The power of six

I spent yesterday night with my first bunch of engineering mentees and reports. I was so happy to be there with them, and we partied late into the early hours of the morning with much laughter and stories. There were stories awful too, but their potency waned a bit in the presence of so much energy and enthusiasm for the technical problems we are fortunate to work on.

In those years, I used to host parties at home every now and then. These six have had the misfortune to be there before and after I purchased an actual dining table. They were pesky, as a rule, and always cajoled Sibelius and I into playing for them. So we had bad music combinations [Faure and Duel of the Fates] and overcooked rice with side-dishes that bore no resemblance to the true Syrian Catholic recipes they were inspired by, and spoke of reinforcement learning and motion prediction late into the balmy, summer nights.

How did that come to be? Not by design, and all by chance. When I was young and stupid, I had imposter syndrome in the industry, still fresh off academia, feeling unequal and a failure for having dropped out of a doctoral program. And then I ended up at a small research lab for an automotive company, responsible for six engineers.

I had been careening, spiraling into a blaze of anger and sadness and misery. Life hadn’t treated me well, and I hadn’t treated me well too. So there I was, in the throes of existential angst sharp and bleeding, alone and trying to fix my finances, trying to fit in, trying to find family in friends, trying to politely ignore the many seniors who wanted to add in a touch of unsolicited personal attention along with mentoring. It wasn’t the perfect time to be responsible for someone’s career then, when I had made a series of dubious decisions over years and wound up where I was. Natalie’s video (later below) showcases nicely the kind of person I almost was then, still very raw and easily affected, not having the strength or experience to put on a polite front of harmless cooperation at that time.

So there were these six. They were brilliant, all of them in excellent doctoral programs in AI, robotics and computer vision. I had handpicked four myself, spending long hours at different universities trying to find the perfect fit. They weren’t accomplished enough to merit the attentions of the senior researchers there, though. Some say I ruined them; four of them dropped out of their degrees with a Master’s, like I had before them. I had more engineers later, but these six were a steep learning curve for me, taught me a lot about my strengths, and what I wanted to be in this industry. I watched one of them move from his more research-oriented background and become a really good programmer. Another tried Wall Street and came back sad, and by then I had a network strong enough to immediately make sure his incredible skills in the field was noticed. One went on to do his own company. Another refrained from the lure of dropping out and soldiered on to finish his doctoral degree. Two were women. They had been my focus often, because the senior male researchers didn’t attribute credit correctly to their accomplishments often, because I saw them struggling with the same imposter syndrome I had been developing coping mechanisms for, because I wanted to spare them the stuff I had to deal with regularly as much as I could. When I left, things turned difficult for them, and I felt personally responsible. Given how talented they were, it was easy to quickly refer one to a search engine company and she found her groove there. The other… the other is the reason that makes me write today.

She is exceptional. She is still stuck in a difficult situation that doesn’t let her spread her wings and learn new things, in a situation where she doesn’t get credit on what she works on, where difficulty in team interactions is blamed on her for not being social enough, and so on. It is easy to find a new job, no doubt. And yet, there she is, stuck for months, because of a visa situation. All the others were citizens or under less restrictive regulation, which meant they could change workplaces and roles easily, and I’ve always encouraged them to do so, and not to worry about their length of tenure at companies. This last engineer, though, as I watch her count down the days for a visa transfer, as she tries to transfer her shackles from Employer A to B, I find it so hard to look at her and not think of my own reasons to stay much longer than I wanted to, much longer than I could manage to put up with a toxic, inappropriate work situation. I feel personally responsible in that she dropped out of a doctoral program to join the industry. She has done more than she could have done in a lab, I think. If we measure impact by economic value created for this country’s economy, she is high-value indeed. If she had come out with a doctoral degree, though, she could have gone directly to the personal interest, independent EB1A track instead of the EB2 category of green-card applications, which is tied to employer whim and wish. Now since she is from China, though she did two degrees in the United States, she is stuck for almost a decade because of how arcanely arse-up the immigration system is, and until then each time she is as good as a slave to an employer, she has to bend over and let them do whatever they wish.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said yesterday, embarrassed as people in her position are when attention is given to their difficulties.

“Maybe not, but you matter,” said one of the men in that group of six, and the others nodded.

[It is ironic perhaps, but always true, that support and validation from someone who has privilege (regardless of whether they believe in it, or exercise it) matters more to someone underprivileged or sidelined or vulnerable, more so than support and validation from someone in the same boat as them.]

I could see the change on her features then, as she moved from resignation to hope. I wrote her reference letters this weekend for excellent positions in Toronto and Singapore. They were all very keen to have her there, to move forward their technology. I will miss her, but it is best for her, given how this country has treated talent like her. If you have no ties here, these days I recommend that you look to another country instead of subjecting yourself to the depersonalizing, degrading, outdated immigration system here, and the employers and bosses who exploit these loopholes to keep you at their bid and call…or get very good at licking arse.

For every woman who comes forward to speak of sexism in tech, there is another who must keep quiet because of how the work visa works and the high penalty for speaking up, unless she has accepted that she may need to find another country to work in.

Immigration reform has been long overdue in this country. I know so many families here, where both the husband and wife are highly educated, work high-paying jobs, pay tons of taxes to the federal and state governments, and yet fear buying property here, or giving birth to kids here, or sending kids to schools here, because they are little more than slaves to companies under the work-visa, and have to leave this country as soon as their company fires them. So many women I know are very leery of reporting sexual harassment, for example, because they don’t want to be let go and lose the visa. So many parents are worried to do anything about exploitative bosses because they have kids enrolled in school, and they don’t want to be abruptly forced to leave the country and uproot the children from the only home they have known. It is fine to say that there is no way to citizenship for immigrants, absolutely, and that is a national prerogative. However, there is the need to at least remove the restrictions that tie people to employers and subject them to emotional and financial penalties ridiculous, prolonged and hard to plan for. And it makes little sense economically to drive out lower and middle class folks who contribute so much in the way of income taxes.

It is easy to forget our privileges, earned or given by birth, because we don’t really have cause to wonder about the ones that don’t have it yet. We have concerns about veterans, about the homeless, about the poor kids in Africa, about arranged marriages and marital rape in Asia, and about religious societies in the Middle-East. I’ve always held that it is easier to say the right things about these topics when they are far away. It is horrible that Syrian refugees face what they do, but we shut up fast when it is about the Iranian neighbor we have who can’t bring his wife over to live with him. It is horrible that a woman was exploited in Hollywood, but it is convenient and easy to keep quiet and stay deliberately ignorant when your coworker’s quality of work is questioned and she is let go or shunted to a different department because she reported inappropriate behavior targeted at her.

We live under a system where we’ve put the onus on the underprivileged, the vulnerable and the victims to prove that they are underprivileged, vulnerable and victims, and that they have earned the worth to have a better quality of life. We want our Muslim friends to prove that they are not terrorists, we want our LGBT neighbors to prove that they aren’t paedophiles before they move into a school zone, and we’d rather never give anyone who went to prison for minor misdemeanors the chance to hold down a job again. This is what fear does to humans, and fear and divisiveness have always been tools of those who would wield power, which is something the average privileged person doesn’t see. We are handed conclusions – Feminazis ruined the American family, Muslims ruined Europe, and the Jews have always been evil cretins who’d make away with pounds of flesh if we stop persecuting them. And if we want to believe anything else of them, they have to prove it to us over and over, many times.

All is not dark. Yesterday night, I was cheered up immensely by how the men in my group of six spoke up strongly in support of their female coworkers. It was easier for them to not bother, to just focus on their stuff and ignore the rest of it. Like understands like, and in this valley, like attracts like. Why would they need to go attempt to understand the minorities when they have enough people who are like them to collaborate and work with? They still strive to, and actively at that. I am very proud of them. I’d always thought that I was a horrible creature to be responsible for anyone else, given how introverted and shy I am by nature, but looking at this group of six yesterday, maybe I hadn’t fucked up as badly as I thought I would.

I am grateful to them, for they were the beginning of a bunch of young and bright-eyed talented engineers that pulled me out of my cynicism and angst, and made me look forward to collaborate on technical problems that had meaning and importance to me, and along the way they wound up teaching me a great deal about this country and the valley, and what it takes to weather the vagaries of both gracefully without embitterment. Their progress and prospects became important, and defending those became a crucial interest, and I grew more experienced in putting on a front of nonchalance whenever I came across matters offensive, learning that it was easier to fight for your interests when you stopped reacting. Also, I doubt I had it in me to be a rapper anyway; so I am doubly grateful they pulled me off that career path.

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