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Amy Writes Words, Issue #8
I am reading Louise Glück: “I read to feel addressed: the complement, I suppose, of speaking in order to be heeded.”
That is exactly what I would like: to be heeded. To say “that has not been my experience” and to be heeded. To say “this was my experience” and to be heeded. To wake at 4 a.m. to write down notes about how a thing can be done, and then to type up those notes and to present them and to be heeded for the advice that my mind was working on while I slept. For the work that I literally did in my sleep in service of Capital.
Perhaps I should simply not do work while I sleep. But I don’t know how to make the processes in my mind that think about my work sleep. There isn’t a method I can call to do that. I can barely get my conscious brain to sleep in the first place.
When I left my last employer, a month ago, I thought “maybe workaholism is the next thing for me to give up, the way I gave up nicotine.” All the processes I had going about my work, I am killing them one by one until my mind is empty of that work. I’m not yet there, but it’s getting quieter in my head, which, to be honest, I find frightening.
I made my friends watch the episode of 30 Rock where Liz Lemon is on administrative leave and meets some happily unemployed women but actually it’s a fight club because not to work is to let your mind atrophy so you have to fight so as not to get stupid.
Maybe instead of mastering crow pose and learning to pole dance I should take up boxing.
Maybe I should start a cult.
I want a seat at the table, I say, and I want people to think I belong there. After over two decades in tech and a track record of building incredible teams, I want to be heeded.
Okay then, say I am heeded. Say I have gained enough power and credibility now, that people believe I belong at the table, that my advice is important, that it might even be correct.
What will I say, then? I have many things to say. Sometimes people do not like the things I say. Some of the things I say may make me seem less employable than others. Sometimes to some people I sound like a socialist, like an anarchist, like a dirty fucking hippie, like a crank. I might not just sound like but even be some of those things.
I say that tech can be dangerous, that we will do harm if we do not seek not to do harm, if we do not listen to all of the people to whom the harms may be (have been, continue to be) done. I say that a business that cannot pay a living wage is not a business worth running. I say that labor should organize, because businesses are not people, whatever the Supreme Court said on the matter, and they do not care about people. The people running the business may care about people, or they may not, or they may care about people but not all people or they may care about people until it is convenient not to do so or until a venture firm suggests that perhaps they should care less about people because that would make their valuation higher.
I say that delivery drivers should not have to pee into bottles, that businesses should not let their employees die because the American people need their pork, that healthcare should be universal and the police should be defunded and ovens in homes should not have to have an internet connection to bake a cake. I say your doorbell shouldn’t send video to the police. I say the police shouldn’t be allowed to use facial recognition AI, because it is racist and it sucks. I say, again, we should defund the police. I say that marijuana businesses should be run by the people who have experienced the most harm from the War on Drugs. I say that sex work should be legal, that drugs should be legal and regulated, that everyone should have access to shelter, healthcare, clean water, fresh food. I say yes, I know that I have acted in racist ways in my life, and I am trying to do better. I say I have been sexually harassed, and I say I chose not to say anything at the time, because what good would it do? I say I have bipolar disorder, that it is a disability, that many people are disabled and all of us have rights, are owed respect, should have access to care and autonomy over our own bodies and lives.1
What good does it do to say things?
Sometimes it makes room for other people to say things. Sometimes when enough people say things then the scope of what is allowed to be said gets a little bit bigger.
And sometimes you say things and then you find yourself also doing things. You say something on a Facebook thread about police budgets vs. school budgets, and someone reaches out to you to do some organizing with them around the police budget, and then you are finding someone to make a graphic, and then you are giving public comment at your town’s Select Board meeting about why the police should not respond to mental health crises, and then a year after the FB comment without exactly noticing how it happened you’ve applied to be on a committee, you are Participating in Local Politics. You feel like a citizen, and you want to overturn Citizens United, because you understand that corporations are not people.
I am a leader of people, but I will not lead them off a cliff. I won’t compromise either authenticity or caring in my leadership, not just because to do so is to strangle my own superpowers, to hobble the teams that I build, but because it is against my own values.
I have values. I think they are more important than many other things. I think my values are more important than your business, and also that my values are not bad for your business. I think my values are good for your business. But even if my values are bad for your business, I think they are more important than your business.
I am not on this earth to suffer and die in the service of Capital.
Still, though, I would be good for your business. I don’t mean to brag (oh, but I do), but I am an exceptional leader of engineers.
I would be good for your business, I would build you an extraordinary team. But I want to be heeded, and you would be buying my labor — not my loyalty, and not my belief.2
Taylor Swift in a classic Swift love song, about a girl who interrupts a wedding at the classic moment “speak now or forever hold your peace.”
It’s a light song, and not my favorite of hers. But this lyric got stuck in my head a few weeks ago: “and you need to hear me out / and they said ‘Speak Now’”.
The exhortation stayed with me: the simplicity of it, and the urgency.
When I went looking for the music video (she never made a proper one so all I have is her on Letterman), I found another song titled “Speak Now”, by Leslie Odom, Jr., that speaks with more urgency about more political things, the things I am talking about here, the things that feel hard to speak about because we fear we might lose something if we do. It’s an incredibly powerful song and I hope you’ll watch the whole video.
Here’s some commentary about it:
Odom Jr. believes the song really resonates with so many because it highlights how "time is precious and you're not guaranteed a lot of it, so speak right now in this moment. Use your life, use everything that you are given, to make a change and to make a difference right in this moment." He added in a statement, per U Discover Music, "In 'Speak Now' we've called out to young people. It is an urgent call to action — to speak — set alongside our urging them to first listen. Listen... and then speak. We listen for instruction, for inspiration. Malcolm left them for us."3
One night a while back, having a drink with a man, also in tech:
“I admire you for the things you say. I’m afraid to say those things.”
“Which things?” I think. “And what are you afraid of?” But I do not ask the man this. I do not want to put him on the spot. Meanwhile, I know he is heeded in ways I never will be.
I am 46 years old. I have been in tech since 1999. I have many recommendations on my LinkedIn profile. Once a CEO called me half an hour late, no apology, and the first thing he said to me was “you have a lot of glowing recommendations on LinkedIn; how much did you have to pay for those?”4
The other day I spoke to a man in business development. His CEO had, I thought, believed me well-suited for a role. The man in bizdev looked at me and said “Everyone else we are interviewing for this role has more experience than you do, to be perfectly transparent. How should we evaluate you given that?”5
I have over 20 years experience in the industry. I remember when you had to tap the guy6 in the next cube on the shoulder and ask him to check in a file so you could check it out. I remember when waterfall development was all there was, when tables were all I had to lay out a page, when servlets were shiny and new. I went to tech conferences when there were still booth babes, when all the women fit at one lunch table in a huge convention center room. I TA’d a class on algorithms in which the students turned in their work on paper, I corrected heapsorts in bad handwriting on notebook paper, a dozen at a time. I took a class where I learned CORBA. CORBA! I took a class on internet protocols and wrote a paper about how satellite internet was always going to suck. This was in 1999. Satellite internet still sucks.7 I worked in biotech, I believed in the promise of Personalized Medicine, but Personalized Medicine is still only a promise. I can get personalized shampoo though. Instagram tells me it is terrific.
“I think I have seen a lot in two decades,” I said to the man. “I think I have done the job you need done here,” I said. When I got off the call I emailed to say I did not want to continue interviewing for that role.
Tell me you think I’m a diversity candidate without telling me you think I’m a diversity candidate.
Tell me you will never believe I belong at the table.
I will learn to do handstands and live on less money before I let someone neg me in an interview so I beg them to please consider me for a job.
Ask the PMs, the engineers, the designers I’ve worked with. Ask Marketing and Customer Support. Ask Sales Ops, ask People Ops, ask Talent Acquisition, ask Finance. If after you ask all these people you don’t think I belong at your table, you don’t deserve the work I would do for you while I slept. I’d rather give that energy to my shittiest ex-lover, and if you’d met my shittiest ex-lover you’d understand how much anger there is buried in that statement.8
I keep thinking about a tweet I saw a few months ago. I can’t find the tweet, I am sorry. It was about someone slagging AOC for having gained power and then spent it on something ‘too left-wing’ to actually happen. “You mean she got power and then spent it in service of her constituents, in service of moving the political conversation leftward? What exactly do you think is getting power for?” I am paraphrasing, but that was the point.
What exactly do we think our power is for? When are we going to spend it, and in service of who? What are we afraid to say, and what, precisely, are we afraid of, and how do we know when it is time to say it anyway?
If we do not speak now, might we one day wake up to find that we must forever hold our peace?
Or worse: that we have forgotten what it was we even wanted to say?
Both of those things — loyalty and belief — can absolutely be earned, yes, or given freely, that too — but they are not for sale.
I admit it is a stretch to use the semicolon here; he probably would not have, had he been writing down that question. One would hope, however, that if he had to write down the words coming out of his mouth he would have noticed how horrible they were, and said some other words instead, entirely bypassing the issue of the semicolon.
Tech companies like to say they are “transparent”. People at tech companies like to say they are just being transparent when they are actually just being obnoxious. It’s like they all read Radical Candor and the lesson they took from it was that the best quadrant to be in is “obnoxious aggression”. You, sir, were already obnoxiously aggressive.
intentional use of “guy” here
I was told literally yesterday that actually there’s something available now that doesn’t suck. Maybe personalized medicine will offer me something useful soon too! Hope springs eternal.