On this week’s show, we talk with Saron Yitbarek about how she started, grew, and nurtures CodeNewbie—the most supportive community of programmers and people learning to code. It all started with one little (but powerful) sentiment: be nice. We also talk to her about what it’s like to be new at something, making a place for yourself at the table even if you’re not sure there’s a seat for you, and living up to your own potential.
I don’t think I’ve ever taken a piece of feedback that I didn’t immediately inside respond with, like, intense anger and, you know, taking offense to it. But…we’re not optimizing for my feelings. And we’re not optimizing for me patting myself on the back. That’s not the point. We’re optimizing for creating a really strong and amazing community and to be a resource for other people.
—Saron Yitbarek, founder of CodeNewbie
Also in this episode, we:
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Jenn Lukas Welcome to No, You Go, the show about being ambitious—and sticking together. I’m Jenn Lukas.
Katel LeDû I’m Katel LeDû.
SWB And I’m Sara Wachter-Boettcher.
KL Today is all about being new. How do you find your footing; adapt to new environments; and, ultimately, get a place at the table; and how can those of us who already feel comfortable in our industries or our jobs just do a better job of holding the door open for those who come after us. Our guest today has lots of experience with that. Her name is Saron Yitbarek and she’s the founder of CodeNewbie, an organization that’s all about, well, supporting people who are new to code. But before we get to Saron, do you all remember what it was like when you got your first sort of grown up job?
SWB I had a couple of like semi-grown-up jobs where like I still had to do a lot of like customer service but they were—like I had a salary. But my first proper grown up job, I was just about 23, about to be 23, maybe something like that, and I got a job as a junior copywriter at an ad agency. And let me tell you what: they really emphasized the “junior” [Katel says, “Aw!”] whenever they could. It took me a few months to figure out, like, who wielded power and who I could turn to, and who everybody secretly hated. And that always like—that always takes time in a job, but in that particular moment I felt like in a lot of ways I felt like really vulnerable. Like I was trying to build at the time what I thought was going to be some kind of writing career and that morphed a lot in ways that were awesome. But I was like, “Ok, this is my chance to get my foot in the door in—in some kind of industry that I want to be in,” also it turns out I don’t like advertising but, you know, I was like so kind of anxious about fitting in and performing. And it was really tough. I mean I felt I was like super tucked off by myself. I didn’t necessarily know who I could trust or who to go to. And I learned a lot while I was there but I remember feeling like such an outsider. And that feeling sucks.
KL Looking back on that, I mean I think one of the sort of nice things about getting older and growing in your career you can kind of look back and say, “I wish I had known this,” or, “If I could tell myself something.” Is there—is there anything you look back and think, “If I had known this or if I had had the confidence to do this, I could’ve gotten by a little bit more easily?”
SWB I think in that particular environment the thing that I wish I had realized was that they were optimized to like wring whatever they could out of their junior staff on the creative team, but also the account management team. Like that was really how they operated, and I couldn’t see that at first, right? That that was the entire structure of the business was such that you would work the hell out of the most junior people, because those people were so desperate to want to fit in and want to succeed. And not even that that would’ve like changed my behavior necessarily, because obviously I was using that as my own stepping stone or whatever, but I think what it would’ve changed is the way that I looked at it, because I think that I internalized a lot of weird shit for a while that looking back I want to be like, “Oh, baby Sara, that was some toxic bullshit that had nothing to do with you.”
JL Agency life [laughter]. My first real adult job was actually a pretty good experience. I made Navy training simulations at Lockheed Martin.
JL I know [laughs]. It was different but you know what? I just worked with a really great group of people. It was a interesting scenario that a bunch of people that graduated from the same college as I did we all like went and worked there. And so it just started like someone worked there and then they were like, “Hey, you should hire my other friends,” and like they just kept hiring all of us. My first boss, his name was Bob Eagle and he had a sign outside his office that said “The Eagle’s Nest” and Bob was awesome. He’d walk around with a stress ball and he’d just be like, “How’s it goin’?” And he’d like come by and like see how things are going, and like he just genuinely cared. Like if you needed something he’d like help you out and, I don’t know, it was just like one of those things like it definitely wasn’t going to be the job for me for life. For instance there was another woman that worked there who was not in my department. I’m not sure what she did but she would come down and she—all the time she would look at me and say, “You look like the coroner chick on NCIS!” [Laughter] Yes! The super goth one [laughs].
SWB Ok sidebar: I love that she’s still super goth even though that show’s been on [laughter] a very long time. I really like that she’s like a permanent goth. I’m pro living a permanent goth lifestyle if that’s your truth—
SWB —like you should do it.
KL It sounds like Bob Eagle was kind of like a coach figure though.
JL He was awesome.
KL So that’s, like, that’s amazing. I think when you have that early that—that makes you feel like, “Ok, if I can identify the advocates in this scenario or if I can kind of like figure out who the people are who are going to help me either make the right connections or like get involved in the right areas or the right groups or whatever.” That is so helpful.
JL And the other thing was like, really like, for that… how I left that job was really important. Because you’re working on confidential information, you sort of like get stuck in a—like how do you get another job after that? Because you can’t really show anyone anything you’ve worked on, because it’s all classified. And so I was in a position where I was like, “I don’t want to stay here longer than a year.” There’s other stuff I did want to like get more into agency and design life. And so I like applied for—I didn’t—I wasn’t sure how to do that because I didn’t, again, I didn’t really have a portfolio because all of my stuff was classified. So I applied for internships, honestly, as my next job and I decided to take one and so I went to put my notice in, and when I went to tell Bob he was like, “Huh. How many days a week you working there?” And I was like, I think it was like two or three at the time. He goes, “Why don’t you stay and work here the other two or three days til you’re ready to leave?” And I was like, “That would be amazing!” And it was just one of those things that because I was honest with my intentions and I think like I didn’t like leave in like a blaze of glory. It made it that like here was someone who was able to like look out for me who wanted me to stay and work as long as I could, so it was like beneficial for both of us. So I think like an honest conversation ended up working out really well.
SWB You know it’s interesting there’s something else that you mentioned when you were talking about that workplace. Like one of the things that made it really great was also that you—it sounded like you didn’t ever really feel like an outsider, because you had these connections to people from the college you’d gone to going in. And I think for a lot of people that’s just not going to be the reality. And obviously, like, hiring only people from one college is kind of problematic in a lot of workplaces already. So I always think of like, “Ok, now that I have a little bit more sort of like stability and some amount of context about how my industry works, how can I help other people feel less like outsiders? Because they’re not necessarily all going to have that kind of experience, and like, so what do I do with people who come in who don’t have the connections or the network or the like, “Oh I worked at my uncle’s firm last summer and learned the ropes of this industry”—like, what do you do to help those people? And I’m thinking about that a lot when it comes to the people that I encounter now who are in their twenties and who are trying to get their footing and get that door open a [chuckles] little bit. I don’t want them to feel so, like, at sea.
KL Yeah. I love this idea and I—we just hired somebody, you know, part-time at A Book Apart and she’s amazing and she’s wonderful, and I mean I think completely aside from this, she is wonderful. But a big part of when she came on board that I wanted to make sure I had in place was—and I know this can sound sort of like prescriptive, but I made sure to do a lot of planning work in the onboarding, because we’re a remote company. And I wanted to make sure she felt like she was part of a team, even though it was, you know, everyone’s remote and she didn’t know anybody she was going to be working with. So I just wanted to make sure that I introduced her to everyone and that she knew sort of what everybody did and there were some expectations for the first month and the first three months and sort of like there was a roadmap that we could follow together. And it wasn’t just like, “Ok, you’re hired! Like here’s your computer and [laughs] like you’re on your own.”
JL We have a summer internship program at Urban that’s starting next week and one of their managers on our team will be this woman Dee, and Dee was suggesting to call them summer associates instead of summer interns because “interns” you get the obligatory coffee jokes. And so I felt like it was like nice that she was like looking for ways to like make them feel more included right away instead of like, “Oh the interns are here.”
SWB Right, like they actually work there and they matter.
SWB One of the things that Saron talked about in her interview that I also thought was super interesting was feeling like she walked into rooms and didn’t feel like she had a place at the table, and she had to make space for herself. And I know I’ve had that feeling a lot, too, and I think it comes back to that same concept of making space for people. And I’m—I’m curious: have you ever had that feeling of, like, finally realizing that you had a place at the table? And how did that come to be?
KL Yeah. I definitely have. I think I sort of felt it in a couple different ways in my career, you know, in the last couple jobs I’ve had. When I worked at National Geographic I was there for a really long time and sort of worked up this, you know, ladder of management and I was getting invited to executive-level meetings and I was getting a chance to sort of like be part of those conversations but even though I was invited and I was sitting at the table, I never felt confident enough to really like say everything I wanted to say. And I think that was, you know, a combination of things not having someone who sort of made me feel empowered to do that and also I think just some general cultural stuff that was going on there. But by the time I sort of felt confident enough to do that, I was switching jobs and when I went to A Book Apart, I was facing a completely different scenario where I walked in and I had a seat at the table immediately and it was sort of like, “Here you go.” Sort of, “here are the keys.” And like, you have a seat at the table and you’re also allowed to make all these decisions, and that was sort of scary in a different way.
SWB Like how did you get to that place where you were new at A Book Apart and you knew you were supposed to be in a leadership role but you didn’t necessarily know what like the boundaries of that are because it’s a small, you know, small company. How did you get to a place where you like kind of took those—took the reins? I don’t know we’re talking about keys and tables but let’s throw [laughter] reins in there too. Where you like felt like you could take the reins and just be like, “Ok! I’m—this is what we’re going to do now.”
KL I felt like it was sort of double-edged for me and how I work because, like I said, I sort of came into this scenario where we were all sort of figuring out what the job was which was super exciting. It was like figure out what this role is and you make it what you—you want it to be. And that was extremely exciting but it was also terrifying because I was so used to having structure and boundaries and clear expectations. So it was like, “Ok, what do I do?” [Chuckles] Like, “What do I next?” So I think just becoming aware that I had to set some of those was—was super helpful. And I think that you don’t recognize that right away.
JL It’s interesting that like the freedom to like do these things is based on the fact that you are responsible and capable of doing these things and it’s like weird that we have to like remind ourselves of that sometimes but it’s good to know that. Be like, “Yes, I can do this.” I remember back when eventually I did start going into agency life as a junior developer and, again, that junior word. Ugh. It always really grinded my gears [laughs]. Really, really working in the vocab swaps today, ladies. You know I would like, there’d be—I’d be working on like an email campaign, let’s say there’d be an issue, but I couldn’t just tell the client what the issue was. I had to tell my manager, my manager had to tell the project manager, the project manager had to tell the account manager, and then the account manager could tell the client. The email would get forwarded, and then an email would get forwarded back down the chain to me, and by the time it got there it was like a bad game of telephone where they didn’t even describe the right problem anymore, and I was like, “But that’s not what the problem was.” “Oooh.” And I remember when I went later on to my next job I was like working on something and I was like, “Ok, you know, this is ready for the client.” And they were like, “Ok, email them.” And I was like, “What? You want me to tell the client that their templates are ready?” And they’re like, “Yessss. You are a capable adult [laughs] like who can do this.” And I was like, “Oh! Thank you for trusting me to be able to email a client,” like again not something like we’re all capable of sending an email and leaving out like expletives like of the email and writing a response.
SWB Well [laughter] speak for yourself.
JL [Laughing] “Here are your fucking templates. Have fun!!” [Laughter.] That’s exactly how I would’ve written it. You know of course we can do this, but because of the fear I think at the last job it like instilled in me of being junior, it was like, “Oh! I don’t know if I can write an email.”
SWB You know it’s interesting this whole concept of being a junior or whatever. I think obviously everybody has to be new at their thing at some point, like there’s no escaping that. But in some cultures I think that that labelling of somebody as the “junior” person and the way that they then get treated can be really problematic. And so something that I really loved about talking to Saron was the way that she sort of celebrates being new to something as being a really powerful place to be. And I was really excited to hear about the way that she has built that community, and it—it’s specific to code for her community, but I feel like so much of it applies to like literally anything. Can we listen to the interview?
KL I can’t wait [music fades in, plays alone for five seconds, fades out].Our sponsors
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KL I am so excited to welcome Saron Yitbarek to the show today. Saron is the founder of CodeNewbie, which is the most welcoming, supportive, just plain fucking awesome international community for people learning to code. We are going to talk about how she built CodeNewbie; what it’s become; and what’s next for her and her company. Saron, welcome to No, You Go.
Saron Yitbarek Yeah, thank you so much for having me!
KL Awesome. Well, let’s start at the beginning. How and why did you start CodeNewbie?
SY So I started CodeNewbie as a reaction I guess to my own learn-to-code experience. So when I decided to first learn to code four or five years ago now, I started by doing it on my own. So I quit my job, I spent 12 to 16 hours a day couped up in my apartment, doing online coding tutorials, reading books, doing courses—anything I could really get my hands on—and it was just hard. It was really, really hard and it was hard in a different way that I expected. It was really lonely, it was frustrating, I found myself internalizing a lot of failure because, you know, when it’s you versus the computer, the computer is always right which means that you are always wrong [chuckles]. And after about three months of doing I said, “You know I think I need a little bit more structure in my learning,” and so I applied and got accepted into a bootcamp and all of a sudden I had 44 other people in the room who were going on that exact same journey with me and they—they got it. They understood it, you know? We cried when things didn’t work, we high fived when things did work, and it was so interesting to me that the biggest thing, the biggest difference, biggest bonus of having—of being part of a bootcamp is that community and that community really made all the difference. And when, you know, it was near the end of my time at the bootcamp I thought to myself, “Wow! This was one of the biggest benefits of this but I only got it because I could afford to take three months, you know, without continuing to not work and I could spend, you know, thousands of dollars on this program and that’s not accessible to most people. So how do—how do you provide that same community, that really essential community if you, you know, are not in that position of privilege.” And so I at the time Twitter chats were like a huge thing. You know people—I think people still do them now but like back then like everyone had a Twitter chat and so I thought, “Wow! Twitter chats are a really great format to, you know, to—to reach a lot of people all you need is a Twitter account and an internet, and to be awake during the time of the chat, and with just that you can get a bunch of people in the same, you know, quote/unquote “room”, virtual room and get people talking and connecting and sharing resources and that’s what happened.
KL That sounds really amazing and I love the fact that you built something based on sort of like a challenge that you were running into. So I want to ask a little bit about you. You’re an Ethiopian woman who’s become somewhat of a public figure, you know, working in tech and—and running this company. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience and your journey?
SY Yeah, for me my experience has been less defined by specifically being Ethiopian and more defined by being an immigrant. Like I feel like growing up as an immigrant, I never really felt like I belonged anywhere. You know? And even though I was raised in this country, I was raised in America, I came to the US when I was almost three years old. We always talked about Ethiopia as home. You know? You say, “I go back home.” You know which like even now when I think of like the word “home” I’m thinking like, “Oh! Obviously Ethiopia.” Never lived there. You know [chuckles] I’ve—I’ve been here my whole life but like in my mind there’s always this sense of occupying a space versus belonging in that space. You know with my family we were—parents are very strict, and I also like raised Jehovah’s Witness. So like there’s a whole other strictness and, you know, don’t be a part of the world that comes with that religion. My dad was very much about you know, “Get your education. Be, you know, a doctor, a lawyer. You know, don’t get—don’t get distracted by boys.” You know that whole thing. And so, yeah, I—I feel like I was very much watching the world around me and didn’t really feel like I could actively participate until I became an adult, until basically [chuckles] I like left home. And that’s my worldview. Like my worldview when I walk into a room is never like, “I own this.” Or, “This is for me.” Like there—there are very, very few times I’ve ever walked into a room or been in a place and felt like, “Yes, there’s a seat for me here.” I always feel like I have to make a seat or take someone else’s or just be loud enough that even if I don’t have a seat they can’t ignore me, you know? And I think just that element of—of always feeling like the outsider is something I’ve carried with me and has been, you know, a good thing and a bad thing in different situations but that’s probably been like the—the one part of being Ethiopian that has very strongly shaped, you know, definitely being in the tech industry and really everything else that I do.
SWB That’s so amazing to hear you explain it in that way, because it makes your desire to do something like CodeNewbie make a lot of sense to me. Where it’s like, oh you were out there thinking, you know, “There wasn’t a space for me. Ok, I have to figure out how to create one.”
SY Mm hmm.
SWB So I’m curious like you mentioned that CodeNewbie started out as being this Twitter chat and then it’s really grown and expanded a lot since then. Can you tell us a little bit more about that piece of it? So like once you started creating that space for you and for people like you to have these conversations and to feel more supported, how did it evolve?
SY It evolved by mostly just listening and reacting. We did the Twitter chats every Wednesday night at 6pm Pacific Time, 9pm Eastern Time for one hour, using the hashtag codenewbie and the general structure is that I would tweet out questions usually based on some type of theme and everyone in the community would answer and the value of it wasn’t really in the questions and the answers, it was more in the opportunity to hear other people’s thoughts, opinions, perspectives, stories, and the chance to connect with them. You know when you say like, “Hey, I’m going to ask a question everyone gets to answer,” you’ve kind of given permission to the community to have them talk to each other. Actually we explicitly encourage that. We say like, “You’re more than welcome like, you know, use the hashtag but you’re more than welcome to respond directly to each other.” And so that’s the real value of the Twitter chat. And so we did that for five, six months and it got to a point where I still had to kind of promote it. You know I still had to ask for retweets and, you know, push it and, you know, and all that, and then at about five, six months I said, “Huh! I don’t really need to push it anymore. Like people—people get it. You know they already know what it is, they know what it’s about, and they—they keep showing up.” And that was the moment when I was like, “Ok I think I have something. I don’t know what it is but it’s—it’s something.” And what I realized about a year into doing the Twitter chats is that—if you’ve been on Twitter you probably know that Twitter is a great way to start conversations, it is not a great way to have a conversation. 140—I guess 280 characters now is just—it’s just not enough to—to have people understand you before you piss them off [laughing] and so I kept thinking to myself, “You know what’s—what’s a good way to dig deeper into a topic if you want to unpack a particular story, a particular problem, what’s a better tool for that?” And my first job out of college was actually working at NPR and so I thought, “Oooh! Audio! Podcasting! That’s a really great medium to focus on a story, a problem, a person. To dig in for, you know, 30, 40 minutes, an hour, and, you know, just kind of live in that world for a little bit and extract as much value from that as you can.” And so, you know, that was a direct response to how—understanding limitations of the Twitter chat led to the creation of the podcast. And then I think at some point after doing the podcast, people kept asking for, you know, a—a place to meet physically which, frankly, I was kind of opposed to because, you know, I thought that the whole beauty of CodeNewbie and kind of, you know, the point was to connect people who aren’t connected. And so when I thought of meetups there was like so many limitations. You have to physically be there. You have to be able to drive there. You have to be available for a set number of hours, you know, doing nothing but the meetup itself. So it felt very exclusive in—in a way but I had like too many requests and too many who said like, “I just need in-person physical support. Like I, you know, online is great but it’s not—it’s just not the way for me.” That I kind of gave in and said, “Ok, let’s do some meetups.” So we did that in response to the community but I guess the last like big thing that we did was the conference. So when I graduated from my bootcamp two months after graduating I applied to speak at a conference which I had absolutely no business doing. It was RailsConf 2014 and I had this what I thought was a really shitty idea and I was talking to a woman, Vanessa Hurst, who is one of the co-founders of Girl Develop It. It was a really, really big really amazing non-profit teaching women to—to code and I told her my idea and she’s like, “Oh! It’s so good! It’s great!” And I’m thinking like, “Ok. If she thinks it’s good then, you know, I’m going to listen to her.” And—and then I said to her, “I’ve never spoken before, you know, do you think I should do it at a few meetups first and then, you know, maybe like sometime down the line, you know, pitch it to a—to a conference?”
SY [Continued] And she looked at me and she said, “I don’t believe in stepping stones.” And it just gave me chills and I was like, “Ahhhh! I too do not believe in stepping stones.” Like [laughing] it was—it was amazing. And so because of her I submitted that idea. I think it was that day—I think it was like the last day to—to submit talks and I remember so vividly being on the train, you know, on the way back home from work. And this was maybe like a month later and I—I saw the email and it said, you know, “We’re excited to offer you a position, you know, a—a speaking slot at RailsConf,” and I literally—I gasped, I laughed, and then I cried. And I was sitting across from these two little old ladies and they were very afraid of me. I looked very—I looked very unstable [laughs]. And so that was my first speaking opportunity and also my first conference. And when I got there it ended up being an amazing experience. I’ve done a ton of speaking since but what I recognized is that tech conferences are not made for newbies. They’re made for industry people. You know the idea is that you want to level up, you want to learn more about your framework, your language, your particular domain, and you go to level up. If you don’t have a solid foundation first, if you’re not up with the trends, if you just don’t even know enough to know what the trends even are, then it can be a really hard place to find value and—and to feel like you belong. And so when I was there I kept kind of making little mental notes of like, “Ah like this didn’t work for me,” and, you know, “This—it would’ve been so good if they—if they had this and that.” Everytime I go to a conference I’ve kind of just been adding to that list of things I would do differently and things I like, things I don’t like. And so I—I said to myself, “You know at some point I would love to do a conference but if I do it’s going to be super newbie friendly and I’m going to make sure no one feels lost or overwhelmed or like they don’t know what’s going on.” And I guess it was three years after my first tech conference, I produced CodeLand which is our conference specifically designed for newbies and that was also a reaction to my own experiences. So that’s a long way of saying it’s been a lot of listening. It’s been a lot of listening to the community, figuring out what the best solution is, figuring out how to hopefully execute that well, and give people the tools they need to succeed.
KL That’s so cool. I feel like when you were talking about that advice that you got of, you know, not believing in stepping stones it was like that was the message you needed to hear in that moment. I really love it. When you were getting into tech and into this industry and building a huge community there, has that shaped your experience in your work and your life in general?
SY It’s made me a lot more tolerant of [chuckles] people’s differing opinions, meaning like, you know, when they’re different from my own very strongly held opinions. It’s really—you know we talk about inclusion a lot and, you know, to be clear CodeNewbie is not, you know, a diversity effort, it’s not a diversity initiative but I think that everything should inherently be inclusive. I think we should always strive to include as many voices and perspectives as possible, regardless of, you know, what industry or what problem you’re trying to solve, and so in the efforts of doing that I’ve learned that I have a ton of blind spots. You know even being an Ethiopian immigrant woman, you know, non CS holding, you know, person. Like I have a ton of blind spots that I didn’t realize that I had and it’s from being very open to being critiqued—actually that was—I had like a little closing talk at CodeLand and the message of that was please call us out. If you see us do something that you feel like is a little off brand. If you see a better way that we can do something. If you see that we’ve excluded someone. If you see that we’ve, you know, done something that it just doesn’t follow our values, the values that we’ve stated, please send me a message. Send me an email. And people have. People have over the years and, you know, it’s one of those things where it’s never fun to be called out. You know especially when you pride yourself on certain values and someone’s like, “Mm mm! No. You didn’t—you know you did that thing and that thing is not the thing.” So you’re—you know, it’s—it’s hard to—to listen to that and kind of not—and I don’t think I’ve ever taken a piece of feedback that I didn’t immediately inside respond with, like, intense anger and, you know, taking offense to it. But then I say like, “Ok that’s not—that’s not what we’re optimizing for.” Right? Like we’re not optimizing for my feelings. And we’re not optimizing for me patting myself on the back. That’s not the point. We’re optimizing for creating a really strong and amazing community and to be a resource for other people. And if we’ve decided that that’s the goal, that’s what we’re working towards then it’s a lot easier to, you know, feel your feelings but then put ‘em aside and tell ‘em to shut the fuck up. And then go about and, you know, go about and, you know, listen to the things that people say and implement those changes. So just being more open to being critiqued, being more tolerant, and just understanding that even though I’m a double minority or a triple minority, it’s probably, you know, quadruple I’m sure if we think harder. Everyone has their biases, everyone has their blind spots, and, you know, and I’m not an exception to that.
SWB Gosh, that is so important. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot, because I give a lot of talks that are about, you know, the way that bias gets actually built into tech products, right? Which means that I have to talk about all these issues and like I’ve had to really come to terms with the fact that I’m going to fuck it up sometimes or like I think that for me it’s been like this process of saying, “Ok. I’m going to talk about things that are difficult and uncomfortable, and—and the reason that they are difficult and uncomfortable is that they are not talked about enough and that like we are bad at talking about things if we don’t practice it [chuckles].” So, guess what! You’re going to have to do this and sometimes you may do it badly because you won’t be able to do a good job at it without some missteps along the way, and like to try to look at it as like this is—this is just what you have to do now. I also feel you though, oh my gosh, Saron, I like—[sighs] I get that same response. That first like immediately like—
SY “Who do you think you are?!?”
SWB Right! Like, “Can’t you see—can’t you see—”
SY “I’m trying so hard.”
SWB Yes! Exactly! “Can’t you see I’m trying so hard here?!?” And then it’s like, hmm, nope. Not—valuable. Like, you can have that feeling but like that doesn’t add anything to the world. And it’s so hard and it’s so important I think to like acknowledge that that’s like a super normal response. We can all have that feeling and then like you can’t make that the important thing of the conversation, right? Like I’m so tired of—I think so many of the problems we face are like people putting their feelings at the same bar of like actual harm being done.
SY Yeah!!! Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. And what I’ve learned is that the tendency is to justify it, right? The tendency is to explain yourself, the tendency is always, “No, no, no, no. That’s not what I meant.” What, you know, like, ok, fine, I, you know, I keep saying the word “guys” that I know that it’s not inclusive but like I’m not a bad person, you know? Like [chuckling] that’s really what it comes down to is you convincing, frankly, usually like this stranger on the internet that you’re not a bad person, and what has—there’s two things that have kind of helped me not do that and number one is, you know, people have done that to me and I’m just like it just looks so bad. It looks so bad. But also I’ve learned to recognize that when someone takes the time to give me constructive feedback, it’s because they trust that I’ll do something about it. Like it’s a sign of faith. You know I’ve never given feedback to—and I see a bunch of questionable things all the time in the tech community and when I give feedback it’s usually because I know the brand didn’t mean to, right? Like if I saw a brand and they’re obviously sexist and then they, you know, do something like that’s a little questionable, what’s the point? You’ve already decided that you’re sexist. It’s risky for me to put my neck out there and it’s not helping my life, like I’m trying to help you be better. And if I think that you actually don’t care and I think you actually are sexist, racist, whatever-ist, I’m not going to bother. But if I email and say, “Hey, I noticed blah blah blah blah. You—you know I know you really care about blah blah blah so you might consider doing blah blah blah.” That’s a huge sign of faith. That’s a huge sign of me saying, “I trust that you actually care. It probably wasn’t intentional. It’s probably a blind spot you weren’t aware of and, you know, and—and I want—I want the best for you and so I’m going to try to be helpful.” Like that’s actually what that means. Recognizing that that’s usually what people mean when they do it to me really helps me get over myself.
SWB Totally! I’ve referred to it before as, like, that kind of feedback doesn’t feel like it, but it’s actually a gift.
SY Yeah, absolutely.
SWB It’s somebody doing you a kindness.
KL Mm hmm. This makes me think of, again, that—the idea that the things that are—are driving this community and what you set out to do with this community are really baked into, you know, every piece of it. Are there a set of values and principles that drive the community?
SY Oh yeah definitely. We start every single Twitter chat with our three rules: be helpful, be supportive, be nice. We—we declare it every single week and we really try to embody that as much as possible. So if you—it’s so funny, if you look at, you know, the CodeNewbie Twitter account compared to like my Twitter account, it’s very different brands. Like it’s very different branding. [Chuckles] I think that, you know, especially with the CodeNewbie account my—my goal was to be your biggest cheerleader. This characteristic—this like quality, you know, really came out to me I think it was two years ago? Yeah I think it was about two, three years ago. I was at work and I had this—this terrible, terrible pain in my right shoulder and I write with my right hand. So I had this terrible, terrible pain on my right shoulder and it was actually like my first week at a new job. So it was very bad timing. And it hurt so much that I ended having to go home early to see a doctor. That day—that night, it came back again really, really strong. It just it hurt—it hurt so bad that my—my shoulder was like frozen, meaning I just I could barely move it. Like I just physically couldn’t move my arm and it hurt so much that I was crying. Like I was just—just howling in pain. And this was two minutes before the Twitter chat was supposed to start. And so I’m sitting at my computer and I’m like, you know, like holding my arm and just, you know, crying and howling, and my husband’s looking at me and he’s like, “We have to go to the emergency room.” And I said, “No!! It’s time for the Twitter chat!” And so I—I said to him, I was like, “You are going to type. I am dictating to you. You’re going to type and you’re—we’re doing this chat together.” And, you know, he knows better than to—to mess with me. So we sat at my desk and opened the computer and, you know, I’m—I’m dictating to him and that’s when I realize like how seriously I take this because, you know, he’ll type something that’s pretty friendly and I’m like, “There’s not enough exclamation points!” [Laughter] “You need three exclamation points minimum!” You know? And—and Suzy will be like, you know, “I—I just contributed to my first open source, you know, request.” And I’m like, “Congratulate Suzy!!!” You know? [Boisterous laughter] “With–with smiley faces!!!”
KL It’s so obvious to me that you do such a great job of bringing people along with that and an explicit sort of member criteria of being nice and I think that that’s so incredibly important and it draws other people who value that into the community. Did that come from a specific place? And like how—how do you maintain it?
SY I really—I wanted it to be very clear the type of behavior that’s expected. Like very, very clear. Like there’s no question of who we are, what we’re about, and—and what we will, you know, put up with, and what type of behavior we encourage which is why we start every Twitter chat, you know, for the last four years has started with those three rules and we embody that. We, you know, we—we show that in every tweet that we do and every post and the podcast—in everything we do, we try to be as supportive and positive and inclusive as we can be. And so I think that when you are showing the values that you declare and you’re like showing them off, you know, and—and really just pushing them really hard, you tend to, I think, kind of gross out people who don’t believe that. Like it kind of becomes annoying. You know? Like if you’re like, “Everyone’s amazing all the time!!!,” you know? That can be annoying for assholes. So I think what I found is that by being aggressively positive and kind of over the top with displaying these values and these qualities, we’ve given people an opportunity to self-select. And if you are mean, you don’t believe these things, I think you just don’t want to sit with us. You know? I think we would just annoy the crap—like it’s not fun to hang out with us. And that was very intentional.
SWB I was also thinking about it as like, I think that it’s so intensely positive that that might seem over the top, except that when you step back and you realize that so many people are plagued by self doubt and also have, like, other voices that are not positive. It’s like, I think people are really hungry for that. And it’s such a gap that they don’t—they don’t have. And so if you were a person—like if CodeNewbie was literally just a human person, like it was just you, coming from your voice, it might feel like, “Ok, ok. This is a little much.” But coming from this other entity and kind of making it this bigger community feel, it feels totally right.
SY Yeah! That’s—you absolutely nailed it. It’s what people need, and if you don’t need it, then you won’t be with us. It’s just that simple.
SWB So, I think it’s pretty clear people needed that because CodeNewbie has grown and grown and grown and become this big, massive thing and it’s now your full-time job, right?
SY Yeah, I’ve been doing it full-time for almost two years.
SWB That is really amazing.
SWB So can you—can you just tell us, how did you turn that into something that you could really like leave your job for and be able to make not just a supportive community but, like, something that could also sustain you?
SY Yeah. So I think it was three months maybe after doing the—the podcast, the CodeNewbie podcast, that someone emailed and said, “Hey, can I give you 200 bucks to run an ad on your podcast?” And I thought, “I can paid for this? That’s crazy! That—that’s amazing!” You know? And so I—I took that and I said yes and I thought like, “Oh. Like maybe—maybe there’s a way to—to like turn this into something that’s actually sustainable.” And so that was kind of the—the beginning of that. You know I found that a lot of community leaders—I think one of the fundamental mistakes that they make is that they tend to undervalue what they have. So I remember this was maybe a couple of months ago I remember seeing—I don’t remember if it was a tweet or like an email in a mailing list. I remember seeing something where this person was or—was trying to organize a conf—her first conference, I think it was her conference, for a community and she was looking for sponsors. And the way she was pitching it and talking about it was, you know, “Oh! I—I just need a little bit more money to—to be able to, you know, pull this this off and if you all work at companies that could possibly help me out, I’d really appreciate it.” And I was like, “Oh no. Oh no, no, [laughter] no, no. That’s not—that’s not how you do that.” You know? And her community was women in tech or something. And I, you know, I’m thinking to myself, “Do you know how valuable that is?!? Do you know how many sponsors, how many companies, are dying to get in front of, you know, badass women in tech? Like that’s—you have—you have an asset! Like that’s what it is. You—you have so much value in your community leadership and you need to—you need to at least recognize that, you know, whether you use a thing about it is another thing but you need to at least see that.” And I think what I’ve been—why I’ve been, you know, more successful than most people who start communities is recognizing that and thinking, “Ok. Who else would find this valuable? And how can I turn that into something that allows me to support myself and to do more projects and dedicate more time to it?” And I think it’s understanding the value that you bring. I think that is the key to—to sustainability.
KL Yeah, absolutely. So I have a question for you, and I’ve just been thinking a lot about, you know, everything that you’ve been talking to me sounds like it takes a lot of energy and drive. So I wanted to ask you about a tweet that you had pinned to your account for awhile and it read, “I struggle with depression and a year ago I made this video for myself. Totally forgot about it, made my night.” And the video is sort of a video note to your future self giving yourself a pep talk. Why—like why did you make that video and how did you find yourself being so open to talk about that?
SY I have a hard time being by myself. I have a really hard time being by myself and I think that I have unintentionally unknowingly been distracted by the fact that I’m always thinking about other people, whether it’s my, you know, before I did CodeNewbie full-time, whether it was like my—my quote/unquote “real job”, or whether it was doing CodeNewbie. I feel like I’ve always been in some way doing some type of community work or just something that just involves a huge amount of collaboration and just, frankly, putting everyone’s needs first and I think that that has been a really awesome distraction from my own problems [chuckles] and it wasn’t until I uh so I used to work at Microsoft before I—I quit to do CodeNewbie full-time and it wasn’t until I didn’t have Microsoft anymore and I was working on my own that like quote/unquote “all of a sudden” all these mental health issues kept coming up and I—I just found myself, you know, upset for no reason, sad for no reason, just, you know, just depressed. It was, you know, and—and it got, you know, it got really bad last year. Like 2017 was such a shit year. I mean for many reasons but like personally just like easily the worst year of my life. And and it was really, really, really fucking hard and it was—it wasn’t hard because I had to do CodeNewbie and kind of like put on this persona of taking care of everyone else but it made it weird. It made it weird to kind of like, you know, spend all day in bed crying hating my life and then right at 6pm Pacific Time: “Hey, everybody! Welcome to the CodeNewbie Twitter chat!” You know? Like that’s weird. It’s really weird. And I’m—and frankly I’m really proud of myself for still, you know, maintaining my duties during that period but that was—it was very, very bad. It was a very, very dark year. And it’s really forced me to reevaluate really like every part of my life. Like I’ve changed my eating, my exercise habits, I’ve changed like the way that I work. I really felt like I had to rebuild myself. I felt like I had to rebuild it thinking like, “Ok you—you need to consider this—this new friend of yours now, called Depression, and you need to—like we have to address this. We can’t just, you know, pretend it’s not there and just kind of, you know, hope it’ll leave. It’s—it won’t. So, we need to—we need to like actively work on it.” It became like a—I think it got really bad in like June, it was like right after CodeLand, I think it was like June. So it became like this six, eight month project that I was actively working on. I’m super, super—I mean, honestly, like the—my greatest achievement is, you know, being able to address it and get to a place where I can manage it now but, yeah, it’s—I find that when I’m—when I’m alone with my thoughts that’s when I have to deal with my thoughts. And that has been the hardest part.
KL That’s so incredibly encouraging to hear and I—I completely I feel so much of what you said. I think just becoming aware of it and knowing that it’s this new thing that is in your life that, you know, you have to manage. You have to, you know, deal with. So I think that’s—that’s really great to hear and I mean personally I’m—I’m really glad that you’re—you’re in that place that you can support the amazing thing that you’re building. So we have just one last question for you, you know, on that note, what drives you to keep pushing at this and keep growing and nurturing what you’ve built?
SY My drive really comes from answering the question, like, “Can I live up to my potential?” You know the way I was, you know, I—I was raised like I mentioned really strict parents actually my mom was—I think she was pretty lax. I think it was really just my dad. But, you know, a strict upbringing. It was all about like, you know—like my dad would make homework for me. You know what I mean? Like—like that type of family. Like he would like create his own homeword. And so I think, for me, it’s just always been about just internalizing, frankly, what my—what my parents taught which is that complacency is—is not an option. If you want to be great, you have to work super fucking hard, and you have to work super fucking hard forever, and that’s like—like that’s life. Like that’s just how life works and so, you know, whether it’s CodeNewbie, whether it’s, you know, something else, whatever it is that I do, if I care about it, it really comes down to like, “Can I live up to the potential of this thing that I’m doing?” And that’s—that’s my biggest driver.
SWB Well, Saron, I think it’s very clear that you’ve worked very hard on CodeNewbie. I think it definitely shows [Saron laughs]. So can you let our listeners where they can find out more about you and about CodeNewbie?
SY My Twitter handle is @saronyitbarek, just my first name and last name. And you can find out more about CodeNewbie at www.codenewbie.org. The CodeNewbie Twitter handle is very, very active, so @codenewbies with an ‘s’ because someone already took codenewbie but, yeah, those are the places to learn more about us.
SWB Awesome! It has been so great to chat with you today and we \ _really_ appreciate you being on the show. Thanks, Saron.
KL Yeah, thank you so much.
SY Thank you! This was a lot of fun. Thanks so much for having me [music fades in, plays alone for five seconds, fades out].
[47:18]Fuck Yeah Of The Week
SWB Well, I know it’s time for the Fuck Yeah of the Week, because Katel has a huge smile on her face.
JL And she’s dancing.
SWB She just shimmied, actually, in this room. I swear to god. Katel, what is the Fuck Yeah this week?
KL It’s true I was shimmying, and that is because—so I just had a nice cold, refreshing glass of rosé when we started recording tonight, and it was wonderful, and that made me think of how it’s sort of the unofficial official start of summer. And I’m so glad because I just love being outside. I think a lot of us do. And I’ve been thinking about just—not just being outside and kind of walking instead of taking a cab or whatever but sort of reconnecting with nature [laughs] as, you know, sort of cheesy as that might sound. There are a lot of nice hiking trails around here and I really want to take advantage of more of them and, I don’t know, I just—I hope that we all take a little bit of time to explore our own cities, and towns, and neighborhoods, and I know we’ve talked a lot about doing that a little bit more now that the weather’s nice. I also vow to not complain about how hot it gets this summer because this winter so cold and so long. So if you catch me complaining, feel free to—to stop me but I’m just glad it’s so nice out now.
SWB I make no such vow [laughter] to not complain about how hot it is.
KL That’s ok.
SWB I gotta be honest: I’m really glad that you can’t like see me on the podcast, because I feel like I’m just a sweaty person [light laughter]. But I’m trying to make peace with that because the reality is that I love to go outside and do stuff outside all year round. And I always think of like my birthday as the launch of summer because my birthday’s always around Memorial weekend.
SWB And so on my birthday this year—actually, Katel came with me, we went to look at like some historic ships [laughing] in the harbor here in Philadelphia and sat outside at a beer garden. And that to me was so refreshing, not just because we looked at boats, or because we were drinking beers on the Delaware, but because there’s a moment this time of year where like a—a switch flips in me where I just care a little less about stupid bullshit. And I’m like, “Ahhh! Summer.” And I want to kind of like lean into that a little bit and like let myself take it a little easier. You know I had a \ very__ busy spring that was like made busier by some unexpected stuff and so I’m \ really__ hyped to sit in the backyard with my rosé or my iced coffee or whatever, depending on time of day, day of week. And like enjoy that. And not feel like I should be doing something else, and allow myself to be like, “Hey! It’s 3:30 pm on a Friday in the summertime, like, maybe you can knock off for the weekend?” And like, you know, like give myself a little bit more permission to say, “Fuck yeah to fuck it.”
JL I’m listening to you both, I’m like, “Ah that sounds really nice.” I’m trying to think of like how to apply that to my life. I mean I can’t really knock off at 3:30, I’ve got the—I’ve got the old 9 to 5 and then I’ve got the child. But what I have been doing recently is like we talked before in like a previous episode about like meal prepping. So like we could eat together as a family, and like get our son to bed at like a decent hour. And then essentially when we’re done with that I feel like, “Ok. So from eight o’clock to nine o’clock I’m like trying to like clean up a bit, maybe like answer some emails, do some like last things,” and then I’m like, “Ok, I’m going to bed because I am tired from the day.” And the other day we did instead after he went to bed I was like, “You know what? I’m just going to sit outside and paint my nails.”
KL I love that!
JL It was awesome! I was like, “Oh I miss this. I miss this.” And so trying to balance the like getting a good night’s sleep and like taking a moment to like sit outside and enjoy the air, and I’m not really sure what my balance will be on that yet but I have to try like think more about it and maybe see if I can sneak a few more of those in somewhere.
KL Yeah! I think just like let’s just try to go outside, a little bit more.
SWB Fuck yeah.
KL Fuck yeah!
That’s it for this week’s episode of No, You Go, the show about being ambitious—and sticking together. NYG is recorded in our home city of Philadelphia and produced by Steph Colbourn. Our theme music if by The Diaphone. Thanks to Saron Yitbarek for being our guest today. If you like what you’ve been hearing, please make sure to subscribe and rate up on Apple Podcasts. Your support means the world and it really helps us spread the word. We’ll be back next week with another great guest [music fades in, plays for 32 seconds, fades out to end].
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