Selected Topics: Becoming a learner instead of a knower, finding a job as a coding bootcamp grad, the advantages of problems, and unconscious bias.
About Roo: Raised in New Jersey, Roo studied anthropology and pre-med at the College of William and Mary, where she was involved in student health initiatives on-campus. This led to an early career as a Project Manager at Epic, a healthcare technology company. After attending Hackbright Academy, a women’s coding bootcamp in San Francisco, she became a software engineer at Slack in early 2016. Find her on LinkedIn, Medium and Twitter.
Books Roo RecommendS
Check out her 2016 Reading List here
All Over but the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg (Mentioned by Tammy)
Between the World & Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem
The Sellout: A Novel by Paul Beatty
Swingtime by Zadie Smith
- “The best teacher is the problem”
- “I’m ethically aligned with the mission of this company”
- “Nothing I study on my own is going to teach me as much as having a job”
- “When my style of work changed, my style of living changed”
- “I’m creative. I’m clever. And I can learn. And I know these things to be true because of what I have made.”
- “If you don’t know what you want to do, stop looking for a job and start looking for a company.”
Note: The text below reflects constructive editing of the published audio for clarity and flow. Time stamps indicate a change of topic.
Erin Allard: In today’s episode of WITtalks we’re with Roo Harrigan, Software Engineer at Slack, in San Francisco. Don’t miss this episode if you’re interested in becoming a learner rather than a knower, how to shine in technical interviews as a new developer, the advantage of problems, and becoming aware of unconscious bias
Welcome to another episode of the WITtalks podcast, I’m Erin Allard your producer and co-host.
Tammy Sanders: I’m Tammy Sanders, your co-host.
Erin: And we’re here with Roo Harrigan, who is a Software Engineer at Slack.
Roo Harrigan: Hello.
Tammy: Hi, Roo! Welcome to the podcast.
Erin: To set the scene a little bit, Roo has reserved us a cavernous meeting room in Slack, with sofas all around, a humongous table, and free sodas. So we’re pumped and ready.
Roo: La Croix…this is important.
Tammy: We’re very excited.
Tammy: Thanks for having us at Slack.
Roo: Heck yeah.
[01:22] Erin: So why did you say yes to being on our podcast?
Roo: I know that this podcast came out of the desire to record these one-on-one conversations that women were having about pursuing careers in tech. I frequently get approached for one-on-one opportunities to have coffee, or discuss, or a quick phone chat with women who are trying to enter the industry through the bootcamp route, which is how I got in.
I love those chats, I love making time for them, but sometimes I can’t say yes to everyone who asks me. I thought it would be wonderful [to do the podcast] so I’d be able to say, “I don’t have time to meet this week but here’s this great piece of recording where I probably give better prepared answers than I would give you at 9am on a Tuesday at Blue Bottle Coffee.”
Erin: Yeah, totally. Tammy, I think you had a good phrase for it, which was, “being able to scale your story”.
Tammy: You’re the first person who had said that, that you get approached quite a bit. I also thought it was interesting because you said something like, “I’m so grateful that people think I have something to share with them, and I can’t share it with everyone all the time.” We’re really glad that you felt this would be a useful way to help share that story.
Roo: I think that in the retelling of a story, the more you tell it, the further you get from the truth of the experience of that story. The further that I get from my experience of going to Hackbright, making a career change, starting at Slack… The more hindsight kicks in, the more I’m able to add some fizz to the story that I wouldn’t have at the time.
Maybe it’s better to record it now and fossilize the way I felt, rather than to look back next year and advise someone. Hopefully my knowledge, usefulness, and experience is growing, but it’s nice to have a record of the story along the way.
Erin: Totally, yeah.
Tammy: That’s something we thought of, too. We want to be able to come back to folks who have been on the podcast a year from now or three years from now and see how they’ve evolved and what their story is at that time.
Roo: To prepare for today I went back and read some of my blog posts that I’d written while I was in Hackbright. Reading your own blog posts is like listening to your own voice on an answering machine. I thought, “This is so indulgent and there are a lot of extra commas and uhhh…” [Laughter]
Tammy: Erin is a fan of the semicolon, so we understand.
Erin: Indeed, I am.
Roo: Good, good.
Erin: It’s one of my favorite marks of punctuation.
Roo: I was struck by how juvenile the writing about technical topics was. Oh my gosh, I didn’t know anything. It is nice to come back to your own writing, if only to build on your own perspective, even if no one ever reads it. It’s nice to have it there.
[03:58] Tammy: Yeah, absolutely. Give us a little bit of context, who you are now, anything that you think is relevant to how you got to where you are.
Roo: Sure. I’m from the central coast of New Jersey. Some people like to call that the Jersey Shore. There’s a nice story about my path and my parents’ path. My mom is a nurse practitioner, now a professor of nursing at a community college. My dad is a software developer at AT&T. I’m pretty sure he was there when C was invented.
I didn’t know a lot about his work until recently, but he has been a software developer my whole life, even before I was born. Growing up, I knew a lot about my mom’s career and I didn’t know a lot about my dad’s. I think, in part, because medicine is a tangible, understandable career for a kid. A kid experiences medicine because everybody’s been a patient at some point. All I knew about my dad’s job was that there were a lot of books with animals on the covers.
Erin: The O’Reilly Media publications?
Tammy: Really? Because I don’t come from the programming world. I don’t get the reference. For those of us who might be listening who aren’t programmers, tell us a little bit about this.
Roo: O’Reilly is a publishing group that puts out an enormous amount of technical publications. All the books kind of look the same. The cover is white, there’s black text on the cover, maybe one other highlight color, and a giant line-drawn animal. If you saw one, you’d know it. As a kid I remember seeing the Perl books on the shelf. One of them had a llama on it; I really liked the llama. Or alpaca, I’m not sure.
I knew a lot about medicine but I didn’t know a lot about software development. I did well in school. I was very good in high school. I was thinking about this and I realized I didn’t really know what it was to fail and to struggle, to get a “B” or a “C”.
[05:56] Tammy: You said you did well in school. Obviously, you didn’t know what it was to get a “B” or a “C”, but what do you think it was that helped you do well in school? And what did it mean to do well? Did it mean just getting “As” and passing the tests or did it mean other things for you too?
Roo: I would say grades and participation. I was a good writer, I liked to study and I spent a lot of time reading. I didn’t take a lot of classes that dictated, “Here’s a problem. Go solve it in an interdisciplinary way.” Or, “Here’s a problem and here are the tools that you have, take a stab at it. Figure it out.” It was academia for the pursuit of academia. When I went to college I chose a school that I thought would put me on the path to being an academic. I went to the College of William and Mary, the second oldest school in the country. It was very much a classic, liberal-arts curriculum.
I think that environment exacerbated some of my tendencies to only do what I was very good at it, which for me in college tended to be in the social sciences. I was pre-med accidentally. I took all these different classes. At first I thought I wanted to be a geologist, but then I took this seminar called “Sediments” and it was very difficult.
Tammy: I’m sorry—and no disrespect to our geologists out there—the “Sediments” seminar does not sound sexy. Although one of the best books I’ve ever read is called Up and Down California and it’s about the first geological survey of California. It’s actually a really great book, but most people don’t think geology is sexy.
Roo: Well, the thing is, geology is quite sexy and it took me a long time to realize that. I really wish that had been my major but that’s another story for another time.
I was pursuing this anthropology and geology double major. Geology actually requires all of the pre-med requirements as part of the degree. I fell into pre-med by default. I had always felt very passionate about preventative healthcare and health education. I think I got that from my mom.
I had been involved in this health outreach group on campus, called Health Outreach Pure Educators, or HOPE, and I worked on a project to get a grant and some funding from Trojan to get free condoms [for students at our school]. Trojan does a lot with college campuses. It wasn’t super unique, but we had all this contraception and no one was using it because it was only available in the Student Health Center. You had to go to a public place [to pick it up] and then it was in a big pile.
I and a few folks in this group had the idea that we could set up a delivery service to student mailboxes. We worked with somebody from the computer science department to write the webpage. At the time I thought, “Oh my gosh, this is magic! They put in their number and then we get a spreadsheet with their numbers and their order! That’s crazy!” I had no idea how they did it.
Tammy: Mad props to technology though. I think when you do see it for the first time, it does seem inaccessible. That’s kind of what you talked about with your your dad and your mom, that what your dad did for his job was just inaccessible. It was this mysterious, magical thing, with animals on the cover!
Roo: You can’t get your fingers in it, nobody gives you a figurine of a software developer and says, “Play computers.”
It was the first time I’d had an interaction with somebody where I said, “Here’s a problem we want to solve, but we have no idea how.” Their response was: “Webpage. Done.”
Tammy: Technology can solve that.
Roo: Yeah, “We can solve this.”
We won a little award for that, we took it on the road and presented it at a conference. I was contacted by a recruiter from Epic, which is a healthcare technology company based out of Verona, Wisconsin, in the Madison area. They said, “Would you like to have an interview with us?” I said, “OK.”
I had no idea what they did. I knew I wanted to be in healthcare but I wasn’t aggressively studying pre-med, so I wasn’t ready to apply to med school. I said, “Yes, perfect, intersection of healthcare and technology. I thought this webpage stuff was amazing, I don’t have any other job offers, let’s do it.”
I went out there, I had an interview, I researched what it meant to make electronic medical records, and a week later I accepted a job. I moved from Virginia to Madison, Wisconsin two months later and I started as an Implementation Services employee at Epic.
I thought, for the first year that I was there, that I was going to go to medical school. My mom and I were connecting on this great level about technology and healthcare and what it meant to teach students in this new time and what it meant to care for people when there’s so much more information available. We had really great talks.
My dad also understood what my job was. Epic is an amazing place to work. It was founded by Judy Faulkner, who’s also the CEO. She was very young when she started the company in 1979—way early on, in the history of software development.
Erin: Pretty remarkable.
Tammy: And in Wisconsin.
Roo: Yes, and she kept it in Wisconsin. She’s also the only female CEO in the HealthTech space and is still working full time. I’m really proud to have worked under the umbrella of her organization because it taught me a lot about working with customers whose first priority has nothing to do with your product.
I worked on the inpatient clinical software, so any software that nurses and physicians would use in the hospital. It’s also used by physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech language pathologists, respiratory therapists—all these disciplines that people go to many, many years of school for in order to be experts in their arena. And 22-year-old Roo is going to come in and tell them how to do their jobs on the computer.
Tammy: I’m sure it went over really well.
Roo: Yeah, that doesn’t fly.
[11:53] Erin: While you were at Epic and as you progressed, did you have increasingly more technical roles? Was there evolution in the type of work you were doing for them?
Roo: Yeah. Epic is a huge suite of products, but there were still many areas where there weren’t products. During my time at Epic I became increasingly interested in the concerns being raised by mental health practitioners. They tend to see patients in groups, which is an interesting problem when most things about a health record are very singular. With HIPAA, we don’t want anything about your record to be shared without your consent.
Tammy: For people who may not know, can you define HIPAA?
Roo: Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. It’s a piece of legislation that gives patients their rights to privacy, protection of their health information, and also their right to release that information to specific people.
Behavioral health is an interesting arena. I started to form connections with different physicians and clinical leaders at different hospitals across the country who were airing these concerns. I started to collect the concerns and I was able to put together a group of people who were also passionate about mental health. Luckily, mental health is a specialty for which people tend to say, “I have a personal connection this, I think we should make a product to support it.”
That is how I wormed my way into more of a product management role at Epic. I started to spend more time with customers at a high level, and then time with a team, which eventually included software developers. That was my first time working directly with developers and getting to see their lifestyle, how they approached problems, and how they approached their lives. It started as a lifestyle jealousy thing for me.
[13:38] Tammy: How so? Especially because your dad was a software developer.
Roo: I know. Isn’t that crazy, how the role models we choose define us? It took me so long to see my dad as a career role model. He’s always been an ethical role model for me. He’s a lifetime learner, a very passionate reader. He volunteered at our library for a long time. I definitely absorbed things from him, but because I didn’t know too much about his career it was still this black box.
Tammy: They never had “Take Your Daughter to Work Day”?
Roo: I think I did go to work with him once but I was very young.
[14:13] Tammy: What did you start to absorb about these software developers from Epic that you did not absorb from seeing your dad’s career?
Roo: The first thing I noticed was that they had time. I never had more than a 30-minute break between anything. I was always in meetings, always on the phone, and always giving presentations or working with customers.
I was worn down by then. My hours weren’t as high as when I started, but my hours were still high. I still had crazy 80-90 hour weeks. I still had Saturday and Sunday in the office and I travelled a lot.
I noticed that they’d come to a meeting, we’d have a discussion about a specific concern and then they’d go back to their offices. For four hours, they’d think about that problem. Next time I saw them, they wouldn’t be unprepared, they wouldn’t be tired or crazed. They’d say, “We thought about these problems, we reviewed the notes you sent, here’s what we think.” It was this amazing interaction.
I started to get very jealous of their time and I became very jealous of what they were spending their time on because I was so excited to solve this problem. I knew the problem so well clinically, I’d seen it in the groups, but I couldn’t do anything about it.
Tammy: But the engineers could.
Roo: They could. I could give them something, a problem to solve, and they could give me much more, an explanation of why it would be so difficult to solve that problem.
Tammy: Hold on a second, though. “You could give them a problem to solve, and they could give you much more.” Yet, if you didn’t give them a problem to solve in the first place, they would have nothing to give you.
Roo: Yes, but I suppose if they hadn’t built a company I would have had nowhere to work. [Laughter]
Tammy: But, they built that company to solve those problems in the first place.
Roo: Right. It’s symbiotic. I had this great experience and then I talked to my friend on the team. I asked him if there was any way that I could start to learn how to code and he said, “I was a math major, I taught myself.” I asked, “You taught yourself? When?”
Erin: Lightbulb moment.
Roo: Lightbulb moment. Then I started to learn Java at night.
Erin: Well, that’s a real easy one to start with. [Laughter]
Roo: My dad is proficient in Java and so were the folks that I was working with at the time.
Erin: So you had support for questions.
Tammy: Did you ever go back and ask your dad, “Hey, I finally want to learn something about computers, do you think you could teach it to me?”
Roo: Yeah, I remember the first time my dad and I had the conversation he suggested I start by learning Python. If you’re looking for a course it should be in Python, if you’re doing something online it should be in Python. Next week, three big O’Reilly books about Python showed up.
Erin: What a good dad!
Roo: That is how I started poking around on Codecademy and some other online resources. Then I got this idea that I wanted to make a switch internally. I thought, “What if Epic would just take me as an intern or something? I know so much about the product. I’ve been pouring my effort into being a good employee.”
I was still in a fixed mindset at the time. I thought I was smart. What I should have been thinking was, “I can learn!” Not “I’m smart.” Who cares? That doesn’t mean anything, but I can learn. Unfortunately, there wasn’t an internal path at Epic for me to switch to engineering. Without a degree, in computer science, computer engineering, or applied math, I wouldn’t even have been in the intern pool.
Erin: That’s really disappointing.
Tammy: So they didn’t have an internal development path.
Roo: There was no internal development path. I was already thinking that I was ready to go to a new geographic location, so it just kind of kicked off all these other little processes in my brain.
I thought, “If not here, then where? If I can’t do it here, then where? I’m not going back to school, I’m not going back to undergrad, I’m not getting another degree. I’ve had this series of lightbulb moments. I can identify problems and hunt for solutions, organize a team, give presentations, and analyze data. I can do these things. The best teacher is a problem and I’m going to work on problems that are important to me.”
My boyfriend and I got rid of all of our stuff and moved to California. We both went to bootcamps.
[18:47] Tammy: Why California? There’s East Coast bootcamps. There’s bootcamps around the country, why here?
Roo: Firstly, I always loved San Francisco. I had the privilege of coming out here and spending some time with UCSF. I loved the city. I had a very good friend who lived out here and I’d visited him before. I had it on my list. It was on the shortlist already. New York was the obvious choice. My whole family and everybody I grew up with is in the New York area. Opportunity wise, there’s just no comparison.
Tammy: New York would beg to differ.
Roo: What I’m saying is in the techsphere, certainly there are large companies hiring engineers in New York, but things here [in the Bay Area] are slightly less focused on credentials. You can see that because bootcamp grads have had some success in the Bay Area, more so than in any other area. Companies here might only put out job postings for senior engineers, but they need somebody right away and will take people who are scrappy, willing to learn, and ready to jump in. I thought, “If there’s anywhere we have a good shot of getting a job, it’s San Francisco.”
I applied to Hackbright. I had a friend who’d applied to it and she referred me to the program. My boyfriend attended App Academy. I just said, “Let’s do it. Worst case scenario: I’ll take some time off”, which I desperately needed, “and I’ll wait until my non-compete expires.” So I came out here for Hackbright. I wrote a blog about that!
[19:35] Tammy: If you were to think back to the Roo who moved here and where you are now, what would you tell yourself back at that time?
Roo: When you get tired, learn to rest, not to quit. I think I was so tired from my job, just hours-wise. I loved the work but it was just too many hours. I never rested. Even when I went on vacation I was hiking the Inca Trail or camping. I was never doing nothing. I’m an athlete, I’m very focused on doing anything to get my heart rate up, to break a sweat. I really didn’t take physical rest either. My one outlet, my one escape during travel, was to go for a run or go to the gym or take a 45-minute break and do some yoga in my hotel room.
I didn’t incorporate a good recovery routine. When I left Epic my threshold for anxiety was very low. I could move very quickly from composed and ready to attack the problem of the day to sobbing uncontrollably under my desk. I was tired. I thought at first, “Oh my gosh, there’s something seriously wrong with me!” But I was fatigued.
I think that’s what I would tell myself coming into Hackbright. You need to make a rest and recovery plan. Bootcamps aren’t easy.
Tammy: They’re like a sunup to sundown kind of thing.
Erin: Even more so if you’re commuting and trying to stay on top of your classwork and all of that.
Roo: Yeah, and if you have a family. In that regard I was really lucky I was only responsible for myself and my houseplants. I walked to Hackbright and just tried to be nice to myself during that time. We didn’t have any money so I couldn’t really do anything except write code and drink tea at home.
Tammy: It sounds like that’s actually what you needed.
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Roo: The difference between the act of writing a summary or filling out a budget spreadsheet, and the feeling of doing a task given to me as part of a lab assignment at Hackbright, was the feeling of excitement and motivation in my brain, the energy that I had. It completely shifted from a series of nagging tasks that I was going to have to muscle through—because I was a good worker, a responsible person, and I kept my promises—to a completely new me. I could be curious and silly. I could make all these mistakes and I could just delete them. No one was watching me except me.
[23:44] Tammy: It also sounds like you moved from being a knower to being a learner. You talked a lot about yourself as being smart rather than, “Oh I could learn that.” Do you feel that’s a transition you made? That’s something I hear but I’m wondering how you experienced it.
Roo: I experienced it as the shift from me being a snooty, wannabe academic—
Tammy: OK, I didn’t say all that about you, Roo—
Roo: Well no, that’s OK. It’s good for me to offer up the criticism of myself, which is to move from this idea of being credentialed to being capable. To come in and say “I know nothing”, there’s power in that. To say up front “I know nothing about this” or “I know very little”— “I can write a for loop, great for me, let’s learn about what comes next.” I changed my attitude from “how does what I accomplish look to other people?” to “If it works, if it’s good enough, if we’re confident in the testing that we put around it, if we’re confident it solves the core of this problem that we’re focusing on, ship it, launch it, go.”
[24:45] Erin: What was it like for you finishing Hackbright and starting the job hunting process?
Roo: I had a hard deadline for when I needed to have a job or I was going to have to move back into my parents’ basement. If they would have me. We never had that conversation. I’m not sure they would’ve. We moved to San Francisco in August, I started Hackbright in September, we finished in the middle of December. It was a very tricky time to try and get a job because a lot of companies go on a hiring freeze for the holidays.
I basically had until March 1st before I was going to say, “Something’s got to give.” I think a lot of women came out of the program with an attitude of doing a lot of prep work before they felt ready to start interviewing and I didn’t have that kind of time. Anybody who contacted me, I contacted them back. I went bam-bam-bam. I knew I was going home for the holidays so I wanted to get in everything that I could before I flew across the country. I had 11 first round interviews the week after Career Day in mid-December.
[25:50] Tammy: That’s a lot of interviews the week after Career Day. How did you get 11 interviews?
Roo: Career Day at Hackbright, for my cohort, was a speed dating setup. We had 24 companies come who brought a mix of recruiters and engineering directors. You sat with each of them for seven minutes and you did a demonstration of the app that you had created during the project phase of the boot camp.
Out of that came a lot of soft introductions, a lot of handshakes, card exchanges. I reached out to every single person who I met that day. I said, “Hi, my name’s Roo Harrigan, I made this project. You may not remember it, here’s the link, please consider me for any available associate engineering roles.”
Out of that outreach, I heard back from 11 people. I had my screening calls with them and then I had seven followups from that. I got to do some second round interviews and then I went home for the holiday. Over the holiday, I hacked on my side project, I did exercises from my Cracking the Coding Interview, and my dad and I talked about Python the whole Christmas break.
It made my mom nuts! She was like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about! Can you just tell me about a nice restaurant you’ve been to?” I said, “I haven’t been to any nice restaurants! I don’t have any money! I need a job! I need to talk about Python!”
Then I got back to San Francisco and I had four onsite interviews the week after New Year’s Day. I had three offers the week after that. I accepted the offer from Slack in mid-January and started February 8th.
Tammy: A couple followups from that. You were not kidding around. You were no joke about the process.
Roo: No, I needed to find a job as soon as I possibly could.
[27:39] Tammy: If you were to give some guidance to bootcamp grads, just taking from your example, the first one would probably be, “Just be diligent, be seriously diligent.”
Erin: And go for it. Don’t feel like you have to spend months and months to prepare, just jump in.
Roo: Yeah. It’s different for everybody but I realized very quickly that nothing I did on my own was going to teach me as quickly as having a job. All I wanted was to find a job where they said, “Yes, we’re ready to take you on, teach you, and utilize the other skills that you have while you’re getting up to speed technically.”
[28:13] Tammy: What is it that you think got you not just through the door with the interviewing, but actually got someone to say, “Yes, we’re going to take you on”? That might help other folks think about how to package and market those other skills.
Roo: My attitude was to open the door to everybody. I pursued everybody who I had a warm introduction to. There’s no need to show your emotions or opinions about their company or their product at the door, because really until you work at a company you have no idea what it’s like to work on their product, or the culture that drives what they’re making. That’s Step One.
Step Two is to think very hard about who you want to spend time researching. Once I had that pool of seven companies I thought, “Which company is making something that I love? Who’s also working on a problem that matters to me? Who has a tech stack that’s going to set me up for success? Who has people who I think I could be friends with?”
Then there’s some logistical stuff. I really wanted to work in the city. I didn’t want to have to commute to Mountain View. I wanted to work on the backend. I knew what types of problems I was more interested in. That helped me narrow down what I spent more time preparing for.
Tammy: So it was, “Problem I want to solve, in the city I want to live in, working on the backend, with people I could be friends with.” Got it.
Roo: For me, I knew that when I went home for the holiday that I was going to lose momentum. I think that unless you’re very, very self-disciplined, as soon as you get out of a structured educational environment you’re going to lose momentum. You’re going to lose steam. Bootcamp grads meet with me and they’re like, “Do you think I should wait? Do I need to do a month of prep?” And I say, “No! You should try and get into the interview pool as soon as you’re done with bootcamp because you’ll never be ready.”
Erin: It’s kind of like taking the SAT, where the best way to get ready for the SAT is to take practice test after practice test. The best way to get ready for a technical interview is just to do them.
Roo: I had three technical interviews with Uber, with three different teams. None of them went that great, I’ll be honest. I finished the first one and tears just started rolling down my face. I was like, “I’m never going to get in anywhere, no one’s going to want me, I spent this money and I moved out here for nothing.”
[30:27] Tammy: What I can imagine though, Roo—you talk about coming from this place where you were a smart kid and you did things that were easy for you to do. Then you made this major move and learned all of these skills and kind of sucked at some of them and you were kind of good at others. There’s just such a paradigm shift for you, right?
Roo: Yeah, oh yeah. I am not the most underdog of the underdogs in tech. I know that my story is not emblematic of the true struggle to bootstrap yourself into this industry. I’ve had a lot of support. But I’m a woman, I don’t have a technical degree, and I am sensitive. Sensitivity is something people don’t talk about a lot. I let a tear fall in my first interview because I got a math problem that made me think, “Oh my gosh, I don’t know.”
Tammy: She’s making a scary face right now, for those who can’t see her she’s making a super scary face right now.
Roo: Imagine me taking a sharp breath of air in through my nose and popping my head up like a meerkat. That’s my scared face.
You should show up to an interview or a company and try to be the best version of yourself, be authentically yourself. For me, that means to show my emotions on my face, ask questions when I’m confused, and admit when I’m wrong or going down a path I’m not sure of.
When I had the opportunity to go onsite at Slack, I thought, “OK, I already enjoyed my exchanges with these folks. I enjoyed the technical screen that they offered.” It was quite different from other technical interviews that I’d been involved in. It was a take home. They said, “Here, solve this problem in a week and send it back to us.” No other company did that. They all made me do these weird HackerRank challenges with live coding.
Tammy: Is that something Slack still does?
Roo: Yeah, it’s our standard. That really appealed to me because they said, “Do work the way you might do work at work.” I don’t sit at my desk and write code with my manager leaning over me, saying, “Close bracket, close bracket.” If I did, I’d go mad.
Tammy: I’m not a programmer and even I get that one, that’s hilarious.
Roo: Right? Nobody works like that. Slack just has you do a project that’s just an example of work you might be doing. That really appealed to me. As soon as I got here and I started meeting people I thought, “These are my people! I don’t know how I know that but I know it. I think they know it too, or they’ve all got really good poker faces.”
The interview felt really natural and happy to me here. When it came down to decision making time, we don’t have the sexiest tech stack in the world. I write PHP, and a lot of people ask why Slack is in PHP. But FaceBook is in PHP, Wikipedia is in PHP, and hundreds of other companies use PHP. It’s a great language for job security. It’s tried and true, and I didn’t know it. It was something new to me. [Editor’s note: WordPress websites are also written in PHP, and WordPress websites account for 27% of all websites world wide.]
[33:24] Tammy: It sounds like you were willing to be non-judgey about the tech. You were more concerned with, “Am I going to learn, and am I going to work with the people I want to be around?”
Roo: Oh, yeah. Who was I to be judgey? Here’s this girl who showed up three months ago like, “Computers are calculators with clocks and that’s all I know! Wanna take me?”
Tammy: Please tell me you said that in your interview? That would be super awesome.
Roo: No, although I do fondly remember that their application required you to put a few things about what you’re interested in and what you like to do outside of work. I really like experimenting with my crockpot. My interviewer asked me, “What’s the last thing you cooked in your crockpot?” And the question caught me so off guard because I was ready, I was in interview mode. He said, “Hey Roo, nice to meet you. Before we get into it, tell me about the last thing you made in your crockpot.” I blanched. I thought, “What was the last thing I made in my crockpot?” [Laughter]
Yeah, I didn’t have any reason to be judgmental. I was too nervous to answer questions about my own cooking habits. Slack has turned out to be the perfect place for me and the perfect place to continue to discard that old notion of “I’m smart” and to foster the sense of “I’m good enough. I’m creative. I’m clever. I can learn. And I know these things to be true because of what I have made. I have proof.”
And it’s not proof in the same way a diploma is proof, or grades are proof. But when you click on an app in Slack, you click on the name of an app, a card pops up giving you more information about that app. I was part of the team that made that. That feature didn’t exist and now it does.
[35:11] Tammy: I think being smart is important for many things, but it’s not the end-all be-all. That’s the message that I hear from you. That perhaps it is sometimes better to not know and to be a learner than it is to know and be a knower.
Roo: That is a powerful thing. This can’t be overstated in its importance in my life. When my work changed, my style of work changed, my style of living changed, and my quality of living improved because I started to see these other challenges in my life not as things that had happened to me or states of being that were inevitable based on who I was, but questions or challenges that could, with resources, be addressed.
Take my blog, for example. I always liked writing but I never made consistent time to write for myself. But I asked, “What if during my first project at Hackbright I wrote a blog post every day?” I spent however long it took me, ten minutes or two hours, reflecting on the thoughts that I had during that day. I wrote about what I thought was hard, what I struggled with, what I remembered, what I forgot. I didn’t hold myself to any standards about this blog, other than that I would do it. You can see that in the posts, some of them are just doo-doo.
Erin: Forever there for posterity.
Roo: Right. Forever there. Someday when I run for School Board or City Council, someone’s going to show this to the public and say, “Roo wrote this”.
Tammy: Oh yeah, we’re going to be digging those up.
Erin: Do you really want to elect someone who does not use commas properly?
Roo: And who described her own writing as “doo-doo.” Perhaps, if you have a sense of humor.
[37:03] Tammy: Oh man. Roo, one of the questions that I would like to pose to you again, for folks who are “green”, is why do you think Slack hired you? How is it that a “green” developer can make their way into the tech world?
Roo: Why did Slack hire me? I’ll never know the true answer to this. I can only guess, but I went nuts on the technical assessment. I spent all of my time that week tweaking the code that I wrote. It took me a lot longer to do than it would take me now. I wrote commented code, I reviewed my files repeatedly to make sure everything looked nice, I wrote tests, I CSS’ed the crap out of it.
Anything that I could do to prove, in a technical sense, that I was very serious in my own “green” way, I showed it there in the code. I wasn’t going to write them a long email saying, “My name’s Roo and I’m so excited to have this opportunity…” I wanted to show them physically with my work. That, hopefully, is step one.
Then when I came onsite I was able to make connections with the people who I met and showcase my experience in the tech world in general. Also, I talked at length about my experiences with different managers and management styles, and what I felt would be a healthy management style for me.
One of the great advantages of hiring a bootcamp grad into an entry-level position is that you’re not hiring someone who’s never paid their taxes. I was “ready”, on the process side at Slack, to jump in. I knew how to learn about this company. I knew how to surface feedback and receive it. I knew how to best utilize my time with my manager.
Tammy: In other words, you know how to be a professional.
Roo: Right. The last thing I’ll say about this, and I hope that this is true, is that Slack actually solved a problem that I was really drowning under in my life: Communicating via email. Slack is a team communication tool that allows users to communicate by channel, across teams, instead of through crazy threaded email chains.
When you work with a customer for three years, these emails can get insane. People use the phrase “spaghetti code” but I had “spaghetti emails”. A lot of things were cross-referenced and I had a series of other software tools that I used to do my job every day at Epic that I spent a lot of time re-summarizing.
When I started using Slack at Hackbright I thought, “Wow! This thing! It’s not curing cancer and it’s not regulating solar power, but it is fixing this problem that I care about.” At first, I didn’t know how to express that. I just said when I met the engineering manager, “I’m ethically aligned with the mission of the company. I understand the mission and it speaks to me personally.” He said, “Thank you for telling us that.”
Tammy: Wow. OK then. That’s a pretty powerful thing to say to someone, especially at the interview.
Roo: Yeah, I said that during my seven minute sit down with them at the Hackbright Career Day. I made it up.
Tammy: Nicely done. You want to work for a company where you can say, “I am ethically aligned with the mission of this company.”
Roo: Yeah. I got some really good advice from one of my life mentors, who said, “If you don’t know what you want to do, stop looking for a job and start looking for a company. You have no idea, until you get in there, what the job’s going to be. But, you can learn about the company.”
[41:06] Tammy: True point. You’ve clearly done a lot and have an impressive evolution of yourself, what’s your next big dream for yourself, if you have one? Or a series of little dreams, however you think about it.
Roo: I’m focused on learning some more complex architecture patterns, particularly some challenges we’re facing on my team at Slack. I’m focused on pursuing some more public speaking opportunities to share how we solve those problems with the world. It’s true about public speaking, if you don’t use it, you lose it. I really have been missing that opportunity to get up in front of people and deliver. And work on a side project. Those are my short term things.
The other goal I have for myself this year is to get back into the habit of writing. I think it’s a bit self indulgent to call what I’ve been working on a “memoir” project, but more a collection of stories about this strange slice of modern life that I’ve been experiencing.
Tammy: Will that collection of stories be about your perspective and how you’ve experienced this slice of life?
Tammy: I think that’s called a memoir. I think you can call it that, it’s OK.
Roo: Maybe. I feel like this year has been a very strange year for me. I’ve been learning in many directions. There are so many wonderful teachers in this city and at this company who have taught me what it means to be a feminist. I feel like I’ve re-learned that. What it means to be an educated participant in local government. What it means to learn where your food comes from, to write code that is useful for your friends and your future self, and to think about caring for yourself as you care for your own aspirations.
Here at Slack we say, “Work hard, go home.” It’s a little corporate-corny but I really like that sentiment. You come to work, you show up for yourself and your colleagues and you do the best work of your life, and then you go home and do the other things that are important to you to the best of your ability. You save some energy for personal pursuits.
Tammy: OK, I think we have our three final questions.
[43:24] Erin: Oh wait, I really want to ask her if she’s read anything recently that’s notable, whether it’s books or magazines or blogs.
Roo: Oh yes, definitely. I am part of a very vibrant book club.
Erin: Woohoo! Book clubs!
Roo: Yes! Not at Slack, here in San Francisco. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote a book that we read about a Nigerian woman who comes to the United States for college. She illuminates the difference between being from Africa and being an African-American in the US, from a personal perspective. I learned so much from it. The author has this theme: the danger of a single story. When we tell a single story about a group of people we lose the power of individual experience, and in order to learn about a group of people we need to hear a group of stories.
As part of my Hackbright experience I got to meet women from all different backgrounds coming together for a common purpose, to jump into this crazy industry that is particularly difficult for women of color to enter. I realized that I needed to check my privilege and educate myself.
[44:36] Tammy: I actually want to ask you about this phrase, Roo, “check your privilege”, especially because you voluntarily used it. I’ve heard some people have a bit of a backlash reaction to that. They ask, “Why should I be asked to check my privilege as if I’ve done something wrong?” I wondered what your perspective on this phrase is and why you think it’s relevant to use it.
Roo: Well, let me approach it from an interviewing perspective, and I hope I haven’t put my foot in my mouth at all during this conversation. From an interviewing perspective we did this amazing workshop at Slack—we do it every couple of months—and it’s about trying to address unconscious bias in the workplace, recognizing it in ourselves and our peers, and remove it or think about it in the interviewing experience.
I know, both statistically and personally, that I am more likely to think that a male candidate is technically sound. I’m more likely to be harder on female candidates than male candidates, unconsciously. Consciously, no way. I know that about myself because when we did this training, as it turns out, everybody’s biased against women, including women.
Tammy: Wow, that’s a pretty phenomenal piece of insight, that even women are biased against women.
Roo: Yes, and so I have this little list of things from the workshop that I try to remember in an interview: “Roo, you know these things about yourself. Be aware that whoever you walk into this room and meet is a unique individual, and try to think to yourself, ‘What are we looking for? What are we looking for in this candidate? Are we looking for specific types of experience? An interest in specific areas?’ We’re always looking for team fit. Try to get rid of these biases and say, to the extent that it’s possible, that they don’t matter, because they’re not relevant to the requirements of the role.”
As part of that process it’s important for me to recognize that I’m white, I came from a middle-class family, I went to a fancy liberal-arts school.
Tammy: You are making a hoity toity face.
Roo: I’m making a stink face. Because of the school I went to, maybe I have a tendency to value elitist East Coast schools over other schools, so maybe I should think twice about reading the part of the resume where the person went to college, until after the interview. I make sure that, to the best of my ability, I’m trying to take myself out of the room when I walk in with an interview candidate.
Tammy: Yourself and the advantages that you have?
Roo: And the advantages that I come into the room with. Of course, that’s impossible. I am myself, I’m in my body, and I’m thinking my weird emotional thoughts. I think I’m using my prefrontal cortex but most of the time I’m not. The fact that we try to do this is the best way that Slack, from an interview perspective, can pledge to continue to build an inclusive work space.
Tammy: I’m so glad you asked the book question.
Erin: Me too.
Tammy: That was great. Alright, let’s get to these three important ones so Roo can go home for the night.
[47:34] Erin: Alright, window seat or aisle seat?
Roo: As a frequent traveler in my previous life, I learned that the window seat is cleaner than the aisle seat, so I always say window.
Tammy: Really? No way! Window seat is cleaner? Where do you get this notion though? That the window seat is cleaner, how is that possible?
Roo: I read it on the Internet, Tammy.
Erin: Therefore it must be true.
Tammy: Well people are breathing all over the window seat though.
Roo: Anyway that’s what I heard one time so I pick the window seat.
[48:04] Tammy: Alright, alright. Popsicles or Pop-Tarts?
Roo: I’m going to say popsicles. I like food on a stick.
Erin: I like corndogs. [Laughter]
Tammy: I knew you were going with corndogs.
Roo: Yeah, I like the variety of popsicles in general. I was on a “make your own popsicle” stint for awhile.
[48:27] Erin: It’s a lot of work. OK, last one. Money or fame?
Roo: I would never accept the burden of fame without significant financial incentive. Let me say that first. Not like there’s really a choice, but in this world where I get to pick, I’m going to make that statement. Certainly money, there are so many things in this world that I would donate money to, if I had more money to give.
Tammy: Fair enough. Roo, thank you so much.
Roo: Thanks for having me in.
Erin: Thank you. This has been another episode of the WITtalks podcast, thanks so much for listening.