On Great Leadership, Gatsby & Girl Develop It

February 03, 2019

On January 28, 2019, I started a new role as the Head of Learning at the remote startup, Gatsby.js. So I’m a leader at my job now. I don’t manage people, but I’m the head of the learning experience and documentation of the Gatsby website and app framework, which the founders and investors both consider core to their product mission.

I joined the Gatsby.js team because it was an amazing opportunity to make an impact, and honestly I was ready for a change. I’ve loved migrating my WordPress website to Gatsby using new technologies like React.js, GraphQL and Cypress. Even in its earliest raw state, I felt it was my best and most fulfilling work in years. To be able to contribute my skills and make a difference with accessibility in the website-building platform I chose made me seriously consider leaving Deque, even though I wasn’t actively looking to leave. In this moment I feel as if I’ve finally paid my dues, moving through a few roles that were good and necessary for me to get here, but ultimately not the best fit for me.

It feels wonderful knowing that my experience and perspective is a total asset to Gatsby.js, and it’s why they hired me to be their Head of Learning. They needed someone very technical with web technologies and capable of making their already-great learning experience the best it can be. I’m just getting started, though, and it’s definitely a team effort!

I’ve been a leader once or twice before, including when I co-led the Seattle chapter of Girl Develop It and the one-off Girl Develop It Bellingham coding club. Over the course of my career as a web developer and teacher I’ve seen a lot of poor leadership from managers and executive directors, and I’ve learned from those experiences that I want to be the most effective and caring leader I can.

Because that’s the thing: we don’t work or volunteer in a vacuum. Not listening to others and thinking you know best doesn’t equate to successful teams, and it certainly doesn’t work for anyone in a leadership position. Trust and good communication are key qualities that I value as a leader, team member and human being.

Turning a disappointing outcome into better opportunities

In the past few months we’ve seen (in my opinion) a disappointing leadership implosion at Girl Develop It, a national nonprofit that I was involved with for 5 years. You can read about led us to this point in the open letter to the GDI Board signed by over 200 chapter leaders, instructors and volunteers, plus a timeline of events. It has been a perfect storm of incidents of poor treatment of women of color at chapters and GDI HQ, extremely inadequate communication, lack of trust, and an army of under-appreciated volunteers who know that it doesn’t have to be this way.

In December 2018, I closed the 2-year-old GDI Bellingham coding club because my values no longer aligned with the Girl Develop It organization and the way they handled pretty much everything. The leaders of GDI Seattle and many other chapters have gone on hiatus and resigned, as well. New initiatives have sprung up in various cities as many of us still want to give back to our communities. I started a new group in Bellingham called NW Tech Women, a social and casual volunteering group focused on encouraging women in tech and making them feel safe and empowered. We don’t shy away from talking about issues of race and white supremacy; in fact, facing our complicity in an effort to do better is a cornerstone of the group. It is only by having difficult conversations and admitting our privilege (or lack thereof) that we can truly serve our communities and build their trust.

So that brings me back to what I feel are the necessary values and actions of a successful leader:

  • Listening.
  • Being available.
  • Making sure people feel seen and heard.
  • Learning and growing from your mistakes.
  • Fostering a culture where members feel empowered and trusted.
  • Doing all you can to make people feel safe.
  • Backing up your words with actions in a timely and meaningful manner.

Even though it’s okay to disagree with people sometimes (we’re human), we still have to be empathetic to the good faith experiences of those around us. Because a lot of it is about power; some people hold theirs over others while simultaneously denying its existence. I’ve seen leaders point blame at anyone and everyone but themselves even when they’re the core of the problem; it makes for the least satisfying game of BINGO ever (“it’s the website’s fault!” “We'll fix it with Salesforce!” “It’s the chapter leaders' fault for complaining!”). An inability to recognize others’ pain and the harm you’ve caused to them is gaslighting, and let me tell you that Girl Develop It is the last organization where I expected to see that.

The power we wield

This reminds me of the debate over JS-JS-JS vs. the traditional web architecture of HTML, CSS and JavaScript, which in my opinion is really difficult to solve. The web is more capable and complex than it used to be, and there are bajillions of ways to create web experiences–including (and often excluding) accessible ones.

Modern web development tools have allowed us to create some powerful applications in a language that I personally enjoy a lot more than some of the older server-side alternatives. But it’s also been more difficult for “non-hardcore devs” to contribute to frontend projects when everything is built with JavaScript. I’ve been called “not a hardcore developer” to my face in front of a client before, so I know how harmful these gatekeeping sentiments can be to one’s confidence and career.

Some of it is about choice–if you don’t want a blog assembled with JavaScript and CSS-in-JS, use other tools–but it’s also about power. The people making decisions about tech stacks have it. Hiring managers who insist on a specific shape of organization have it. Whose talent are they leaving out by not fitting neatly into that division of labor? Are there ways to solve the same tech problems with more a culture of inclusion, where a wider range of people can do their best work and produce a good result together? I don’t think there’s an easy solution, and that’s why I say this is difficult. But one thing I have learned is the importance of being open to hearing other people’s experiences, rather than plugging your ears and going “la la la” and hoping problems will go away.

Here’s why I care: listening to other perspectives as a leader means you might ask different questions in key scenarios (like product planning) and solve things in a way that includes more people. It allows you to truly adhere to a product or organization mission and serve its members and audience most effectively. Without listening, you might wield power for your own benefit alone and not realize who you’ve harmed or left out along the way.

Onward and upward

I’m thrilled to make an impact with Gatsby.js and NW Tech Women, taking all of these experiences forward with me in an effort to do good. I’m grateful for the privilege to learn from my mistakes. And I hope I can serve those around me with the same level of empathy and care that I’ve come to expect from others.