Being a Mom in Tech and How Women Can Overcome Imposter Syndrome

A chat with Megan Bigelow, founder and board president of Portland Women in Tech (PDXWIT), about being a mom in tech and how women can overcome imposter syndrome.

PDXWIT’s members and supporters need no introduction to Megan Bigelow, co-founder of this growing organization that today represents more than 30% of Portland’s tech workforce. Back in July, Portland journalist Kate Kaye sat down with Megan for a wide-ranging interview about being a mom in tech, about her then-new gig as director of customer reliability engineering for open source software outfit Heptio, and why human connections have been a thread throughout her life and work.

This interview was originally recorded for the now-defunct podcast Catalysts and Allies (formerly The Credentialed) on July 10, 2018 in the XRAY.fm studio in Portland. The video was shot by local filmmaker Liz Vaughan.

Kate Kaye is a journalist and content strategist living in Portland, Oregon. In her latest reporting endeavor, Kate covers issues related to AI ethics on her site, RedTail. She is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a 2009 book covering the digital media efforts of the 2008 presidential campaigns. Kate is a weekly volunteer in the Wildlife Care Center at Audubon Society of Portland, a baseball fan, music nerd and sometimes record-spinning DJ. Follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Full Transcript:

Kate Kaye:

So Megan, you co-founded PDX women in tech as a meetup group in 2012 with a mission to encourage women to join tech and Stan Tech and today it's 5,000 members strong, a five, zero, one c three. You're still independent, non-affiliated. When you discuss the origin story of PDX, women in tech, you often refer to the fact that around 2007, you discovered that a former male colleague of yours was earning 30 percent more than you were at the time, I'm assuming doing the same job. And He, uh, you are outperforming him. Uh, so you've worked in tech in the tech space most of your career. And I have to wonder, after that negative experience and maybe even other negative experiences, why didn't you just say, you know what, this industry just isn't for me. I'm going to look elsewhere.

Megan Bigelow:

Yeah, believe me, I thought about it many, many times. It's only recently that I stop fantasizing about leaving tech to be honest. Uh, but the reason I just kept pushing through is really two reasons. I love the work, love the work, and it's pretty rare I think for folks or I, you know, me to find something I actually really love doing and the pay is unmatched. I want to be honest. This is an industry in which you can pay, be, get paid quite well and that is not something I'm willing to give up. Uh, and also I'm also quite lucky I liked the work so it was worth it to me to continue to push through and I finally got to a place where it's not fantasy anymore.

KK:

And we'll talk about this a little bit more, but you focus on the kind of customer liaison part of the tech industry and mostly software companies you've worked with. Um, so PDX women in tech started taking a responses to your 2018 community survey in April and uh, I think I've actually responded to it. Awesome. What did you ask and what are some surprises that you're seeing in the results so far?

MB:

We asked questions and three different pillars. We were curious about demographics. That's pretty important for us to capture on an annual basis. We wanted to know how people felt about PDX women in tech itself, the organization, how is it affecting their lives and proving prospects, prospects for them, and then finally we wanted to get a sense as to what it was like for them in the tech industry. And to be clear about the net we cast with this survey, we were not only asking people in our community to complete it, we were asking the broader tech industry in Portland to complete it. So we, we got over 800 responses.

KK:

So it's not just your members.

MB:

Not just our members, because we really wanted to get a deep understanding of what it's like in tech in general and uh, all genders responded. And there were two pieces of information that were the most stunning to me. And to a lot of the other folks that have been analyzing the data with me. The first one is women continue to be disproportionately asked to do administrative housekeeping type tasks above and beyond their day job.

KK:

Can you clean the bathroom…?

MB:

This yet, maybe not that, but like planning parties, the coffee, making coffee, ordering food. Now I want to be clear, these are not people with office manager or Admin jobs, this is above their regular job and then the second piece of information is a is the perception of a reporting harassment. Let me clarify that.

So our survey, we broke it down by people that had had experienced harassment workplace harassment in the last 12 months and people that didn't. Okay. So the people that did not experience workplace harassment in the last 12 months overwhelmingly felt positive about contacting their employer if they were harassed. The people who had been experiencing harassment overwhelmingly would not report it, did not report it. So it's a, it's an interesting dichotomy in that if you're not experiencing harassment, you feel positive about how your employer will respond to it.

KK:

If you are facing harassment, you are generally speaking, not reporting it and perhaps those people who are experiencing it may have previous experiences with it and we're up against a brick wall when they, you know, addressed it with their employer the first or second time around. Maybe it's just a, you know, some sort of ongoing problem for them.

MB:

It could be that, and I think it also could just be that once it happens to you, you think differently about what to do about it. Yeah. Because suddenly you find yourself in a very isolating place.

KK:

So there's, you know, other national organizations dedicated to women in tech and there are local chapters in Portland of ChickTech and Women Who Code. Why did you start your own organization? Why do that as opposed to just hook up with some of those other preexisting groups maybe?

MB:

Yeah. Well, back in 2012 when we started PDX women in tech, women who code Portland didn't exist nor did check tech. Actually ChickTech’s, origin story does involve PDX women in tech. They sort of found a couple of people to start the organization at our first meetup, which is kind of an interesting different story. But, uh, but certainly at the time we were starting PDX Women in Tech, there were other groups like Women who Hack, PyLadies, a number of others that might not exist anymore.

And my reasoning for not just automatically just attending their meetups was, I didn't feel like identified with the topic of those groups and not to say that they would have excluded me, I'm sure they would've welcomed me with open arms, but there was something missing for me and that's why we decided to create something with a broader sort of definition of what's tech in.

KK:

What would you give as an example of what was different that you felt was missing?

MB:

Right. So a lot of these groups that had existed, we're very niche, so coding in python or hacking

KK:

And Pie is still in an incubator here in Portland – Oh, Python. So that's Python, people who know the coding language Python. Okay.

MB:

Exactly. We didn't set out to create an organized organization. We created a meetup that had the, um, sort of scope and breadth of people who work for a technical, uh, in a technical role for a non tech company or people who work for a tech company. So working for a tech company could mean you're in accounting or in HR, you're actually also a software developer. All of that is in scope for us.

KK:

Right. Okay. So you had a really interesting run-in earlier this year, that PDX Women in Tech actually picked up kind of some media attention around it. So you wrote an open letter to a software firm called ShopKeep. They do point of sales software, uh, their technology, employs, dongles, d-o-n-g-l-e-s -- they're devices that provide wireless access to a computer. So this company, ShopKeep had billboards plastered around Portland featuring these really juvenile gags, like “Does your dongle come up short?” You know, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, uh, and it turned out this company ShopKeep actually hosted PDX Women in Tech event prior to the fact that prior to when they put out that campaign. And then here they are blasting penis jokes around Portland. Um, you publicly admonished them and they said they'd take down the billboards. They apologized for offending anybody. Has Your organization made amends with ShopKeep?

MB:

Actually, this is an extremely timely question because I just met with the CEO of ShopKeep Michael DeSimone last week. And it was a really great closure to that entire situation. We actually, the two of us just sat in a room and talked through, like he explained how they arrived at this advertising campaign, which is an interesting story to hear and, and the biggest question he had and his most, uh, that he was most interested in just listening and understanding. So he wanted to know, like, Hey, you know, I saw all this coming up on Twitter and uh, the thing that did compel me to take these ads down wasn't the fact that you were calling me out publicly. It's because the way you were calling us out and the people involved in sort of collecting all the voices together, I could feel and hear the hurt. Tell me about that hurt. Like what, what?

KK:

So it wasn't just like Twitter firestorm of, of being offended, but it was like deep hurt. People felt hurt by it.

MB:

Yes. And, and the way that I explained it to him was really around, listen for many of us, we have been working in environments for years and in my case deck to, you know, two decades where I feel very alone and isolated and the words and the comradery and the jokes don't include me, can be offended or defensive towards me, exclusive of me and others -- and I'm just tired. And I know and I also didn't want to have to see that billboard going to work every day feeling excluded and uh, and um, sort of isolated.

KK:

And also you probably felt a little bit like, you guys had an event for us, don't you get it?

MB:

Yeah, we did. Yeah we did. We probably wouldn't have made that outreach had they not been affiliated with our organization and we had actually since bragged about them in a newsletter. So yeah.

KK:

So, the CEO of Shop Keep really a heard you out. Are there any next steps there? I mean you said you got closure maybe on a personal level….

MB:

We got closure on this situation and next steps are he wants to maintain a relationship in terms of working with us on future campaigns that they might have. Also, we talked about the need for him to really just use the barometer that exists internally in their organization and continue to build up that, you know, diversity within their employee base. But yeah. So, uh, we'll partner again. They want to host events. We'll definitely do it again because I feel very positive about how this all played out. Yeah. And I think the most important thing is like certainly there's different levels of mistakes, right? But I think if you are a CEO in a company that makes a mistake, recognizes that you've made a mistake and then are willing to reflect on it and make a change, that's like the best outcome.

KK:

So they're in New York City based company? They just have an office space here in Portland. In Portland though, we've got this thing called the diversity pledge, which was sort of an initiative of Prosper Portland and a collective of tech organizations. Portland is previously the Portland Development Commission, re-branded last year. So the diversity pledge: 22 people or 22 companies have signed thus far according to the most recent data I saw and that's nine more than at launch. So it's kind of growing and the idea is if you sign it, as a company you're agreeing to create a more inclusive tech community here in Portland, I guess through your company and the culture that you have at your company. So the pledge calls on companies to educate staff about unconscious workplace biases, implement actions to alleviate them for example. You see women in the tech industry every day. Is the diversity pledge initiative changing or improving the workplace culture for them here in Portland? Is there any direct impact of this yet?

MB:

You know, I think it's a little too early to say that there's been a change. I think that the change that is, you know, the marked change that exists is the fact that CEOs and executives are willing to talk about these things and are open to it. I think that's huge and that's important. But I, I think Prosper Portland and Tech Town is doing a great job of really trying to move the needle forward and so they're actually engaging with us on how to do that because there is a little bit of a difference between what the executives and CEO level people think needs to happen and what the community thinks needs to happen. And so it's really just trying to find that sort of like -- what's going to move the needle and get that in front of the CEOs. So there is traction. It's a little too early to tell though. We are supportive of their efforts and are really hoping that we can make more impactful change for people in the industry.

KK:

What's the one of the key disconnects that you would point to where the CEOs, even though they mean well, maybe they don’t get it?

MB:

Uh, I mean, I think the most obvious thing to point out is that generally speaking, the majority of the CEOs are going to be white men and many of them mean incredibly well. However, their experiences with adversity, with discrimination, with harassment, with pay equity, is little to none. Yeah. And so it's difficult for folks who haven't experienced things themselves to feel compelled enough to push forward change. They might intellectually think that it's really important, but perhaps have not had personal experience to emotionally get behind it and actually make it happen. So, that I'd say that's probably the most obvious thing now. We're really trying to figure out ways to help them emotionally connect to it so we can actually push it forward.

KK:

Interesting. That'll be interesting to see what you guys do. So PDX Women in Tech, you're working on something that might enlighten a little bit or illuminate.

MB:

Yeah, we're trying to raise awareness, and definitely want to work very closely with Prosper Portland and Tech Town on that.

KK:

Cool. You recently started a new job, uh, you’re now director of customer reliability engineering at Heptio, H-e-p-t-i-o – they’re a Seattle Company. They, I think I'm pronouncing this right so they can support their, their software supports, deployment of Kubernetes. Okay. Alright. Kubernetes with a K, it's an open source technology to be very, very basic about it. Without getting too in the weeds of Kubernetes, tell me a little bit about what your day to day work is like. What do you do.

MB:

Happily. So I work 100 percent remote. Well I do travel to Seattle once every three weeks. So I am at the mothership occasionally

KK:

Do you do the Bolt Bus?

MB:

No, I actually don't, but that's a good idea. I’ve been the flying, but I'm trying to find an alternative.

KK:

Think about it. It's actually pretty nice.

MB:

So I'm distributed from my team so we all work remotely. So a day in the life for us looks like lots of time on Slack, talking through things. We uh, you know, reviewing tickets that come from our customers planning, outreach campaigns.

KK:

When you say ticket, that's just like customer service tickets, somebody says ‘I need help with this part of the technology, I can’t install this or whatever doesn't work.’”

MB:

The tickets are extremely technical and I can only staff my team with engineers because of how technical they are, which is awesome. And customer meetings, so spending a lot of time getting to know our customers and planning ahead. Right. Like the customer reliability practice is really new to the industry and I'm excited I get to be a part of what it looks like. Google is the only company that's been doing it so far and I get to borrow from their playbook

KK:

And one of the founders of the company I believe came out of Google, right? Kubernetes is sort of a Google related technology - ?

MB:

They actually created Kubernetes, the founders. Yep. Yeah. Okay.

KK:

So that's cool. Did I cut you off to say anything else about it? Um, so I was checking out the Heptio website and noticed that, you know, like most tech firms, uh, the company's cofounders are two white dudes and there's one woman on the five person leadership team and you know, I mean I think more and more people are, when they're evaluating a company, going to that team page on the website and being like, all right, who are these people? Do they actually have diversity? And so I wondered, just looking at that like, you know, a little bit of information, what inspired you to join that company knowing your focus on diversity and women in technology?

MB:

Absolutely. I think though, there's two reasons why I joined Heptio. The first one was this amazing opportunity to build out this new team and this new practice that's really an evolution of what I've been doing for the last seven years as a leader.

KK:

At Jama Software….

MB:

At Jama and prior to Jama. And the second reason, which was probably the most important one is the leadership team's commitment and openness and actual action to diversity and inclusion initiatives. They care deeply about pay equity. They care deeply about hiring diversity and are implementing process and holding myself accountable to that. So, uh, one of the things we've talked about at length in my interview process was all of my experience, of course, not only my domain experience with leading tech support teams, but my six years of experience leading PDX Women in Tech and that continues to be a really important piece of my role here. The survey that we talked about a part of what we're doing is releasing the results and releasing some accompanying data that is action oriented and Heptio is it planning to adopt all of that internally. So, yeah, there are several white people but they are extremely open, extremely committed. And I'm very excited that they asked me to join them on that journey and are giving me the latitude to help make change.

KK:

So you, in, throughout your career, you've kind of focused on customer service and uh, I noticed that, you know, you point to these key moments and experiences in your life that brought you to where you are today. Um, when we've spoken in the past, you've discussed your, um, your work early on in working in the drive through at Burgerville, which is a local Portland fast food restaurant. Accessing the Internet pre AOL to interact with people, uh, I think it was on your grandfather's computer. Attending a Grace Hopper event and uh, you know, Grace Hopper is a in organization that brings together tons of women technologists. Right? So they, all these experience seem to center on human connections. Why is that an important thread in your life and your work?

MB:

Well, I have reflected on this quite a lot and the thread here is that I've spent much of my life feeling lonely and connecting with other people has been the way in which I sort of got through that loneliness. So the loneliness or isolation has usually been centered around an experience or a time in my life, right? So when I'm, you know, getting onto on the computer to get connected to other people, pre AOL in my grandfather's office was really because I had just come out of the eighth grade and had been severely bullied and didn't have a lot of friends and I was like, faced with, okay, now I'm about to go to high school. I'm scared out of my mind. My experience in the eighth grade was terrible. Like I feel so alone and I found friends, like that was the compelling thing and computers help me solve that, uh, helped me gain the confidence I needed to step into that high school.

And um, you know, many of these other examples going to Grace Hopper, I was feeling extremely isolated. I had just spent the last five years over-functioning because I was trying to make myself better because I thought the reason I was paid less was because there was something wrong with me. And while…

KK:

This is when you were getting your MBA?

MB:

When I was getting my MBA -- I did all kinds of stuff which happy to talk about. Uh, and I, I mean, I'm fortunate now, I have two kids so I hardly ever feel lonely anymore, but um, loneliness and isolation is still a thing and people have been the answer to that and I'm fortunate I work in a situation where I get to be around people and talk to people and hear about how they're using Kubernetes and how I, my team can help them and it just creates such a huge amount of like, I don't know, a pride for myself that I can do.

KK:

So I have to ask you something that I didn't actually have in my original questions list for you because I can totally relate to this, right? I'm kind of a loner anyway, but, um, you know, working in the tech environment, I've always been on the journalism side and now I actually work from home and you know, I'm on Slack all the time too. And I really miss being in an office. Like, do you miss being that aspect of working with people? There's so many tech workers are virtual and um, I feel like we miss that. There's something you get when you're going to a job every day working with people in person and interacting with them in person that I kind of miss personally. I don't know if that's something that you ever.

MB:

Yeah, I'd say they're the, they're the only reason I missed that I think is because sometimes it's just easier to like walk down the hall and have a quick conversation then try to like explain a bunch of stuff over Slack. However, uh, I mean, I, I definitely, I see a lot of people that feel that way. I personally don't. I, I put myself out into coffee shops or a coworker and so I do get enough connection. I think where I'm. Okay. I also, um, am very excited about the time savings that I'm having as a result of working. Not having to go into the office. It's saves me about fifteen minutes, but I get to use that time and help my kids with breakfast, which is a big deal.

KK:

Totally. No, I mean, that's, that's a real benefit. Um, I want to get your thoughts about imposter syndrome. So, uh, we hear this term often in the world of business and tech, the idea being that, you know, white men tend to have the confidence to jump into career opportunities while others tech, typically women and minorities question their abilities or worry that there'll be exposed as imposters if they don't have the right experience or enough experience in their minds to try something new. Is Imposter Syndrome something that you hear PDX Women in Tech members talking about?

MB:

They don't actually talk about it as like, no one is saying, I have imposter syndrome actually. Uh, but there are lots of people who do. It manifests itself in a number of ways. We have a mentorship program and we pair more senior people in, tack with more junior people or people entering tech. You would probably not be surprised at the sheer number of women who don't sign up to be members despite having 15 years or more of experience because they don't think they're qualified.

And so part of our job is to do a little bit of a road show and help people understand that yes, all of that experience does make you qualified.

KK:

To be a mentor….

MB:

Right. I mean, we have a minimum of three years of experience and I'm not joking, I'm constantly talking to people with 15 plus years of experience and they’re questioning, their ability to do it. Our job board, helping people find new jobs. Part of getting those folks to apply is also encouraging them and reminding them that yes, this experience that you have over here is directly related to the experience that's requested in this job. So it, it's not obvious. It's not, it's not always clear that that's what people are suffering from, but they are.

KK:

Uh, so you're a mom, you mentioned this earlier, that, uh, you know, I imagine one of the cool things about working from home is that, yeah, you can help out making the sandwiches for lunch or making breakfast or whatever. How has your experience working in tech different than it is as a mom than it is for other female counterparts?

MB:

Yeah, so I would say so I've been a mom now for almost six years, so my non mom day as are almost like distant memory at this point. However, uh, I think what I'm learning is that it very much depends on where you work, what kind of job you have, the culture, all that type of stuff. I can definitely see that there are challenges for mothers. Like um, for example, when I was going into an office every day, uh, we would have happy hours, like work happy hours, get to know your colleagues, hanging out with your colleagues. I would never be able to go. Um, and definitely felt left out because business was being discussed in those. Now do non-moms, many of them do have other things going on and may or may not choose to attend those things.

But certainly if you have obligations at home, like picking kids up, there is definitely a sense of urgency around leaving the office at a certain time to do that, and if you're, um, if you don't have that imagine it feels less constraining, but uh, you know, it's hard for me to say just because it's been so long, but um, I am constantly thinking about how as a leader of a team how is the way that we're setting up this team, how is it supportive of all people with children without children? How are we finding the cross section of time that works for people, the activities that work for people so as not to make people feel excluded. I'm lucky now I work at a company where I would say the majority of the people there are parents and so it's actually really fun because um, there's just a lot of commonality in being a parent.

KK:

That seems rare that that there’d be a majority of people with kids.

MB:

Yeah, it is extremely rare. I don't know how the company is still pretty small, but perhaps it's just sort of like the experience level where people are, I don't know, but it's also the leaders. They're very active parents themselves and I think that that is one thing that if you put something there, it can beget more of that. Right.

KK:

So what do you see happening at Heptio that is indicative of that? Or, or what are some things, or maybe one thing that you're doing in your team development that you're creating a more welcoming environment for parents?

MB:

I think the remote-first does it. I think that is probably what attracts people who are looking for just an, a little bit more flexibility in their lives. And um, I mean that certainly can attract people who don't have kids that want more flexibility, but I think a lot of parents really can connect with that.

KK:

Megan, it's been so great having you on Catalysts and Allies. Thank you so much.

MB:

It’s been my pleasure.

PDX Women in Technology

PDX Women in Technology exists to encourage women to join tech and support and empower them so they stay in tech.