Success Against The Odds: Filling My Technology Knapsack From Scratch

I am the first woman on my mother’s side to drive a car.

I can drive stick shift too.

Sometimes when people look at me, it feels like they are seeing someone else.  I’m going to share my story of success in technology despite having an upside down childhood.  I was inspired after reading Danilo’s post about unpacking his Hispanic knapsack of privilege.

There’s been a lot of controversy with Jason and Anil arguing on Twitter about Jamelle’s article on how hard it is to become a Black tech journalist but there is more to it than that.

Now

I work for a successful tech startup as a developer evangelist and travel the world.  I live in San Francisco.  I have been working in technology since 1998.  I started in hardware, moved to network administration and am now a developer.  I have a long list of companies I’ve worked for and a broad skill set.

I snowboard.

I love bacon.

Childhood

I was born to an interracial couple in New York City.

My mother was Jewish and born in the city.  My father was Black and from the South.

Shortly after my birth, my alcoholic father began beating my mother on a regular basis.  My mother had a full set of dentures by age 35 because my father knocked all her teeth out.  She has a scar on her forehead from the time he hit her in the head with a hammer.  I saw her suffocated and choked repeatedly.  I tried to help her.  My youngest sister is mentally retarded due to his abuse while my mother was pregnant.

I called the police on my father for the first time at age 4.

I was sad for my mom.  After she would get hurt, she would sit in the chair and stare at the wall or just stay in bed.  My younger sister would cry because her diaper was dirty.  I learned to change diapers because I wanted to help my mom.  I tried to do what I could to stop my dad from getting so mad.  He would just start yelling and it would go on for hours.  The neighbors never came to help.  I didn’t know how to stop it.  I felt powerless.

Finally my mom left him and took me and my three sisters away.  She was eight months pregnant with my brother when she left.  We went to Minnesota because she had heard they had a good program for battered women.  We moved around often.  My mom was terrified my dad would find us.  She told me how bad of a man he was.  I missed him.  I missed our trips to Coney Island.  I liked going along with him when he went to see his friends and play cards.  I didn’t understand why he hurt her though.  I wished it didn’t have to be that way.

My mom didn’t get better.  She was always sad and distant.  She forgot to feed us and wash our clothes.  Going to school was hard.  The kids would tease me because my clothes were dirty and my shoes had holes.  My hair was a complete mess.  I felt ashamed.  I started to miss the bus in the morning so I didn’t have to go.  At first my mom would take me on the bus or call a taxi.  She didn’t know how to drive.  After a while she gave up and would just grumble.  I was 7 years old and skipping school.

I spent my time reading.  It allowed me to escape.  I loved the Choose Your Own Adventure books.  I would get a page and have to make a choice.  Sometimes I would reread my choices a few times.  I liked having options.  Charlie and the Chocolate factory was another favorite.  I could identify with Charlie.  My library card was my most valuable possession.

My mom had decided to give my brother up for adoption because she didn’t feel she could take care of five kids.  People would say things to her like, “Are they all yours?”.  One time a taxi driver said to her, “Get those Zebras out of my taxi!”.  I didn’t understand racism yet but my mom was really mad at him.

I was hungry all the time.  My mom wasn’t working and the food stamps didn’t last long with me and my three sisters.

The elementary schools I went to were Northrop and Jefferson. I still remember the school song,

“We all know that Northrop’s the best! Montessori beats all the rest and when we run and jump and make new friends, we laugh and learn and play and run, we will always have so much fun. Northrop for you and me!”

I wish school was like that. The only reason I would go to school would be to eat lunch.  It was hard to decide between being teased by the kids at school and eating.  Often, I would hide in the coatroom during the morning until lunch. After being teased I would pull my knees up to my chest and cry between the jackets. The kids in class then called me a Poppel after the stuffed toy that had a built in pouch like a kangaroo.  I was becoming really sad.  I just wanted to be left alone.  I just wanted a normal life.  I wanted to not have to worry about so much stuff.

Eventually, the truancy caught up with me.  I was removed from the home several times and placed in a temporary home until the court date.  It was the same old thing; stay at the kids shelter, go to court, my mom would tell the judge she would make me go to school, I would come home, the social worker would visit and I would stop going to school again.

Interestingly, I did really well on the standardized tests.  I remember my fourth grade teacher was pretty mad at my poor handwriting but she couldn’t argue my test scores and answers to the open essay questions.  I credit this to being born smart plus all the reading I did.

Another problem with school was that I couldn’t see the chalk board.  I thought that no one could see the board and the teacher would just point to it and we had to imagine what she was saying.  I didn’t know it but I was nearsighted.  I wouldn’t get my first pair of glasses until fifth grade.

Why didn’t anyone notice I needed help?

I still wonder to this day why my teachers never asked me what was wrong or did anything to intervene.

Back to the food.  Things started to get really bad when I was 8 or 9.  I was so hungry all the time.  I would imagine eating all sorts of food.  In the house there was canned corn and beans, powdered milk and peanut butter.  I would roll balls of peanut butter in the powdered milk and eat those.  I ate the canned vegetables as a last resort eating half a can at a time to save it.  There wasn’t enough food for us.  I dreamed of planting a garden because then there would be lettuce and other stuff to eat.  I tried eating grass and that was gross.  I was starving to death.

I had some friends who lived in the neighborhood; Colin and Alex.  They had a sandbox in their backyard.  I would go over there and play.  We would build up roads and drive the trucks and cars all around then pour water to create disasters.  Sometimes I brought my sister Gwendolyn along.  Their dad was divorced and sometimes he made frozen pizza.  He would cut up hot dogs and put it on top.  I realized that if I came over around dinner time, I would get to eat.  I am not proud of this but it was something I did to survive.

Christmas that year was the worst.  I never expected presents unless my mom got them from one of the food shelves or Toys for Tots program.  It was bad because it was cold outside and everyday seemed like the last.  School was out so there was no chance of getting food there.  I thought I would die for sure.  I didn’t know how many days I could go without eating.  I did like Charlie from the book and rationed out my food.  We were all hungry.  I hated the holidays.  I thought about the social worker coming by, Greg Scheweda, and him asking my mom about me and them finding me dead in the room next to my sisters who would also not be alive.  That would show them for leaving me here to die.  It felt like a concentration camp.

But I didn’t die.  I made it.

This went on for one to two more years until a woman changed my life.

I was in the courthouse for truancy again.  I just wanted to get out of there.  I was assigned a Guardian ad Litem.  They are advocates for children in court.  She said hello and some stuff.  I wasn’t really listening because I was sad.   This felt useless to be here again at court.  Why couldn’t I take my mom to court and complain she wasn’t feeding us?  The guardian was talking.  She asked me if I wanted to go home.  I said no.  She said I didn’t have to go home.  I looked up.  She told me I could go into foster care instead to live.  Did I want to do this?

YES!

Why had no one told me this before?  We went into court and at the age of 11, I no longer had to live with my mother.

My new life

In my foster home, they took me to the doctor.  I got glasses for the first time.  I was registered for school and put in the fifth grade.  They had my hair fixed and got me clothes to wear.  For the first time in my life, I liked going to school. I liked my teacher…I think his name was Mr. Wiggins.  I was living in a suburb called Eden Prairie.

For the first time in my life I could relax.  No one was yelling.  No one was scaring me.  There was enough food.

The problem was that I didn’t talk a lot.  I was scared to.  I had seen what happened to my mother when she argued with my dad.  I didn’t want anyone to hurt me.  I didn’t know how to tell people I was sad or scared.  I spent a lot of time listening.  I began to journal in my late teens.  I moved foster homes a few times.  I left the last one when I was fifteen.

Growing up

I had trouble in high school.  I started being truant.  At age 17 I got back on track and was going to return to school after missing almost a year.  The night before school started, my boyfriend at the time beat me up.  Pretty bad.  I had to see the chiropractor because my back would hurt when I sat down.  I felt ashamed that I had become just like my mom.  I didn’t understand why or how to fix it.

I started school in the winter after I had found a new place to live.  I liked this high school because it was interesting.  It felt more grown up.  Loring Nicollet Alternative High School.  Marin Peplinski was the teacher and principal with a long, white ZZ Top looking beard.  He smoked cigars and wore suspenders.  He asked us tough questions about ourselves and our world.  I liked how they treated me with respect and understanding.  We learned karate at school.  We took notes and had group discussions.  We went on a camping trip once a year.  Not like high school in the past where I would have to sit there while the teacher talked the whole time and then had us read from big, boring books.  I started taking classes at the local college in the morning and coming back to the high school in the afternoon.  Things were going good.  I was working part time to pay rent.  I had my cat Turtle.  She made me feel safe.

I had been dating guys but after my boyfriend had beat me up, I avoiding them for three years.  It was during this time I discovered my love of technology.

While living in foster care, I talked to my mom once in a while.  Some of the social workers and therapists wanted me to think about moving back home but I always said no and would get upset if they pressed me.  I didn’t want to go back to the life I had lived before.  I tried to tell my sisters to do the same but they wanted to live with my mom.

Hello computer

My mom had a computer.  I would go over to her house on Ashland Ave in St. Paul to see my sister and play on the computer.  There were computers at school but to me they were only for typing papers.  I had taken typing class in 8th grade with my friends Erin and Kyle.  We would have races on speed and accuracy.  I liked that.  Otherwise I didn’t know much about computers.  I had played Joust, Donkey Kong and Pit Fall Harry on the Atari 2600 in daycare when I was 6.  I liked that.  In the first foster home I had gone to out in Eden Prairie, they had a Super Nintendo. I learned to play games like Super Mario Bros, Duck Hunt, Metroid, Mega Man, Legend of Zelda, Transylvania and of course Contra. I found out about magazines you could buy that had walk throughs and cheat codes to get extra lives. In Contra I learned the Konami Code of “Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Start” which gave me enough lives to easily finish the game. In Super Mario Bros I jumped on the turtle shell at the end of level 3-1 to get a ton of free lives and then would warp to higher levels. Computers were for fun or work. I didn’t have a computer growing up.

My mom had AOL.  It would dial up with a bunch of beeps and then you could go to a chat room or look for pages.  My mom had a ton of hearts (bookmarks) and she would warn us not to delete them.  Me and my sister would look for sites to play games.  We then found out the library had computers.  I would go there and try to do the same stuff I had tried at home.  I didn’t know anything about operating systems or hardware.

My first computer

I graduated high school at 19 and looked for an internship for the summer.  I had done one a few years ago at the University of Minnesota when I was about 13 and in foster care.  They had a big list of things and I found all the ones with animals.  I’ve always loved animals.  I got to play with goats and horses that summer and always had remembered it.  So I created a flyer and took the bus down to the Minnesota state fairgrounds to the horse expo they were holding.  I explained my desire to work with animals and secured an introduction that led to an internship on a horse farm near Glencoe, MN.

It was interesting work.  And hard.  Horses are apparently very big animals who eat and poop a lot.  They also need lots of hay.  Hay is itchy.  I learned a lot about taking care of horses and training them.  I went back to the city with a little something extra: a hand me down computer.

I figured out how to get the computer online after calling Qwest to order a phone line.  The Internet seemed huge.  Endless.  I dialed into a BBS and played games.  I tried looking for web pages like I had done with my sister.  We liked playing lemonade stand.  I didn’t exactly understand the difference between floppy disks only working for a PC or a Macintosh and destroyed a few.

I had been working at a market research firm since the age of 16.  I liked it there.  They were organized and predictable.  It was easy to get to on the bus.  They gave me compliments on my work because I was able to guide people through phone surveys and accurately take notes on their comments.  I felt proud and I liked working there.

I wanted to learn more about computers so I found a job where I could learn more.

My first computer job was at the local OfficeMax.  They had boxes of software, computers, printers, cables and everything you could imagine.  I knew no one really came there to shop for computer stuff so I was free to spend my time reading the boxes.  I read about the hard drive space, ram, video card requirements.  I would think about these for hours.  I would take notes and read them at night after I got off work.

One day I was at my mom’s house visiting my sister.  My mom told me that she needed to sign me up for Microsoft.  They had a beta tester program and she was going to sign me up because then we (meaning she) could get a free copy of Windows 98.  I didn’t know what this meant but I knew my mom liked coupons and free stuff.  A few weeks later an official looking letter came from Microsoft.  It told me that it was a big responsibility to become a beta tester and that I would need to submit bug reports on a regular basis.  I took this seriously.  I bought my first computer book: Upgrading and Repairing PC’s, the Eighth edition.  I began reading it voraciously to prepare myself.  One of the things Microsoft said was that I would need to upgrade my hard drive and CD-Rom.  From what I had seen at Office Max, this would be very expensive.  I had to find a solution.  A few blocks away, there was a used computer store that also sold used movies.  I went in there to buy a used hard drive and CD-Rom so I could load the Windows 98 beta onto my computer.  I walked out with the hard drive, CD-Rom and a job.

This is when I discovered my passion for computers.

My career in technology

It turns out that installing hardware can be…hard.  I put in the hard drive.  Since this was a computer given to me by the horse trainer’s wife, it came from a corporation and someone had decided that SCSI would be the way to go instead of IDE.  This added a level of complexity to my task but I’m glad now looking back because it required me to think about things in a more abstract manner and learn jumpers.  I got the hard drive installed but the CD-Rom was not being recognized.  Crap!  I thought about what to do.  The book said that I could call the manufacturer of the computer so I found their number and called NCR.  This was before computer companies asked, “Is this computer under warranty?”.  I explained to the support person what I was trying to do.  He told me to turn on the computer, search for a file and make some changes.  I would do that then try the CD-Rom again and call back with my results.  This went on for several days until I had, as Steve Blank says, an epiphany – whatever this was called I was doing with computers, I enjoyed it!  I wanted to do this as a job!

I had started college by this time.  I had won a small scholarship at my high school.  I was looking forward to taking more college classes.  I didn’t understand how tuition worked and thought the money only covered books and class fees so I was working 30 hours a week plus taking a full load.  It was exhausting.  I was taking classes for psychology because I wanted to help people.  I wanted to stop others from suffering the pain I had endured as a child.

I had been working at the used computer parts store for a few months.  I liked that I could get a discount on the hardware.  I saved up and bought a no name box PC there.  I watched the technician work and asked him lots of questions.  I stopped going to classes and decided to learn computers.  I bought memory and did my first upgrade.  It took me 45 minutes because I didn’t want to break anything.

I kept reading, trying things and submitting bug reports to Microsoft.  Sometimes it was hard to figure out what was broken.  It was easier when they told me what they wanted me to try.  Finally I earned the reward and received a final copy of Windows 98.   Until that point, they had been shipping discs that had special labels saying beta on them.

My friend Jesse came over and showed me how he could make a web page and change the colors.  All in Notepad.  It blew my mind.  I had to learn more.

Back at the horse farm that next summer, I registered my first domain name and began to figure out how to build websites.  There isn’t much to do in the middle of nowhere at night so I had plenty of time to learn.

I began figuring out how to get more knowledge and experience with computers.  The local college didn’t offer much past computer 101 and when I had taken that, it was boring.  I hated being bored when I was supposed to be learning.  I looked at the U of M but they only had computer science degrees that seemed to involve a lot of math classes.  Nothing about hardware.  Mmm…

I got a book called, What Color Is Your Parachute, and began reading on how to get the job I wanted.  The book was super helpful and talked about everything from finding companies that wanted to hire, the secret job market, preparing my resume, how to communicate with decision makers who could hire me, to how to followup and more.  I read and re-read this information many times.

I decided that I would work at GeekSquad.  It was a fairly new computer support company but seemed to be growing.  I followed the book’s advice down to the letter and got an interview after several, persistant emails and phone calls.  They tested my knowledge and I knew the answer to every question like, “What does fdisk \mbr do?”.  Robert Stephens interviewed me.  He was the founder of GeekSquad.  I made sure to keep my cool, especially when salary came up.  I negotiated a 64% increase over what I was making at the other computer shop.  I was super green yet I had landed a job working at GeekSquad. They had 34 employees.  I was 20 years old.

And so it went that I kept learning, improving and knowing more.  I began to test for certifications to prove I knew my stuff.  Imposter syndrome was always lurking nearby.  I was happiest when I helped someone solve a problem and they thanked me for it.  Computers were especially frustrating during the early 2000′s because nothing was standardized and that led to things like the interface wars of EISA.  Drivers were all over the place and people were upset.  I had a purpose.

I started on hardware troubleshooting and then moved to software.  From helpdesk to desktop support to network administration.  I became unhappy with the lack of customer service I saw around me.  I dreamed of providing both solutions and service.  I started working for myself in 2006.

Not again

Unfortunately 2006 was also the year that I experienced domestic violence again for the 2nd time in my life and it was devastating.  After assaulting me, he continued to terrorize and intimidate me by defacing my car and leaving dead flowers with a creepy card under my window shield.  This would haunt me for years.  I began parking my car in different places after this and finally settled on paying $50/month to park in the church parking lot 2 blocks away.  I decided that if he wanted to mess with the wrath of God by messing with my car there, that was up to him. My tech friend Ed and I discussed ways to do remote surveillance of my car and we looked at alarm systems.  I was being stalked and was unable to get relief  in the city of Minneapolis even with an Order for Protection.  I had testified.  I had photos.  Why wasn’t I being protected?  I didn’t want to be a victim.  I didn’t want to be my mother.  I was emotionally devastated.  There were many days I felt like giving up and just wanted to stay in bed.  I felt like I had come full circle back to being my mother.  The small flame of hope kept burning and told me to hang on.

After two years of living in fear, things began to get better.  I went to a six week class for women who had suffered abuse.  At first I thought it would be lame and weird.  I didn’t want to be in a room of women complaining about being victims.  I was a problem solver.  It actually turned out to be very helpful and provided sound advice on how to protect myself.  This caused me to feel safer and have less anxiety about him coming after me.

A few months before I moved to San Francisco (this would have been November 2009), my neighbor started knocking furiously on my door.  Someone had thrown a big rock through the driver side window of my car.  He had heard something and had went outside to see.  I can’t remember now if he was already outside or doing laundry but Tony knew my car since we were neighbors.  I had gone back to parking my car near the front of the building after taking the class.

This time though, I wasn’t nearly as upset as before.  A couple things had changed since he assualted me in 2006:

  • I realized there were things in life out of my control and I had to let go
  • I knew I was moving to San Francisco and soon this would be in my past
  • I understood the more energy I gave to something negative, the larger it would grow

I called the police, filed  a report that night and went to sleep.  In the morning I called a glass repair company and they fixed it.  End of story.

I almost (keyword there…almost) felt sorry for this guy who had obviously still not let go of the fact we were not together.  He was an alcoholic. I hadn’t known he had been drinking in the morning and then driving to work but his sister did.  He had physically assaulted me and then threatened to kill me.  I had renewed an Order for Protection against him two years in a row.  Clearly in my mind, I wanted nothing to do with him.  He was not getting this.

I survived the drama and moved to San Francisco in one piece.  *whew*

Self discovery and healing

Just because I didn’t live at home didn’t mean I had escaped the past.  I carried it with me.  I realized I had to change this.  It took years of work through therapy, reading, journaling and prayer.  My big breakthrough year was 2006.  That was the year I woke up.  The year I snapped out of the fog I had been living in.  I was diagnosed with ADHD and PTSD.  Part of the assessment was an intelligence test.  I had an IQ of 130.  I’m smart enough to join MENSA!  I began to see a psychologist who practiced EMDR, a type of therapy to help people process traumatic experiences.  This made a huge difference in my life.  I began to take long strides vs timid steps on my path to healing.

Because of my experiences growing up, I have triggers.  This means that I’m always scanning for danger; for situations that seem like something from the past that could hurt me.  When I recognize something that matches, I can overreact and feel intense fear, anger or anxiety.  This is something I’ve worked on a lot.  It’s much better now than 10 years ago but there are some things that send me over the edge.

Like the other day when someone asked me if I had a baby photo.  The answer is no — I don’t have any photos of myself before the age of 11…and it hurts.  So I started crying.  They hadn’t hurt me or threatened me but the overwhelming feeling of my childhood overcame me.  Mourning for the child version of me who never had the chance to enjoy being a child.

Or coming back on the plane from Mexico the other weekend.  The man in front of me had both the window shades open and the light was pouring in over my face.  I thought to ask him if it was all right to close the shade but in the back of my mind I thought, “What if he gets mad, yells and starts attacking me when I ask?”.  I worked on this for several minutes to overcome the fear.  I had to coach myself that the other thought was irrational and that I needed to say something.  I finally did ask a few minutes later.  He happily agreed and I closed the shade.  While on the outside it seems things are simple, often they are emotionally exhausting for me on the inside.

My sister doesn’t talk to me.  She suffers from depression.  I remind her of the past.  I miss her.

I don’t like the holiday season, or at least I haven’t for many years because of how I grew up.  In 2004, I lived in my own place and decided it was time to try and turn around how I felt about the holidays.  For me it started with a symbol of celebration: A christmas tree.  Here you can see my pet rats climbing around in the tree I got in 2007.  Each year since I would get a tree and set it up with lights.  I was reshaping my experience.  Each year felt better.  When I moved to San Francisco, I didn’t set up a tree for the first two years.  Stress, drama and where to find a tree?  This last year, 2012, I setup a tree and I was very happy about it!  This year it even had presents underneath the tree!  For 2013 my goal is to host a holiday party.  I will learn to love and enjoy the holidays despite my past.

One thing I’m not willing to work on is peanut butter.  Since I ate so much of it as a child and associate it with painful memories, I don’t like it as an adult.  I eat almond butter instead.

These are the remnants of trauma I must live with but the good thing is I can and have overcome them.  My support network of friends, mentors and awesome people I respect have been a huge component to healing and that’s why I gave them a shout out in my birthday blog post  Surround Yourself With Positive People Birthday Wish [VIDEO]

I’m strong, I’m smart, I’m social

I was done being bullied and intimidated.  I began blogging because my life coach encouraged me to.  He said it would help many more people than if I just wrote emails to one person.  Ok, I told him. I would try it.  I registered the domain http://butyoureagirl.com and setup a WordPress blog.  I had used WordPress a few times before.  One of my first blog posts dated June 9th, 2008 urged people to consider getting rid of cars and replacing them with horses.  The highways could be paved with grass and parking lots could be converted to horse stables.  This was during the gas crisis so it was my attempt to be relevant.

Ok not the best but I kept trying.

I had signed up for Twitter in March 2008.  I wasn’t sure how that all worked just yet.  I had joined Facebook the year before because a technology client of mine kept sending me photo alerts.  I joined foursquare in 2009 because Minneapolis was one of the early test cities.

I considered staying off these social networks and not blogging as way to protect myself, my location and my intents.  I soon began to realize though that sharing where I was and what I was doing actually protected me because I could now notify hundreds, if not thousands of people that I was in danger.  It felt comforting to think of it this way.

And as I learned to use social media and focused on building my brand as a technology consultant, my opportunities grew.  A book that was invaluable during this time was CJ Hayden’s, Get Clients Now.  I began making YouTube videos to help my clients and put on my blog.  People asked questions in the comments and I answered them.  I did the same thing on Twitter – I tweeted things I found interesting in the hope of helping others.  I began live streaming to overcome my fear of public speaking and did a 1 hour show each week day on Ustream for over a year (Sound familiar Jason about your recommendation of repetition?)

Eventually I hit the jackpot of blogging about a technology subject that intersected a big political issue and it landed me on The Rachel Maddow Show.  Since then I have gone one to create blog posts, videos, workshops and much much more.  All focused on technology and solving problems.

First World Problems

Yes, sometimes I’ve imagined what it would be like to only worry about first world problems growing up.

Sometimes I’ve experience a disconnect when trying to relate to people who live in San Francisco and are part of the tech world because of how I grew up.

Last week I was out to dinner with some developers.  Four us us there.  One was telling a story that had to do with working at a fast food franchise and making really cool food mashups.  She had read the article about the McDonalds McWorld in Times Square.  She asked who had worked at a fast food place besides her.  I raised my hand.  I had worked at Hardee’s and Wendys.  The other people shook their heads.  It was in that moment I realized how different I was than most people out here in San Francisco.  Most people working out here in tech have one or more (usually more) of the following things in their background:

  • Have a college degree or dropped out of a prestigious school
  • Have been working with computers since their teenage years
  • Moved to the Bay Area from another state (almost no one in tech is a local)
  • Have not had to work since teen years to support themselves
  • Had 6+ months of savings before moving to the Bay
  • Have family to financially support them
  • Have worked at well known fortune 1000 company
  • Worked at startup that had an exit

I know this can seem daunting and not everyone has this in their background.  I moved out with 2 months of savings but I quickly learned that besides rent, transportation and food costs were also high.  According to this CNN cost of living calculator, housing costs are 138% higher in San Francisco, CA than Minneapolis, MN where I moved from.

Last year when I was reading the Hunger Games, I started to cry because I could identify with Katniss Everdeen as the book described her daily hunger because there wasn’t enough food.  How she was angry at her mother for not taking care of them.  I told my roommate that I could relate to Katniss and he asked if it was because she was from a small village.  WTF?  I explained why and his face was totally blank.  He was unable to comprehend lack of food or neglect from parents.

These are not discouragements but simply an insights I have observed.  Because of this, I am more careful in disclosing my past because I do not want to create a sense of disparity, guilt or resentment.

Too much stress: suicide in the tech community

Many people out here in the Bay Area are alone without families.  I see them struggling with that.  We’ve all seen how it can be much worse than they let on as seen with the suicides of Aaron Swartz and Ilya Zhitomirskiy.

Why didn’t they talk to someone?

Who could they have talked to?

Why didn’t anyone know it was that bad for them?

These are things I’ve dealt with my entire life but I’m starting to see problems with other tech folks who haven’t developed the coping skills to deal with large amounts of daily stress.  They feel the pressure to perform.  Everyone in their home state is rooting for them.  Their investors want them to get new users.  Their co-founders are working night and day to deliver.  The pressure for many is unlike anything they have ever experienced before.

I can understand they felt they didn’t have anyone to go to and the only solution appeared to be ending their lives.

But it’s not the only solution.

I have a high tolerance for pain and stress.  I had to in order to survive what I experienced on a daily basis.  It’s a coping mechanism called cognitive dissonance that  allowed me to not question what was going on so much.  Otherwise my brain would have exploded.  I would have been a 6 year old having a nervous breakdown.  I felt I had no one to turn to.  That no one would understand what was going on at home.  That they would say I deserved it.  I internalized the neglect and thought I was a bad child, a bad daughter, a bad student.  That’s what kids do; try to make sense out of nonsense.  Many times I thought about telling a teacher I needed help but fear stopped me.  Sometimes I wished I would just die so I wouldn’t have to keep being hungry.  I couldn’t understand why it was happening to me.

Through my healing process from trauma and neglect, I gained skills and tools that helped me become empowered, speak up and take action.  I became able to describe and reconnect with my feelings, share them and take action on my own behalf.  It was a big deal, this merging of thoughts and feelings.  I learned how to get support from friends and how to let go of the shame I’d felt for so long.  The shame that wasn’t mine to bear because I was not in control of my childhood.

I have found opening up to women to be much easier.  Many have shared their painful stories as well such as Nilofer Merchant who wrote an article on the Harvard Business Review about her sexual assault, not giving up and how it relates to business.  I’m excited that I will be going and see her speak in person soon. Nilofer is speaking at TED 2013 (the real TED). I’m grateful for the large number of women in technology in the Bay Area.  That isn’t to say that guys don’t talk about painful things from their past too; it’s just not something they open up about as quickly.  A lot of guys have experienced health issues with their families and through that I’ve had the opportunity to connect on a more personal level.

Mental health issues can stem from a lot of things.

First, it can be organic

It’s something you’re born with.  This can cover a wide spectrum of things from autism, Asperger’s, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and dyslexia to depression, bipolar disorders, Tourette’s and OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).  This means how the person’s brain works is different.

I have ADHD and was most likely born with it.  I suspect at least one of my parents had it too but neither were ever tested or diagnosed.  I also suspect it was made worse because of how I grew up.

Second, it can be environmental

This means that something kept happening (or not happening) causing your mind to adapt.  During childhood, our brains grow and form connections, or synapses based on our exposure to the things we see, hear and feel.   Studies show that lack of exposure in the environment can stunt children.  You can think of your brain like a river; the more water that flows down, the deeper the connections.  The good news is we can improve these synapses as an adults even if they were not fully formed in childhood.

I experience anxiety tied to PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) on a daily basis.  Often it’s about things most people don’t even think twice about.  I guess I control it pretty well because my friends report they often cannot even tell I’m nervous or anxious.  I consciously overstep my comfort zone whenever possible to counter it.

Third, it can be situational

Think of veterans coming back from wars, when you saw the towers fall on 9/11, if you have ever been in a car accident or house fire, sexually assualted or experienced the death of a loved one.  These events often cause what is known as “situational depression” that may be a part of the normal grieving process.  For many who are experiencing something like this for the first time, the feelings can feel…overwhelming.  When you think back to the event, the memories are vivid and can feel just as painful as the first time.  This is where PTSD comes in.  Due to a single event or series of traumatic experiences, it can be hard for someone to feel “normal” again.  Whenever they’re reminded of the event, they react strongly.

Higher up in this post I talk about understanding how to deal and heal from this using therapies like EMDR and CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) to manage my thoughts and subsequently, my behavior and reactions.

Dealing with It

So if you’re having problems in your life and they’re affecting your life to the points you’re constantly worrying, looking over your shoulder, sick to your stomach or can’t get out of bed, what do you do?

As humans, we’re wired to survive.  We find solutions whenever possible but if those aren’t around, we find bandaids, otherwise known as coping mechanisms.  Some are good, most are bad. Really bad.  They include food, drugs, alcohol, high risk activities, multiple sex partners, shoplifting, school truancy, reckless behavior, violence and isolation.  It takes the immediate pain away but doesn’t resolve the source.

  1. Start with therapy
  2. Get psychological testing done
  3. Explore prescription drugs last after #1 and #2

I started smoking cigarettes at the age of 14.  I tried quitting many times.  I tried sheer willpower in 1999 when I stood in line and got tickets to see Prince at the Target Center.  I bargained with myself but the addiction was stronger.  You would think after seeing my mom smoke over a pack a day, I would never smoke.  I kept trying to quit using the gum, the patch and finally Zyban which finally helped me quit in 2006 (yes, that was a phenomenal year for me!).  After getting diagnosed with ADHD, it made sense.  Cigarettes are a stimulant.  I was trying to regulate my attention and focus and reduce anxiety with nicotine.  The clarity of diagnosis allowed me to address a bad coping mechanism.  I have smoked a few times since when the amount of stress in my life was just too overwhelming to bear, even with all my other tools.  Like when my dog Bluey died.

I am late.  Often.  Frequently.  Most of the time.  This is a coping mechanism for me.  I’ve been doing it since I was old enough to go to school (or not go).  It allows me to feel a sense of control in situations.  Logically I know it doesn’t make sense but as a coping mechanism it feels familiar and I don’t feel powerless.  I’ve improved a lot since moving to San Francisco.  Partly because I go to more events and partly from to my desire to be more dependable as a part of my character and let go of bad coping mechanisms that are no longer necessary.

My sisters abused food.  Some people describe overeating as a way to push down bad feelings.  My sister who is two years younger than me ballooned to over 300lbs in high school.  I was worried she wouldn’t live past age 25.  I nagged her about it; a lot.  I was angry that my mom hadn’t protected her from the man who hurt her when she was around 11. They say that victims of abuse will eat to make themselves unattractive. I feel that was what she did and I didn’t know how to help her. Thankfully, she didn’t die. She started losing a lot of weight when she started going to college. It took her 45 minutes to get to class from St. Paul so the exercise combined with an enormous reduction in empty carbohydrates soon made a difference.  She used to drink a two liter of Mountain Dew (or two) a day.  

I’ve always been skinny. It’s my metabolism and ADHD. I’ve never abused food like having anorexia or binging and purging but I didn’t have a healthy relationship with or around food: I still worry there wont’ be enough food. This led to me depriving myself of enjoying food when I ate it. I would eat the less appealing food on my plate first and I felt uncomfortable eating in front of others. I was afraid they would criticize me on how I used my fork and knife or that they would think I ate weird. One time in my late teens/early 20s, I went out to dinner with the horse trainer and his family to a steak place.  I ate the vegetables and potato first then had a small bit of the steak.  Wow! So good! I was excited to take the rest of the steak to eat later, in private. I thought about how good it would taste and how I could eat and savor it alone.  Unfortunately, I forgot the bag of leftovers in the car that night and it wasn’t until the next morning, I realized my mistake.  I was angry at myself and ashamed that I did this. I knew I had to fix this meal enjoyment thing but didn’t know where to start. Years later I would share it with my EMDR therapist and he helped me process the feelings of shame (not having enough to eat) and guilt (feeling bad for having something to eat).  It would be several more years before I made solid progress to enjoy food without feeling uncomfortable. Last year when I went to Germany, I ate with the fork in my left hand instead of switching like Americans do (It was said that American spies ate this way).  Today, I still worry about not having enough food even though I have plenty.  Sometimes I like to look at the food I have in the cupboard. I still keep candy like Nerds in my dresser. This is why I look forward to leftovers. I’m also a very slow eater coming in about 10-20 minutes after most others at a table have finished their plates.

In America, mental health is not talked about.

In families, mental health is not acknowledged.

In schools, mental health is not taught, discussed or addressed.

This needs to change.

Don’t give up

All these years I kept going.  I had hope that my tomorrow would be better than my yesterday.  I dreamed of living a different life and books helped me imagine different places, worlds, people and ways to be.  My resiliency kept me focused on the future when most others would have given up.  It paid off.

My knapsack was completely devoid of anything but I filled mine with knowledge and once it was full, I sought to share that with others.

I hope if you’re born with an invisible knapsack of privilege that you’ll look for ways to share too.

A friend I know refers to them at ” the cheat codes of life”.

5 things J & J should know

This is where Jason and Jamelle intersect for a learning moment –

  1. I learned through an iterative process how to create content that got traction
  2. I create content about technology because I find it interesting
  3. I didn’t know I had a passion for technology until I was challenged to deeply explore it
  4. I have consistently overcome sizable disadvantages and obstacles in my life
  5. I continue to create technical content because I enjoy helping others

While I disagree with both sides (Jason for clinging to his meritocracy beliefs and Jamelle for writing a slanted article even after I sent him links to Black tech writers in November), I wanted to clarify that what people create and why they do it are not tied to their race, or gender or socioeconomic status.

The other fallacy here is with the original article that it was hard to be a Black tech journalist is that race (or gender) are the only problems.

It wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco that I met:

  • Black people who had graduated from Harvard
  • Black people with sizable fortunes
  • Black people who sold technology companies with multimillion dollar exits
  • Black people in their 30′s who owned property
  • Black people from two parent families
  • Black people who snowboarded

Jason kept tweeting about how he was able to do it so anyone can.

Well I can say to Jason Calacanis, “Hey, why are you so fat?  You’re BMI is out of control!  I’ve never had a weight problem so you should be able to just shed those pounds and be skinny”.

Did that hurt?  If you felt the slightest bit uncomfortable, congratulations on having a tiny sampling of what it’s like being a woman or Brown person.  We can’t just “switch”.  But I don’t say that to people besides him because I have compassion and understanding that people have things in their past that I can’t possibly know or understand.

We are humans, not robots.

If either of you really gave a crap, you would be rolling up your sleeves like I did when this young kid named Joseph (yes he is Black) reached out to me to find out how he could make YouTube videos about technology.  I mentored him for several weeks and blogged about it 2 years ago -

12 year Old Wants To Be The Next YouTube Tech Gadget Rockstar When He Grows Up

I just checked and Joseph figured it out.  He has about 4k subscribers and gets several thousand views on each video he uploads.  Good job!

But that’s the difference between journalists like Jason and Jamelle compared to everyone else; their goal is simply to stir up dust…not solve problems or help anyone.

Why share this now? 

  • I want you to know that it’s entirely possible to enter the world of technology even if you weren’t “programming as a fetus” as my friend Liz put it
  • I want you to know you have a lot of options in technology and you can explore more than one angle and evolve like I did
  • I want you to know the story of someone who you can relate to
  • I want to see you read this article and take action in your life to exponentially increase your level of awesome
  • I want to encourage you to share your story too because I’m tired of others telling it for us

Outcomes

It’s not about race.  It’s not about gender.  It’s not even about money.

It’a about understanding people, being persistant, setting goals and knowing how to get access to the network.

That’s why I tweeted yesterday:

“I am working on a process to create racial and gender diversity in startups without tokenism”

I understand what it takes to be successful in technology and am working to bring this vision to life to change the world.

My advice to people of any race or gender who want to write about tech is:

  1. Identify your passion
  2. Find your medium
  3. Keep trying new things
  4. Get feedback from others
  5. Measure your results

I’ve carried a heavier load then most and despite that, I have actively decided to purse a path of self improvement, give back and inspire others. I focus on being humble and embracing that I am a survivor, not a victim.

Spread the message!

If you enjoyed reading this:

  1. Look around for someone who may be in trouble and need your help
  2. Share it with someone who could benefit from it
  3. Invite me to speak at your school or event

*drops the mic*

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About Adria Richards

Adria Richards is a developer and entrepreneur focused on digital equality. She has been involved in more than 35 hackathon events in the Bay Area and abroad. Embracing her inner nerd, Adria moved moved to San Francisco in 2010 to pursue her passion for technology. Previously she has worked in technical and training roles for enterprise, nonprofits and startups; from Apple to Zendesk. Adria has been teaching technology and developing curriculum since 2007. Adria is a popular speaker at major tech conferences including SXSW, O’Reilly Web 2.0, Launch, The Lean Startup Conference and TEDx. She speaks at startups and coding boot camps about culture, communication and diversity. Adria has attended TED, LeWeb and MLOVE. In her free time, Adria enjoys snowboarding, yoga and bacon; not necessarily at that order. Her Twitter account is followed by President @BarackObama. She blogs at ButYoureAGirl.com and is a YouTube Content Creator.

29 thoughts on “Success Against The Odds: Filling My Technology Knapsack From Scratch

  1. David McQueen ♕

    Firstly I totally commend you for being bold enough to share this story.
    I have been impressed with your journey as a techie since we were introduced by Frederic Mitchell many moons ago. You are indeed a great role model and I have shared your video with my eldest daughter and will do the same with my youngest.

    When we met it felt like we were family and I will always see you as my baby sis. Deal with it. LOL. But I must say I am proud of you and proud of your journey against the odds. Some very painful events have shaped you and I would not wish for anyone to have to go through but you have still maintained some strong attributes which help to shape the beautiful woman you have become.

    I salute your strength. I salute your drive. I salute your feminity. I salute your bravery. I salute you.

    Your brutha over the pond
    Dave

  2. Cathy

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I don’t know if there is much else to say about this open, brave exposing piece. I’m inspired by your crucible, you saved many lived to day sharing this story and created a stepping stone for career starters and changers alike.

    May everything you touch prosper.

  3. Silentbutsmart

    Adria wow you are an awesome person – now I can see why I am a fan and connect easy with you because you genuinely care! Keep rising to the top! And thanks for sharing this story it needs to be told. And you hit it out of the park so many times I have to reread this – Shoot i need a kleenex! yes real men can cry! :) but thanks for inspiring me and i sure other will be inspired. all i can say is “dont worry about a thing everything little things is going to be alright!” – bob marley

    if I haven’t said it before – I will said it again till i turn purple – THANK YOU for schooling me in WordPress.

  4. ipaulanthony

    Wish you didn’t have to go through all that but if you hadn’t you wouldn’t be the person you are now and I like that person. Thanks for having the courage to share something so personal.

  5. Shareef Jackson

    Amazing story. You have a lot of courage to put all of this out there. It’s all shaped you into the amazing woman that you are today.

    I also like your five point plan:
    Identify your passion
    Find your medium
    Keep trying new things
    Get feedback from others
    Measure your results
    You rock.

  6. Bill Cammack

    Thanks for sharing that, Adria. :)

    You’re definitely going to help someone that reads this and is going through what you went through, but thinks they’re the only one.

  7. MikeSchinkel

    Hi Adria,

    Having only met you a few times, I came away with the impression that you were smart, capable and extremely outgoing. But I would never have guessed you had so many personal obstacles to overcome to get become who you are.

    Salute to you and your achievements. And I wish for you ever increasing success however you choose to define it.

  8. Lisa Oberndorfer

    Wow, just wow. Thank you so much for sharing your story! This makes me believe even more that anything is possible. I had a difficult childhood, too (though nothing compared to yours) and I truly believe that hardship makes you a stronger and better person.

  9. Daman Bahner

    Adria, thanks for sharing the intimate details of your coming up. I think Jason Calacanis for sure opened up a can of worms with his post, but I’m grateful for the discussion it spawned over the past few days on the interwebs, which have been needed for some time. Keep on doing what you do, your work is appreciated!

  10. Michelle Wetzler

    Adria, not only is your story incredible, your writing is really special. A few paragraphs in I thought, “Wow! Where did she learn to write like this? Who is her editor? How long has she been crafting this piece?” As I read on I began to wonder if maybe the words just come out of your brain this way. I wish I could write like you. You are so talented. And so brave. Thank you for sharing. Please keep writing.

  11. Kate B.

    Seeing a story of triumph after incredible hardship is a salve for the soul. So thank you for giving anyone who faces adversity something to hope for and aspire to.

    Thank you, also, for this: “I want to encourage you to share your story too because I’m tired of others telling it for us.”

    This is my first time encountering your blog (I’m not a techie). This was a good post, an important post, for me to see.

    Thanks.

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  13. stacy wright

    Wow! I’ve always followed your career, read your blog. watch your YouTube videos but I had no idea that this was your upbringing! You’re an amazing person but now I have a new found respect for you! Keep up the good work Adria!

  14. adriarichards

    Thank you everyone for your wonderful comments and support! It has been an eye opening week for me to be totally honest about my past. It’s a past I used to be very ashamed of, especially during my teenage years. I’ve put in a lot of work to turn things around and everyday I experience that amazing feeling of being closer to the person I want to be. Thank you again for all of your kind words!

  15. Chelsea Hughes

    Amazing, inspiring and exactly what I needed to read today. Thank you, Adria for writing this and giving me yet another reason to keep pushing.

  16. Bodacious Tatas

    This is such an awesome story! I plan to keep it and refer to it as needed! I will also spread the message because I like so many others, feel that “getting there”, is not attainable. Thank thank thank you!

  17. Sandy

    Whew. Adria I had to tweet this one. (from the lady who asked u about computers for elderly dad) You know I a long time ago I worked with children who’ve been through similar trials. And your story is so moving and must one day be turned into a book or a movie. So many children, without hope, need to hear this story. And so many adults who are discouraged need it as well. This moves your skill, acumen and compassion to new heights and I have even greater respect and belief in your success than ever before. You are a winner. You are a survivor. These skills are what makes you a great teacher and listener. I knew you were special. But just didn’t realize how much. You’re going to the top. Much success with everything you do. Always remember, as far as parents: “when we know better, we do better”.

  18. Mark Littlewood

    Thank you for one of the best blog posts I have read about life, technology and the stuff that matters. Brave, wonderful and inspirational to so many.

  19. Lamar

    Powerful post. Thank you for being so transparent. And thank you for sharing your journey of all that you went through so others won’t have to.

  20. Kris Cain

    Adria,

    Although we have chatted before I had no idea about your background. I am very sorry that you went through that. However, you obviously are a very, very, very strong person because of it!

    I know that your story will inspire TONS of others who are dealing with accomplishing their goals. Great job girl!!!

    My tech life is very similar to yours. Self-taught computer skills, worked in computer lab, helpdesk, desktop support, network administration, computer building, self-taught WP install, blogging, etc, etc. We need to chat more about that.

    I’m sorry we did not get to chat in Vegas, although I did say hi on the shuttle bus. :) Hopefully we will run into each other somewhere this year. Us Tech Girls need to stick together!

    (((HUGS)))

    Kris

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  22. Gigi

    I, too have ADHD and PTSD for similar reasons. I am also Brown, and a girl, and a scientist, and now a blogger striving to overcome social anxiety and inspire others in health and happiness. Thank you for writing this.

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