Selected topics: Belonging to a working class family, freelancing as a software engineer, how to raise funds from your network, and not letting others’ opinions of you guide your actions.
About Michelle: Michelle is the Founder & CEO of Techtonica, a non-profit that works with tech companies to provide an intensive tech training and job-placement program for low-income women and non-binary adults. After graduating from Hackbright Academy, a software engineering bootcamp for women, she spent several years as a software engineer in the U.S. and abroad. She’s been involved in the PyLadies group since 2012 and organized and fundraised for the viral #ilooklikeanengineer movement in 2015. Michelle holds a Bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Utah and a Master’s degree in Digital Humanities from the University of Leipzig (Germany). Connect with her on Twitter: @MichelleGlauser or @TechtonicaOrg, or on LinkedIn.
Books she recommends
(WITtalks will receive a small commission if you purchase this book using the affiliate links on this page. Thanks!)
Limbo: Blue Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams by Alfred Lubrano.
Note: The text below reflects constructive editing of the original audio for clarity and flow.
Erin Allard: On today’s episode of WITtalks we’re in San Francisco speaking with Michelle Glauser, founder of Techtonica, a non-profit that works with tech companies to provide an intensive tech training and job-placement program for low-income women and non-binary adults. Michelle also leads PyLadies in San Francisco and LadyNerds, an unofficial Hackbright alumnae community. Don’t miss this episode if you want to learn about class straddling, breaking into tech, belonging in tech, asking for help, and tackling income disparity with technology.
Erin Allard: My name is Erin Allard, Producer & Co-Host of the WITtalks podcast.
Tammy Sanders: I’m Tammy Sanders, Co-Host of the WITtalks podcast.
Erin: And we’re here today with Michelle Glauser, who is a woman of many talents. Thanks for spending your time with us. We’re really excited to talk to you!
Tammy: Woo hoo!
Michelle Glauser: Yeah, no problem.
Tammy: Oh wait, are you excited to be here?
Erin: So to set the scene a little bit as we usually do, we are in a virtual office right now after hours—
Tammy: Well actually the office isn’t virtual. It’s a real office. But we virtually booked it, which is pretty awesome. Should we say why Michelle is here with us today?
Erin: Yes, we should. I think it was my idea. I’m a Hackbright Academy graduate, as is Michelle, and when I was going through Cohort 13 Michelle had been out of Hackbright for some time by then. And since she finished, she has gotten really involved in the women in tech community. I had heard about her from some of my Hackbright teachers, and I think it was related to the #ilooklikeanengineer campaign. Since then, you’ve started some projects of your own that have kind of circulated in the Hackbright community so I knew that you’d be an excellent person to share your story.
Tammy: We’d like to start with just giving people some context about you, so whatever you feel is relevant from growing up or going to school or your family or your academic history. What’s relevant? How did you get to be here today?
Michelle: Hmm… I grew up in a big family. I have five siblings in Salt Lake and neither of my parents were very well-educated but they managed to get us into a very well-educated neighborhood by buying a house there that had been gutted by fire.
Tammy: Wow. That’s industrious.
Erin: Wow. That’s resourceful.
Tammy: Do you mind if I ask—are you the oldest, the youngest the middle?
Michelle: I’m in the middle, I’m the third of six.
Erin: Smack dab in the middle.
Tammy: Do you have any of those stereotypical middle child qualities?
Michelle: Like being the loud person? I don’t know. I share the middle though, with my younger brother. There’s two middles since we’re an even number of kids.
Tammy: Oh, that’s right. So, big family.
Michelle: Yes, four girls, two boys. And my parents, even though they weren’t well-educated, loved to read and just read all the time. And I did, too. And because we were in a very nice middle class neighborhood it was an expectation that everyone just went to college at the end [of high school]. It wasn’t even a question. Whereas in the neighborhood we had been in before, it kind of wasn’t the natural progression.
In that way I feel like I’ve kind of been raised as a class straddler. I know how to speak that middle class language but I also understand the struggles of daily life when your income isn’t very big.
Tammy: Do you mind if we ask how old were you when your parents switched from the struggling neighborhood to the—
Michelle: I was six.
Tammy: So you were still—you were kind of young.
Tammy: Did you have friends back in your old neighborhood?
Michelle: Yes. And seeing how they progressed was very interesting. I’m connected with some of them on Facebook now.
Tammy: Yeah. Yeah. I just wonder if you feel comfortable talking about it? What do you think, for you personally, it did for your life for your parents to switch neighborhoods? Because I think this notion of being a class straddler is something that probably a lot of people can relate to, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone describe it like that. So can you talk a little bit about what that means for you?
Michelle: Yeah, I actually just read a book about this called Limbo, and during the whole book I was like, “Oh my gosh, yes! Yes! Yes!” It talked about how blue-collar families talk differently about things, and it’s not a given that you’re going to have fancy everything, and instead you’re always pinching pennies.
So, my life now in the tech industry is very much, “We’ll make it as fancy as possible to get as many people [to work] here as we can”. I feel very out of place, often. For example, last week I went to my spouse’s company’s cocktail party and it was cocktail attire. I was like, “I don’t know what that is.” So I had to ask a bunch of people. “Can I wear a long dress? Does it have to be short? Does it have to be fancy? Is black OK?” So, there’s this weird thing where I understand some of that and have experience of it, but I’m also like, “I don’t actually belong here.”
Tammy: Well, I think this is really interesting.
Erin: Totally. Both of us come from very similar backgrounds as you, and now we live in the Silicon Valley and both of us either—I mean, Tammy can speak her own story—but I grew up in a very solidly middle class family and yet this notion of class straddling is new to me. I’m so glad you brought it up.
Tammy: I grew up—I’ll make no bones about it. I, we had times in my family history where we were just poor. You know, we didn’t talk about being working class, we talked about being poor. So this notion that people would come to work and just sort of expect lunch to be provided?! And dry cleaning to be offered?! These sort of perks, I think it’s been a very welcome and interesting evolution in how people work, but having been a professional for quite some time and having grown up with very working class parents… My dad doesn’t even understand at all what I do.
Michelle: Yeah, it’s ridiculous!
Tammy: Do you talk about your work life with your parents? How do they find it?
Michelle: I think they first were exposed to it through my brother in law, who works at Google. He took us to the Google campus and we were like, “Whoa, massages! And whoa, we can play ping pong! Whoa! There’s scooters! This is so cool!” But it was also like this view of waste and ridiculousness.
Michelle: Yeah, exactly.
Tammy: My dad’s like, “Y’all get any work done here? When do you get work done?”
Michelle: Right! And, I don’t think they have a very good concept of what I do. One of my brothers sent me a message that was like, “Hey, you know how to do this stuff, can you design this for me?” And I said, “I don’t actually design anything, I don’t know how to do this.” I think I ended up just using some online software to do it. “Here you go.”
Tammy: OK this is your story, so I don’t want to get too much in the way of it, but I have to tell you this one thing. So when I first started working in digital media, one of my cousins called me and she said, “Girl, what are you doing these days?” And I said, “Oh I work in Boston. I work in media.” She said, “Oh, because your dad told me that you just run the Internet. And I was like, well no wonder she doesn’t have time to call anybody!”
Michelle: You run the Internet for billions of people!
Tammy: And so I just started telling everyone that I run the Internet! My dad said so! [Laughter] So I think we both very much identify with this notion of disconnect between where you came from and where you are.
Erin: And that’s, again, another reason why I was really excited to talk to you about Techtonica, which we’ll get to shortly, because I have nothing but fantastic things to say about Hackbright and my experience there. However, it was financially difficult for me to go and it was only thanks to my parents who loaned me the money. And Techtonica is aiming to solve this issue of, “Yeah, it’s great we have these coding bootcamps and that we’re exposing so many more people to technology—
Michelle: Yeah but it’s people who could probably already afford the bootcamps anyway.
Erin: Exactly. So I think you’re—I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves here—but you’re addressing quite a large need in my mind. But before Techtonica, let’s finish talking about growing up in Utah, the expectation that you’d go to college…
Michelle: I ended up getting a scholarship to the University or Utah and I wouldn’t have had to pay for housing because it was pretty close to my parents’ house. So that’s where I ended up going. And I’d done enough AP classes that I graduated in 2 years.
Erin: Holy smokes!
Tammy: Graduated with a what?!
Michelle: [Laughter] With a degree in English. I was a Junior when I started so it was pretty fast. And I did 18-20 hours per semester while I was working full time, so it was a really crazy couple of years. However, I was always interested in computers but I had no idea that computers and the Internet and stuff like that [was available to me]. But I didn’t realize that computer science would be a good fit for me. I even had a family friend who was a teacher at the high school I went to and he taught computer science. And I saw him once a month at family dinners and it never clicked somehow that, “Michelle, you’re always on the computer…”
Erin: I don’t want to put words in your mouth so please tell me if I’m wrong, but it’s almost like you didn’t have anyone looking out for you in that sense. There wasn’t someone who knew enough about the awesomeness of computer science to have identified it in you and pushed you in that direction.
Michelle: Yeah. I think a lot of it was just—it was a boy thing.
Tammy: Yeah. That’s exactly what I was thinking. That no one would look at you and say, “You should go into computers” because that’s not what girls do.
Michelle: I mean, I played with DOS all the time, I figured out how to do things on this super old computer we had that none of my siblings knew how to do, and I learned all of the shortcuts in Word Perfect. Things like that.
Tammy: And nobody put two and two together. And it sounds like neither could you.
Michelle: Nope. There was a “Multi-Media Club” thing that I was in for a couple of years in elementary school, and then the “X-Filers Club” in middle school. But I just never saw it as a long term thing. And it seemed really dry, so I was very excited to find it wasn’t that dry. It’s a very creative, flexible thing.
Tammy: Like, amazingly creative and cool stuff. The future is being built with these little boxes.
Erin: So you majored in English at University of Utah, because you love to read and you grew up reading.
Michelle: Yes. And I actually had considered—at one point I had three majors and five minors.
Tammy: Why is this not surprising at this point?! This is totally—“I had 3 majors and 5 minors and I finished college in 20 minutes!” [Laughter]
Michelle: I thought it would be really awesome to be a literature professor and I thought that that would be a career that I could do easily or fairly easily as a mom. By the way, P.S., during those two crazy years of full time work and full time school I got engaged, but I was eighteen. So that was all great. But I called it off.
Tammy: To the degree that you feel comfortable talking about it, why did you call off your engagement?
Michelle: I’ve thought a lot about that. There were several different things. And maybe it’s destiny or whatever, but I kind of had to learn that lesson of, “You do what’s right for you and ignore what other people are going to think about it.” You don’t want to do something for the rest of your life just because everyone else thinks that you have to do that thing.
Tammy: For anyone who might be listening, can you do them a favor and just say that again? Because that seems like a really powerful lesson.
Michelle: I still struggle with it. But it was a really good lesson. Everyone should learn that you need to do what’s best for you and not pay attention as much to what everyone else expects of you.
Tammy: Good lesson learned.
Erin: I know I’m still working on that.
Michelle: In hindsight, it would have been fine. We would have been happy, we would have figured things out. But I’m glad that I had that extra time to figure out how to be fine with myself and develop myself personally. So I’m quite glad that [I made that decision].
Erin: Yeah. I’m also really curious… I saw on your LinkedIn that you had had some work in Germany and you had spent some time in China working as well. Can you talk to us about finding work overseas? I think this is something a lot of people would love to do.
Michelle: Yeah! I just looked around at some cool tech-y type companies and I just said, “You know what, I’m just going to go in and flaunt my ridiculous American-ness.” And I walked in and said, “Hey, I want to work here! Here’s my resume!” And I think they were like, “What the heck? Who is this person?” But they ended up hiring me.
Tammy: Where did you come from that you could, you know, say, “Actually, you should hire me because I’m pretty amazing!” ?
Michelle: I think breaking off the engagement gave me a lot of confidence in doing what felt right for me. It just seemed like a natural thing. I had several cousins say, “You are so brave!” and I didn’t feel brave, it just felt like, “This is what I want to do so I’m going to do it.” And I did it.
Tammy: Well that is a brave thing. To know what you want to do and then insist that you’re going to do it. That’s a very brave thing.
Michelle: And stubborn, yes.
Tammy: Well, yes, that too.
Michelle: Sometimes I look back and think, “Oh my gosh, I was so young and I just, like, I just DID that! I just MOVED there! I didn’t speak any German, I didn’t know anyone, I found an apartment with people I couldn’t understand. How did I do that?”
Tammy: That’s probably one of the most awesome things about you, that you don’t know that you’re not supposed to do things.
Michelle: I got off that track and was like, “Oh, I can do this.”
Tammy: It seems like once you got off that track, you’re like, “I can do ANYthing.”
Michelle: I still have a lot of self-doubt about stuff. But yes, I think that very much happened. And I also at that point joined a church community in Leipzig and that was really great guidance because A) They all spoke German with me so I learned quickly, B) They knew where to find an apartment, where to go for good food. I got all the good tips.
Tammy: Yeah, definitely helps having a community.
Michelle: So I got the job in Leipzig but then my visa wasn’t working because I didn’t actually have a diploma yet. I ended up moving to Sunnyvale to help my sister take care of her kids while she was pregnant and sick, and then I decided, OK, I definitely want to work in the tech industry, see how it goes, and started to applying to everything possible.
Tammy: Wait, hold on. How did you decide you wanted to work in tech?
Michelle: My brother in law—
Tammy: Oh that’s right, that’s right. So it was your brother in law who was working at Google. Got it. So that was your exposure to the industry.
Michelle: And he kept saying, “Michelle, you need to go to someplace where people are really smart and don’t care about drama. And you should come to Silicon Valley.” And I kept thinking, “I don’t really know what that means, but OK.” Since I was here anywhere I started applying for things. So I ended up finding a job off of CraigsList at a little Italian startup in SOMA and I found an apartment in San Francisco. But I was barely able to pay rent. It was ridiculous. I think I was making $15 an hour full time.
Erin: Holy smokes.
Michelle: Yeah. And I was doing EVERYTHING. Marketing, social media stuff, pitching to people, making videos, all this random stuff. And my boss asked me, “Could you make a mockup of a website for our next customer.” And I was like, “I don’t really know how but I’ll do some research.” And I did it, and I ended up thinking, “Wow, this is really fun.”
And then I kept running out of content for social media and I just wanted the engineers to work faster. And I kept thinking, “It would be so cool if I could learn how to make this myself. How do they do that?” So I Googled “How to make a website.” [Laughter]
I found some new coding schools and I applied and got in. But I couldn’t afford it and I broke my foot right as I was supposed to be deciding and I thought, “Ugh, I think I want to do this but I still don’t know what it really is.”
Tammy: I feel like we have to summarize. Because you’ve had such—not just as a professional but also as a person—you’ve had such an evolution. This really intense evolution. Maybe in kind of a compact time frame? And a lot of it has been very serendipitous, too. And also what I hear, too, is you listen to advice.
Tammy: No but I think some people struggle with that. I know I’ve certainly been given advice that I wish I had listened to, so I think there’s also an attentiveness that you have to have to that, like paying attention when people are telling you something that could be useful for you.
If we put this all together, you started off like, “I’m going to be a literature professor, but now I’m going to go to Germany, well now I’m going to be a professional, well now I’m going to be whatever kind of professional I want to be. Well, I’m just going to go work for an Italian startup even though I’ve never worked for a startup before! And, you know what? I’m just going to build a website.” You just seem like you’re willing to dive in head first and figure out the details as you go along. Is that a fair assumption of your personality?
Michelle: Yes. Which some people might think is absolutely crazy.
Tammy: Or scary.
Erin: Some might. But it works for you and that’s the important thing.
Michelle: Yeah. I think the method of how I ended up going to the coding bootcamp really shocks people, too. [Laughter] I had started dating someone when I was living in Sunnyvale and we were already thinking about getting married. I was like, “Let’s just hurry up and get married and we’ll ask people for money and that will pay for me to go to coding bootcamp.” So we did! We got married within a month, I asked people for money—
Tammy: You are bold! In what seems like a very quiet way, you are absolutely bold about how you live. Which is pretty cool.
Michelle: My sister has talked to me about this and she said, “How did you think that was a good method? Like, you could have done any number of other things. You could have just asked people for money and you were like, ‘I’ll get married!’ ”
Tammy: Right! Who comes up with that?!
Michelle: It didn’t feel like an option. I thought, “When you get married, people automatically buy you things.”
Erin: And when you get married it’s a lot of money [that people give you]—
Michelle: Well, it depends on your community.
Erin: Well, they give you more relative to what they’d give you for a birthday. Regardless of the amount.
Tammy: That’s very true. You stack up all the times that people will give you money: birthday, Christmas, wedding—wedding is definitely number one.
Erin: So I can see why you were headed in that direction.
Tammy: That’s actually super clever. I don’t know that I would have ever thought of that. That’s really interesting.
Michelle: Because it’s absolutely ridiculous, that’s why! But it worked! And we’re still super happy, still together. I was able to pay for the school but it wouldn’t have worked if I had done that later because the price has tripled since then. And I ended up getting some of that money back because I was hired by a partner company. So I was like, “Oh, it’s my wedding money [coming back]!”
Tammy: Well you would have had to have a much bigger wedding.
Tammy: So for anyone out here who’s thinking about this, you need at least a 500 person wedding now.
Michelle: And I would have needed richer friends. [Laughter]
Tammy: Yeah, exactly.
Erin: So, I already spilled the beans, you ended up at Hackbright. How did you decide on Hackbright? Maybe you could tell us a little about your experience there?
Michelle: I really liked that it was women only. And honestly, even up until when I started I thought, “I don’t really know what Python is.” But it clicked really fast and I loved it and it was so much more creative than I expected. And I had a job offer within a couple of weeks after graduating and I tripled my income. Or maybe even quadrupled. So yeah, I was like, “Whoa, what is this?”
Erin: It’s powerful.
Tammy: It’s life-changing.
Michelle: In six months I had more money in my account than I had ever had before. Then my spouse decided to do an MBA, and since he’s Taiwanese I really, really wanted to learn some Chinese. So I said, “Let’s have you do it in China so I can learn Chinese while you’re doing that!” And he said, “No, I don’t want to do it in China. I’ve lived in Taiwan, I don’t want to.” And I was like, “Come on, we should just do it.” Yeah, so, he applied, I emptied my brand new, amazing bank account into his degree, and we moved to Shanghai.
Honestly, finding a job wasn’t a problem. In fact, people kept trying to give me jobs and I was like, “No, I just want to learn Chinese!” So I considered if I should sign up for a class, because he was starting class and he was very busy because he was also doing student government. I knew I had the self-motivation to study on my own.
So every day, I studied using an app. I had heard about this app, I wrote the person who developed it in San Francisco, and I was like, “Hey, I lived in San Francisco and now I’m learning Chinese! If I review your app will you let me have it for free?” and he was like, “Sure.” So I reviewed it.
Tammy: Yet another page out of the Glauser playbook!
Erin: Ask for what you want!
Michelle: Yeah! And it’s a great app, I really was happy to review it because it was really awesome. And I just did that [studied on the app] every day. And then halfway through his MBA in Shanghai, we went to Taiwan and had a wedding celebration with his family. And his dad, who knows everyone in Taiwain, invited 900 people. Which is more than our original plan!
Tammy: And THAT’S how you get a job in China!
Michelle: Yeah! No, just kidding. It was really fun. I gave a speech in Mandarin and I actually really liked Taiwan, even though I wasn’t that happy in Shanghai and honestly was like, “Ugh, I hate this.” And I think back on that a lot, and I wish I had liked it more. And I think part of why I didn’t was because I was living with a bunch of expats. And my goal was to have it be like the Germany experience, where I lived with the locals and learned from them really quickly and spoke the language.
Tammy: You wanted to be immersed.
Michelle: Yeah! So I tried so hard to like and in the end I felt—I didn’t really like it. And Michael [my spouse] said, “I told you you wouldn’t like it.”
Tammy: But it sounds like though you really want to have your own experience.
Michelle: Yeah. And I was glad I did that because then I was able to give a speech in Mandarin at the wedding—
Erin: Which is amazing!
Michelle: —I was super happy about that.
Erin: Anyone loves to be given a speech by someone who took the time to study their language.
Michelle: Yeah. Yeah. In fact it was super noisy in that room with however many hundreds of people there were, and then when I started speaking everyone gasped and their phones came up and they were all recording.
Erin: Do you think that your ability to pick up languages quickly—let’s say human languages—affected your ability to learn how to code? Do you think they’re related?
Michelle: I think so. I think they’re not quite as related as other people have said, because you’re not learning every single word for what exists in your own language, it’s more like you’re learning syntax required for steps, kind of. It’s more of a logical thing. So yeah, possibly.
But Chinese was way, way harder than German. None of the words sound even remotely like English, whereas in German we always joked that you could guess a word and just say it in a German accent and eighty percent of the time you’d get it right. Like, CON-zen-trotts-ee-OHN? Oh yeah, that’s right!
Erin: You’ve had a lot of different jobs especially since Hackbright. Can you walk us through—what were the various tech-y jobs that you did? How did you get them? How did that all unfold?
Tammy: And wait, as you do that, do you finally feel like, “OK, this is it. This is the thing.” Or do you feel like there will be many things? So let’s do Erin’s question, and then mine.
Michelle: OK. So, while Hackbright was going on, I found out about getting some of my tuition back if I got hired by a sponsor company, and I was determined to do that. My wedding money, right? I had to get it back! So I just interviewed as hard as I could right as it ended, basically.
Tammy: Wait, what does it mean to interview as hard as you can? What does that look like?
Michelle: Contacting people every day, and following up, and going out and putting on the best face I possibly could, and studying for code interviews, and finding people who could help teach me the concepts I didn’t get as much.
Tammy: So lots and lots of prep. And lots and lots of networking.
Michelle: Yes. Absolutely.
Erin: And lots of putting yourself out there.
Michelle: Totally. But yeah, Get Satisfaction was one of the partners. They interviewed me and I was like, “Eh, I don’t know.” But when I showed up to interview at their company, the guy who was talking to me said, “Tell me what you know about Get Satisfaction.” [I had no idea!] I hadn’t done that part! [Laughter] Something about online comments or something?
So he explained it, and he was totally fine about it. And then I did a coding interview and they basically picked me for this position and it sounded good to me, so I accepted it and it ended up being more customer-oriented.
Michelle: I’ve thought so much about that, and I will tell you right now, I know exactly what it is.
Michelle: I was raised to be a very bubbly person. And even though deep inside I’m very much an introvert, I always put on this very bubbly face in public and then I go home and crash.
Erin: Mm hmm.
Michelle: And so I came into this and they were like, “Wow! She’s so extroverted”—
Tammy: You present as an extrovert.
Michelle: “— she’s positive…”, right? I’m an outgoing introvert, that’s what I tell people. They thought I would be great with the customers. And later I realized I have to tone that down. How do I do that?
Erin: I also kind of want to touch on something, and this may not have been your experience, it’s been mine and it sounds similar to yours. You go in for a technical interview, and I don’t know if it’s because you’re a woman or because you’re bubbly, but it’s like, “Oh! She’d be great at talking to our customers!” Even though she knows Python and she’s built these—
Michelle: For sure.
Erin : Oooh it makes me so mad!
Michelle: Do you know, I talked to someone at the #ilooklikeanengineer event last year who has worked in tech for like 30 years and she recently talked to a recruiter who said, “Oh, well, I think I’ll try and find a less technical position for you.” And she was like, “why?!”
Tammy: Was there an answer given?
Michelle: No! She was very put off by that.
Tammy: That’s offensive!
Michelle: Yeah. There are so many assumptions about underrepresented folks in tech. And I think a lot of the time the diversity conversation centers around race and sex, but there are a whole bunch of other layers to that and obviously—
Erin: Why don’t we use this as a good segue into #ilooklikeanengineer?
Tammy: Wait, but I don’t want to lose what you just said because it kind of trailed off. You said that the diversity conversation tends to center around race and gender, but you also want to make sure that we add class to that mix.
Michelle: Yes! No one’s talking about class. And I feel very passionate about it.
Tammy: Let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about it right now!
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Michelle: OK! Although we never got into the morphing stuff.
Erin: OK sorry, let’s do the morphing. We should do the morphing. And then we’ll talk about class and the #ilooklikeanengineer campaign.
Michelle: Got it. So. Get Satisfaction. It was pretty great, not exactly what I expected, moved to China, everyone I talked to was like, “Oh, I have a startup, we need coders, will you come code for us?” And I kept saying no. And then I finally said yes. It was the first one where they were going to pay what I would have been paid in San Francisco, which was unheard of in Shanghai. But I was their only developer.
And as someone who had six months of experience, it was so hard. And I didn’t have that San Francisco support system, so I struggled a lot. But luckily I had made a bunch of connections before I moved there so I just chatted online with people all the time asking, “Hey, how do I do this? Do you have any idea what to do about this?” And so many people came to the rescue, without pay or any kind of thank you, you know? It was really nice.
Tammy: Yet another Glauser lesson. Ask for help.
Michelle: Yes! Although I still struggle with that.
Erin: Just because you struggle with something—as long as you’re practicing it, that’s what matters.
Tammy: That’s a good point.
Michelle: But, I have heard from other new developers that you should rotate who you ask, because you don’t want one person to feel like you’re too needy. And I think a lot of us do that: “Oh, I can’t ask too much or they’ll think I’m stupid and they won’t want to help me anymore.” So I did a lot of [juggling].
Tammy: Do you think that’s actually true though? Does that really bear out, that people won’t want to help you if they think you’re too needy?
Michelle: It depends on the person. I think in the conversations we’ve had in LadyNerds it’s been, “Make sure it’s someone who really is your ally.” But the problem is, the best allies are the ones who are really vocal about it. They say, repeatedly, “It’s OK to ask me questions. Do you have any questions? What are your questions?” You know? Instead of, “Yeah, just let me know whenever.” We need constant confirmation to know that it’s OK to ask questions.
Tammy: It sounds like there’s a couple things in there, though. One is that if you need help, ask for help. And even though it may feel like you’re needy, or you don’t look competent, ask for help anyway.
Michelle: Ask for help of the right person.
Tammy: But it also sounds like you should be the right person that someone can ask for help from. Be the kind of person who says, “Hey! Do you need anything? What do you need?” Be that vocal advocate so people know that they can ask you.
Michelle: Just saying once that you are willing to help…
Tammy: … is not enough.
Michelle: I think so much of the career transition into tech, especially for underrepresented people, involves—requires, really—a good network. You need that support network.
Tammy: That is actually very true, especially for underrepresented people. Very, very true.
Michelle: Yes. Otherwise you’re going to burn out really quickly and feel like no one likes you and everyone hates you and you’re just out of there [leave your job] very fast.
Tammy: Or, just, I think even if it’s not that dramatic, it’s that you don’t belong here. You just simply feel like you don’t belong here.
Michelle: Exactly. Yes.
Tammy: So asking for that help and making sure you’re making those connections can help you belong.
Michelle: Absolutely. So yeah, I did the thing in China, it was hard but I did it and they let me choose the tech stack, so that was cool, I learned a lot of Django that way.
Tammy: So what technologies do you feel fluent in and which ones do you feel like you’re still learning?
Michelle: Do I feel fluent in any of them?!
Tammy: Well, whatever that would mean.
Erin: I would agree. That’s pretty much how I feel about those languages, too, and I LOVE Django. I will talk to anyone about Django all the time.
Michelle: Yes! High five to that! [Laughter]
Tammy: You guys just high-fives to Django, that’s pretty cool.
Erin: Oh! OK. If we ever a superhero team, we can say “Django high five!” and high-five each other and that will be our team—what is it called?
Erin: Yeah, team greeting. “Django high five.”
Tammy: “Django high five.” There needs to be a T-shirt. Alright. Did we finish with the morphing? Because if you remember where we started, where we started was Michelle is a little girl who’s always fiddling—with some success—with computer boxes around the house. But no one ever says, “Hey Michelle, you should think about computers.” Michelle goes all around the world, and finally winds up in front of a computer. Working as a computer-oriented, technology-oriented professional.
Michelle: And has she found her permanent calling?
Tammy: Yes. Or, maybe this is one of many steps on the road.
Michelle: You know, the answer changes depending on what I’m doing. When I got back from China, I was like, “OK, time to really dig in and find a new job in San Francisco. I absolutely wanted to be a full-stack engineer and I studied like crazy to find something like that. I ended up at a really awesome startup that was all women. It was really great! And the CEO was a former VC, and just the best leader you can ever imagine. Very confident, always had good answers, [inaudible], really supportive, would always ask what I needed to get to what we needed. She was great.
And I think—even though I loved what I was doing, and it was a struggle because again I was the only engineer—she was able to connect me with people who would help. And I was back in San Francisco so I had plenty of meetups I could go to and folks who were in my same time zone who could help me. So yeah, that ended up going better.
Looking at her, I thought, “She is so awesome. I want to be her.” But I didn’t think that would really happen. It was kind of like one of those ideas where you say, “Maybe someday…” You know? And ever since I’d done Hackbright, I kept seeing the issues that alumnae had with Hackbright. And I thought, “Maybe some day I’ll open a school where people could actually live in this house or something and we’ll just learn together and then it’ll help people who wouldn’t—”
Erin: And free childcare!
Michelle: Yeah, exactly! And there’s this house close to us that was available for a long time for $11 million, and I thought, “Oh, if I had $11 million I would totally buy it and do that!”
Erin: That would be pretty sweet!
Erin: And my background is in real estate so when you start talking in those words I’m like, “Oh! Yeah! Who do I know who could help her with that?”
Michelle: But just think how cool that would be! So many coding bootcamps aren’t very welcoming to underrepresented people. So if you say, “Hey, I know it’s a hard transition. We’re all going to do it together in this house, not a bro-hacker house.” It’s going to be a nice lifestyle where we support each other.
Tammy: Do you think that coding bootcamps are aware that they’re not really welcoming to underrepresented groups? Or do you think that folks think they are but need more education around that?
Michelle: I think they think they are. And I think they think that by having diversity scholarships they’re showing that. But I don’t think that’s enough.
Erin: It’s only part of it, though. Because if you’re an underrepresented person at a coding bootcamp, regardless of how your presence is funded, if there aren’t other people who look like you or have a similar background as you at that school then it’s hard to stay.
Michelle: It’s hard to stay.
Erin: It’s hard to connect with other people. Yes, it’s great to have these diversity scholarships. But there has to be a critical mass of people.
Erin: So let’s talk about #ilooklikeanengineer and Techtonica.
Michelle: My spouse worked at OneLogin and they wanted to do some ads to recruit some more people to their engineering team. And they put up ads in BART, including one [depicting] one of their female engineers. And she wrote an article about how people had already reacted within a day, saying “Oh, she must just be a model. She can’t REALLY be an engineer.”
Erin: I remember seeing these ads in the stations around that time.
Michelle: They said she was too hot to be an engineer and she was probably just a model that they hired. What most people don’t know is the thing that made me even more mad is she was getting asked out on dates via the ads. Some guy [sent her a message] saying, “Sounds like we’re really similar. I work in tech, too. We should go out on a date because you look like my style.” I looked the guy up and I was glaring at him on the screen.
Erin: By the way, I just have to say, both Tammy and I have our chins on our fists right now, elbows on the table, shaking our heads because we just, we are—
Tammy: It’s just—I think I—I think that for me it’s just so tiresome. I mean, I feel like at this point, really, with this generation, with the amount of access that you have to different kinds of people and different kinds of information, who do you have to be to live in a bubble like that? It’s so tiresome at this point.
A friend of mine—OK, I’m gunna have to give it back to you because we are going to have to wrap up at some point. But a friend of mine did the Women’s March this past weekend and she was in Boston. She took her son, who is I think eleven. She got back and she texted me, just asking how I was doing. And I replied that I was fine and asked what was going on with her. She said that she had just gotten back from the march and that she was angry. She was actually angry that she had to go march for basic human rights. That we still have to have these basic conversations, right.
It’s just. So. Tiresome. It is obviously the reason that inspired us to want to do WITtalks, and so we’re really grateful that we can have these conversations where we just get to sort of see women in tech and have that defined in myriad ways, but its also, it does get a little tiresome that we have to keep talking about this.
Michelle: Oh my gosh, yes.
Tammy: Do you think we’re going to get to a place where we don’t have to have these conversations?
Michelle: I think we were getting closer and then November 8th [the election of Donald Trump as the 45th U.S. President] happened. And now it all went back.
Tammy: Yeah. I guess we’ll see. But anyways.
Erin: So you connected with…
Michelle: Isis Anchalee.
Erin: Isis. Right.
Tammy: Isis, oh! Yes! We have—
Erin: I think she’s on our list.
Tammy: Yeah, she’s on our list.
Erin: Isis, if you’re listening, you might get an email from us because we want to talk to you, too.
Tammy: Well, especially because she has written a fantastic article about her name. And about—
Michelle: “Stop telling me to change it, it’s my name!”
Tammy: Yeah, exactly. She sounds fantastic.
Michelle: Another micro-aggression. Yeah, so basically I just reached out to her, told her I was there for her and then the next day I tweeted her and I was like, “Hey, we should put up billboards that respond to that. Show a whole bunch of faces of underrepresented engineers.” And she thought it was a great idea and thought we’d break the Internet. Let’s do a hashtag and share pictures of ourselves. And she put it up there, I spread it to every single women-in-tech group I could think of, and within a few hours it was viral. So we were like, “Whoa! Didn’t expect this!”. And everything was hectic for days.
Within three days I had talked to the LadyNerds about it and we decided to do a fundraiser to get the billboard going. Clearly, if the hashtag had gone viral, people would probably support the billboard. So, we got the fundraiser going for that and totally underestimated how much money that costs. We had to majorly up our goal. We planned an event for the community, the I Look Like an Engineer event—I think it was ten days later—and just had everyone come together and tell their stories, and Isis spoke and a bunch of other great people.
Erin: So this all happened within a matter of two weeks.
Erin: Wow, that’s crazy.
Michelle: Yeah. And I basically said to my boss, “I’m going to be busy for a few days…” [inaudible] She was like, “OK, just let me know.” She was really awesome about it.
Tammy: Well it’s also awesome to have the support of your boss like that, too. I mean, this is a hypothetical—
Michelle: That would not have happened in a different job.
Tammy: Well that’s what I was going to ask. It’s hypothetical, and we can’t know, but it does sound like given who your boss was, she totally understood.
Michelle: And also because I was working as a contract worker still. So I think she was just like, “Alright, well let me know when you have some hours”, you know? So all of that happened. I learned how to fundraise very quickly. Hands-on, in a month we raised $47,000.
Erin: Wow. You go girl.
Tammy: Do you have some tips to share with folks who might want to do that kind of thing?
Michelle: Don’t do it. [laughter]
Tammy: Well, OK, obviously we are not going to cover all of them in this podcast, but if folks wanted to reach out to you could they do that? And what are your tips now?
Tammy: OK, well there you go.
Michelle: And also, don’t do it alone! Because it is SO much work. It’s really, really hard.
Tammy: No, those are two good tips: Do what Kickstarter or Indiegogo tell you to do, and don’t do it by yourself.
Erin: And how can people reach out to you best?
Michelle: Twitter is actually the best.
Erin: And what’s your Twitter handle?
Michelle: Just “@MichelleGlauser”.
Erin: And we’ll put that on the webpage that we’ll be creating for your episode.
Michelle: That’s actually another tip I’d give to new developers. I feel like Twitter is where I kind of found the tech community, and the diversity conversation on there is pretty great, too.
Tammy: We have got to talk about Techtonica.
Michelle: OK. Techtonica. Yeah. After #ilooklikeanengineer was successful, I just thought, “You know, I’m so passionate about diversity and inclusion in tech and I kind of want to make that my job somehow. And now I have proof that I can do big things!” That was a really big, really difficult thing that happened!
Tammy: As if you needed more evidence, but OK fine. Hopefully you have your final piece of evidence.
Michelle: So, I thought, “We really do need a school that would teach people to code who couldn’t afford it otherwise. And I don’t know how much your listeners know about San Francisco, but there are huge problems with income disparity in San Francisco. In [the zip code] 94102 it’s worse than Rwanda and no one knows that.
Tammy: The income disparity here is worse than in places we would consider underdeveloped or third-world countries. We actually face a bigger problem here that we need to be thinking about how to solve.
Michelle: And instead we wonder how to get groceries delivered to our hamster. What the—? So, I just started organizing free coding workshops, kind of like Rails Bridge, with local organizations at computer labs. And eventually I said, “This isn’t going to do anything for them unless it’s full time.” And, it felt like so many companies are supportive of the whole ‘alternative education towards software engineering’ but they expect people to find their own way to their door. Especially diverse people. And they want more diversity in their candidates, but how do they expect those candidates to get to them?
Tammy: Well, you’re also only as diverse as your context, right? So that means that as a person who is different, I have to go wander off and find some place where I’m different and then ask “Can I be here?”
Tammy: Yeah, that’s something you want to charge right into.
Michelle: There’s a lot of lip service. We need to put this financial burden on the people who already have millions of dollars in diversity budgets. I’m starting a non-profit and companies will sponsor the students’ training. The students will be women and non-binary adults. They’ll get living and childcare stipends if needed, and at the end of the program they’ll be hired by the companies that basically paid a pre-paid recruiting fee.
Tammy: Now, you said some words in there that some folks might not be familiar with. You said “non-binary”.
Michelle: Yes. I always just say, “people who don’t identify as women or men”. And when people ask me why, I say, “A) I want to be very clear that we’re welcoming to them and B) Our location has a lot of people who identify that way.” I started doing more and more of these workshops, I got 501(c)(3) status through a fiscal sponsor, I’m doing a bunch of research about curriculum, I’m trying to find teachers. I basically spent the last year working on this, and then in September [of 2016] I felt like it wasn’t moving fast enough. I didn’t know how to get it moving faster, and it wouldn’t move faster unless I got some funding. But all of the grants I was applying for said I didn’t have enough going on for them to fund anything. So, I asked all of the people on the Techtonica squad if I should do a fundraiser again, and all of them said yes. And I was like, “Noooo!”
Tammy: At this point you have raised money by having a wedding, you’ve raised money—I mean, there’s no end to what you could raise money for or how you could raise it, so absolutely YES you should be raising money!
Erin: Just an example of how money is never the problem.
Michelle: Oh, it feels like the problem all the time.
Tammy: But it’s not an unsolvable problem. I think that’s a really key thing to say. And I think this might also be a working-class thing, too, where we didn’t have enough money. And because we didn’t have enough money things couldn’t get done. And so you just develop this mindset of, “I can’t do XYZ because I don’t have money.” And that’s not why you can’t do it. There’s money out there. You have to figure out how to go get the money.
Michelle: But you have to have the right connections…
Tammy: You do, you have to have access, but—
Michelle: If had done this before I had done the #ilooklikeanengineer one, I don’t think I would have had the same reaction because I think A) That built up my network a lot, and B) People then knew I could do good things and wanted to fund this.
Tammy: But the whole notion, though, is that it’s not insurmountable. It may be the case that you want to do something big and you don’t have the money to do it. But that’s not an insurmountable obstacle.
Michelle: It still feels like it all the time.
Tammy: Go find a network and that network can lead you to money. I mean, I know it feels like it. It feels like it for me all the time. It feels like it for us all the time, for sure. But I think your life lessons keep pointing out the reality that it is not insurmountable.
Michelle: You can figure it out.
Tammy: You can figure it out, yeah.
Erin: So, if I remember correctly, your fundraiser for Techtonica went above and beyond what you needed, right?
Tammy: Surprise, surprise!
Michelle: Yes. However, I spoke to my friend at Indiegogo and told her how much we really needed and she said it wouldn’t happen. It doesn’t happen with non-profits. It’s not what I should aim for. She said, “It’ll be great if you get there, if not, oh well.” So we set it at $30,000 and then I ended up extending to $40,000, and I think we got to around $42,000. But we still need more than that, obviously. But at least the $42,000 can get everything else started so I can take on the work of finding the sponsors. Hopefully we’ll be starting in the next month or two.
Erin: Aside from funding, how else can people support Techtonica?
Michelle: Oh, there’s so many ways!
Tammy: Should they also tweet you about that, too?
Michelle: Yes! Techtonica also has its own Twitter handle which is @TechtonicaOrg. The biggest pain point right now is space. We don’t have a space yet.
Erin: How much space do you need?
Michelle: I’m telling people we just need a meeting room with ten chairs, Internet, and access to a bathroom and we should be good.
Erin: So funding, space, what else?
Michelle: I haven’t announced this yet, but I think we have an instructor!
Erin: Cool! What about equipment? Computers?
Michelle: We’ve had several laptops donated.
Tammy: Wait—do you need more instructors?
Michelle: No, because we’re going to do just a few students for the first full-time class. So she’ll be able to handle all of them.
Tammy: Do you feel like you need any TAs or mentors or anything like that?
Michelle: We’re going to have plenty of volunteers involved. If people want to sign up as one, there’s a form on the website: techtonica.org. And there’s a newsletter for updates. But yeah, the very biggest thing right now is finding the sponsors who will hire the students at the end. Oh my gosh, you wouldn’t believe how much bias is in those conversations that I have with the companies! Every single one of them—not every one, but OK—basically all of them, have said in one way or another, “Well how can you prove that they’re smart enough to do this?”
Erin: Oh, gosh.
Michelle: And I’m like, “They’re not stupid!” And when I’m trying to pitch it to someone, I have to hide that [anger I feel]. So I say, “Oh, yeah we have a really great application process, and we make sure they know how to do such-and-such, and that they work well with others, and you have some input on the criteria…”
Tammy: A friend of mine once said that the reason that so many people look the same at any given company is because there’s this presumption about the kind of “think” you’re getting when you hire someone who looks like you. That you’re getting a certain kind of “think”. And so what these companies are asking you is, “How can we be sure that these folks that you’re bringing on have the same kind of ‘think’ that we do?”
Erin: And that’s the whole point, they don’t. And you want that cognitive diversity because it makes everything so much better. But a lot of people don’t get that.
Tammy: Well, actually, a lot of people don’t want that cognitive diversity. Not initially.
Michelle: It’s not easy. It isn’t easy. But it’s worth it.
Tammy: It is a struggle. We have to give a shout out to the reality that it is hard for people to think about changing their environments. Because that’s essentially what you’re doing. You’re saying, “I’m going to bring people who are smart enough. That’s not the issue. The issue is that they’re going to have a different kind of ‘think’ than you do. And are you willing to open up to that?”
Michelle: Yes. And not only that, I am absolutely committed to making sure the companies who do the sponsoring and hiring also commit to going through some diversity and inclusion training with me.
Tammy: That’s exactly it. Like, they have to be—
Michelle: I don’t want to put my students onto a team where they’re immediately going to feel like no one understands anything [about them]…
Tammy: Or it may be the case that there’s going to be an adjustment for everyone—but no one’s even trying. That’s what you definitely don’t want to put your students through.
Michelle: They think the first step is to just hire and then you’re good.
Erin: It’s not that easy.
Tammy: There’s work all around, yeah.
Michelle: But no one’s talking about socioeconomic diversity, right? And I think you’re going to get a whole new user base if you have someone on your team who can say, “Oh, well in my family where we were barely able to pay rent, it would have been good to have this feature.” You know? why aren’t we thinking about that?
Tammy: Yeah, why aren’t we bringing those different kinds of “think”? Because it’s so frustrating for those of us who are on the other side of this fence, sometimes it can be hard to be patient with this notion that people do need to evolve into this different way of thinking. But I do think that the work you’re doing is just respectful of the idea that everyone has to evolve. And you are offering an opportunity for these companies, these potential sponsor companies, to evolve in a way that is ultimately going to be beneficial for them, if they’re open to it. But the challenge is just to get people open to it.
Michelle: It’s going to be beneficial for both sides.
Tammy: For everyone, yeah. And for your user base, as well.
Michelle: Yes, I’m so excited! I think it’s going to be amazing. Yeah.
Tammy: I think you’re amazing. No, I’m serious. Well, we’re supposed to say that kind of thing because you’re a guest on the podcast, but seriously, you are incredible. The amount of passion and energy and willingness you have to just jump off of cliff after cliff after cliff is truly inspiring. Thank you so much for sharing this story with us.
Erin: Yeah, thank you.
Tammy: It’s really amazing.
Erin: Shall we close with our three either/or questions?
Tammy: Let’s do it. Let’s do it. Yeah. Actually, I want to ask her the big dreams question.
Erin: Oh, OK.
Tammy: Yeah, we want to ask you—it sounds like you have big dreams for other people, right?
Michelle: But what are my big dreams?
Tammy: Yeah, what about for you, though? What’s your big dream for you?
Michelle: When it was New Year’s Eve I was thinking about what I want for the New Year and the things I wanted were so simple. And I thought, “Plenty of people already have these. And I could have these, but they’re just not the priority right now.” I guess maybe someday. But I would love to just have a place that has a garden where I can have a piano and a big fluffy dog that I can hug all the time.
Erin: Do you want to play the piano in the garden?
Erin: Because in Montreal, in the summers, they have pianos all over the city and you can just walk up to them and play them. Or you can listen to people playing pianos just out on the sidewalk. It’s amazing.
Tammy: So first and foremost, what you need to do is start Techtonica everywhere, to include Montreal. Alright, so it sounds like what you would like for yourself though are some simple pleasures.
Michelle: Yes, but as far as career stuff goes, I really am passionate about connecting people and empowering underrepresented folks and I’d like to keep doing that. And however that happens, awesome.
Tammy: Alright. Now to the really important questions: Window seat or aisle seat?
Michelle: Window seat.
Michelle: Because then you can put—you smash up your jacket into a pillow and sleep on it.
Erin: What if you have to go to the bathroom? That’s always my thing.
Erin: You just ask for what you want?
Michelle: …If you’re me, you just pretend you don’t have to for a really long time, and then finally you say, “I’m so sorry, but can I move?” And then I think, “Why am I apologizing for going to the restroom?!” And then I think about it the whole way.
Erin: That’s a tricky one for me. OK, kittens or puppies?
Michelle: Puppies. I’m allergic to cats.
Erin: Aw, OK. That’s easy then.
Tammy: And money or fame?
Michelle: Money, because then I can do all sorts of cool things. When I committed to doing Techtonica full time, I had this long conversation with my spouse and I said, “I would really love to buy a house someday.” And we were headed in that direction with our savings. But if I do this, I won’t have an income for who knows how long and [buying a house] won’t really be possible. But in the end, that’s kind of a selfish thing and I decided I’d rather put the people who need my privilege to help them ahead of that. So, I may never have a cool house and a garden, but I get the satisfaction of working on something every day that I’m passionate about and it’s actually helping people.
Erin: I have no doubt you are going to have a cool house and a garden because you have called to you all the other things that you’ve—I don’t want to say the word “desired” because it has a connotation of being materialistic—but you’ve figured out how to do the things you want to do. So I have no doubt that that is coming.
Michelle: Well thanks!
Tammy: Michelle, thank you so much!
Erin: Thank you, thank you.
Michelle: Yeah, this is really fun we could probably talk for ten more hours!
Erin: We probably could! [Laughter] About all kinds of things. And maybe we’ll do that next year. We’ll have to have you back and do a status update.
Tammy: Yes, we definitely want to have you back.
Michelle: And that one we’ll only talk about D & I [diversity and inclusion] the whole time and I’ll be super excited.
Tammy: Wait, we’ll only talk about what?
Erin: Diversity and inclusion.
Tammy: Oh, diversity and inclusion. OK. We’ll see. I have a feeling we’re going to go off on a few tangents but it’s OK.
Erin: Well, this has been another episode of the WITtalks podcast. I’m Erin Allard, saying goodbye.
Tammy: I’m Tammy Sanders, see you next time.