Being your authentic self at work

October 30, 2020

Chris and Ashton discuss her winding career journey that’s led her to become a creative problem solver as a software engineer at Indeed, and how that intersects with her involvement in the Black Inclusion Group — and the power of being your authentic self at work.

- Hello everyone. I am Chris Hyams, CEO of Indeed. And welcome to the next installment of "Here to Help." This is our look at how Indeed has been navigating the global impact of COVID-19. Today is October 26th, we're on day 237 of Global Work From Home. Now most of you know that Indeed's mission is to help people get jobs. And this is what gets us out of bed in the morning and what keeps us up at night. And we feel this mission is vital besides family and health. The job is one of the most important aspects of our lives. Now this is true for the people that we help outside of Indeed but it's also true for us as individuals here at Indeed. And today I am delighted to be joined by Ashton Elizabeth, Software engineer and the Co-Chair for our Black Inclusion Group in Seattle. And we'll be talking today about how jobs and opportunity can be transformational. Ashton, thank you so much for joining me.

- Thank you so much for having me. It's definitely an honor to be here.

- Great well, let's start where we always start with these conversations, which is just a check-in. How are you doing today?

- Yeah, today on a personal level, I'm doing pretty well. I'm coming off of a pretty inspiring IRG Leadership Summit that we had the last three days. I just got my mug this weekend and my sweatshirt. So I'm feeling awesome. I also got an opportunity to access the office that's been closed since March and I got to run into a colleague. I never really got a chance to interface but we chatted for about an hour outside of the office. And I don't know she just inspired me to or just like reminded me to like look for the good in people. And I kind of have carried that into this weekend. So I want to give a shout out to Rhonda. Good seeing you in the office this weekend.

- That's great, well so let's talk a little bit about what you do at Indeed. And then we'll back up and kind of talk about how you got here. But you're you're a software engineer based in our Seattle Office. Tell us a little bit about what it is that you're working on right now.

- Yeah, so I'm a software engineer in the Enterprise Org. I'm on resume search on the Billing Team. For context, we offer a subscription based service, that allows employers to engage and find the people that they want to hire. More recently my team released a feature that allows employers to upgrade or downgrade their subscription. Our product managers are hoping this will help with churn and also provide some upsell opportunities. Right now the feature is only available via sales assistance. So we're going to be working on making it self-serve

- That's great and that's actually been a really important feature. We have a core value at Indeed around, pay for performance, but really being aligned with our clients and especially during the pandemic when a lot of companies have slowed down or stopped hiring making it easy for them to spend only when they want to use the product, has been really important. So that work has been really vital, so thank you for that. Now we got together last week to prepare for this and we had a little conversation and it was interesting to hear that obviously our stories are different but we had some parallels. You had a not direct route into software engineering. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey and how you ended up here today?

- Yeah, it's honestly sometimes awkward sitting here saying I'm a software engineer because men, this was never part of my career path but yeah, growing up I had a very binary kind of framework. I knew what was good and what was bad. I knew what was black and what was white. I knew what boys did and what girls did. I knew what this was and what that was. I was always told I could either be a doctor or I could be a lawyer. Software engineering was never really an option. I honestly didn't even know what a software engineer was. So that's something. In college I got into UCR, shutout UCR Highlanders as a biology major because I was supposed to be a doctor. Quickly learned that it's not something that I could see myself doing long-term. And then, so I switched to political science also found that that was something, I could not see myself doing long-term. And then I fell in love with psychology shortly after college, I got an opportunity to work with kids diagnosed with autism and that really helped shape and change my framework. I really was introduced and had to interface with people who experienced life so much differently than I did. And so I'm eternally grateful for that opportunity. And from there, I did more non-profit work. I worked at a company where we had afterschool programs and low-income housing complexes. So it's a situation where families typically, are working all day, kids get out of school and they have nowhere to go. What's different place, can kids be then at their home for an afterschool program? And so we would take, you know their recreational centers and provide opportunities for kids to learn and continue their development. After that, I took a winding road and switched to a for-profit non-technical startup. That was kind of an intersection between a passion of mine, which was rock climbing. For those of you who don't know, I've been rock climbing for 11 years now, which is like crazy to think about. But yeah, I got an opportunity to work at a rock climbing facility that wanted to interface with coworking and rock climbing. They had this beautiful facility and all this open space, why not go climbing and then also get your work done. And so we started as one gym in Brooklyn and by the time I left we had four gyms in three different States. And so that was kind of like my career path and then I hit a ceiling there after helping to like open the four facilities there was really no room for me to grow. And I felt like I was lacking some technical skillset. And so I started to, you know experiment and explore online, taking online courses like through Demi you know, there were pegged as like web development courses become a software engineer. I will tell you now none of those skills are really transferable but it was a good way to get my feet wet for sure. Yeah from there, I really just like wanted to dive in and was able to find Ada and Ada is really what opened the door to getting me into software engineering. To talk about Ada a little bit. Yeah Ada is a software engineering coding school, based in Seattle, Washington. They're focused on getting women and gender diverse people with a focus on also diversity in to software engineering. We know based on like the numbers that Indeed ourselves have released there's definitely room to grow in terms of like representation in the tech space. And so it is mission is to help fix that. And so they offer a program that allows us as students to participate in in classroom for five months, it's nine to five every day, so really no opportunity to work. And then you also have a homework afterwards. You also do a capstone project for a month after you're end classroom. And then you get an opportunity to have an internship at one of the sponsoring companies. I was fortunate to get an internship at Indeed.

- Great, it was interesting to have this conversation last week 'cause you know, again my story is different, but I studied, I was a liberal arts major as an undergrad. And then I spent my first couple of years out of school working, teaching special education in Rural Vermont, and then it wasn't rock climbing but then I spent three years following a passion of mine, playing music professionally and then had an opportunity to study computer science and shifted gears from that. So when you found the you know, internship at Indeed, can you talk a little bit about that process of how you ended up with us as opposed to any of the other places you could've gone and what were those first days at Indeed, like when you when you first showed up?

- So I want to provide a little context because you know Ada definitely is focused on reducing that gender gap and diversity gap. And so they kind of prepare us, they give us a heads up of what the tech industry is like kind of what we can expect going in and how to prepare. And so I kind of had some ideas, maybe some stereotypes going into what I thought a tech company was. And so we were actually invited the entire class was invited to the Seattle National Office which is closed now, rest in peace. So we were going to the Seattle Office for a Demos, Demos, Demos day. And that was a day where teams got together and presented tools and features that they had worked on for the last month or so. We come together over drinks and food, you know, one of our favorite office things and just watch people present. It was a good opportunity for us as news in the industry, to kind of see what people were working on, put faces to the technology as well. That's something that we don't get to do. And so we were invited to go and I remember walking into the national office first of all it's beautiful, industrial, it has this amazing spiral staircase that goes right up the middle of the office. You have your kitchens your pool tables, just take off this, you know? And so I remember walking up the spiral staircase and looking over to the lunch area where it's just all picnic tables. And I mean, for lack of a better term I just see like a sea of whiteness and I have this like gulp down my throat and I'm like, "Okay, this is kind of "what they were preparing me for," but I wasn't afraid. I was kind of like ready for the mission. I was like, "Okay, this is what we're, "this is what we're going to, "this is where we're going to deal with." And then I went in and then sat down and watch the presentations and really thoroughly enjoyed myself. Had a good time, ate some food drank got to learn about what Andy did. And I felt really inspired. Later on I had the opportunity to interview because you do have to interview in order to get your internship. So I interviewed with Evan shutout Evan, if you're still at Indeed, we had a good time there. I left thinking, I bombed my interview. There may or may not have been tears. And then yeah later on, I got the email saying that I had been accepted as an intern at Indeed. So that was kind of like my first experience before getting the internship. Let's pause and just talk about my first day there. Unfortunately, Indeed there was some paperwork issues. So we started our internship late, but that worked out in our favor because the first day for my internship and I was with another eighty was the Summer Picnic which happened to be on a boat in the middle of the Puget Sound. And so here I am this intern with these ideas of what a tech company is, and my first day is on a boat and we're just drinking, having a good time. So I was just like, is this real? Are we ever going to work? What's going on? Day two, we got down to business And we started working and I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't know how to set up my MacBook but we got right in there. So that was really my first experience as as an intern with Indeed.

- So one of the things that was interesting, in the discussion we had last week, was that very early on in that internship experience, you got some exposure the, you know, what we refer to as the lack of inclusive terminology in software engineering. And you had some experience with that. And I would love for you to just tell a little bit about that story.

- Yeah so that was interesting. I did not anticipate or expect to interface with racism in code, but yeah as an intern, there was a task that we need to do pretty frequently which is called updating your artifacts. For those of you who aren't familiar, just think of an artifact as like a file where you dumped data that you need to use at a later time. And sometimes that data gets stale and so you need to update it. There's a command that we use to update that data and that was called Slave These Items. And then you would have to write the name of the item that you wanted to slave. For context I was raised by my grandparents who were born in the 1940s in the United States. We're all descendants of of slavery here, growing up with grandparents who interfaced with that type of life made it really difficult to have to type those commands in my brain just went directly to slavery. And so I felt so uncomfortable, the only thing I could do was pull my manager at the time into a phone booth and say, "Hey sorry, I can't do my job right now "because I have to type in these commands." And to his credit, he was very honest with me. And he kind of sat down the wind looked like it was taken out of his breath. And he was like, I can't believe it took you sitting in front of me, for me to realize how awful this was. And so that was an experience for me. The other response was for me as an intern to find and replace all of that, I was wildly uncomfortable with that idea. But fortunately we have a wonderful, fantastic group of allies who worked to first get a Wiki article in the space that just talked about inclusive terminology. So people could reference and start educating themselves. But two, they actually created a tool so that we can remove and alias, some of that terminology. And I think it's been updated to like update artifact or something that seems to make a little bit more sense. So shout out to all you allies who worked on that as well.

- Yeah and this has been a really important journey for Indeed, and this is an industry-wide issue. So that terminology of having client and server systems known as master and slave, or to have lists known as blacklists and things like that, that's just how people have called things in computer science for years and years. And obviously the last handful of years, there's been a little bit of an awakening and it's been really important. And that was sort of the catalyst for a lot of work that happened at Indeed. And we ended up, company-wide making a set of changes and publishing some blog posts on that. So it's nice to see the the industry as a whole starting to recognize that these issues permeate every aspect of society. But thank you for sharing that story. So you are now today in addition to it being a software engineer, you're the, the Co-chair for the Seattle Chapter of Our Black Inclusion Group. We have talked in other episodes of the podcast around BIG and that the work that we do here as well as our other inclusion resource groups. Can you talk a little bit about what BIG you know, means for you and some of the reasons that that you got involved in your work there?

- Yeah, I mean like first and foremost like these issues are like wildly important to me, obviously I'm a product of these issues. And so I experienced them like firsthand. Two some of the experiences I've had at Indeed in particular, like we talked a bit about the Slave Master terminology, but just also the lack of representation, the inability sometimes to feel like you can fully bring yourself to work. And it's hard to have this conversation now because I feel like Indeed has progressed so much over the last two years. Like, I feel like I can bring my full self to work now whereas before that wasn't necessarily the case. So that was something that really inspired me to want to join, but the fact that it existed in the first place. It didn't exist necessarily in Seattle, but the Black Inclusion Group existed. And so when I saw that there was an opportunity to go to a place where at least there was somewhat of a safe space to talk about some of the issues that I experienced was pretty eyeopening. And so as soon as I joined BIG I was like like this we need this in Seattle, this has to happen, we need this, we need this. And so I worked with D'Angelo who was just the only person. And he was like, we need this here. Do you want to do this with me? And I was like, yeah let's do it. We didn't know what we were doing. And we just decided to start. Really, we wanted to make an impact our biggest wishes to get more people of color but in particular black people in software engineering oftentimes when we look at our hiring numbers our diversity numbers and we see the 2%. That's not necessarily reflected in software engineering. And I would like to get more people with different experiences writing the code, thinking through the algorithms, talking about different biases, especially we're in a business of searching and helping people get jobs. We don't know if we don't have different experiences what kind of unconscious biases that have within our search algorithms as well. And so just getting more people, the opportunity and access to interface with this stuff, I think would, I think studies have shown. Studies have shown that it makes a huge impact for the business. And so that would be our main focus. Unfortunately, we've had this hiring freeze, so we've had to pivot a bit more. And so I would like to see also more opportunities for people of color and in particular black people inside Indeed for a career growth. And so we did this Leadership Summit recently. I would love to see this extended to members and not just the leaders of the Black Inclusion Group. Giving members the opportunity to understand how they can continue to grow and develop their skills. That would be something I would like to see while we're pivoting away from necessarily hiring in the current market.

- Yeah and I had a chance to participate in the Leadership Summit last week. And one of the things that's actually you know, been been one of those I think we're calling them silver linings and everything that's gone on in the last seven months here with the pandemic. And all of us working from home. Is that we've actually been able to create a better connection between the different chapters of our IRGs and actually between the different inclusion resource groups and so that Leadership Summit in the past was actually a much smaller group and it was held in person in Austin and just the you know, the regional chairs would come out. And this was, I think we had something like 270 people from all over the world participating. And so it was really amazing to see how in a time like this, we can actually find opportunities to get more people closer together. So, but I agree expanding this out to the broader membership would be a great opportunity. So one of the goals of the inclusion resource groups and in general and the work that we do is to help create a sense of belonging for people at Indeed. When do you feel like you first got that sense of belonging?

- I feel so grateful to have gone through the Ada Program and very fortunate that there were so many other eighties. That's what we call the people that graduate from Ada. We refer to ourselves as eighties but there were already so many eighties at Indeed. I think when I started interning there were close to 15 to 20. And so there was already a small pocket of community there. And so to be honest, day one I felt like I belong. I felt like I had a place. That was the first time, I would say the second time I really felt, let me back up a little bit because there are two hats that I wear, where I feel like there's belonging. There is the software engineering hat because I do come from a non-traditional background. That imposter syndrome you all is real, okay. So there's that hat and then there is you know, just being black in Corporate America oftentimes you don't feel like you belong. And so there's that hat. So Ada is beautiful because it helps me feel like I belong in both senses. But the focus on getting your gong ticket, which when you join a team typically they would like you to get code and to production within your first week. And when you do that, you get to hit a gong in the office. When we're virtual we'd like play a YouTube gong, but we still do it. So there's this great focus on getting you to submit code into production on your first week. And so my mentor at the time, you're set up with a mentor, Chris worked really hard to help me get code into production. And that to me was like, Oh, I do feel like a software engineer, 'cause I have code into production now. And now, I mean like I pushed bugs and stuff is ridiculous. And I know like, know how to fix them but.

- Just for anyone that's listening who doesn't know what production is, what that means is that in your first week at Indeed we expect that you're going to write some code. That's going to be running on the site with millions of people using it. - Yes, good clarification. I should not assume everybody knows what Production is, yes. So that I would say would be the second time I felt like I really belonged, but that was more in like the engineering side and then BIG, yeah once fully joining BIG and going full steam. There's no question that I belong here, outside of just a software engineering. I get to tap on another passion and anytime I'm able to work a job where it intersects with passion to me is like the ultimate goal. And so I feel a great sense of belonging, whether it's in engineering or black inclusion group, I just feel like I can bring my full self to work. And so, yeah kudos to Indeed it's taken some time especially with the Black Inclusion Group hat but the progress I've seen over the last two years is really inspiring. And so I want to give a shout out to everybody in the Black Inclusion Group, but then also in the IDIMB Team, kudos all the work you all are doing.

- So a big part of being able to create that sense of belonging for people is representation. And so you've talked a lot before about how representation matters. Can you talk a little bit about what that means to you?

- Yeah, on it like honestly it's just being able to see yourself reflected in anything. I talked a bit about how my upbringing, I had a pretty binary framework but even outside that, ways that you're able to challenge those frameworks or being able to see yourself outside of it. And so never really having the opportunity to see someone like me be a software engineer, made it very difficult for me to ever see myself as a software engineer. The same can be said for movies right? Often times black people are portrayed a certain way in movies. And so people who don't have a chance to experience or have friendships may have certain assumptions, based off of the very narrow representation that they're able to see. And so I think that representation provides opportunities for access. It provides opportunities to expand your thinking and your thought process. It really helps you to expand your framework and really, I guess, like curate or create the operating system that is your own being. And if you don't see yourself represented you don't really have that opportunity. And so I would just like to see more people on being able to see themselves in anything that they want to do. And if you don't be the first to do it I know that when I was climbing I was oftentimes the only black person in the room. I didn't expect that to necessarily be a situation where I had to interface with racism yet again but it is, and it's definitely changed my life for being one of the first. And so representation matters, I will always put myself out there to make sure that little kids can see me so that they can see themselves. Yeah, so that's what I would say representation, like matters and means to me.

- So you've had a pretty amazing career in a number of different areas, doing a wide variety of things as you sort of look back at it and you're still early in your career. You're you're young, but you know when you reflect back on what you've experienced so far what thoughts do you have?

- Where am I? No. I'm honestly just grateful to be here in this position. Becoming a software engineer has vastly changed my life outside of just developing this skill set that touches on my passion for like problem solving. It's why I've been a rock climber for 11 years. We just I don't know, like to bang our heads against the wall for some reason, but also it's provided opportunities for me to help support my family. I talk a bit about how I was raised by my grandparents, but we also interface with poverty. I mean, I know what it's like to heat up my bathtub water by boiling water on the stove top because we didn't have hot water. And so I was actually able to move my sister up to Seattle and fun fact about that. She decided to move in with me in Seattle. And before she moved from California to Seattle, she looked for a job on Indeed. And she got her job on Indeed. And as an intern, I was able to look at IQL, which is our internal query system. If you want to look up some information you would use the site. I was actually able to IQL and look up her steps. I can see when she applied, I can see when the employer responded, I can see I saw everything. And so for me that was an opportunity that allowed me to to see us helping people get jobs. But yeah, back to the main point was I'm just like incredibly grateful. I'm grateful for the route that I took. I think coming to tech late in life makes me a better software engineer. I think the experiences I had before tech makes me more conscious of the different biases that we can create unconsciously. We're just trying to do our best, sure. But not necessarily thinking about other people or having them at the forefront. It takes active thought in order to do that. But yeah, I just I don't know I just feel grateful, I feel inspired. I don't know I'm just like ready to take on more. I'll say that in 2020, during this pandemic Indeed has been a great sense of just stability and joy. I have to shout out the Verses Battles that to me coming to work, just to know that I could jam out and have a good time, really took so much pressure. Because when you come out of your own little bubble and you start thinking about the world, it gets heavy. It gets really, really heavy. And so it's been a great sense of joy. So I just, I can't say anything other than just reflecting on it, feeling incredibly grateful. I mean, I'm talking to the CEO right now. You kidding me I'm feeling grateful.

- Yeah well, it was an interesting conversation that we had last week when we were talking about this, because I feel exactly the same way. Having had a set of experiences before I came to software develop, and I know a lot of people who started coding when they were five and they've been doing it their whole lives. And that's great, that was not my story. I was in my late twenties when I discovered that this is what I wanted to do. And in my case, I feel like it made me a better software developer to have connections to humans and to thinking about what motivated people and cause ultimately to me, software it's toolkit for solving problems and you have to have perspective and empathy to understand what the problems are that you want to solve and how to solve them. And so I really love seeing an non-direct path to lead into this place and can lead to a lot of other places in the future as well. So with that, the way that we normally close is, you know, the last seven eight months has been an extraordinary challenge for people all over the world and next door to us, wherever we happen to be. But kind of like the connection discussion we had with the Leadership Summit where we're able to get together. What have you seen over the course of the past eight months or so that has given you some optimism for the future?

- There's a couple of things, first and foremost I'd say progress. Sometimes that's hard for me because I just, I want it all to be fixed now. I don't want to wait anymore. But seeing the progress is something that gives me hope. We're having conversations that we would not have been able to have even a year ago. More comfortably at work, Indeed said, "Black Lives Matters" Which they wouldn't have said two years ago. So that is progress. And that is something over the last eight months. That is inspiring to me. Another thing definitely, so I don't have any children, but coming to work and seeing all the kids on Zoom, but then also interfacing with all the parents who have no choice in this crazy world, but to keep the smiles on their faces and keep things going, that is inspiring to me seriously. 'cause I don't know how you all do it. So coming into work and seeing you all keep doing it and doing your day job is really inspiring to me. Third, I honestly today I'm very much feeling the conversation I had with Rhonda in the office. It was so nice to just like connect with somebody in the office which is interesting because I opted to work remotely but running into her, we were having this conversation and we were talking about everything and she did such a great job to like, hold space. She'd give her opinion, but be mindful that her experience as a white woman is completely different than my experience. But even in that, she was able to just remind me to look for more good in people. I think I had said something that she was saying like, She thinks that people in an inherently good. And I was like, "I think they're inherently selfish, "you know." And we were having this conversation and she changed my mind. And so I think it's like those conversations are inspiring to me as well. So over the last eight months it's been that it's been progress. And just like these inspiring conversations and you parents doing the dang thing.

- Well Ashton, thank you so much for that. And thanks for joining us today and talking about your experiences, which you know are inspiring I think. Certainly to me, but to lots of other people thank you for everything that you do for Indeed. And to help people get jobs all over the world.

- Thank you so much for having me.