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Big Interview: “Entering the world of technology is not about race, gender or money”

March 5, 2018
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Recently I took an interview with my good friend, James. Hope that his story will inspire some of you to appreciate the modern community we live in and rethink perseverance and constant learning in achieving success.

Sometimes when people look at me, it feels like they are seeing someone else. I’m going to share my story of success in technology despite having an upside down childhood.

Now

I work for a successful tech startup as a developer evangelist and travel the world.  I live in Portland.  I have been working in technology since 1998.  I started in hardware, moved to network administration and am now a developer.  I have a long list of companies I’ve worked for and a broad skill set.

I snowboard. I love bacon.

Childhood

I was born to an interracial couple in New York City. My mother was Jewish and born in the city. My father was Black and from the South.

Shortly after my birth, my alcoholic father began beating my mother on a regular basis. My mother had a full set of dentures by age 35 because my father knocked all her teeth out. She has a scar on her forehead from the time he hit her in the head with a hammer. I saw her suffocated and choked repeatedly. I tried to help her. My youngest sister is mentally retarded due to his abuse while my mother was pregnant.

I called the police on my father for the first time at age 4.

Finally my mom left him and took me and my three sisters away. She was eight months pregnant with my brother when she left. We went to Minnesota because she had heard they had a good program for battered women. We moved around often. My mom was terrified my dad would find us. She told me how bad of a man he was. I missed him. I missed our trips to Coney Island. I liked going along with him when he went to see his friends and play cards. I didn’t understand why he hurt her though. I wished it didn’t have to be that way.

My mom didn’t get better. She was always sad and distant. She forgot to feed us and wash our clothes. Going to school was hard. The kids would tease me because my clothes were dirty and my shoes had holes. My hair was a complete mess. I felt ashamed. I started to miss the bus in the morning so I didn’t have to go. At first my mom would take me on the bus or call a taxi. She didn’t know how to drive. After a while she gave up and would just grumble. I was 7 years old and skipping school.

I spent my time reading. It allowed me to escape. I loved the Choose Your Own Adventure books. I would get a page and have to make a choice. Sometimes I would reread my choices a few times. I liked having options. Charlie and the Chocolate factory was another favorite. I could identify with Charlie. My library card was my most valuable possession.

I was hungry all the time. My mom wasn’t working and the food stamps didn’t last long with me and my three sisters.

The elementary schools I went to were Northrop and Jefferson. I still remember the school song,

“We all know that Northrop’s the best! Montessori beats all the rest and when we run and jump and make new friends, we laugh and learn and play and run, we will always have so much fun. Northrop for you and me!”

I wish school was like that. The only reason I would go to school would be to eat lunch. It was hard to decide between being teased by the kids at school and eating. Often, I would hide in the coatroom during the morning until lunch. After being teased I would pull my knees up to my chest and cry between the jackets. The kids in class then called me a Poppel after the stuffed toy that had a built in pouch like a kangaroo. I was becoming really sad. I just wanted to be left alone. I just wanted a normal life. I wanted to not have to worry about so much stuff.

Eventually, the truancy caught up with me. I was removed from the home several times and placed in a temporary home until the court date. It was the same old thing; stay at the kids shelter, go to court, my mom would tell the judge she would make me go to school, I would come home, the social worker would visit and I would stop going to school again.

Interestingly, I did really well on the standardized tests. I remember my fourth-grade teacher was pretty mad at my poor handwriting but she couldn’t argue my test scores and answers to the open essay questions. I credit this to being born smart plus all the reading I did.

Another problem with school was that I couldn’t see the chalk board. I thought that no one could see the board and the teacher would just point to it and we had to imagine what she was saying. I didn’t know it but I was nearsighted. I wouldn’t get my first pair of glasses until fifth grade.

Why didn’t anyone notice I needed help?

I still wonder to this day why my teachers never asked me what was wrong or did anything to intervene.

Back to the food. Things started to get really bad when I was 8 or 9. I was so hungry all the time. I would imagine eating all sorts of food. In the house there was canned corn and beans, powdered milk and peanut butter. I would roll balls of peanut butter in the powdered milk and eat those. I ate the canned vegetables as a last resort eating half a can at a time to save it. There wasn’t enough food for us. I dreamed of planting a garden because then there would be lettuce and other stuff to eat. I tried eating grass and that was gross. I was starving to death.

I had some friends who lived in the neighborhood; Colin and Alex. They had a sandbox in their backyard. I would go over there and play. We would build up roads and drive the trucks and cars all around then pour water to create disasters. Sometimes I brought my sister Gwendolyn along.

Their dad was divorced and sometimes he made frozen pizza. He would cut up hot dogs and put it on top. I realized that if I came over around dinner time, I would get to eat. I am not proud of this but it was something I did to survive.

This went on for one to two more years until a woman changed my life.

I was in the courthouse for truancy. I just wanted to get out of there. I was assigned a Guardian ad Litem. They are advocates for children in court. She said hello and some stuff. I wasn’t really listening because I was sad. This felt useless to be here again at court. Why couldn’t I take my mom to court and complain she wasn’t feeding us? The guardian was talking. She asked me if I wanted to go home. I said no. She said I didn’t have to go home. I looked up. She told me I could go into foster care instead to live. Did I want to do this?

YES!

Why had no one told me this before? We went into court and at the age of 11, I no longer had to live with my mother.

My new life

In my foster home, they took me to the doctor. I got glasses for the first time. I was registered for school and put in the fifth grade. They had my hair fixed and got me clothes to wear. For the first time in my life, I liked going to school. I liked my teacher…I think his name was Mr. Wiggins. I was living in a suburb called Eden Prairie.

For the first time in my life I could relax. No one was yelling. No one was scaring me. There was enough food.

The problem was that I didn’t talk a lot. I was scared to. I had seen what happened to my mother when she argued with my dad. I didn’t want anyone to hurt me. I didn’t know how to tell people I was sad or scared. I spent a lot of time listening. I began to journal in my late teens. I moved foster homes a few times. I left the last one when I was fifteen.

Growing up

I started school in the winter after I had found a new place to live. I liked this high school because it was interesting. It felt more grown up. Loring Nicollet Alternative High School. Marin Peplinski was the teacher and principal with a long, white ZZ Top looking beard. He smoked cigars and wore suspenders. He asked us tough questions about ourselves and our world. I liked how they treated me with respect and understanding. We learned karate at school. We took notes and had group discussions. We went on a camping trip once a year. Not like high school in the past where I would have to sit there while the teacher talked the whole time and then had us read from big, boring books. I started taking classes at the local college in the morning and coming back to the high school in the afternoon. Things were going well. I was working part-time to pay rent. I had my cat Turtle. She made me feel safe.

I had been dating girls but after my girlfriend had left me, I avoid them for three years. It was during this time I discovered my love of technology.

While living in foster care, I talked to my mom once in a while. Some of the social workers and therapists wanted me to think about moving back home but I always said no and would get upset if they pressed me. I didn’t want to go back to the life I had lived before. I tried to tell my sisters to do the same but they wanted to live with my mom.

Hello computer

My mom had a computer. I would go over to her house on Ashland Ave in St. Paul to see my sister and play on the computer. There were computers at school but to me they were only for typing papers. I had taken typing class in 8th grade with my friends Erin and Kyle. We would have races on speed and accuracy. I liked that. Otherwise I didn’t know much about computers. I had played Joust, Donkey Kong and Pit Fall Harry on the Atari 2600 in daycare when I was 6. I liked that. In the first foster home I had gone to out in Eden Prairie, they had a Super Nintendo. I learned to play games like Super Mario Bros, Duck Hunt, Metroid, Mega Man, Legend of Zelda, Transylvania and of course Contra. I found out about magazines you could buy that had walk throughs and cheat codes to get extra lives. In Contra I learned the Konami Code of “Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Start” which gave me enough lives to easily finish the game. In Super Mario Bros I jumped on the turtle shell at the end of level 3-1 to get a ton of free lives and then would warp to higher levels. Computers were for fun or work. I didn’t have a computer growing up.

My mom had AOL. It would dial up with a bunch of beeps and then you could go to a chat room or look for pages. My mom had a ton of hearts (bookmarks) and she would warn us not to delete them. Me and my sister would look for sites to play games. We then found out the library had computers. I would go there and try to do the same stuff I had tried at home. I didn’t know anything about operating systems or hardware.

 

My first computer

I graduated high school at 19 and looked for an internship for the summer. I had done one a few years ago at the University of Minnesota when I was about 13 and in foster care. They had a big list of things and I found all the ones with animals. I’ve always loved animals. I got to play with goats and horses that summer and always had remembered it. So I created a flyer and took the bus down to the Minnesota state fairgrounds to the horse expo they were holding. I explained my desire to work with animals and secured an introduction that led to an internship on a horse farm near Glencoe, MN.

It was interesting work. And hard. Horses are apparently very big animals who eat and poop a lot. They also need lots of hay. Hay is itchy. I learned a lot about taking care of horses and training them. I went back to the city with a little something extra: a hand me down computer.

I figured out how to get the computer online after calling Qwest to order a phone line. The Internet seemed huge. Endless. I dialed into a BBS and played games. I tried looking for web pages like I had done with my sister. We liked playing lemonade stand. I didn’t exactly understand the difference between floppy disks only working for a PC or a Macintosh and destroyed a few.

I had been working at a market research firm since the age of 16. I liked it there. They were organized and predictable. It was easy to get to on the bus. They gave me compliments on my work because I was able to guide people through phone surveys and accurately take notes on their comments. I felt proud and I liked working there.

I wanted to learn more about computers so I found a job where I could learn more.

My first computer job was at the local OfficeMax. They had boxes of software, computers, printers, cables and everything you could imagine. I knew no one really came there to shop for computer stuff so I was free to spend my time reading the boxes. I read about the hard drive space, ram, video card requirements. I would think about these for hours. I would take notes and read them at night after I got off work.

One day I was at my mom’s house visiting my sister. My mom told me that she needed to sign me up for Microsoft. They had a beta tester program and she was going to sign me up because then we (meaning she) could get a free copy of Windows 98. I didn’t know what this meant but I knew my mom liked coupons and free stuff. A few weeks later an official looking letter came from Microsoft. It told me that it was a big responsibility to become a beta tester and that I would need to submit bug reports on a regular basis. I took this seriously. I bought my first computer book: Upgrading and Repairing PC’s, the Eighth edition. I began reading it voraciously to prepare myself. One of the things Microsoft said was that I would need to upgrade my hard drive and CD-Rom. From what I had seen at Office Max, this would be very expensive. I had to find a solution. A few blocks away, there was a used computer store that also sold used movies. I went in there to buy a used hard drive and CD-Rom so I could load the Windows 98 beta onto my computer. I walked out with the hard drive, CD-Rom and a job.

This is when I discovered my passion for computers.

My career in technology

It turns out that installing hardware can be…hard.  I put in the hard drive.  Since this was a computer given to me by the horse trainer’s wife, it came from a corporation and someone had decided that SCSI would be the way to go instead of IDE.  This added a level of complexity to my task but I’m glad now looking back because it required me to think about things in a more abstract manner and learn jumpers.  I got the hard drive installed but the CD-Rom was not being recognized.  Crap!  I thought about what to do.  The book said that I could call the manufacturer of the computer so I found their number and called NCR.  This was before computer companies asked, “Is this computer under warranty?”.  I explained to the support person what I was trying to do.  He told me to turn on the computer, search for a file and make some changes.  I would do that then try the CD-Rom again and call back with my results.  This went on for several days until I had, as Steve Blank says, an epiphany — whatever this was called I was doing with computers, I enjoyed it!  I wanted to do this as a job!

I had started college by this time.  I had won a small scholarship at my high school.  I was looking forward to taking more college classes.  I didn’t understand how tuition worked and thought the money only covered books and class fees so I was working 30 hours a week plus taking a full load.  It was exhausting.  I was taking classes for psychology because I wanted to help people.  I wanted to stop others from suffering the pain I had endured as a child.

I had been working at the used computer parts store for a few months.  I liked that I could get a discount on the hardware.  I saved up and bought a no name box PC there.  I watched the technician work and asked him lots of questions.  I stopped going to classes and decided to learn computers.  I bought memory and did my first upgrade.  It took me 45 minutes because I didn’t want to break anything.

I kept reading, trying things and submitting bug reports to Microsoft.  Sometimes it was hard to figure out what was broken.  It was easier when they told me what they wanted me to try.  Finally I earned the reward and received a final copy of Windows 98.   Until that point, they had been shipping discs that had special labels saying beta on them.

My friend Jesse came over and showed me how he could make a web page and change the colors. All in Notepad. It blew my mind. I had to learn more.

Back at the horse farm that next summer, I registered my first domain name and began to figure out how to build websites.  There isn’t much to do in the middle of nowhere at night so I had plenty of time to learn.

I began figuring out how to get more knowledge and experience with computers.  The local college didn’t offer much past computer 101 and when I had taken that, it was boring.  I hated being bored when I was supposed to be learning.  I looked at the U of M but they only had computer science degrees that seemed to involve a lot of math classes.  Nothing about hardware.  Mmm…

I got a book called, What Color Is Your Parachute, and began reading on how to get the job I wanted.  The book was super helpful and talked about everything from finding companies that wanted to hire, the secret job market, preparing my resume, how to communicate with decision makers who could hire me, to how to followup and more.  I read and re-read this information many times.

I decided that I would work at GeekSquad.  It was a fairly new computer support company but seemed to be growing.  I followed the book’s advice down to the letter and got an interview after several, persistant emails and phone calls.  They tested my knowledge and I knew the answer to every question like, “What does fdisk \mbr do?”.  Robert Stephens interviewed me.  He was the founder of GeekSquad.  I made sure to keep my cool, especially when salary came up.  I negotiated a 64% increase over what I was making at the other computer shop.  I was super green yet I had landed a job working at GeekSquad. They had 34 employees.  I was 20 years old.

And so it went that I kept learning, improving and knowing more.  I began to test for certifications to prove I knew my stuff.  Imposter syndrome was always lurking nearby.  I was happiest when I helped someone solve a problem and they thanked me for it.  Computers were especially frustrating during the early 2000’s because nothing was standardized and that led to things like the interface wars of EISA.  Drivers were all over the place and people were upset.  I had a purpose.

I started on hardware troubleshooting and then moved to software.  From helpdesk to desktop support to network administration.  I became unhappy with the lack of customer service I saw around me.  I dreamed of providing both solutions and service.  I started working for myself in 2006.

Self discovery and healing

Just because I didn’t live at home didn’t mean I had escaped the past. I carried it with me. I realized I had to change this. It took years of work through therapy, reading, journaling and prayer. My big breakthrough year was 2006. That was the year I woke up. The year I snapped out of the fog I had been living in. I was diagnosed with ADHD and PTSD. Part of the assessment was an intelligence test. I had an IQ of 130. I’m smart enough to join MENSA! I began to see a psychologist who practiced EMDR, a type of therapy to help people process traumatic experiences. This made a huge difference in my life. I began to take long strides vs timid steps on my path to healing.

Because of my experiences growing up, I have triggers. This means that I’m always scanning for danger; for situations that seem like something from the past that could hurt me. When I recognize something that matches, I can overreact and feel intense fear, anger or anxiety. This is something I’ve worked on a lot. It’s much better now than 10 years ago but there are some things that send me over the edge.

Like the other day when someone asked me if I had a baby photo. The answer is no — I don’t have any photos of myself before the age of 11…and it hurts. So I started crying. They hadn’t hurt me or threatened me but the overwhelming feeling of my childhood overcame me. Mourning for the child version of me who never had the chance to enjoy being a child.

Or coming back on the plane from Mexico the other weekend. The man in front of me had both the window shades open and the light was pouring in over my face. I thought to ask him if it was all right to close the shade but in the back of my mind I thought, “What if he gets mad, yells and starts attacking me when I ask?”. I worked on this for several minutes to overcome the fear. I had to coach myself that the other thought was irrational and that I needed to say something. I finally did ask a few minutes later. He happily agreed and I closed the shade. While on the outside it seems things are simple, often they are emotionally exhausting for me on the inside.

My sister doesn’t talk to me. She suffers from depression. I remind her of the past. I miss her.

I don’t like the holiday season, or at least I haven’t for many years because of how I grew up. In 2004, I lived in my own place and decided it was time to try and turn around how I felt about the holidays. For me it started with a symbol of celebration: A christmas tree. Here you can see my pet rats climbing around in the tree I got in 2007. Each year since I would get a tree and set it up with lights. I was reshaping my experience. Each year felt better. When I moved to San Francisco, I didn’t set up a tree for the first two years. Stress, drama and where to find a tree? This last year, 2012, I setup a tree and I was very happy about it! This year it even had presents underneath the tree! For 2013 my goal is to host a holiday party. I will learn to love and enjoy the holidays despite my past.

One thing I’m not willing to work on is peanut butter. Since I ate so much of it as a child and associate it with painful memories, I don’t like it as an adult. I eat almond butter instead.

These are the remnants of trauma I must live with but the good thing is I can and have overcome them.

First World Problems

Yes, sometimes I’ve imagined what it would be like to only worry about first world problems growing up.

Sometimes I’ve experience a disconnect when trying to relate to people who live in San Francisco and are part of the tech world because of how I grew up.

Last week I was out to dinner with some developers.  Four us us there.  One was telling a story that had to do with working at a fast food franchise and making really cool food mashups.  She had read the article about the McDonalds McWorld in Times Square.  She asked who had worked at a fast food place besides her.  I raised my hand.  I had worked at Hardee’s and Wendys.  The other people shook their heads.  It was in that moment I realized how different I was than most people out here in San Francisco.  Most people working out here in tech have one or more (usually more) of the following things in their background:

  • Have a college degree or dropped out of a prestigious school
  • Have been working with computers since their teenage years
  • Moved to the Bay Area from another state (almost no one in tech is a local)
  • Have not had to work since teen years to support themselves
  • Had 6+ months of savings before moving to the Bay
  • Have family to financially support them
  • Have worked at well known fortune 1000 company
  • Worked at startup that had an exit

I know this can seem daunting and not everyone has this in their background.  I moved out with 2 months of savings but I quickly learned that besides rent, transportation and food costs were also high.  According to this CNN cost of living calculator, housing costs are 138% higher in San Francisco, CA than Minneapolis, MN where I moved from.

Last year when I was reading the Hunger Games, I started to cry because I could identify with Katniss Everdeen as the book described her daily hunger because there wasn’t enough food.  How she was angry at her mother for not taking care of them.  I told my roommate that I could relate to Katniss and he asked if it was because she was from a small village.  WTF?  I explained why and his face was totally blank.  He was unable to comprehend lack of food or neglect from parents.

These are not discouragements but simply an insights I have observed.  Because of this, I am more careful in disclosing my past because I do not want to create a sense of disparity, guilt or resentment.

Too much stress: suicide in the tech community

Many people out here in the Bay Area are alone without families. I see them struggling with that. We’ve all seen how it can be much worse than they let on as seen with the suicides of Aaron Swartz and Ilya Zhitomirskiy.

Why didn’t they talk to someone?

Who could they have talked to?

Why didn’t anyone know it was that bad for them?

These are things I’ve dealt with my entire life but I’m starting to see problems with other tech folks who haven’t developed the coping skills to deal with large amounts of daily stress. They feel the pressure to perform. Everyone in their home state is rooting for them. Their investors want them to get new users. Their co-founders are working night and day to deliver. The pressure for many is unlike anything they have ever experienced before.

I can understand they felt they didn’t have anyone to go to and the only solution appeared to be ending their lives.

But it’s not the only solution.

I have a high tolerance for pain and stress. I had to in order to survive what I experienced on a daily basis. It’s a coping mechanism called cognitive dissonance that allowed me to not question what was going on so much. Otherwise, my brain would have exploded. I would have been a 6-year-old having a nervous breakdown. I felt I had no one to turn to. That no one would understand what was going on at home. That they would say I deserved it. I internalized the neglect and thought I was a bad child, a bad daughter, a bad student. That’s what kids do; try to make sense out of nonsense. Many times I thought about telling a teacher I needed help but fear stopped me. Sometimes I wished I would just die so I wouldn’t have to keep being hungry. I couldn’t understand why it was happening to me.

Through my healing process from trauma and neglect, I gained skills and tools that helped me become empowered, speak up and take action. I became able to describe and reconnect with my feelings, share them and take action on my own behalf. It was a big deal, this merging of thoughts and feelings. I learned how to get support from friends and how to let go of the shame I’d felt for so long. The shame that wasn’t mine to bear because I was not in control of my childhood.

Mental health issues can stem from a lot of things.

First, it can be organic

It’s something you’re born with.  This can cover a wide spectrum of things from autism, Asperger’s, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and dyslexia to depression, bipolar disorders, Tourette’s and OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).  This means how the person’s brain works is different.

I have ADHD and was most likely born with it.  I suspect at least one of my parents had it too but neither were ever tested or diagnosed.  I also suspect it was made worse because of how I grew up.

Second, it can be environmental

This means that something kept happening (or not happening) causing your mind to adapt.  During childhood, our brains grow and form connections or synapses based on our exposure to the things we see, hear and feel.   Studies show that lack of exposure in the environment can stunt children.  You can think of your brain like a river; the more water that flows down, the deeper the connections.  The good news is we can improve these synapses as an adults even if they were not fully formed in childhood.

I experience anxiety tied to PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) on a daily basis.  Often it’s about things most people don’t even think twice about.  I guess I control it pretty well because my friends report they often cannot even tell I’m nervous or anxious.  I consciously overstep my comfort zone whenever possible to counter it.

Third, it can be situational

Think of veterans coming back from wars, when you saw the towers fall on 9/11 if you have ever been in a car accident or house fire, sexually assualted or experienced the death of a loved one.  These events often cause what is known as “situational depression” that may be a part of the normal grieving process.  For many who are experiencing something like this for the first time, the feelings can feel…overwhelming.  When you think back to the event, the memories are vivid and can feel just as painful as the first time.  This is where PTSD comes in.  Due to a single event or series of traumatic experiences, it can be hard for someone to feel “normal” again.  Whenever they’re reminded of the event, they react strongly.

Higher up in this post I talk about understanding how to deal and heal from this using therapies like EMDR and CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) to manage my thoughts and subsequently, my behavior and reactions.

Dealing with It

So if you’re having problems in your life and they’re affecting your life to the points you’re constantly worrying, looking over your shoulder, sick to your stomach or can’t get out of bed, what do you do?

As humans, we’re wired to survive.  We find solutions whenever possible but if those aren’t around, we find bandaids, otherwise known as coping mechanisms.  Some are good, most are bad. Really bad.  They include food, drugs, alcohol, high risk activities, multiple sex partners, shoplifting, school truancy, reckless behavior, violence, and isolation.  It takes the immediate pain away but doesn’t resolve the source.

  1. Start with therapy
  2. Get psychological testing done
  3. Explore prescription drugs last after #1 and #2

I started smoking cigarettes at the age of 14.  I tried quitting many times.  I tried sheer willpower in 1999 when I stood in line and got tickets to see Prince at the Target Center.  I bargained with myself but the addiction was stronger.  You would think after seeing my mom smoke over a pack a day, I would never smoke.  I kept trying to quit using the gum, the patch and finally Zyban which finally helped me quit in 2006 (yes, that was a phenomenal year for me!).  After getting diagnosed with ADHD, it made sense.  Cigarettes are a stimulant.  I was trying to regulate my attention and focus and reduce anxiety with nicotine.  The clarity of diagnosis allowed me to address a bad coping mechanism.  I have smoked a few times since when the amount of stress in my life was just too overwhelming to bear, even with all my other tools.  Like when my dog Bluey died.

I am late.  Often.  Frequently.  Most of the time.  This is a coping mechanism for me.  I’ve been doing it since I was old enough to go to school (or not go).  It allows me to feel a sense of control in situations.  Logically I know it doesn’t make sense but as a coping mechanism it feels familiar and I don’t feel powerless.  I’ve improved a lot since moving to San Francisco.  Partly because I go to more events and partly from to my desire to be more dependable as a part of my character and let go of bad coping mechanisms that are no longer necessary.

My sisters abused food.  Some people describe overeating as a way to push down bad feelings.  My sister who is two years younger than me ballooned to over 300lbs in high school.  I was worried she wouldn’t live past age 25.  I nagged her about it; a lot.  I was angry that my mom hadn’t protected her from the man who hurt her when she was around 11. They say that victims of abuse will eat to make themselves unattractive. I feel that was what she did and I didn’t know how to help her. Thankfully, she didn’t die. She started losing a lot of weight when she started going to college. It took her 45 minutes to get to class from St. Paul so the exercise combined with an enormous reduction in empty carbohydrates soon made a difference.  She used to drink a two liter of Mountain Dew (or two) a day.

I’ve always been skinny. It’s my metabolism and ADHD. I’ve never abused food like having anorexia or binging and purging but I didn’t have a healthy relationship with or around food: I still worry there won’t be enough food. This led to me depriving myself of enjoying food when I ate it. I would eat the less appealing food on my plate first and I felt uncomfortable eating in front of others. I was afraid they would criticize me on how I used my fork and knife or that they would think I ate weird. One time in my late teens/ the early 20s, I went out to dinner with the horse trainer and his family to a steak place.  I ate the vegetables and potato first then had a small bit of the steak.  Wow! So good! I was excited to take the rest of the steak to eat later, in private. I thought about how good it would taste and how I could eat and savor it alone.  Unfortunately, I forgot the bag of leftovers in the car that night and it wasn’t until the next morning, I realized my mistake.  I was angry at myself and ashamed that I did this. I knew I had to fix this meal enjoyment thing but didn’t know where to start. Years later I would share it with my EMDR therapist and he helped me process the feelings of shame (not having enough to eat) and guilt (feeling bad for having something to eat).  It would be several more years before I made solid progress to enjoy food without feeling uncomfortable. Last year when I went to Germany, I ate with the fork in my left hand instead of switching like Americans do (It was said that American spies ate this way).  Today, I still worry about not having enough food even though I have plenty.  Sometimes I like to look at the food I have in the cupboard. I still keep candy like Nerds in my dresser. This is why I look forward to leftovers. I’m also a very slow eater coming in about 10-20 minutes after most others at a table have finished their plates.

In America, mental health is not talked about.

In families, mental health is not acknowledged.

In schools, mental health is not taught, discussed or addressed.

This needs to change.

Don’t give up

All these years I kept going.  I had hope that my tomorrow would be better than my yesterday.  I dreamed of living a different life and books helped me imagine different places, worlds, people and ways to be.  My resiliency kept me focused on the future when most others would have given up.  It paid off.

My knapsack was completely devoid of anything but I filled mine with knowledge and once it was full, I sought to share that with others.

I hope if you’re born with an invisible knapsack of privilege that you’ll look for ways to share too.

A friend I know refers to them at ” the cheat codes of life”.

5 things J & J should know

This is where Jason and Jamelle intersect for a learning moment —

  1. I learned through an iterative process how to create content that got traction
  2. I create content about technology because I find it interesting
  3. I didn’t know I had a passion for technology until I was challenged to deeply explore it
  4. I have consistently overcome sizable disadvantages and obstacles in my life
  5. I continue to create technical content because I enjoy helping others

While I disagree with both sides (Jason for clinging to his meritocracy beliefs and Jamelle for writing a slanted article even after I sent him links to Black tech writers in November), I wanted to clarify that what people create and why they do it are not tied to their race, or gender or socioeconomic status.

The other fallacy here is with the original article that it was hard to be a Black tech journalist is that race (or gender) are the only problems.

It wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco that I met:

  • Black people who had graduated from Harvard
  • Black people with sizable fortunes
  • Black people who sold technology companies with multimillion-dollar exits
  • Black people in their 30’s who owned property
  • Black people from two-parent families
  • Black people who snowboarded

Jason kept tweeting about how he was able to do it so anyone can.

Well I can say to Jason Calacanis, “Hey, why are you so fat?  You’re BMI is out of control!  I’ve never had a weight problem so you should be able to just shed those pounds and be skinny”.

Did that hurt?  If you felt the slightest bit uncomfortable, congratulations on having a tiny sampling of what it’s like being a woman or Brown person.  We can’t just “switch”.  But I don’t say that to people besides him because I have compassion and understanding that people have things in their past that I can’t possibly know or understand.

We are humans, not robots.

Why share this now? 

  • I want you to know that it’s entirely possible to enter the world of technology even if you weren’t “programming as a fetus” as my friend Liz put it
  • I want you to know you have a lot of options in technology and you can explore more than one angle and evolve like I did
  • I want you to know the story of someone who you can relate to
  • I want to see you read this article and take action in your life to exponentially increase your level of awesome
  • I want to encourage you to share your story too because I’m tired of others telling it for us

Outcomes

It’s not about race.  It’s not about gender.  It’s not even about money.

It’a about understanding people, being persistent, setting goals and knowing how to get access to the network.

That’s why I tweeted yesterday: “I am working on a process to create racial and gender diversity in startups without tokenism”

I understand what it takes to be successful in technology and am working to bring this vision to life to change the world.

My advice to people of any race or gender who want to write about tech is:

  1. Identify your passion
  2. Find your medium
  3. Keep trying new things
  4. Get feedback from others
  5. Measure your results

I’ve carried a heavier load then most and despite that, I have actively decided to purse a path of self-improvement, give back and inspire others. I focus on being humble and embracing that I am a survivor, not a victim.

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