Existing in Tech
This page contains the transcript of my View Source Opening Keynote Existing in Tech from September 2016.
Existing in Tech
Have you ever taken a very deep breath? –- And held your breath, and let yourself sink under water, like in a swimming pool? Have you ever felt what it’s like to be floating under water, feeling almost weightless?
And have you ever wondered what it’s like to be an astronaut floating in a space shuttle? What it’s like to be flying to work, flying to lunch, and flying to bed? Have you ever wondered what it would be like to see Earth from space?
And — have you ever been
As a child, I was extremely fascinated by aerospace. I grew up in a small village in a hilly area in rural Germany. Nearby, rocket engines for European Space programmes were tested. And during bigger engine tests, a big cloud would pop up behind the hills nearby. I always got super excited when I saw that cloud.
At home, the walls in my room were wallpapered with maps of the stars, and with infographics on the solar system. – And during Meteor Showers in August, I’d sometimes camp outside, and make a wish when I saw a shooting star. There are 3 things I learned back then:
- Rocket engines are incredibly powerful.
- Shooting stars are super beautiful, – but the stuff they tell you about their power to fulfil wishes is not true. – And:
- When I grow up, I want to be an astronaut.
I didn’t become an astronaut – but sometimes, I feel like one:
- I feel like I’m in a very dark place.
- Like an astronaut in a spaceship. But my spaceship has run out of fuel a long time ago, and it’s just in free fall in space – with no power, no direction, and no control.
- I feel far away from earth and completely detached – even from people who were once very close to me.
- I feel so lonely, and so incapable — and so, so numb.
Being an astronaut in a spaceship with no fuel, on a mission that went really wrong – this is what my depression feels like.
I have been living with depression for many years of my life, and I’ve had two burnouts since I started working in tech. And there are a few reasons why I’m talking about this.
Why talk about Mental Health in Tech
By the time we’re born, almost all neurons that our brain will ever have are present. Our brains reach near 90% of adult size by about age 6-7, but the rational part of our brains is only developed by about age 25. Our mature brains are composed of more than 100 billion neurons. In some areas of our brains, even in our adult life, new neurons are still continually born. This process is called Neurogenesis.
Our brains also create new neural pathways and alter existing ones to adapt to our environment and to new experiences — our brains are able to change throughout our lifetime: this ability is called Neuroplasticity.
What felt like being in a spaceship to me, will feel and be very different for anyone else who lives with depression, or other mental health issues.
Mental Health issues can affect anyone, and research shows that they’re encouraged by biological, psychological, and environmental factors. Fact is: 25% of people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. That’s every fourth person.
Despite being so common, Mental health issues are still extremely stigmatised – in our societies, and in the tech industry. This stigma is dangerous, since it leads to people lacking information, not knowing it’s okay to get help, and how to get that help.
Another reason to talk about Mental Health in tech is the Tech Industry as an environment that influences us.
The closest that Mars has ever been to earth was in 2003, when it was 56 million kilometres from Earth – that’s more than 145 times the distance between Earth and Moon, or, as I like to call it: SUPER SUPER FAR AWAY. Just getting to Mars takes at least about 6-9 months.
To study Mars, scientists have been sending space craft there since the 1970s. 11 of these 13 space craft are not operational anymore, and, harshly spoken, have turned into about 8 tons of trash. But two Mars rovers are still operational at the moment. One of them is called Curiosity. In August 2013, the Curiosity rover celebrated its first birthday on Mars – by humming “Happy Birthday” for itself – out there all alone.
So what is it like to celebrate your birthday alone on Mars?
Mars is a global desert that sees intense dust storms. Surface temperature ranges between about −140 °C to up to 35 °C, and Seasons are about twice as long as on Earth. There’s no ozone layer to block solar ultraviolet radiation. Air pressure is much lower than on Earth, as well as the oxygen in its atmosphere. —
All in all: Martian surface is not hospitable to humans.
So Scientists are trying to understand what going to this human-unfriendly place would mean for humans. One way to do this are simulated Mars missions. In one of these missions that just ended 2 weeks ago, 6 people spent one year in a small dome-shaped habitat on the flank of a Hawaiian volcano.
In their year there, they were only allowed to leave their habitat in space suits and for short times to conduct research on “Mars”. And all their communication with “Earth” was delayed by 20 minutes, to simulate space travel. – The goal of this simulation was to help scientists understand what keeps space flight crews happy and healthy on Mars Missions.
Mars is a harsh environment, that will deeply influence the lives of astronauts on Mars Missions. As an environment,
the Tech Industry is Mars.
It’s an environment with systemic issues, an environment that’s not hospitable to humans. Here’s why:
First of all, the Tech Industry has become a planet of its own: far away from human life on Earth, and detached from caring about the problems that humanity is facing. –
It’s a system built on privilege, by the privileged, producing products for the privileged. — And a system that widely exploits less privileged people.
The Tech Industry is deeply shaped by systemic oppression within our societies – like racism, sexism, and ableism. — All of which accumulate again in this industry’s organisations, and communities.
This industry lacks empathy and compassion — for the people in it, people who use the products made by this industry, and for the people affected by this industry’s impact on societies.
It’s an industry that keeps telling itself it’s a “meritocracy”, which practically means that a whole industry relies on a judgement system that was invented as a joke. It’s an industry that systematically ignores biases and power dynamics, so it can keep pretending it was objective.
The tech industry celebrates its “heroes”, because they’ve once done something great “for the community” – this hero culture is disempowering because it sets impossible standards. And this hero culture has been harmful, because these past achievements have been used to defend and keep celebrating these “heroes”, — regardless of their present, hurtful actions.
And this list of this industry’s issues isn’t even complete. All in all:
The Tech Industry is not hospitable to humans. It’s a broken environment that harms humans in it and beyond at large scale.
Despite the conditions in this environment, many of us enjoy being in tech. And to some of us, comparing this industry to Mars may seem far-fetched.
But: like the Tech industry as a system is privileged, so are many of us as individuals. Factors like our gender, race, education, upbringing, ability, appearance, or physical and mental health and more determine our privilege.
This privilege means that some of us can exist in this industry with ease, gain influence, and are accepted without scrutiny or suspicion — which gives us advantages relative to other people.
Thing is: if you’re in a high-tech space habitat with all supplies you need, you don’t have to worry about dust storms outside on Mars.
Privilege is a space habitat. The more privileged we are, the less we are directly exposed to the harshness of this industry. Privilege in tech means being able to hide from the dust storms, the cold, and the radiation on Mars.
Who has access to this space habitat? The tech industry is a mostly homogeneous space. In Europe, more than 70% of people in tech, and more than 90% of software developers are men.
Numerous groups of people are hugely underrepresented in this industry, like people of colour, women, non-binary people, lesbian, gay, bisexual, disabled people, and many more. For everyone who’s part of these groups and their intersections, this protective space habitat is less accessible — and this influences their experiences in tech:
- Being a member of an underrepresented group in tech means getting paid less for the same work.
- It means having very few role models, and less access to career opportunities, since leaders in tech are mostly cis white men.
- It means constantly having to proof that you’re worthy of being in this space, because you don’t match the stereotype of what a “nerd” looks like. – It also means not being able to stand in the daily standup meeting because you’re disabled or ill.
- Being a member of an underrepresented group in tech means not being able to go to tech events, because they’re not safe, not accessible, because they’re not inclusive for parents, or because tickets are too expensive.
- It means facing racism, misogyny, transmisogyny, and other forms of oppression every day.
- It means seeing people like you being harassed, and always knowing that you could be next; and it means seeing people lose any joy they got out of programming once because of it.
- It also means never being able to be fully yourself at work or industry events, because it would be a risk for your safety.
- Being a member of an underrepresented group in Tech means being in an industry that prides itself in “disrupting” outdated practices, – an industry which, at the same time, is completely incapable of making its own organisations inclusive, safe, and welcoming for everyone.
All in all: Being a member of an underrepresented group in tech means being in a cold space with constant dust storms – and being unable to breathe.
And as studies show, people who are affected by structural oppression like racism, sexism, or harassment are more likely to develop mental health issues.
No matter who we are, no matter what we do, and no matter how privileged we are: this industry affects every one of us. And it affects some of us more than others. This is why we need to talk about Mental Health in Tech – and about structural oppression in this industry.
The Tech Industry should not be Mars. And none of us should be in a position where we need to protect ourselves from this systemically broken environment, from dust storms and radiation.
Many people in tech have found companies, events, communities, or other spaces that are good spaces for them. But
we need systemic changes, and we need them now.We need this industry, its organisations and communities to become diverse, inclusive, accessible, safe, respecting spaces for everyone.
Many people are working hard on making this change happen. But it takes time. And for the time being, the Tech Industry is Mars.
This is what my Space Suit looks like
So for now, there are mostly workarounds. There are some things that I’ve learned in my years in tech that help me be in this industry, and things that help me live with my depression.
I’m privileged in many ways though, and not a medical professional, so what works for me may not work for you.
These things I’ve learned have become my space suit, and my oxygen tank.
And this is what it looks like:
Remember that you matter: In tech, People may question your identity, your value, your being in this industry. But you matter. Your needs and your well-being matter. You’re a valuable person. Never forget that.
Practice Self Care: Figure out what nourishes you – physically, emotionally, in all aspects that make you you. Self care practices can be things like taking a few deep breaths, going for a short walk, or listening to a song you like. – Whatever it is: Self care practices are about what helps you recharge, feel safe, and supported. Find out what does that for you, and do it.
Language shapes reality, and naming things can be very powerful: it can turn seemingly random observations into something concrete, can change our perspective and position.
It took me a long time to understand that my never-ending tiredness, panic attacks and endless bad thoughts were not something random, but: signs of depression. It also took me a long time to understand that the issues I was facing in tech are not all signs of my personal incapabilities, but rooted in oppressive dynamics in Tech. Name oppression when you see or experience it.
Do only one thing, but do one thing: In my times of heavy depression, all my tasks — including getting out of bed in the morning — would often feel like a gigantic, frightening pile. So I developed a habit of trying to focus on one thing at a time. I still use this technique now, especially when I feel overwhelmed by too many tasks.
Try to get professional help: This can mean seeing a doctor, calling a hotline for people in crisis, participating in an online self-help programme, joining a self-help group, or doing therapy. – My therapy has helped me gain more strength, and a better understanding of the reasons for my struggles.
Set and enforce boundaries. All of us are human. Our time, our energy, our emotional resources are limited. Learning this and starting to enforce my boundaries has taken me years. And it can be very hard in an industry that’s constantly trying to push people beyond their limits, and very often in the name of “doing something for the community”.
Pushing back against the pressure in this industry is hard. Watch out for your boundaries, and, if you can, enforce them.
Learn and recognise warning signs for bad organisations, unsafe communities, and harmful individuals in the industry. If it’s somehow doable for you, try to avoid them.
Be open about your experiences in tech. All of us are affected by this industry in some way, and effects on our mental health can be part of that. If you’re in a position where it’s possible and feels ok for you: speak up about your experiences in tech, or about mental health in this industry. Raising awareness can help other people, and can help reduce stigmatisation.
Remember that you’re not alone in this. — I’ve been socialised to see other women as enemies, because only one person can be on top of the career ladder, right?
It took me a long time to understand that this is a technique used to turn underrepresented groups against each other – and that there are many people in tech who face much harder oppression than I as a cis white woman do.
Now, one of my greatest sources of empowerment in tech are the networks I’ve become part of. – Places where I met people who understood, who are facing similar issues, and who I learned so much from.
Remember that: Regardless of your gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age, background, or native language: there are people in tech who are like you. You may still be part of an underrepresented group. But there is a group.
Know that there’s a spaceship. Keep in mind that there’s the option to leave this industry, and leaving Tech is neither a sign of giving up, nor a sign of failure. Like travel from Mars to Earth takes time, this may not be thinkable or possible for you right now. But: know that there’s a spaceship.
And, finally: If being in tech is a great experience for you, and feels like a comfortable space habitat for you to be in: support others.
Educate yourself about systemic issues in tech, show empathy and solidarity, call out bad behaviour by other people in your space habitat, and help make community spaces safe.
And fight for change in this industry: Many people are working on change for justice and equality in Tech. Most of us are members of underrepresented groups. Join us in our work. Work on becoming an ally. Help us change these systems for a better future.
What will be your Space Suit?
My space suit for Mars is made up of things like self care, professional help, networks, and more. Your space suit may look very different from mine. Find out what’s good for you – and find out what your space suit looks like.
Have you ever taken a very deep breath? Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be an astronaut floating in a space shuttle? And have you ever been to Mars?
Still, there are many days when I don’t want to put on my space suit again and go out there on rocky, dusty, stormy Mars. And there are many days when I feel like an astronaut in a tiny space ship, far away from Earth. But there’s one very good thing about being in my space ship: at least I get a great view of the stars.
No matter who you are, no matter where you are in tech, or where you are in your life: remember that you matter. You’re a valuable person. You are significant, relevant, and worthy of note.
And when you go out there again, onto the dusty, rocky surface of Mars: take good care of yourself. No matter where your journey leads you then:
I wish you safe travels.