April 21, 2016

Cost, privilege and paying dues: my piece of tech real estate

In my spare time, I run a side project called Facets, a newsletter which aims to feature writing by minorities in the tech industry. The theme of a recent issue was Cost, and it prompted some reflection on my own journey, my own privileges, and how much it has cost me to occupy this piece of web real estate.

My family arrived in Canada as refugees from the war in Yugoslavia, and we eventually settled in Vancouver. My father is a self-taught software engineer; we had a computer at home, but it never permeated my life as anything more than a game-playing device. We didn’t have money, at least not initially, but somehow my parents did an incredible job of making sure I never knew it was missing. I was lucky in that whatever I wanted to pursue, be it sport or school, I could— and they would find a way. I just happened to have a lot of trouble figuring out what that something was. I didn’t want to let them down.

I went to university. This is a privilege. After graduation, though, I still didn’t know what I wanted, or how my psychology degree would apply. I worked as a rock climbing instructor, barista, video game tester. I dabbled in HTML, CSS, and design throughout high school and university, but never saw it as a career option. It took my then-girlfriend (now wife) pointing out that I could forge a career from that hobby. This discovery came at both the cost and luxury of time, with a sizeable sidecar of guilt (“What if I’d discovered this sooner? I could’ve made more money/justified my parents’ faith/been further ahead than I am now”). Furthermore, my wife’s stable job allowed me the privilege of working freelance for a while to gain experience and knowledge. I was able to consciously and selectively job-search without worrying about finances. Anything short of a good wage, for me, qualified as a failure

When it actually came time to find work, I didn’t know what my title would or should be, and what that title would cost me in terms of salary, experience, and future earnings. “Interaction designer”? “UX Designer”? “Front-end developer”? “Web designer”? Each one came with its own boxes to tick and I always ticked some, but not all.

Searching for a job in tech is oddly like looking for a place to live, only the price changes based upon your experience, gender, sexuality, title, etc. Certain companies operate under the misconception that employing certain minorities costs them more financially. I sit on the underrepresented side in certain categories, and on the privileged side in others. I have a university degree. I’m white. Sometimes, I can afford to speak out on diversity simply because I have the privilege of belonging to a ‘safer’ group. But I am also female and gay, with a ‘foreign’ first name, and have been on the receiving end of harassment. Sometimes I wonder if the reason I didn’t entertain this career as a child was because I was passively (or actively) discouraged from technical pursuits because I was a girl.

We’re paid for our work, but we pay a varying amount for the space we occupy. The idea of “paying one’s dues” is something that resonates through the tech world. Companies want ‘experience,’ but experience comes at a cost, both in finance and time. For me, being able to gain experience was a result of privilege. Sometimes, others have to lie about it, or do a lot of free work to build it— “paying dues” to the design/dev community with free work they can’t afford.

Open-source contributions are held in high-esteem, but often aren’t compensated— are they held in such high regard precisely because they’re free? Coding boot camps come at a cost, too: not just the money to attend, but the money lost not working.

How many dues you have to pay seems to fluctuate based on who you are and how you identify, and I’m never sure if I’ve paid the right amount, or if I’ve paid at all. How much should I benefit, and have I earned it? Have I worked hard enough to overcome disadvantage, but while acknowledging my privilege?

I recently listened to a podcast on the differences between social and economic class, and the stress associated with switching classes. I’ve made the switch from economic working class to middle class to (I suppose?) upper middle class now, and each time struggle with what that change means, and how it impacts how I should act and work, and how that work and behaviour will be perceived. Have I earned that change, and have I paid enough for it? Should I have paid at all?

This idea of ‘paying’ for success is a warped way to think, and I try to temper it. Even now, the idea of making actual money for what I do is odd to me, and I feel bad for it sometimes— as if I shouldn’t be paid for something I enjoy. Sometimes, because my brain breaks, I decide that I want to make my work or my everyday a struggle. In these times, I try to catch myself and stop it before I undermine myself too much. However, the looseness of the ‘dues’ one has to pay to establish ‘experience’ in this industry prevents me from figuring out where I stand most of the time.

Money and the cost of occupying my space in this industry is something I’ll always struggle with. My wife’s job afforded me the time and freedom to gather experience. My university degree gets me a foot in the door. But I still have trouble asking for a raise, even when I objectively deserve one (because I actually have Experience, as defined by others). I still feel guilty about asking work for funding to attend a conference. I have trouble justifying the cost to myself, even if I rationally know that it will improve me as an employee, manager, designer, or developer. I think we all do, to some extent, and we could all benefit from having a think about what it means to pay one’s dues, and if we should have to do it at all.

I understand how lucky enough I was to get a foot on the tech property ladder, and I’m working towards building a house on it. Hopefully I can help others do the same somehow.

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