Our thinking

Interview with Michelle Glauser of Techtonica

14 March 2017

Recently, Matt Luedke, Software Engineer at Exygy, interviewed Michelle Glauser, founder and CEO at Techtonica, a nonprofit that works with tech companies to provide free tech training, living stipends, and job placement to local, low-income women and non-binary adults.

Where is your hometown?

I’ve moved a lot. I grew up in Salt Lake and have also lived in Germany, Sunnyvale, San Francisco, Shanghai, and London. San Francisco feels mostly like home to me.

Michelle Glauser

Michelle Glauser

That’s a lot of different places. Salt Lake was the first one you said and then Germany? What was the reason for moving there?

My last name is Swiss German—Glauser—and I always thought it was kind of a shame that we didn’t speak German anymore. So I studied it all through school, but I just felt like I wasn’t totally getting it. I had the chance to study abroad in Germany and really loved my experience. While I was there, I found out their university education is really cheap. Later, I thought, “I’ll just move to Germany, become fluent in German, and get my master’s.” So that’s what I did and I paid around $117 a semester. I loved living there so much and miss it all the time.

Was it an attempt to reconnect with that identity?

Yeah, I figured I’d learn high German first in Germany and then transition to Switzerland (since Swiss German is not actually a written language and it differs between families). I haven’t lived in Switzerland yet, but I’ve loved my trips there to visit relatives.

What’s one of the things that helped you shape your sense of fairness growing up?

While I was growing up, I noticed a lot of gendered unfairness in things that I wasn’t allowed to do or not encouraged to do. For example, my dad was a scoutmaster, and when I was really little, he’d let me participate in scout activities, but not later. He’d go to these really fun-sounding jamborees with his scouts, and it didn’t seem fair to me that I couldn’t join and that my parents didn’t want me to be a girl scout.

Then when I became a software engineer, I felt like the career was a really good fit for me. Looking back, it seems like there were many indicators that should have clued off people around me—I was in computer club in school and I loved to play around with DOS. How come I never got the memo that I might enjoy working with computers as a career? I had no idea I had the option. I’m not sure what I imagined the career was, but it’s not what I thought. Even though my dad’s best friend who we had dinner with once a month was a teacher, and one of his classes at my school was a computer science class, I just never made the connection on my own and didn’t have encouragement from others. Computers just seemed like a boy thing. That’s part of it.

“How come I never got the memo that I might enjoy working with computers as a career?”

Later, I became an intersectional diversity advocate for tech. There is a lot of unfairness in tech (and everywhere, really), so I just listened to a lot of people’s stories and felt outraged by and incited to do something about the injustices.

In terms of listening to other people’s stories, what do you think is the key difference in how you listen to people’s stories now?

Before, I think I just kind of picked up the rhetoric around me about how to justify things instead of listening. For example, saying, “I don’t even see color,” which is really dismissive of people’s identities and clearly not true, to deny racism. Some of it made me think, “that doesn’t really make sense, but okay that’s the answer,” while some of it I didn’t really think about.

Now, I think the biggest thing is to actually listen. Because so often we say we want to have a conversation, but we bring our own excuses to the conversation rather than just listening and trying to empathize with the person we’re talking to.

But, it’s really weighty. Ever since I’ve become more intersectionally involved, I’ve found it’s a lot of emotional labor. So you just have to find other people who are doing similar emotional labor too so you can vent to each other. You need your safe spaces.

Were there examples of when you were younger that you were using these skills in an undercover way?

I think most of my life, I’ve been one of those people that said, “clearly no one else is going to do it, so I’ll just do it.” But that is not always welcome, especially for women. Generally, men are categorized as being go-getters and competition is positive, whereas women are told, “You’re aggressive. Why are you trying to take everything over?” Several times in classes, clubs, and my church group, I spoke up about wanting to do activities that were considered more “for the boys” and helped arrange them, but I thought then it was more because I was often a tomboy than that it was unfair to all girls.

“Men are categorized as being go-getters and competition is positive. Whereas women are told, ‘You’re aggressive. Why are you trying to take everything over?’”

I had one job where I was promoted pretty quickly right after my bachelor’s and I loved it, threw myself into it, and picked up a million projects. At that point I did not have such a focus on community, and that hurt my leadership. For a while I was discouraged, thinking maybe I’m not a leader. But now, I have almost too much focus on people at the cost of my own well-being.

What’s the biggest way your work has changed over the past few years?

In 2012, I was still wondering if I was going to do a PhD and become a professor of digital humanities, and I was working at a little startup doing basically everything except for engineering.

Becoming an engineer was really empowering and helped me to feel more comfortable in my own skin. This seems like a trivial thing, but I was excited to feel like I could wear a t-shirt and jeans everyday. I did that for four years, but now that I’m starting Techtonica, I feel like I have to dress up a little more. I kind of feel like I forgot how and it’s not as comfortable, but women who are entrepreneurs are expected to dress nicely. For most things like that I just want to reject the idea. But in this case, I remind myself my work is going to make a difference in someone’s life, so if just wearing a nice pair of slacks instead of jeans one day might make a difference, then I’ll do it.

Michelle with a Techtonica student

Michelle with a Techtonica student

When I first became a software engineer, I was super happy to let other people give me assignments and just do my work and go home. Then I got more and more involved in several different communities, and I realized, “I’m so passionate about helping people find that same empowerment.” The plan wasn’t always, “I’m going to lead this,” but more that it wasn’t going to get done unless someone did it, so I did it. My focus now is a lot more on people within the wider tech community and ERG groups.

How little or how much has changed for Techtonica since the November 2016 election?

The mission and business plan haven’t changed, but the election definitely changed me. The launch of our full-time class was significantly delayed because the election caused so many days of wondering, “How did we get to this point?” and “How did I contribute to this?” and “How can I do better?”

Like a lot of other people, my first reaction was, “we have to leave the country now.” But then I thought, “I just raised about $40,000 to help people who have less privilege than I do, and those same people are going to have even less privilege under this administration.” So it kind of renewed my sense of, “we’ve got to do this, and we’re going to do it right.”

I’ve been trying to keep Techtonica’s social media going myself on top of everything else. But that means I’m online and see more bad news all the time. Even with all the privilege I have, so much bad news wears on me and I often wish I could afford to hire someone to take care of social media for me so I can save that energy for the people I work to help. Then I could ready myself for taking in and deciding what to do about frustrating news once a day or so. I’ve definitely felt as if I have a never-ending backlog of feelings that I don’t know how to process, but I’ve had to prioritize figuring out Techtonica details as much as possible.

What do you see as the biggest obstacle(s) to social justice in the tech sector?

Probably comfort. People get into their habits and instead of trying to examine those habits or biases, they just think things “will work out eventually,” rather than realizing we have to make a conscious effort to reach out to the people we don’t have in the community, and to the perspectives we need to make our platform better for everyone. When people who are underrepresented in tech are hired, there’s this attitude that everything’s good now. But if we don’t try to create an inclusive culture, underrepresented folks are going to run away or not open up to their teams, which will result in no one thinking the team is good, and the blame will go to diversity.

“But if we don’t try to create an inclusive culture, underrepresented folks are going to run away or not open up to their teams, which will result in no one thinking the team is good, and the blame will go to diversity.”

People always think, “Having a diverse team will be so great and easy.” But it’s not easy to have a diverse team; people will communicate differently and there are just a lot of differences you have to deal with. But it’s worth it, and it will help open up each individual’s world view.

I really hate the “culture fit” thing. The worst example of that would be to ask in an interview, “Is this someone I can get a beer with?” Sometimes it’s worded as, “Can you work well with our team?” The problem is that people really end up looking for similarities, even if it’s unconscious. “You went to the same school I did,” for example.

“What people really end up looking for are similarities, even if it’s unconscious.”

I heard a talk by someone from an organization that places people who are on the autism spectrum at different tech companies. They talked about how people with disabilities have generally been socialized differently. So in a traditional interview, a lot of them won’t do very well as far as culture fit goes because people will think, “How come they aren’t making eye contact? They must not be friendly and we won’t enjoy working with them.” But that person may build amazing software, and at least they’re not jerks to their teams.

Many teams want to spend a few days working with someone to see how things jive. But not everyone can afford that.

How do you evaluate where a company’s energy should be, in terms of seeking diversity?

I read something recently about the emotional labor of politics. It said you have to pick the things you are passionate about and focus on those, otherwise it’s just too much and you’re going to get overwhelmed. I guess a good way for companies to work on the different areas of diversity would be to have people pick the causes that they are passionate about and start there, or come up with a list of things to focus on and assign them like school reports, because researching a subject can make you passionate about it.

You just have to do the right thing and be humbly public about it, to set a good example and champion for organizations doing good work.

Any heroes that you admire?

Lots of heroes, yes. Some awesome people who come to mind: Erica Baker, Tiffani Bell, Ashe Dryden, Sarah Mei, Megan Rose Dickey, Cate Huston, the folks behind Silicon Valley Rising. Also, Dr. Maya Angelou, Corrie ten Boom, Malala Yousafzai… then there are quite a few heroes in my life who aren’t as public, like my former boss Shea Tate-Di Donna, and many friends and online acquaintances who do a lot of amazing community work without a lot of credit and are relentless about centering voices of underrepresented people.

What are some ways you would describe them?

Unapologetic about doing the right thing. I was raised in a family of passive aggressive communicators. I’ve been moving away from that for years now, but I still have that tendency to beat around the bush sometimes, and so when people just say something like it is, I think, “Whoa. I want to be like that.” On the bright side, I can act as a good moderator between people who are more direct communicators and those who aren’t.

Of all the issues in the world, how do you find which you are passionate about?

At a recent diversity advocates retreat that Phil (Exygy’s COO) and I were at, we all told our stories about how we got into diversity advocacy. All of us had a story that felt personal and enraging that made us advocates about specific issues.

I told the scout story, and I also talked about how I was raised in a blue collar family—coming into tech, where everything is really posh, and companies spend thousands on parties, was shocking. There’s a lot of cultural differences between socioeconomic levels. I just read a book about that by the way, Limbo. I nodded the whole time. The author wrote about how his parents don’t really understand what he does now, so they can’t really talk about that. They wanted him to make more money than they did, but now they feel like they can’t relate anymore.

So yes, I’m super, super passionate about helping women and non-binary adults of all colors make it everywhere, but I’ve noticed there is a huge lack of conversation around socioeconomic diversity in tech. If you don’t have that perspective on your team, how are you going to get those users? It makes perfect sense to me but a lot of people aren’t thinking about that.

“If you don’t have that perspective on your team, how are you going to get those users?”

I’ve made it my thing, especially because we have an income disparity that is worse than Rwanda in our own city of San Francisco, and few people know that. It seems silly to me that we’re missing a whole population and we complain about the rent going up, but we keep bringing in new people rather than becoming united as a city and helping the people who are here already instead of driving them out. It’s hard to succeed when you can’t pay for an elite college and don’t have big connections at companies.

“We have an income disparity that is worse than Rwanda in our own city of San Francisco, and few people know that.”

And I have to mention this: So many of the companies I’ve talked to about hiring a Techtonica student have asked, “How do you know that these [low-income women and non-binary adults] are smart enough?” And I feel like there’s a lot of bias in that question. Hearing that tells me people aren’t questioning the stereotype that people must be lazy if they haven’t been able to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Our students are not stupid or lazy, they just need an opportunity. I usually say, “Our students are really hard-working and smart and will excel with our program. Sponsoring companies have a say in the criteria and curriculum for our students.”

Do you agree that the bootstrap myth is–

The worst. The people who say that are the people who had other people pulling on their bootstraps. And everyone loves stories of people who came out of nowhere and made it big. Like Alexander Hamilton, right?

“A bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in…” Sorry.

People love pointing at stories like that and saying, “See, he did it. You should be able to do it.” But it’s not easy and very few make it as far as he did.

Another book I can recommend in that vein is called “White Trash” by Nancy Isenberg, about the history of that myth through the history of the U.S., going back to Ben Franklin and all them, up through today. Anyway, how do you think this gets reflected in what San Francisco/Silicon Valley produces?

I think about this all the time, because the services that are the hip new things are really privileged services. Rather than doing a “dog bone delivery in 20 minutes” service, why aren’t we using our world-famous innovation skills to help solve big social problems, starting in our area? A lot of people are looking for jobs where they feel like they make more of a difference anyway, right?

“A lot of people are looking for jobs where they feel like they make more of a difference.”

If you don’t have someone who has had a totally different experience on your team, then your product is only going to relate to the people who are just like you. Or you are just the swooping white savior person who decides, “I don’t know anything about you, but I’m going to solve all your problems.” We’ll have big hackathons and say, “This is great. We’re going to help this community.” But no one from the community is there!

“We’ll have big hackathons and say, ‘This is great. We’re going to help this community.’ But no one from the community is there!”

I actually helped organize a PyLadies/Techqueria event a couple months ago, for post-election action items. We had several people from nonprofit organizations there, and they said, “We have all these tech needs but we don’t know anyone in tech.” At the end, several said, “Let’s do a conference where we just have nonprofits talking to techies. Let’s talk. Let’s figure it out.”

Some of the problems are so easily solved, or there’s already a platform that can do that for them. “I need a better way to share documents”—Google Docs. They just need people to tell them that.

By the way, before I started a nonprofit, I never thought about the nonprofit world. It’s a different world. And it feels very old-fashioned in many ways. I’m mostly running Techtonica like it’s a San Francisco tech startup, but then it’s got the tax-exempt thing and I have to push against nonprofit traditions.

Do you believe in the term the “nonprofit industrial complex” or have any thoughts about it?

I just watched Poverty Inc., which talks about how the whole nonprofit thing is a big business. I had to come up with a lot of different budgets last year, and I was really unsure about how much to aim to pay myself eventually. It feels weird to pay yourself for doing good community work. Nonprofits have all their 990s available to anyone, so I started looking at all these different nonprofits I’d heard of. I remember thinking, “Whoa, that person makes 250k? What?” And with others, “Wow, they are surviving on $55K in San Francisco?”

Then I thought, “Well, why shouldn’t they make a lot? They are doing a really difficult job, and just because they’re passionate about a cause doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be paid well. In fact, maybe they should be paid more because of all the emotional labor they’re putting in to support others…” Still, I haven’t paid myself yet and I have a hard time justifying asking for funding to cover that, even though I’m totally an advocate for people being compensated for their time—especially underrepresented people.

I like how you said people need to be compensated for their work. It shouldn’t be assumed that if this is what you’re passionate about, it’s free, right?

In the last year, every time someone has asked if I wanted to speak at an event, my first reaction was to say yes. But, recently I’ve started asking, “How much is the pay?” and most of the time they are surprised by that question. If you are organizing something where sponsors are going to cover food, just cover speakers too. Even if it’s only 10 bucks, you need to show that you appreciate them more than just saying “thank you.” One of the people who was surprised said, “Well, it’s a conference for women who are engineers.” And I was like, “Yup.” And she said, “Well, no one else is paid. I’m not paid for organizing this.” I said, “You should be.” I tried to be nice about it, but I’m not sure I convinced her. Maybe eventually she’ll think, “I put in a lot of work putting together that panel and deserve to be paid.”

I also often ask, “Is there a person of color speaking? Because if there isn’t, I’ll help you find someone.” I’ve seen too many panels that have made me think, “Seriously? They couldn’t find anyone except white dudes?” They didn’t really make an effort.

I look like an engineer

And I realized this after I’d done several events where I expected people to do things for free. Like for the #ILookLikeAnEngineer event, we had awesome people on a panel and didn’t pay any of them. And I debated a lot about that later. Should we have even though it was a grassroots community thing and no one was paid?

You just need to be upfront about volunteered work. When it’s a good cause like Techtonica, there are often many wonderful people who are willing to contribute their time and skills.

Michelle Glauser is the founder and CEO of Techtonica, and Matt Luedke is a Software Engineer at Exygy.