On Trigger Discipline
Amy Writes Words, #17
Good afternoon, it is Tuesday and I have not written you a newsletter yet. My face is partially numb which I’m trying not to worry about but it’s a little distracting. It’s probably nothing. I have a real talent for what the doctors call somatoform disorders. I once convinced myself that a pill I had taken had gone down the wrong pipe and punctured a hole in my lung and I was dying. I once thought my IUD was poking a hole in my uterus. I have thought many things, and they have none of them been true, so until someone else tells me my face is lopsided and drooping I am going to ignore any and all face numbness. Okay, well actually I’m going to obsess about it constantly and take Klonopin to manage the anxiety but I’m also going to write you a newsletter just like I promised.
I want to write today about my last post. Last week I wrote what someone might call an angry screed about the plight of not-men in software engineering and the general failure to recognize their work. A lot of it was written in the second person, somewhat accusatory. You don’t reward. You don’t notice. You have implicit bias you haven’t dealt with.
It felt like a pretty intense piece to send out into the world. Maybe it shouldn’t have, because what I said in it was pretty obvious. “It is a real delight when something is so true and so cutting at once,” said a reader. It felt intense and I was worried about the cutting part.
So I’d like to tell you about the process by which I came to send it to you, because I think it can be easy to look at me and my writing and think I just dump whatever I feel like on people whenever I want, that I’m undisciplined or hysterical or unthinking or careless with my words. That is not so.
My friend Avdi, in our discussion about this essay, called what I’m talking about “trigger discipline,” which was not a term I knew since I do not know about guns. “Trigger discipline is when you hold your pointer finger aligned with the barrel, rather than on the trigger, until you're ready to fire,” he said. “No, you don't just walk around with your finger on the trigger like a fucking newb. You are disciplined.”
Let me tell you about my discipline.
Last Monday I had a draft, and then I went through my review process.
My usual process for these newsletters always involves a read-through from Max, my husband. I ask him to review much of what I write and publish for a wide audience for a couple of reasons. First, what I say and how I say it has a material impact on our shared life, for example by potentially impacting my ability to get work. So when I say things that might be a little risky to say, he shares that risk with me. Therefore, he should have an opportunity, if he wants to take it, to raise concerns about that risk. Second, he’s the adult closest to my reality, so if I’m beginning to be untethered to reality (a thing which happens to everyone, mind you, EVERYONE, but which I am particularly concerned about, since I have a kind of thing with my brain that makes it maybe easier for me than most to become untethered…) he’s a good person to help ground me.
Max doesn’t review for minor edits, he reviews for major flags. He found none. Then I sent the piece to another person1 I often ask to review my work, a close friend in the industry with a lot of twitter followers who thinks a lot about writing. I ask him to review my stuff pretty regularly and generally that pass involves several exhortations to add periods and make paragraphs shorter. Sometimes a few other notes. I added periods, shortened paragraphs, and moved some things to footnotes. He too did not have any concerns with the tone or content of the piece.
These newsletters are not scientific studies or position papers that I think they need to go through multiple rounds of peer review before publishing. They’re more like pre-prints. But even pre-prints should be published responsibly, which is why I do typically get at least these two reviews.
So having gotten them and made some edits, I scheduled the newsletter to go out in the morning.
Then at 11:30pm on Monday night I found myself unscheduling the newsletter. I’m gonna just sleep on this, I decided. And then I did.
Why? Because even a tiny essay that even a few hundred people might read, at most, matters. Words matter. What I say and how I say it matters, and if I didn’t think that there’d be no point in my doing this at all. So I want to be cautious. I don’t need to get it perfect, and I don’t want to be so cautious that I say nothing at all, but “my words shoot to kill when I’m mad, I have a lot of regrets about that”2 so I try to be careful.
Why in particular this essay? I thought it might be too…something. Too mean. Too pointed. Too angry. Too accusatory. Too calling-out, not enough calling-in.
To be correct but not kind is unhelpful, I know.
So I slept on it and when I woke up I considered my purposes. Who am I really talking to here? This was an essay purportedly aimed at people hiring engineering managers, and yet what would those folks get from it? They’d most likely feel attacked and accused. I’M NOT BIASED! they might think, reading this. Why is she so mad at ME? What did I ever do to her?!3
Those folks aren’t really the audience though, are they? If I were truly trying to call in people who are unknowingly but systematically ignoring potential managers in their employ, if I were truly trying to give them advice on how to re-assess their teams to find such managers, well, I would have tried to be a lot nicer about it.
I would travel a circuitous route to make my point. I would probably have to first explain why my theory of leadership includes such activities as starting an ERG and planning a welcome lunch. I would have to make a more nuanced case for why technical credibility is a slippery and ultimately unhelpful barometer by which to judge potential managers, referring back to an earlier post I wrote on the meaninglessness of the word technical as it’s deployed in the tech industry. I would make many apologies to my reader for even possibly suggesting that they may have some implicit bias that they might want to examine, and I would assure them it wasn’t their fault, and I would hold their hand while offering direct but gentle instruction on how they might go about promoting more women and nonbinary folk more quickly into more manager roles.
That is what I would have done if I were trying to reach that reader, an actual hiring manager actually trying to hire more managers, and one who hasn’t before really grappled with the possibility of their implicit bias.
I can think in my head of many people in the industry who I know and would wish to reach with such an essay. Nice people who mean well.
But ultimately the essay wasn’t for them, because the truth is I have spent much of my career trying to reach them, and well, if in 2021 they still need to be gently encouraged to consider that implicit bias may be at work when they decide who is and who is not manager (or director, or VP) material, well, I don’t think my little essay, however full of perhaps and consider, will make the difference to them.
In the morning I told Reader #2 that I’d decided to sleep on the essay and why, and he suggested, not unreasonably, that I find myself a reader who is more closely akin to who I realized was my actual intended audience, the people who are acutely aware of this problem because they have suffered it or seen others suffer through it.
So then I went for a third review.
Mind you, I’m now into a 3rd review cycle for a two thousand word article that would be going out to a mailing list of around 150 people and perhaps be read by a few hundred more depending on how many retweets I get. Why? Because I’m not fucking Elon Musk4 or DHH and I can neither afford to nor do I think it’s wise to just shoot my fucking mouth off all the time without any consideration for how it might, if not harm other people, at least perhaps not be helpful.
Third reviewer agreed I was saying true things that ought to be said and that my true audience was not, in fact, hiring managers hiring managers (and if any of you did read that article and find it helpful, I would love to hear from you about it), but was rather the people who have had the experience of being passed over.
I’m writing for the people who feel crazy, for the ones who keep wondering what is wrong with them, who come to me in confusion and despair looking for advice and to whom I can say with confidence “well, sounds like that’s not a you problem, that’s your manager’s problem” and “yep, yep, I’ve heard this one before.” It sounds trite I know, but I’m writing to those people so they feel seen.
I see you, I’ve been you, you’re not making it up. It’s not fair. It’s not a level playing field, it’s not a meritocracy, and you are better than you’ve been led to believe.
ATTENTION MUST BE PAID, as Arthur Miller might say.
Third reviewer suggested some changes of pronouns from second person to third person, which reduced the accusatory tone (just in case some hiring manager did want to learn from this story) but still acknowledged the thing I wanted to acknowledge, which is all the work that goes unacknowledged.
Then, only then, did I send the newsletter out.
Will I stand by everything I said and the tone in which I said it in five years? Can’t be sure. Do I stand by it now? As best as I can, yes. What’s my point? My point is that if you think I can be ignored because I’m just mean or emotional or angry or ranting, I’m just some woman with a newsletter, after all, I’m just shooting my mouth off — then you misunderstand the project in which I am here engaged.
A newsletter issue that’s been through three rounds of review with three different people isn’t a rant.
To the extent that it sounds angry, that is intentional. To the extent that it feels accusatory, that is intentional. To the extent that its audience is not in fact the audience it pretends is its audience, that is intentional.
That is to say: these days, if my words shoot to kill, that, too, is intentional.
Now: Did you miss the panel on feedback I moderated at LeadDev Live? You can now catch it on video here! No I have not checked to see how I look or sound on this video, nor will I. But you definitely should, because whether or not I looked good or sounded intelligent, the panelists were all amazing and said some really useful stuff.
While I’m still not pursuing full-time work, I remain available for engineering management consulting or leadership coaching on a limited basis. Get in touch if you’d like to learn more!
I am also still offering my office hours for women and non-binary engineers, sign up here and please share with folks you think could benefit.
Reminder that I started another newsletter: “Woe: Mental Health Tips You'll Hate From The Saddest Woman In the World” and you can subscribe here: https://buttondown.email/woe It’s a weekly on Wednesdays short newsletter I’ll be offering at least through the end of the year.
Finally, 50,000 selfies later, I now do portrait photography and modeling. Get in touch if you’re in the Boston area and you want a portrait or you need a model. Finally finally, if you like what you just read and you’re not already subscribed:
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And I love to hear from my readers so you can always smash that reply button and let me know what you’re thinking.
okay, also Avdi
obligatory Taylor Swift lyric, but also I really do have this quote up on the wall in my room
That said, I welcome any hiring manager who hadn’t before been thinking about these things who cannot name a time or several that implicit bias may have (probably) influenced their decisions, to read last week’s post and wade through the anger and ask yourself some hard questions in the spirit of that growth mindset you probably have got listed on your company’s values page. But I’m past the time in my life when I am going to take you gently by the hand and gently ask you, sir, if you might like to do some introspection on the matter of what work counts when done by whom.
I recognize the ambiguity of “I’m not fucking Elon Musk” so take it whichever way you would like to, both are correct.