Laura Gaetano was born in Italy, and by my count has lived in at least four different countries. Her multicultural upbringing has had a huge impact on her life. In fact, she currently works at the Travis Foundation with a focus on diversity and inclusion.
We talk about her upbringing, her troubles with art school, the work she’s doing now, and changes that may be on the horizon.
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- A big thank you to Abi Prado, who did the narration for this episode since my voice is gone (and who knows if it will ever return).
- If you or someone you know would make a great guest for this show, send us an email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m Abi Prado, sitting in for Tim Smith, who has unfortunately lost his voice. Or is it a blessing…? This weeks’ show is with Laura Gaetano. Laura works in diversity and inclusion for the Travis Foundation, an initiative from Travis CI. Her career has been pretty varied; she’s dabbled in photography, illustration, and even ceramics.
Tim met up with her in London back in October, and started by asking her where she grew up.
I was born in Italy, in Rome, and when I was five years old we moved together with my family to the South of France… So I actually grew up in the South of France, lived there until I was about 13 years old, and then we moved to Vienna, Austria, so… Yeah.
Wow, that is – you’ve just mentioned a few different really cool places to grow up. How do you feel that these places influenced you and who you are?
I think I’ll start with the obvious one, which is the languages. I hated moving away from France when I was 13. As a teenager, I had all my friends, and then suddenly I was moving to a new country, new language, new people… But in hindsight, I realized that gave me the chance to speak 3-4 languages. When I was in my teens, I was fluent in English, German, French and Italian, so I guess that’s the first thing - it has a really huge impact on how I think as well, so… I don’t know, I always get the question “Which language do you dream in? Which language do you think in?” and I guess it’s more complicated than just saying “I think in English, and I dream in French.” I feel like those languages, those cultures have influenced me a lot.
I feel that the French culture and the Italian culture are fairly similar, and then the Austrian culture is a little bit different. So yeah, the fact that I’m friendly to strangers, but also I kind of like to have my space, and I can be reserved and an introvert, and all that… So I feel like that has had sort of a huge impact on who I became.
How do you feel that these different cultures have influenced not only who you are, but maybe what it is that you do for work, as well as your worldview?
[00:03:59.21] That’s actually something that I’ve never really thought about; it’s an interesting question. I guess when it comes to worldview, I think that because I grew up in a sort of international environment, or I grew up around a lot of different cultures, I tend to be more liberal in my thinking, to be more open to other cultures, more open to wanting to get to know people who aren’t like me… So I think that definitely impacted how I am, but also - now that I think about it, I currently work in diversity and inclusion, so that fits in really well. I’m a very mission-oriented person, and that is reflected in my work… So I think that that had a part in the work that I do, sort of thinking about marginalized people, thinking about under-represented people in tech and outside of tech.
So you mentioned that you moved away from the South of France when you were 13… What was the reason for that move?
It wasn’t my own decision… My father got a new job in Austria, and I have a little bit of an anecdote… When we first moved away from Italy, it was for my parents’ work, and they wanted to just live somewhere else, or move away from Rome. After eight years, the same thing happened in France - they just wanted to move elsewhere.
My father had been looking for different jobs, and at the end there were sort of three job opportunities, three contenders; one would have been New York, the other one would have been a place in the middle of nowhere in Australia, and the third one was Vienna, Austria… So it seemed like between the giant capital city, perhaps a little bit dangerous for two teenage daughters - I have a younger sister - and then sort of this small town in the middle of Australia, Vienna seemed kind of like a good in-between. So yeah, that’s why we moved away, for my dad’s career, actually.
What does your dad do?
He works with computers. [laughs] That was the answer that I always gave teachers at school when they asked me. So when we moved to Vienna, he was working at the United Nations, at the AEA, which is the Atomic Energy Agency, and I think he was doing a little bit of work which in the end didn’t interest him that much, so at the same time he started working (without being paid) for ICANN… So he was very involved in the idea of policies on the internet, and all of that… Which is funny, because 15-20 years later I started working in tech, completely unrelated to his work, in a way.
What about your mom? What does she do?
My parents met at IBM, when they were in Italy. I think she was an office worker. But what I think is so great about my mom is that she always kind of reinvented herself every single time that we moved. We moved away because of my dad’s career, and then every time we moved to a new place, she just kind of started a new career.
[00:08:11.08] In the South of France, working in real estate was huge, because there were all these villas that were giant and super-expensive… So she worked in real estate for, I guess, richer people, and when we moved to Austria, she started working with kids; she was working at a small kindergarten.
Your mom really sounds like a go-getter. Your dad you said works with technology, works with computers… Do you feel that that in any way influenced what you do now, or was it more by coincidence?
It was a little bit by coincidence. What I have to say though is that we (my sister and I) had a PC at home fairly early on, and we were always encouraged to pursue whatever we wanted to do, so we had a lot of privilege in how we grew up and had the possibilities to try out different sports, try out learning an instrument, and also we were spending a lot of time on the computer… So my sister actually started studying computer science, and then kind of redirected her career into something different.
I went to university for arts, because that was what interested me, and then ended up by chance landing in tech. So I feel that it wasn’t based on what my dad did, but we were actually always encouraged to pursue whatever interested us, so that’s kind of how I ended up here.
That’s pretty great, because what I interpret from what you’re saying is it wasn’t necessarily his actual job that influenced you, but rather the environment that your mom and dad created for you to feel free to experiment and try whatever it is that you wanted… And I think that’s so good, because I often see that it’s parents that can hinder the possibilities for their own kids. I hate to say it, but if you as a parent… Let’s say you have a boy and a girl - if you continue to push what are considered boy and girl things on each of them, that’s going to reflect then in the decisions that they make later in life.
Yeah, definitely. We already have enough problems with society pushing those gender stereotypes, and we don’t need additional (let’s call them) bad influences from the parents. I think I’d really love to someday see toy stores not have separate sections for boy toys and girl toys, but have things labeled “cars”, and things labeled “dolls” and “puzzles” and whatever, and just have the kids be able to choose what it is that they want to play with.
As you said, as a parent there is a lot that one can do to push a kid in a certain direction, even when it’s accidental and when it’s an unconscious decision, an unconscious thing.
Alright, so let’s change topic a little bit, and move on to your career. You talked about the fact that it’s been pretty diverse, you’ve done a few different things… Let’s start with - did you go to school, did you go to university (as they say over here), or did you opt not to go?
Yes, I went to arts school (or arts university). I went to an international high school, and I think that’s the path that you go… Here in Europe also we don’t have the same problem as in the U.S. when it comes to education and how expensive it is. Of course, the U.K. will have more expensive universities, but generally it’s fairly cheap to get higher education… So that’s kind of the path that you end up taking, usually, or at least that was – I’m not gonna say that was forced on me, but I couldn’t really think of anything else that I could do, because that’s just the path that everyone goes.
So I went to Arts University in Vienna, and in hindsight it was really tough, actually. I didn’t have a really good time during my studies, to the point where I think it really took a toll on my mental health. It was – I don’t know, it was… Spoiler alert - I didn’t graduate from arts school, but I stayed in school for a really long time, and I was trying to push through and trying to make it to the end, but… Somehow, there was a lot of socializing that was expected in that field, and you were expected to collaborate with other people, and to sort of constantly talk about your art, and argue about things, and discuss, and I didn’t want to do that; I wanted to just do my things and not have to constantly talk about it.
For years I thought I wasn’t an academic person. I thought I’m not like a university person, because clearly I’m failing at this… And towards the end of my (sort of) school/higher education career, I found a couple of professors that really showed me that that’s not the case. I had a ceramics professor that was really amazing, and then another one who taught user interface design, and hardware, and Python… So I met these two really great people, who just showed me that I can be great at academics, I just had to find another way that worked for me.
And what was that other way that did work for you?
[00:17:45.05] I guess it was to try out the classes that I really – like, even though it wasn’t necessarily counting towards my diploma, towards my graduating university, just taking the classes that I wanted to take for the sake of learning, because I wanted to learn a certain skill, or because I wanted to find out about how to mix liquid porcelain and pour it into a mold… This kind of stuff. It’s something that if you don’t try it out in a place where there is a studio, or where you have the facilities, it’s gonna be really hard to actually learn that later on.
So I guess I learned to go for the stuff that interests me because I have a gut feeling about it, and then later on I guess I also learned to let go. It was really hard for me to come to the conclusion that I’m not gonna graduate, and that it’s fine and that I can leave it behind me… But it took a really, really long time.
I would think so, because we’re told that graduating means success, and not graduating is somehow failure, when from what I gather I feel like you still learned a ton there, and maybe worked through even some personal things through that experience, right?
Yeah, definitely. I struggle a little bit with the idea of failure and success. Maybe to go back a little bit to how I grew up - my father is very goal and success-oriented, so both my sister and I were very focused on outcomes, and being really good in school. We were fairly competitive, I think, so we had this idea of “Okay, when we join a contest, we have to be first or we have to be second place. We can’t be third place or tenth place. We have to be the best”, and I think that can really have huge effects on how you then view work, for example.
I think particularly in tech now there’s a bit of a pushback against this idea of constant productivity, of constantly celebrating your successes, and not talking about failure. I see this pushback now to actually start talking about your failures, and why did you fail and what can you learn from it, and why was it perhaps not even such a bad thing. But it took me a long time, and I think that definitely the fact that society is changing a little bit when it comes to approaching failure and success definitely helped.
I think also there is a problem with schooling there, too. I’ve told this to many people, but I feel like school, whether it be primary, school that is required by the government, or even higher education - it really only caters to one type of learning, and if you don’t fit that mold, then it forces people to feel like they’ve failed, even though they haven’t; it’s just that that system was not built for them.
[00:21:40.18] Yeah, definitely. I totally agree with you. It starts at the schooling and education level, and I think we can also go beyond that and think about how, for example, in some schools or in some systems there’s also a grade for effort and participation, and there’s this idea that you have to be a person that participates, and that only works if you’re also the type of person who enjoys speaking up, and just being to a certain extent the center of attention, and raising your hand in class. That, for example, was something that I was really missing at university. I wasn’t participating; I didn’t like that, because I also didn’t like to express my thoughts in German, which was my fourth language.
But generally, some people have personalities that don’t allow them to be that type of person, that type of student, and I think – I’m not sure education is just such a big topic and it’s different; it’s different not just in every single country, every single region, but then it’s different in every city, and I guess different states or different regions of countries have their own way of making decisions, and… Yeah, it’s a big topic, but it’s frustrating for all the kids that go through school and have the feeling that they’re not worth anything because their grades don’t say so.
You mentioned a little bit earlier that you do work with diversity and inclusion - what does that work look like?
I currently work for Travis Foundation, which is a foundation that was started by Travis CI; some of your listeners might be familiar with that company/service. The idea of Travis Foundation is to give back to the open source community by supporting diversity in tech and open source.
Our work is fairly diverse in the projects that we run, and my day-to-day work can be very different based on which projects we’re working on, but the core of it is supporting diversity and thinking about inclusion in tech.
I’ve read when I looked at your side that you did illustration work for some time. Are you still doing that now?
It’s complicated. [laughs] I am not actively doing any illustration work at the moment, but… Yes, I still have a fairly old site up, which I’m reworking… But illustration and graphic design and all of this creative work is something that I’ve been interested in since I was a teen, and I’m finding now more and more that I’m really missing that creative work, so it’s something that I’m looking to get back into.
I did a little bit of – a few years ago I illustrated a record, an album that came out. I was managing a musician who was based in Vienna; I went to a show and saw him play, and was really excited about his music, and I said “Okay, let’s work together. I’m just gonna manage you… I have no idea how that works.” He was working on an album, and then I would give a little bit of feedback on the demos, and then we decided to basically have me do all of the cover artwork and design everything from beginning to end. That was a super-interesting process, and it’s something that I haven’t done since, but… It’s something that made me realize like “Yeah, the creative thing really works for me.”
[00:25:59.14] Why do you feel that you miss more creative work? I mean, the work that you are doing is very important too, but what is it about the creative work that you feel you miss, or maybe what is it about the work that you’re doing right now that you don’t so much like?
Right now I’m in a management position, and management is hard. Management is so hard, and I think it’s one of those things – people approach it as a soft skill, and this idea of “You can go in there and you can just wing it”, that’s not the case. Management is really hard; good management is even harder. I feel like you need to have a certain personality type to be a good manager; you can probably also learn it, up to a certain point, but I feel like I don’t have the personality type to be a manager. I’ve thought about this a lot over the last months, and I’ve realized in order to be a manager you also have to be really selfless, and I feel like at this point in time I want to be a bit selfish; I want to concentrate on myself and learn new skills or improve on some of my skills.
And there’s two other things - as much as I love connecting with people, I don’t do my best work in meetings, and I also really need time to focus, and these are two things… Too many meetings and not enough time to focus are two things that I have in management right now that I would love to change.
I totally understand you. I think it’s funny, because at least in my personal experience, I’ve realized that being a manager is really easy until you are one… Because I remember when I wanted to be in management, although I guess I technically am not right now… But I’ve been in that role, and I remember what I was before that role, and I thought “Man, I could do this job better than this person”, because I was stupid and arrogant… [laughs] I’m thinking, “Yeah, I could manage people better than this”, and yet it’s much harder once you’re there.
And the other thing is - yeah, meetings take up a lot of time, and I think as creative people, you need that time to focus, to be by yourself and have your time, that you just don’t have if you’re a manager, because most of your time is consumed by meetings; that’s really hard.
So what are next steps for you to try to get back to doing what it is that you like doing more?
[00:29:04.27] It’s hard to think about this, or to think about next steps, or talk about next steps even, because… I said before I’m a very mission-oriented person; I love what we do at Travis Foundation, and I love the fact that our focus is on diversity and inclusion… So right now I’m basically just trying to figure out what could my next role be, and how would that fit within the Foundation, or within my current work. Are there ways in which I can bring in more creative work? And I have to say I have a really good manager, Anika, who is that kind of person - the people-first kind of person, who really thinks about “How can I support you in your career, so that you’re doing what you want to be doing, so that we can make it work?” So yeah, I guess we’re sort of exploring options now, and trying to see how that could work, and how I could bring in more creative stuff into my day-to-day.
One thing that we tried last year was to have some time set aside for each one of us, actually, to work on something that was creative, and that didn’t necessarily need to be something for work… It was just a way for us to put some focus on things that we want to learn, or things that we want to develop, or ideas that we’re thinking about… So I feel like this was kind of a good starting point.
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