The “Last Lecture” is a tradition inspired by Etsy and by Randy Pausch’s book, The Last Lecture, in which someone departing shares their perspective: “What wisdom would you try to impart to the world if you knew it was your last chance?” This version of Sarai’s Last Lecture has been modified to fit your scream.
Hi, I’m Sarai, insecurity princess extraordinaire. You may know me from such hits as
- “Oh shit everything is on fire”,
- “Yes it’s on fire but we can handle it”, and
- “I am once again asking for the diversity and inclusion statistics” [LOOK, THEY DID IT, THEY ACTUALLY PUBLISHED IT! 🎉]
Models and Influence
“Always try to be nice, and never fail to be kind” — Doctor Who
I believe in PagerDuty — and I believe that PagerDuty can stand out even further as one tech company that sets a model for Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity. PagerDuty can demonstrate a model for creating places of psychological safety where people who experience marginalization can share their challenges and collaborate to drive change through that deep, painfully introspective continuous growth.
Achieving this depends on you. Share knowledge, share kindness, demonstrate compassion. Teach your colleagues — through docs, through code, in emails and slack and video! Learn from your colleagues: each of our colleagues brings unique experiences, perspectives, skills, and expertise. Every interaction is an opportunity to teach someone, and to learn from them. Recognize and reward these acts of care and compassion, of strategy, prevention, and landing positive change or influence. Reward glue work. No one can be effective through code alone but through compassionate collaboration. No heroes. No knowledge silos.
Some of our most critical challenges are when we make mistakes. Turn towards each other in moments of tension, stress, or conflict.
Trust, But Verify
I believe in trusting our colleagues to do their work to the best of their ability in the moment. That won’t always be the case — please offer them the benefit of the doubt.
Maybe something came up, in or out of their work. Maybe they’re taking on too much work: ask why — because there’s always a reason! If we’re asking because we’re concerned about delivery or because we don’t think they can do it, there’s something wrong in our relationship or priorities. That’s on us to fix, either through introspection or in conversation with them: why don’t we trust them, and what will we do to change that?
We build trust by leading with questions, never with assumptions. We ask how they are following through, from a stance of curiosity. We ask how it’s going, from a stance of checking-in on their progress and on their wellbeing. We ask because we want to know about their perspective on the project, and because we care about them.
Trust that our colleagues will try their best.
Make It Safe To Make Mistakes
This tweet sticks with me:
“When I retired as head of Google security, the “exit training” team compromised my workstation by getting me to click on an extraordinarily convincing link. I failed, not because I clicked but because in my years as security lead I had not made that clicking that safe.”
— Eric Grosse
Some of our most important work is not teaching good judgement or good risk taking but making it safe for every person to do the things they are inclined to do.
We cannot comprehensively prevent all misconfiguration, prevent all phishing, prevent all mistakes. There’s no perfect judgement or perfect risk. Make it safe to make a bad decision. I want to teach and mentor and coach, I want to develop the skills of my colleagues. But people are going to do things they are inclined to do. Accept that, make it safe to do so — and sort out the rewards and incentives for what we *want* them to do later.
I cannot emphasize this enough: expect and allow people to fuck up. Don’t accept malicious behavior, or unreasonably repeated mistakes. But make it safe for them to do so without harming anyone.
This is hard. I’m not saying this is an easy ideal to strive for, but I believe that making it safe to make mistakes is crucial for creating spaces of psychological safety. We help our colleagues do their best work by creating an environment where each person feels safe to make mistakes.
- Afraid of a new person taking down production with a misconfiguration? We build guard rails to prevent or be resilient against misconfiguration.
- Afraid of a new person asking pointless or sensitive questions during your team meetings or town hall? Let them. Learn why they are asking. Maybe town hall is the best place for that question. Their inclination to ask shows us that the question is important. Value their needs that led to that question. If that isn’t the right place, what space could you create for those questions and discussions?
- Afraid of how a colleague may face stigmatized reactions from your colleagues? …why are our colleagues contributing to stigma? Fix that. We can’t force someone to learn compassion, but the behavior they demonstrate is a model that others will follow. If they cannot recognize and improve, get rid of them.
Invest in resilience. Become the leaders in understanding how complex systems fail. Systems don’t fail because of people, or tools. Never shame, never judge. We have and will make mistakes that are harmful to our colleagues, to our users, and maybe even bad examples for the industry. When we do, I hope we can commit to the full anatomy of an apology: own our mistake, explicitly recognize the harm we did, and explain steps we take to prevent recurrence.
Make It Equitable; Seek Justice
I know that every manager intends to reduce bias and evaluate each person fairly. But intent and effort don’t create equity.
I see challenges in particular for underrepresented minorities in tech to access opportunities, and to reach promotion equitably. I see people who are ready to take on new challenges, new responsibilities — but the opportunities go to someone else, again and again. Sometimes that’s random chance: we don’t always have all opportunities available for all people. I see people who are excelling at every challenge, who take on new responsibilities and take the lead on innovating, and who support our colleagues through good times and bad — but they miss promotions. “Keep doing this”, “You missed this checkbox”, “Be nicer to allies”. Sometimes that makes sense: we have to demonstrate skills consistently, promotion isn’t a checklist except for when it is a checklist, and some managers don’t understand tone policing. But sometimes…it happens repeatedly, and we missed an opportunity to develop and retain some amazing women.
Tech leadership strives to apply career ladders fairly — but unless we level up significantly on equity, biased input creates biased output. I suspect that both the career ladder and the culture of what work is noticed — code all the things! launch all the things! — are subtly and unintentionally undervaluing the “glue work” where women especially tend to have strong skills and impact.
Every manager has areas of strength, and they cannot meet every aspect of supporting every report. The best managers recognize this and ensure that their reports have other resources — mentors, sponsors, peer learning circles — to build a Manager Voltron.
I saw a gap in ensuring that every engineer has support and resources to understand how they can take ownership of their growth: that’s why I created the Peer Achievement Support Squad (PASS) mentorship program, which provides peer coaching circles on a variety of topics that rotate across the performance review cycle.
I think PASS is missing a component to teach and build sponsorship culture. I want you to build that.
“Don’t let anybody anybody convince you this is the way the world is and therefore must be”
— Toni Morrison
I am passionate about my work because I want to change the way we work, to help others gauge risk and take meaningful risk, and to make it safe for them to do so.
These are challenges across the tech industry. I’ve struggled to find any organizations of a similar size that are believably in a universally better position to handle these challenges than PagerDuty. There are tradeoffs, strengths, and shortcomings at every organization. Every org has bros and genius jerks. Every org has bias and gaslighting. You’ve probably seen the Pinterest letter, “Cupcakes and Toxicity”, and I bet some of that resonated. I’ve heard some of that virtually everywhere. Some few are better…and many are far, far worse.
I have high hopes for PagerDuty’s growth — and for all of you. I believe that you can make change happen. I believe PagerDuty should be and is a model that the industry will follow. We aren’t the leader but we can be a leader, and we do it through HugOps and kindness. And cupcakes. 🎂
No Man Considers Himself A Traitor
“What makes a man a traitor?”
“I do not know what makes a man a traitor. No man considers himself a traitor: this makes it hard to find out.”
— Ursula K Le Guin, Left Hand of Darkness
Genius jerks don’t think of themselves as genius jerks. And many who recognize a genius jerk see someone who can learn and improve — but underestimate the impact to colleagues along the way.
Every tech org has to come to a reckoning of whether to prioritize the healing, growth, and well-being of women in tech who have experienced adversity at almost every turn — or to prioritize the comfort and re-education of the fragile 10-ex-engineers who are so named for the 10 women they caused to leave.
Engineers see genius jerks as role models. They’ll mimic that behavior: e.g., engaging in endless questioning of our skills, nitpicking, dismissing our input, sea lioning. They don’t intend to interrupt or to steal others’ work as their own. They don’t intend to derail conversations. They don’t intend to be a jerk. But intent is not impact.
Now, I know what they’ll say: “that person is an asshole to everyone!” 🙂😉 And I doubt that — but even if they were, consider the Myth of the Equal Opportunity Asshole: these people have disproportionate impact on people from marginalized or underrepresented groups. Intent is not impact.
I believe that everyone can grow. I’ve seen incredible growth in some colleagues, who recognized they were hurting their coworkers, and committed themselves to the hard work of aligning their compassionate intent with their impact to become valuable colleagues and positive role models. (Thank you. tysm. I’m proud of you. You’ll do great things.)
Maybe other genius jerks could get there too — but at what cost!? This coaching and emotional work we women in tech provide to these jerks drains our motivation, derails us from technical achievement, and is generally harmful to our careers. What could I have achieved if I hadn’t been alternating between high productivity and burning out from counseling or writing defensively against a few knowledge-hoarding men with the emotional maturity of teenagers? How much harder is this for someone who experiences racism, or physical disability, or doesn’t have the strong technical background that I had?
If you want to reform toxic people, start with quarantine. Reduce their visibility as a model for other people, isolate them from impacting too many people.
When genius jerks say things that undermine the authority of other people or teams, when they promote toxic behavior and model workplace toxicity, we must comment on that (tactfully!) in the moment. Ideally, have a discussion with them that helps them recognize the harm they are doing, and they should want to follow up on that to share that they recognize the harm. A leader should step in to comment on the resolution and demonstrate collaborative and compassionate behavior.
Remember the Paradox of Tolerance — and seriously, please fire genius jerks. They are not worth the cost.
Know Power; Lend Power
Power dynamics are part of everything we do.
At its root, sponsorship is about lending power. Sometimes that’s super obvious, like a Director funding an idea or bringing someone to the table, directly using power.
Sometimes lending power is not so obvious — like ringing a doorbell for a teammate by bragging about their work, which gets the attention of someone who has the power to open the door. Even ringing the doorbell is an act of lending power, because maybe a white man ringing that bell gets attention that a Black woman wouldn’t, or the work of someone who is neurodivergent may not be perceived and recognized on equal footing by neurotypical people, or someone with a different background might not have that cultural knowledge of how and why to get visibility.
I had the opportunity to join the team because a hiring manager saw the unique skills I would bring, and they convinced me that this team was the right place for me to grow my insecurity career. I had the opportunity to launch the PASS mentorship program because a Director saw the impact that a squad-based mentorship program could have on leveling the playing field for engineering growth. I had the opportunity to develop expertise in operating services, in threat modeling, in PKI, and in leading cross-team technical projects because my manager trusted that I would rise to the challenge.
I want you to rise to this challenge: how can you sponsor your colleagues and slingshot their growth by creating and offering them the opportunities that match their career development ambitions?
Open doors; lend power.
Ask Leaders; Don’t Challenge
Leaders have deeply human fears and vulnerabilities, and they’re not all the same. Executives are confident leaders in areas such as corporate communication, analytical discussions, and strategic changes to people leadership such as reorganizations. They’re used to holding power, and their comfort zone is knowing that they hold relative power in almost every conversation.
When the conversation changes to a topic like sexism or racism in tech, the power dynamic shifts. Many leaders know they don’t hold expertise in these areas, and they know that people who experience sexism or racism that they don’t will hold relative power in navigating those conversations — from the terminology, to the concepts and dynamics of how these conversations play out. We’ve had “but what about men” or “let’s not lower the bar” conversations many many times more than most of them have. Many of them are afraid of that shift in power.
Make it safe for leaders to express vulnerability. Acknowledge their intent, and the history of their contributions and expertise. Own your feelings, ask for theirs, and ask for what you want to see happen — invite our leaders to join in your ideas to drive change.
I learned to frame my questions, concerns, and criticism in a way that shows leadership that I respect their intent, that I know the history of their achievements and commitments, and that we’re partners in our work to drive change. I didn’t always succeed.
I want to share a story that I think you can learn from, about a mistake that I made. I was angry at injustice, at unfairness. I wrote a private email in anger, demanding change. The email was very strongly worded, and they didn’t know whether I was acting in good faith. I wanted to hear their reassurance and their wisdom. I should have shared my concerns and shared how I felt. I should have asked for help. I didn’t. Instead, I lost the good will of a role model and mentor whose perspective I deeply valued.
“That’ll do, pig, that’ll do”
The challenges that underrepresented minorities face in tech are industry-wide problems, and even cross-industry. The question is not whether any given organization is the best place, but whether that organization is “good enough”.
At its best, PagerDuty offers substantial breadth and significant depth of expertise for growth that is an incredible opportunity. Take advantage of PagerDuty’s resources: the mobility program, the mentorship programs, the expertise of our colleagues, and the diverse engineering challenges across the organization.
I’ve gone through a rollercoaster of emotions this week. I’m proud of all of you, and of the work we’ve done together. I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to watch you grow and to help you grow, and I’m grateful for your part in helping me grow. I’m grateful to have you as colleagues, as teammates, and as friends. It’s hard to leave such an amazing, diverse, and inclusive security team and company that have played a huge part in my career growth.
I believe in you, and I believe in PagerDuty. PagerDuty will grow and change. Make it a good one.