Departure from Ada

Saturday June 27th will be my last day at Ada Developers Academy.

If I had my druthers it would not be, and the same is true of Ada leadership. So why am I leaving?

The short version is, the position I came back to after traveling was a temporary role to experiment with some new course formats. Run the pilots, look at the results in June, decide whether or not to move forward. But Ada has a lot going on right now! A global pandemic has forced our entire program online, the accompanying recession has made it difficult to secure revenue for new projects, there’s a couple of big and sorely needed internal projects in flight. As a result, the board and executive leadership are tapping the breaks on anything that’s not the core classroom, regardless of whether the pilots were successful. Frankly, I can’t say I blame them.

It does put me in something of a crummy situation though.

I’ve formatted the long version as a Q+A – that’s just how it popped out. Hopefully it gives you just the right amount of context.

What have you been working on at Ada since you got back from your travels?

When I left last August, I had finally (finally!!!) brought the instructional team to full headcount. That was the first time this had happened since 2017, and I count it among my greatest accomplishments. Hiring teachers is hard!

But a full roster meant there was no hole for me to fill when I returned. So before I left on my travels, I sat down with the ED and did some brainstorming. That’s where the idea of piloting pre-application workshops for URM candidates and a continuing ed program for alums came from – both are programs Ada has had its eye on for several years, but never had the resources to pursue. I drafted a project plan, handed it off to the new DoE, and caught a flight to Tokyo. Those two pilot programs are what I’ve been working on since February.

This was always intended as a temporary role – we would run the experiment, evaluate the results, and determine whether to throw more money at it. My hope was that it would turn into something permanent, but I knew and accepted the risk before I left.

Were the pilots successful?

We don’t have full results yet – final decisions on admissions don’t go out until next week, and the data structures course I’ve been running for alums is still in progress (last class is on Saturday).

That said, the preliminary results look promising. The pre-application workshops appear to have made a positive impact, and feedback on the alum course has generally been quite positive.

So what happened? Why are you leaving?

Two reasons: funding and timing.

The initial funding model for the cont ed course was to charge tuition. Unfortunately Ada is not accredited, which means that charging tuition for a course is not, strictly speaking, legal. The process of becoming accredited is exceptionally time-intensive and expensive – Ada would basically have to hire someone full-time just to manage the paperwork. Thank goodness we hired a real Director of Education to figure all this out, instead of trying it and getting shut down by the state.

The typical workaround is to partner with a local college and piggyback off their accreditation – this is what organizations like Year Up do. But we don’t have such a relationship yet, and building one would take time and administrative attention, both of which are in short supply.

If this was a normal year, it’s possible Ada would have been able to fund the program anyway as a service to the community. We had been talking to a few corporate sponsors about picking up the tab. Unfortunately, this year has has been anything but normal, and asking companies for new big donations in the middle of the biggest recession in modern history is a non-starter.

Of course, a global recession is not the only problem we face. This year has felt like one crisis after another, and Ada’s funding and administrative attention has been stretched thin. Plus we’ve got some fairly big projects in the works already. Events that are more important than a continuing ed pilot include:

  • COVID-19 has meant we’ve had to figure out how to pull the whole classroom experience online. Plus working from home sucks, especially if you have kids who aren’t in school.
  • The murder of George Floyd and the BLM protests of the past few weeks have made social justice and D&I training feel like a more important / timely / on-brand investment than technical curriculum
  • One of our directors was out all spring, so the Director of Education was managing two teams
  • Ada is moving to a new space this summer
  • Ada is finally spinning out from our nonprofit incubator TSNE over the next year, a much-needed but expensive and time-consuming change

In short, the timing is plain awful.

I do intend to stay connected to Ada. Things didn’t go my way this time, but that’s the thing about working for a non-profit (and being an ally in general): it’s not about you. I do believe that leadership has made the right call for the org and the community, and ultimately that’s what matters.

Besides, Ada has treated me pretty well through it all. The new DoE was up-front from week one that the story was not as rosy as we had hoped, and as early as April I was fairly certain that I would be looking for work come summer. There’s been plenty of runway to figure something out, and plenty of time to process what’s going on.

I’ll be volunteering as a tutor starting with the next cohort in September, and will keep an eye out for other opportunities to contribute.

Are you worried about landing on the job market in the middle of a recession?

Worried yes, but not freaking out. I’ve got some contract work lined up for the summer, and my skills are high-value enough that I’m not worried about finding something more permanent for the fall. I have a strong network, including a legion of former students who I would love to work with. If the search takes a while, I have enough savings to coast for a good chunk of time. I am, frankly, a whole lot better off than many people who have been impacted by COVID-19, and for that I am grateful.

How are you holding up emotionally?

Something I’ve been working on for the past few years, with mixed success, is a better sense of equanimity. I can get pretty invested in things, and stepping back and letting what happens happen is really hard.

There’s certainly been negative emotions to feel this spring. There’s the fear of landing on the job market in the middle of a recession, the hurt of being let down by the organization I’ve worked so hard for, the deep angst of pouring my heart and soul into something and having it fail for reasons entirely beyond my control.

I feel like Dan from 2015 or even mid-2019 would have channeled all those negative emotions, the fear and the hurt and the angst, into anger. Probably of the self-righteous variety. It’s just such an easy emotion! Burning bridges is so cathartic! And there are still occasional days when I feel like that, where all I can do to avoid saying something I’ll regret is turn off my computer, lace up my running shoes and take it out on the pavement. But I think I’ve done a much better job of sitting with the disappointment and not feeling the need to turn it into something else. And of not hollering at my boss for something she can’t control.

I also think that having a long break right before all this and coming into it with a delightfully low stress level has been key. If I had been dropped into this scenario with the mind space I had in August 2019, I can’t imagine it would have gone well.

You talked about work this summer – care to elaborate?

Yeah! I’ve got a gig teaching CS 121 (Intro to Programming) for the summer quarter up at Shoreline Community College. The head of the CS program there used to manage the instructional team at Ada, and is in fact the person who hired me and promoted me to lead instructor. They were short an instructor, I knew it would be wise to pick up some hours either way… perfect match.

The pay isn’t great, but it will cover my expenses for the summer and give me a bit of runway to look for something more lucrative. Plus I like teaching – I did it for free before I came to Ada, so on some level them covering my rent is gravy. Just… don’t tell SCC that.

So what’s next? More teaching? Back to engineering? Something else?

The quarter goes through the middle of August, then I’m hiking the Wonderland Trail the first two weeks of September, so mid-September is my target for finding a “real job”.

While I’ve enjoyed teaching at Ada tremendously, I think I’ll probably be heading back to industry, at least for a while. Here’s why:

  • I’m excited to dust off my engineering skills and work on some hard technical problems
  • I’ve learned a ton about full-stack web development while teaching at Ada, and am ready to put it into practice
  • I’ve learned a lot about leadership and what it means to be impactful within an organization, and I want to see how it applies in an engineering setting
  • I am unlikely to find a teaching gig that pays nearly as well as Ada did, which means I’ll make 2-3x as much in industry as I would as a teacher
  • Working as a teacher has never felt sustainable – I have a tendency to take on too much and the deadlines and consequences for failure feel incredibly real. That for me has been a recipe for burnout. I suspect I will have a much healthier work-life balance in industry.
  • It’s much easier to engineer full- or almost-full-time and moonlight as a teacher than the other way around

My ideal role would be as senior engineer at a small, diverse, financially stable company based in Seattle building a product that makes the world a better place with incentive alignments that encourage it not to be evil. I am open to compromise on most of those points. If your team is hiring and it sounds like we would be a good match, drop me a line at the contact link above!

Any regrets about taking all that time off to travel or taking a big risk with your career?

Not one.

Help Us Change the Face of Tech

As you’re probably aware, I work for a non-profit called Ada Developers Academy. We’re a tuition-free coding school in Seattle for adult women and gender-diverse people, dedicated to closing the gender gap in tech.

Help Me support Ada on Give Big

It’s early May, and that means it’s the time for Give Big, one of our biggest fundraising events of the year. If you’re not familiar, Give Big is an annual time of giving to support nonprofits creating real and meaningful change in Washington state. Give Big runs from April 15th-May 6th, and we have a goal of raising $80,000. This year we have a matching sponsorship from C2FO up to $27,000, meaning the impact of your donation will be doubled!

Covid-19 has put a spotlight on many of our systems’ economic and social weaknesses, and this virus will only widen the gap of those who are disproportionately marginalized in our society. Ada Developers Academy contributes to building a more resilient  economy by training people in underrepresented communities to become software engineers, giving them the opportunity to build toward more stable futures in careers with higher salaries, flexibility and paid benefits, which is especially critical in times of economic downturn like today.

A non-profit doesn’t function without community support. Please, if you are able, donate today through our Give Big page to help us change the face of tech and create a stronger, more resilient economy.

Note: if your company matches donations (e.g. Microsoft), you should go through their system instead.

Thank you.

Reading List

I did a lot of reading while I was on walkabout! Some of it was really good and I would highly recommend. Some of it came highly recommended and didn’t live up to the hype. I’ve divided the books into 4 categories: read-right-now, ought-to-read, read-if-you’re-into-it and skip. I’ll even do little summaries for the first category!

Read Right Now

These books have it all. Delightful prose, fascinating content, a meaningful message. Once you’ve picked it up you’re loathe to put it down, and once you’ve finished you feel a better person for it. There is no reason that one of these shouldn’t be your next read.

Catfish and Mandala, by Andrew Pham

My sister recommended this one to me to get pumped for Vietnam, and she nailed it. Pham’s memoir about bicycling through the country he fled as a child is funny, moving, and strikes deep at the heart of what it means to be an American, an immigrant and an outsider.

Factfulness, by Hans Rosling

Rosling has identified a problem: most western readers, regardless of education or background, consistently overestimate how bad the world is. Whether it’s infant mortality, women’s education or AIDS infection rates, most places are doing much better than you think they are.

To address this problem Rosling presents a different framework for thinking about economic development (4 levels, each with a “dollars per day” level attached) to replace the tired “developing/developed” dichotomy, and presents 10 good habits to help you fight bad instincts and see through misleading data. Yes this book is about economics, but it’s also about you, dear Western reader, calling out your biases and misconceptions and identifying tools to overcome them.

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah (audiobook)

Noah’s autobiography is nothing short of brilliant. Noah is of course a comedian and the work is hilarious, but he’s also a storyteller. It’s the sort of book where you’re not sure whether the tears are from joy or sorrow. Plus he reads the audiobook, and does a tremendous job.

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

This one ended up on both Barack Obama’s and Bill Gates’ reading lists, but I was still surprised by how much I enjoyed it. The plot summary didn’t pull me in: a Russian nobleman is sentenced to house arrest in a Moscow hotel after the 1917 revolution. But this isn’t really a plot book. It’s a character study, and Towles uses that character as a lens on one of the most fascinating and fast-changing settings in modern history, all to brilliant effect. A Gentleman in Moscow is witty, charming and tugs at your heartstrings in just the right ways, exactly as a gentleman should.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari (audiobook)

Another B&B book. I’ve tried to summarize this book to a few people and ended up monologuing for half an hour, so we’ll see if I can do better here. Harari looks at humans from the ground up, starting with our basic biology and evolutionary history, and building that up piece by logical piece into how modern society developed. It’s interesting and insightful and quite well-written, and it doesn’t sugar-coat what we are or how we act. Plus the audiobook is read by this British fellow with an absolutely perfect accent for drawing you in and making you feel intellectual.

Ought To Read

These are the ones I enjoyed, and maybe thought were important, but for one reason or another I couldn’t quite give them top honors. Still highly recommended, especially if the seem like your cup of tea.

  • Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
    • I really wanted to put this one in the top category. Coates’ book about the realities of living as a black man in modern racist America is unquestionably something that every American should read, probably twice. It’s well-written, and insightful, and goodness is it relevant. You will definitely be a better person for reading this. The reason I didn’t bump it is because this is not a “read it any time” book. Coates’ book is a downer. It’s brutally honest and kind of bleak, and I believe that if you’re not in a place where you can handle that its impact will be lost. Maybe it will do more harm than good. My recommendation: listen to Trevor Noah’s autobiography first, that will kind of prime the pump, then tackle this.
  • Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan
  • Arkwright, by Allen Steele
  • Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers
  • The Raven Tower, by Ann Leckie
  • Rolling Rocks Downhill, by Clarke Ching
  • The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb (yes all three of them)
  • Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when the Stakes are High, by Patterson et al
  • Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler

Read If You’re Into It

  • The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell
  • The Book of M, by Peng Shepherd
  • The Cuckoo’s Egg, by Cliff Stoll
  • The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie
  • Human Acts, by Han Kang

Skip

  • Monkey, by Wu Cheng-en, translated by Arthur Waley
  • Upheaval, by Jared Diamond
  • The Design of Everyday Things, by Don Norman

The Loss of Solitude

These events happened a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been debating whether or not to post them – they don’t cast me in a great light – but I think me in 30 years will appreciate the reminder.

If you’re a prospective employer reading this, your takeaway should be that I value honesty, candor and a growth mindset over the appearance of perfection (I get to dictate my readers’ takeaways, right?)

OK, on to our story.

It was a Friday morning, the last day before my Ikon pass stoped working over MLK weekend. The weather report the night before called for 5-7 inches of light, cold powder up in the canyons, perfect for snowboarding. I woke up early and hopped on the bus to Solitude, intending to finally get a powder day there. Boy did Solitude deliver!

It was a day for the songs! Deep powder on a soft base, endless refills from the still-falling snow, and barely anyone in the park. It seemed like as soon as one area would start to get tracked ski patrol would open up the next lift and we’d have a whole new set of slopes to play with. I spent the morning working my way gradually up the hill, going faster and faster, tackling faces I wouldn’t have touched with a 10-foot pole the day before. “Cheater snow” they call it, the kind of day that makes you feel invincible.

I did have one gnarly crash in the morning. Riding fast down an unfamiliar face I let my nose drop and it caught, and I flipped right over the front of my board. I managed 2 or 3 cartwheels before landing sprawled in the snow. It was pretty frightening and I for sure sat there for a minute or two before hauling myself up, but thanks to the deep fluff I was completely unharmed. I rode down and hopped right back on the lift, sense of invincibility undiminished.

Fast-forward to about 11:30 AM. The Summit Express chair is now open, and it’s just as perfect as everything else that day. Off the main blue line down from the top there is a gate into an avalanche-controlled area containing a double-black run called the Cathedral Cirque. You traverse from the top of the chair around a gentle bowl to the gate, then traverse around a ridge to get to the Cirque itself, dropping in right under the lift. The gate’s open, I hit the traverse, drop the face, it’s legendary. I must do it again.

This time I mess up the initial traverse so I follow a track under the rope just below the gate. My momentum carries me pretty far before I have the chance to look around and realize the gate is closed. Crap! It must have just happened – it couldn’t have been more than 15 minutes since I skied it, and I had seen people on the face when I was on the chair no more than 5 minutes before I ducked the rope.

Now I had a decision to make. Unstrap and backtrack to the gate, which is potentially dangerous (especially if the snow here is unstable) and definitely tedious? Or trust the route I was just on? Which is safer?

I went for it…

And there was a ski patrol guy just out of sight around the ridge.

The patroller was not happy to see me, and not at all interested in listening to my explanation. He confiscated my Ikon pass and when I asked whether it was for the whole season all he said was “maybe”.

Dang.

I skied down to the lodge feeling pretty sorry for myself – getting my Ikon pass burned is a season-ending mistake. And it was an honest mistake! I wasn’t blatantly flouting the rules, a closed av-control zone was the last place I wanted to be. I know that avalanches are serious business, and as a rule I don’t mess around with the back-country or closed off areas. In 20-odd years of snowboarding I never once set foot out of bounds, and the one time I do by accident I get nailed. The punishment didn’t fit the crime!

Boo hoo woe is me.

But as I ate lunch (boy was I hungry) and mulled it over with the help of a kind group chat, I started to see the other side. I was in a closed av-zone, by intention or not, and that’s an extremely bad place to be. Cold and alone suffocating on snow would be a truly terrible way to go out. Moreover, if I had triggered an avalanche I could have hurt not just myself but skiers on the run below me, or ski patrol trying to dig me out of precarious snow. Conditions change fast on the mountain, especially in a storm, and it is absolutely my responsibility to be aware of what’s been marked as unsafe.

Getting burned for the whole season still felt disproportionate, but I at least understood why the ski patroller was so pissed.

So I started making calls. First to the director of the ski patrol (I got his voice mail), apologizing profusely and asking what a confiscated pass actually meant. Then to the ticket office, the manager of the resort, even the Ikon help line, anyone who might be able to tell me whether my season was over. No one who I could get ahold of was able to tell me anything useful.

I also got to call my parents and tell them that there might be some disruption to their visit the following week.

I kept calling over the long weekend. I never got ahold of the Solitude ski patrol, but I eventually determined that while I was hot-listed (banned) at Solitude for an indeterminate amount of time probably not less than 2 weeks, the pass would still work at the other mountains in the region. Not ideal – Solitude is the only park with unlimited days on the Ikon pass and my remaining charges at Brighton and Snowbird weren’t quite enough to carry me through – but not season-ending. That plus cutting off the best powder day of my life at the waist and causing a bunch of emotional distress felt like a reasonable punishment for my bone-headed move.

I’ve certainly learned my lesson. In the weeks since I’ve tried to exercise much more caution about where I go and what I hit, and I now always eyeball the av-gates from afar before committing to a traverse. I had gotten cocky, and this check came at just the right moment to cool me down a bit. I’m just glad I didn’t get myself (or someone else) hurt.

Addendum:

Two weeks later one thing stands out as curious about the whole incident: I responded much more strongly to getting caught by ski patrol than I did to getting pulled over by the cops in Vietnam. Riding a motorcycle with neither license nor training is probably about comparable in danger and stupidity to skiing in a closed av-zone, so why did I feel real bad about one while I brushed off the other as “just part of the adventure”? A few theories stand out:

  • Quality of the enforcers: I see ski patrol as an incorruptible force of good interested only in my safety, while the Vietnamese cops were clearly more focused on taking bribes than on keeping the road safe.
  • Frequency of the crime: everyone in Vietnam drives like a madman and half the drivers are unlicensed, whereas very few people duck the rope into a closed av-zone at an American ski resort.
  • Impact of the consequence: in Vietnam I had many ways to get around and even getting deported wouldn’t end my trip, whereas a burned Ikon pass would either end my season or put me out several thousand dollars.
  • As an imperialist pig I believe myself above the laws of a puny third-world nation.
  • In Vietnam I got away with it, whereas in Utah I did not.

It’s probably some combination of all of those. I haven’t quite figured out what to do about it yet, but it’s interesting to think about.

Hello Salt Lake City

Thought I was done, huh? Nah. I’ve still got a month left before I return to work and I intend to continue documenting. I figure 60-year-old me will appreciate the effort.

I am spending January 2020 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

I have borrowed my parents’ Subaru Outback. On New Years Day, battling a predictable hangover (painful but not earthshattering), I drove southeast. WA-99 to I-90 to I-82 to I-84. One night in Boise, I-84, lunch in the town of Snowville (pop. 177). More I-84, all the way to the Great Salt Lake. Past it, actually – SLC is southeast of the lake itself, and I’m staying southeast of downtown in a suburb called Sandy, about as close as you can get to the resorts.

The drive out was beautiful. Steep rolling hills in Eastern Washington, endless snow-capped badlands in Northeast Oregon, Idaho and Utah, punctuated by abrupt river valleys and jagged snowy mountains. It’s hard to beat the austere beauty of a desolate winter landscape.

I’ve rented an AirBnB for the month. It’s the downstairs half of a 2-story house, converted into a large 2-bedroom apartment, maybe 1600 square feet. It’s a typical mid-range AirBnB – comfortable and nicely decorated but with a useless kitchen. Dull knives, minimal pots and pans, a fridge that opens the wrong way, not enough cupboard space. I’ve stayed in enough AirBnBs to know to bring my own knives but tonight I was prevented from baking a batch of cookies by a lack of baking sheets. (Edit: as I was writing this, another of Dave’s roommates came down with a couple of baking sheets. Guess I’m making [and sharing] cookies tomorrow.)

My host Dave and his roommates (one is named Tucker? Travis? something like that – I hope it’s Tucker so they can fight evil together) live upstairs. We have not ridden together, but I get the impression he is a far better snowboarder than I am. Today he gave me a tip about a hidden powder spot at Solitude that reliably provides fresh lines days after a snowstorm. It’s just a half-mile traverse from the top of the lift – no biggie, right? I’m not sure if I’m brave enough to follow the lead. He has also offered me a lift up the hill any day he’s going – apparently a friend recently bought a big cruiser van and operates a low-key co-op shuttle service from Sandy. That I will take him up on. I suspect that company will be an invaluable asset, particularly later in the month as the novelty of boarding every day wears off.

I’ve been reading Barbarian Days by William Finnegan, a memoir about his life as a surfer / journalist (but mostly surfer). It’s brilliant, witty, informed, critical but not cynical, the sort of book that you can’t help but see as a magnum opus, the culmination of not just a career but of a life well-lived. It’s the kind of book I’ll re-read in 10 years and get something completely different out of. Reading about chasing the perfect wave through the South Pacific also makes this the perfect transition piece between Southeast Asia and the American slopes.

There are more ski resorts around SLC than you can shake a stick at. However my range is limited by two factors. First I have an Ikon pass, which only gets me into a select number of resorts. And second I am a snowboarder, which means Alta and Deer Valley are off limits. Snobs. The takeaway is I have three obvious places to board: Solitude (unlimited), and Brighton and Snowbird (5 days each). Solitude is the clear home base. Fortunately it’s an incredible mountain.

Solitude is 15 miles from my AirBnB. FIFTEEN MILES – can you believe how close that is? You could walk it in a day! Though it’s an easy drive up the Big Cottonwood Canyon parking is expensive at $20 / vehicle. Fortunately the Utah Transit Authority runs a bus up the canyon every 15 minutes, and the 45-minute trip is free to Ikon pass holders. The route has a stop a 15-minute walk from where I’m staying. As far as I’m concerned the ski bus is the greatest thing since sliced bread – a cheap, reliable, no-worry-required way to get up the hill. Plus it’s green. But mostly I don’t have to drive.

The two days since I arrived I’ve spent riding at Solitude. They were both incredible. The snow on this random week in January is as good as anything we get back in Seattle, and I am assured it will keep on falling and stay soft even when it doesn’t.

A big storm dumped 16 inches on New Years Day, and Friday the 3rd (my first day) still had plenty of fresh available. Solitude has a single chair to the uppermost peak, Summit Express. To skier’s right is Solitude Canyon, the resort’s reliable single-black mainstay. To the left is Honeycomb canyon, an incredibly long valley crowned by a huge, broad bowl with about a thousand places to traverse to and drop in. It reminds me a little of Northway at Crystal, without the brutal ice sheet right above the lift line. Honeycomb is gorgeous but it’s often closed after a big storm until the avalanche crews have a chance to shoot their guns, and Friday was no exception. I spent the morning exploring tree runs and bombing down the couple of blue groomers on the Solitude side. Around noon I was riding the lift, chatting with my neighbors, starting to think about lunch, when we heard a cheer from the bottom. “I wonder if that means they’ve opened Honeycomb”. It did; they had. The rest of the day was nothing but milk and honey.

I am of course both rusty and out of condition, but even today (Saturday) the rustiness seemed less acute despite the tiredness of day 2. Like backpacking, I suspect that on day 3 my body will start to find its stride, and by day 4 I’ll have more stamina than I did on day 1. It’s cool how good us humans are at getting good at things. Tuesday is supposed to bring a medium-sized dump of fresh snow, and I expect that will be my opportunity to start flinging myself down the double-blacks again.