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My #tableflip story

This is my tableflip story, at long last. It’s relevant to another post I will make later this week, but there’s too much here for it all to fit cleanly into that one. And I think I did promise to write one.

Maybe techbros will look at it and say “no big loss; they’re a junior developer, anyway.” That’s fine. I look at it and say “no big loss; I’ll be my own boss and be happy doing work that makes people’s lives better.” Because, while I admit that there are things I want to learn that are going to be harder to pick up outside of a Real Tech Jobâ„¢, my health and mental well-being have to come first. It’s clear they won’t, in tech.

It all started last summer

When I went looking for a tech job outside of libraries, I realized I was at a disadvantage, due to my nontraditional background (a CS minor over a decade ago is hardly enough to get me through the standard algorithm-, whiteboarding-, and vocab-heavy tech interview), so I wouldn’t get to be super picky. Still, I knew enough to ask lots of questions about the company’s culture; I read enough Model View Culture that I went in with eyes open.

When I got an offer from That Tech Job I Had, I thought I’d lucked out, finding a place that said so many of the right things about gender diversity; plus, they had lots of female interns and hosted the local women-in-tech nights (both are Official Good Signsâ„¢). More importantly, it was super collaborative, and the other developers were really open and cool about teaching/learning/asking questions/answering questions. Being a newer developer, I knew I had a lot to learn, so that last bit was key, for me. Finally, when I was visiting, it was clear that people were leaving at 5-6pm, and there was a lot of life in their work-life balance; as someone with a chronic illness, for whom even 40 hours/week can be pretty taxing, this was attractive to me.

There were some red flags, admittedly. I noticed that someone in a wheelchair would be unable to access the office (the key reader was too high), that management was all male (except for the office manager who orders food and does HR work and, no joke, takes notes at meetings), that only one developer was older than me (the nicest guy! I almost didn’t leave due to his helpfulness alone, no joke), that the final stage of the interview required 2-3 days of unpaid labor (seriously), that it employed an open office setup (tldr: high illness rate, bad for attention), that hiring-related HR functions were mostly handled by an intern (seriously), and that most of the women in the office were interns or on teams other than development. It was also a “nonprofit startup,” which is two axes for potentially justifying mistreating people, right there. So, again: eyes open. I knew they had work to do to be properly inclusive, but they seemed invested in doing the work; it was in their strategic plan!

Sadly, as I pointed out in my exit email (yes, I tried to help fix the culture even as I left), they failed badly at living up to their ideals of openness and inclusivity, at that point in time.*

Ironically, this organization that had such high ideals ended up being super oppressive because of one of its co-founders. He was unaware of his own biases (which is extra sad-funny because his partner writes peer-reviewed papers about bias), and he constantly gaslighted his employees, telling them that they were misremembering conversations, when it was he who had changed his mind. Multiple people warned me about his “bad memory,” and one person confessed they’d taken to recording conversations with this guy, just to play back for themselves, to prove they weren’t crazy; they never played it back for him, because he’d have reacted very, very badly.

All that was frustrating, yes, and I shouldn’t downplay how much heartache and self-questioning it caused me. Simultaneously, there was a move away from the expectation of reasonable hours, which was also not great. And there was also this whole debacle with that co-founder shifting me off a project right as the crunch time ended and the opportunity for learning began; also, curiously, right as it was a success. But…

The thing that ultimately led to my quitting was this co-founder’s policy that some new developers (disproportionately not white and Asian men in their 20s) were to be isolated from the other developers and given tasks that they could only ask him for help on; they were not allowed to talk to the rest of the team about work. Further, he would not ever answer questions, only give hints. He claimed it was for our own good, that the only way to “really learn” was alone, that he was helping us, and no amount of protesting would convince him he was wrong. (<snark>This was true of most things, really.</snark>)

Speaking in general, this tactic was incredibly harmful, not just because it was applied unevenly; it also sent the clear message that those of us undergoing this treatment were unworthy of proper training and undeserving of the other developers’ time (a message some of my peers tried hard to dispel, by offering to help on the sly). This guy could not have activated our impostor syndrome and stereotype threat harder if he’d tried.

For my part, since I’d taken the job in part for the collaborative environment, with no idea that this weird rite of passage was coming, I was appalled; since I know more than nothing about the pedagogy of learning to code, I was horrified; and since it didn’t happen until I’d been working there for two months, completed a hugely successful project, and chosen my own tickets to solve for several weeks (and solved them successfully!), I was taken completely aback. The main task he assigned was also completely unreasonable, both beyond my skill level and with an absurdly short deadline. I did successfully complete the task (plus a second, more reasonable one, assigned at the same time), but it took me five times longer than he’d allowed for, and he made a big show of shaming me about it in front of two new coworkers on a Friday afternoon at 4:30 and making the office manager take notes so it could “go in [my] file.” To be clear, this task was not part of the critical path; in fact, that code was going to be ripped out and replaced within the month.

It was pretty obvious that this was the start of a paper trail leading toward them firing me. (It isn’t relevant, but he added some untrue and unverifiable things to those notes, to make them look extra damning.) I can’t know for sure why, but my best guess: I had complained when the work week got beyond about 60 hours for 3-4 weeks in a row, leading up to the completion of that project I mentioned above; I never specifically said that I couldn’t handle it because I had a chronic illness—ironically, because I was afraid he’d want to fire me.

So I left, because the constant gaslighting, isolation, and apparent efforts to discredit me were tanking my confidence, because I didn’t see a way to circumvent the co-founder if he wanted me gone, and because I wasn’t willing to stay and let this man destroy me.

Within four months of starting, I was gone, their second female developer to quit in less than two years of existence.

(╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

To recap: I found an organization that was so promising and passed most of the tests I knew to give it and showed a pretty good understanding of at least basic diversity issues; and it still pretty much destroyed my confidence as a developer. I was useless for months after that job ended. In talking to a few other people who left, I don’t appear to have been the only person whose confidence was damaged. We’re all bouncing back, though.

And I guess, strictly speaking, I’m not leaving tech. I’m leaving other people’s tech organizations. I’ll do tech, alone and with teams I choose to work with (including any of my peer-level coworkers from That Place, if you’re reading this!). For now, that looks like building websites, mostly in WordPress. As I build skills, I hope to grow into more development-heavy contracting. Maybe it’ll take me longer to get there, but I will be amazing. I’m not letting anybody else’s egotistic elitism drown me, ever again.

* Reportedly, they’re getting better now. For instance, one thing I pointed out seems to be improving: they had previously only kept one female intern as a full employee, ever, when dude-interns got jobs almost as a matter of course. This last batch was the reverse. Also, they’re building in a layer of middle management (all white men, unfortunately), which may serve to protect the developers from the toxic co-founder, whose work takes him out of the office more and more often. My friends who stayed seem hopeful that it is improving, and I sincerely hope they’re right. My peers and the office manager were/are all delightful people, and I wish them the best.

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