Selected topics: How engineers can affect change in their organization, tag-teaming a speaking gig, how teaching makes you a better communicator, and what companies can do to make their work environments more welcoming to women.
BOOKS Natalia RECOMMENDS
Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace by Jessica Bennett
Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur
Note: The text below reflects constructive editing of the published audio for clarity and flow.
Erin Allard: In today’s episode of WITtalks, we’re in London with Natalia Baltazar, a software developer at Guardian News & Media (GNM). Don’t miss this episode if you’re interested in how engineers can change an organization, how teaching makes you a better communicator, and what to do and not do if you want women to join your tech company.
Welcome to another episode of the WITtalks podcast. I’m Erin, your co-producer and co-host.
Tammy Sanders: I’m Tammy, your co-producer and co-host.
Erin: We are here today in London, near King’s Cross Station with Natalia Baltazar, who is a software developer at The Guardian.
Tammy: We are at The Guardian and this is a very “storied place” to be. The Guardian is a very important institution not just in London but also in Europe and around the world, so we’re really glad to be here.
Natalia Baltazar: Wonderful, I should give you a tour after.
Tammy: A tour would be really cool!
Erin: If you have time, yeah!
Tammy: We could take up your whole afternoon. [Laughter] Before we get started, one of the things we’re curious about is when I reached out to you — or pretty much cold-called you as you’d never heard of me before — and said, “Hey, do you want to be in our podcast?” you responded quickly with, “Yes.” Why did you do that? What made you want to be in the podcast?
Natalia: It’s really important to just put women in the spotlight and to actually act as a role model to younger generations. The hard thing for me about going into this industry was I didn’t know who to look for and who to follow. I couldn’t imagine myself up on stage doing these sorts of things, but the more I started doing these things, the more I met other women who were doing the same things for the same reason, and the easier it felt. I remember when I did my first ever public-speaking event, I met a woman a year later who said that my talk was what inspired her to get into tech —
Natalia: — and I went, “Whoa!” That’s really nerve-wracking but also really important. Even if your talk doesn’t turn out great or even if it’s scary to give the talk, it’s important to just do it.
Erin: Because you never know who you’re reaching.
Natalia: That’s exactly it. I just think it’s really important.
Tammy: To help our listeners understand your background, could you discuss two or three major moments from any aspect of your life? It could be from your childhood, education, family, any aspect at all that you think really helped you to be here professionally today.
Natalia: Looking back, one of the big things was when I was in high school. I think I was 14 and taking “An Introduction to Engineering and Computer Science” which wasn’t either engineering or computer science really.
Tammy: What was it then?
Natalia: It was six months of learning AutoCAD, an engineering program, and Photoshop.
Tammy: You never know when you’re going to have to Photoshop yourself into a picture with the prime minister or something.
Natalia: [Laughter] It’s a very useful skill, really. After that, the other six months we did woodworking.
Erin: Oh, cool!
Natalia: After doing that, I really excelled to the point where the teacher made me a class assistant to help out his class and other classes. I had even built a boat that he used as a model to show the next classes what to do.
Erin: That’s awesome.
Natalia: I really excelled. What I find interesting is that, of course, I was one of only a few women in the class, and being the rebellious teenager given these opportunities, I immediately rebelled against them. The result of that is at the end of the class, the teacher brought me inside to meet with all the engineering teachers at school. There were about six of them, all men of course, and they said, “Which classes are you going to take next?” and I said, “I don’t know,” and they made a lot of suggestions. Unfortunately, pushing me towards doing it actually made me back away and I ended up not taking any engineering classes after that.
Tammy: Do you have any insight into your own psychology for what that was about?
Natalia: I really don’t like favoritism. I didn’t actually get along with the school system, in general, so I mostly stopped attending when I was 16. That’s one of the reasons that I didn’t take an engineering class.
Tammy: What’s interesting, too, is your perspective at that time when you were only 14 or 15 years old. Your perspective of these teachers was that they’re favoring you unfairly. Yet, there are situations where girls would really benefit from a group of male engineering teachers telling them to go into tech, which is exactly what we want male engineering teachers to tell girls.
If there are any male engineering teachers out there, please don’t be put off by Natalia, she was only 14 or 15 and she apologizes now. Please keep encouraging girls.
Natalia: [Laughter] I do apologize. That was definitely something I wish that I’d continued with.
Tammy: Have you ever gone back to those teachers?
Natalia: I actually did and I apologized. I explained that being a teenage girl, you often feel like you want to disappear, especially in high school. Also, given that I was going through some personal issues at the time which led me to end my high school education early, I just explained that that was one of the reasons why that was putting pressure on me and why it did the opposite of what it was intended to do.
Tammy: It’s great that you did go back to them and say that.
Natalia: It was really lovely. With that said, I enjoyed tech, woodworking, and AutoCAD. They helped me think about things in a more 3D way. Suddenly, whenever I wanted to make something, I was able to visualize it in pieces way easier. With that skill that I picked up doing those things, I ended up starting my own fashion design company.
Erin: Cool! Also, go woodworking.
Natalia: Oh my Gosh, woodworking was something I picked up a few years ago again and I just so adore it. Right now, I tend to make things that I need for my house, so it’s a functional hobby. If I need a projector holder, I’d be like, “I’m just going to make that.”
Natalia: “I need to make some shelves — I’m just going to make that.” There’s something really empowering about just making something for yourself.
Erin: There’s also something empowering about having a need and being able to fill it yourself and not having to rely on someone else.
Natalia: I really love it.
Tammy: So that was one moment. Do you have a couple of others or is that the big one?
Natalia: I’ve got another one and this was all back in Canada where I’m from.
Tammy: Where in Canada are you from?
Natalia: I was born in Halifax but grew up in Kitchener-Waterloo, where one of the big engineering schools is based.
Erin: Did you say “high school”? I’m curious because people from Britain don’t say “high school”.
Natalia: When I decided that I didn’t want to do fashion, I went traveling and moved here. I did a variety of different jobs here trying to figure out the next thing I wanted to do, and in doing that, I ended up meeting someone and he was a software developer. He would tell me about his job and we would talk about it. But at the time, I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, this is for me.” Looking back, it’s quite interesting how I always discounted it as something that wasn’t possible.
Erin: I don’t think that’s unique.
Natalia: It seems to be quite a common thing. Somehow I always thought, “That’s really interesting for YOU,” but never, “Oh wait, maybe I can do that.” Then I started realizing that this is actually something I could do and would be really interested in doing. When we’re playing my favorite game, called SET, which is a very logic-based card game that’s all about finding patterns, making connections, and doing it quickly — I’m actually quite good at this game.
Tammy: “Not to brag but I’m just good! I’m not bragging about it. This is just facts that I’m saying.”
Natalia: [Laughter] It is what it is. At some point, he asked me how I figured it out, so I explained my strategy and he said, “Natalia, do you know that’s a reductive recursive algorithm?” I had no idea what that meant, so he explained to me what it was and we talked about it. We discussed what an algorithm is, he showed me a few others, and eventually he said, “Why don’t you just learn how to code? There’s a bunch of online resources. You can also just ask me questions.” Of course, I’m way too stubborn to ask him questions and I wouldn’t even know the things he’s going to say anyway. [Laughter]
Tammy: You just seem to have a bit of a stubborn streak in you.
Natalia: I really do have one. It’s not good a lot of the time but, hey, sometimes it comes in handy. I did end up doing some online courses and realizing, “This is fun. I can just create something!” It also has that gratification that woodworking has. Before, if I wanted to do something I originally didn’t know about I had to buy something, pay someone to do it, or chalk it up as a mystery. But now, I can express myself, make things on my own and understand how they work. So those are two of the big moments in my life [that shaped who I am today].
Erin: I love how you had the mind of a computer scientist without knowing it. The story that you told about this card game where your partner said, “There’s actually an algorithm for that,” I think that’s so cool. It was so important and perhaps lucky that you had that person to pinpoint that skill you had and say that you could actually make something out of it.
Natalia: I think about how fortunate I am as well, given that I also learned by entirely free resources in London. I’m so grateful that there are so many people doing outreach programs and that so many of these free courses exist. That’s one of the reasons why I volunteer for so many things and why I enjoy teaching so much. I just want to inspire more people.
Tammy: To pay it back and pay it forward.
Natalia: That’s exactly it.
Tammy: What do you do now? What’s your role as a software developer at The Guardian? Are you back-end, front-end, or full-stack?
Erin: And how did you get here?
Natalia: My title is Full-Stack Software Engineer and I mostly work on The Guardian website. I’m in a team where we’re responsible for quite a lot of things but my main responsibility is keeping the website fast and reliable. When I say ‘full-stack’, what I mean is that there are days when I’m running a new feature, writing tons of CSS and HTML, and checking it on a whole bunch of different browsers, and then the next day I will be trolling through an AWS account and doing calculations to see whether we can save money in different ways, or trying to rewrite one of our models or back-end to fit our current needs better.
I’d say I do have a wide-ranging job and I’ve worked with people from all different specialties. I really enjoy being a full-stack software engineer because I’m able to touch the front end and the back end. I also work with people who are purely client-side engineers or purely infrastructure engineers but I like to put my hands into all of it because I find that a little bit more interesting.
Tammy: How big is the team?
Natalia: My team is about 15 people. We’re responsible for five platforms in total — 1) Identities, 2) All the sign-in at The Guardian, 3) Discussions and a lot of the commenting features, 4) The website as a whole, 5) And also AMP.
Erin: We just watched on YouTube the talk you gave a couple of weeks ago about that.
Tammy: Can you say what AMP is?
Natalia: It’s “Accelerated Mobile web Pages”, which is an initiative that was originally started by Google, but is now becoming more and more an open standard. I think almost all publishers’ sites, e-commerce sites, and new small and big sites seem to be going more toward creating AMP pages, as they tend to be quite faster. AMP pages are a unique componentized library, which again was started by Google but it’s an open source piece of software so other people can contribute as well.
Tammy: You all do have quite a large remit and a large number of things that you’re responsible for.
Natalia: We do, which is quite daunting sometimes but also gives a lot of opportunity for learning. That’s mainly why I’m with the team that I am. I am someone who prefers to feel daunted over feeling like I have a handle on things. I like feeling out of my depth because I recognize that that’s when I learn the most. When I feel comfortable, I stagnate.
Tammy: …and you’re stubborn.
Natalia: Yeah. [Laughter]
Tammy: “If I’m a little uncomfortable, out of my depth, and out of my element, I actually will be more open.” That’s actually a very fair thing to observe about yourself.
Natalia: Yeah, anyone who hasn’t had this interest when they were a teenager or hasn’t gone through a computer science background — or even when you have — going into the tech industry and working professionally is daunting. Even in the boot camp, which both Erin and I did, was also really daunting. You’re constantly out of your depth, and most of the time, at least for me, I’ll have a list of technologies that I’m going to learn and I’d be like, “OK, now I’m going to learn it.” You just have to embrace it to an extent.
Tammy: I went to an entrepreneurial accelerator called Startup Institute to accelerate my own ability to be in the startup world. One of the exercises they had was fantastic. They said, “Here’s a picture of an owl. Now, draw an owl.” One of their mottos was, “Just draw the owl”. No one’s going to teach you how to draw the owl. You just have to figure it out.
Natalia: I love that.
Tammy: Yeah, exactly. Back to what Erin had asked, how did you get here?
Natalia: I feel like there were a lot of serendipitous and lovely events that brought me here, one of which is when my then-boyfriend introduced me to coding and encouraged me to learn. I was quite poor in London so I was looking for any free ways to learn in person because I find it really difficult to learn on my own at home in front of a computer. I’d much rather discuss things with people.
Tammy: That’s an important thing to know about yourself. There are so many ways to learn how to code. If you’re very self-driven, very focused and want to learn on your own, you can do that. If you feel like you learn better through interaction with people, then you have that opportunity as well. How do you think you got that insight about yourself? That’s a really important insight to have.
Natalia: It is. I think it’s just something that I’ve always done. I’ve always worked in a team and have always enjoyed collaborating with people. Even when I was doing fashion design and making my own designs, I would make sure I had people around me all the time to bounce ideas off of — to show them drawings and prototypes, get friends to model for me and ask them what they think — anything just to bounce ideas around.
I found that, when learning to code, not having someone at my level to discuss concepts with without feeling embarrassed —
Tammy: Or intimidated?
Natalia: — Yeah, it’s really hard not to feel intimidated unless you’re with people of your same level.
I found this free coding boot camp in London, now named “Founders & Coders.” I didn’t know when they were going to start, so I just sent an email to the founder saying, “I’m really interested in this thing. Just let me know if you’re planning to run some [workshops] and when.” When I heard back from the founder, I immediately just quit my job and applied.
Natalia: I was like, “A month doing a coding course? Yup, sounds good. I’m going to make sure I get in, it’s fine.”
Tammy: You were finally ready to go.
Natalia: Exactly, so I applied and luckily got into the course. The course format is very similar to a lot of boot camps. We were 16 students in groups of 4, purposefully arranged with people that we’ve got nothing in common with, from completely different backgrounds. Then, we were given a list of technologies to learn in the first week and we just had to go for it. We were figuring out how to collaborate with different types of people while learning things none of us knew anything about. We were all learning in different ways. It’s quite an interesting experience and it can be extremely intense. After my first week, I went home and thought to myself, “Yup, I love this. This is for me. I’m going to keep doing this now.”
The founder was a friend of someone who works here [at The Guardian], who I actually work with now, named Stephen Fowler. He came in to do a code review for us and that was the first time that we ever had a proper code review. We didn’t really know what we were doing in terms of writing code so it was brutal, but we loved it, it was amazing.
I remember the four of us standing up while he was talking about what we’d done wrong with our code, asking, “What was that thing you said again?! Let me write it down.” We enjoyed it so much and I found it really inspiring. He went through The Guardian website and explained how they thought about things. That was the first time that I was introduced to The Guardian as a digital place to work and that just stuck in my head.
Tammy: That brings us to the question of how does engineering work get done here at The Guardian? How does the team work together? How is life structured for a developer here at The Guardian?
Natalia: We have quite a loose structure and a fairly flat hierarchy. If I decided that I want to do something today, I can just do it and don’t have to ask any permission or schedule time. Some teams work on sprints, our team doesn’t. Our team has quite a wide range of responsibilities, so oftentimes, no matter what we plan, we end up working on something else that appears more urgent during the week. Given our wide remit, I think that’s the right way to do it for our team, but we do have a list of things we want to work on and we mostly work on it when we can.
I think our team is an exception as well because of the large number of senior developers that we have — more so than any other team. I think that is one reason why we can just pick up tasks, work on them, and trust that we know the best thing to do. Plus, our project manager is so lovely, he mostly says, “My role is just to keep everyone else happy because we’re dealing with systems that are far too complex for me to keep in my head. I just need to keep you guys happy so you can keep it in your heads.”
Tammy: He’s just making sure that you have what you need to get the work done.
Natalia: Exactly. We broadly work in sprints while the rest outside of our team work on OKRs.
Tammy: Can you say what those are?
Natalia: Oh my gosh. Objective Key Results?
Tammy: Objectives and Key Results.
Natalia: Thank you. You can tell I haven’t done that.
Tammy: [Laughter] Yeah, you clearly have not done your OKRs at all.
Natalia: I think I did once, but our team doesn’t work on business goals as much. We are much more of a team where we would list the things that need to get done. Our work and objective is to simplify our platforms so that in the future, fewer people would need to work on them.
Tammy: I started my career in technology when newspapers were first going online in the late 1990s. I wrote and pushed HTML code and sat in editorial offices with editors who argued with us on the digital side about publishing today’s news today. I had come from a time where newspaper and technology were not very complex. It seemed super complex but, comparatively, it was not complex at all. Now it seems there’s a staggering amount of complexity in a digital media publication as big as The Guardian. As a developer, can you talk about some of the complexities that you face working on a digital company like The Guardian?
Natalia: That’s an excellent point of how complex things have become. To demonstrate that, I think 20 years ago, the digital department in The Guardian was one person.
Natalia: And I knew him that’s why I know about it. Now we have a department of maybe 140 people and about 90 developers in London, which is a big difference.
Tammy: It’s humongous. I’m wondering what you find rewarding. I think developers might not think of a newspaper as a place to go. There’s this reputation that newspapers have had for being old and stodgy. Yet, when I listen to your AMP talk and listen to you talk about the complexity at The Guardian, you all seem to be as robust a technology entity as any. What are some of the rewards and challenges of being a dev in a digital media organization?
Natalia: When you work for Google, for example, the engineers run the show. If an engineer has an idea and if there’s something that needs to be done, it will just get done as long as they’re doing it. When you work for a news organization, that’s not the way it works. The digital department is much more like a service department where the editorial will request what happens and the digital will fulfill that. I do think we are empowered in the sense that we can say “no” and explain why we can’t fulfill that request. For example, we do push back and explain why the number of readers for whatever it is you want to show on the website isn’t worth it.
Tammy: I come from the journalism side and that’s a hard place to be in.
Natalia: It’s really hard.
Tammy: “You don’t understand! Even if there are only four readers, this is the most important story!”
Natalia: Exactly, getting the whole organization to look at data and to back opinions and points is a long transition and is really important. We often show people how to look at data. We show people that there are a lot of workshops on how to find the data that you need. We have a team to whom you can even ask questions, which is so lovely. We really try to encourage the editorial team to talk to us when they want something to happen and we’ll find a way to make it happen in some form. We very much approach it as, “What is the problem you’re trying to solve? Let us come up with a solution.”
Tammy: It’s a conversation about the problem and the solution you can find together.
Natalia: Exactly, it’s working in a very collaborative way with the editorial team. It is a transition. If I worked here five years ago, I’d find it way different than I do now. While doing a couple of features I’ve done recently, I get people coming up saying, “I completely understand why you couldn’t do this one bit of it, but what about that?” and we’d have this conversation, it’s really lovely. I think at The Guardian, we’ve succeeded in saying “digital first” and being data-driven for the most part, but there are always improvements to be made.
Tammy: In an organization like this, an engineer or developer might not realize how impactful you can be when you really are a transformative force inside the organization. I think a lot of engineers show up to do engineering work and it may not be a prioritization that you can help change an organization, but I can see here that you are continuing to transform the organization. What are your thoughts about that?
Natalia: There’s one story that I have about an engineer who’s really changing the culture of The Guardian and it was about being data-driven. We have this internal product, Ophan, which is a world-class analytics tool.
Natalia: O-P-H-A-N. We’ve built it completely in-house and it’s amazing. It was started by one engineer talking to one person from editorial who did a presentation to the department and said, “This is my job. This is what I do. I can’t really do my job because there’s not enough data. Please help,” and that engineer said, “This sounds really interesting. I would like to help.” Then, they started meeting and eventually started building something, which grew into a tool that the entire company is completely dependent on now for making choices, analyzing data, and seeing what stories are the most popular and most read. It’s real-time and so useful, it’s amazing.
Recently, that was brought up to showcase how much an engineer can change things because that really did change the entire culture. It wasn’t just changing one team or changing the digital team, it really changed everything.
Tammy: It was changing how the organization thinks.
Natalia: It really was and that’s an excellent demonstration of what you can do. Oftentimes, you have to make it happen so you have the power to say, “I’m not going to work on what you asked me to work on today,” or “This is more important” — even to your team. As long as you can convince people that that thing is more important, they’ll let you work on that and you have a lot of freedom.
Tammy: You have also used your freedom to present at conferences. You’ve been quoted in articles and you just put a lot of your thoughts and perspective out in the world around software development and engineering. How have you become this person who puts herself out there around technology?
Natalia: Oh my gosh! My first time doing public speaking was over two years ago now. I just got randomly introduced to someone after a tech meet-up in a pub with the introduction of, “Hi, this is Ollie. You’re going to do a talk with him next week. Bye!” That person wanted someone from Founders & Coders to do a talk with, and the founder just told him, “She’s your girl,” and just walked away. [Laughter]
Tammy: “And good luck with that.”
Natalia: Yeah, that talk was at Twitter at a meet-up called Ladies of Code, which I now help out with.
Tammy: That’s Twitter here in London, correct?
Natalia: Yes. The talk was about open source and the importance of it, so thankfully, it was quite an easy one. Given that open source is very important, it’s easy to talk about.
Tammy: “Open source is important. Thank you for your time. I will now take some questions.”
Natalia: [Laughter] It was quite nice not to do it alone the first time.
Tammy: That’s a really useful and interesting strategy, the notion that if you want to do public-speaking — or even if you don’t but feel like you need to for your own professional development — go find someone to do a talk with you. That’s actually the first time I’ve ever heard someone say that.
Natalia: It’s really helpful. Now I even do that with teaching. I really like to teach with someone who I really trust. I think to myself, “If I forget to say something, you’re going to say that thing when you come in. If I notice you forget to say something, I’m going to come in and say that thing.” Somehow there’s a dynamic when you’re talking with someone you really trust that you can just interrupt each other, have a conversation on stage about that thing and it feels really natural. It takes a lot of the pressure off and begins to feel like it’s just you and that other person talking.
Erin: It’s also useful for the people you’re teaching to see in real life that nobody knows everything and how important it is to seek advice or help from other people. For me as a student out of a coding boot camp, to see that dynamic live was really valuable because I came in with these notions that I was going to have to know everything when, in reality, no one does.
Natalia: The longer you do it, the more you realize that no one really knows what they’re doing. [Laughter]
Tammy: OK listeners, I’m sure that a couple of people know what they’re doing. Every once in awhile, Natalia knows what she’s doing when she’s coding. The overall point is that no one knows everything all the time.
Natalia: Fair enough, fair enough.
Erin: This might be a good time to switch gears to talking about teaching. Actually, you’re chomping at the bit to talk about teaching.
Tammy: Natalia has come to her conversation with three pages of notes. Now she has just turned the page on one of the notes and she’s really about to go into it. There’s a long paragraph with a lot of bullet points.
Natalia: First, I’ll go back to public-speaking. I want to point out that when I did public-speaking in the past, it was mainly at small meetups in London. I tend to find out about these maybe at most a week before, so I can’t really do much prep.
There was another time when I went to a meet-up where I happened to know the organizer, and he said, “This last speaker just pulled out and we don’t have anyone to speak. This is in about five minutes’ time from now. Does anyone have anything?” I said, “I did a quick talk ages ago but I don’t think it’s relevant for this,” and he said, “OK, I’m going to put you on the agenda,” and before I got to say “no”, he just walked up and told a hundred people that I was going to do a talk.
Erin: It seems to be a recurring theme in tech.
Tammy: Maybe it’s better if you don’t know, or if you don’t have time to prep, or if you don’t have time to stress and freak yourself out about it.
Natalia: That’s exactly what I was going to say and that’s what I was used to. When I was asked to do these conference talks, I agreed to them, but then several weeks later I was like, “Oh my gosh! I’m doing a talk in front of 400 people and it’s a regimented schedule that has to be at a particular time. How am I going to do this? I’ve never done this before.” It was actually really scary. A few days before the event, I was so stressed out and was debating, “Oh no, I should cancel this. I can’t do it. This isn’t going to happen.” ThankfullyI am stubborn because instead I just worked my butt off for the next 48 hours, presented in front of the department, and it went really well.
Tammy: Note to listeners: if you want to book Natalia for something, only give her about two days’ notice.
Natalia: It does work.
Erin: It worked pretty well that we only gave you a week.
Natalia: Yeah, what was interesting about doing that conference talk was I was plagued in those last two weeks with every reason to be concerned. I was nervous to stand in front of people; I wassuper nervous to be recorded because I’ve never been recorded before; I was so nervous about talking to people with many, many more years of experience than me; I was nervous about representing The Guardian like, “Am I good enough?”; I was plagued by impostor syndrome. I actually found that my team was the most helpful at getting me past that stage where I could just write the talk and then do it. I don’t know if you saw it but my speaking slot was also nerve-wracking. It was on the first day in the morning after the keynote and after two people from Pinterest.
Erin: What’s so interesting to me is the perspective that you’re sharing right now which is… Blaaah!
Tammy: [Laughter] This is one moment where I wish we were videoing so you can see Erin’s face.
Erin: I’m making a surprised face and wiggling my hands at ear level..
I think it says a lot that they put you at that spot because, clearly, they’re seeing something about you, your delivery, or your experience that you’re not seeing about yourself. Did it ever occur to you during that prep time to think about it in that way?
Natalia: Definitely. Most of the people who I’ve worked with at The Guardian seem much more experienced than I am, which is really flattering because they don’t see me as the opposite, and I’m really happy about that. For example, coming in as someone who doesn’t have that much experience starting the AMP project, I was the tech lead and mostly did that by myself with some other people’s help. I’m very proud of what I did and how the talk went after all that hassle and stress. I did get up, do the talk, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. I was so shocked and delighted.
Tammy: I think people who are giving a talk forget that the audience did not come to the talk to critique you. For the most part, that’s not what they’re there for. They’re not generally there to make fun of you. They’re generally there to learn something, so they’re pretty open-minded.
Natalia: Exactly. Since other people in my life have been encouraging me to brag more, I’m going to brag that multiple people have said that that was the best talk of the day, and that was amazing. I was actually inundated with questions throughout the entire event which was so wonderful. An hour after my talk, anytime someone came up to me, they would almost always start with, “I know you’ve been speaking all day but…” which was quite sweet.
Erin: You’ve had some experience teaching, particularly with kids, as have I. What are some of the challenges you’ve had as a teacher of code? What have you learned about yourself in the process of teaching?
Natalia: Like you, I definitely try to teach a lot and I really love it. I first started teaching by teaching other adults. I learned that the quickest way for me to learn something is to teach it right afterwards. Not only was it really good for my learning but also made me better at explaining things. The longer it’s been since I learned something, the more I struggle with the best way to teach it. Whereas immediately after learning something, I find it so easy to explain things because, obviously, I followed the path that I just went through, and it was a lot easier to take people with me that way. I’m also one of the lead instructors for nod.
Erin: Code First: Girls?
Natalia: Yeah, it’s an initiative in the UK, which is about teaching women who are under 25 how to code. It’s all free. We volunteer to teach basic web development which is exactly what I’d learned before. I find that I have to go back to how I taught it previously to remember how to explain it. I want to make sure that I’m not saying something too confusing or conflating something with other concepts which might be difficult to learn.
Erin: What sorts of technologies are you teaching for web development?
What’s also an amazing thing in London, and really helpful for trying to figure out my own teaching style, is mentoring at Codebar which happens every week on Wednesdays. You can sign up either as a mentor or an attendee, and the ratio usually is one mentor to one attendee or thereabouts, sometimes you have two people with you. It’s so good to have one-on-one time with people and really test out explaining different things. Working with them on things was so much fun.
My favorite technique which I finally learned is to pretend that you don’t know the answer even if you do. When they say, “How do I do this?” I’ll say, “I don’t know. Let’s find out together,” and then we’ll just Google it, search through things, and do problem-solving together. When you do that, you’re not just teaching people how to ask a question, which is really important especially when you’re learning, but you’re teaching people how to problem-solve on their own. You’re teaching people the tools that you use to problem-solve when you’re stuck, and then eventually, they don’t have to ask, it just becomes “Let’s figure it out together!”
Erin: I’d like to share a little story quickly. Last summer when I was teaching at Girls Who Code, for the first couple of weeks, as instructors we really held their hand a lot. It got to a point where one morning when we were studying Python, I said, “OK, you all are really going to be pissed off with me by the end of the day, but today, I’m going to teach you to start learning how to answer your own questions.”
Over the course of that week, I would put up a reminder on the board saying, “Before you ask me any questions, did you Google your question? Did you Google your error message? Have you asked your partner? Have you checked on Stack Overflow? It should be getting to a point where I’m the last resort because you’re so good at finding the answer on your own,” Sure enough at the end of that day, I asked them, “How did today feel for you all?” and one of the students said, “I was really mad at you sometimes but then I figured it out, and then I felt really proud of myself.” My face is lighting up right now because, as a teacher, that’s very rewarding for me.
Natalia: That’s very similar to what we do at Founders & Coders, mostly because there aren’t enough instructors anyway, but that’s such a good technique, it’s brilliant.
Erin: Do you think coding should be a required school subject or is it really a specialized interest that people need to find on their own?
Natalia: I definitely think people should be able to be introduced to coding at a very early age.
Tammy: Even if they’re going to rebel, be stubborn, and refuse to do it?
Natalia: [Laughter] I hope that in the future, people will grow up knowing it’s a possibility and that tech is not just a mystery that someone else does. People grow up, go to school, and look at these websites, not knowing that it’s something they can do, and that’s a shame. I would like people to realize that they’re capable of creating all these things and it’s not just some specialized field — especially for people who are older, you don’t have to have grown up with that as an interest, you can just pick it up, there’s nothing stopping you. I would like for coding to be part of the curriculum, but not just coding actually. In fact, coding is one of the least important things that should be a part of the curriculum.
Erin: Could you say more about that?
Natalia: Yeah, one of the more important things I wish was taught in school is general knowledge — things like data security, what cookies are, what websites are storing information on you and how you can control that, what data you have floating around, and why it’s important for you to be aware of that.
Tammy: Essentially, data awareness and data-savviness.
Natalia: Yeah, and things like phishing schemes which so many people get caught up in. There are some really clever ones out there. Being aware of even just the basic signs of of phishing is so important. Technology, websites, apps — none of these things are a black box being built by people “way over there”. It’s very much something you can be capable of understanding. I know you can’t see the code but there really is something that’s structured there that’s serving that thing, it’s not a mystery. You can control it to an extent even as a user. If that could be taught as part of the national curriculum, the online world would be a much better and safer place for people.
Tammy: Data-savviness and tech-savviness remind me of this movie I saw where a guy’s dating a girl, and she has gone in and looked at his Internet history because he doesn’t know that he can delete his browser history. He’s just astounded that she figured that out, and she’s astounded that he doesn’t know that you can just delete your browser history. If you’re not taught these things, you may not actually have an opportunity to know them. This is a really interesting notion. I’ve never heard anyone say to not just teach people how to code but teach people how to be more technology and data savvy.
Erin: I would agree that it’s really important—especially within the last few years with the massive aggregation of data. Every single click you make everywhere is stored and logged somewhere.
Tammy: Just like taking a civics class or understanding government and politics, you also need to understand technology.
We’re going to shift gears now and talk about gender diversity in tech. You’re involved in a couple of groups for women in London. Can you talk about what those groups are, what they do, and most importantly, why they are necessary?
Tammy: “Stop staring… It’s OK!”
Natalia: It was really uncomfortable. Now I still go to that meet-up and it’s not like that at all anymore. It’s a bit better and people have just gotten used to us.
Tammy: How is it for you here at The Guardian?
Natalia: There’s about 10% in engineering that are women, so it’s not great but could also be a lot worse. What I appreciate here at The Guardian is that we do a lot of internal initiatives where we’re constantly talking about different issues and getting people to volunteer and run events for different issues, and that helps a lot. Sally, a friend and colleague of mine, and I decided to run a workshop for a conference recently about controversial topics. It was about debating both sides of the argument, and the questions or statements we were asking people to debate were things like, “Women write code differently than men.”
First, it was mostly women in the audience but we also decided to do it internally with mostly men just to see how it would go, and it was fantastic! The people in the department got so into it that we had this amazing group discussion afterwards with a hundred people talking about these issues like, “I had no idea that that could be a problem.” We were really discussing it and being really open. Afterwards, Sally and I had people come up to us saying, “I just made this assumption and I think that was really bad. I think I need to talk about this.. Is it bad that I made that assumption?”
Natalia: Just talking about things made me realize that most people who do something like interrupt someone is not intentional. Most of the time, they’re not aware that they’re doing it and it’s called “unconscious bias”, but just making people aware makes such a world of difference. Internally, we’re really good about that and the culture is quite good for people, but we’re always looking to improve things anyway.
The other thing I’ve been involved with quite a lot recently is Ladies of Code. I’m one of the six London organizers. I think that the most important thing that Ladies of Code does is run a wide range of events from beginner-friendly to very technical. We label them as such because we both do functional programming, which might be a little bit more advanced, and at the same time, run small workshops every once in awhile which are more beginner-friendly. Some other women-only meet-ups run a lot more technical topics and it’s quite nice to have a safe space for technical women to come and talk about something they’re really passionate about. Our community is about 2,500 people right now and there are about 60-90 people that come every month.
When I say that “it’s a safe place for women”, it’s not that other places aren’t safe in terms of physical safety.
Tammy: You’re not in danger but there’s something different about the dynamic when two women walk into a meet-up of 200 men.
Natalia: Exactly. A good example of this is the moment that we ask no men to come unless they’re invited by the speakers. There are some bigger reasons why we do that but one of the small ones is that we’ve noticed, as organizers, that if there are more than two men in the room, women ask way fewer questions. When the audience asks way fewer questions, they don’t tend to be as open, discussions tend to happen less as a big group but more in small circles.
As soon as you take the men out, suddenly people are asking questions, they’re not afraid to be wrong or to express an opinion, and the dynamic is just really different. It’s just important to have that safe space where people can talk and don’t have to feel like they’re being judged. Arguably, you shouldn’t feel like you’re being judged anyway, but that’s a wider problem in the industry. At the moment, we’re tackling it by creating a safe space and people really appreciate it.
Tammy: We noticed that you re-tweeted Alice Bartlett, who’s a software developer here in London and who has critiqued this question that she hears from men of “How can we get more women to work for us and to work for our companies in technology?” She critiques that question by asking, “To what extent are you prepared to make your workplace comfortable for women to work in even if it’s going to cost you money?” From your perspective, based on what you’ve heard, and given your experience working in tech in London, how is the London tech scene doing with making the workplace comfortable for women?
Natalia: Different companies tackle this problem in so many different ways varying from really good ways to not really good ways. [I listened to a talk] about when you’re building a business even as a startup, you have to be conscious about this and strive for the diversity of people and diversity of thought within your business. If you did that from the beginning, it will happen, it will keep going, and will grow in a diverse way. If you say, “I’m going to deal with that later,” you’ll oftentimes end up with 20 people who are all white males, and that’s when it’s really hard to change the culture and make it an acceptable place for other people.
Tammy: I like this notion of the diversity of people and the diversity of thought. What are your notions about the diversity of thought and why does that matter?
Erin: And what’s the difference?
Natalia: One really basic thing is that when people come from different backgrounds, they tend to think about things differently and approach problems differently. One of my favorite people who I’ve taught with comes from a computer science background, and given that I don’t, we come at problems from entirely different ways when we teach things. The students get a really diverse way of being taught, they get two very different explanations, and we help students more because of that. The diversity of thought is just so important, even at The Guardian where it’s supposed to be progressive and quite liberal.
Tammy: This is a place of ideas, of course there’s a diversity of thought, correct?
Natalia: I hope so, but even then, if someone said they voted for Brexit, for example, it’s important to talk about these things openly without judgment. Even at The Guardian, there’s still a lot more improvement that we can do in terms of a political spectrum of trying to embrace different thoughts and talking about it openly rather than immediately jumping to conclusions.
Tammy: Especially a thought that you disagree with.
Natalia: It’s really important to just be open in having that conversation.
Erin: It sounds like the Brexit vote here is equivalent to the Trump vote back home in the U.S.
Natalia: The Trump discussions still happen here too, don’t worry. [Laughter]
Tammy: In theory, I think it’s much easier to say, “We should be open to diversity of thought.” I have to wonder how comfortable would I be knowing that my colleague sitting next to me had voted for Donald Trump. Is that diversity of thought that I would be able to hold? I would hope so. I’ve actually had long conversations with Trump supporters but I don’t work with them, live with them, nor hang out with them. It challenges us to think about if we’re really open and welcome to working with diversity of thought, especially because when you work with diversity of thought, it’s going to challenge you in some way.
Natalia: That’s a great point. Obviously, being challenged in your way of thinking and being challenged in a company is really important. It’s a way people and companies can grow and innovate. If you stay in your comfort zone, that’s when businesses tend to fail, especially digital businesses which are reliant on innovation and being fast. If you don’t innovate, you will stagnate. Challenging yourself in any way is just positive.
Tammy: One of the last professional questions we’ll ask is what your greatest moment of challenge is? Who or what has really challenged you?
Natalia: One of the few things that just came up in my mind right away is how best to handle being interrupted and spoken over. I’m interrupted more than the men in the room, I’ve been slighted because of my age and my gender. I find that really hard but I have a good technique now. Thankfully, for the most part, I think I’ve never worked with someone who would ever have done that intentionally; in fact, my colleagues have the best intentions. I also work with a team who really respects me, and again, my team is made up of mostly senior developers and is all male except for me.
With that said, I have experienced a time when I was interrupted by a male colleague who had just joined our team. There was a time when he needed to ask me about something that I am an expert in. That was a frustrating experience because I stopped what I was doing to answer his question, I did a wrong keyboard command on my IDE, [text editor], and he said, “Look, if there’s someone else I should ask, just let me know.”
Natalia: At that point, I was just really irritated so I turned to him and said, “I am the best person for you to ask about this. I wrote the code and I’m happy to explain it to you, but if you want to ask someone else, feel free. The rest of the team knows a bit about this,” And then he was fine.
Tammy: So you stood your ground.
Natalia: Yeah. After that, he never ever interrupted me again and suddenly had a lot more respect. He actually acts a lot more as a mentor to me recently because he happens to be an expert in things that I’m less familiar with, which is infrastructure, and I’ve been learning a lot from him in that way.
Tammy: Was it uncomfortable for you to stand your ground or did you find that you were more able to do it than you thought you would be?
Natalia: At that point, I think I was more able to than I thought I would be. I’ve been thinking about and even waiting to be interrupted, which is not a nice state to be in because obviously you’re way more prone to make mistakes and look silly when you’re nervous and that’s not a good combination. But once I stood my ground, I felt so much better. My first instinct was guilt and I felt really bad for just shouting publicly at someone. Well, actually, it wasn’t really shouting but obviously, people around me can hear it.
Tammy: In Britain, it was shouting.
Natalia: [Laughter] Yeah.
Erin: Did you consider confronting him about the interruption before you had this opportunity to stand up for yourself?
Natalia: I had considered it but there’s no event that I wanted to pinpoint. When this happens, it doesn’t usually come across the best way, it’s much more like, “This is what happened and this was the impact,” which I find works better.
Erin: Do you think it would’ve been more useful in the moment to have called it out even if it was in front of people saying, “Excuse me, you’re interrupting. Let me finish”?
Natalia: Absolutely, and I definitely recommend people to do that. But have you noticed that it’s so much easier to do that for other people?
Erin: That’s the thing! I’ll share a brief story. I sometimes struggle with being very hard on myself and having very judgmental self-talk. Tammy will remind me sometimes and say, “Would you talk to your sister this way if she was having a hard time?” My sister is somebody that I care so deeply for, so of course, I wouldn’t talk to her that way, but I also find it much easier to be kinder to myself when I have to remember how I would talk to someone else. If women can remember when they’re in a meeting, for example, to maybe remove themselves and just pretend that they’re speaking up on behalf of a female colleague, it could give them some extra bravery.
Natalia: Absolutely, that’s an excellent point.
Tammy: Or perhaps you’re speaking up on behalf of the next person that this person’s going to interrupt.
Natalia: That’s a really good point.
Tammy: You’re speaking up on behalf of those people because this person is going to go on to interrupt other people.
Natalia: I actually called out this particular colleague of mine once in private when he said something in a group, which I wasn’t sure about at the time but later on thought that even though what he said was not overtly sexist, it was sexist enough that I wanted to talk to him about it. So I did, and his reaction was lovely. He said, “Oh no! I had no idea. I’m so sorry. Have I said anything else? What can I do?”
Tammy: Wow, that’s great, that’s really great. That’s the reaction that you’d hoped for. I know it takes bravery to take a stand. I would say that for our listeners, too, it does take bravery to take a stand and it is so important to do so. I appreciate you being brave and talking about that. It’s important for yourself and you just don’t know what kind ofpositive impact you’re going to have on the person you’re taking the stand against. You could be changing things for other people, not just yourself.
Natalia: That’s such a lovely way to look at it. That’s a great point and it’s really important. I wanted to go back to the question about Alice Bartlett. I wanted to tell a story of someone who I taught at Founders & Coders who’s working at a small web agency in London. This particular web agency is all men except for one woman who does much more of the project management and admin jobs. He sent me a message asking a very similar question: how to get more women to work at his company and that they’re looking to hire more women. He asked if I could put him in touch with any women in tech that might want to work for them. In the job description he mentioned, “This job is open to all genders.”
I was actually reading this message in the middle of our team Christmas party, and I just went off to a corner by myself and messaged him back saying, “What do you mean open to all genders? Is the job not normally open to all genders?! Why is that an exception?!” [Laughter]
Tammy: “This particular position would be open to all genders. If you were to apply for the other position, that would not be open to all genders. But this one, you’re very fortunate because it’s open to all genders.” I also can empathize to some degree. I can understand what he was trying to say.
Erin: That’s right. His heart’s in the right place.
Tammy: He was essentially trying to say, “Women, please apply. Please…”
Natalia: Exactly. I apologized to him later because I did come in really intense with my messaging afterwards. I fully recognized that he had the best intentions at heart. I basically explained a lot of what Alice Bartlett had said and told him, “I don’t know that your culture, given that there are no women in engineering in it, is a nice place for women to work. I’m not going to recommend any of my lovely smart intelligent friends to work for you if I don’t know if it’s going to be a nice place.”
Tammy: Especially going back to what we’re just talking about—how you have to take a stand and why you have to do that because you’re educating the place that you work in. Now, are you recommending your friends to work some place where they’re going to have to do education work along with their engineering job?
Natalia: No, I don’t want to do that. My point is always, “I get that you want to bridge this gap, that’s wonderful! What you can do is get involved. You can sponsor events, and I really recommend that you send out your engineers to mentor at places like Code First: Girls or Codebar so they actually get to work with female engineers.” I think that’s an excellent thing for them to do to tackle their own biases and learn how to explain things properly to people. As a company, it doesn’t matter how small you are, you have to care about it and work that into your policies. I think companies should have a code of conduct. A company should show that they’re thoughtful about these things.
Tammy: What stands out for me most in what you just said is that essentially if you want more women to come and work for your company, don’t just sit around and wait for someone to send women to you. You have to put yourself out into the places where women are. I really hope that someone out there hears this and that it really strikes them as well. As you interact with women developers and women in technology, you will become a place where people will think, “That guy’s really cool! I might want to work where that guy works.” Instead of sitting there in your predominantly male space, waiting for someone to send you the women, you have to put yourself out there.
Natalia: Exactly, and it takes a lot of work. It’s not going to happen instantly, it’s going to happen over a long period of time. As a culture, if your company and the people in it care about these things, you’d be happy to invest time and money in having your employees do these outreach programs.
Tammy: And do unconscious bias training.
Natalia: Doing unconscious training is so important.
Tammy: It’s interesting too because it’s not just hostile. Hostility is an obvious problem and hopefully, you’re able to suss that out in the interview process like, “OK, this is douchebag central and I’m not going to work here.” What’s even more problematic in my mind is apathy. It’s this notion that “things are the way they are and I don’t have to think about them”. Being in an apathetic environment can even be more difficult. If someone’s openly hostile, you can just call that out, but when there’s just general apathy and you’re the only person, there will be a million little things that happen, and in and of themselves, they’re not a big deal but they just add up and wear you out over time where you’re like, “I just don’t even want to put up with this anymore.”
Natalia: Ugh, you’re so right. There’s an amazing blog post from these two women on Etsy that they’d put out last year.
Tammy: Is it a book?
Erin: It’s a blog post.
Natalia: It’s a blog post from two female engineers at Etsy. They started it with this description of what it’s like to be a minority in tech and they talk about it as, “When you’re making a pull request, imagine every time that you submit a pull request and expect it to end up in production, say, by a continuous deployment, something in that process breaks and you have to spend some time fixing it. You’re spending that time fixing it for everyone after you as well, so when the next person does that, their deploy goes through and it wouldn’t take any extra time for them — and that is a better system. Imagine that happens every single time you’re trying to deploy and how much time that’s taking you versus how much time you can then work on other things.”
That’s what it’s like being in the minority in tech. Oftentimes you’re fighting so hard to fix all of these problems and it is exhausting. You do often hear that it’s fixing things for everyone in the company and not just you, but at the same time, that is exhausting and takes time and effort. You feel like you have your diversity job and then your engineering job, which also means that sometimes you just end up doing less work.
Tammy: Exactly. It’s a lot of jobs to have.
Natalia: If your team doesn’t understand and respect that and if your project manager is wondering why you didn’t finish as many tickets, then clearly that’s not a good enough culture because they’re not aware of everything that you’re doing. Being really aware and talking about these issues all the time is just so important.
Tammy: Yeah, it’s having that awareness. Since you mentioned this blog, what other things do you read? It could be blogs or books that you would recommend.
Natalia: In terms of blogs, I always recommend people to read The Guardian’s blog, of course. A lot of developer blogs from companies that you admire are going to be interesting and good in some way as well.
Erin: That actually had never occurred to me. I’ll check out the blog of a company if I’m interested in applying there but hadn’t occurred to me to read a company’s blog to learn about their engineering.
Tammy: Read The Guardian developer blog first.
Natalia: Yeah, I think it’s really cool.
Erin: Most companies do have a pure engineering blog and a regular blog.
Natalia: Exactly. The engineering ones are usually so good. You’ll learn a little bit more about a really complicated problem they had to solve. Sometimes they give you insight into why they make technical choices, which if you’re solving a different problem will help you decide whether you want to make that same choice or a different one. I find them so good, so I very much focus on those. They change all the time and there’s such a variety, so I don’t really have any specific blogs to recommend right now.
In terms of books, I’ve actually read two recently which are not tech-related. The first one is “Feminist Fight Club” and it is so funny! I was reading it while I was preparing for my talk and it helped me get some security and I really liked it. I’d definitely recommend the Feminist Fight Club, it’s such a good read. There are two chapters that stuck with me, one of which was a whole chapter that’s actually made for men who are reading it, about how to be a supportive person. The other chapter, which I think is so funny, has an amazing title called “What would Josh Do?” and the description of that chapter is “Be as confident as a mediocre white man.” It’s so excellent. So that’s one I love.
The next one I really love is “Milk and Honey”. I think it’s a New York Times bestseller book in poetry and I just find it so inspiring and comforting. Anytime I’m feeling any range of negative emotions, I can pick up that book, read some poems, and I just feel soothed, relaxed, better, and empowered like I can go out in the world and now fix that problem.
Erin: Milk and Honey, all right. Natalia, it has been such a pleasure having you. Thank you so much. You’ve shared a lot of really useful things and I’m really excited to get this episode out into the world.
Tammy: Thank you, thank you, thank you. It’s been great to be here and we really appreciate you taking some time with us.
Natalia: Erin and Tammy, it’s been such a pleasure, thank you! Thank you for reaching out. That was so lovely and unexpected. I’m glad you were able to take the trip to London.
Erin: Thank you, us too! This has been another episode of the WITtalks podcast. I’m Erin, saying goodbye for now.
Tammy: I’m Tammy, saying goodbye for now.