Episode 322 | Sex & Software (An Interview with Brianna Wu)

Show Notes

In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Mike interviews Brianna Wu, founder of Giant Spacekat, about sex and software.  They discuss many racial and gender issues that face the software community.

Items mentioned in this episode:


Mike [00:00]: In this episode of ‘Startups for the Rest of Us,’ we’re going to be talking about sex and software. This is ‘Startups for the Rest of Us’, episode 322. Welcome to ‘Startups for the Rest of Us’ the podcast that helps developers, designers and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching and growing software products, whether you’ve built your first project or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Mike, and today we’re going to be sharing our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. Today’s episode is going to be a little bit different. Today we’re going to be talking about sex and software, and today’s episode starts with a listener question. This listener question comes from [Simmore?], and he says, “Hi. I was wondering if you could do a show on what we can all do to reduce the amount of straight-up misogyny female coders and founders face. Last week I followed a tweet from Justin Jackson – and we’ll link that tweet up in the show notes. He says, “That led me to a presentation by Jenn Shiffer at the XOXO Festival. I also watched the Talia Jane presentation at the same festival. The amount of vitriol these women suffer is incredible, and I just don’t understand why it has to be that way. Where does all this anger from men in tech come from? What have you guys seen in your experience? My experience is as a consultant, and there’s an incredible amount of sexism in IT consulting, but I don’t think I’ve seen all this anger – or at least this level of anger – played out in front of me as a past manager. I love the show, of course, and it would be nice to hear what your own goals are in terms of women and female coders in the new year. Also, since I am black, what has been your personal experience in goal-making around diversity in general? Thanks, and I’ll see you at MicroConf.” I think that there’s two different pieces to Simmore’s email. The first one is that there’s two different questions in there. The first one was: “Where does all the anger from men in tech come from?” And the second one is: “What are your goals in terms of female coders and founders in the new year? Also, since I am black, what has been your personal experience in goal making around diversity in general?” I do want to touch on that just a little bit from the perspective of running MicroConf. For a little bit of perspective, we don’t ask this question outright to our attendees. We don’t ask them, “What’s your racial makeup? What is your gender?” It’s just not something that one, we feel comfortable asking. And two, it’s really just not relevant to people coming to the conference. I talked to Zander a little bit about what we kind of believe that the makeup of female to male attendees is. It seems to be that it’s about 15%, but obviously that is based off of names, so it’s a little bit difficult to get exact numbers. In terms of what we do at MicroConf, one of the things we do is we do some active outreach to female entrepreneurs to make sure that they’re able to attend if they want to. I’ll say that we do take some liberties with the waiting list to make sure that people are able to get tickets if they need them, or if they want them, to help with that diversity, to make sure that females have a chance to get to MicroConf. In the past, MicroConf has traditionally sold out extremely quickly. To help out with that just – because if you’re not sitting there at the button it can be difficult to get a ticket. That’s one of the things that we do. Another thing that we’ve done is we implemented a code of conduct at the request of an attendee a few years ago. If you go out to the MicroConf website there is a code of conduct. It’s based on a publicly available standard for codes of conduct that are out there. Another thing that we do is we actively recruit female speakers. What we’ve found is that there is a tendency for female founders to not apply to speak at MicroConf. We do have an application process, but it seems like we do not get as many who come forward and say, “Hey, I would like to speak.”, so we actually go out and actively approach them and ask them. Another thing we’ve done is we have actively set aside pools of tickets for female entrepreneurial groups. So we’ve gone out, we’re approached those groups and said, “Hey, here’s a pool of tickets that is kind of separate.” It helps to bypass, I’ll say, the tickets going off the shelves very quickly, so that there are opportunities for female founders in those groups to purchase MicroConf tickets if they would like to attend. The last thing is we also have MicroConf scholarships. The past two years we had a couple of scholarships that have been given out. One went to Francesca, and another one went to Shannon. Both of those scholarships were actually given by MicroConf attendees. The MicroConf attendees said, “Hey, I’d like to do a scholarship.” It’s not something that we made a big deal about, and it’s not something that we talked heavily about, but those are the types of things that we have done at MicroConf. In terms of the question itself about where this anger comes from, my best guess is probably that it’s rooted in history. Humanity has thousands of years of history illustrating that people in positions of power are going to do whatever it takes to maintain that power. And, quite frankly, if you look at the balance of power over the past few thousand years white men have largely been at the top of that power structure. And, by extension, other white men have benefited from that arrangement. If you look at that historically, those people tend to be afraid of change. They’re genuinely afraid of women, or anyone who’s different than they are, from having those types of power, or perceived power, over them. I don’t think it’s just a gender issue, but it is also, to some extent, a racial issue. The bottom line of this is that Rob and I don’t necessarily feel qualified to answer the first question which Simmore posted, which was, “Where does all this anger come from?” Because, one, it’s not something that we really feel, but it’s also not directed at us. So, what I did was I went out and I decided to find somebody who I would see as an expert in this particular space, and I want to introduce you to Brianna Wu who is the founder of Spacekat games. Brianna, how are you doing today?

Brianna [05:00]: I’m doing excellent. I’m doing fine. It’s a pleasure to be on.

Mike [05:03]: Excellent.

Brianna [05:04]: I do want to say my company’s name is Giant Spacekat.

Mike [05:08]: Oh, I’m sorry.

Brianna [05:08]: Not Spacekat games. No worries about that.

Mike [05:10]: I apologize.

Brianna [05:12]: Can we go back to some of your answers to that previous question a little bit?

Mike [05:15]: Sure.

Brianna [05:16]: I am a software engineer, so something I think about a lot when I’m trying to solve problems is I ask myself if my underlying assumptions are correct. I assume you kind of do the same thing, right? I want to go back to what you were saying at the very beginning of this, where you said you didn’t feel comfortable asking attendees about their race and gender, because you didn’t feel comfortable with it and you didn’t think that was relevant. Is that an accurate assumption of how you feel?

Mike [05:48]: I’ll be honest, it’s not something that we feel is necessarily important to us asking the question.

Brianna [05:54]: Right. To us.

Mike [05:56]: Let me rephrase that, because I know how maybe that sounds. It’s more of a question of: Do we need this information? I guess, in retrospect, in even asking that question, maybe we do. I’ve never really considered that before, to be honest.

Brianna [06:09]: One of my first jobs was in politics, and I used to use the term “African American” when I was talking of racial issues, until someone that was black came up to me and said, “You know what? Black people, we don’t use that term so much. It’s kind of one that’s more about white comfort in discussing racial issues, and I very much prefer to be called “black”.” That was a real eye-opening moment for me, so I want to give you the other side of what it’s like to attend the conference if you’re a woman. This is a conversation I have several times a week. A friend is thinking about going to X, Y or Z Conf, and women in the tech industry have our own secret spaces to talk to each other. And the first thing we ask is, “Hey, I’ve just been invited to speak at “X” Conf. Is this safe? Does anyone have good experiences with this? How many women are there?” Then we’ve kind of had to form our own groups to give feedback about that, because you’re thinking like, “Oh my gosh! I could be uncomfortable by asking a question for a second.” The woman on the other side of that is asking really difficult questions like, “Am I going to be sexually harassed if I’m at bar with alcohol? Am I going to be treated fairly and equally?” Something I would really encourage, not just you but anyone out there that is in a position of privilege, to push past that and realize it’s not comfortable for me to be on your podcast today talking about this stuff, but it’s absolutely necessary, because women leave the software industry at a rate over three times of what men do. I would also say, you used the term “female coder” repeatedly when you were discussing this. I would just be honest and say most women I know prefer to be called “women”. Female coder signs like [Ferengi?]. It’s kind of demeaning way to talk about women. That would be my feedback about that.

Mike [08:00]: Got it. Okay. A lot of that makes sense. So, I huess, going back to your question of me about why we don’t ask that. In some ways it seems like there’s almost a boundary that I’m stepping over as the host of a conference, where I’m asking somewhat personal information about like, “Okay, are you male or female? What’s your racial makeup?” Stuff like that seems like why would I need to know that? How is that perceived from the other side?

Brianna [08:26]: I would say this, I’m an engineer. I can’t fix a bug in software right if I don’t have error reports, right? So you’ve got to measure data to figure out where you’re going wrong and fix it. I think it’s wholly relevant, if even internally you’re not putting together numbers about your number of women speakers. By the way, when we talk about this stuff, far too often people of color are left off this list. For me, in the things I do, I am very, very aware of how many people of color I hire, how many women I hire. Frankly because we’re such a company that is heavy with women working there, we have to go the other way and make sure we hire men enough. That would just be my feedback about that. You can’t fix something if you don’t measure it, or even understand if you have a problem in the first place.

Mike [09:18]: I think that also goes to how you ask the questions as well. You can’t just drop a question in somebody’s email box and say, “Hey, are you male or female?” I would at least say preface it by some meaningful information, or at least a couple of sentences about why it is that you’re asking that kind of stuff.

Brianna [09:35]: Sure.

Mike [09:36]: Okay. What are your initial thoughts on Simmore’s question itself about where some of the misogyny itself comes from?

Brianna [09:43]: I think it comes from a very predictable place. I was a child in the ‘80’s and the ‘90’s. This was a time where you really were punished for being a nerd. I remember liking Final Fantasy as a child and getting picked on mercilessly about that at school. I think it’s really true that a lot of geeks grew up and they kind of have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder. They feel like the underdog, and I think especially with women there is definitely a culture where a lot of software people maybe are kind of sensitive around women, or sometimes have some animosity against us that maybe they don’t understand. What you’re dealing with, at its core, is a culture filled with men who genuinely believe they are too smart to be sexist, but they have these really aggressive tendencies that they may not understand. It makes them uncomfortable. They’re very, very, very quick to reframe things to protect their privilege. I’ll give you an example. Oculus, which is a company that makes some technology we’re very interested in – virtual reality – they had yet another terrible scandal that broke two days ago, where one of their software people has been alleged of soliciting an underage girl for sex, a very serious crime. If you put this in context of their crisis of leadership of, A, not hiring women, B, having a founder that’s literally spending tens of thousands of dollars funding hate speech, it’s a really troubling pattern. I was discussing this on Twitter and I was instantly besieged by someone that believes he’s an ally to women in tech, but is instantly minimizing it, is excusing it, and is just throwing every argument there to say this isn’t a problem. That man believes that he is an ally, but, on an unconscious level, he is derailing and minimizing the conversation about structural bias, and that is everywhere in our industry. The way you will be able to know if you’re on the wrong track is if you’re looking at this problem of women in tech, or people of color in tech, and you’re say, “I know what the problem is. It’s those other guys.” No. You need to be saying, “I know what the problem is. That’s me.” I’m not just telling people to practice what I preach, yet for, me as a white person, I realize that I have tremendous advantages in our field, even as a woman. So I’m constantly asking myself, “Am I hiring enough people of color? Am I interviewing enough people of color? Am I networking with enough people of color? When journalists call me and say, “I’m looking for references.” Am I passing off enough people of color to them?” It’s that kind of constructive engagement that really makes you part of the solution, instead of pointing fingers.

Mike [12:42]: Going back to one of the things that you had said earlier, which was a lot of people feel like they are too smart to be sexist, for example. I’ve had conversations with people along that lines like, “Oh, I have two daughters. I can’t possibly be sexist.” You can almost find political memes around that too. It’s not hard to look for that type of thing. Are there specific signs that somebody can look for? I think a lot of the listeners to this podcast are more of the truth seeking variety. They’re really looking for validation of their ideas and thoughts and beliefs, and mostly that deals with marketing, but I feel like that applies in this particular situation as well. How is it that you identify the things that would say, “You know what? You aren’t too smart for this?” What are the canaries in the coal mine, so to speak?

Brianna [13:30]: Yeah. One of the things I said is imagine if you had a friend that was going through a divorce, and that friend was talking, and they’re like, “It’s just so hard. I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to see my kids again. I’m really upset about losing my partner. I’m not sure if I’ll ever find love again.” Imagine if, while you were talking to that person, you turn the conversation to yourself, and said, “Well, yeah, but how’s that going to affect me? Are we going to be able to hang out and goes see movies all the same?” It would be really obnoxious, right? In the same way, very, very, very often when women start talking about what our lived experiences are, men are so quick to turn the conversation to themselves, and talk about how this affects them, and I’m trying to think of a constructive way to say this, but I can’t. It’s just obnoxious. A really good hint that you’re on the wrong path is if you’re saying, “Well, you just feel this way because there aren’t enough women applying.” Or, “Well, what if I’m trying to apply to a job and I don’t get a fair shake? What if I don’t get into this conference because they’ve got a quota system?” This is all a good sign that you’re more concerned about your privilege than the problem. We all have work to do. I really want to emphasize this. I think something feminism could do a lot better, and I think “outrage culture” has a lot to contribute to this, but we’ve built this culture where everyone is one mistake away from being a villain for life, and I don’t think it’s a very good way to go forward. I myself, if I’m a half way decent ally to people of color these days, it’s because I’ve made so many mistakes along the way, and I’ve learned from them. We need to have a culture where men can make these kinds of mistakes and we can have an honest dialogue about it, and they’re not branded as villains for life. I think that we’re really missing a more constructive way to move forward on it.

Mike [15:32]: I guess going back a little bit, where you had said that one of those tell-tell signs is saying, “How does this affect me?” or interjecting your own thoughts on it. Previously you had come out with a couple of examples there of what those red flags look like, and I have friends who have said, “I have two daughters. I can’t possibly be like this.” Is that along those lines as well? Is that perceived as sexist? Because, really, I was trying to contribute to the conversation and say, “Look. This has been my experience.” Does that overshadow what we were talking about? Or is that perceived in a good light or a negative light?

Brianna [16:06]: I would take this in two parts. First, I want to check my own privilege and say I’m a non-parent, so I’ve never raised children, but I would say this, when a guy starts talking about how he’s raising daughters, a red flag that goes up for me right away is a lot of men bring sexist attitudes into their role as father. I think we see a lot of controlling things with that. We see a real culture of violence, sometimes, and ownership over their daughters. To me, I don’t read that as good or bad either way. I’ve certainly met a lot of sexist fathers throughout my career. As far as your own fears about that –

Mike [16:49]: What I was referring to is really the fact that I was bringing that up as an addition to the conversation.

Brianna [16:56]: Don’t stress it.

Mike [16:56]: No. Well, I think that it’s important to figure out what are your motivations for bringing up a particular point, because I’ve been in situations – and seen conversations go – where somebody will bring up something, and there is almost a sense of one-upmanship about, “Let me tell you this story.” And I can see that playing into this type of conversation, and how people portray themselves to each other, and how people talk to one another. That’s what I was more getting at.

Brianna [17:22]: No. I think that’s dead on. I want to step out and take a little bit of a meta view for a second. At my studio, Giant Spacekat, for our last game we had all women working on our team. It’s not a format that I’d have going forward, but it was how we shook out. I was really stunned by how different our culture was. It was hyper-collaborative. In other engineering environments, where I’ve worked with a lot of men, there does tend to be that sense of one-upmanship of, “I’m right here.” And, I hope this is okay to say, but it just seems like it’s boys with toys almost. At my studio, where it was all women, it was hyper-collaborative, and it was awesome. It was us validating each other, and trying to get input, and working on things together. It was just an entirely different culture. I do think that a little bit of that culture of one-upmanship, I don’t think it’s a particularly healthy trait of the software industry, and I think one of the reasons that teams with better gender balance tend to be more productive. I do believe when all genders are represented it brings a kind of stability, and a diversity of viewpoints, to the table. I think that’s very valuable.

Mike [18:34]: Yeah. We’ve noticed at MicroConf, when we started out back in 2011, the conference has always been very collaborative. Everyone is really comfortable sharing, for example, revenue numbers, and discussing specifics of how their business is doing. But one of the things that comes to mind is that most of these people come to MicroConf and then they leave and then they’re working in their own world and they may have a team, they may not. They’re usually only one or two people working on a particular product or project, and then they go out, they do their thing, and they come to MicroConf and they collaborate. But when they’re out working on their products, and in their business, they tend to be alone, or they tend to be working with very, very small teams. I wonder how those two things play together, because it seems odd that those types of people would go out and be as aggressive as they need to be to run their business and then come to a place like MicroConf where there is this community – or in the Founder Café – and then they’re very collaborative. It seems like those two things are very much opposed to one another.

Brianna [19:31]: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. I want to touch on, for a second, that kind of bias that when we start companies we tend to seek out people around us that kind of mirror our values. I think a really big bias of this in the startup world this is this is why such a tiny sliver of startups have women or people of color on the board, because it is a culture that really pushes women and people of color away in ways we’re not willing to think about. I would use my own experience at Giant Spacekat and say I did this the other way, being a woman founder. When I started my company I looked for people, unconsciously, that looked like me. We had way, way, way too many white women on my team, and I realized that that was my own bias. We’ve got to get past this point where our own comfort is our highest priority, because it is right now. It leads to use cases that are just terrible. We’re talking about VR right now. If you look at the VR marketplace right now, for Oculus games or Friv games, most of these are made by teams of two or three people, always men. There are so many sexist assumptions built into these games as you play it that make it really damage VR from being able to pick up the mainstream. A lot of these games assume you’re a certain height. Most of them don’t contain female avatar options. All of them assume that you’re a man as you play it. It’s just really insulting in ways that I think these teams haven’t really thought about.

Mike [21:05]: Is that a function of the fact that it’s only two or three developing it, and so they tend towards doing things that are comfortable for them, and are also easy access to them, and more a lack of resources as well? I mean, if you’re going to create 30, 40, 50 avatars, I would imagine that that’s a lot more work than it is to create one or two. Is it a function of time and resources? Or is it a combination of that and the fact that they just say, “Oh well, I only have time for this, so I’m going to concentrate on getting something out the door.”?

Brianna [21:34]: This is what I would call an excuse. You and I both know the features that get into a product are the ones your team cares about. We all know this. GSX, the way we do it is we list every single feature as a gold, silver or bronze tier. Gold must be done; silver can be done; bronze is nice if we get around to it. The features that are on that top priority list make it into the game. So the answer to this is simple: the men making these products don’t consider it a priority, and by everything you just said, it’s not a priority. A guy can certainly do this well. I’ve seen it done, but it’s just not important to them, and that’s reflected in the software we use.

Mike [22:15]: Right. It’s more of a matter of paying attention to that kind of thing and making it a priority, as opposed to just saying, “This is on the feature list and one or two is good enough.”

Brianna [22:24]: Yeah.

Mike [22:25]: We’ve talked a little bit about some of the subtle things that go on. What are some overt examples? I don’t think that this is something that is front and center for most men in the industry, but what are the more overt things that you’ve seen?

Brianna [22:38]: This is such a good question. We have a real tendency in software development to network in a way that was created by men for men. I could not even count how many times I’ve been at a bar at night alone – been the only woman there – with a bunch of men that are drinking alcohol. This is something I think dudes don’t even think about. I have had so many friends in that situation that have been sexually harassed. In two examples I’ve had friends who have been sexually assaulted. In one example I had a pretty close friend of mine have her boss basically force himself onto her at night while everyone was drinking. There was some really inappropriate contact that was made. This is something that is much more of a problem than men realize. Our setup here is built in a way that networking is very difficult for, say, women over 30 with children. You’re not going to find many moms that are going to be out drinking at 11 o’clock at night at a bar to work on their career. But this is like where 99% of the stuff happens in the game industry. There’s overt things. A lot of men tend to treat women they run into in professional circles as someone to date. I want to take a step back and say I realize that feminism and women are sometimes – I think there’s a little bit of a lack of empathy for what it must be like for a male geek when he’s just lonely and looking for someone to be a partner. He’s looking for romance. And I realize there’s a sense of maybe sometimes it’s a sensitive spot for them. I have empathy for that. But it is so wildly inappropriate at the same time to treat a woman that’s coming in to network with you professionally as a potential partner. It sends every single signal out there that you’re not valued for your skills, or who you are. You’re just a potential date. I think we’ve really got to change the culture where women and people of color are treated as the professionals we are, rather than just women.

Mike [24:48]: I don’t necessarily think that that’s just a software industry thing though. Because there’s –

Brianna [24:51]: No.

Mike [24:52]: – that’s definitely a problem. Obviously, sexual assault is an issue regardless of what industry it is. But I’ve also talked to female founders who have just said, “Yeah. I don’t go to evening events, or after-conference activities, because I don’t want to put myself in a situation where people are drinking and going to get out of control, and I just don’t want to have to deal with that.” I guess it can effectively minimize their opportunities for networking just by virtue of them not being willing to put themselves in situations like that. Whether it happens or not, if they’re uncomfortable attending those networking events then it puts them at a disadvantage outright.

Brianna [25:28]: Yeah. That’s dead on. And I would say look at the outcomes, right? I hear this a lot. It’s not just software. My husband is in biotech, who is head of IP for a company that’s listed on the NASDAQ that just had their IPO. There are plenty of women that work at his company. So why is it so many other industries their rate of women might be lower, but it’s not as embarrassing as software is? Why is this? Well, it’s the culture, stupid. So I think we need to own these problems rather than minimizing them.

Mike [26:00]: What sorts of things can be done to help change the landscape, so to speak? How do we go through and start enacting some changes?

Brianna [26:08]: I would say, for me, I hire a lot of people. Something I make a lot of personal efforts to do in my career is to network with people of color, because I realize without effort on my part I’m going to only be talking to white people, which is unconscious racism. I would say to anyone out there, when you see a woman that seems smart and accomplished on Twitter, follow her so you’re getting that voice in their feed. Make a deliberate effort to go out there and network with people of color, so you’re hearing that perspective and adding it to your own. I never hire for any position without thinking about who my candidates are ,and asking myself if they’re diverse. That’s very much a constructive thing you can do. If you don’t hire, and you’re just on a team, I think you’ve really got to check your own unconscious double standards. What is beyond frustrating to me, as a woman engineer, is it doesn’t matter what I say, or what I do, or what I have a technical opinion on, it gets challenged and bullied and just really hyper-questioned in a way that my male colleagues do not. I was at WWDC a few years ago, and I was talking about Apple’s metal API’s that were announced at a party. I’m sitting there talking to a guy, and he was like, “I was giving opinions on it, I write Unreal for a living and this is literally my field of hyper-expertise.” And this man just starts talking over me, and lecturing me, and “mansplaining” things. I had to take a step back and say, “Hey, you know the article you’re talking about right now? I wrote that.” He just blinked at me twice and kept going. There’s this culture of – it seems like it’s just something in a dude’s mind where if a woman questions a guy on something it gets just doubled-down on, or there’s this defensiveness that comes up. So I would get on my knees and beg anyone out there to really think through those unconscious double standards you might be holding women and people of color in your life to.

Mike [28:16]: Could you talk a little bit more – because it’s the second time you’ve used that phrase “unconscious double standards”. I’d like to know what other ones are there that we might have?

Brianna [28:25]: Sure. I think you can look at the last election and see very clearly there were double standards that Hillary was held to, with her ethical behavior, versus the dudes. This is all the way. It’s with when you’re applying for positions, I think womens’ experience is judged in a different way than a man’s is. I think all too often female communication styles are discounted. A really good one is, I think, that often women’s voices – you know, some women have kind of a vocal fry, or a higher pitched voice, and I’ve seen the way that they’re not taken seriously. There are all these double standards in what women say and do in our careers where we’re really beaten up about it. There is a great cartoon that came out this year where it was talking about women leaders, and the communication style we have to adopt. For a man, he could say, “I need this done by Tuesday.” If a woman says that she’s going to be considered abrasive. We have to adopt communication styles like, “What do you think about having this done by Tuesday?” It’s all these things where we’re constantly dancing around male ego and it’s absolutely exhausting.

Mike [29:37]: Shouldn’t the question in general be, “What do you think about having this done by Tuesday?” I’m not saying that from a female perspective. I’m saying that from a general project management standpoint, because just because you think that it should be done by Tuesday doesn’t mean that the other person – especially if you’re working with a bunch of contractors, or even employees. It almost doesn’t matter, but there are a lot of things that go on that are not necessarily in your vision at the time when you ask that. There’s a difference between, “Hey, this is deadline. We really need to have it done.” There’s ways of phrasing that stuff anyway that are much more collaborative in nature. Because I’ve worked with contractors who you tell them, “Hey, I really need this done by Tuesday.” and they’ve got a holiday coming up and you don’t know it. For example, if you’ve got people who are working overseas, you’re not in that culture so it’s not on your calendar. It is on theirs. You have to be at least aware of what’s going on and, unless you ask the question, it’s very easy to get into a situation where you say something, say, “Hey, this needs to be done by Tuesday,” and you’re completely neglecting all the other things that that person has going on.

Brianna [30:38]: I would say this with all respect, Mike, but I think the exchange we just had here is a really good example of what can make women sometimes a little frustrated in our careers. I completely agree with you. That’s my management style. I work through consensus and collaboration, and I believe that if someone is good enough to be in the door that they’ve earned a little bit of leeway with that. So we do work that way. But I think we’re so quick in our field to minimize any point that a woman is making about this. I’m going to be really direct with you here, women are held to very harsh double standards whenever we show leadership, or try to draw boundaries, and the things that we talk about are negated, or minimized, or put aside. Ask any woman that is in a position of leadership out there if she has to alter her communication style to not threaten men. She will absolutely, 100%, tell you that she does. I just think that’s really important. These are the realities that we face.

Mike [31:43]: Yeah. I totally agree. I definitely think there is that double standard there, depending on how a woman would phrase that. What are the types of things that communities and community leaders can do to help enact some changes here? We’ve talked a little bit about the stuff, I’ll say, on more of an individual level. But what can communities, like MicroConf and Founder Café and Startups for the Rest of Us do to help with these types of situations?

Brianna [32:08]: Well, always make sure you’re having enough women come in the door. Network with women. Organizationally, you need to create a culture where women are not afraid to speak up. By the way, this is a trait for any good leader. In software development it’s just a reality. We have a lot of introvert engineers. I’ve worked with more than a few engineers who are on the autism spectrum. To me, good leadership is creating an environment where everyone gets a say, not just the loudest voices in the room. I think being very active about having a culture where maybe those people that speak a little too much – and I’m in that group – would kind of be checked a little bit, and you ask for consensus from other people. That’s incredibly important. I would also say when issues come up those need to be taken very seriously. Every woman I know is terrified of HR, because HR very generally speaking, exists to protect the company, not protect the woman. In my entire career I only know one or two women that have had sexual harassment incidents that have had a good outcome by HR. There are standards about that out there for that. Make sure you’re holding yourself to that. I would also say really think through your interviewing process. In the game industry I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a story about a woman going to interview for a job and it uses male pronouns, it assumes certain things, or she’s interviewed in a room with posters on the wall of half-naked women. You’ve really got to think about your culture and ask yourself what kind of messages you’re sending.

Mike [33:54]: What would be better ways to – for example, you said job listings or job interviews – what would be better ways of referring to that in a job post, for example. Do you say, “He/She?” Would you say, “He or she?”, or would you try and avoid gender in any way, shape or form?

Brianna [34:09]: I personally try to talk around gender issues. I’d be honest and say I – like a lot of other people – am still kind of trying to figure out how to speak in a way that doesn’t exclude non-binary people. It’s kind of something that only first came up two years ago really in the mainstream. I, myself, try to just leave gender out of it whenever I can. That’s a personal style thing, and I fail at it sometimes.

Mike [34:36]: Going back to the communities, do you have any other recommendations or thoughts on networking events that could be a little bit more collaborative in nature? As I said before, one of the issues that I’ve seen is that female founders tend to shy away from going to evening events, especially ones where there’s alcohol involved in any way, shape, or form. I have talked to people who have said, “I have been sexually harassed at such-and-such conferences. Is MicroConf safe for me to come to?”

Brianna [35:03]: I guarantee women are having a conversation back channel a lot more than to your face.

Mike [35:07]: What sorts of things would you recommend, or could we look at?

Brianna [35:12]: I would say this. I really doubt that my company will ever have events with alcohol at it. I realize that there are some people in our field that kind of need alcohol to feel comfortable, but from my perspective I’m always thinking about my safety, first and foremost, and I just can’t allow something that would compromise that. I think, just to really be honest with you here, the threat of sexual assault is something men don’t ever have to think about, and women think about all the time. I personally don’t do that. I’m also increasingly skeptical about the value of face-to-face networking. I think it definitely has its place. I do most of my networking on Twitter, and in private groups on Facebook, so I’m always looking for those kind of personal relationships. I think lunch networking events, and coffee, are hyper-productive, so I’m always looking for those kinds of places that are just a little bit more congenial.

Mike [36:10]: One of the other things I want to touch on was that I recently read that you’re running for Congress. What prompted that?

Brianna [36:16]: Just to be really open. I try to steer away from politics as much as I can in my technical career, but honestly, on election night I was 30-feet from where Hillary Clinton should have accepted the presidency, and she didn’t. And, like a lot of other marginalized people, I’m really scared about my rights under a Trump administration. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. There’s really this meta-question of: How can we go further than we are right now. I personally believe that we’ve reached a real asymptote with what writing about sexism, and talking about sexism, is going to accomplish in our field. The truth is I could come on a 1,000 podcasts this year, like this one, and talk about the same thing. I’m not sure it’s going to get us much further than where were are right now. I think the next step is to have women involved in the legislature. The guy I’m going to be running against has spent his entire career crusading against women’s rights. He’s pretty terrible on technology issues. Even stepping beyond being a woman in tech, I think there’s a much larger issue here. Our federal tech policy sucks, and it’s dumb.

Mike [37:30]: I think that’s an understatement, by any stretch of the imagination.

Brianna [37:35]: It really is. I have to say this. One of the women I’m hoping to serve on a technology subcommittee in the House when I run, you know when the Mirai Botnet came out a few months ago, and completely took out parts of the internet in the United States, this woman went on CNN and blamed a botnet, which is it happened because we don’t secure Internet of Things devices and allow them to be rewritten in a way that can attack our technology infrastructure, and she blamed it on freaking SOPA like, you know, pirating movies and software. It’s just like it’s a policy position that was literally written by Verizon. I am angry about that, and our poor technology policy. It’s not just stupid, it’s endangering our national security. So a lot of the reason I’m running is I want to be a voice in the Congress on privacy rights, on the EFF, on all of these policy issues where – with all respect to the politicians in the Baby Boomer generation – I absolutely respect your service, but I think as someone that is kind of native to this technology, I simply understand it better than most people do, and we need people in Congress fighting for privacy rights; people holding companies accountable when their data is breached in horrific ways, and endanger all of the people that have had their information stolen. It’s a very wide array of issues, why I’m running. It’s not just gender equality. To be honest, that SOPA thing really made me mad. I think there’s a certain point where every generation needs to step up and commit ourselves to public service. And again, there are a lot more Baby Boomers in the Congress than there are Gen-Xer’s, and I just think it’s time for us to serve.

Mike [39:24]: Well, again, Brianna, thank you very much for your time. I really appreciate you coming on the show. So this is episode 322, and if you have any comments or thoughts on the show, head over to the website startupsfortherestofus.com and you can leave some comments on the website and talk a little bit more about this episode. If you have a question for us, you can call our voicemail number at 1-888-801-9690 or email us at questions@startupsfortherestofus.com. Our theme music is an excerpt from ‘We’re Outta Control’ by MoOt used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us in iTunes by searching for “startups”, and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode.

Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next time.

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7 Responses to “Episode 322 | Sex & Software (An Interview with Brianna Wu)”

  1. I was extremely relieved to find the episode was about gender and software, so I didn’t have to listen to Mike talk about sex (and software). Although, one could say Mike has been more successful with sex than software as I believe he has a couple kids. 😉

  2. Haha, same Matt.

    Mike, I congratulate you for tackling this topic. I find Brianna’s willingness to share what a “woman might be thinking” as very helpful. Not least of all is putting herself out there in a very public way to open her up to criticism.

    In particular, I did like her view of turning of things back to “maintaining privilege” which is really less about privilege and more about “hey, I didn’t do that to you, why should I suffer?” To which the response seems to be “well, you don’t know you’re doing it.”

    Most people think mostly of themselves and that’s just fine, otherwise we wouldn’t have wonderful things like electricity. There might be biological differences that cause men to be more selfish than women, but so what?

    Theoretically, I had an advantage as a non-white male by virtue of being male but I don’t feel guilty about that, nor should I. The feminist mindset that I should feel guilty for being male or that white people should feel guilty for slavery is never going to be accepted by normal people.

    The women that work for me or with me absolutely love doing it. Last night, I got a message from a woman on my team who said something to the effect of: “working with you is so easy and I learn so much”.

    But honestly, the amount of thoughtcrime that is implied when dealing with the issue of “gender in X” just makes me want to tune out.

    Still, I enjoyed listening. And I never use the term female for the same reason. I will forever substitute Ferengi in for female from now on. “She’s a FERENGIIIIII”


    • Bob. It’s not about your feelings. Feel guilty or don’t. Just treat people equally, acknowledge your bias and try to do something about it.

      BTW, feminists are “normal people”.

  3. Brianna, Mike,

    Thank you for this episode. I now realize I may be better at thinking about diversity (than say, some of the management in the workplaces I’ve been in) when it comes strictly to race, but I have much to improve when it comes to gender (sex?–gender is fluid, right?).

    So I’ll work on that. Thanks for the insights.


  4. This was a great interview about a difficult but important topic. Mike asked a lot of questions that I know I’ve been thinking about in a straightforward way, and I appreciated Brianna’s honest, blunt answers.

  5. Great comments. To David: When the assumption by default is you are a certain way (biased) because of your gender, where do you from there? Isn’t that basically sexist?