Learning to Lean In

A blog from a girl figuring out how to survive and thrive in Silicon Valley...while staying sane. 

Be Like Babs

Editor's Note: This post is dedicated to its namesake, Babs. I know this could be shorter  (Thanks for the feedback, Morgan) but this isn't for mass consumption.  It's for Babs. But stay tuned for the BLB Lesson Series where I'll go into individual lessons I've learned from the woman herself.  

 

So you may have noticed  I’ve already mentioned the book Lean In a few times, I hope you’re all right with this because it’s a catalyst for my next post, although it’s not actually the subject. Every page of that book reminds me of the lessons my mom instilled on me from a very young age.  Growing up, my mother wasn’t like any of my friends’ mothers (except my friend Alice who I met because our moms were friends). In fact, my mother’s reluctance to be like other mothers got me kicked out of nursery school. That’s right, I am a nursery school dropout… kinda. 

Let me introduce to you my mother, Barbara Merrell, whom I affectionately refer to as Babs.  No one called my mom Babs before my college friends and I started doing it, we were trendsetters in that regard.  Back when my mother was both a cheerleader and the only girl in the math club, she was known as Barbie.  Her four sisters still call her Barbie to this day. Then Barbie became Barbara when she went to Columbia for her MBA and also met my father, Rick. When she married Rick, she made the conscious decision of keeping her maiden name. Barbie spent most of her childhood hating her name, including her middle name, Louise, which she rightly believed is old fashion.  But after marriage, and equipped with a MBA which wasn’t easy to acquire in the 70’s, she decided to own her name throughout the rest of her life. 

 

 Babs and me 

Babs and me 

Okay, back to the nursery school story, it was the 80’s (an era of yuppies, shoulder pads, and rolled up blazer sleeves). Both Babs and Rick worked on Wall Street—Rick in investment banking, Babs conducting real estate investments for TIAA-CREF. My nursery school teachers were seemingly worried about me because I didn’t have a “real” maternal presence in my life aside from my wonderful nanny.  To rectify this, one day the school asked Babs to volunteer at the nursery school since all the other mothers were helping out on a regular basis.  Babs asked what she would be doing during her volunteer hours and she was told she’d be folding napkins for our packed lunches we’d bring on a field trip.

Babs told them she would not take time off to “fold napkins.” From my understanding of the story, she implied she’d be happy to take time off of work if it meant she could spend more time with me by supervising the field trip but the school balked at the suggestion.  Even now, I smile picturing my mom in her fashionable shoulder-pads, hands on her hips, and a look of disbelief on her face as she tried to not grind her teeth in front of the teacher.  

Looking back, I suspect my teachers didn’t trust my Mom with the other kids—the notes I found when I was thirteen rummaging through my dad’s office reinforce this belief. 

The notes were written in perfect cursive on carbon paper and they detailed every move I made over the course of several months during nursery school, bear in mind I was three years old. The notes also included an outline for how my teachers planned on “fixing” me, the crux of their plan involved having a teacher follow me around 24/7. 

Here are some sample complaints:

  1. Cindy refused to sing “Eensie-Weensie Spider.”
  2. LB asked Cindy if she could play with Cindy’s doll. Cindy said no.
  3. Cindy prefers playing dolls by herself than with others.

Here were my reactions to these various statements:

  1. Umm...that song gets really annoying after 4 days in a row of it.
  2. In middle school LB was one of those mean girls they write books about.
  3. Most of the other girls lacked imagination.

The nursery school told Babs she had to take me to their predetermined psychologist.  Babs refused saying she’d happily take me to Yale instead to get checked out by their accredited staff.  The school refused so Babs enrolled me in a nursery school program for lower income students and I had a much better time —I still fondly remember that nursery school teacher, partly because she was the wife of my church’s minister.

Discovering this story when I was thirteen was a huge turning point for me in my relationship with my mother. Before then, I had a hard time accepting my mom as a working professional but after this revelation I began to see how the community I grew up in helped create a disdain towards Babs in very subtle ways.

My friends would often whisper to me, “Your mom scares me,” whenever they stayed over for dinner.  Dinners with my parents and friends were always interesting because I was one of the few who had the pleasure of sitting at the table with a Democrat and a Republican, not to mention they frequently engaged in political discussions over meals despite consistent declarations it’d be the last time.  And there was always that awkward introduction when I explained “Sorry, it’s Ms. Merrell, not Mrs. Waters. And no, my parents are not divorced.” 

However, I’ll never forget the look on my mom’s face when I showed her the nursery school reports.  Her face transformed into a sea of expressions ranging from rage and shock to guilt and relief. Before she told her side of the story, she did a very Babs thing, and asked me how I felt after reading my teacher’s notes.  I told her the truth, I was shocked but some memories were now falling into place—like how none of my classmates at my first nursery school remembered me when we reunited in kindergarten and beyond.  And why all my (very brief and fleeting) memories from that time included teachers instead of play dates. 

 

 I don't know what those teachers were thinking, we're totally normal (l to r  - me, Babs, and my brother at Mesa Verde) 

I don't know what those teachers were thinking, we're totally normal (l to r  - me, Babs, and my brother at Mesa Verde) 

Babs nodded her head while I rambled on about the craziness of the notes. I turned to her to ask what really happened and noticed for the first time she was fighting back a tear, a rare sighting unless a sappy TV show or lifetime movie is playing.  As she told her side of the story, I could see her blood boiling as she remembered the nursery school teachers’ ultimatum. She didn’t have to explain her Yale suggestion to me—I saw the letter in the stack of files already. The letter was very neatly printed out on her stationary, clearly mapping out her methodical reasoning why Yale was a better place to bring me.  She ended her story apologizing to me, but it wasn’t necessary. I wanted to apologize to her. 

Up until then, it was easy to resent my mom for working because it seemed liked she had picked the painless route to parenting, which is what my friends’ moms insinuated whenever they found out Babs worked full time.  But then again, I don’t think many of my friends’ moms ever considered a life beyond country clubs and garden parties. 

And that’s really when my mom became Babs to me—a force to be reckoned with, a woman who stands up for what she believes in, someone who I want to be like one day.

I want to share the story of Babs as a reminder of how far women have come in the work place because of people like her. Sure, it was sad when my mom wasn’t always there to kiss my boo-boos.  However, the sense of pride I have towards my mother for being one of the women pioneers in corporate America has since diminished any real sadness I ever felt.

 

 Okay, maybe not that normal <3.  (l to r: me, my dad, and Babs) 

Okay, maybe not that normal <3.  (l to r: me, my dad, and Babs) 

Where's the empathy, bro?

The TechCrunch Disrupt misogynist presentation fiasco from over the weekend is a great example of why people roll their eyes at the Valley.  Two separate teams spent an all night hackathon creating absurd apps.  While a lot of people are speaking out against the sexist nature of Titstare and the developer who mimicked masturbating on stage, I am more concerned with the wasted time and talent spent on something so asinine.  The tech gender equality police are right, this is the type of behavior you usually find at a frat house but to be fair most frat houses aren’t expected to use their power of throwing epic parties to solve some of life’s hard problems or promote efficiency (unless they’re sponsoring all night drinkathons for charity.)

Yes, I agree the tech industry is inherently sexist, but I don’t think you’ll solve the problem by demanding professionals accept women amongst their ranks, if that were possible the whole country would already be a utopian cesspool of equality.  Instead, we should focus on how the lack of women in tech is creating inefficiencies in development/product cycles.  

Chris Hoogewerff wrote a blog post about what he learned from his start-up, HelloParking, going into the deadpool. One of the key revelations he walked away with was he never understood his audience or the market very well because his team never left the office.  Many start-ups face the same problem—they start by creating a clean, elegant solution which they know will solve a problem but then nobody adopts it.  Why? Because they never took the time to hear the market’s needs.   

Now, can you imagine a woman starting a company and not doing any prior research or asking what her customers/vendors/clients need? I am not saying a woman is naturally equipped to be a better leader, although I’m not- not saying it.  It’s just that I feel the male start-up world could benefit from having a bit of feminine intuition early on in their development cycle—that is to say, being a little bit more sensitive to the demands of their potential users and less confident that they know exactly what to do.

Whenever I talk to males in tech, even the ones that consider themselves attuned to women’s rights/issues, I am struck by their inability to empathize with a woman’s point of view.  This isn’t because all males in tech are sexist; they’ve just never been encouraged or shown the importance of understanding another’s points of view (unlike us humanities folk who would spend pages upon pages addressing “the other”). 

I concede my engineer friends can optimize a workflow for efficiency better than me because they’ve spent hours upon hours studying the intricacies necessary to do so, however, while my engineer friends were tinkering with processes, I was doing some tinkering of a different variety—with people and ideas. One of the most valuable things I learned at college was how to interact and listen to anyone no matter their station in life, whether they lived in a dump in Tijuana, rode unicycles at Harvey Mudd, or wanted to become the next President of the United States.  

I’ve spent enough time around engineers to accept the fact that most will never be able to empathize with me as well as I can empathize with them.  It’s too late for many in tech to gain empathy (unless they are mandated to take sensitivity training) but they can and should acknowledge their archaic views leave something to be desired and if they refuse to compensate for it then they will never achieve true success.

While it’d be great to see more female engineers, I think it’s just as important to see more women in driving product creation.  Technology isn’t a niche sector anymore, it’s a pivotal part of everyone’s lives.  So while it’s great to be agile and have a nimble, smart crew of top-notch programmers, you’re still missing the key thing—the human element.  

Hello World

Hi – I’m Cindy Waters and this is my blog, “Learning to Lean In.”

Obviously my blog title was inspired by Sheryl Sandberg’s excellent book but this is not a tribute to the almighty Sheryl. 

Instead, this blog is for anyone who struggles between loving Silicon Valley and wanting to put everyone in the industry on a time-out until they’ve learned how to play nicely with others. 

For the past five years, I’ve lived and breathed Silicon Valley including: 4 ½ years at the amazing OutCast Agency representing the best in tech followed by six months immersed in the chaotic world of social media marketing for big brands. Eighty percent of my downtime is spent with friends who are more inclined to talk fundraising or debate Ruby vs. Python instead of gossiping about Miley Cyrus appearing naked in a wrecking ball.   

And the past five years have been some of the happiest times of my life.

However, things changed a few months ago when I found myself “funemployed” and I set myself on the sidelines of the tech world to take a breather.  And despite the current economic climate this break has been a great thing.

No, I didn’t find myself eating, praying, and loving around the world.  Nor did I become a yoga instructor but I did write my first Python app.  And the most exotic vacation I took was to Burning Man where the most fun I had was organizing my camp (okay, fine, dancing on a giant rooster art car was a major highlight too).

So what did I do that was so great?  I read a lot. For the first time since college, I spent time thinking about the world outside the Valley for extended lengths of time.  And do you know what happens when you take a step from the Valley and slowly start integrating yourself again?

The tech world looks like the most unaware, self-absorbed teenager you’ve ever met. 

In Lean In, Ms. Sandberg encourages women to lean into their careers and go further.  However, I think men in Silicon Valley could learn a thing about leaning into things rather than bullying in because their team has the right “pedigree”.  Most of the outside world isn’t looking for massive tech disruptions everyday, they just want technology that will help them lean in further into their own lives. 

So while this blog is based on a book geared towards women, and I will talk about gender in tech, Learning to Lean In is about strategically moving forward in tech. 

Without further ado… here is my first post.