Away from Keyboard – Episode #8

Eryn O'Neil isn't afraid to speak her mind

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Eryn O’Neil grew up in the southwestern suburbs of Chicago. When it came time for college, it was easy for her to move a few states over and go to college in a small town in Iowa. She now lives in Minneapolis, and after years of being self-employed, she just finished a months-long journey to find her next job.

Eryn talks to me about being the first female engineering manager at her new company, what excites her about technology, the hurdles of married life, and staying healthy in a demanding industry.

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After years of consulting, Eryn O’Neil decided to find a full-time gig. Her job search took an exhausting 3,5 months, where she had everything from informal coffees to sit-down interviews. She now works at Modern Tribe, an agency that’s mostly distributed, but has an office here in Minneapolis.

Eryn is the company’s first female engineering manager, and she told me that depending on how you do the math, she’s the company’s first female engineer.

I just point blank said that in my interview. I was like, “So this is a thing… Let’s talk about that.” And we did. Obviously, when you ask a thing like that, they can’t fix it right there. There’s nothing that can be done; it’s just where they are. So what you’re really doing is saying “I wanna see how you think and talk about this. I wanna know if when I bring this up, how does this conversation go?” The answers were like “Yeah, we know and we wanna fix that, and actually that’s part of what we’re really excited about bringing you on - not to make you a token, but rather like–” they know that I’m pretty active in the inclusion/diversity conversations, and they were like “We want you to bring that to us.” And I was like, “Sweet. Good, because I’m gonna say a lot of things and make a lot of people uncomfortable… And I’m glad that you’re saying now that I have your blessing.” [laughs] And so far I have maintained that blessing.

Do you enjoy management?

I do…

Okay.

Yeah… I know that makes me super-weird in the development world, but I really do like managing. I got into it very much on purpose. It’s actually why I came out of consulting. I realized that I wanted to manage people, and I thus needed people to manage… So being an independent person was not gonna work anymore.

Right. It’s only so long you can manage your imaginary employees.

Yeah. Like, manage myself was not going well. I’m a terrible person to manage. Sorry, it’s my boss. [laughter] I’ve been working professionally for ten years, I know how to develop, but I’ve never particularly love-loved it. The way that some people can go home at night, and their treat after working for someone else all day is to program on their own stuff, that has literally never been me a day in my life. I just don’t do that.

So I put in my time and I learned a lot, but what I really like doing is solving problems, and I think that people are the most interesting problem. I feel like technology is “Okay, that’s fine”, but I wanted to facilitate other people’s work and I wanted to figure out how to make other people be the best… And frankly, you develop opinions after having your own managers, about what you like and what you don’t like, and I got to a point where I was like, “Alright, I wanna try this. I have some ideas.” So there was also that.

Yeah, it’s a great fit, because I really like engineering… I like the world of software. I like technology; I think it is one of the most important places that someone can work right now, because whether we like it or not, it is affecting everything and everyone. And because of that, I want to be involved in the human side of it, because I think that that is what has been under-recognized, and under-represented in a lot of these conversations.

What do you mean by the human side of things?

Some of the canonical examples or the easy examples are, say, Facebook. They’ve solved some pretty gnarly technical challenges in terms of scale, in terms of how do you work with that much data, just how do you have even a company of that size with that many engineers? How do you even work together? They’ve solved some really interesting problems, but as we all know, at the expense of some more human ones… Some problems that are more about “Okay, we can solve this problem, but should we apply it in the way we’re applying it?”

One example that I go to a lot is there’s a famous developer named Eric Meyer, and he had a daughter whose name was Rebecca and she got really, really sick. She was sick in the way where you know she is going to die. He knew he was gonna lose his daughter, so he just – because he is this internet personality, he was posting about it all the time; that’s just sort of what he did with his life… And his daughter did eventually die; it was towards the end of the year, and so he posted sort of like one last farewell kind of post… Like, “Okay, everybody has been following along… Here it is”, and this is all happening on Facebook. And this is right before Facebook launched their Year in Review feature. This was also back when Facebook just had likes, they didn’t have Like, and Happy, and Sad, and Angry, and Heart, and stuff.

So he logs in on January 1st, and there is this giant picture of his daughter with all these animations around it, of like happy little New Year’s people, and fireworks, and all that stuff… And they’re like “Look at your most liked picture from last year. Here’s your year in review. We hope it was a great one”, and it was just obviously a terribly insensitive thing. Horribly, horribly difficult for him. So he turns off the computer and ends up writing quite a lot about what he eventually termed “Inadvertent algorithmic cruelty”, which is an incredibly rich topic

Basically, it’s when algorithms are accidentally hurtful to people. And that is a place where technology and people intersect, because okay, the algorithm was very clever; it did manage to find the post that had the most engagement, whatever engagement means, but there wasn’t a lot of thought given to the fact that not everybody puts only good stuff on the internet, and that a like doesn’t mean a like necessarily… And I actually personally believe that that’s where a huge part of where the wider set of emoji reactions came from… I mean, stories similar to his; he wasn’t the only person, by any means, but just realizing, like “Oh, my gosh… We need a deeper kind of data.”

But this still happens all the time, even specifically in Facebook. There are people who – somebody just posted the other day on Twitter that they had this same sort of review/memory thing that came up, and it was a picture of their mother’s gravestone, with a bunch of happy cartoon people on it… And it’s just like – that’s cruel. That’s evil. No one did it on purpose, and in fact, in every case I’m aware of, once Facebook engineers found out, they fixed it. But if we are going to have technology in our lives the way that we absolutely are and do right now, we also need people thinking about the implications of that technology before these things happen to people… Because this is a very cruel example, but it is still only one person, and it’s not hard to see how this scales and spreads and just becomes something that is gonna affect any of us anytime.

I feel like that’s such an interesting topic, because I remember around that time when that happened, and it really did bring to light that there is - and I still think that there is - a shortage of ways to communicate on the internet… Sometimes we’re given very specific options. I can think of just a few weeks ago, one of my friends - their dog died, but the only option on Instagram is Like.

Right, exactly.

And you’re in that conundrum where “How do I tell this person I’m sorry for that without flooding comments, but at the same time, the Like button isn’t really what I’m trying to communicate here.” And then on the flipside of that is then the consequences of that, which is what you just talked about. Because then you do a database query for “What’s their most liked picture” and that’s the one that comes up.

Right, because it’s where everybody is giving support.

Exactly. I think to me that is one of the most exciting things about technology as kind of horrible of consequences that it’s had in our day-to-day life; to me, that’s what’s exciting about technology, is now thinking about ways where we can actually use it to improve people’s lives, and not to hurt them… Because as time has gone on and our industry has matured, we’ve come to realize that there are moral, ethical implications to a lot of the work that we do.

Absolutely.

I’ve heard some people say that every decision in technology is a political one - I disagree with that, because me deciding what database schema to use to me is not a political decision… But I do think that, yes, there are a lot of decisions that involve moral and ethical questions now.

Yeah. And what’s tricky about them too is they’re not always obvious.

Right.

A lot of things are inadvertent. For example, I would actually go back to your database example and say that there are many ways that we do make political decisions in our schemas - storing names, for example. If you have a first name and last name field, that is assuming things about how names are structured; that is not true everywhere in the world. In Latin-American countries people have two last names. That’s genuinely their name. But we build systems in North-American/Western context where we –

In bubbles.

Yeah. We’re like “Okay, well, that’s your middle name” and it’s not their middle name. There are so many different things that we just don’t even think about, that we store the data for in a way that does make decisions about who is valid and who is not valid, and who gets to be themselves and who has to make a decision about what they’re going to change just to use your website.

A super-basic example is I have an apostrophe in my last name; I break websites constantly. And I’m a programmer, I understand why that happens. I roll my eyes at every single person who makes technology that can’t handle an apostrophe, because that is lazy, but I understand why it happens. However, the number of times that I’ve gotten the error message “Please enter a valid name” is harsh, man… Like, come on, my name is totally valid. That is my name. Get better programmers.

So those things feel super-innocent and feel like not a big deal, but in a lot of ways, especially anytime you’re interacting with users or taking their data or showing their data back to them, the decisions you’re making about how you’re gonna do that have a lot of implications on how you value that data and how you interpret it.

Coming up, Eryn talks to me about moving away from home, the hurdles of married of life, and the struggle to stay healthy in a demanding industry.

Break

[00:11:54.21]

Eryin grew up in the South-West suburbs of Chicago, but come college time, she decided to leave the big city and go to a small liberal arts school called Grinnell College.

It was in the middle of a cornfield. The town is 9,000 people, and 2,000 of that are the students. Everything about it is the opposite of where I grew up, and it was kind of fun. It’s just a bunch of really smart, nerdy people in the middle of a cornfield, so you invent your own things to do… It was great.

Around senior year I didn’t – I have a computer science degree, and I didn’t know what I was gonna do, but I was one of the people who ran what we called at the time a virtual community. We call it social media now… But it was basically like a very early Facebook kind of deal, but only for my college, and because of that, one of the alumni that was on there reached out to me and asked if I was interested in interviewing at their company. Their company was in Saint Paul, Minnesota. So I was like, “Well, that’s easier than finding a job…”

So I accepted that invitation, I sent a resume, he came down and interviewed me, and it worked out. So I moved up here, sight unseen. I put all my stuff in a U-Haul, and did not have a place to live… I was gonna live in my boss’ guest bedroom until I found an apartment, which I only ended up being there for like a day or two, but… I had no idea what I was gonna do.

Had you ever been to Saint Paul before?

I had once when I was in high school, but I remembered, like, nothing about it. I may as well have never been here before.

Are your parents still back in Chicago?

Okay. What’s it like moving away to Iowa at first? And then making a life somewhere else.

I mean, actually it was kind of great. I love Chicago, like everybody who grew up there. I love it more than I should… And then I left, like many people who grew up there… But my parents split when I was in high school, so for the last several years of school I felt very transient. I didn’t feel like I really had a place. So moving to college was the first time as a young adult that I had felt rooted at all.

Interesting.

So I really went whole hog into just making that my home. Grinnell, Iowa was my home, to the degree that actually by the time I had to – like, you graduate and you have to leave… And I remember getting into an argument with my advisor one day, when he was like “You know, people have to be ready to leave. You’re here for four years, and it’s just how it is - you grow up and move on”, and I’m like “Sam, this is our home. This is where we live, this is the first time we’re ever adults, and someone is telling us arbitrarily that it’s time to leave. I understand that, but it’s hard.” He was like, “Oh, I never thought of it that way.” I was like, “Yeah, because you own your house. You chose where you lived.”

But yeah, I loved it… I’m super-independent anyway, so that was never an issue for me, and it was just like “This is my house now. I live here now.”

It’s so interesting, because you talk to people that have such a hard time leaving home, and it kind of brings out new things in them, and it shapes them in a certain way. And then you have people like you, that to a certain degree – I mean, I get the feeling that it was easy for you… It was so much easier for you.

Yeah, I mean… College is difficult because you’re growing. It’s things you’ve never had to encounter before, and people you’ve never had to encounter before. I was always a weird, nerdy kid at school, and I had my people, but I certainly wasn’t whatever… And then I went to college, and it was like a whole school of me, and that was wonderful. I just felt like I had found my people; like I said, I’m pretty independent, it didn’t really stress me out to be away from home. That was not a thing. I mean, maybe even to my parents chagrin a bit, but I was like, “Nah, I’m good. See ya!”

So yeah, there are people who have trouble with that, but I can’t relate. I can’t imagine a world where I didn’t leave. I really kind of needed to do that, and then afterwards I was like, “Okay, I’m going to another state.” I never really considered moving back to Chicago. I don’t know why. I was thinking maybe California, because it was before San Francisco was broken… It was like 2007, so I was thinking about that, or like Seattle, or these big tech cities.

When people still wanted to move to San Francisco, yeah.

Right, yeah. It wasn’t like we all knew that you couldn’t afford rent there. But yeah, so I was thinking about that pretty hard, but then I ended up in Minneapolis, which was never on purpose. Even after I got here, I was like “Okay, I’ve got like two years here and then I’m out. This is just not where I will stay permanently.”

Fast-forward ten years, I married in and now I’m gonna die here. I’ve just accepted here.

Yeah. Once you marry here, it’s over.

It’s over. [laughs]

You’re here for the rest of your life, that’s what I found out.

So true. Are you also not from here?

Yeah. I grew up in California.

Oh, geez…

I moved here like seven years ago, and married this amazing woman here, and now I never get to leave.

Yup, it’s true.

We will never live somewhere else.

We have an understanding that – my husband’s from the St. Cloud area, which, for people who aren’t familiar, is about the center of the state, and it’s on the rural side. Technically it’s a city, but it’s a city in rural Minnesota. So he’s from that area, and that’s where all of my in-laws are; he’s got a huge family, seven people in his family, seven kids…

Huge Catholic family. They’re all up there. And yeah, the compromise that we made was I was like “Okay, I’ll stay in Minnesota, but we’re living in Minneapolis. I’m never not living in a city, so we need to do this.”

You said you’re married… How did the two of you meet?

We met dancing.

Really? Okay… How did that happen?

Well, my side hustle, my actual passion is blues dancing, which is the dances that people have done – since the beginning of blues music, people have been dancing right alongside of it… And I am a huge nerd about it. I have gotten into primary source research, where I’m reading, going through library archives and stuff like this - super, super-unforgivably-nerdy, but I love it… And I was teaching a workshop, and my now-husband attended it. It’s kind of funny, because a friend of mine and him kind of like noticed each other, so we were like “Okay, we’re gonna get Joe and Amanda… It’s gonna work.” And spoiler, I did not.

How long have you been married now?

We have been married three years. We have been together for nine in November.

What does your husband do?

He does a lot of things. He is a beekeeper, he has had a lot of jobs… His background – his undergraduate rather is in electrical engineering, which he’s basically never used, but now he has just accepted a job at the Science Museum of Minnesota, where he’s building exhibits. So that is probably – if I had to summarize him in a nutshell, that would be it. He is the kind of dude who wants to build exhibits for people, to get them excited about science, and also has the fabrication skills and the skills working with materials to actually do it.

And is that kind of what he’s been doing throughout his life, or is this kind of a new direction for him?

I mean, the specifics of working at the museum are a new direction, but it’s very much the culmination of – he grew up a farm kid; hobby-farm he would want me to say, but still he grew up on a farm. He’s always been crafting things with his hands in a very functional way, and he’s always been a serial hobbyist; he just gets really into one thing… And there are things that most people wouldn’t consider hobbies, like, for a little while he was really into carbonation, so he bought CO2 tanks, and he was just carbonating everything, and figuring out gas kits that could fit together… That was the kind of thing that got him up in the morning.

He’s got just such a long series of those things that he can pool them all together and be like, “Here, I made this science exhibit for you”, and you’re like “Cool! Thanks!” [laughs]

And from a career point of view, he’s been all over. He worked at 3M as a sterilization tech. He most recently was the building manager at an auto-shop, for a year or so. Just bouncing around all over… But this idea that he can just like jump in somewhere and build a thing and fix the problem - that is very consistent with him.

Has that been frustrating for you? Your personality is more like “five-year plan.” By the sounds of it, that’s really not how he operates.

Very no. When we first started dating, I was like “Okay, just so you know, I’m not getting married for five years. That’s not happening. If that’s a problem for you, I’m saying it this early because I don’t wanna presume that that’s where this is going… But I wanna tell you, if that’s a problem for you, you should leave, because it’s not happening.” And he was like – he basically always thought he’d be married by 26, with babies, and we started dating at 25 or 26… So I think that partly for him, he had to be like “Okay, well, I guess I have some time to kill.”

So it has been a little frustrating for me, because he is not naturally the kind of person that has thought about what is his career gonna look like, because family and that sort of thing has always been so much more important to him, and he just sort of was like “Well, I’ll get a job. It’ll work.” Whereas I have been thinking about college since I was in fifth grade… I’ve just always known that that was my deal, even though only one of my parents even went to college. I grew up really blue collar, but I was just like “I’m a nerd, that’s what we do. We go to college.” So I’ve always been super-focused on “I’m gonna succeed, dammit. I’m very ambitious in that way.”

There have definitely been moments where I’ve been like, “Well, you need to figure some stuff out. Joe, you need to be your own person, and I’ll be over here while you’re figuring that out, that’s cool, but you don’t get to just say ‘Family’, and that’s your whole personality. I’m not standing for that.” We clashed, for sure, especially when I was like, “Well, I’m gonna live in the city. I’m gonna never live in the suburbs, and I’m gonna never live in a rural part of town, and we’re never gonna live on a farm…” and he was like “Oh, okay…” And sometimes I’m like, “I don’t know why you stayed, but I’m glad you did!” [laughs] So it worked out. Now it’s all compromises.

You can walk into a relationship and be like “These are my criteria. These are my deal breakers, these are my boundaries, this is what I want out of life”, and interacting with another person like that makes you realize that there are some things that are maybe more negotiable than you realized.

We came to these decision points where it was like “Well, I want A, and B is the thing that has to happen for this relationship to continue.” And five years ago I would have told you that anything less than A would be compromising. Or not compromising, but like selling out; it would be selling myself short, it would be not giving myself the fullest life I wanna live. Now I’m realizing that in the face of, you know, this life we’ve built, and this relationship that we have, and you’re pretty cool - actually that’s a big thing to give up, but I’m gonna do it and I’m fine with it.

So I think both of us have had a series of those, where we had these moments where we just had to very consciously be like “Yeah, we’re gonna stay together, even though this seems bananas.” And now we’re like – I mean, I think all relationships kind of have ups and downs over the long course of it. We’re very much at an up right now; we’re so sickeningly in love, it’s wonderful. Hopefully we stay there, we’ll see. I’m not naive. But I think there are definitely moments where you just decide. You’re like, “I’m just deciding that we’re still together, because that’s what I have to do right now.” And so far for us it’s worked.

Yeah. It’s interesting, because I think it’s true… There are so many problems, so many anxieties in life, in addition to – you’re two different people, wanting different things, sometimes vastly different things… And yeah, I think there are definitely moments where you have to decide, “Do I still want to be in this or not?” It’s a yes or no question.

Exactly, it is a yes or no question. That’s all there is to it. And maybe one day the answer will be no. I don’t think so. I didn’t get married thinking it would be, but I’m also like – the answer, if it’s not no, it always has to be yes. It can’t ever just be “Okay…”, it has to be yes, at certain points, or eventually it will turn into like “Oh, I didn’t see this coming, but it’s no now.” At least I think. I’ve been doing this nine years, what do I know?

[laughs]

Get me back on your podcast in nine more years and I’ll tell you all the things that are wrong about what I’m saying, but that’s where I have been… These pivot points, where we both just had to be like “Well, yes. Okay. We’re still doing this.”

Now I’m gonna change topics drastically, and this will be the last thing that we talk about… One of the topics that I’ve been trying to talk about on this show has been being healthy, in terms of the work and the lives that we lead. Sometimes that means talking about burnout, sometimes that means talking about and facing mental health issues… I personally have anxiety, I’ve talked to some people that have bipolar disorder, and some others that deal with depression… In your personal case, what have you done to personally stay healthy?

I have had to do a lot in that regard, because I have suffered from depression since I was almost single-digit ages, I have ADHD, I’ve generalized anxiety… These are all things I deal with. I also burned out very, very hard in about 2015, I think… And honestly, I spent the next two years recovering, which is not a thing I can afford to do again, even if it was fun… And it wasn’t fun.

So these are all things that are really important to me, and I am definitely still figuring it out. I do not have any illusions that I’m good now. I go to therapy, I take my drugs… I have gotten a lot more strict about the borders between work and not work. Some of these little things – like, I don’t have Slack notifications on my phone. I have Slack, but I don’t know when someone DM’s me. I have to open it up to look. My team knows, and I do get e-mail notifications, but my company really doesn’t e-mail people, so I’m basically like “That’s the emergency button. If you need me, e-mail me. I’ll get it, it’s fine.” But otherwise, I’ll see it when I see it.

I’ve been trying to be so much more conscious of just the things that all human bodies need to be healthy: sleep, healthy food, exercise… I personally think that therapy is just as important for your brain as exercise is for your body. These are all things that I just am trying to be better about, in a way that – especially at college, where… My school was a bunch of over-achievers, and no one was living a healthy life… Like, at all. And coming out of that, I have been trying to redefine what hard work looks like and what success looks like, so that it doesn’t have to involve breaking myself to get it… Which is slightly (I want to acknowledge) disingenuous, because part of why I am successful now is the fact that I made a lot of bad choices about it earlier. So it’s easy for me to say, now that I am a manager, and I’m setting an example for people, and I have some minor presence on the internet, and I speak at conferences - I’ve developed some stuff now, and it’s easy to be like “Cool. Well, I’m gonna have work/life balance now.”

[laughs] Yeah.

I don’t know how one gets here without doing the things I did that were not super-healthy. So I just wanna acknowledge that. I don’t have great answers, but it’s really disingenuous for me to pretend like “Oops, no one should do that.” Because unfortunately, I think our industry expects people to be super-human, expects people to do more than they can or should sometimes.

Or society, really.

Or society, that’s true. That’s true. I think that in some ways tech amplifies that, because we do have these hyper-connected lives, this concept of the meritocracy, where it’s like “Alright, how many open source projects do you contribute to?”

Which is lying, but you know…

Oh, it’s the worst… And it’s like, “Well, we’re not gonna hire you if you don’t also program in your spare time.” That is slowly getting better, but it’s still a real thing.

I try to gauge my own boundaries and keep my life balance, but I also feel a responsibility to try to create an industry where that is less necessary… And be very conscious in my own hiring, be conscious in the advice that I am giving people, or the example I’m setting for my employees… And then not accidentally rewarding the people who do the other thing, because we’re so used to doing that.

If somebody puts in 60 hours and saves the day, you wanna be like, “Oh, you’re great!”, but what I should really be like is “Never do that again! Like, never ever, ever work a 60-hour week again. We need to talk about why it got to that point.”

I feel responsible for trying to make it so that people don’t have to destroy themselves the way that I did. Maybe that’s naive and a pipedream, but I also don’t know what else to do; I don’t know any other way to live that’s moral and that I’m okay with.

Break

[00:30:34.29]

I usually ask guests to tell me a funny anecdote, so I can put that at the end of the show. Eryn’s answer was perfect…

I haven’t left the house in a week, because I work from home… So I haven’t even had the opportunity for funny stuff to happen to me. So yeah.

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