Managing people that don’t look like you

Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack

No one trains managers in empathy. We train new managers to use project management software, to interface with clients, and to fill out timesheets, but being a manager means giving a shit about your people. When’s the last time you, as a manager, faced training that taught you that you have profound power over the lives of the people who work for you, and that your thoughtlessness is deeply cruel when you force people to operate in an environment that harms them?

I’m using strong language because over the last fifteen-odd years, I’ve seen an unbelievable amount of thoughtless cruelty towards people who vary from your expectations. Much of what I’ve seen involves treating people with disabilities or medical conditions as inconveniences gladly shed when the workday is through–and absolutely ensuring that people with disabilities cannot attend the after-work and networking events that are so vital to a successful career. Many managers don’t realize how much harder it is getting jobs when you’re differently abled, transgender, female, older, or any of the other categories that aren’t “Single, White, Young, Straight, Male”.

Your job as a manager is very different than the one you did while on the team. As a manager, your job is to facilitate and help your team succeed.

One of the biggest issues I see new managers dealing with is the idea that the team is theirs. Their responsibility, their charge, their trust. They’ve been entrusted with people that have less voice than they do about the conditions under which they work, the conflict they experience and the situations they find themselves in. The worst managers I’ve seen aren’t the ones who deliberately push people around. The worst managers are the ones who assume a peer relationship with their team and take absolutely no responsibility for the success and comfort of the people they’ve been charged with protecting and promoting. “It’s not my fault; I didn’t know that poster would make her uncomfortable, and if it did, why didn’t she tell me?” Pushing blame onto your employees for not doing your job for you is vicious, whether unconscious or not.

Managers often think to themselves “If someone has a problem with these arrangements, I’ll hear about it. They’ll just speak up.” Wrong. If you’re in a position of power over people’s lives and ability to put food on the table, you’ll never hear about a problem with the hotel accommodations, the food selection, the air conditioning, the pet allergies, the disability access, the racist posters in the ladies bathrooms, or the pressure to consume too much alcohol.

This is especially endemic when your team is travelling somewhere. When people are moved outside their comfort zone, they have needs that they expect you to be thinking about and to handle. If you have a team member who is disabled, and you plan an afterparty at a rooftop bar with no elevator, you won’t hear from that person about your stupid choice to create an “optional” event that your workers are expected to attend for job and networking reasons. Instead, that disabled person will simply say “I’m not up to it tonight” and head back to the hotel. How are they supposed to speak up? They have no power, you pay their bills, and if they complain, they’re a party killer instead of a friend and colleague. It’s your job to put yourself in the position of each person on the team, and ask yourself if they’ll be comfortable and able to succeed in the environment you’re forcing them to operate in.

Yes, you’re FORCING them to do what you want. If you’re the person that decides if an employee stays or goes, you literally have the power to turn off their electricity, to pull their kids out of school, to have their car repossessed, to cause them emotional and social pain and shame. You think that someone is going to just speak up when they’re uncomfortable? Or are they going to keep their mouth shut, start looking for another job, and badmouth the poor management you’re providing?

I’ve seen a lot of instances of thoughtlessly cruel management, especially when travelling for work. I’ve seen blind people unable to attend work parties because dogs weren’t allowed in the door. I’ve seen people with severe animal allergies expected to work in small offices with service animals. I’ve seen a single down step into a restaurant prevent two people in wheelchairs from attending a party.

Let’s look at examples involving gender, disability, and ethnicity.

**The one where the manager doesn’t understand the reason for the disabled person’s request**

Say you’re a project manager. Your dev manager decides to send you to the big yearly conference for your tech. You book the rooms for your team, set up the reservations for dinner on two nights, and book 8 seats on flights. Then, the email from your team member who has a mobility disorder arrives. “Can I talk to the airline myself? I want to do an upgrade to first class.” GODDAMNIT, you think. I’ve been trying to get this person to be MORE a part of the team WHY DO THEY HAVE TO MAKE MY LIFE HARDER BY BEING A SNOB??

I’ve seen managers respond angrily to requests to have travel arrangements changed because they’re seeing that request through the eyes of someone working on team solidarity–or they’re simply cutting costs. Unfortunately, the state of air travel can be completely vicious  and much more expensive for someone with a disability, and often the fastest way to handle discomfort and ensure that there will be someone to help you is to do an airline upgrade. It may look classless to not want to sit with your team (pun intended), but it’s often a shortcut to take care of your own needs without being a pain in the ass for your manager. When you have a person on your team who you know has a disability, it’s often easy to think that you know best for them. Being visibly physically disabled absolutely means that people treat you as if you’re mentally or socially disabled as well. Don’t think you know better than someone who’s been managing their disability for years. Let them make their own choices and find a different way to accomplish your goals.

**The one where your workplace is diverse and your happy hour is monochrome**

You’re a new manager. You want to invite all your team out to pizza and beer and make it a regular thing. In a fairly common circumstance, you have 5 white men, 1 East Asian man, and one South Asian woman working for you. After three Friday happy hours, the woman has never come, the East Asian man came to the first one and not any following ones, and the 5 white men are regulars. Why do you think this is? Have you noticed that it’s happening?

To realize what is happening here, look at the socioeconomic factors on your team. I won’t say that it’s always the case, but for many women around the world and in the US, a job with clearly defined working hours is a blessing that lets them support a family and still spend time with them. I’m not just talking about children; there are many cultures that have a big emphasis on care for the aged, and given my experience managing, it’s generally women that bear the burden of that care. Now, you’re less likely to promote that woman because you don’t know them as well. Let’s not pretend that happy hour is totally unrelated to career success. Instead, think about how to make team socializing happen on the job. Can you do a team lunch potluck on Fridays? Potluck always helps, since people can be guaranteed of having something they can eat. Can you do a family-friendly picnic as an offsite some Monday or Saturday? There are better options than the unspoken requirement that even if you’re not getting paid for it, your ass shows up for happy hour or you don’t get promoted. That invisible power structure is a major barrier for the success of women and minorities of all kinds, and you can help open it up.

Your East Asian man may be lactose-intolerant (very common genetic difference) and unwilling to tell your whole team that pizza makes him ill. This is serious–who would want to tell their friends and colleagues that they don’t like their food? Ever thought about rotating the location of your happy hour to include lots of different experiences and restaurants? Not only does sharing new experiences make for a better team, it offers choices for people who may not want to tell you that your plan doesn’t work for them.

There are lots of reasons your team might be different at happy hour. Don’t pretend like it’s not your problem when your not-so-subtle power over your team is what creates burdens for people that don’t look like you.

***Conclusion***

The reason you’re being thoughtlessly cruel to your team is because you see situations through your eyes, not theirs. If they make a request that seems odd, don’t immediately deny it. Ask yourself why they might be making the request to begin with. If the women on your team never show up for happy hour, ask yourself what about the environment could make a woman uncomfortable. Not going to Hooters is an obvious choice, but a more subtle one might be that the social situation changes to one that is more sexually charged when the rest of your team gets tipsy.

It’s your responsibility to take care of your people. You have power, and whether intentionally or not, you’re using it. Use it to help, not hurt.

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Redirect timewaster sites with 3 Chrome extensions

Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack

I have a lot of sites that by themselves, aren’t terrible for me. I won’t spend hours on Facebook or Buzzfeed or Twitter or Gawker or Huffington Post…but I have found myself spending hours on Facebook AND Buzzfeed AND Twitter AND Gawker AND Huffpo.

I looked at some helpful productivity extensions, and I like this combination:

1. New Tab Redirect automatically redirects all new tabs to my fitness website instead of showing me my most visited sites in Chrome, which was distracting and sometimes led to Facebooking where none was intended.

2. StayFocusd gives me a time limit for how much time in a day I can spend on a collection of timewaster sites. Here’s my list of sites on which I can only spend 10 COLLECTIVE minutes per day. Yes, this means I have to compose my tweets before I go sit on Hootsuite for an hour mindlessly clicking.

Remove aol.com
Remove buzzfeed.com
Remove cracked.com
Remove dorkly.com
Remove facebook.com
Remove gawker.com
Remove hootsuite.com
Remove huffingtonpost.com
Remove instagram.com
Remove nytimes.com
Remove reddit.com
Remove themuse.com
Remove toofab.com
Remove tumblr.com
Remove twitter.com
Remove zergnet.com

3. After StayFocusd ticks over for the day, trying to go to those sites lands me on a StayFocusd ad page. So, I use Switcheroo Redirector to selectively redirect any URL to another URL. I fed in the StayFocusd ad page and now when I try to mindlessly hit Facebook after the time limit is up for the day, I land on the NOAA astronomy page looking at a current picture of the sky.

Voila!

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Developer at AtlasCamp apologizes to “all getting offended” by his sexist joke

**EDITED 17:44 Pacific 6/4/14** Saha develops for Atlassian, but does not work for them.

Today, Jonathan Doklovic, an Atlassian developer at Atlassian’s AtlasCamp in Berlin, Germany presented a talk that contained this slide:

BpR3N1YCcAAsEz-

Then, Marko Saha (Director, Agile Enterprise Solutions at Ambientia) tweeted it because he thought it was funny.

The tweet has gone viral. Atlassian’s CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes, has already responded with a blog post here:

On failing our values, our team, and our industry

There’s a problem. While the creator of the slide hasn’t responded, Marko Saha has responded by halfheartedly apologizing “to those offended”,

referring to the social media response to his sexist joke as a hassle,

claimed the slide was taken out of context,

And seems to be referring to the lack of consequences anyone faced as bullshit, because

Soooo, Atlassian? You’ve got a mess to clean up there. You might start by letting your dev know that this is inappropriate behavior BEFORE handling the PR in a situation like this. Second, Ambientia has a mess to clean up as well. The last thing Saha tweeted, an hour ago, was a list of literary insults.

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Defaults changed for OpenSSH config in Kubuntu 14.04 Trusty Tahr

Kubuntu

I rebuilt a box this morning, and when I installed openssh-server, I found a different option set as default in the config file–one that I believe is less secure.

Where previously, the default Authentications section looked like this:


# Authentication:
LoginGraceTime 120
PermitRootLogin yes
StrictModes yes

The default now looks like this:


# Authentication:
LoginGraceTime 120
PermitRootLogin without-password
StrictModes yes

And I have, of course, set the switch to “no”.

I don’t personally allow root logins of any kind on any of my personal servers, and I do like that the default has been made more secure. It’s different, however, and my eyes might have scanned right over this switch if I didn’t have a list of things I change for security reasons each time I build a box. Caveat emptor.

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Companies Lie About Their Proportion of Female Engineers

Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack

Companies tend to inflate the numbers of women in their ranks holding ‘technical’ positions. No corporation wants to admit that their company has little to no female engineers; instead, they create an overarching category of people on technical teams, and then divide by gender.

The statistics a company publishes concerning the number of women hires are often very misleading. Companies often say that women in graphic design or project management are ‘technical’ in nature; they are not typically regarded as so by most engineers. They are artists or human resource and task specialists who schedule, track, and motivate the developers. However, it is convenient to use them to showcase high numbers of women in technical positions in any organization. I wrote a now defunct blog post on my experience asking Klout.com about this, which was chronicled in Huffington Post.

Here’s the original data I compiled on Klout’s proportion of women in tech at the time. It’s just an infograph (don’t mock my nonexistent graphic design skills), but it illustrates the situation quite well. Click the thumbnail to embiggen.

Klout by the numbers-Large

As a result, most people are not aware of the true nature of the difficulties women face being hired to work in development and programming teams. These are tiny, overwhelmingly masculine pockets of an often quite egalitarian overall corporate culture.

The way to determine the real number of women in technical positions is to ask how many female engineers are on board. That is not a number which can be inflated; ask to meet with one or two in order to find out how women are treated in the organization. If you are concerned with how that might appear, contact the women via social media. You should be able to reach at least one or two…if they exist.

It’s very tough to tell how many companies are inflating their numbers. I know of two large companies at a minimum in the Seattle area which count project managers and graphic designers as “technical” employees, when in reality it is a rare event indeed for a woman to be employed as a software engineer or web developer. Be cautious when companies tout their high integration stats; the truth is that unless the CEO, CTO, COO, and VP Engineering are all female, I would never believe offhand any company that tells me that “42% of our technical workforce is female.”

If you know a company that is seeking female engineers and which would be a great place to work, even if the proportion of technical women in the company is low, leave it in the comments. I can think of several places with low ratios that are great workplaces.  It’s merely the vicissitudes of hiring which have left them low on women, though they work hard on diversity.

A small disclaimer: if you are a project manager or graphic designer and you consider yourself to be technical, I believe you. I am speaking only of the corporate habit of trying to make female engineers believe that they will be on a team consisting of a gender split like unto that which the company publishes as its official gender ration for technical positions.

Parts of this post adapted from “Technical Interviews for Technical Women” © 2011 Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack

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How to choose a co-founder for your startup

鹿西岛OER3

It’s more intimate, in many ways, to have a cofounder of a startup than a spouse. Your cofounder will know more about you than almost anyone else in your life. In fact, your cofounder will know things about you that your friends and spouse don’t even know.

You can and should feel the need to keep some things hidden from your friends when they’re inconvenient or uncomfortable. Fortunately or unfortunately, your cofounder will need to know intimate details about your life, your health, your relationship, and how you chew your food.

Your cofounder will not judge you about the state of your relationship, but they may know much more about it than your close friends do. You may have friends that are little bit flaky, but your cofounder never will be. On days when you can’t handle, your cofounder had better be able to pick up the slack. You will have more close interpersonal time with this person than possibly anyone else in your life for several years. You will know this person’s credit score, you’ll know whether they have food allergies, you’ll know who takes the food in their backpack on long plane flights, and you’ll know who handles the ticketing and hotel accommodations.

You had better be able to handle being in close proximity with this person for hours and days at a time. It’s okay to hide your stress and frustration and mental health issues from your friends. After all, you’re trying to make sure that you still have friends tomorrow. However you cannot ever lie to or even conceal from your cofounder about your mental health or physical health. They will know everything about you.

They’ll know embarrassing things about you. They’ll know your personal issues with your parents and the inside of your relationships. After all, they are there to compensate for your weaknesses, as you are there to compensate for theirs. You’ll have sorted out very quickly which one of you is introverted and which one is extroverted. Possibly you both are one or the other. There cannot be any jealousy between you. After a while, your skill sets will start to diverge from one another. After all, it’s likely that you began having very similar skill sets, which is why you decided to found a startup together.

One of you is going to be more famous than the other one. One of you is going to have to answer customers’ angry phone calls. One of you will spend long and exhausting hours programming. Don’t be jealous of either party; accept your roles in advance.

If you have competing–as opposed to complimentary–goals for the level of publicity and the amount of technical skill that you each wish to acquire over the course of the next several years, you probably shouldn’t be founding a startup with this person.

You each have my permission to whine about the pressures of your position in the startup. You never have my permission to complain about the level of effort that the other person is putting into your startup. The key things that I looked for in my relationship with my startup founder were their work ethic, their discretion, and their complementary skill set. Liz is the only person I’ve ever met who I genuinely believe works harder than me, and she feels the same about me.

I say, sometimes, that Liz is not my friend. In many ways, she is much more than that. I have a much closer relationship with Liz than I do with almost any other person on earth. She and I know a great deal about each other–like our psychological make up, our families, and what we can and cannot tolerate on a daily basis.

My friends cannot tell me to get off the Internet. My friends cannot tell me to go home for the day because I’m done. My friends cannot tell me that I need a vacation, because I won’t believe them. I can do believe and do each of these things when Liz tells me so.

You will often act as a check upon the other person’s stupidity. Liz and I regularly throw each other off the Internet when we’ve been working too hard, and the quality of our labor is slipping. I don’t listen to my husband when he tells me to get off the Internet, but I do listen when Liz does.

Have the deepest respect for the person you’re founding your company with, because you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with. Now, imagine that your cofounder is 3 out of the 5.

And Liz? I know you stole that burrito.

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How to become a web application developer: #TarahTalks in first live broadcast

Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack

I am starting a webinar series this Wednesday from 3:30PM-4:00PM Pacific on Google Hangout. The first topic is: How to transition into web application development. I’ll take questions via the Q&A application. The first 15 minutes will be a discussion of how to specialize in web applications and how to be recruited by companies looking for web app developers, with a focus on startups and open source technologies. I’ll then take questions for 15 minutes. I am really looking forward to this!

I’ll be making this an ongoing series. I’ll do one each Wednesday at 3:30PM, and you can find my Google+ page here with upcoming events. Next Wednesday, April 30th, will be How To Get A Startup CEO To Recruit YOU, and May 7th will be How To Recruit A Mentor. You can see upcoming events in the sidebar of my blog here as well. After spending a lot of time helping folks with mentorship and tech, I tend to get asked many of the same questions in different ways. Some of these questions are:

  1. How do I get a tech mentor that actually cares about my career?
  2. How do I transition from college/junior dev status into web application development/front end development/DBA/operations/DevOps?
  3. How do I have an online presence when I don’t feel safe putting my contact information online?
  4. How do I build a brand around myself?
  5. How do I move from programming and hardcore technical work into tech management and executive status?
  6. How do I handle cyberbullying, keep my temper in the face of brogrammer provocation, and stay classy? [I have an opinion on this but possibly haven't quite managed the 'staying classy' bit...]
  7. How do I make recruiters come to me instead of the other way around?

I end up giving the same 15-minute speech repeatedly to the people who ask these questions, and I’m getting pretty glib at it. So, it makes some sense to start making this knowledge available to more people, since folks want to know. In addition, I’ll be able to take questions and interact with more people, and I love efficiency just as much as Seven Of Nine. My YouTube channel is here, with the older Hack The People long seminars and these new webinars.

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How IT workers get conned out of an honest wage through secrecy

unfair

A friend recently asked me to pass along information about a job opening for a project manager position at a local tech company. It’s a vendor position, meaning that an agency would hire you full time, then loan you out to a tech company, such as Microsoft, Amazon, and Google, to work for them on-site. You’d be a full-time W-2 employee of the vendor agency rather than an employee of the tech company itself.

The tech company pays the agency an hourly rate, called the client bill rate. You, the worker, have your own hourly rate with the agency. Here’s the tricky part: the vendor agency is under no obligation to tell you how much their client bill rate is. If you’ve signed a nondisclosure agreement with your agency and the on-site company, you will have no idea what your time is actually worth.

In general, tech client bill rates are at least $70 an hour. A contractor on a 1099 would receive this full amount, and then pay their own employment taxes—perhaps 40% of the total—leaving them with $60/hour if their bill rate was $100 (which is a common amount for a web developer or designer of medium skills and 5 years’ experience). However, when contractor operates through a vendor agency, she becomes a vendor, and is instead paid a W-2 paycheck based not on her client bill rate, but on her hourly pay rate with the agency.

Think of it this way: a fair bill rate for a senior developer with specialized skills and experience might be $250/hour. Taking $75 an hour of that is a 30% charge and results in $175/hour for this highly-skilled worker who is now thrilled and happy with the agency. What actually happens most of the time is something like this: the agency tells the dev that they can only get $80 an hour for their skills and then they pocket the remaining $170 as a 68% charge. And individual recruiters are incentivized to maximize the difference between the client bill rate and the vendor hourly rate—because that’s where their commissions come in. Add to that the nondisclosure, and you should be realizing now in a way you never did before: if you are working for a vendor agency that does not disclose their client bill rate, you are not your recruiter’s client or partner. You’re their product.

Tech contracting is how the tech industry gets around labor laws. Now, because tech workers are paid so much, there is little public outrage on their behalf when labor laws are skirted, ignored, or outright violated. This is a problem. Tech contracting means that the tech company can work contractors for 80 hours a week or more with total impunity, so long as they pay the agency for the vendors’ time. Then the vendor agency merely pays whatever hourly wage they have settled on with the vendor. This system, which is manipulative in its own right, also sees many common abuses, such as having a limited amount of hours that you can work your contractors each week but asking them to do work off the books or off site to “make sure this contract stays open at renewal time,” or asking them to double their hours one week and work nothing the next, while being paid as if they were working a regular amount on a weekly basis.

To make matters worse, many major companies with brand-name recognition work with only a few “preferred vendor agencies,” meaning that to take a contract position at a major company and get a feather in your cap, you must agree to work for a preferred agency, and risk being in the dark about your true value to the company. My first position at a major brand-name tech company (and let’s put it this way: I live on the Eastside in the Seattle area) was as a lead web developer. This company had a great deal of money after laying off many full-time staff to replace them with contractors who do not have to be paid benefits. Many of the contractors had previously been full-time employees of the company in question. I cannot reveal my exact rate, but let us assume that I was paid between $40-$45/hour. I found out later that my time was being billed to the company at between $110-$140. It’s very common for people with no expertise in negotiation to take the first rate offered to them, leading to an even lower rate for women and minorities than they would have had—and this difference is exacerbated by the conspiracy of secrecy around their actual value. When told that they’re not worth a higher rate, the women and minorities tend to believe it and accept the amount offered—and while in full-time employment you could never tell someone that they’re not worth the amount they ask for, a vendor agency can do so with total impunity because they’re negotiating on behalf of two parties.

That is correct: your eyes do not deceive you. The company doing nothing more than signing my paperwork as a preferred vendor agency and passing along my employment taxes to the state (about $15 an hour, at my bill rate) was making two and a half times what I was. I received no benefits, no health care, no paid time off, and no overtime extra pay—only the money I was paid hourly.

Let’s add to this the fact that tech is actually a very small world, and the existence of blacklists for tech workers who have caused problems in their contracts is real. If you’re put on ‘the list’ at a major tech company, you can expect that other tech companies will refuse to consider you for employment. Similar to pursuing a discrimination suit at a major law firm—you can absolutely expect that you will never be hired to work for a large firm again. To stand up for yourself means to have only one option: to start your own firm and declare victory. There’s a good reason that top-level minority and female contractors leave high-paying contract gigs to build their own startups and companies. When you work on-site at a tech company but do not work FOR that tech company, any discrimination or harassment issues you may face are your tough luck. You don’t actually work FOR that company, so you can only sue your vendor agency if you have issues—and why would you do that? You weren’t harassed or discriminated against by your direct superior, so how do you prove a hostile work environment in a company you don’t technically work for?

Here’s the punchline: I never negotiated with the large tech company I worked for. In that first position, I was treated well, by people who themselves had no idea what my bill rate and hourly wage were. I had to negotiate with the vendor agency for my wages. As a result, the vendor agency was incentivized to lie to me with every breath (in fact, I signed paperwork saying that the vendor agency wasn’t obligated to be open with me about my bill rate, without necessarily understanding that this meant they could and would lie outright to me about my worth). I was told: “this is the way it is if you want that position at XXX Co.” I had no reason to doubt that, because I didn’t yet know of the existence of full disclosure vendor agencies.

Let’s be clear: vendor agencies serve a great purpose. In tech, investing in an employee is time-consuming and resource-intensive. If you become an employee at a tech company, it’s likely that they see a future for you there with multiple roles and an upward trajectory. However, there are a lot of positions in major tech companies that are by their nature temporary. If you have a project that must be executed in Python to work with one of your company’s client’s interfaces, and your company only has a bench full of C++ programmers, you have a short-term job that means you should hire a contractor. Think of it this way: you don’t invite the people who remodel your kitchen to stick around in case you need them again in a few years. They possess a specialized skill that you need on a temporary basis, and you pay them well to come in, do their job, and leave when they’re done, without any feeling of long-term obligation to them.

To extend the analogy, however, imagine that you have hired a construction firm that sends a three-person crew to your house, and you discover that though you are paying the company for the hours spent by that crew in your home at the rate of $60/hour per person, each of the workers themselves only make $11/hour—the minimum wage in the state of Washington. Worse, they have no idea how much you are paying for their time, can be fired for asking, and cannot share their information with any of their colleagues.

All of a sudden, your conscience starts to twinge. Why is it that the best construction business in town won’t share its rates with its own employees? Why not be honest about what you are paying for these services? It doesn’t change the amount itself. All it does is empower the worker to choose an agency that treats them with respect and transparency.

This is why I do not pass along information on jobs from vendor and contracting agencies that will not disclose their client bill rate. If you’re a vendor agency, it is understandable and appropriate to charge anywhere between 15-40% of the client bill rate for your services. After all, you’re handling employment taxes, W-2s, accounting, paperwork, direct deposit, and possibly benefits as desired. You should be making a good profit on your service to both parties. Taking 85% of the client bill rate and leaving scraps for the actual worker, all the while hiding behind a non-disclosure agreement, is simply morally indefensible.

You should refuse to work for agencies that do not disclose, and I pledge now that if I am in a position to engage a contract or vendor agency to fill open positions for my company, I will not work with one that does not disclose my rate to their developers.

Look, it’s easy to lack sympathy for people who make sixty bucks an hour sitting in a chair. Realize, however, that these folks work hard, many have student loans that they took out to get their specialized training, and even more have families they support. Just because the amount of money they make is more than a construction worker does not mean they’re not facing the same kind, if not degree, of injustice.

If this article makes you angry (and I hope it does), please use the comments section to make your own pledge about refusing to hire vendor or contract agencies who use NDAs.

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Beyonce may be ‘The’ Boss, but she’s not ‘a’ boss. I am.

Boss

I appreciate the #BanBossy campaign by Beyonce and Sheryl Sandberg a great deal. We know the stories of how Sandberg was called ‘bossy’ by her schoolmates while she was younger, and Beyonce is definitely on a campaign to popularize feminism.

There’s an issue. It’s in this picture here: banbossy-beyonce

I appreciate the spirit behind this message. However, this image and Beyonce’s campaign is making use of the expression “The Boss” as someone who is awesome, cool, in control, and admirable. What we need to get used to is the notion of a woman as **a** boss, not “The Boss,” as if she was Bruce Springsteen. A boss is someone who has power over people, who is a leader, who directs other peoples’ actions, and who makes decisions about hiring and firing. This isn’t what we mean when we say as a compliment that someone “is a boss!” or “did it like a boss!” Instead we’re simply offering a platitude. This is the same meaning that we attach to Beyonce’s statement that she’s “The Boss!”

I have responsibility for the hiring and management of more than 15 people now. I’m a boss. I tell people what to do, and sometimes I’m not popular. I accepted responsibility as a leader, and that means making tough decisions. It’s the part where I direct other people’s actions that makes so many people uncomfortable. That’s the thing Sandberg and Beyonce are trying to make ok, but they’re not coming at the issue directly. Instead, they’re popularizing the removal of the word “bossy” from our lexicon.

The #BanBossy campaign doesn’t tackle the real issue of why women are uncomfortable being bosses. Beyonce writing a blog post or doing an interview in which she explains how she hires and manages her staff both remotely and in person would be a better explanation of actually being a boss. We know Sandberg can handle management; I’d love to see her explain how to direct people’s actions and take ownership of the fact that people sometimes have issues with direction, rather than worrying about the label being applied.

Labels are important. What we call people matters to them and to us. I had a wonderful professor of social and political philosophy when I was at Carroll College doing my undergraduate. His name was Barry Ferst. He made a very specific point of repeating everyone’s names in his class, and working hard to remember how to pronounce them. If people preferred a nickname, he would write it down and remember to call them by their chosen name. When I asked him why he was so careful to pronounce my name “Tare-ah” instead of “Tah-ra”, and for that matter why he bothered to remember everyone’s preferred names in his class, he said to me “It doesn’t hurt me at all to call people what they want to be called, and it makes them happy.” I took that as one of the more important lessons from my academic career.

If women don’t want to be called ‘bossy’, then I’ll avoid that. When you actually **are** a boss, you find you have little time to care if someone is calling you bossy–you’re too busy taking over the world. Show women that the label ‘bossy’ matters less than the act of taking responsibility and leadership. Mentor them and demonstrate what it’s like to make hard choices, to serve a community and your team, and as women accept and seek out leadership roles, the label of “bossy” will fade into much-deserved obscurity.

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I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors: the perfect go-away email.

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Stop feeling bad for telling people that they’re wasting your time. I don’t mean Radical Honesty; that’s a great concept, but not very helpful in business and technology. Instead, when people email you with a request for your time, and aren’t capable of clearly articulating why they want to talk to you in person or on the phone, make them choose between being clear and leaving you alone.

New people often want to talk to someone in person about Hack The People, our mentoring in tech initiative.  They may have questions, want to share their stories, have administrative questions, or want to form a group in their area. Every so often, someone emails one of our coordinators with a request to talk in person or on the phone rather than simply saying why they’re contacting us. We’re still a small group with only two dozen or so part-time staff, organizers, and directors. We ask why a person is emailing so we can direct them to the correct local HTP group, handle a media request (which should be clearly marked MEDIA REQUEST in the subject line, btw), or get them signed up as a local organizer. We cannot help you if you don’t have a question to ask.

This happens to me a lot for Fizzmint as well. People email me and ask for my time without being able to clearly articulate why they want to talk to me. Often, it’s specifically because they want to get me on the phone to sell me something, or $DEITY help them, they want to try to recruit me to a junior Ruby contract dev gig in Austin. Even more often, it’s because outsiders to tech and very junior people feel very uncomfortable clearly stating what they want and need from me. They want to spend fifteen minutes over coffee or on the phone feeling me out and seeing if I’m sympathetic enough to help them. I’m more likely to be able and willing to help if they’re clear and efficient in their communications.

Here is my first reply: “Can you please email me your questions? I’ll see what I can do to help.”

If they double down on the request for personal time, still without telling me why, here is my second reply: “I’m sorry, it seems like you’re not able to tell me why it is that you want to meet with me. I’m happy to answer any specific emailed questions you have, and I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors. Thanks!”

If you get still another request for your time from someone after sending that email, you can feel free to ignore it/trash it. They’re clearly not able to socially understand that they’re wasting your time. Alternately, if they do clearly tell you what they need and you want to continue the conversation, you can.

Your time is valuable. It’s truly the only thing you possess, and people will eat it like Cheetos if you’re not careful. Being clear with people in email and in all communications is a courtesy to you, and one you and everyone else deserves. Insist on it, and practice it yourself.
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