When to take your foot off the gas

It has been a really difficult year. I try not to indulge in self-pity, but I am a fan of self-reflection for the general purpose of attempting to learn from my experiences. Some of what made the last year difficult was out of my control (my nephew’s cancer diagnosis and fight, our wonderful nanny moving on to a family with infants since my boys are definitely not in that category anymore, etc.), but a lot of it was my choice. Sometimes I wonder why I am so intent on pushing when situations are already stressful. I suspect human nature here, but also likely a special flavor of masochism. I self-identify as doing hard things, and sometimes, wow that makes things hard!

I started a new job a year and a month ago. The transition to this type of role was something I had contemplated for a long time–I love semiconductors and feel like we are in one of the most interesting phases of innovation within design and manufacturing that will occur in my lifetime, but having experienced Silicon and system design without ever having had to operate those systems and understand what it takes to resolve the issues that occur at scale was a hole in my development. I knew there were aspects of design tradeoffs and decisions I could not reason about fully from the feedback of my customers and partners alone. 1+ year at Cloudflare, and I am still learning daily from the teams who keep our network up and running how to build better systems and how to help our vendors design more optimal products for services like ours. In 6 weeks I learned more at Cloudflare about the realities of managing systems at scale than I learned in 20 years of development and design. And I learn more with every project everyday. I will never stop loving the fundamentals of design and manufacturing, but I have greater humility and I hope insight from this experience.

My first day of orientation was also the date of my nephew’s first brain surgery to remove a baseball sized tumor from his brain. My first month was punctuated by PICU text messages from my sister. While trying to learn a whole new suite of products, understand our current projects across my various teams, develop relationships with my key partners and vendors, understand internal processes, build my team, and formulate my vision, I also was trying to make sure my nephew was getting the care he needed, and my sister and brother-in-law got some support. I am VERY lucky to have a large family of sisters and aunties as well as amazing parents, and everyone rallied to this cause, but it was a constant weight. Then the house remodel we had been planning for nearly two years finally kicked off (with us camping in the house because the rents in the Bay Area are no joke!) So I added the “fun” of cooking in my outdoor kitchen at least three nights a week during the wettest winter I have ever seen here in California.

Throughout all of this I remained the Chairperson and President of the Open Compute Project Foundation–hiring our new CEO, helping oversee the vision and strategy, and ensuring that we have tools and capabilities in the staff and infrastructure to support a healthy and vibrant community. I also remained the singer and primary booker for my band, Sinister Dexter, and you know just for fun (or honestly stress management) ran 4 half marathons (including a PR post having babies).

Then in September, I had to find a new au pair, our first match did not work out, and the immigration process for the second meant we went with part-time and strung together childcare for 2 months while balancing the schedules of two working parents. Seriously there were days when I thought to myself, how about I call in sick? I didn’t. I took two one-week vacations with my family and one with friends who have become family, and these were precious, did weekend visits to see my nephew and my sister, and I did actually get sick enough one week that I stopped working at 4 pm to take a bath and pass out, but otherwise I didn’t miss a day.

I don’t say this because I am proud of it–there are times when you need to take a step back and take care of yourself, but the insidious thing about cancer is that the process of fighting is a lot of work for the individual and their direct support team (my sister and brother-in-law) and for the rest of us there was a lot of waiting, hoping, praying, and worrying given that we couldn’t be in the hospital due to covid19 precautions (still!) I don’t like to worry. I’d rather do things, and honestly that was why I consciously chose to stay SO busy, but I am not going to lie that there is a lot of internal reflection going on right now. We got the blessed news in February that my nephew is officially in remission, and the precious dinners, and family nights with him over the last few months are particularly sweet. I want to say yes to the trips, visits, TIME together to make memories. I want to have family dinners around my new kitchen table. I want to be with the people I love and take a deep breath, and maybe, just maybe, not run up a hill in the rain for the next few months.

Stay tuned for a slightly chiller Rebecca. There are times when we just have to take a step back in order to be able to step forward. I think this is finally the time.


International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day. You may not realize this, but as of 2022 women held only 28% of roles in tech with even lower representation at higher grade levels. In data, security, and infrastructure, there are even fewer of us.

I got where I am today not only because of the strong women in my life, but very much because of the men who supported me, particularly early in my career and even now when I am not in the room. Advocacy matters, and we cannot change the ratio without the entire tech community stepping up to embrace equity. Equity is not the same as equality–this is a distinction that Cloudflare has particularly educated me upon.

Equality means each individual or group of people is given the same resources or opportunities.

Equity recognizes that each person has different circumstances, and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.

In tech we need to do a better job of bringing people up and into the dialogue. I fully thank the bosses, colleagues, and partners in my life who held the door open for me. I see you and I am grateful. AND we need to do more to make sure the doors are easier for our next generation.

Today, and every day, those of us in leadership need to encourage, enable, and support other women and underrepresented minorities to stay engaged in tech despite the challenges of being the “only” or the “few.” We are stronger and better together. This means making sure if you observe bias you call it out, and speak up for equity. It also means recognizing the additional burden agents of change feel and giving them support.

That also means stating my commitment to others: for those of you earlier in your careers who are struggling, know that you are not alone. Please ask for help, reach out, and know I am here to help. Also, you need to help yourself. Build your support system, your sponsors, your mentors, and your advocates, so you can continue to thrive.

In life we will all face bias. You will be underestimated. The world will not always be fair. For the record, you too have bias. I was recently confronted in a meeting for speaking about a leader whose story inspired me, and reminded by a fellow woman in tech that leader was incredibly racist and very much a product of imperialism. Our history is not perfect, and it is hard to have a discussion about any historical figure who would measure up to our current ideals. Do we stop focusing on the lessons worth learning from history because the people are flawed? I don’t believe we can, AND I’m glad that person spoke up to help me see the pain it caused her, so I could be more nuanced in my commentary. Every day we get the chance to learn, if we make a space where people are willing to speak up and share their differences of opinion.

I personally find faith in one simple fact: we learn more in times of struggle than we do in success. We can only make the world better if we stay in the fight. It is a struggle to be different, to be a change agent, and advocates can speak up for you, but they cannot know what it is to walk in your shoes. All we can do is come together, hold each other’s hands, and give each other grace to learn and grow, so we can keep moving forward together.

Book Club

February Book Review: The Light We Carry

For February book club we read The Light We Carry by Michelle Obama. At its heart this book is a call to action and a message of hope in times of uncertainty, and while it isn’t necessarily the prototypical choice for a book club on leadership in technology, I have historically found biographies and autobiographies of leaders managing turbulent times to be incredibly inspiring. This book was no exception. The book isn’t really memoir, but it is autobiographical in the sense of the stories she shares. Here are the nuggets that particularly resonated with me and the group, and might be lessons leaders in technology want to reflect upon as well:

  1. Build your “kitchen table”. Mrs. Obama talks about the kitchen table of her youth: how many people were gathered there with love and support for one another, not just family, but also friends, and that was particularly poignant to me. With Covid19 lockdowns, increased remote work, the age and associated obligations of my children, and other factors, my “kitchen table” is not as full as I personally would like. The de facto friendships I used to get at work are much harder to create remotely and without the regular touchpoints of work travel making it easier to say “yes” to grabbing dinner or drinks with friends. I try to stay in touch with friends when they happen to be in town, or if I happen to be traveling to their towns, but it is far more sporadic, and the friends and colleagues I once spoke with constantly, of course have less frequent touch points with me now that we are dispersed to other companies. Mrs. Obama shares wonderful stories about her “bootcamp” weekends with her best friends (at Camp David no less) and I have to admit that it was a personal inspiration to remember that we can choose to continue our friendships, and it has immense dividends to us personally and professionally. We need a village, and it begins by picking up the phone, texting to check in, or just sending a little virtual love on social media to the folks we care about. The limiter here is time of course, but a book club, email/text thread with besties, running/gym club/buddy, etc. can be good life hacks to keep folks in touch on a semi-regular basis. There is a great book called Multipliers, which changed my life on this topic, and I know lots of other folks refer to Never Eat Alone. There is never enough time to do all the things, but if you combine objectives with friendship, there absolutely can and will be a multiplier effect, and increased accountability that results in far greater dividends throughout life.
  2. Gladness is nourishing. Mrs. Obama refers to a Toni Morrison quotation about how she looks upon her children that particularly resonated with me, “Let your face speak what’s in your heart. When they walk in the room my face says I’m glad to see them.” So much of the time when we see our children (or our partners, coworkers, friends even!) we likely reflect what needs to be done “where are your shoes? Do you have your water bottle? Where are those TPS reports?” but children (and in fact all of us) look to see that that the person on the other side of the table is genuinely glad to see them. That is what fills up their hearts and allows them to flourish. So think about how you show up. Bring your gladness and watch how people thrive.
  3. The feeling of not belonging carries a mental load. Mrs. Obama shares her experiences being an “only”: the only black woman at the law firm, the only black woman in a class at Princeton, and how exhausting it is to not be in the “club”. I definitely cannot claim those same “only” distinctions, but I have definitely been the only woman in my class or in many decision forums and discussions and it is a different load to bear (particularly earlier in my career before I became more comfortable with myself.) I took the stories she shared as a reminder and a call to action to continue to remember the value of inclusiveness, welcoming all, seeking input regardless of communication style, and to be the change we want to see.
  4. Competency is the other side of fear. The book contains a fabulous discussion around decoding one’s fear and advice for how to manage one’s need to step up in difficult situations. Don’t be afraid; find ways to be prepared. This advice was also given with the recommendation “don’t make decisions in a period of fear; make decisions from strength.” I have always tried to ensure I’m running toward an outcome I seek when making my decisions versus running away from situations I don’t like. When you choose a path (even if it is difficult along the way) you are far more engaged and likely to succeed.

For me, the lessons the book reinforced were fundamentally about self-awareness and self-care. Your emotional state and your bias effect your decision making, and you cannot show up for others when your cup is empty. This book club session was particularly rewarding because 90% of the participants said they likely wouldn’t have picked up the book if it weren’t for the book club. I like when we have an excuse to get out of our comfort zones, so that made me particularly happy. We ended making a commitment to each other about what we would like to focus upon to fill our cups: friendship, parenting with joy, self-care in times of difficulty, making decisions from a good place, having empathy for one’s self, speaking up when you are not the majority, and being the change we want to see while holding ourselves with grace. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. The book is like a big warm hug, and a kick in the pants to be your best self all at once.