Last year, I gave a keynote at ACT-W titled “Don’t Ask for Permission”. The video of this talk was made available, but I’ve been meaning to make a blog post with the transcript of the talk for awhile. Since ACT-W 2016 just released their call for proposals, I thought it would be good to finally get around to doing so. Keep in mind that this talk was given in May of 2015, so some of the details are out-of-date. However, the concepts discussed are tried, true, and still as relevant as ever.
Hi! So my name is Na’Tosha Bard. I am a software developer by trade, and for the last several years, I’ve worked at Unity Technologies. For those who might not know who we are, we make an engine and toolkit for developing 2d and 3d rendered content. To put it simply, most people know of Unity as a game engine. We’re actually one of the most widely used game engines in the world. I’ve been at Unity for a while and, throughout my career, I’ve accomplished quite a few things I’m really proud of. I’ve had my ups and downs, I’ve made some mistakes, and I’ve helped make some really amazing things happen. Some of these lessons I’ve learned along the way I’d like to share with you today. But before we get into that, I often get asked, “How did you end up becoming a programmer?” or “How did you end up working for Unity?” I ended up here the same way anyone ends up anywhere: I made a series of choices, and I had some luck along the way. To prove it to you, I’ll tell you just a little bit of my story, but we don’t have a lot of time, so I’ll be quick:
I grew up playing with both Legos and Barbie dolls, got older, started school, eventually realized I was good at math, was lucky enough to have parents and teachers who encouraged me to be good at math, joined the robotics club in high school, had a teacher in that club who got me interested in computers, went to college, studied computer science, became a programmer, married an awesome man who is also a programmer, kicked butt working at an awesome job, got tired of said job, moved to Denmark, took a leap of faith and joined a start-up called Unity, flailed around wildly figuring out how to do my new job, made some mistakes, had a lot of fun, argued with various people, made awesome stuff happen, hired some awesome people, made even more awesome stuff happen, and then continued to hire more awesome people, occasionally argue with more people, and make more awesome stuff happen, and I’m here today.
Now, on a serious note: I’ve been a part of Unity as it’s grown from a small 60-something-person company to over 500 people, with what is now an industry-leading product and a userbase that both makes me proud and terrifies me every single day of my job. My focus in the beginning was simple and straightforward: I was hired as Unity’s first build engineer, so I began by crafting and honing the area of build engineering within Unity. Software development is actually very hard, so I put in place tools and processes and systems to make it easier (or in some cases just possible) for us to work together the way we wanted. Eventually, I put in place people to start taking care of these tools and processes.
When I joined Unity a few years ago, I wasn’t exactly sure where my path would lead; joining a start-up can be overwhelming to begin with, and being the first person hired in an area is pretty scary. I was also the first female programmer at Unity (although when I joined we did at least have one woman in QA), and continued to be the only female programmer for quite some time. I didn’t really have a path to follow. So, I decided to just put my head down and make the path go where I wanted it to go. One of my favorite female role models, Grace Hopper, did once say it’s better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission, and so far I’ve tried to go through my career with that mantra in mind.
And over the years, I’ve been lucky — and opportunistic — enough to have the chance to work on a lot of really amazing projects. I’ve taken some big risks, and they have paid off.
And what have these experiences taught me? Lots of things, but in particular, there are 6 key points I’ve learned that stand out to me.
1. Impostor Syndrome is Real…and That’s Okay
Wikipedia defines impostor syndrome as, “…a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments…despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved.”
This phenomenon is common amongst a large percentage of successful, intelligent individuals, particularly in the tech industry. But it is most notably prevalent amongst successful women. Impostor syndrome was actually first written about in an article published in 1978 discussing impostor syndrome in high-achieving women.
I know impostor syndrome is very, very real. It’s an issue I’ve struggled with every single day of my career, and although I’ve gotten much better at dealing with it over the years, it’s still there lurking in the back of my mind. If I write some code that solves a problem, and one of my team members calls the solution elegant, there’s a small part of me that still wonders if he won’t realize he’s wrong. Even as I am standing up here today giving this talk, there’s a small little voice in my head that tells me I have no business being here.
If you work in the tech industry, chances are you’re actually surrounded by people with impostor syndrome. I’ve seen my peers, both male and female, struggle with this annoying little voice that tells them they’re really just a fraud.
But the key here is realizing that the voice doesn’t matter. I don’t actually know if it’s possible to completely get rid of impostor syndrome (I believe there are some sessions today about living with impostor syndrome, and I certainly need to attend them as much as anyone). But I know I can choose to not let it define me.
Impostor syndrome is real…and that’s okay.
2. Fake It Until You Make It
When I was a girl, I was extremely shy, and like many young girls, I suffered from low-self esteem. Unfortunately, these traits followed me into adulthood and as I came out of university to begin my career, they followed me still.
When I started my first job out of university as a junior developer, I realized that, although all of my coworkers knew nothing about me, they assumed I must be there for a reason. They assumed that I was there because I could write good code. So in turn, I assumed I’d better at least act like I knew what I was doing.
When I spoke about how we should write a solution to a problem, I spoke with confidence. When I wrote emails to my colleagues and managers, I wrote with confidence. When I asked a colleague for help in debugging a problem, I asked with confidence — as if it were no big deal, and everyone could get stuck on this problem.
And an amazing thing happened: one day I realized the confidence wasn’t a show. I really did believe that my ideas were worth listening to. Instead of just hoping someone would listen to my ideas, I started fighting for them.
Fake confidence if you have to; it will help bring you success. And your success will bring you real confidence.
Fake it until you make it.
But how do we fake it? The best way is to focus on how we are communicating.
3. Stop Qualifying Your Ideas
This is probably the single biggest learned skill that I have developed over the years. It’s a simple concept that takes a lot of practice to perfect.
Think about how men — especially male engineers and business leaders — communicate in general. How do they speak? Confidently. But what is it about how they speak that makes them seem confident?
Probably a lot of things, but one key point is that they do not qualify their statements.
Some years ago, I read a write-up about the differences in communication styles between men and women. I now wish that I made note of what I was reading because there was a little anecdote that I just thought was brilliant.
If you ask a man what five plus four is, and he thinks the answer is nine, but is not sure, he will state, “The answer is nine”.
If you ask a women what five plus four is, and she is certain the answer is nine, she will often state, “I think the answer is nine.”
These small qualifications (“I think”, “I feel”, “I believe”) don’t sound significant.
But they are.
So stop using them. Just stop. Your ideas, your solutions, your thoughts, your contributions do not need to be qualified with anything. So stop qualifying them. Simply state them confidently and clearly.
4. Have a Goal
This point is actually pretty simple, but often overlooked. Have a goal. Your goal might change in the future, as you gain more experience and new perspectives. You might uncover talents that you didn’t know you had, or develop interests in new areas.
That’s fine. Live throws all kinds of curveballs our way. The art of living is figuring out how to adapt and change.
Whatever you do though, please don’t just be driven by inertia. Don’t just let the waves carry you wherever they happen to go — choose your own path and swim there.
But perhaps more specific than just having a goal, is having a plan for how to reach that goal. It’s often said that a goal without a plan is just a wish.
Think about the career you want, and figure out the steps you need to take to get from where you are to where you want to be. Look for mentors and sponsors that can help you, seek out the opportunities that will give you the experience you need.
Have a goal…and a plan for how to get there.
5. Take Risks
Take risks. Risks are called risks for a reason. They’re fucking scary.
But risk yields reward, in all aspects of life.
When I left my job to come work for Unity, it was a huge risk. I was leaving the security of a job that I had known comfortably for years, where I was well known and well-respected. I was leaving for a job doing something completely new and different, working for a start up, in a country I wasn’t sure yet that I would even be staying in.
To be honest, I was terrified. But it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
If it’s scary, then just look through the risk. Look at where the journey is going to take you, and focus on the goal you’ve set for yourself.
Now, this final point is not my own. It is a point taken from one of my favorite role models and speakers, Sheryl Sandberg, who, for those that don’t know, is COO of Facebook. The point is simple: make your partner a real partner.
6. Make Your Partner a Real Partner
So many studies show that it is still the case that women, even those who are working full time outside of the home, perform more than half of the housework and childcare in the home.
This is a problem. And it becomes a bigger problem as your career advances, especially as you move into leadership. The simple fact of the matter is, you need to be able to occasionally work late, or travel, or have a business dinner. And you need to trust that the home isn’t going to fall apart without you.
But this concept goes beyond the simple fact that your partner, whoever it is, needs to carry a fair share of the housework and parenting. Your partner needs to believe in your dreams and goals as much as you do. Your partner needs to support you in achieving those dreams and goals, and be confident enough in him or herself to put you first when you need them to. When it becomes time to make the inconvenient decisions — who leaves work early to pick up the sick child, who misses out on an important business dinner, who can’t stay late the one time it’s really needed — remember: it’s not a partnership if only one side is making sacrifices.
So, please take the words of Sheryl Sandberg to heart: make your partner a real partner. I’ve found this to be beyond true in my own marriage, and I can’t emphasize this enough.
Now, these 6 points: Are they revolutionary? I doubt it. But when I look back on my own story, I see how critical each and every one of these points has been to the success I’ve achieved so far, and I’m convinced they’ll be key to the success I achieve in the future. I urge you to take these points and remember them. Use them in your own life.
Before I wrap up, I’d like to touch on one final point as a woman in the game industry. It’s a big issue, that is hard to talk about, but needs to be talked about.
Women in Games
It’s no secret that the game industry has a serious and very significant problem with sexism. The reasons are still not very well understood, but they are difficult and complicated and numerous, and there is no simple solution. I’ve witnessed sexism happening around me, and there have been times when, yes, sexism has landed right on my own doorstep.
But the first thing about this I want to tell you about this is that, despite the fact that yes, this problem with sexism is very real, the majority of people working in the game industry are polite, respectful, funny, quirky people who, just like us, care very much about the problem of sexism that’s happening around them. Working in the game industry means you will from time to time encounter some people who, for lack of a better term, are just jerks. But it also means being surrounded by people who are smart, creative, and passionate; who are pushing the boundaries of technology on every possible axis; and who truly love and find joy in their jobs in a way that is rare to find these days. Many of these people are literally living the dream they have had since they were a small child and they want nothing more than to be surrounded by colleagues who share the same vision they do. It’s nothing short of inspirational. So don’t be discouraged.
And a related question is how to deal with gender issues in your own workplace, whether you join the game industry or not. I don’t think there is one universal answer. I personally believe that the best way to deal with gender differences in the workplace is to try and just remove gender as an issue. We generally should stop looking at people in terms of their gender and start looking at them in terms of their skills. This is what I do in my own job, and this works 99% of the time.
But that 1% of the time when sexism does land on your doorstep, when you see sexist behavior happening around you, then, what should you do? Well, Madeleine Albright once said there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women, and I agree. Interpret that how you will.
And finally, I want everyone to realize that there are so many ways to be part of the game industry. I, for example, work leading the internal tools and infrastructure team at Unity and I have also worked on porting Unity to Linux. There are programmers, testers, designers, artists, animators, producers, community managers. There are so many different ways to participate in the game industry, and this is something that people often forget about or don’t realize, because when we think of games, we often just think about developers working on shiny graphics. Whatever your interest is, whatever you like to do, you can do that within the game industry. So please come join us: we need you.
I’d like to conclude by thanking you for taking the time out of your Saturday here to listen to me. Thank you to the organizers of the conference — you are all doing a great thing here, and we need more conferences that bring women in technology together. I’ll be around for a few hours, but I do have to leave to catch a plane later this afternoon, so if you’d like to get in touch with me and don’t get a chance to do so today, please feel free to contact me on twitter or some form of social media; I’ve put some contact information for you on the last slide here.