Tech sector for minorities and adorable pug photos by Alix Klingenberg
It is not news that we have a severe shortage of women and non-binary folks in engineering. One of the obvious reasons why younglings don’t get into this field as enthusiastically is the lack of wahine role models. Alix is one of those wonderful few. She is currently a software developer at Auror, an Auckland-based crime-fighting startup. She runs workshops with Ally Skills NZ and is helping out with the .NET Auckland meetup. Recently, along with Lauren Peate, Alix has been working on Multitudes, a software that measures the team’s dynamics to provide specific tips about behavioural shifts for enabling more effective and inclusive culture. It is with pleasure that I share Alix’s amazing and very honest interview on Kia Ora!
We usually start the interview by asking about people’s backgrounds. Here we shall make an exception and start by posting an adorable photo of Alix’s pug - Alphie, who shall feature throughout the interview.
Oh my, now, Alix, tell us a bit about your software background? It might be a bit of a cliche question but why did you decide to go into software engineering and what do you like about the field?
I’m a software developer at an Auckland startup called Auror. This fact has come as a bit of a surprise to me and my family, as I spent most of high school and my initial university studies pretty convinced that my future lay in the Arts. I started out doing a BA and drifted through several different majors before settling on a double major in Ethics and Logic and Computation. I kept failing papers and eventually the University politely suggested that I didn’t come back. I got a job as a legal secretary and spent a year typing up letters and contracts. Because I was the youngest in the office, I was the de-facto IT person, so when the boredom got unbearable, I decided to go to a different University to study computer science. I didn’t know too much about what it entailed, but I figured that I’ve always loved logic puzzles and formal logic, so I would probably like it. Funnily enough, the part of it I really enjoy is the same as what I loved about the Arts - the creativity and sense of creating something that other people connect with.
For someone who might know much about coding, how would you explain what you do and why did you specialise in that area?
At a super high level, I build web-based software - the websites that do cool and interesting things that you interact with. I mostly do back-end and infrastructure work - so I’m thinking a lot about how we store, transform and transmit data between different parts of our systems. I don’t make the pretty front-ends at all. I specialised in that area because I really enjoyed the variety of different tools and tech I get to use daily. I think it’s the closest to the kind of logic puzzles I’ve always enjoyed solving. I also just don’t have an eye for design - I have so much respect for people who do, but it’s never going to be me.
There has been a lot of awareness lately (although maybe not enough) about challenges women and other marginalised genders experience in the tech field, among many others. Could you please share some of your personal challenges?
Phew, this is definitely one of my hot buttons. I think there’s a lot of discussion and awareness around systemic issues, which has been fantastic. I think the difficulty comes when we take this abstract concept of systemic issues - for example, women, and particularly women of colour, getting paid less than men - and start trying to make changes in a particular company, with a particular team, with a particular person. People will happily agree that it’s awful that women are paid less than men, but once we start talking about a specific case, it becomes personal, and people feel accused and attacked, like you’re telling them they’re sexist because a woman in their company is getting paid less than her peers. And in any given case, you can find reasons why that person is getting paid less. She didn’t ask for a raise, she has less experience in a particular thing, she joined the company in between pay reviews. It doesn’t really matter what the reason is.
So I think the challenge comes from taking these concepts we can agree on and moving them into specific cases, because as soon as you know the people involved and all the other information, it makes it hard to see any systemic bias. Systemic bias, by definition, can only play out in a large scale, and I think it’s why we’re not seeing things shifting - because when you look at an individual case, it feels justifiable. So you have to consciously shift your decision-making process out of however you’ve been doing it before to rectify it, and that’s a hard thing to ask.
There are lots of reasons why it’s a hard thing to ask - people don’t like affirmative action for all sorts of reasons, but all that is well-documented. One thing I want to talk about is the sheer emotional toll it takes to have those discussions. Raising issues with your boss and pushing for change is scary and difficult, and it’s not rewarding at all. As I mentioned above, people are resistant to those ideas, because they first see them as a problem with you. To get past that, you usually need data - and who wants to keep a log of all the times someone claimed my idea as their own in a meeting? How do I get data on other people getting the stretch work assignments and me getting the non-promotable cleaning up work? And if you do all the extra work to get the data, once you have it and can prove there’s a systemic problem, you’re essentially saying “I can prove that this company is behaving in a systemically sexist/racist/other way” and that’s a tough conversation to have, because people are naturally defensive, and they want you to already have a solution, even though that solution is often something that’s difficult to ask for. And throughout this entire process, you’re risking being labelled as a trouble-maker or difficult, or as someone who has poor communication and team interaction skills, depending on exactly how woke your boss and his boss are. Not to mention that the toll that this work takes means you’re not focusing on your progression - you’re trying to fix the systemic bullshit that most companies have instead of hitting your goals.
So yeah, let’s get more young women and non-binary people into tech. Let’s get more people of colour, particularly Māori and Pasifika people, into tech. The thing is, sure the cohort of people joining the industry every year is not representative of NZ as a whole, but it’s not just a pipeline problem. There’s no point in fixing a pipeline if it leads to a sewer. The problems we need to address are difficult, and simply having a more diverse workforce, particularly early-career people, is not going to help that. We need to address the inequality that already exists, and it’s super hard for the people experiencing it to do that. I get really sick of hearing people say “Let’s focus on getting more girls to join tech!” - that’s great, but those of us who are already here would love your help in making this an inclusive, enjoyable industry to work in right now. You have power to impact that.
Tell us a bit about Ally Skills NZ and how did you get into running workshops with them?
Ally Skills NZ is Lauren Peate’s company. We’re a consultancy that mostly runs workshops with companies to help them understand what systemic biases and oppression look like in everyday life, and what small actions we can take in the moment to help address those things and hopefully change the outcomes. It’s based on an Ally Skills workshop format popularised by Valerie Aurora of Frameshift Consulting, and Lauren and I both did workshops with her when she visited NZ. Lauren asked me to get involved because a lot of the work she was doing was with tech companies, and she wanted someone who had technical credibility to be part of passing on these messages. I met Lauren at a dinner she was hosting, because she wanted more women friends in NZ, and we clicked instantly.
If a reader took away only a few things that they should do in their workplace and friend circle to create a more inclusive environment - what would they be?
One of the main things that I want people to take away is that they can make change. Often little things can be really effective - simply saying “Hey, we don’t do that here” when someone makes an off-colour joke is a great way to set the standard you expect in your workplace. Don’t try to be funny, don’t try to engage in a debate, just be really clear that certain comments or jokes don’t meet the standard you expect your colleagues to adhere to. White men - I know it doesn’t feel this way to you, but you really do have more power to set the standard on these things that the people who are targets of them. It may seem to you that it’s up to the person or group who is a target to say whether it bothers them, but I can assure you that you will not be doing the wrong thing if you speak up about people saying things that marginalise women and other gender minorities, and people of colour.
I’m a sucker for side projects, and I jumped at the chance to work with Lauren Peate on something. Multitudes is an idea Lauren and I worked on that grew out of the Ally Skills workshops. I mentioned above that one of the challenges people who are trying to make change in their companies face is that bias is really hard to pinpoint, and is often explained away by circumstance. So we wanted to create something that actually analysed the data around how people interact and how they work. We look specifically at the things that we know create great teams - measures of psychological safety, access to growth work, and feedback. We know lots of companies use surveys to try to figure these things out - but everyone hates surveys. Everyone lies on surveys. We can share our insights in a much more iterative, quick fashion - and you don’t even have to stop work to fill out an NPS score! We’re currently looking for team leads who might want to try this out with their teams to give us feedback - hit us up on [email protected] if this sounds like you.
Did you always have a clear course that you wanted to do in life? What sets you back on the course when you feel a bit lost?
Hahahahahahahaha fuck no. I’m still waiting to grow up and figure out what I want to do. Mostly, I want to do cool things with amazing people. That sounds really loose, but it’s a great guiding principle for me. Are the people I’m working with pushing me to be better, energising me, giving me good feedback? Is what I’m working on going to make a difference I want to see in the world? Having good chats with supportive friends is a great course correction - I’m lucky to have lots of smart, motivated people in my life.
It is easy to look from the outside through the online world lens and see all the wonderful things people are achieving and feel a bit down about yourself. You have done so much impressive work in software space, inclusivity space. Could you please share some of the personal or professional challenges that you have experienced?
My current biggest challenge is health. I want to do a million things - I want to do great work at Auror, I want to work on Multitudes with Lauren, I want to help out with the .NET meetup, I want to speak at conferences. And that’s just the professional stuff! I also want to be a good dog-mum to Alfie, a good wife to my husband, a good friend to all the amazing people in my life. But some days, I can’t even do the dishes or make myself a cup of tea. I miss deadlines, I half-ass things I really care about, I let people down all the time, I snap at people who don’t deserve it. And so I’m constantly worried people are going to realise that I’m only holding everything together with the thinnest piece of string, and they’re going to call me out on it. Or they’re going to come to my house and see the cobwebs and dust and think I’m disgusting, that I live in filth, even though I hate it too. The problem with the health stuff is that I can’t just be better. I have to do the best I can, and live with the rest. It’s unpleasant when your best is far below what you expect of yourself.
My biggest professional challenge is that I always wonder who the fuck I am to tell anyone anything, particularly when I do conference talks. I work with smart people, with interesting tech, trying new things, and I want to share my learnings. But I’ve only been doing this for 5 or 6 years and I’m not exceptional - you should see some of the stupid things I do on a daily basis. And so I desperately want to be exceptional, and to be recognised for that. But I want to have a life outside of coding as well, so I don’t do all the work it would take to be exceptional. So I just end up beating myself up about everything, instead. I wonder if I just got asked to speak because of my gender. But mostly, I try to remember that even if it’s true, I want to be up there speaking so that other women can see themselves in me and know that talking about super technical shit to a room of (let’s be honest, men) is a thing that we can do.
Wow, okay, that was super honest. I know lots of people have these feelings, and I’m lucky to have a supportive group of women & non-binary folk that I can share my insecurities with, and one in particular who will tell me to stop feeling sorry for myself. It works wonders!
What day to day things give you energy and inspire you the most?
Building things gives me energy! Working with smart, lovely people to solve interesting problems together. I get inspired when I can see the difference I’m making, when people look at the things I’ve created and say “Oh yeah, that’s cool. I’d use that.” My favourite client meeting was at my first job, where we’d built out a proof of concept, and the doctor we were showing it to said “Yeah this is pretty okay. Can you have it ready for my rounds on Saturday?”
Are you learning or pondering about anything right now that you would like to share?
Hmmm… There’s something I read recently that really stuck with me, and it was a study about how in academia, women’s papers tend to take longer. One of the reasons they found was that women hold themselves to a higher initial standard than men do, because they have internalised the inequitable standards that they are held to by reviewers. This felt like an epiphany to me, it felt so true. And of course I’m always naturally suspicious of things that feel super true, because everything is nuanced, so I’m currently turning this idea over in my head and wondering if it even matters for me. I want to have high standards for myself. But it’s not fun to look at the reviews you get on your work and think, would you nitpick about this to someone else?
And finally, whose story would you want to read about on here?
Oh my god. Okay let me start with my friends, and then into people I don’t know very well, because that part feels slightly weird. Going to stick to NZ tech, because that’s my little bubble.
Friends - I’d love to hear about Emily Melhuish. We all know she’s super cool, she just is, and I’d love to hear about her. Duck Lawn - they are so incredible, they do such interesting work with Aotearoa Tech Union and with activist work, plus SRE work is just naturally interesting to me. Lauren Peate of course - she’s lived in some incredible places and does such impactful work. Sana Oshika - Sana is a deep pool of knowledge and information and I think any interview with her about her work and hobbies would be so interesting. People I don’t really know but think are awesome: Jade Tan - I live in awe of designers and she’s doing cool things with an NZ startup in that tricksy medical space. Nat Dudley, who is such an incredible for voice for accessibility. Aurynn Shaw, whose breadth of skills and experience is just amazing. Erica Anderson, who runs a Kawaii-themed security conference - I need to know more about that. Grace Nolan for the same reason. Amber Craig - I’d love to hear about her experience on the board of InternetNZ.
Oh umm a wild card - the poet Tayi Tibble. Her work blows me away.