Thursday, March 8, 2018

Six Months On, Six Months Off: My Experience of Maternity Leave in Tech

Today, my second child, Henry, turns one. I went on maternity leave for six months when he was born, which means I have also been back for six months. I was a grad student when I had my first baby, so life was pretty different then. Being International Women's Day in addition to Henry's birthday, it feels like a good time to reflect on my experience this time around.


Henry eating a cupcake at his daycare's birthday celebration.

In no particular order, here are some thoughts about my six months off:

  • I felt pretty useless the first 6-8 weeks, recovering from a repeat c-section after 50 hours of labour towards a failed VBAC.
  • Everything was changing on my team when I left, big time. We had a new team lead who was amazing, but this fact gave me all kinds of feels as I was more or less 'in charge' until then. 
  • I kept close tabs on the goings-on of the team while I was away. Slack was part of my regular social media rounds. I even contributed with tangible work here and there when there was something I could help with or that I was really invested in.
  • I managed to get a lot of reading done during my leave and that felt really good.
  • I missed the office (the actual building in addition to the people there).
  • I decided I wanted to pursue technical leadership instead of people management as a career path.
  • I didn't have the motivation to go out to play groups or baby classes as I did the first time.
  • I didn't socialize much other than visiting with family. (It was great to visit my parents' pool patio for example, even if I rarely actually swam.)
  • Making lunch for myself sucked (we get free lunches at work).
  • I constantly asked my husband, who works at Shopify as well, what was going on at the office, what was for lunch, whether he brought my any dessert, etc.
  • I felt very grateful that I could take so much more time off than my American friends, and have my EI allowance topped up by Shopify the entire time.
  • My team sometimes joked that I never really left.
And some thoughts about my first six months back:
  • At first, I struggled with rejoining as an individual contributor on a team I had in some ways started and led for a while.
  • My husband was on leave for the second half of Henry's first year and he stayed completely disconnected from work by choice.
  • It was incredible how fast things had moved while I was away, and I can't imagine how far behind I would have been if I hadn't stayed connected.
  • I was happy to be able to jump back in quickly with work I was very familiar with from before my leave.
  • The first four months were difficult in terms of scheduling meetings, pumping sessions, and time with students whose schedules were very complicated. Some of my newer colleagues questioned my time management skills / commitment to quality.
  • Henry was a terrible sleeper the entire six months I was back at work (we only sleep trained him this past week and before that waking up every two hours was a 'good' night). I was running on near empty and had nothing left to give outside of work.
  • I missed carpooling with my husband and eating lunch with him, but also enjoyed the slight increase in schedule flexibility knowing he could pick up our daughter from school. It was also nice to eat with teammates and get to know them.
  • I'm finding myself wanting to wean in the near future, despite having nursed my daughter until she decided to stop on her second birthday.
  • I had a hard time enjoying Henry during these months, largely due to sleep deprivation and perhaps being away from him most of the weekdays. But that's back on track now that I am sleeping!
So many feels, this whole baby thing! I'm incredibly grateful to have had this experience while working at Shopify, which appears to be one of the best tech companies in this regard.  However, it's easy to see why being on leave for any number of months, let alone a whole a year, can hurt someone's career. Our society definitely needs to continue figuring out how to balance to scales for folks who leave to care for family, and to encourage men to take leave as often as women.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Getting Better at Ruby for #AdventOfCode2017

Because I'm a computing educator, I don't write code every day. I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss it. So when I heard about Advent of Code late 2017, I knew I wanted to participate.

In its third year, Advent of Code was created by Eric Wastl. On each day of December up to and including Christmas Day, a new problem is released at midnight Eastern time. Each registered user gets personalized input, and when you solve part one of the problem, a second, usually more difficult, part is revealed. Each part earns you a star. The faster you get your stars, the higher you are ranked. There's a global leaderboard showing the top participants.


I wasn't too interested in the competition aspect, knowing I couldn't be up at midnight every night working on code. Instead, I decided to commit to solving the problems as close to when they came out as I could for my circumstances. I also decided to use Ruby so I could remember the basics I used to know from working in Rails for half a year, and learn about the language on its own a bit more deeply.

I managed to solve almost all the problems the day they came out, with just two or three being finished the day after due to time constraints (read: two young children). I also learned a lot about Ruby, from the unexpected things you can do with hashes to its memory model, and more. My favourite trick was using a two-item array representing an x-y coordinate as a key to a hash.

More importantly, it was really really fun writing code every day. I couldn't believe how addicting it was. Most of the problems were fairly easy to solve using Ruby (sometimes it felt like it was cheating using that particular language!), though some were much trickier conceptually. None of them completely thwarted me though, and I managed to figure them all out on my own without looking online. Earning each star was very satisfying.

The code as I wrote it is now up on my Github – no editing after the fact. I know I'm not following all the Ruby conventions (I really do prefer camel case for example), and I'm probably being more verbose than a lot of folks doing this competition (I love readable code). Now that the competition is over, you can see all the problem descriptions to understand what I'm trying to achieve. (I think you still have to solve part 1 to see the part 2 description, though.)

Monday, November 6, 2017

GHC17 / Teaching Literature with Interactivity

Any time I go to a conference and see the word 'learning' in a session title, I get excited. Even better when games are involved. So I was already positioned to enjoy Elizabeth Hunter's talk on teaching literature with interactivity. Bonus that she herself is getting a PhD in theatre and knows how to present!

Elizabeth told us about her interesting game project called Something Wicked. The project aims to answer the question of whether playing a true-to-the-text video game adaptation of a famous work of literature help people better understand the work.

In the demo version of the game, the player participates in a battle with the king of Norway. In the book, the battle is described for 70 lines by a bloody military man, but you don't get to see it; it's not engaging for modern students. But you need to understand the nuances in the monologue or else you don't really understand the play.

Elizabeth previously found in her research that taking Shakespeare into unusual settings, using the full environment, helped people enjoy it more. They felt inside the story, and they cared more, which allowed them to think more deeply about the text.

While live theatre does not scale, video games do. It's worth noting that video games are not a replacement of live theatre. However, we can use games to capture some of the benefits we get from live theatre, like boosting affinity, critical thinking, and comprehension. Unfortunately, a lot of literature video games are nothing more than a jazzed-up book, a little too true to text rather than just inspired by a work of literature.

Something Wicked was built according to the rules governed by the world in the book. The game mechanics reward making decisions that Macbeth would have made, rather than "playing well." If you don't play violently enough you have to start again. You have to behave with bloodlust and sneakiness.

So far the game seems to be succeeding in its goals. One cool thing, for example, is that older players end up being excited to analyze Shakespeare's text to figure out why the game was designed the way it was (and even to argue about those decisions).

Learn more about Something Wicked and sign up to playtest on the project's website.

Friday, October 13, 2017

GHC17 / Changing of the Guard: Welcome to the New ABI President and CEO

At the opening keynote of this year's Grace Hopper Celebration, eighteen thousand technical women got to meet AnitaB.org's new President and CEO, Brenda Darden Wilkerson. She introduced herself as a warm, eloquent, and passionate lady. She and outgoing CEO Telle Whitney made a touching video in which Telle passes the proverbial torch to Brenda, heralding an exciting new era for the organization.

***

I have had the great pleasure of getting to know Telle over the last number of years. A talented computer scientist, she took on the commitment of heading up the then-called Institute for Women and Technology in 2002 when her dear friend Anita Borg fell ill. Though CEO might not have been a role she expected to have, Telle embraced the challenge and lead the institute through incredible growth and impact.

I first met Telle when I was assigned as a Hopper volunteer for an ABI advisory board meeting during Grace Hopper in 2010. I was then invited to be part of the board and got to know Telle more over the years. Some of my fondest memories of her are on the dance floor, where she was always ready to bust a move with me like we were the best of friends.

***

I had the chance to meet Brenda Tuesday night before GHC started. The ABI advisory board no longer exists, but I had the chance to attend the Systers leadership dinner with the Anita|Bees committee. Brenda addressed our relatively small group with such warmth that I couldn't help but immediately like her. That she has such an impressive background, and founded the original 'computer science for all' initiative, just makes it all the better.

I'm also tickled that we had a bonding moment over breastfeeding. I was nursing my six-month-old Henry when she was going to introduce herself. After noticing what I was doing, she told me about her own experiences with her babies. I love connecting with folks on a personal level like that, no matter how "high-up" they are.

***

I think everyone can agree that great things lie ahead for AnitaB.org. I hope that Telle enjoys her well-earned retirement, and I hope that I'll have a chance to dance with Brenda someday as well.

If you'd like to learn more about Brenda, check out her interview on the AnitaB.org website.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

How We Learn: A Book that Understands the Research and Brings it to the Masses

There's a lot of research out there on the theory of learning, so you'd think we'd all know the tricks by now. Unfortunately, due to the relative inaccessibility of academic research by the general public, this isn't the case. Academic writing, when you can find it without needing to shell out a lot of money, isn't exactly designed for consumption by the everyday person (and I say this having been an academic).

Luckily for us, Benedict Carey, a long-time science journalist, has done the work of distilling key learnings (pun intended) about learning science (etc) from the literature. He shares some very practical results in How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens. Even better, he does it in a way we can all understand.


The book climbs the ladder of abstraction of the mind. It begins with some basic neuroscience theory, explaining how the brain works. It then goes through some of the best techniques to remember things, shares ideas behind effective problem solving, and finally discusses how learning happens away from the conscious mind.

There are a few themes that are threaded throughout the book. For example, some level of difficulty is desired, such as forcing yourself to struggle to remember things through self-testing. Another theme is the power and importance of forgetting:
“Compared to some kind of system in which out-of-date memories were to be overwritten or erased,” Bjork writes, “having such memories become inaccessible but remain in storage has important advantages. Because those memories are inaccessible, they don’t interfere with current information and procedures. But because they remain in memory they—at least under certain circumstances—be relearned.” 
Thus, forgetting is critical to the learning of new skills and to the preservation and reacquisition of old ones.
Other important ideas include the role of context in learning (it's best to switch it up!), why testing is much more important than just for assigning grades, and how to know when to stop working on something for a while to let it percolate.

Carey walks through all of these ideas by telling the stories of the researchers who discovered the various principles, and how their ideas can be put into practical use by us today. If you're looking for just the quick and dirty list of what to do to improve your learning, this probably isn't the book for you. Such a list is there at the end, but you might find reading the whole book inefficient. On the other hand, if you like to have ideas reinforced several times and enjoy hearing about the history behind them in an engaging way, I highly recommend this book!