Paying it Forward in Tech, with Bear Douglas
Episode 75: Paying it Forward in Tech, with Bear Douglas
Not many people can say they've been coding their whole lives; however, Bear Douglas is the exception. Coding since first grade, the Developer Advocacy Lead at Slack truly has had a great deal of experience in the tech world. In this week's podcast, Bear discusses the importance of passionate educators, paying it forward and how networking inspires what she does. She also tells us the story of how she got her awesome name. Bear has some incredible advice for anyone who wants to work in tech.
00:13 KW: Hi and welcome to the Ellevate podcast. This is your host Christy Wallace here with my co-host Maricella Herrera.
00:20 Maricella Herrera: Hey Christy.
00:21 KW: Hey how's it going? How you doing today?
00:23 MH: I'm doing good, doing good.
00:25 KW: Maricella I'm really excited to hear your interview today with Bear Douglas and not only does she have an unbelievable name.
00:33 MH: I know. That's the first thing I said to her.
00:35 KW: That's it, but she works at Slack. We love Slack.
00:41 MH: I know, we love Slack. Honestly it was so great talking to Bear, she is super smart, really nice. She's fantastic and every time we started talking I would be like I love Slack so much. This why we use them and this is what we do with Slack and it really is a great tool.
00:56 KW: So if you don't know Slack and many might not. I know if you work in a corporate environment it's less common but we use, at Elevate, this tool called Slack and it's an internal, or the way we use it is an internal communication channel. So it's a great way for us, it's like instant messaging but there's specific channels around different initiatives that we're working on, different departments, different teams of individuals that are focused on specific areas of the business.
01:26 MH: And we may or may not have a channel for Game of Thrones.
01:30 KW: We have a channel for Game of Thrones?
01:32 MH: Oh yeah.
01:33 KW: What? [chuckle]
01:35 MH: Yes, we do.
01:36 KW: I'm not on the Game of Thrones channel.
01:37 MH: Well join the Game of Thrones channel. It's called GOT Spoilers, which sounds really funny because it looks like GOT Spoilers.
01:45 KW: I'm sorry will talk to people about Game of Thrones all the time and I have not been invited to Game of Thrones? [laughter]
01:50 MH: I'll add you.
01:52 KW: I need a moment here.
01:55 KW: Okay. But we also have lots of fun gifs or GIPHYs.
02:03 MH: We talked about that with Bear actually. [laughter]
02:05 KW: And we have a good time, I would say particularly for the Ellevate team, and I'm going on a little bit of a tangent here, but because we have many of our team members that work remote, Slack has been a great tool for us to use to keep the whole team engaged because we're sharing articles and a lot of it, it's predominantly all focused on work and things in our industry and our business, but there's definitely opportunities to get to know each other better, sharing personal stories, articles, we know who loves cats, we know who loves ice cream and tacos and wine. [chuckle] So it's a fun tool so that's why I'm so excited to hear from Bear because I think she probably has some great insights on that.
02:51 MH: And we talk a lot about integrations and how people are building and innovating through platforms like Slack, we talk a lot about women in technology, there's been a lot of stuff in the news lately about diversity and tack and how we can get more women and girls to be interested and I do have a poll.
03:16 KW: Oh, okay I wanna hear it.
03:18 MH: What do you think is the main cause of lack of gender diversity in tech?
03:24 KW: What is it?
03:25 MH: I don't know what do you think?
03:26 KW: Oh, oh. What do I think? I mean I think there's a few things. I would say it's a big part is just like bro frat boy culture, founders creating companies that maybe embody their personalities or their values at that time that they're founding the company, and you wanna be fun and collegial and it's like your crew creating your dream or your vision but that's not scalable and that applies to a very specific type of employee and certainly not all of them and over time that can just become very toxic and eat away at really the core values of your business.
04:15 MH: Yeah and when we asked this question to our community it was right after the whole Google memo from one of the engineers had gone viral, stating that there's just biological and genetic differences why women are not interested in tech. Yeah our community does not buy that, just as a side note but what our...
04:38 KW: Shocker?
04:39 MH: Shocker, we did ask. So we asked, "What do you think is the main cause of lack of gender diversity in tech?" And, like you, most of our community, 37% said bro culture and companies, 28% said hiring bias, 26% said lack of women in STEM education, and 5% said women are just not interested in tech.
05:03 KW: Wow, I'm surprised by that.
05:04 MH: I'm actually surprised by that. But only 0.29% said genetics. So there you go.
05:10 KW: But somebody said genetics.
05:12 MH: Someone, one person did say genetics. [laughter]
05:15 KW: How interesting?
05:16 MH: Yeah.
05:17 KW: Well I guess we just got to work harder then.
05:19 MH: We'll keep working, we'll keep at it.
05:20 KW: I have an important question for you.
05:23 MH: Yes.
05:24 KW: Who's in your squad?
05:26 MH: Oh my God so many people. I would say the team at Ellevate's in my squad. I would say I have different levels of people in my squad, I have a lot of friends from business school who are in my squad and keep me honest, and I have my friends from El Salvador who keep me honest to who I am which is sometimes hard when you've moved and changed your life so many times, and I have a few of the Ellevate members who I'm not gonna name names, who might be in my squad.
05:55 KW: Well that's important 'cause I would say my squad is definitely the Ellevate community. And I am hoping that our listeners wanna join my squad, by joining the Ellevate community this month. The month of September, 'cause we've got a great promo going on. What's that Maricella?
06:13 MH: All through September, use code "your squad", to get 20% off Ellevate membership. And find the community that will support you every step of the way. Remember there's strength in numbers and you can find your squad at Ellevate Network. So, come join us, come join the community, find your squad, those women who will support you every step of the way again, promo code; "your squad".
06:35 KW: Alright. Well, let's hear your interview with Bear. Again if you have questions for us, or want to share your thoughts and opinions after the podcast, please feel free to email us: Podcast@ellevatenetwork.com.
07:00 MH: Thanks so much for joining us, Bear. I have to say I love your name, and I was a little bit surprised when I saw your Skype handle 'cause I was like, "Oh, it's not Bear." So, your name's Madeline?
07:12 Bear Douglas: Legally yes, but only the government really calls me that.
07:16 MH: But you are really a Bear. [laughter]
07:16 BD: It's a nickname I've had since I was a baby, and I went by it at home, and then when I went to school, I continued to go by it, and there were a couple periods in my life where I thought I would try and be Madeline, like when I first got a job. I was like, "Alright, it's time to have a professional sounding name." But it felt like I was wearing a mask every day. And so after about three months, I cracked and asked people to just switch back to calling me Bear. It's been who I am my whole life, and now it's really just down to my legal documents that say Madeline. And then a couple of my online handles that I got in the time when I was a student and thinking maybe I need to be professional sometime in the future.
07:55 MH: I go by my nickname for a lot of things and it's really getting...
08:00 BD: What's that?
08:01 MH: It's Beva, which is just funny 'cause it's kind of baby-like but... And I'm zero like that, but I even get wedding invitations with my nickname on it.
08:09 BD: Oh, nice.
08:11 MH: It's cool that you embrace that so much.
08:15 BD: Thanks.
08:16 MH: So, tell me a little bit about your background? 'Cause I know you're now at Slack. You were at Twitter. You were at Facebook. You were hugely in all these big tech companies as well as other startups. But I was reading up and your background is archeology, economics and anthropology. How did you end up on this side of business?
08:40 BD: Well, it's kinda funny. In the overall trajectory of my life, I would say that college was more of a blip than my career when it comes to things that I have sustained interest for a long time. In middle school and high school was writing programs and taking as much computer science curriculum as there was offered in my high school and actually in the neighboring high school. When I got to college I was kind of tempted by all of the different things that you could study in college that weren't an option in high school. Things like psychology, and economics, and archeology, all these other disciplines that don't really exist at the high school level was what I wanted to explore. So then I got to be about junior of college. I realized that I still had to take my engineering distribution requirement and computer science was an option. I was like, "Oh I really liked that. Maybe I should go back to it."
09:32 BD: But at that point it was my third year of college, and I only had two years to go, so it wasn't really enough time to complete another bachelors in computer science or switch my major. I just took as many courses as I could while still not taking six years to graduate, and just kind of cut and run and saw what I could see in the world after that. It was tough definitely at the beginning of my career to explain my academic choices, but in the long run I think think they were good choices. Majoring in archaeology and learning a lot about anthropology and how humans behave, how humans relate to objects, how people engage in research, how people engage in quantitative research, and how we relate to our stuff has definitely shaped my thought process when it comes to software as well. So no regrets. [chuckle]
10:23 MH: And it's also part of what you do, right? So as a development advocate, what you do on a daily basis, and the role that you've been playing in the last few jobs you've had. It has to do really how you deal with humans and human nature quite a bit too. It goes hand in hand.
10:43 BD: It does and while I'm not sure I've ever really sat down and had to have a meta think about how my academic background has shaped my approach to all these things, I know that it has. It's the sort of thing that trickles into your entire approach to the world. Maybe that's a topic that I should delve into, think about more seriously, but I'd like to think it served me well.
11:07 MH: Yeah. And so you were coding when you were in high school, how did you get interested in that from such a young age?
11:15 BD: I was very lucky in that my elementary school actually had us writing simple programs from I think first or second grade. We had a program that let you write in Logo, which is... I don't think it's a substantial Basic, I think it's own language but you have a turtle on the screen, and you could tell the turtle to put it's pen up or down or turn left and right. And then the first program we ever wrote that involved any sort of conditional logic was in I think the third grade or so. And we had to write a program that was a pluralizer, so in the simple case in English you just add s to make something plural. But then there are a bunch of exceptions like puppy to puppies, tomato to tomatoes, you add an "e", and so it got us thinking in the logic of, "Alright, how do you chain these exceptions and then fall back on the simple case?" I thought that that was a really good intro at that age and that level.
12:09 BD: And then when we got into middle school again, again I was really lucky that our school's systems admin wanted to teach on the side. Well, I guess not on the side, it was a component of what he liked to do. And so he taught us Pascal, that was my first serious programming language. And it stuck with me to this day how he made concepts accessible. He taught us how to write a sorting algorithm when we were in seventh grade, he made us imagine a pillbox and an envelope, and he said, "Now imagine you have numbers in a random order. How are you going to use what you have to sort them?" And so, granted the one thing that we wrote was operational run time of N squared. It wasn't efficient, but he got every 12 year old in that class to think about how to sort numbers. And so, that really grabbed at me. And when, back in the day, we had our TI89 calculators, those were programmable, and so I would write little, not cheat programs, but things that would make things go faster when you're trying to get through your homework. And the thing about the TI89 was also you could transfer programs to other people.
13:20 BD: So my little cheat programs went throughout the class. And it was just appealing to make things and do things and have things you could share that made other people's lives easier. So to me it was a good stroke of luck having teachers who are invested in giving us those avenues of thought early on. And also, it was that quick reward feedback loop where I was like, "This is really fun! I want to do more of this. I can do more of this." That got me into it.
13:52 MH: That's really great, and the importance, like you just said, of having the teachers that can really get you interested in something that a lot of people say not everyone will be interested, as with everything in life. Getting that feedback and that encouragement and the interest building, which you also do. You're involved with hackathons and you are doing a lot of other stuff where you get involved in getting people more interested and working together into these things. So tell me a little bit about that, sort of your teacher mentoring side.
14:28 BD: Sure, yeah. Some of the stuff that I do on my own time is an attempt to pay it forward and get people excited about things and show them that once they enter industry, they will have mentors available to them and that I'm here and happy to give my time. It's a lot harder to do in a sustained way, like really teaching somebody a course. So I was really excited when, two years ago, two summers ago, at Twitter, I was able to teach a group of rising sophomores in college, how to do Android programming. So I had them for a whole week and they gave me leeway to create the whole curriculum and figure out what I wanted to teach them in that time and get them to a point where they could build a project.
15:15 BD: And so, there were I think 20 students in that class, it was called the Early Bird Camp, and they were such an inspiring crew 'cause they came in knowing maybe some Java. For some of them, they had to learn Java as well. And then by the end of that week, in a team of four or five per group, they had managed to build apps. They were able to put on the store. And so, that was super, super fun for me.
15:41 BD: And being able to get into the teacher mentality of figuring out what concepts in what order are going to set you up for success is something that I find just intellectually interesting in general. And it's something that's made me reflect back on the amazing teachers that I had growing up and how they adjusted that and made things accessible for people at different ages. The thing that is easier for me is that for the most part, I'm dealing with people who are already professionals in the field and so you can assume a certain set of background knowledge. You can assume a certain interest in working and in spending the time to really let concepts soak in and put in the work to do your homework and stuff. Making this work for kids is something that I think is really interesting and also pretty critical.
16:31 MH: I want to work a little bit backwards from all the great stuff you're doing first off, but I wanna ask you in layman terms.
16:40 BD: Yeah.
16:40 MH: Laywoman terms. How do you explain what you do today at Slack?
16:47 BD: Usually I try and relate it back to consumer software and previous roles I've had, just in case people aren't in a type of workplace that can use Slack. I usually try and say, "Have you ever logged into a service either with your Google account or logged in with Facebook? You've connected services in some way?" Usually people say, "Yeah, I've done that before." I explain that the companies that are integrating that login service or using, say Facebook's platform or Google's platform in that way, need a way to do it. And my team's job is to create the documentation and the samples that help them write the code that hooks these services together.
17:34 MH: Okay, I get that.
17:36 BD: Not really [17:36] ____ sentence.
17:38 MH: But, no but I get it. You've worked at Facebook, you've worked at Twitter, it's communities and those networks and Slack, which is building that community also internally in a team. Do you think that's part of your interest? Has networking been a big thing for you?
17:58 BD: In retrospect, yes. And I guess it all makes sense when we're talking about my academic background and caring about humans, how humans interact with objects, how humans interact with each other. There is a common trend that, yes, I have been in developer tools but I have been in developer tools for communication software. Yeah, I think that definitely is a part of what interests me. What drew me to Slack was thinking about how it has been revolutionary for the way that a lot of people work, but in a very gentle way where it doesn't demand a substantial amount of behavior change all at once. It just starts off as a messaging client, which is a very familiar thing. People have used chatrooms for the most part as... Basically as long as most people have been Internet users, they've understood the concept of a chatroom. And then, once you start there, you can see how much more than that Slack does, but you don't need to see all of what Slack can do in order to use part of it. So that was something that definitely drew me to it.
19:00 MH: It's awesome, I'm a fan. So you've worked in all these great tech companies. Right? So what advice would you give to women or men, anyone really, who's interested in getting into working at places like this, like such big brands like Facebook or Twitter?
19:19 BD: Some of the best advice I got particularly early on in my career, and I think it does matter whether you're trying to work at one of these big brands earlier or later in your career, is that the more specific you can be about why you want to work there, the narrower your search can be, the better position you actually are to get a role you're after. So, for example, if you're thinking, "Well, I just wanna work at a big name company." As a hiring manager, that's not especially compelling for me to want to hire you. But if you can get very specific about, "I want to work at this specific big company because you are doing this interesting project, and I want to contribute in a way that scales and is gonna have an impact in the world." That's a much better answer for the hiring manager and it's also a really good exercise to help you clarify what it is you actually want out of the experience of working at a big company. So when you're fresh out of college, you may have a different answer for why you want to work there later on in your career, but that specificity is always something that helps. Going broad or saying you want to build your skills, is like... It's not compelling for you or for the person at the other end of the hiring table.
20:31 MH: Yeah. And what about your network? I know you knew people from one job to the other, did you make sort of an effort to get to know more people in the company before, or is that something that matters at all in tech?
20:46 BD: Well, so it definitely does matter down the line. I mean, there are plenty of people from Twitter now at Slack, and so it's very homey to come into a place where there are tons of familiar faces. But some of my earliest jobs, I got cold email off LinkedIn. LinkedIn was super helpful in terms of the quality of the job postings you could find there, but I didn't actually use a network, mostly because I didn't have a network at the time fresh out of college until later down the line. So, again, I think the answer depends on where you are in your career. But yeah, I've gotten jobs from cold emails and I've gotten jobs from talking to people who I already knew, so it's a mixture of both, but the scale tends to be tipping more toward the network side as I get older.
21:36 MH: Yeah, which is normal 'cause your network does get bigger and you get to know more people and therefore more doors that can be opened.
21:45 BD: Yeah.
21:46 MH: I was reading something where I think you were quoted on saying how important clarity was when you communicate both internally in the company and with people outside.
21:55 BD: Yeah.
21:55 MH: And it's massive, I think it's probably number one and something that can be overlooked if you don't really stop and think about it, just being very clear and being very transparent.
22:09 BD: Yeah, and it's a real luxury that I have at Slack now and that also now Twitter's followed suit on, which is having an open platform roadmap, because that just sort of opens doors for you when you're talking about the future plans for the API, the future that developers will be able to take advantage of to use, when you can speak openly about what is and isn't a priority and how you're making those decisions and what's in your term, that opens doors to trust that I think are incredibly important for when you're building a community. And even just when you're able to talk to customers about the future, that's super important.
22:47 MH: Absolutely. Are most of these sort of apps that are integrated come from small indie developers, or do you think it's bigger places and how much innovation is happening? Do you think we'll see a lot more of it or from the small peeps?
23:07 BD: People are all over the map, to be honest. We have integrations that are as big as Google Drive, and we've got integrations that are small companies that are only on Slack. I don't know if they're using Polly for polls inside Slack. So we're seeing lots of innovation on the platform that's very, very cool. There's a company called Yodel that does some very interesting stuff with integrating calling and managing customer calls inside Slack, and it's hard to predict where these types of innovation will come from, right? I don't want to make a prediction that overlooks people's ability to innovate wherever they might be coming from, but the great thing about working in developer platforms is that people always surprise you with the cool things that they can do and the ways that they hack around the, not constraints you're giving them but, here's the set of options that we offer and their like, "How about if I chained A, Q, P and B in that order, and then manage to produce this other cool thing?" And that is always delightful and surprising.
24:17 BD: There was one company Statsbot that, while data is loading before they show you your data that you've requested through their bot, they'll put in a gif that's just like a loading gif so that you know that the bot isn't just dead air waiting on showing you something, which I think is pretty cool. And one of my colleagues actually recently tweeted, he basically built Pac-Man inside Slack using updates to attachments to show you Pac-Man's progress where you can click buttons. We provide buttons, we provide images, and so what his bot is doing is essentially refreshing this image every time you click a button or every time the Pac-Man should move, so you can play Pac-Man in client. That's not necessarily a Slack app that [chuckle] everyone should install and should be working on, but there's a lot of room to innovate when you give people space to dream up stuff.
25:17 KW: I love it. I love all those different things that people come up with, it's just so ingenious. And honestly the gifs, the form of communication with gifs and GIPHY, and just integrated all there makes life fun.
25:36 BD: Yeah, it does. And it's kinda surprising how much little things like that can have a serious impact on the way you work, the way you talk with your colleagues, the way you get to know them, it's non-trivial even though it feels just like...
25:47 KW: It really is. Thank you so, so much, it was great chatting with you there and hopefully we'll see you when you're in New York next time.
25:56 BD: Yes, thank you so much for having me. It's been great getting to talk to you and also to the people who are listening here. And I'm more than happy to connect with any of people in the Ellevate Network, so just keep me posted.
26:07 MH: Thank you so much and we will, we'll take you up on that. [chuckle]
26:15 KW: Thanks so much for listening to Ellevate. If you like what you hear, help a girl out. Subscribe to the Ellevate podcast on iTunes, give us five stars and share your review. Also, don't forget to follow us on Twitter, @ellevateNtwk, that's Ellevate Network. And become a member, you can learn all about membership and all the great things that Ellevate Network is doing at our website www.ellevatenetwork.com, that's E L L E V A T E network dot com. And special thanks to our producer, Kathrine Heller, she rocks. And to our voice over artist, Rachel Griesinger, thanks so much and join us next week.
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