Feedback at HBS

A theme of the HBS has been the importance of self-awareness. The entire FIELD course works on trying to develop the sort of personal skills that aren’t applied by the case method. Part of that was two entire class days at the beginning of the term were devoted to “communication, voice & self awareness.” A big piece of that has been the importance of giving and receiving feedback.

If you aren’t familiar with HBS’s curriculum, everything else is done via the case method. A “case” is a long story with a problem that the protagonist needs to solve. We’ve done 7-12 of these per week across our subject areas: Accounting (FRC), Finance (FIN), Technology and Operations Management (TOM), Marketing (MKT) and Leadership and Organizational Behavior (LEAD).

The 94 of us arrive (on time) and sit (in our assigned seats) and the professors helps moderate a discussion for 80 minutes. One person is usually “cold-called” – asked to open the discussion by summarizing the situation and giving their best recommendation for what the protagonist should do. Then everyone else jumps in to advance the conversation. This participation makes up about half of our grade in each class.

Participating in section is much harder than anything I’ve done at work. Harder than daily work, and also harder than key presentations. Harder than speaking at a conference. Harder than teaching. I’ve hit my metaphorical “wall” more times than I would care to admit.

Class is an exercise in balancing:
- What do I bring to the class to this conversation that’s unique and interesting?
- How can I make that point in 30s or less, in a way that will help my classmates understand?
- When is the best time to raise my hand to try to fit that into the flow of our conversation?
- What cases do I want to contribute to?

We’re now mid-way through the first semester, so feedback on participation has started to roll in.

Our two days of conversation on self-awareness and how to give effective feedback covered a lot of ground: give it in person, start from shared ground, give it as close to when something happened as possible, give specific examples, explain the impact of the behavior, provide actionable ways to improve, etc.

In contrast, the mid-term feedback comes as a form letter. Our form letter groups us into one of the three buckets – strong, acceptable, needs improvement. These buckets track primarily along frequency of contribution. This seems odd, as the message at the beginning of the semester starts with “quality matters more than quantity, but quantity also matters.”

It’s easy to be critical, but based on my experience with the feedback, and what HBS taught us about feedback, I think the feedback is more harmful than it is helpful.

My first feedback was an “acceptable” which prompted 0 reflection or improvement from me – thus automatically making it not very useful. I heard similar things from friends with acceptable/strong ratings, so I’m willing to bet about most of the class won’t change anything as a result of their midterm feedback. That doesn’t seem like a good way to improve our classroom discussions.

The second was a “needs improvement,” which is the most actionable of the buckets. It was helpful in as it forced this meta-reflection about feedback.

As mentioned, the “Needs Improvement” feedback is about quantity for most people. Given that, a histogram of “number of comments” for each student would be much more objective. I know how many times I’ve talked, but I have no idea how many times other people have. That would give much better measurement for self correction. Data would feel a lot less personal, and I bet would make people more willing to take the feedback. It would give me a much more compelling reason to raise my hand than this form email that says “raise your hand.”

I think that data could help across the spectrum. An individual with fewer contributions could see how big the gap really is. An individual grouped in “strong” could distinguish between “high quality” and “tons of comments.”

This feedback also isn’t timely. There’s a big difference between week 0 and week 8. I’d be curious to see the graphs of participation over time. I’m willing to bet a lot of the “needs improvement” people have an upward trend. I’m also willing to guess a lot of them are introverts who like to understand the situation before jumping in.

Frankly, no one is unaware that they haven’t been participating. So why give negative feedback in the middle of what is a possible upward trend? That’s discouraging for no reason – the form email even acknowledges that it’s discouraging.

I think sporadic, but more direct personal feedback would have much more impact on the classroom experience. Having a professor drop by my chair before class and say “hey, I’d really like to see your hand up today” would make me raise my hand. Alternatively, a one-off “really enjoyed your comment” today would make my day. It’d be far more encouraging than an “acceptable” or “strong” form letter – and would encourage more comments of a similar type.

As of now, the only relevant action from midterm feedback is “raise your hand more” or “keep raising your hand.” We all already knew that, because they’ve been saying it since Day 1.

The current feedback system is in an uncanny valley of pretending to be personal feedback, without adding insight for students. My hypothesis: either an objective system, or an informal but personal system would have a greater impact on the classroom.

An Open Letter to Satya Nadella

Dear Satya,

Like many, I was surprised to hear that you’d remarked “It’s not really about asking for a raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will give you the right raise” at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing this week.

I was glad to see you apologize, but I think there’s something more interesting at play. Your statement signals that you trust that the system at Microsoft to provide fair, unbiased raises. Microsoft released data about workforce diversity earlier this year. As a former employee, I know you also have plenty of data to examine about if the system is giving unbiased raises.

I’d love to see Microsoft release the data for:
• Promotion velocity by gender, and by length of time at the company.
• Retention rate by gender of college hires after 1, 2, 5, 10, and 20 years.
• Salary differential (percentage) by gender by discipline by level. *
• Percentage Gold Star awards** by gender (and by discipline and level).

For each set of data I’ve mentioned, it’s equally important to do the same analysis by race, sexual orientation, trans*, and able-bodiedness.

Your statement makes me hope that this data would be positive. I hope that Microsoft could serve as an example for other companies to follow. Maybe that is the case! If so, you should be proud to share this data and help us all move forwards.

I worry that instead, your statement comes from ignorance. I worry that Microsoft isn’t analyzing or prioritizing these issues. I clearly remember my Vice President telling our group to never discuss salary with friends – “it only makes one person sad.”

Of course, it could also show systematic biases.

Even if the data isn’t great, I’d love to hear that you learned and have an action plan to resolve disparities. I might not still be at Microsoft, but many of my best friends are, and I hope the company is doing what’s best for all of them.

I think it’s unlikely this data will be shared due to legal risk. Even if you don’t share publicly, I hope you’ll acknowledge that you’re personally reviewing this data, and making sure women actually can put their faith in Microsoft.

Ellen Chisa

*If you aren’t familiar with Microsoft’s system, this is confusing. Typically, Engineering hires start at level 59. When I was there that included Program Manager, Software Development Engineering, Software Development Engineering in Test. Salaries are typically banded within a level, and every couple levels you get a new title: PMII at 61, Sr. PM at 63, Principal PM at 65, and Partner PM at 67 (and equivalent for other disciplines).

** Gold stars are “special” bonuses awarded for going above and beyond what was necessary in your role, typically by your VP. I know of four male friends who received a gold star, and no women. It might be men are more likely to share their accomplishments, but I have no way to know.

“Career Fit”

It’s been over two years since I left Microsoft. It’s been almost a year since I first wrote about it. I still reflect my time there regularly. Much of the feedback I got through Microsoft performance reviews has shown up in feedback that I’ve gotten in groups at HBS. I use many skills I developed at Microsoft every day. I’m grateful to Microsoft in many ways.

I’m also disappointed. My time at Microsoft made me believe I wasn’t cut out to be a PM.

When I accepted my job offer at Microsoft, I wanted to be very fair. It seemed unethical to let someone hire me and not tell them that I’d already committed to graduate school. If I could go back, I wouldn’t tell them, but we all make mistakes.

As mentioned in the previous piece, midway through my time at Microsoft, our group went through a re-org. My second manager was much less supportive of my graduate school plans. In his mind, one could not know they were leaving for graduate school – and still care about doing good work. I didn’t manage to assuage his worry.

I worked the way I always had. I tried to be very honest about my strengths and weaknesses. I do so because I think both are relevant. I care about fixing my weaknesses, but there’s often more value to be in understanding strengths, too. That’s especially the case at a big company – you have lots of employees to balance out different strengths and weaknesses.

At one point while struggling, I said something like “I think this is a really valuable learning. I think this isn’t as suited to my natural strengths as other projects have been, and that’s something to keep in mind.”

Perhaps the way I said things wasn’t right – but I did care, and I was trying. I wanted to get better. I wanted to find projects that matched my skills and would be best for me, and for Microsoft.

Instead, he interpreted my reflection as “I’m not going to do anything I don’t like.” It wasn’t what I meant, but once he had that impression, I couldn’t convince him otherwise.  I struggled, he didn’t invest in me, I spiraled downward. He wrote me off as an employee because he didn’t think I’d add value. We skipped most of our 1-1s.

It became pretty clear to everyone that things weren’t going well. I was sad, or bitter most of the time. He talked to other colleagues about his disappointment in my performance.

Soon, the narrative became that I wasn’t cut out for PM. No one attributed it to “bad manager relationship” or “bad particular situation.”  Instead people decided that I wasn’t meant to be a PM. I wasn’t technical enough. I wasn’t interested enough. I wasn’t willing to slog through things the way I should. It wasn’t the job for me.

People meant well when they told me I should try something else, but they were still saying I should try something else, that PM wasn’t for me. That I should go to business school and find a new path.  At the time, so many people said it that I believed it. I thought the next thing I did wouldn’t be PM.

I spent a couple months at home licking my wounds and trying to figure out what on earth I could do – everyone had said I’d be a good PM, and apparently I was terrible. I didn’t think I had the skills to get a job as a designer or an engineer. I didn’t really know how to get into another field. I never figured it out, so I kept with PM.  The feeling that I wasn’t “cut out to be a PM” lingered. It took me months to feel secure in my role at Kickstarter.

A couple years later it’s obvious that yes, I can be a PM. I love being a PM. I’m happy helping other people get into PM. The problem wasn’t me, and it wasn’t PM. It was with the situation. But I’m not proud to say that it wasn’t determination that kept me in PM. It was a lack of awareness of what else I could do.

I’m sharing because I have a sinking feeling that this might be happening to other women in tech.

When my male friends become unhappy in their role – they attribute it to the role “this job sucks” or “this part of the job isn’t my thing.” They view it much more as a fit thing. They never seem to internalize this sense of “you aren’t good enough for this role / you aren’t cut out for this field.” A male friend had a similar issue at Microsoft, and he was told (verbatim) to “find another job” – but not to find another career path.

My female friends seem to get much more of this “maybe you aren’t cut out for this job.” I don’t know why this is happening, and I don’t know how pervasive it is. I don’t have strong quantitative data. I do know it happened to me and at least four other women in my social circle (and this isn’t my casual party topic conversation). None of my male friends have shared a similar sentiment.

I decided to share because I recently had the opportunity to teach a talented young PM. I was surprised when she said “I’m getting negative feedback at work – can I not cut it as a PM?” Based on my class, yes, she will definitely be a good PM. It’ll take a little while. She’ll get there. But I worry what would have happened if she wasn’t in my class. What if there wasn’t someone to tell her she could be a great PM, even if the first company wasn’t the right fit?

What if I hadn’t stayed? I know now that the problem wasn’t me or PM, but I didn’t then.

Managers, you can help fix this. Start by giving constructive feedback. If it doesn’t work, it’s okay to let people go. You don’t have to want to work with everyone. Blaming a struggling employee on “career fit” is a cop out. It’s hard to know what the full scope of a career looks like when you only see the one job situation. Look everywhere else first – is it about your relationship with the employee? Is it about the way the company structures the role? Lots of things can go wrong. Pick concrete areas of struggle. “This isn’t the right role” leaves too much room for bias.

The flip side of this argument is that telling people to move on prevents them from wasting time. Frankly, if someone has multiple bad experiences in a career, they’ll figure it out and move to something else. When they make their own decision, they’ll understand the transition better. No one wants to do something they hate – but no one wants to be told to move on by someone they already resent, either. They’ll be better off moving on their own terms.

I love PM. I’m glad I’m still here. For the sake of keeping talented people in our field, let’s leave “career fit” up to individuals.

If you’re a new PM and struggling with something like this, I’m happy to talk it through with you, just send me an email (ellen dot chisa at gmail dot com).

Do I need to be technical to be a PM?

One of the top questions I get from aspiring PMs is “do I need to be technical?”

Many say yes. Ken Norton mentioned it as these second thing he looks at in how to hire a PM, with a good explanation of why. Microsoft and Google also tend to look for CS grads for PM roles. Industry leaders saying yes mean that many startups say yes, too.

Historically, I’ve erred on the side of “I’m not the best person to answer that question.” I hold an Electrical & Computer Engineering degree, so I don’t see what it’s like to be a “nontechnical” person. But honestly, you wouldn’t want to hire me as a Software Engineer. In fact, compared to many of the PMs I’ve worked with, my skill set is softer, despite the degree. I often feel like I checked the “technical” box by getting my degree, but it hasn’t been necessary to do my job.

But, I’ve changed my mind. I have an answer. You don’t need to be technical to be a PM. You just need to wish you were. If you’re asking me the question because you’re nervous about getting a job and learning everything at once, you’ll be fine. If you’re asking me because you want to avoid code at all costs, you should pick another field.

I’ve come to this conclusion during my time at HBS. I have whiplash here. Before, everyone was more technical than me. Suddenly, the people around me have a completely different skills. We examine income statements. We talk about feelings. We present strategies.

When we do need someone to talk about something technical, I’m the one to do it. Experience purchasing 3D printers? Me. Experience using milling machines? Me. Experience building circuit boards? Me. The only person who thinks it’s fun to sit and make the same circuit board for eight hours? Still me. I haven’t changed. My context changed, and I went from being a “soft skills” person to a “technical” person.

Simplified, it looks and feels like this like this:

IMG_4347

I started thinking of this as “technical” and “fluffy” sides of the continuum. Neither are meant to be pejorative, but I’ll admit I have an internal bias towards valuing technical things.*

So the first part is that I’ve realized is that in the great scheme of things, I’m more technical than I thought. So are many of the PMs that don’t have CS degrees and consider themselves “non-technical.”

The second part is I’ve gotten a chance to see a bunch of “non-technical” people work. We did a simulation earlier this week where we made circuit boards. The point wasn’t learning about circuits – it was simulating process in a factory operation. Most people had never made a circuit board before.

IMG_4348

Still, some of the people around me were curious about the technical pieces. What are these things called? What does a capacitor do? What changes if the LED is on or if it’s blinking? Why does it matter which direction we put it in in? What is this chip? Why do things go in this way? How does it work? Some of the people around me weren’t as curious.

There’s no value judgment on this. We couldn’t have run a factory without people figuring out our cost flow and break even. We couldn’t have run a factory without people coordinating our process, and delivering components. Every team needs many roles, and not everyone should be into the technical details.

But if I were a PM hiring manager, I’d look at the people who were curious about how the components worked. First, they weren’t trying to be in charge, they just wanted to get the job done. Second, they’d ask the same questions about code that they asked about circuits. “Why do we have this bug?” “Why is this the right architecture?” “How can I check in my own changes?”

I don’t think it matters how far down the “technical” line you are when you start. I think it matters how curious you are about the technical things. That curiosity will continue to drive you down the line. Someday, you’ll hit whatever place we’ve defined as “technical” – or at the least you’ll hit the place you need to do your job well.

That sort of curiosity led Emily from Kickstarter’s community team to Engineering team. The same curiosity led Kickstarter team member Ian to start writing his own code, even though he could have moved to the Product team without it. That curiosity means Joshua wants to learn how to code and do small projects, even though he could just invest in “PM” skills.

So, no. I don’t screen PMs based on if they’re “technical” or not. I screen PMs based on if they’re curious about how things work. They’ll be “technical” soon enough.**

* I think this could be generalized into “ideas focused” to “implementation focused,” outside of the technical context. For those who don’t know, Olin is my undergraduate institution.
** The converse of this is it also betrays who I don’t want to hire. I’ve talked to Management Consultants who want to get into PM, but “don’t want to have to learn the technical things.” If you aren’t curious about it, you won’t be good at PM.

Life as an Introvert at HBS

I decided that I owe the world a little more of an update on “How’s HBS?”- Particularly because after the last post I got a lot of “you’ll be okay! It gets better!” which I wasn’t expecting. The beginning of a new thing is always challenging – so no need to worry.

I don’t want to be a broken record, but four weeks in, I’m still most interested about how different HBS is for introverts. I’ve been considering that aspect across a few different angles. (I have some other insights, but I’m going to focus on the introvert part for now).

Social
This week was first time I thought “it might be nice to make some new friends.” There was so much forced people interaction at the beginning that I had no desire to get to know anyone past the required activities. I barely wanted to talk to the people I already knew. When I did try to force social interactions at the beginning, I came across as cynical.

I’m glad to be more interested in meeting people now, but I can see the downside to waiting. Now that we’re in week four, everyone else already has expectations and roles. I went to my first post-dinner section drinks during week three, and it was already surprising for me to be there. The first thing I heard was basically “Ellen! This is the first time you’re coming out!” – while I was relieved that anyone noticed/cared/wanted to talk to me, it still left me aware that I’m not participating as much as some others are.

On top of that, people are so extroverted that it can be hard to explain how I feel. The extroverts are also overwhelmed, but it isn’t the same issue. They often wish they had more time – could get to more activities – are missing something. I’m not worried about missing anything; I’m just exhausted from having to talk to people. I’m shocked at my inability to explain to people that introversion is different than fear of missing out (FOMO).

The upside of this is that while the social patterns at HBS form quickly, they’re also fluid. There’s nothing stopping introverts from engaging more as time goes on – the invitation is always there.

Classroom
I feel similar tension academically. At HBS, we have 93 students in our section. In our 80 minute classes, 30-40 students get to talk per class. That means on average people only talk about once every three classes. Professors have papers that highlight which students have talked the most and least. In the same way I can tell that it’s unusual for me to go out, I can also walk by and see that I don’t talk as much as some people.

Early on, I tried to force myself outside of my comfort zone by tracking how often I raised my hand, and getting used to the risk of having it up. I’ve settled down to the point where I only raise my hand if I (1) have something unique to say or (2) haven’t talked in a REALLY long time. I am looking to get a better system to record my own comments so I’ll have a more objective idea.

This is different from some of the more extroverted people. They’re more willing to start talking (sometimes when not called on!) or assume that they should continue in a back-and-forth debate, rather than waiting for professor guidance. I can see how extroversion could be an advantage in the classroom.

Since I consciously made the decision not to go for Baker Scholar (top 10% of the class), this isn’t too big of a deal. The vast majority (70%) of people get a “2,” which basically means “good enough.” As long as I’m learning and adding the things I think are particularly interesting to the discussion, I’m fine with getting 2s. This academic discrepancy might bother me more if that weren’t the case.

I do care about if I’m perceived to be taking my education seriously. I don’t want to be here and be wasting anyone’s time. Luckily, professors tend to stay in the front of the class after it concludes. This gives me time to ask some of my off topic questions after class, so I won’t distract anyone else. I hope that even though I don’t speak as often, people can tell I’m interested and want to learn.

There are some things that specifically help introverts in the classroom. One thing that does help is that we have the Cases to prepare ahead of time. While I can’t know exactly the direction our conversation will take, I know the general line of thought. I can reflect on my own beforehand. HBS would be far more stressful if we didn’t know what we were talking about until we arrived in class.

Another is that we have assigned discussion groups. The “assigned” part means I didn’t have to go out of my way to find people. It’s also only six people, so it’s much less scary to share ideas. I’ve found that my discussion group helps me feel far more prepared and comfortable speaking in class.

Professors also work to engage people. If I don’t speak, I know I’m more likely to be cold called. I enjoy being cold called because I prepare – and it makes it easier for me to jump in without worrying if I’m adding enough value or not. This means even if I’m not always confident about when to speak, the professors make sure I get things in sometimes.

Another thing that helps: Sitting in the same seats in the classroom every day has helped me. It makes it easier to remember and understand my class mates contributions. I’m far less overwhelmed than if all 93 of us played musical chairs each day.

Professional Clubs
Now that we’re a month in, the professional clubs have also started to kickoff. I think this is one area where there could definitely be improvement.

My gut feeling is that most of the people in leadership roles at HBS are extroverts. As I wrote before, everyone is so quick to jump in, that I don’t usually feel a need to organize. I think we need better ways for introverts to connect with organizations. I took one look at the club fair and turned right back around and went to sit in Spangler and read a case. I cannot imagine a situation in which I could walk around to hundreds of people, have a quick chat, and decide what to do.

The sheer number was too confusing. Some of my friends developed intricate strategies for what to get involved with. My solution has been to be clear about my interests, and then let opportunities find me.

So far, that’s working out, but I think it’s from luck. I came to HBS knowing that I love my industry. I also know enough people to already have some connections. A member of my discussion group helped me to become the Online Editor for the HarBus. I’ve gotten involved with the Campus’s Digital Initiative and audit PM101. I’ve given some other students advice on Kickstarter projects. I’m also hoping to do some things with the Tech club.

If I didn’t have clear cut interests, it wouldn’t be easy for me to find my way. I think this is the place that introverts are most disadvantaged at HBS, and I’d love to see improvement for ways to include introverts in clubs, and in club leadership roles.

Conclusions
I think my big takeaway is introverts will always be in the minority at HBS. You’re always going to have a different experience coming in as an introvert compared to an extrovert.

Based on my feelings and conversations with others, I think this is the difference:
photo (1)
For extroverts, HBS is exciting off the bat. New people! Parties! Whoo! Things are pretty good. People say to focus on the people, don’t worry so much about the work! There are still the low moments that come periodically, but on the whole when things are good, they’re great.

For introverts, there’s a longer ramp up. Frankly, the part at the beginning was sort of miserable. I never want to learn a ton of new things, do emotionally intense exercises, and meet a bunch of people all at once. People talk a lot about the parties, and not so much about how great cases are. It can be hard to find the other people who are feeling the same way. You have the same drops the extroverts have, but it’s a little bit less of a contrast. Over time, we start finding our places, and things get better – bit by bit – it just takes longer to be obvious.

To speculate a bit, I’m guessing (hoping) that the introverts get to the same level of happiness and belonging as the extroverts. They might even end up at a better place because they took the time to stop and thinking about where they were going. But I think the ramp up is always going to be harder.

Thanks, Parents.

Mea Culpa: The other week I published a piece called Lunch with Dads, about my time at Kickstarter. I was trying to get across the feeling of “otherness.” I opted for the example because it was my personal feeling, and also because non-parenthood is a much easier example to “get.” People either aren’t parents, or remember what it was like before they had kids, so they remember that tension.

In no way was it a critique of parenthood – parents have their own hurdles to overcome in the workplace. There are practical constraints (does the company have health insurance that makes it affordable to support families?) and as well as the perception ones (are parents as committed to the workplace? will they work as many hours?) I hope it didn’t give the impression I don’t like having parents in the office.

I care a lot about having parents in the office. There’s a bunch of reasons for that. Philosophically, I think it’s important to have a workplace that lets people stay if they want. At least some of your employees will have children – so it’d be unusual to have no parents. Parents are an important demographic. I also happen to like working with parents. I like hearing about kids, and I feel like I’ve learned a lot about parenting from all the parents I’ve worked with.

The less obvious, and most tangible reason is that the presence of parents is one of the ways I evaluate if a company will be somewhere I want to work. I’ve mentioned this to people in personal conversations, but never written about it publicly. Parents push us towards better companies.

When I’m looking for somewhere to work, the first thing I focus on is the job content. All the things you’d expect: a product I’m interested in, room to learn new things, and coworkers I can learn from.

But past that, I have practical constraints. Unfortunately, the most direct way to ask about those doesn’t work well in interviews. It’s not practical to say “what are the typical work hours?” or “how’s work life balance?” because I look uncommitted. It’s also hard to say “do people here have a good sense of priority? soooo do people freak out a lot?” – that looks paranoid. It can be hard to ask for those, because it’s viewed as a lack of commitment.

Instead, I look at parenthood as an important signal for those sorts of factors. It’s also not hard to figure out if a company has parents. You often don’t have to ask – parents often have photos of kids on their desk, or mention their kids. To be clear, many non-parents also do the things I’m mentioning. I’ve just noticed parents consistently impact the work environment for the better.

First, parents tend to keep a good sense of perspective. They have other things going on, and they’ve had a lot of practice being patient. They can maintain composure in difficult situations. I like working with people like that.

Others can do this and I don’t have concrete data, but I get the impression that parents are consistently good at this. In my experience they are more likely to step back and not get upset or bogged down in details at work. This tends to make for more level-headed conversations. Plus, their behavior sets an example for others. It improves dialog.

Reactive behavior in the workplace makes it harder for me to do well. Having parents around reassures me that the environment will likely be calmer. Then it’s more likely to be an environment where I will add value.

Next, parents tend need flexibility. Babies have lots of pediatrician appointments, and reasonable bedtimes. As much as I love to work, I also love sleeping and seeing Tom and a whole host of other things. Parents have more challenging schedules than mine. If a job’s time commitment works out for parents, it definitely works for me. It isn’t that parents work less – it’s that they get work done in a way that works with their life. I don’t have to worry about it being an issue for me if I know there are parents there.

Finally, I’ve found parents to be empathetic when things don’t go according to plan. I’ve had situations where I needed to be out of work for family related reasons. With parents, it’s understood that we all have those situations occasionally. It doesn’t happen often, but I know in an environment with parents it’s less stressful if it does.

Parents in the work place is also good future assurance. I’m not planning on having kids now, but it’s also nice to know that the work environment I’m in is already set up for parents.

So, I think parents are an important indicator for company culture. Yes, having parents at your company is important philosophically. Yes, it can be fun. Yes, it’d be good just in case I had kids.

But it’s more than that. Having a culture with parents means the parents are pushing important things. Parents push companies to trust employees to use their time well. Parents push companies to remember that employees have a life outside of work. Parents push companies to create better situations for employees.

That’s why I use parents as a signal for where I want to be. Thank you, parents. I know you’re making my job better. I want to keep working where you work, and I think other non-parents should too.

HBS: Weeks 0 and 1

Despite years of having talked to people at HBS, I woke up on Day One and realized I had no idea what was about to happen. Rather than a factual “play by play” of HBS, I want to set the context with how it feels, and why it’s different from other places. This is a personal overview of how it’s been so far. In the coming weeks, I’m going to share some of the “practical” things that I think will be widely applicable to industry.

At HBS, you have to be yourself.

I’ve heard a lot these first few weeks of how business school is a transformational experience. I’ve also heard a lot of friends say that it helped them find what they want to do. Two weeks in, I have two theories on why this is the case.

First, there’s never a vacuum.

I’m an introverted person. People often don’t believe this, because I organize events. I need a ton of time to be alone. Large groups of people, and noisy rooms tend to make me anxious. It’s not so much that I like organizing events as that I like to fill vacuums. If there’s no one is organizing an event that I think is important, I’m happy to. If someone needs to step up to get a group together, sure. Over time I’d gotten accustomed to myself being someone who organizes things, because it’s a common need in groups.

I think many people at HBS have had similar situations. When you’re in a room and you can see what needs to happen, you jump in and fill the gap.

That doesn’t happen at HBS! At HBS someone is good at everything. There isn’t a vacuum to fill. For any task, there’s a bunch of people around me who truly enjoy doing it. It’s done before I even see a gap. You’re only doing the things that you’re suited for – because someone else can do everything else.

Second, you’re very tired – physically, intellectually, emotionally.

Physically, these first couple weeks didn’t allow for that much sleep.

Intellectually, the case method is stressful. There are very few situations where you have to talk to 95 smart people, about topics you’ve never studied. I’ve learned the basis for four different fields in the past two weeks , none of which I’d touched before. Every day you have needs hours of the type of energy and focus you’d usually reserve for only the VERY important meeting.

As my FIELD professor pointed out, your day goes like this as you go between class and downtime:

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Emotionally, you’re always meeting new people. This isn’t tiring for everyone, but it is for me.

My throughput on everything other than what I love has dropped. When I’m this tired, I only do the things I want to do. There’s no energy left for anything else. My email response has gone from same-day to a week or so. I haven’t given advice for getting into PM. The house is a mess.

I’ve learned that all I do is go to HBS, and write. (Sorry people who sent me email! I’m trying!)

When there aren’t any gaps, and you’re too tired for obligations, the things you’re intrinsically motivated to do show themselves.

Formal education pushes you harder.

There’s been a lot of talk about how you can just “teach yourself” the things that you’d learn in business school.

Yes, I could have taught myself accounting.
Yes, I could have memorized some financial ratios.

No, it wouldn’t have been the same.

The benefit of formal education is a lot like other types of service industries. Education works the the same way a trainer pushes you harder at the gym, or a therapist pushes you to think more deeply about things.

Good formal education forces you to learn more quickly, and more deeply. I’ll give it to HBS on this one. They’ve fine-tuned the curriculum to be just about on the edge of what people can do.

For me, learning a new concept is a lot like exercising. Learning the new concept at first is hard, and it feels like my brain breaks. The new things don’t fit in with the old. Then slowly, it rebuilds itself around the new concept, and integrates it into the web of my existing knowledge.

The more new concepts there are, the harder that process is. It’s harder to reconcile them all at once. I tend to only do one thing at a time to let myself absorb.

Not so at HBS. I’ve hit the wall twice in the last two weeks. Once on the Wednesday evening of Analytics, when I just couldn’t get cash flows. Once this Thursday, when I was too tired to come up with a Marketing plan.

I hadn’t hit that wall since undergrad, and it was refreshing to know I was working as hard as I could. I would not have learned this much material, in a short time, on my own.

After two weeks, I hope I’m through the hardest piece. I’m excited to settle into a routine this week. Excited to get more comfortable speaking in class. Excited to get to know everyone else.

Lunch with Dads

Earlier this year, Erica Swallow wrote a post about the challenges she faced working in Venture Capital. Yesterday posted a follow up about the internal reaction.

Few people are brave enough to write about how gender plays into their day to day work environment. I wrote this piece earlier this year. I didn’t post because I was nervous that it might reflect badly on my coworkers – who were all extremely supportive.

This week I decided to post it, because we need to be able to discuss diversity issues without fear. In this anecdote, no one did anything wrong. This is about how it feels to be the “different” person – even when everyone tries to be inclusive.

At Kickstarter, the Product (Engineering + Product + Design) team at Kickstarter hangs out in Campfire – a group chatroom – during the day. One of our uses for Campfire is announcing lunch plans.

When I started work I didn’t want to eat alone, so I wandered out with the people who talked about lunch in Campfire.  There was some variation, but there were a few core people who went out to grab lunch most days. That wasn’t surprising – everyone has habits. But as it was, those people were mostly new dads.

That’s also not surprising. At Kickstarter, most of the employees are young. In particular, we had a lot of new parents! When I started, many of the people on the Engineering team were dads. So much so that as a company, we joked around about “the dads.” Dads was definitely part of the culture, and a nice part of the culture at that.

On top of that, they were happy for me to come to lunch with them. No one ever tried to exclude me. The opposite: I was actively included. Once I went to lunch more, people would drop by my desk, invite me, include me.

But over time, a nagging feeling built up. I wasn’t a dad. I wasn’t even a mom! I’m not even married. Plus, I was a PM instead of an Engineer. I also don’t know much about pop culture or sports, so it’s always a bit harder to find common topics to discuss with me.

I wondered what they’d talked about before I started joining them for lunch. Was I ruining the conversation? I was afraid that the dads just wanted to talk about dad-stuff, and I was in the way. They were being so nice, but maybe didn’t really want me there? None of them ever said anything like that, but I kept feeling it.

It wasn’t just one thing that made me feel like I was imposing. Wasn’t just being a non-parent. Wasn’t just being a woman. Wasn’t just being a PM. It’s just that all the differences added up, and I felt “different” from the rest of the group.

Over time, it got me down. Some days I’d just avoid going to lunch so I wouldn’t have to worry about it. Sometimes days would stretch into weeks. It sucks to eat alone though. Plus, I felt less connected to the team. I liked going to lunch. I just didn’t like feeling like I was the different one.

One day, I mentioned my worry to a work friend, who also happened to be a dad. He pointed out each of our other coworkers who aren’t dads, but sometimes go to lunch. He understood my fear, but was happy to tell me “if you go, you’re part of lunch! the lunch conversation comes out of who is there. it’s not that you’re ruining it. go, and have whatever conversation you want.”

I want to make it clear: he wasn’t trying to dismiss my feelings. He was trying to reassure me that I was a valued part of the team (and lunch) even if I wasn’t part of the dads. It was helpful.

I went to lunch more again. Sometimes I still felt bad, but at least I could try to remind myself that a Dad had told me it was okay. I had weeks where I wouldn’t go, and weeks where I’d go. But, almost every day I still considered if I should go to lunch – and if I’d be imposing by doing.

That’s what being different does. It makes you aware of your actions, and that you might be imposing. It’s so minor, but it adds up. There’s no reason I should have wasted five minutes of every day analyzing that lunch choice. If lunch had always been a mix of lots of types of people (old, young, parents, not parents, whatever) I wouldn’t have thought twice. I doubt any of my coworkers did.

When you don’t have a diverse team, there will be that nagging sensation for the few people who are different. It’s more likely those people will leave, or continue to feel out of place. I can’t imagine my coworkers being any nicer than they were, and I couldn’t tell you anything that they could have done better. But even with all their support, I still had the nagging feeling of not belonging.

That’s the thing about diversity: we can talk about lots of ways to help make better environments, but the only real way to completely fix it is to hire a diverse team.

Everything That’s Right With Y Combinator Sexism In Tech Post

Sam Altman released a piece on the YCombinator blog yesterday, discussing the issue of gender and tech. It got some immediate backlash on areas that it can improve. The criticisms, especially of HN, are fair, but I wanted to point out some of the good things, too. **

We don’t talk about how long it’s going to take to make tech a more equal place for women & other minority groups. I will not be surprised if I spent the rest of my life working on this. I do not think it will be perfect for my children. I hope that by the time I have grandchildren, it could be a history lesson. I will do other things in the rest of my time, but social change is slow. It will not happen overnight.

This is not an ally-cookie. It’s a me-cookie. It’s a cookie for anyone else thinking “this is exhausting and it won’t ever get better so I’m just going to stop and go do something else now.”

If I only point out when things go wrong, I will give up. I want to look at the improvement we’ve made, too. So yes, of course there are ways Sam’s post could be improved. But there are a lot of ways it’s good.

He wasn’t under pressure to write it, but still did.

I felt like in the past (female founders conference) I thought YC’s diversity talk was pandering. The Female Founders Conferences seemed like it might be a PR move to combat Paul Graham’s pipeline statements.

This week, YCombinator was not currently in the media for doing things wrong. The heat was more on the data that’s been coming out from Twitter, Google, etc. They could have tried to lay low until they “fixed” more things. They could have just gone radio silent.

Instead, they decided to talk more about it instead, and that’s a good thing for everyone. It opens the ability for the rest of us to give feedback. We should give feedback, but we also need to say “yes, it’s good that you’re talking about this, we need to talk about it.”

“Sexism in tech is real.”

This sentence does not beat around the bush. This does not leave anything open for debate. This sets the rest of the piece up to ask “how can we fix this?” instead of “is this a thing?”

This is obvious for:women, people who have worked on the issue for a long time, and the sorts of people who usually read my blog. It’s not obvious for everyone.

My partner is a Software Engineer. I didn’t manage to convince him that sexism in tech was real for a year after we started dating. Now that he understands, he goes out of his way to ask about things at work, points out things that are wrong and tries to help. I believe that are lots of men out there in the place he was four years ago. They just can’t see the sexism.

Sam Altman will reach more of those people than I will. Him saying it’s real will make those people take a step back and think about it. Coming from me, it sounds “personal” or “emotional” or self serving. Coming from Sam, it might have more impact. I haven’t seen it so bluntly from someone in his position. It might open the door so those men actually ask the women around them what’s going on.

This is the right message for Sam’s audience.

He listened to the advice he got.

There’s three things in here that I think are particularly important.

1) “Even though it will break backwards compatibility, we are considering changing how we look at this to the percentage of all founders that are women instead of the percentage of companies with a female founder.”

This is important. The old metric was a vanity metric. This metric would matter. As a PM (former Engineer) – I feel the pain of breaking the compatibility. I’d go manually get all that data so I could fix the compatibility. Regardless, this is a change we specifically asked for, and I’d love to see implemented.

2) “It’s important to make sure we have women speaking at all of our conferences and during our batches, which we’ve been doing. We’re also showcasing more women and people of different ages and races on our website.”

This is another thing women have been saying. He said that he’s heard it from women, and it’s true. The first speaker at Startup Day in NY was Shana Fisher. It was great to hear her speak, and she even touched on the gender issue. At the time, I remember being surprised that gender came up at a YC event.

3) “We’re encouraging our startups to get HR infrastructure in place earlier. ”

This is something that has come out of challenges recently. This is important. We asked for it. Yeah, it might be the first, simple step towards improvement. But it is a step towards improvement, and an important one. Having an HR department is important – and the sort of thing an investor can encourage.

All of these pieces are concrete feedback that’s been given by women, and then incorporated into YC.

Yes, this can go further, but yes, change from what we say is starting to happen.

Conclusions

I’m glad YCombinator chose to write this. I believe it is a step in the right direction. One of the most valuable pieces of feedback I’ve gotten is “always take the most respectful possible interpretation.” I’m going to do that. Sam made a genuine attempt to implement all the feedback he’s gotten.

We know that we all need to keep trying to improve. We need to call things out that are wrong. We shouldn’t stop doing that. YCombinator isn’t perfect yet, and there are ways this post could have been better, too. Hackernews is still a terrible place for women.

But sometimes, we need an hour to sit down and look at the improvement we’ve made so far, before we pick up and keep going.

**I have heavily criticized YCombinator in the past. I found aspects of the Female Founders Conference to be lacking. I was upset at the way Sam treated responses to his last post. I was upset at the seeming lack of action after that entire conversation.

 

I’m not a fan of Hackernews. I prefer things I write not end up there. Last week, I emailed Sam about another Hackernews thread I found disappointing. I don’t think Hackernews is much better than it was either, but that’s a small part of this overall piece. 

An aside: I write primarily about gender. It’s personal for me and I have the most understanding of it. I also think we need to do a much better job of being inclusive across the board for people of color and trans* people. I’m working on finding a way to better include that in my writing.

Packing: One Month

I’m going back “home” tomorrow, for the first time in about a month. When I left, I packed one suitcase full of everything I’d need for that time. It was particularly challenging because it involved a bunch of places: Seattle, NYC in the Summer, the Galapagos, and then back to NYC. I did get to do laundry every ten days.

Typically, when I pack (even for a weekend) I worry that I’ll forget something. Given I managed to live for a month, I’m pretty sure this suitcase has everything I need.

I’m mostly documenting for myself, but if anyone else dreads packing, maybe this will help…

Bags

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For the trip, I brought three different bags. I highly recommend each of these. The suitcase is by Travelpro (I think it’s this one on Amazon), the laptop bag is le pliage by Longchamps, and the smaller purse is Cole Haan. All of them are very durable and comfortable to carry.

Electronics

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This is pretty straight forward. I need my Macbook to work, my Kindle to stay sane, and my iPhone for everything else. The iPhone isn’t in the photo because I needed it to take the picture (before it was in that little gap in the middle).

I also take all the associated chargers. This trip I brought along two sets of headphones. For a short trip, I only take my earbuds. For any long trip, I also bring the noise canceling ones. For “wearables” (can’t believe I just wrote that) I brought my Pebble watch and my Fitbit. I carried these all in the laptop bag.

Would pack again: all of it.

Clothes

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This is where things get more complicated. I was pretty surprised by some of what happened here.

Staples

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The biggest limitation when traveling is shoes. To give myself the most variety I opted for a pair of black ballet flats (with ties) and a pair of beige sandals. They’re neutral, so they match everything. They generally work pretty well for casual, and about as formal as I get.

I’m also usually cold, so I included a beige cardigan. I have some shirts I like to wear something under my shirts, so I included Uniqlo airism tank tops in both white & black.

Would pack again: 5/5.

Neutrals

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I packed five neutral shirts. For the last year or so I’ve been a subscriber to Elizabeth & Clarke, a basics service. Each season they send me a couple new basics. I haven’t been a fan of the fitted tops (button down particularly) but all of the T-shirts are great. Four of my neutral shirts were from there, and I’d recommend subscribing.

Would pack again: 5/5.

Blouses

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I also packed two blouses. I’m not really sure why. I’ve worn one twice, and one not at all. I probably could have gotten by without this.

Would pack again: 0/2.

Pants

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I packed four pairs of pants. Jeans, jeans that happen to be green instead of blue, capri jeans, and maroon shorts. All of these were completely worth it. I only wear pants on planes, so I wore the jeans when I flew. Seattle was cold, so I wore jeans there too. NYC was super hot, so I wore the shorts or capris.

Would pack again: 4/4.

Skirts

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I packed three skirts. The pink one also doubles as a strapless dress. These were of the most use in the Galapagos to pull on over my swimsuit. I could have gotten by without the purple one.

Would pack again: 2/3.

Dresses

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I’m a little befuddled by this. I own 9 white sundresses (no, I don’t know why). Yet somehow I didn’t bring ANY white sundresses for the month of July. I did bring five colorful ones.

These were worthwhile, especially in Galapagos/NYC. If I was doing it again, I wouldn’t bring the long one. I hardly ever wear maxi dresses, and it takes a specific mood. Not a staple.

Would pack again: 4/5.

Exercise & Sleep

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I always have grand aspirations of exercising while traveling. For that matter, I have grand aspirations of exercising while home. Regardless, I always pack the clothes just in case inspiration strikes. I did end up going running some this trip, so it was worth it.

My exercise clothes aren’t very exciting. I literally still wear the same sweatpants and sports bras I used in high school. For shirts, I tend to use startup tshirts and other tops I like. I sleep in the same type of stuff.  (Yes I wear those weird shoes to run, whatever. I like running in them and never wear them in public unless I am out running).

I also brought a swimsuit & towel.

Would pack again: 8/9 (one less top).

Other Stuff

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There’s a few other things I always make sure to have – a set of rainbow pens, a few small notebooks, and a reusable water bottle. I did forget one notebook I would have liked to have, but generally this was good.

I also packed the usual toiletries you’d expect: toothbrush, toothpaste, antiperspirant, razor, etc. I very rarely pack shampoo or conditioner, and tend to rely on hotels and/or friends having it. One of the things I try to make sure to do is pack bandaids & cortisone (just in case!) I also pack some basic meds: ibuprofen, nyquil, sudafed, etc.

Every time I pack I end up thinking “What if something important happens and I need make up?!” So I pack it. I never wear it. Similarly, I packed a few extra pieces of jewelry, but I just wore the rainbow block necklace the entire time.

Would pack again: everything but the makeup and extra jewelry.

New Stuff

I obtained some things during my trip.

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I’ve been teaching with Startup Institute New York for the last year, and during my last class I was gifted a hoodie. I just wish I’d had it earlier in the trip when it was cold in Seattle! Similarly, when Diana was in town from Soundcloud she let me have a tshirt. I’ve been sleeping in it.

One day while i was in NYC at the end, I went shopping. In high school I LOVED shopping, but haven’t done it as much since adulthood. I picked up a dress and a couple shirts, all of which I’ve been wearing.

Things that are conspicuously absent from these photos…

Underwear. I packed basically all of the underwear I own. I figured you didn’t need to see a photo of it. I would pack all of it again, it doesn’t take much space, and it’s nice to know you have it and aren’t going to be in a laundry crisis.

Traditional sneakers & socks. I hate both of these things. Tying shoes is so much effort and my feet feel suffocated and like I’m walking on a weird pillow. I also just dislike having to wear socks. I’ve come around to wearing them in the winter, but very rarely do in the summer. While Galapagos was doable without, I’d recommend taking either durable rubber sandals, or sneakers/socks. So I didn’t back either of them, but probably would next time.

Hair dryer & straightener. Sometimes, I dry & straighten my hair. Both of those items are big and took up a lot of space in the suitcase. So I didn’t bring them. I’ve been happily hair dryer free all month. If it were winter and cold out, I’d bring it.

Umbrella. Yeah, should have packed that. Whoops. Next time.

Anything I didn’t have that you always take, but should? Let me know!