and then spend less than a year at a particular start up because - let’s face it - you just aren’t that into each other, no one is going to think you’re a crazy job hopper.
Bottom line: I left my corporate job to work with start-ups a year ago this week. People who’ve known me for a long time will tell you I look five years younger, five pounds lighter (actually it’s eight, thanks 4HB) and just seem generally happier. Because I am. I have found my [fellow crazy] people. I like building things. I love technology and when inefficient systems are disrupted. I haven’t worn slacks – slacks! – in a year! I like getting shit done instead of having meetings and making ppt slides. And if after reading this post none of your enthusiasm has been dampened, maybe it’s time for you to take the plunge. Come on, the start up community is waiting!
I’ve been reading a lot of things lately about women - specifically mothers - in start ups and how they shouldn’t do start ups because they want “flexibility”(whatever that is), and can’t possibly work “start up hours” (whatever those are). From Penelope Trunk’s intentionally provocative TechCrunch article telling women NOT to do start ups, to the sexist reaction to Alison Lindland’s request to the NYTM mailing list to meet other expectant moms at NY start ups, the message to moms seems to be that they can’t possibly be a good parent and an A player at a start up.
So, um, folks: get over yourselves. Because guess what? I (and other moms see: Beth Ferreira, Jane Kim, Emily Hickey, Naama Bloom, Maxine Friedman and many more) are doing it and, frankly, it’s not that hard. I think this is because moms who choose to work at start ups have self selected into something they know they can handle. We don’t want flexibility. We don’t want to work part time. We aren’t just there to make a buck. We’re there for the same reason everyone else is: because we want to build something that matters.
I’ve been a mom for almost six years now. Most of that time, I worked at American Express, a huge company that’s known for it’s family friendly policies. Folks in the start up world seem to think - for the most part - that working there entailed working 9-5 Monday through Friday with unlimited resources, a cushy office and a fat paycheck. And, for moms, we got “flexibility”. Um, no, no, no, no, and hellz to the eff no. Amex has many fine qualities, but it ain’t all wine and roses and none of those things were my reality. For me, working at start ups has been EASIER than working at a big company.
Whether it’s a big company or the scrappiest of start-ups, people choose the life and lifestyle they want. So, if someone wants to work flexible hours or work part time, be up front about it and find the appropriate opportunity (most likely not at a start-up). If you want to work at a start up, as the great philosopher Tim Gunn would say, “make it work”.
So yes, moms can work at start-ups. No, we can’t play fooz ball or go out to lunch as often because we need to get more done during “normal business hours”. Yes, we have to leave at 5:30 a few times a week to relieve the nanny by 6. If we don’t, child protective services will. And frankly, when we arrive at the office at 8:30am after getting two kids and ourselves out of the house, we’re turning on the lights at work. No, we’re not always at work until 10pm (but if needed, we will be), we’re at home on our laptops after we’ve put the kids to bed doing what needs to be done. And yes, we can go to evening events and hell yes we can travel because we jump at the chance to spend a night in a hotel room blissfully alone. Hell, I recently attended a hackathon on a Sunday after baking an apple pie from scratch. How many of you have done that?
If a mom wants to work at your start up, assume she’s been smart enough to do her due diligence and knows that it can be a wild ride and has set up her life accordingly. And if she’s the best candidate, hire her.
So true. I’ve often wondered where the other moms are. And totally agree, working at a big company as a pregnant woman and mom is no cushier than doing it as a start up.
I posted an innocent question to the NY Tech Meetup board a week ago - Looking to connect with other expectant moms and recent moms in startupland - and I was somewhat surprised by the outcome. Or was I? The first response came from a complete troll who suggested that the commitment required to a…
A lot of people in traditional corporate jobs ask me for advice on how to make the move to tech. One of the things I tell many of them is to find a reverse mentor.
A reverse mentor is when the student becomes the teacher. When someone (often) less experienced than you offers valuable knowledge that can open new doors to the way you do things or think. Given that I learned to type on a typewriter and went to college before the Internet, I’ve had a lot of reverse mentors as I’ve become more involved in tech in the past few years. The help and advice of these reverse mentors have helped to give me the knowledge, confidence and connections to make the leap to the start up space. So, if you are sitting in a corporate job dreaming of joining a tech start up, you likely need a reverse mentor.
Here are three ways they can help you:
Even if you don’t long for a job at a tech start up, hanging with a reverse mentor 1) is fun and 2) keeps you from becoming a dinosaur in your current job. Go ahead. Take the hipster in the design department out for coffee. You’ll both be glad you did.