Lara Hogan is an Engineering Director at Etsy and a published author on web performance & public speaking.
Selected Topics: Public speaking, book writing, thought leadership, ignoring trolls & developing yourself as a manager
About Lara: Lara Callender Hogan is an Engineering Director at Etsy and the author of Designing for Performance, Building a Device Lab, and Demystifying Public Speaking. She champions performance as a part of the overall user experience, helps people get comfortable giving presentations, and believes it’s important to celebrate career achievements with donuts. Follow her on Twitter, visit her website or connect with her on LinkedIn.
BOOKS SHE RECOMMENDS (and has written!)
(WITtalks will receive a small commission if you purchase a book using the affiliate links on this page. Thanks!)
Demystifying Public Speaking by Lara Hogan
Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, by Chip Heath
Note: The text below reflects constructive editing of the published audio for clarity and flow. Time stamps indicate a change of topic.
In today’s episode, we catch up with Lara Hogan, engineering director at Etsy, based in New York. Don’t miss this episode if you’re interested in public speaking, book writing, tech leadership, how to ignore trolls, and how to empower other women. And if you are a self-taught coder, you will definitely appreciate Lara’s evolution as a professional in technology.
Erin: Welcome to another episode of the WITtalks podcast. My name is Erin Allard, your producer and co-host.
Tammy: And I’m Tammy Sanders, your co-host.
Erin: And we’re here today with Lara Hogan.
Lara: Hello! How’s it going?!
Erin: Thank you for joining us!
Lara: Thank you so much for having me.
Erin: So Lara is here visiting from New York, where she works at Etsy, and you are actually here to give a speech.
Lara: Yeah, I’m gonna give a talk at Mozilla on Monday. I’m excited about it.
Tammy: Actually we should say where “here” is.
Erin: Yeah, go for it
Tammy: Let’s set the scene. So we are in San-Francisco. Lara when did you fly out? When did you come?
Lara: Oh gosh—late, late on Thursday.
Lara: So I’m a little bit jet-lagged.
Tammy: So we are in rainy San-Francisco, on a rainy Saturday morning, Downtown.
Erin: Yeah, we’re near Union Square.
[1:32] Tammy: Cool, so where are you giving your speech? Can you tell us a little bit about what you are doing?
Lara: Yeah, so Mozilla has this pretty cool master class program that they offer to a bunch of people who work there to help them get comfortable with public speaking. They’ve invited me to come in and do a master class workshop on choosing a topic and getting comfortable, finding a venue, and stuff like that.
Tammy: Public speaking actually seems to be a bit of a thing for you.
Lara: Yeah, I’m super into it right now. It’s also a little bit meta, giving talks about how to give talks. You have to be good at it in a way that it’s a little bit nerve-wracking, you know. It’s nice to also be vulnerable and make mistakes on stage and be like, “See why this is hard?” I promise, everybody has nerves.
[2:10] Tammy: Yeah, exactly! So why is this such a thing for you? Why is it such so important to you?
Lara: I started to realize—as I was giving more and more talks, specifically about web performance and some other technology topics—I was picking up little tactical tips and tricks that weren’t really been talked about or shared publicly. Things that would have never really occurred to me, like how to stiffen the inside of your collar on your blouse or your dress to make sure a lavalier microphone stays on, or how to navigate really aggressive audience members. Little things people don’t talk about, because most people are terrified of it [public speaking].
So I tried to start documenting it and sharing it mostly because, as we all know, it’s pretty homogenous out there in terms of speakers at tech conferences. I wanted to help a more diverse crowd get up on stage. And there are bunch of nuanced things that go into underrepresented people in tech finding their way to the stage.
[3:04] Erin: To get us kicked off, maybe you could fill us in on what you have been up to since college? Where did you go to school? What did you study? Give us a sense of who you are.
Lara: I wish that I had a succinct story to tell about—
Erin: That’s okay, this is not a succinct podcast!
Lara: Does anybody that you’ve talked to have a clear narrative about how they got to where they are?
Erin: It tends to roll along in a very organic way.
Tammy: But I think that’s a good point though, too, because I think that lots of the people we’ve talked to have a lot of serendipity in their story. There’s no, “I left college, and then did I X, and then I did Y and now I’m here.” It’s not a laid out path. Most of us are discovering this as we go along.
Lara: Totally. We couldn’t have been nine years old saying, “I want to be the engineering director of an E-commerce company when I grow up.” My dad always says that where his daughters have gotten to is half luck and half talent or skill. Which always used to make me mad! I would think, “I did this because I worked hard!” But actually he’s right.
Tammy: Well, you’re an American and we say, “I worked hard! That’s how I got here!”
Tammy: Yeah, but a bit of luck had something to do with it.
Lara: For college, I went to American University in Washington, D.C. I went there because I thought I was going to be an ambassador someday, and they had an international studies program. I took one semester of world politics and realized that the world is really mean and I wanted nothing to do with it.
Tammy: That’s a really good point.
Lara: So I looked at the course schedule for the other majors, and the one with the fewest required credits was philosophy. I thought, “Cool, this will give me the chance to take lots of elective classes and explore.” So, I was a philosophy undergrad. I did a double major in philosophy and visual media, so I studied street documentary photography of all things.
Tammy: You really were kind of making it up.
Lara: I was totally making it up. I took photography classes to impress a boy. It was not because I was thinking, “Oh, I’ve got to be a photographer someday!”
Tammy: I’m trying not to laugh on the podcast but this is really funny though. This is awesome. You took photography classes to impress a boy.
Lara: Totally, yes, and eventually studied abroad.
Tammy: It’s awesome.
Lara: So as part of the visual media classes I took—I took a Photoshop class, I took a couple of web development classes—and I had already known about how to do some front-end coding because of the game Neopets.
[5:31] Erin: Oh yeah! Was that the Tamagotchi pet thing?!
Lara: Basically it was. It’s an online Tamagotchi. For whatever reason, I’m still not sure to this day why they had this, but they had a “What is HTML?” page. For your pets, you could form little clubs, and you could edit the website for your pet’s clubs. Anyway, that’s how I learned HTML.
Erin: And how old were you?
Lara: I was probably fifteen or sixteen. Too old to be playing an online game about Tamagotchi pets, but still the right age to absorb HTML.
Tammy: Well thank goodness you held onto your young spirit, right? You would have never discovered this.
Lara: Absolutely! I used to say, “Oh, my little sister is playing it, it’s totally fine, and I’m helping her,” but I was really into it. So in college I took a couple of more web development classes and I got an internship working for an HTML newsletter company, doing the design of their newsletters. I got the internship via my professor who taught me the Photoshop class. I realized a lot of those college professors were basically my ways into my first few jobs in tech. Again: Luck. You have to impress the professor enough to get an internship.
Erin: That’s actually not a strategy we’ve heard yet from any of the guests that we have spoken to: Tapping into your professor network. They’re inevitably pretty well connected.
Lara: Totally. They’re adults with jobs!
[6:50] Tammy: One of the questions I have for you, just thinking about taking these classes and coding HTML: Did you find that you liked it? Or did you find that it was more like you could do it and so you chose to do more of it?
Lara: I didn’t think about it too much. I remember when I was in high school I took a Visual Basic class, and that was fun and logical and I appreciated the logic. It felt really intuitive to me, but my guidance counselor tried to talk me out of it. She said, “You’re never going to need to use programming when you grow up. You should take something else instead.”
Erin: That’s pretty disappointing.
Lara: Totally, yes! Just classic woman-in-tech stuff, right?
Erin: Wow, wow.
Lara: I think I just studied coding because it was useful to me, like for coding little side projects. I was also starting to get into photography for real, so I wanted to make a website to showcase my photos. It was very utilitarian.
Tammy: The reason I asked that is because I’ve been exposed to coding over the years, several times, and I find that for me personally, I just don’t like to code.
Lara: Oh, interesting.
Tammy: I think it’s just the detail of it. Its extraordinarily detail-oriented, and the fact that I have misplaced a semicolon and I can’t find it will drive me nuts for about an hour.
Erin: And she’s a Virgo which further complicates the problem. My experience of Tammy as a Virgo is, “A place for everything and everything in its place.” And if something falls outside of those delineations we can’t do anything else until we get things sorted again.
Tammy: You know, you’re really painting an awesome picture of me for our podcast listeners.
Erin: I’m trying to illustrate why coding is so hard for you.
[8:22] Tammy: You’re right, it is, but I can be a tiny bit flexible. But not about the semicolon thing… missing semi-colons drive me nuts. So that’s one of the reasons I asked, too, is that I’m always curious about whether people find they have an affinity for coding and that’s why it works for them, or do some people find that they don’t have an affinity but they just sort of work through that? I was never able to work through that but I’m always interested in what other people think.
Lara: That’s super interesting. I would liken it to… it’s like when puzzle pieces fit in place. It’s kind of like the “everything in it’s place” thing. For me, taking Arabic that first semester while thinking I was going to be an ambassador, was the same in that it felt like a very logical or mathematical language. It felt like I could put the pieces together, and it would make something.
The reason why I eventually got into web performance—speeding up websites with code—it just felt so good because it was so efficient. I could really nerd out about making things fast in a very satisfying way. I think that’s kind of what it was early on, too. I had so much control over each of the little pieces and I could put them together to form a thing.
Tammy: So there was something in there that really resonated with you.
Lara: Definitely, yeah.
[9:25] Erin: So you built your own website to showcase your photography and that morphed into other things?
Lara: Yeah, I was also heavily involved in a couple of clubs on campus so I helped them with their websites. I started to use these skills in small ways but I never thought it was going to be a career or anything. It just felt, again, kind of utilitarian. I thought, “I can do this. I can make some extra money doing it. I will keep on volunteering services that way.”
[9:50] Tammy: Did you know any women who were involved in tech at all?
Lara: Oh gosh, not really, I don’t think at that time I did at all. I was pretty much surrounded by dudes at that time. Also, my father is a math teacher and when we were growing up it was super important to him to have both of his daughters understand that boys and girls were equally good in math and science. I was always in tune with it, because he was so in tune with it. He made sure he beat that drum repeatedly.
Tammy: Yay, Lara’s dad! Good job.
Lara: Yeah, he’s great. Also, so is my mom. My mother is a minister, a Methodist minister, so she showcased for me public speaking and also lots of writing. My dad was hyper-math-and-science, so I feel like both my sister and I had a balance growing up.
Erin: Yeah, really interesting!
[10:24] Lara: I can tell an anecdote about dad and his “girls being equally good in math and science” ideals.
Lara: So did you have American Girl dolls growing up?
Erin: Oh. My. Goodness. Let me tell you. I wanted one so badly!
Tammy: Do not get her started on American Girl Dolls, I’m so serious.
Erin: Tammy is now burying her head in her hands because this is a contentious topic for us, but I loved the Kirsten American Girl stories. I just geeked out on “prairie days” stuff, so I really wanted a Kirsten doll but I never got one has a kid. Now, there is an American Girl store near where we live and I desperately would like to buy one.
Tammy: She would love to fill our apartment up with American Girl dolls.
Erin: Tammy is terrified of dolls, so the long answer is “no”, I’ve never had one, but am very familiar with them. [Laughter]
Lara: OK great. I had Molly. She’s the World War II American Girl doll with the braids and glasses. I got her, of course, because I had glasses from age six. I was the nerdiest little Lara. When I received Molly, she came with an assortment of little trinkets, and one of those was her report card. And there was story in one of the books that her report card reflected that she was great in most of her classes except for math.
Erin: Oh, gosh.
Lara: And so my father—upon seeing that her math grade was a C- when in all her other classes she had As and Bs—wrote to American Girl Doll company and said, “You are perpetuating this myth, and it actually is a myth, and this is not helpful to girls.”
Erin: That’s awesome!
Lara: Except when they wrote back, they were like, “When your daughter does poorly in math, she’ll be able to be comforted by her doll.” That was basically the message.
Tammy: WHEN she does poorly in math! Not even “if”!
Lara: His letter did not resonate with them. But go dad! I was around nine years old, and that had a huge impact on me. I appreciate that my father was looking out for us, in this way. My parents were also super progressive and it was very important to them to be talking about tons of stuff like this to make sure their daughters were equipped to talk about these kinds of things.
Erin: I wonder if American Girl has changed their stance on that.
Lara: I’m sure they must have had to, right?
Tammy: It’s interesting too because I don’t think that you know as an adult the little ways that you can influence a kid, or influence anyone really, but certainly influence a kid. And this very simple act of your dad taking the time to write this letter clearly has left a major impression on you.
Lara: And telling his daughters that he did it. He didn’t have to share that with us, but I think that it was super cool that he did, and definitely formative for both my sister and I.
[12:57] Tammy: Right on. So how do you then evolve from just coding HTML, which makes you a little side money? What happens next?
Lara: It’s a mish-mash of different things. I knew I needed a job when I graduated from college. I had worked at this HTML company and I liked it, it was super chill. It was a classic type of tech company where you could wear jeans to work, it was that era of couches in the office. So I emailed the professor who had hired me for the internship and said, “Hey, I liked working there, do you have any openings that I might be a good fit for?” And he said they had a project management position open. They were already long into the process of hiring someone for that, and I walked in and they were like, “We know her, we like her, she seems organized, let’s just hire her.” So again, I didn’t feel like interviewing for a real job and I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew this was a good company, I felt safe and secure, and I knew I could keep on growing my skills this way, so I started working there. While also starting my own wedding photography business on the side.
[14:07] Erin: Awesome, let’s talk about your side photography business.
Lara: So I studied documentary photography in college. I studied abroad in Prague. There’s only one thing you can really do with that skill set, which is photograph weddings, because in both documentary photography and weddings you are not in control of much of anything.You have this whole scene and you can’t control the light, you can’t control the people, you can’t control the events, you just have to make it work in the frame.
Erin: You’re just capturing.
Lara: Yeah, yeah, and hope you get the right angle, move yourself and change the camera setup enough to get a good shot. That, for me, was extremely fun and fulfilling. I started my own photography business and I had done a bunch of internships with photographers also. So I thought, “This sounds fun, let me put some ads on Craigslist and see what happens.”
[14:46] Erin: So you were balancing both? You were doing photography and project management?
Lara: Yes, project management. Those were the days when CSS was just becoming a thing and tables were still all the rage.
Erin: That’s right! I forgot that the CSS used to actually be within the HTML code.
Lara: Right! HTML newsletters to this day still don’t have a lot of CSS involved in writing them, so coding HTML newsletters definitely helped me with my skill set. I got my skill set there.
[15:15] Tammy: I wonder if you see much connection between some of the skills that you needed for photography and the roles that you eventually had?
Lara: Totally. I’m the kind of person who likes to either be in complete control of a situation—plan things out thoughtfully and have everything go to plan—or to be in control of nothing and be needing to make decisions on the spot. And those decisions need to be good decisions, which wedding photography [incorporated].
Tammy: So no middle ground.
Lara: No middle ground. It’s not fun for me to be kind of in control, but not really in control, where some people are planning stuff. This is why I also enjoyed volunteering as an EMT. For me, being an EMT is very much like wedding photography and I loved that. Or I love long-term planning, lots of thinking and logistics.
[16:00] Erin: It sounds like the overarching theme for how you’ve gotten your jobs is through connections, but also through just creating them yourself.
Lara: Yeah, it’s a weird mix. You’re never totally sure to what you can attribute the different parts of how you got to a place. With wedding photography I was always heavily involved as an LGBT ally, and that allowed me to start to focus—especially at that time because same-sex marriage wasn’t legal anywhere—I could invest all my energy in doing, as they were jokingly called in the D.C. market, “froo froo” weddings. Couples couldn’t legally marry but could have a wedding that felt like a wedding, so I actually started to cater all my services just to LGBT clients. At the time, you didn’t know if a vendor was going to be inclusive or excited to work with you.
My next side gig after that was running a wedding website called “So You’re Engaged” with my friend who I met with photography. When she got married to her wife, they couldn’t find any vendors in DC that would work with them.
Erin: Oh my gosh.
Lara: So we started a wedding website and I got to incorporate the wedding stuff, the tech stuff, and the civil rights stuff. And it was awesome to run this website and watch same-sex marriage as it became legal in each individual state. It really changed what a website could be used for by couples.
[17:19] Tammy: What’s interesting about you, too, is that everything you were doing was a side gig.
Lara: Yes, it was all side gigs.
Tammy: But there was relationship between them though.
Lara: Totally. And I’m really comfortable quitting things, so when I needed to ramp down the wedding photography business, or [our website] So You’re Engaged, or even the EMT stuff, I’m always super comfortable saying, “That was an awesome thing, I’m so ready to be done with it, I’m going move on and not feel bad about it.”
[17:45] Erin: I think that’s something we should actually spend a little bit of time talking about, the idea of being comfortable with quitting things. To put it in another way, you are okay with saying no, or with saying “This is enough”. I’m personally really challenged by that, and I would imagine that there would be people out there challenged by that. Maybe you can tell us how you got to that point? Did you ever have to struggle with that? How did you get comfortable with it?
Lara: I wish I had better advice on this. It just feels like an innate thing from my folks that they instilled in us. They were always able to help us categorize things: What is valuable? Why are you doing this thing? What joy is it bringing you? What’s it doing for you? With everybody else that I know, there is some guilt involved with saying “no” to a thing or moving on from a thing.
Even when I had a second photography shooter who I worked with, ramping down the wedding photography business was hard. Ramping down So You’re Engaged was hard for Kelly. You know, I think that I’m just unusual in that I innately don’t carry that kind of guilt. I wish that I had better advice on this.
[18:47] Tammy: I think a part of [most people not being able to say no] is guilt, but I think a part of [what makes you different in this respect] is understanding from a very early age that boundaries are a good thing.
Tammy: That it’s really important to have boundaries.
Lara: And you can’t pick up cool new things unless you ready to let go of the other cool things. There’s a Khalil Gibran poem about love and sorrow in which sorrow helps carve you out so you have room for all of this joy. That metaphor, that visual, feels super relevant when considering how much time you have [in your life] and where you can devote your energy. I can’t go and pick up a cool new big thing unless I’m ready to remove one of the other cool big things from my current life.
Erin: Yeah, I definitely agree with that.
Tammy: To summarize a couple of things out of that, it sounds like, first of all, it’s okay to have boundaries. It’s okay to have limitations. Be respectful of those, be honest about those, and know that having those boundaries and limitations will actually open you up to be able to do other things.
Lara: Yes. How can you grow unless you are continuing to figure out what is the most important thing to you? What’s most useful to you? What’s the most useful to you or to others right now? I think that the big theme throughout the stuff that I’ve done has to with helping some subset of people. So whether it’s helping LGBT couples have beautiful photos of their wedding and not worrying about their vendor been a weirdo, or being an EMT is physically helping people.
The work that I do now with Etsy—Etsy is very values-aligned with helping women and small businesses get up to speed, especially in the nightmare world that we have outside. I try to consider in what ways my work will be helping other people. If it’s not helping someone, it’s pretty easy to let that thing go.
[20:25] Erin: For folks who may need to practice doing this, do you have anything to tell them about practicing? Should they go out and seek opportunities they can tell people “no” for? Would that help?
Lara: I feel like that would sound terrifying to people! [Laughter] One of the things that’s helped me out a lot when I have to do something that feels uncomfortable, is having a buddy that I can be honest with, someone who can call me out. Whether that’s a close co-worker or a close friend or someone else who knows me well enough, they can be that objective person and say [what I need to hear].
For example, it took me a long time to not respond to trolls online, and to feel like it was okay to not respond to an aggressive person. And it took my co-worker, Seth, sitting me down and saying, “I give you permission right now to not respond to that tweet.” That allowed me to start letting go of that guilt, of that feeling of urgency around it. If you can, find yourself a buddy who is willing to help you make those calls as an objective outside person, and who will give you that permission whatever you need that permission for.
Erin: That’s really great.
[21:25] Tammy: It would be helpful for listeners to understand how you gathered a sense of yourself, such that you ended up putting yourself on the path that lead you to Etsy.
Lara: So I think that for me, the impetus to get to Etsy had a lot to do with working in a lot of boys’ clubs. I was really enjoying working in a tech. I hopped around to a bunch of different web developer jobs. I survived the 2007 – 2008 recession. My partner at the time got a job in New England so we moved there and I found a lot of web development jobs there. And eventually I started to realize that tech wasn’t super welcoming for me, and so that was when I started to get intentional about career stuff.
[22:07] Tammy: What did that look like? Can you give us an example of tech not being welcoming?
Lara: Oh absolutely, which one?! I think the first moment that realized I was working in a really caustic environment… So the company that I was working in at the time was very startup-y, very small, typical “co-founders living in a dorm room” kind of a situation.
They didn’t have very well-written parental leave policies. You could take more bereavement leave than you could parental leave, outside the Family & Medical Leave Act. I think I was maybe one of two or three women working in tech at the company, though there were other women who worked at the company.
The three of us got together and said, “I wonder if we could pitch a better policy for parental leave.” So one woman who was in HR called the insurance company and tried to see if they could give us more of the percentage of our pay if we took part in the Family & Medical Leave Act. We did a bunch of different things to propose the idea.
The CEO and the COO caught wind of it. We had posted it in their calendars to pitch this to them. And they pre-empted our meeting by bringing us all three of us into the kitchen and yelling at us until we cried. And of course, this was in an extremely public location in the office. They said that it was really inappropriate for us to do this, they felt like it was a coup, they felt deeply offended because they had written the policies and they were taking it very personally.
I remember sitting there crying and asking them something like, “It’s clear to me that you didn’t think we should have gone about it this way. How would you have preferred for us to go about pitching this?” And he said, “You should have taken each of us out for coffee individually and appealed to our—”. Anyway. So—
Tammy: Appeal to our what? Finish that thought.
Lara: “Appeal to us individuals, and come and ask me, the CEO, and know what I think is valuable.” And like, “Make me care about this”, you know. It was horrible.
Tammy: Isn’t that the piece—that’s why I wanted you to finish that thought: “Make me care about this.” As if you SHOULD have to make someone care about this!
Lara: That was really the moment where I realized, “This is not for me. Oh, this is really unhealthy. Oh, this is really inappropriate.” The COO was sitting there saying, “I held my wife’s hand while she gave birth, so I have absolutely felt the same amount of pain, via empathy, that she did.” It was unnerving the kinds of arguments that they had.
Erin: My eyebrows are at my hairline right now.
Lara: It was awful. I remember leaving work that day and calling my mom and talking about it. It’s like that gift of realization when you realize you don’t need to fight for something anymore. They gave me the gift of walking away, feeling like I could walk away.
So there’s that story, but there are many other stories. The CEO used to call me The Intimidator as a joke because I was a confident woman and, of course, that’s terrifying to—[not all men but certainly] THAT guy. Plenty of stories. So I started to realize that tech wasn’t welcoming for me.
Around the same time, I saw someone at Etsy give a presentation at a conference and it seemed like Etsy had good tech group. That was also around the same time when Etsy sponsored grants for women to take part in Hacker School which is like a writers retreat for coders in New York. And this was before Diversity & Inclusion was a thing, this was before any company was doing the charade of diversity.
Erin: And it does feel like a charade sometimes, doesn’t it?
Lara: Absolutely. But I didn’t have to worry about it with Etsy, it felt like a very genuine. So I thought, “Maybe there is a company that cares about making a safe place for me.” That was the first time I felt intentional about where my career was going. I thought, “OK, I can try to put some steps in place to get to a safer place. Maybe that place is Etsy.”
[25:56] Tammy: It’s interesting, because I’ve heard a lot of the same things you’ve heard about being the woman who works around, or works with men predominantly. “Too assertive, too aggressive, intimidating, ‘How dare you?’ ”. “How dare you?” is a really interesting question for me. I actually had a male co-worker ask me, “How dare you? Who do you think you are?”
Tammy: Right? Its really interesting because it seems like there is—and this is something I always want to talk with women about—there’s a level of audacity that women are just not allowed to have. It’s been my experience, I wonder if you have that as well?
Lara: Absolutely, oh my goodness, absolutely! At that company [I just spoke about], I started realizing I that I had a weird kind of power that I didn’t know that I had. And it was explicitly because I felt really comfortable ignoring that “How dare you?”, which is way scarier to those dudes than the usual behavior of being confident.
For example, if I’m sitting in a meeting saying, “Really? How dare I? Let’s talk specifically about what’s happening right now. Let’s address this right now in the room, and you are not going to leave the room until we have addressed this.” That is so much more powerful. It’s a gift in and of itself, realizing that kind of power.
I can’t think of a woman of our generation who has remained in tech this long who hasn’t had that experience. I think the generation that came before had a completely different set of challenges, had a different set of behaviors that they either needed to implement for themselves or redirect. But definitely for women with whom I’m peers in the industry, I think this is a pretty common story.
[27:37] Tammy: If you would please, talk a little bit about Etsy. How did you actually get a job at Etsy? What does one do to get a job at Etsy?
Lara: Again, I wish I had a shortcut answer here, but it’s one of those long winded, luck-and-working-hard things. Work-wise, I was doing a lot of stuff for my company website about making it fast. I was blogging about it, I was speaking about it, I was tweeting about blogging and speaking. I’ve been building my own thought leadership about web performance.
Tammy: Do you think that’s important though?
[28:08] Tammy: Can you talk a little bit about that? I think folks are just trying to get their jobs done, and then the notion that you would actually talk about the job that you are trying to get done—how do you manage all of that and how important do you think it is?
Lara: The company that I was working for recognized that me blogging about [web performance] on the company’s blog was good business for them. They weren’t against me sharing this stuff because it wasn’t private information, it was things like, “We made this website better and faster and here’s how we did it.” It got enough traffic that the marketing team encouraged me to do more of it.
Also, this company recognized how cool it was that a woman engineer was the public face of the company for web performance. I would say that for most of the cooler opportunities I’ve had in tech, they all stem from being relatively public with the work that I was doing or the ideas that I had about the work that I was doing, whether that’s blogging, or public speaking or something else.
[29:01] Tammy: So you mentioned blogging and public speaking. We might have a few listeners out there, who say, “Well, I’m not necessarily a good writer and God knows I’m not gonna get on a stage to talk to anyone.” What other ways might you recommend that folks seed their thought leadership, and get their perspective out there so people can pick it up?
Lara: Yeah, and I also want to acknowledge that at the time I was doing this, it was a lot easier to be a woman online than it is currently. I think we face a lot of different challenges. I’m a lot more reluctant to be sharing things on Twitter than I used to be. It’s a different time, certainly.
Erin: You mean in terms of trolling and harassment?
Lara: Absolutely. It’s that Kool Aid point, right? There is this great article by a woman named Kathy Sierra who ended up leaving social media and tech, who is incredibly prominent, who says, “You can keep on blogging and tweeting and writing and whatever as a woman in tech until people start to listen to you. And that’s when the trolls care. That’s when they’ll start—that Kool Aid point, when people are drinking your Kool Aid, is when you’ll start to be targeted.
[Editor’s note: Kathy Sierra issued an apology at the end of her original blog post for borrowing the “Kool Aid” reference from popular business culture without first understanding its gruesome historical meaning.]
[30:06] Tammy: As you’ve experienced it and as your women colleagues have experienced it, what do you think it is that women are doing that’s freaking people out so much, such that trolls exist?
Lara: Just being good at their jobs.
Tammy: What is it that people need to troll?
Lara: It’s funny, because it’s so much more of a reflection on the troll than it is on the person they target.
Tammy: Of course.
Lara: Is it an insecurity? There was one great moment that happened at a company that I was working at, where a man was very obviously intimidated by me, and I talked afterwards to someone about it who was also in the meeting. The other man, my buddy, said to me, “The guy that is intimidated by you realized how many bodies you’ve had to climb over to get to where you are. He recognized how hard you’ve had to work, and how smart you have to be, and how much more you’ve had to overcome to be good at your job than he does, and that’s why he is freaking out right now.”
Tammy: There is a comedian, his name is Bo Burnham. He’s a young guy, he may still be in his twenties. He was on Conan O’Brien a couple of years ago. He’s a tall, lanky white guy from New England. So Conan O’Brien says to him, “You know, Bo, folks out there, they wanna be successful. They wanna be successful comedians. What would you recommend to them?” And Bo said something like, “You know, what you wanna do is, you wanna take a deep breath and… then just kind of give up. Just kind of give up on your dreams.” Because it takes a lot of luck, like, you have to work really, really hard. And then you also have to get a lot of luck.
And he said, “I mean, look at us,”—he points to Conan O’Brien—“We’re two lanky, tall, white guys. We had to overcome nothing to be here.” I just thought it was really profound for him to put that out there, that there are those of us who have to work really hard to get even a little bit, and some who don’t have to work that hard at all. And luck is still part of it for just about everybody.
Lara: Absolutely. I feel like that’s why the election affected each of us so deeply. We watched someone who is working hard, if not way harder, than she had to in order to accomplish what she did. So when it comes back to getting a job at Etsy, working hard and like putting stuff online was definitely part of it. The answer to your other question earlier, contributing to open source in an anonymous and safe way was definitely—
Tammy: That’s such a great option.
Erin: Yeah, a really good suggestion for who those don’t feel like their narrative writing ability is strong, or who don’t want to do public speaking but who are excellent engineers. That’s a great suggestion.
Lara: Obviously, it comes with tons of risks that you still need to mitigate. I think it’s not as safe as writing, just in terms of what kinds of discrimination you have to face, but it’s definitely another option.
Erin: I actually read an article sometime last year about how on GitHub, a research project revealed that if you were a woman who had your photo—clearly, obviously showing that you are woman—and you attempted to submit a pull request to a project, you would get accepted less frequently than if you were a man with a photo. However, if you were a woman without a photo, or with more of a unisex name, your pull request would get accepted more often than if you visibly female.
Lara: Yeah, I think anecdotally we can all attest to that.
[33:55] Tammy: I’m sorry, go ahead [with how you got your job at Etsy].
Lara: So it’s definitely about doing the work, being publicly visible with it in some way, some searchable findable way. And separately, I applied at Etsy and never heard any response. The job was for a front-end tech lead, an engineering management position. Never heard anything.
So a few months later, I was at a tech conference in London, and Etsy used the company that I was working for as a vendor. So we all had a dinner and at the conference, and it was a bunch of Etsy folks and Etsy engineers, and a bunch of folks from my company. And I remember drinking enough alcohol to not be drunk, but enough to be comfortable going up to one of the folks at Etsy afterwards and asking, “Hey, I applied a few months ago, can you just check on my application for me?” Thinking again about that, he also forgot about it! He was like, “Oh yeah, of course, of course” and then completely forgot about it.
So another month passed and I heard nothing. But someone else at Etsy found my Twitter account, and found the work that I was doing and aligned it with one of the roles they had open. That person went back to the guy who I had asked at the conference to check on my application, and said, “Hey, you’re the vendor manager of the company this person works for, what do you think of her? Could we make a quick call to someone from that company?” And that guy asked, “Is it Lara?” Because then he remembered the conversation that we had, and only then did I get called in for an interview.
Erin: You were persistent.
Lara: Yeah, it was persistence and also luck. And I’d done years of hard work. There’s no clear narrative [about which of those qualities it was].
Tammy: Was it a recruiter who found you on Twitter?
Lara: No, it was another engineering manager.
Tammy: If this engineering manager hadn’t taken the next step of doing something with what they found about you, and hadn’t asked a person who just so happened to work with your company…
Tammy: But it did take this confluence of events. It sounds to me like a key message from your story is that you can’t rely on just one aspect. You can’t rely just on hard work, or just on connections, or just on luck. You have to try and bring those things together.
Lara: Yes, and definitely not giving up on it. Try different creative angles. When I work with women now who don’t work at Etsy, and I try to help them further their careers in any way—whether that’s finding them public speaking opportunities, or giving them edits on their writing, or giving them permission to not respond to trolls on Twitter—whatever it is, I think it continues to form that confluence of things. You see it work for so many other people: any series of things can lead you to the next opportunity.
[36:10] Erin: And so what specific work are you doing now at Etsy?
Lara: All these questions I don’t have any succinct answers to, I’m so sorry.
Tammy: That’s okay, if it’s a 4-hour podcast I’m sure people will be fine with that. Go ahead, Lara. [Laughter]
Lara: Tech is so weird that way, right? There are no easy summaries of what’s happening. I’m the engineering director within our platform engineering group. I lead five or six different teams of folks, and what these folks each have in common is they build the infrastructure, the tooling and the platforms so that the product engineering team can go and build all of their stuff faster or more inclusively or in more maintainable ways.
So the teams that report to me include the accessibility team, the performance team, the app platform team—meaning mobile apps—the web platform team, and the manual testing team as well. So all of these folks are continuing to help support our product engineering team in doing what they do, better.
Tammy: Erin, I know you’re going to want to ask more about the technical side of it—
Erin: We can do that after she finishes.
[37:10] Tammy: Well actually I just wanted to ask, you said you’ve had a number of roles at Etsy leading up to this one, so what do you think you’ve taken from the roles that you’ve had? How does that experience help you do what you do now?
Lara: I’ve managed a bunch of different kinds of people, meaning people who are very similar to me, people who are very different from me, people who have a series of different challenges that I will never face, people who want to be leaders in different ways than I do. I think that throughout my time as a manager, which started before Etsy, I’ve been able to continue to learn and grow in my own management practice and see in which new ways I can support people who report to me.
From a technical perspective, it hasn’t really mattered at all. I think I could have started in any different tech part of the company and still be doing what I’m doing right now. Because as manager, I’m fine. You should be technical and be able to understand the logic behind a lot of this stuff, but it doesn’t really matter that much which brand of tech you’re into.
[38:07] Tammy: And also, you mentioned having a coach.
Lara: Yeah! I’m very fortunate. Etsy supports me in one way by sponsoring an executive coach for me. Her name is Jen and she is the light of my life. I would not be where I am without Jen. She’s been coaching me for about two years now, and it’s like having a work therapist but also someone who knows you really well and knows what challenges you’ve faced and knows how you’ve grown. She calls me out all the time. She is great.
Erin: Do you meet with her? How regularly do you meet with her?
Lara: I meet with her every other week for an hour. She actually coaches a bunch of people at Etsy so I see her around in the hallways, and she’ll give me lots of hugs and high fives, or she’ll know that I’m in need of chocolate milk and she’ll bring me some. She is also tremendously feminist and supports a lot of the women with whom I work. Every time I see someone getting coached by her I’m like, “Oh yeah! Jen is helping another one!”
Tammy: Lara, I want to play devil’s advocate a little bit here. Come on, this coach nonsense, hippie-dippy stuff, having a coach—people have been managing forever without a coach. Can’t you just be a manager? Isn’t it just straight forward? Coaching—what is this?! [Laughter]
Lara: Oh, I love that. That’s really infuriating and great. I think about the different managers that I’ve had, too. I’ve had managers who are great at being managers. I’ve had managers who are great strategic thinkers, or great tactics people. I think for me, having a coach means that no matter who I’m actually reporting to or in what ways they can be a manager, this coach it’s her job to help me continue to grow and be successful. Even though that’s also a manager’s job, Jen is my constant.
[39:46] Tammy: Would you recommend managing without a coach? Do you think people can just get by without it?
Lara: I think there are phenomenal people out there who don’t necessarily need a coach. However, by and large, when I talk to somebody who has a specific challenge that they’re facing where, role-playing it with someone else isn’t super helpful, or finding different tactics to approach it isn’t super helpful, just having someone who knows you [can be beneficial]. As an example, let’s say I’m having a big a career crisis and I don’t know what I want to be doing next. Having a coach to be there to help me with that, to help me figure what the answers are inside myself, is extremely valuable and helpful. Again, there are great managers who are also great coaches. But you been a manager isn’t guaranteed to be a great coach.
[40:28] Erin: What elements of management do you incorporate into your style?
Lara: My management philosophy is—and I try to tell all people who report to me, so they know what to expect—that thing about believing that everybody already has the answers inside of themselves and it’s my job to help [them find those answers]. I try to use open questions and other kinds of coaching methods to help them see it for themselves. So, I’m there to provide advice if they really want it, but they’re probably going to have to ask me for it because I’m more likely to coach them through a problem than just tell them how to get it done.
Erin: Right, right. If you had to estimate how much time you spend managing people, and how much time you spend managing other things—be they processes or systems or things like that—would you toss out there?
Lara: It’s 80 / 20.
Erin: 80 percent managing people?
Lara: Yeah, and that includes not just people who report to me directly, but all the people who report to them. I meet with them every eight weeks or so. There’s about 30 of them, so it’s tough to squeeze in more than that. And then I manage/coach a lot of other managers at Etsy, especially. Not men, though. And also a lot of people outside of Etsy as well.
Tammy: Wait, why not men?
Lara: Sorry when I say “not men”, I mean women and people who identify as women, or non-binary folks.
Tammy: Okay, got it.
Erin: So you specifically coach women at Etsy?
Lara: Yeah, or non-binary people, absolutely. I definitely continue to give lots of advice and coaching to individuals who are men and who are allies, so I’ve spent a lot of time helping to— Take the Staff Engineering group, the leaders in engineering who aren’t managers. I’ll partner with them in figuring out how they can best sponsor women or mentor women, those kinds of things. That’s absolutely part of my jam as well, because I think that helps everybody. But primarily where I focus my efforts—outside of the people who are in my reporting structure that I’m actually responsible for—I really prioritize women and people who don’t identify as men.
Tammy: Got it. Awesome.
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[43:05] Tammy: I actually want to ask a question about the technical part of your work now. How does the technical aspect of your skill set play into being an engineering director?
Lara: If I think about people who report to me and the things that they run, I’m really trusting them to make the right decisions for that group. Whether that’s, “We should be building this tool because it’s going to make the biggest impact,” or, “We should be making the site faster in this particular way”. I really rely on them to make those smart technical decisions. I don’t view it as my job to gut check them.
In other words, I probably shouldn’t come in and say, “I don’t think that’s the right move, I think you should do this thing instead.” What’s more likely to happen is I’ll come in and say, “OK, I want to make sure that you’ve explored this thing, asked these people, ran this gut check.” It’s my job to help make sure that they are still making the right decisions but I don’t want actually have to care about the tech behind it. Which means that—
Erin: Sorry to interrupt, but at the scale at which you have to manage you cannot care about everything, you just don’t have time.
Lara: Especially native apps, which is a great example. I’ve never developed for Android or iOS, but a person who manages that team reports to me. So it’s important for me—to go back to your question—it’s important for me to have a tactical mind and understand, as he’s describing to me, the immediate technical challenge his team is facing in a given moment. To be able to theorize about it or to be able to talk it out without needing to know what Swift [an iOS coding language] looks like.
[44:35] Erin: Could you talk a little bit about the device lab? I saw some videos on YouTube about that and it sounds really cool.
Lara: I built, effectively, a physical lab where we house a bunch of different kinds of mobile devices: different screen sizes, different operating systems, etc. I built it with my co-worker at the time, Destiny Montague. She was working on the corporate IT team, the team that helped us with all of our hardware, and she’s an expert on things like power consumption and how to keep things “green”, which I didn’t have any background in.
At the time I was the mobile web engineering manager, and the reason why I wanted to build it was because no one was testing their work on mobile devices. This was in 2012 or 2013 when mobile wasn’t a huge thing yet. So we built this lab to basically help make it easier to test what people were putting out on different screen sizes. At it’s biggest it contained 30 or 40 devices and it was a lot of fun.
Erin: So would an engineer just go up to your lab and start seeing how their work looked on different phones, then?
Lara: Exactly. The engineer or designer or product manager. Anybody who wanted to test what they were about to ship and make sure it worked.
Erin: Were there any situations in which you found that the device lab helped you
avoid pushing something that would have looked pretty terrible?
Lara: Absolutely! My favorite stories were the ones where people went to test one thing but in the process of navigating to that page or trying to finish checking out, they found a host of other problems. It was very eye opening. When you think about our typical consumer on Etsy it’s primarily female, and most of our engineering team is male. So we don’t have a lot of dogfooding happening; we don’t necessarily have a lot of people who are active Etsy sellers or buyers who are engineers. And it’s actually changed—
Erin: Did you say dogfooding? What is that? I don’t know what that means.
Lara: That’s a great question, I guess I just kind of assumed that that’s a word that people use. It means like, eating your own—eating the thing that you’ve already created.
Tammy: As the elder member of this podcast, I’d like to respond. Back in the olden days, when people watched TV with commercials, there was a guy who was a TV star, and he did a commercial for a product called Alpo dog food. And he would say, “It’s so great, even my own dogs eat it!” And there would be a picture of Lorne Greene, and his dogs that were eating Alpo. And so that’s where the term “dogfooding” came from. It meant eating your own product.
Lara: Amazing! Thank you so much! [Laughter]
Erin: So back to the context that you spoke about—Sorry, can you repeat what you said when you said “dogfooding”?
Lara: So when we built the device lab there weren’t a lot of engineers who were buyers or sellers. That’s actually changed pretty drastically, but at the time [our engineers] weren’t using Etsy day-to-day, especially not on their phones. It was a bunch of engineers building a bunch of stuff that they were never going to use themselves. Now, it’s helpful to actually have the device lab set up so employees can actually test things, where they would otherwise wouldn’t have.
[47:34] Erin: I’ve read a lot fairly recently about Etsy’s efforts to be more inclusive and to hire more women into technical roles. I wonder—obviously, there are several reasons why. One, it’s “the thing to do”, but also, did Etsy sort of come around to the idea that because it’s mostly women using Etsy it would be helpful to have women building Etsy? That they might know what other woman might want?
Lara: One of the things I really value about Etsy is it’s diversity and inclusion strategy. It’s never relied on business reasons. There definitely are [business reasons], like the one you used to identified is a great example of a business reason [for hiring more women]. I’ve heard lots of other studies about how teams are stronger when they have a more diverse group of people in leadership. Things like that. But Etsy, historically, has been pretty good about not using those as a primary driver to implement diversity initiatives. Which, again, is a reason why I want to work there because it feels a lot more real than companies that are just doing it for dollars.
Erin: I think a lot of companies have to pitch it as a business reason because that makes sense to the people who are making the decision. So it’s kind of heartwarming to come across a company that is actually doing it for the right reason.
Tammy: Because it needs to be done.
Lara: It should happen.
Erin: Is there anything else you want to share about your role at Etsy that we haven’t thought to ask you?
[49:03] Tammy: Do you code at all, do you actually do any coding? When was the last time you coded something?
Lara: Oh, gosh! For side projects, certainly. I’ve been coding a Slackbot for a Slack channel I run called Women Who Lift. I got into powerlifting about a year ago, and I started to realize that it’s becoming big for a lot of women right now who want to feel stronger. For me, personally, lifting has had a huge impact on how I feel as a leader. For example, walking into a room that has a bunch of dudes in it and just being like, “Look at these forearm muscles that I’m flexing.” You know? It feels lot better!
Tammy: Now Lara, OK, I have to play this stereotype right now. Because if someone were to see you, physically, “powerlifter” is probably not what would come to mind.
Lara: It’s funny, when I think about women who historically have told me that they are not interested in powerlifting, their reason is because they feel like it will make their bodies look more masculine, which actually doesn’t necessarily—if you want that to happen, that could happen, but for lots of women who lift you don’t look how someone would think you’d look when they think of being a powerlifter. In fact, one of the cool things about the Women in Powerlifting community is there are women who are of all shapes and sizes who are lifting four times their body weight. You would never guess. I love it.
Tammy: I have to say, I want to think about this kind of thing for you, Erin, because what I like about what Lara is saying is that confidence and that sense of power that you have in your body, when you power lift.
Lara: I wasn’t athletic growing up. I never played sports. I was a jazz band nerd. I wasn’t in athletics. And now being a grown up who, for the first time, has picked up weights and gotten stronger, it’s been… Transformative is a cheesy way to put, but it just feels so good lifting something super heavy and knowing that you could do it. And having biceps is really fun.
Tammy: So are you benching? What are you doing?
Lara: Yeah, benching, deadlifting and squatting. And my trainers are all women.
Tammy: Wait. Benching, deadlifting? Can you talk a little bit about that because we might have folks listening who don’t know.
Lara: Benching is when you’re on your back, you have barbell on top of you, and you’re pushing it off your chest and bringing it back down again. Deadlifting uses that same barbell but it’s on the ground. So you’re just picking it up, standing up straight and putting it back down again. And then squatting is having the barbell on your shoulders, either behind or in front of you, and you just squat and stand back up again. It probably sounds funny that I spend money and I spend hours picking up heavy things and putting them back down again and picking them up again. [Laughter]
Tammy: That’s a great way to think about it.
Lara: My powerlifting trainer, Shannon, is a survivor of an eating disorder. And so for her, powerlifting was a huge transformative thing, and she talks pretty routinely about how it changed her relationship with food and her own body. And so for me, and all the other women I know who powerlift, it’s a game changer.
[51:54] Tammy: So what’s the Slackbot about?
Lara: It’s about tracking your workout. It’ll help record you and it will remember what you’ve done previously. So if you lifted heavier in your current session than you have before, it will give you a doughnut or trophy emoji. And you can set goals and it will celebrate that you’ve met them. In the Slack channel that I’m in we’re all posting our workouts, which means we’re all able to share with everyone else how much progress we’re making. This means we’re all able to celebrate with each other, like, “Oh wow, you just hit that huge personal record, that huge PR!” It’s been a really cool community building tool.
[52:26] Tammy: Now, just curious about commanding respect as a programmer if coding is not what you do, but you are responsible for engineering teams? And of course, there is the issue of being a woman, and there are a lot of men that you are managing. So how do you navigate commanding respect as a programmer, as a coder?
Lara: There is so much weirdness wrapped up in this question for me. I remember a time when I carried around a tremendous amount of imposter syndrome about being a front-end developer, because I don’t have any [formal] programming background whatsoever. I mean, I figured it out and did a lot of copy and pasting—and StackOverflow has been my friend in that way.
I had an opportunity at one point in my career to switch tracks at Etsy and to participate in our learning & development and coaching programs. There was a team that was being developed and I was heavily involved in the work that the group was doing, but as an engineering manager, not as a trainer. I was given the opportunity to move over to that team and I declined it.
Even though I loved that work and I probably will end up doing a lot more of that work in the future, I didn’t feel like I had proven myself as a technical person in the industry. I felt like, especially because I had this front-end background, that I wasn’t taken seriously. Again, I was into public speaking, I was doing the things that people could look at and observe. And they probably never would have thought that I didn’t feel like I had proven myself to be technical.
What changed it for me was actually writing the book for O’Reilly and having that animal on the cover and being like, “That’s right, I’ve got an O’Reilly animal, and it’s a technical book about performance!” Publishing the book gave me the gift of not having to worry so much anymore about proving myself as a technical person.
The person who was writing the review of the interview basically said that she bombed it, and she almost didn’t get hired. So I and a number of other managers stepped in and said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let’s talk this out for a second. What is the reason behind this judgement call on this person? And what does this have to do with whether or not she’ll be a good manager here?”
Because frankly, these are orthogonal skill sets, right? Just because you’re a great coder doesn’t mean you’re gonna be a great manager. And actually, it came down to this question of “How can we respect her?” And I thought to myself, “At what point in our careers have we ever respected our manager BECAUSE of their deep technical knowledge?” I mean, that’s cool, you can like a person or respect a person a lot, but you’re not going to respect a person[‘s skills] because they’re your manager—it’s not related. We have these things that are so closely tied together, especially as we’re talking about interviewing managers, and in my experience it’s not actually a thing even though we think about it a lot.
Erin: Another thing that comes to mind for me is that earlier, you said you spend 80 percent of your time managing people. So if you want to hire for a manager, you need to hire them for their management of people skills more so than you need to hire them for their technical skills.
[55:56] Tammy: How did that situation resolve itself at Etsy? I don’t necessarily mean about the person getting hired or not hired, but just that internal conversation? What was that internal conversation like and how did it resolve itself?
Lara: It ended up being resolved with the hiring manager stepping in and making the call, meaning the person who was hiring for this position stepped in and made the call. He’s the engineering manager for that team, he knows what he values and he was able to make the decision and feel very comfortable with offering her the job.
The recruiter hopefully has learned something about how to push back. The recruiter is always in a tough position. If you think about the job we’ve been discussing, you’re balancing what people are saying to you about what they value or what they need for this role, with what you also know about the people who are successful are getting hired.
One of my plans is to continue talking with the recruiting team at Etsy and say, “When these conversions come up, either invite me to the room or invite some of these other people who I’m aligned with on this topic to help interviewers make this call.” We don’t have a good narrative about that yet.
Tammy: Interesting. Do you think there was an evolution for the interviewer who actually wanted to not hire that person? Do you think there was an evolution in their thinking?
Lara: Definitely. That person is an engineer, and I don’t at all fault the engineer for not having that through, because again, it’s a shortcut. We think that we need this person to know how to do really well the work that we are going to do. I’m really optimistic about that person now saying, “Oh right, that’s actually totally fine.”
[57:22] Tammy: Good deal. So, I think this kind of leads us into this question about being a leader in tech. You said you spoke with the recruiter and said, “Look, when these questions come up, do me a favor and pull me into the room. Or pull folks who are allied with this mindset into the room.” That’s really stepping up into different kind of place in Etsy, right? It’s not just about doing your job, it’s really about saying I want to lead the way this company thinks. Do you think about yourself as a leader in tech? And if so, how did that come to pass for you?
Lara: Yeah. I have very concrete “chapter moments” I can point to when I realized that my thinking about it had progressed over the last three or four years. A lot of it, frankly, has to do with my coach. She has been helpful in getting me to recognize that I’m sitting at the table differently or that I’m speaking up in different ways that I was much more scared of six months ago.
There were two major changes for me in the last couple of years. One is: At Etsy, when you reach five years of employment, you get six weeks sabbatical. Completely paid. So my manager, who was the senior director of infrastructure, decided to take a sabbatical and he put me in charge of the majority of the things that he was responsible for while he was gone.
This was awful and painful and I remember sitting down with my coach and talking about how stressed out I was because I didn’t know how to sit in a directors’ meeting. I wasn’t a director—I didn’t know how to sit there feel like a part of the conversation, or even know when I was supposed to speak or what they were expecting.
It was so uncomfortable and she and I talked about… There’s this Radiolab podcast episode about caterpillars and cocoons turning into butterflies. We had both listened to this episode and were talking about how in that cocoon stage, you’re goopy. The caterpillar inside the cocoon just becomes a total blob and it doesn’t resemble at all a caterpillar or a butterfly. And we all talk about growth as being this beautiful, healthy thing. We all want to grow [and we for some reason think] it’s gorgeous, but actually, growth isn’t like that at all! Growth is the goopy, internal, gross, painful, caterpillar-cocoon stage.
[59:28] Tammy: I always say transition is incredibly unattractive. I always think about it in terms of getting your hair done. Because if you’re an African American woman who has spent some time in a hair salon, you know what it’s like getting you hair done, right?
Lara: It’s painful.
Tammy: It’s painful, number one. And two, your hair is all over the place. It’s in foil, it’s in rollers—
Erin: And you are not alone! There are other people in that salon [who can see you].
Tammy: You’re not alone, there are other people, you’re surrounded by a lot of messiness. It’s very messy and very unattractive. And very necessary.
Lara: Right! This was a huge realization for me. I ended up a butterfly after a couple of months of that experience, and I remember being so focused on how painful it was and just getting through it. For me that meant—I realized that leadership was a bunch of those cocoon stages. Leadership is a bunch of really painful experiences that you make it through and you learn something from, and you probably mess up royally during. It’s uncomfortable and you doubt yourself. It’s just terrible! But leadership ends up looking like something much more different after that for a person.
Tammy: OK, look. We don’t want to warn anyone off leadership with, “It’s gonna be horrible! It’s unattractive!”
Lara: “It going to be awful! It’s going to be painful!” Yeah.
Tammy: But I think the reality of it is, though—I like the way you put it, that leadership is a series of really challenging experiences that you have to push through. If you can get to the other side of it, you come out an attractive butterfly.
Lara: Totally. And in this case, again, I sat at the table differently: I wasn’t physically cocooning myself into my body. I didn’t [posture myself with more strength] intentionally, but I started to realize later that I was physically present. I was an equal at the table and I was being treated that way. I was also behaving that way. I was speaking up a lot more loudly and was being called on more frequently than I was before.
I’ve had stages of this over time where I’ve understood that leadership as an act is important even if it’s uncomfortable. For example, talking to that recruiter even though it wasn’t my hire and I wasn’t responsible for that. There are so many cases where it became clear to me that I needed to do a thing, and that thing might be really uncomfortable, but I would learn something and grow in someway and it would be awful and painful and eventually, hopefully, I would be a better leader afterwards.
Tammy: So it sounds like if you’re uncomfortable you’re doing it right.
Lara: Yes. If it’s uncomfortable, you’re on the right track. Good job! Keep doing that really uncomfortable thing. I also remember a couple of years ago—the guy Seth that I mentioned who gave me a permission to not respond to that troll—we were taking the train together and he asked me, “Do you consider yourself a leader?” I said, “Ugh, I could never say that about myself.” I tend to be a very bravado American person generally, but even in that moment on the train privately with him, it was really uncomfortable for me to say that I was a leader. Maybe because it felt like a social faux pas as a woman, like, “I’m not supposed to say I’m proud of the work that I’m doing and that I feel like I am a leader.”
I think about that all the time, and I remember how uncomfortable I felt [about calling myself a leader] back then compared to now. Now, I can say, “Yeah, I’m a leader in these ways.” There’s been no linear progression between these two things, just a series of those cocoons.
[1:02:42] Tammy: So the question you want to get to, Erin, about Lara’s books and writing, I think is also an expression of leadership. When Lara says to herself, “I believe I have a perspective that’s worth sharing. I have a viewpoint that needs to be out there and I think people could possibly learn from it.”… It does seem to be a step in the leadership direction.
Lara: It’s funny… For me, writing is terrifying because you know you’re not going to get it all in there and you know you’re probably not going to be right about 100 percent of it. So it’s a dual exercise in hoping that it’s helpful to someone, and hoping you’re going to be super comfortable when someone calls you out when you’re wrong.
I also encounter these exercises with public speaking. I think for many people, getting up on stage is scary because you might realize halfway through that someone in the audience knows more about this topic than you do. Or that you’ll say something that is factually inaccurate. Or that someone will ask you a question during Q&A that you’re not prepared to answer. And for me, the public speaking journey is very much like the leadership journey. You have to be comfortable saying, “I don’t know. Yup, I have no idea.”
Tammy: [You can reply with,] “That’s a great question.” My favorite answer to the questions I don’t know the answer to is, “That’s a great question! It’s a great question because I don’t know the answer to that and I’m going to learn something!”
Lara: Yeah! I cover a whole series of ways to say “I don’t know” while on stage in the book. One of my favorite ones is, “Actually, I don’t know the answer to that question. Who in the audience does? Could you raise your hand? Cool, can you go talk to that person afterwards? Thank you so much.” It’s as if to say, “You all are smart, you can go ahead and take care of this.”
Tammy: Way to tai chi that!
Erin: And what is the name of your public speaking book?
Lara: It’s called Demystifying Public Speaking.
Erin: Demystifying Public Speaking by Lara Hogan. And the O’Reilly book you mentioned before, what’s the title of that one?
Lara: That’s Designing for Performance.
Tammy: How does somebody get O’Reilly to publish their book? I’m not a programmer so I don’t know.
Erin: Those are pretty famous and pretty iconic.
Tammy: Yeah, a pretty fancy thing to have.
Lara: Let’s talk about luck plus being at the right place at the right time, plus doing some hard word. It was literally—I already felt confident that I had a story to tell about performance that would be valuable. My pitch in my head was, “Designers have a huge impact on how fast websites load. Someone should be writing something for them because it’s not just developers’ job to be impacting how websites load.”
I was at a conference sitting at the Women in Tech table where we were all talking about women-in-tech issues, sitting right next to an O’Reilly editor and I said, “Hey, what do you think about this book?” And she said, “Oh my God, let’s talk about this right now. Let’s put together a book proposal for you.” You get luck by having done some hard work and then…
Tammy: And then connecting.
[1:05:16] Erin: One thing I definitely want to add in here is that you’re not afraid to ask for things you want or to suggest things you think should exist. You gave this example about the O’Reilly book. And another example is the device lab: You thought that should exist so you created it. I think that’s an important take-away, especially for me: If you think you have a good idea you have to figure out who can help you get the idea going.
Lara: Totally. For my boyfriend, a lot of this comes down taking action. I think he’s got some tremendously great ideas. He’s also British, which means he and I have huge cultural differences when it comes to taking a huge leap and asking for something. Or in my case, demanding it. I don’t think he would ever demand anything. And helping him navigate that stuff is really interesting for me because I’m very comfortable asking for what I would like and—culturally, it’s super different for him.
Tammy: Very interesting. I think, too, there is also some sense of belief you seem to have that a thing is necessary. Not necessarily like, “I have a good idea [and so it must be done]” but, “This thing is necessary in the world so I’m just gonna put it out there.”
Lara: “…and I’m going to hope it’s going to be helpful to someone. And if it’s not, well, alright. There’s not a huge risk here.”
[1:06:36] Erin: Can you tell us a little bit about the book writing process?
Lara: To tie this all back to your first question about studying stuff and majoring in philosophy, I couldn’t have written a book without my philosophy degree.
Tammy: That philosophy degree came in handy, look at that!
Lara: It really did! Yeah. Thanks parents for letting me take a philosophy undergraduate program.
Tammy: So for all you philosophy graduates out there, it works.
Lara: When you major in philosophy you have to write a lot of papers, and in those papers you have to be so succinct. You have to develop your problem statement or your argument really well and really strongly and then support it. You have to get used to your own pattern for writing, whether that’s knowing what time of day you need to write or what kind of writing process you need to use. So for me, all of that undergraduate writing experience meant that I was able to formulate a problem statement and support it—effectively “make it land” with folks. For that, I feel like my philosophy degree really came in handy.
[1:07:32] Tammy: Are there parts of it where you needed help pushing through? Or did you feel like you’d had enough practice with writing that it flowed naturally for you?
Lara: With the first book, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do it well. I’m also a very succinct writer so I knew that I was going to have a short book. I wasn’t sure if that would feel—either to the publisher or people who were reading it—like a real thing. I was worried about delivering a thin book and that it wasn’t going to feel valid.
Erin: How thin is your book?
Lara: It’s pretty thin, it’s like a hundred and thirty five pages. The first book [Designing for Web Performance], I mean.
Erin: If you had to show us with your fingers and estimate?
Lara: It’s probably like—
Erin: Like half an inch?
Lara: Like half an inch maybe, yeah. It’s very tiny.
Erin: But it exists!
Lara: It exists! And one of the best reviews I got on it was someone who said, “Lara Hogan doesn’t faff about with her writing.” I was like, “Yes, that’s true! That’s totally true!” It’s all very tactical and hopefully very helpful. I didn’t know if I was going to be very successful writing the first book because I’d never written something of that length. I also didn’t really know how book writing was different than blog post writing or paper writing. It was a huge question mark, and I said to myself, “Maybe I’m going to find out how terrible I am at this.”
So I did lean pretty heavily on a bunch to peers to help me edit it. They double-checked my writing to make sure that it was technically correct, that it flowed well and that it was interesting. I ultimately shared it with a lot of folks, and the publisher had a tool so people could see the draft version and comment on it, which was really helpful to me.
[1:08:54] Tammy: So it sounds like this might be a bit of advice you have: Don’t write your book by yourself.
Lara: No, don’t write it by yourself! And with the public speaking book also, the publisher had an editor who was very hands-on which made it such a better book. She really pushed me to make it so. With the first book I didn’t really have an editor, which is fine, but it’s not a good solid book. The second book, the public speaking one, definitely feels like a much more impactful book .
[1:09:21] Erin: And where can listeners find your books if they’re interested in picking one up?
Lara: The best thing to do is to Google it, or go on to my website larahogan.me where there are links to them both.
[1:09:34] Erin: Could you tell us a bit about how you’ve found your speaking engagements? And how did it come about that you started to become a public speaker?
Lara: The first big speaking engagement that I had is kind of a horror story. They called me up and invited me, and I didn’t know the person who invited me to come speak at this technical conference in Washington, D.C. But I said, “Sure, I can probably put together a talk on performance, sure, great.”
And a week before the conference I realized that I was the keynote speaker! I happened to look at website and I was realized, “Oh no!” I thought I was doing a technical talk for a niche audience as part of multi track conference, such that they were choosing to come see me speak on this topic. I had to rewrite my speech [at the last minute] so it would feel more accessible to a broader group of people.
I remember getting there and being able to tell that the event was very poorly managed. They were in a fight with the event management company, they couldn’t get any water, they [didn’t have control of the lighting]. It was a series of unfortunate events. But then, while I was standing on the side of the stage while host was introducing me, he started reading my bio and it was not mine. I realized they had invited the wrong person and they had confused me for someone else. It was awful!
Tammy: This is the best story!
Erin: Please tell us how you handled it!
Lara: I just got up there—I mean, I had no option, I was just like, “Thanks for having me!” I did my talk. At the end during Q&A—which I felt like I bombed—someone asked a question about gifs. I thought they were joking so I laughed, but they weren’t joking. It was awful. It was terrible. [Laughter]
Tammy: I wish we had some doughnuts for you right now, just to get through this moment. It’s the best story ever!
Erin: And none of this was your fault!
Tammy: The reason it’s the best story ever is that you didn’t freak out! You just did it!
Lara: I mentioned this before, where I do great when nothing is in my control. So I just made the best of it, got through it, and did the work that I went there to do. It was not great. I don’t have a good reason as to why I kept doing it. I wasn’t thinking, “I know I can get better at this.” It wasn’t like I needed to overcome anything. I just decided to keep trying, I guess. It wasn’t deliberate.
[1:11:57] Erin: I have a question for you, though. Had you considered public speaking before they found you, or did this “happy accident” propel you into thinking, “Hey, maybe this is something I could do.”
Lara: I think because my mother is a minister and I saw her speak publicly every weekend, it wasn’t a “Thing” with a capital T. It was more, “Oh right, this is something people do. They get up and speak about stuff.” I hadn’t ever thought about public speaking as a thing to achieve or a thing to try out. I was more thinking, “Oh yeah, this could be cool.” It felt like a very natural thing. I realize now, especially after doing my research for writing the book, that my outlook was obviously a very unusual thing and I need to make a case for why it’s smart to try it out.
[1:12:38] Erin: For the listeners who are interested in putting together a portfolio of thought leadership and who are thinking that public speaking or book writing might be one component of that portfolio, how would you suggest they explore those options and get started?
Lara: There are so many options. I think the one that has been most valuable to me in my career has been writing blog posts. That has helped me iterate on the arguments that I actually want to speak about or write a book about. I can also read comments and respond to them, or see questions on Twitter. Doing that lets me see what I wrote about that was misunderstood or confusing or that I should expand on further.
It also helped me figure out which topics get more traction. For example, when I wrote about changing company culture to care about web performance, that got way more traction than writing about just the tactics of web performance. It helped me map what I needed to focus on with my writing.
[1:13:40] Erin: How would somebody find a public speaking role? Or how would that role find them?
Lara: There’s a great newsletter called “Technically Speaking”. It’s run by Cate Huston and Chiu-Ki Chan. They basically collect a ton of articles on how to do public speaking. They also explain CFP’s, Calls For Proposals, from different conferences that have codes of conduct and are relatively inclusive conferences where you can go speak. If that’s of interest to you, you can sign up for their newsletter.
Additionally, look at meetups in your area. There are tons of local groups you can go and speak at. No matter what area of the country you live in, or even globally, it’s a low stakes way to get into it. You’ll be presenting to people in your community you probably already know. You can go to a bunch of the meetups, or get familiar with the meetups before you even go, maybe talk to the organizers and pitch a talk that way.
[1:14:25] Erin: And with CFPs, it also sounds like if there’s a conference that is aligned with something you’re doing that you feel like you know enough about to talk about publicly, you can go to their website to see if they have a CFP.
Lara: Precisely. And there’s a ton of articles—I cover this in the book a little bit—about how to write a good proposal for a talk and how to make sure it gets accepted.
[1:14:45] Erin: Got it. Thanks! So what are some big dreams you have for yourself, either professional or personal?
Tammy: I’m curious about this, too, because you’ve already had pretty big life. If we think about all the things that you have gotten yourself into… I mean, how many people get accidentally invited to give a keynote speech?! That’s pretty awesome.
Lara: Well that was luck, not really hard work. I was just lucky. I really wish I had a better answer to this. Like you said at the beginning, no one dreams of becoming an engineering director for an eCommerce company. Some people find it’s very valuable to have a North Star. I think that’s why people love setting goals. It’s helpful to have either a rubric to compare and contrast the work we should be doing to the stuff we shouldn’t invest our time into doing. Or, it’s helpful to have something you’re aiming for, to have the motivation to keep on working towards it. I am one of those folks who believes that every day starts at zero. I could have earned a Nobel Peace Prize yesterday, but today I’d say, “Alright, what am I doing?” I haven’t found that goals are a particular driver or motivator for me, so when I think about dreams, it has much more to do with holding a sloth or going to New Zealand. It’s not career focused you know. I’m just going to get real nerdy here for a second.
Erin: Do it.
Lara: When I was a teenager, Lord of the Rings movies had come out and I got really obsessed with the special effects. They were winning all these Oscars, so I wrote a letter to the head of Weta, the special effects company that worked on Lord of the Rings. And I said, “Hello, when I graduate from college I would love to come work for you. What do I need to study in school?”
Tammy: Your family is really into letter writing. You folks sit down and you write letters!
Lara: We had a typewriter so we did really legit letter writing! And he wrote back! What a nice guy, to write back to this young nerd. He wrote the most lovely—the letter said, “It doesn’t matter what you study in school. What matters is how you look at the world. Watch how blades of grass move in the wind.” It was an incredibly thoughtful, lovely letter. When I was about nineteen, figuring out what I was going to do for real, I wrote back to him again and said, “Here is this copy of this letter that you wrote me. Thank you, it made a huge difference. I’m not going to go into special effect for movies, but I wanted to let you know how much this meant to me.” And he wrote back again and said, “I never hear back from the people who write to me, so it’s wonderful to hear from you and it made my day. If you are ever in New Zealand, come say hello.” So on Tuesday, I’m flying to New Zealand—
Lara: —to speak at a conference, and the conference is fifteen minutes away from the Weta workshop. I wrote them again and I said, “Hey, it’s been ten years, here are copies of the old letters we wrote to each other, I would love to come by and say hi if that’s possible.” So I’m going to get to meet Richard Taylor for five minutes and his assistant is going to give us a tour of the workshop. I can’t tell you how excited I am for this dream coming true.
Tammy: I think what’s really fun about listening to your story is that it seems like you have such open mindedness and open heartedness about your life. That even if you’re not goal-oriented, that open mindedness allows good things to come in.
Lara: Thank you, that’s a really nice reflection, thank you.
Tammy: We gotta do the books question. Erin, do you want to do the books question?
Erin: Totally, I’m all about the books question.
[1:18:27] Tammy: You always keep it as books, I want it to be “reads”. “What reads have you read lately?” I’m not necessarily a book reader, but you know, I love magazines, I love short stories, I love short-form writing. So what reads have you read lately, Lara? It could include books.
Lara: This is so embarrassing. There are all of these people who say, “Don’t read anything written by an author who doesn’t read books themselves. There’s a lot judgement about not reading. I don’t really read books at all. The book that I recommend to everybody that I absolutely love is called Switch. It’s about change management, meaning how do you get people to act in better ways, to act in different ways than they are currently behaving if they don’t care about it? There’s that great anecdote about Texas—I’m sure you’re familiar but I’ll repeat just in case—Texas had a huge litter problem, so they developed the “Don’t Mess with Texas” advertising campaign to help people to stop littering. People didn’t care about littering but they cared about their Texas pride, right? This book is effectively about that: how do you help enact change in those ways? So that is the book that I read chapters of routinely.
[1:19:33] Tammy: Why is that book such a big deal for you though?
Lara: As a manager, most people who I manage have some kind of challenge about influencing people who they don’t have authority over. They ask, “How do I create change if I don’t have any power in the situation?” So I’m always recommending this book, or recommending tactics from it. A person might ask, “Our hiring process currently doesn’t handle inclusion well enough. How do I get our recruiters to do something differently?” That’s a perfect example of me saying, “Here is this book. You should read it, and then I can help you figure out how to enact that change.”
Erin: Are we ready for our final three questions?
Tammy: These are the important questions, Lara.
Lara: I’m so excited.
Erin: I would really love to ask the first one. I’m super excited about it. Okay. Gummy bears or Starburst?
Lara: Starburst. Starburst. Starburst.
Tammy: That’s kind of harsh.
Tammy: I’m on the gummy bears side of this! Okay, I need to hear from you: why so emphatically Starburst?
Lara: I think it’s a texture thing. I find the Starburst texture incredibly satisfying.
Erin: More malleable than a gummy bear.
Lara: Yeah, totally.
Tammy: That’s fair enough. I choose gummy bears because of the flavors. Cola-flavored gummy bears?! Come on.
Lara: And the sour ones.
Tammy: There’s like three Starburst flavors, that’s it.
Erin: Four. [Laughter] Red, pink, orange and yellow. You do the next one.
Tammy: Alright, dancing or singing?
Lara: I’m terrible at both, but I’m more likely to sing than dance.
Tammy: And last one…
Erin: Money or fame?
Lara: Ooooh. Will you tell me what people usually answer after I answer it?
Tammy & Erin: After you answer, yes.
Lara: I’m going to guess that this is probably an unpopular answer, but I’m going to say money.
Erin: Believe it or not, that has actually been the more popular answer.
Lara: No kidding?! Interesting. Fascinating.
Tammy: Why money for you? And/or why not fame? Especially as a public speaker.
Lara: Fame isn’t a driver for me in the things that I do. I find it’s really useful when I want to get some stuff done. It helps to have that thought leader badge. I think fame is just a tool, not a goal, Money helps me feel safer when I there’s a nightmare world happening outside, as there currently is. It feels good to have reserves, just in case you need to flee. In general when I think about the times in my life when money has literally bought me happiness—like being able to go to New Zealand, or buying Starbursts…
Tammy: Alright, that’s fair enough. I like how you put that: fame is tool and money could be a goal. For what it can help you accomplish.
Lara: Yeah, definitely.
Erin: Lara, thank you so much.
Lara: Thank you, this has been so great!
Erin: We both really enjoyed talking with you, thanks for sharing so openly about what you’ve been up to.
Lara: Thank you so much for having me.
Tammy: We look forward to talking to you again, maybe in another couple of years. We’ll see what you’re up to. You’re going to be up to something, we know that. Thanks again,
Lara: How many cocoons will we have each been through before we talk again?
Erin: Well, this has been another episode of the WITtalks podcast. I’m Erin saying goodbye for now.
Tammy: And I’m Tammy saying goodbye for now.