Accessibility Engineer at Adobe, Girl Develop It Seattle co-organizer, international public speaker. Passionate about nature, cycling, music and dogs.
Marcy has a Twitter account. Follow her @marcysutton.
This is what a developer looks like.
Have you ever felt excluded at an event even though you were supposed to be there, like a meetup or a conference after-party? Perhaps you gave a conference talk and one or two negative comments ate away at you, making it difficult to socialize. Or maybe someone assumed you were a developer’s spouse, or in another profession entirely, before you were assumed to be a developer.
Even as we are our own worst critics, other peoples’ comments can set doubt into motion. How can we break away from paralyzing sources of doubt and get back to our most brilliant and badass selves? Can you make yourself feel more confident even though you feel the opposite of that and want to run for the hills? This post explores how we can build ourselves up to endure (and hopefully enjoy) social situations in the technology field and beyond.
Act like you’re supposed to be there.
I’ve often heard the phrase “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission”, attributed to the celebrated computer programmer Grace Hopper. I may have taken that advice a bit too far, but I once crashed a giant, lavish party with a friend at a public park. We acted like we were supposed to be there, even though we clearly weren’t, and gained entry to the outdoor event of the decade. Now, I’m definitely not telling you to go party crashing; however, as I became an adult, I saw tangible value in showing up and acting confident. When paired with social awareness, I saw doors open as I navigated situations. (I fully admit to having some privilege here, as well.)
I’ve heard women say they dress down to fit in at meetups or conferences, so other developers will take them seriously. I say forget all that! Celebrate your personal style and wear whatever makes you feel most comfortable. If your style is t-shirts and hoodies, rock a t-shirt and a hoodie. If you sometimes like wearing dresses or skirts, own it and wear them with pride.
"I started giving all my talks in heels because:
A) Stage confidence
B) This is what a dev looks like"
As I did more public speaking, my fear of being outnumbered subsided and confidence grew. I started showing up to tech events with the same unabashed confidence I had as a party crasher. While this might not reflect everyone’s personal style, I gave talks in dresses, shiny leggings, and sparkly jackets simply because I love dressing up; speaking was an excuse to do that. When I’m attending an event and not giving a talk, I never choose my attire out of a place of fear. You shouldn’t either, and I’ll tell you why.
Clothing can be used as a device to engineer your mood. Have you ever put on a pair of pants that were too small and you felt terrible? (Hi, I have.) Ever put on your favorite outfit and felt fabulous? Get comfortable so you’re feeling good when you present yourself at an event–your presence will more influential than your attire. You’ll show others that “this is what a developer looks like” as your authentic self, whatever that may be.
Do a power pose.
“Showing up and acting confident” is easier said than done, I know. As I started writing this post, I thought a lot about people who are more introverted. I’ve also learned personally that extroverts can become introverted under stress: after rough talk feedback, I tend to disappear for alone-time. When I was feeling particularly down after a talk recently, I got some great advice to “do a power pose.” Essentially, trick your mind into feeling more confident by inhabiting a fierce body. Put your arms on your hips like Superwoman and physically feel more powerful.
This advice comes from a great Ted talk by Amy Cuddy a few years ago titled, “Your Body Language Shapes Who you Are”, where she discussed the importance of nonverbal communication in social power dynamics. Her scientific research showed that as little as two minutes spent in a “power pose” can raise testosterone, the hormone affecting confidence, and lower the stress hormone, cortisol. This impacts how others perceive us in all matters of life, from job interviews to conference talks to product pitches. So do yourself a favor and do some power poses if you’re in need of a confidence boost.
By harnessing our power within, we can impact how others perceive us. But sometimes we need encouragement to show our most confident selves. To feel powerful before a challenging situation, do a power-pose: find your inner strength by “faking it until you become it.” Take pride in your personal style and dress however you feel most confident, not how you think others expect you to be. Act like you’re supposed to be there at meetups and conference events, because you are!
There’s one thing I know for sure: life is full of ups and downs. I visualize these ups and downs as an oscillating line, with each peak and valley representing my emotional strength–or lack thereof–at that point in time. I can’t control the flow of events that cause these ups and downs, but I can manage how I relate to them. In other words, life feels like riding a big ocean wave.
Depending on who you are, the distribution of emotional highs and lows might be gentle and spread out; or, they might be sharp and condensed. I’m regularly in the sharp column: as my career has exploded and I’ve gone from one high point to another, I've started to experience more impactful lows. Sometimes I think, “if I was just more disciplined, I could be a gentle, measured emotional being.” But that’s not who I am. My mode of operation is the opposite of playing it safe. I'm playing a high risk, high energy game that I often win, but sometimes I lose–I put myself out there too far, and I crash and burn.
Success & downtime: yin & yang
If you give so much of yourself that you burn out, you’re left depleted for energy and purpose until something causes that wave of emotion to switch direction and rise you up again. For me, that something is usually a change in perspective, be it from solid exercise or doing something to break out of the routine. It could also simply be a good amount of time passing. However, despite my best efforts, sometimes a pileup of negative factors can make it hard to avoid powerful lows. It’s like I’m off on a negative vibes ice flow I can’t paddle back from at the moment.
What causes this, and how do you manage it?
A change in jobs, mourning the loss of a dear pet, the end of a relationship, endless side projects, unproductive self criticism after conference talks I practically ran toward–that was 2015 for me. In the past, I’ve been okay at managing life’s ups and downs. But this year was different. No matter how I tried to improve my mood, I kept tripping over my emotions and landing in a heap.
It was only after I started experiencing an upswing that I realized I’d had 3 big life events in one summer–no wonder I felt so lost. Any time a major event happens in your life, you’re bound to have some stress. Except, on top of normal life stress, I also beat myself up all the time. Each valley in my oscillating wave is a low point where I doubt, criticize and self-sabotage. I started wondering: what if, instead of beating myself up, I gave myself the same empathy I have for others?
Not too long ago, I received some life changing advice from Minh-Hai Alex, a nutritionist here in Seattle: she told me to “treat yourself like you would treat a friend.” I wouldn’t feel disgust for a friend who was down, so why would I pile that on myself? If we allow ourselves to feel self-compassion, we are able to grow stronger each day and start to feel better. Sometimes it’s difficult to get into this state of mind, and I often need reminding.
It takes time to work through the emotional fallout from major life events. I’ve found a few things that help the process along; I’d also love to hear your strategies for managing life’s highs and lows.
Getting out of ruts
For me, any form of physical exercise can make things feel better (at least temporarily). But when I’m at a really low point, my emotions and mind are at odds. Emotions say, “who cares, exercise won’t change my situation...” while, my brain says, “go for a bike ride, you’ll feel better.”
The genius of exercise is that it gives you more resolve and optimism to weather your situation even when you’re not exercising. It builds self-confidence and gives you space to detach from your troubles. So it’s worth doing, even if your emotions are sabotaging you. By starting small and keeping low expectations, each thing you do can help turn the boat around. Plus, you’re making your heart happy in more ways than one.
…By breaking out of your routine
Changing my perspective has been the most successful way to break out of a rut. Going to a movie or an art museum can help shake up your emotions for a few hours, leaving you with new (and hopefully good) thoughts. Every time I go on a trip somewhere I’m given freedom to look at things in a new light. When I come home, I undoubtedly feel better than I did before.
Jumping on a trampoline or baking a pie would also be be worthy ways to focus your time, assuming your stress is not pie or trampoline related. :)
…By spending time with friends
People who know you well can help you see the bigger picture. They know you at your baseline self, at equilibrium; by spending time with them, you can hopefully start to feel more centered.
After stressing over something minor because my tolerance for BS was empty, I got a particularly memorable comment: “I don’t know why you let those little things bother you, you’re such an f'ing badass.” It sort-of knocked me upside the head (in a good way), and my perspective started to shift. By now, a few weeks later, I can point back to a handful of personal conversations where I started to feel different.
…By choosing to be happy
When I’m at the start of an upswing and my emotional tank is slowly filling with self-confidence and calm, I still feel okay when negative vibes pop up–with less stress and more emotional bandwidth, I can choose to be happy.
Sometimes the only thing separating a good day from a bad day is your perspective. If you're beating yourself up about something, give yourself a break. Take the time you need to destress and heal, and then get back on the boat. Life is simply too valuable to miss out.
What’s your legacy?
How will people remember you when you’re gone? Will they say, “she contributed a lot”, or “he was a nice man”, or “she was a helpful mentor”? Increasingly, I feel, it’s how people describe you when you’re not around that means the most.
I remember being inspired as a kid by a female photojournalist from a local newspaper who came to my class. Every time I interact with a kid these days (I don’t have any of my own, yet), I think about how their experiences send them off in different directions...like my niece going to circus camp, or a high schooler attending Girls Who Code for the summer. As little as 30 minutes of your time spent with someone could dramatically impact their future. That we can inspire the next generation fills me with hope, lifting us above election seasons, wildfires, income inequality, gun violence and rampant misogyny.
Who inspires you, and why?
This summer, I spoke at a software development conference in Amsterdam and took my own bike, making a vacation out of it (I’m a bike nerd). At the speakers’ canal cruise around Amsterdam, I became acquainted with one of the keynote speakers, Mary Shaw, from Pittsburgh, PA. We discovered nearly identical plans to ride our bikes in Belgium later in the week. Not familiar with Mary’s work at Carnegie Melon University before meeting her in person, I was floored to find out I’d spent time with a recipient of the National Medal for Science and Technology, presented by President Obama, for her research on software architecture.
It’s not often that I feel starstruck…but I was so honored to speak at the same conference as Mary Shaw. She even came to my talk on Accessibility in Angular! It meant a lot to have her there, no matter how I performed. The next day, I saw Mary’s keynote, Progress toward an Engineering Discipline of Software. I loved her meta look at engineering–a job title growing in popularity in software–comparing it to arch and bridge design, from craft to industry. Definitions taken from civil engineering provided a lens for comparison with engineering of software:
“Creating cost-effective solutions...to practical problems...by applying scientific knowledge…building things...in the service of mankind."
Returning home after the trip to a new job and title, Accessibility Engineer at Adobe, I wondered how my work stacked up against those definitions. After her talk, I got to ask Mary’s take on it directly: she recalled, “building things in the service of mankind” and it was pretty clear that yes, engineering applies to accessibility.
The day after the conference, my travel partner and I sat drinking tiny cups of espresso with our bikes and backpacks on the platform at Amsterdam’s Centraal Station. And who did we happen to see? Mary Shaw and her partner, Roy, with their tandem bike packed in two suitcases, lining up for the fast train to Belgium. Despite feeling starstruck, I felt compelled to tell Mary and Roy about an experience I’d had speaking to an elementary school science class.
Make time for those coming after you; you might inspire someone.
Last summer, I was invited to speak to a 4th and 5th grade science class in rural Oregon via Google Hangouts. I prepared a small slide deck and spent 30 minutes explaining how I got to that place in my career. The kids came prepared some great questions; I talked with them how I would with my 8-year-old niece and 11-year-old nephew. It was a fun experience and the class seemed to enjoy it, even if they looked ready to run outside for recess. A few months later, I got an email from the teacher:
I just wanted to let you know about Tyler. She is a student in my class. I had her as a student last year as well. She has always been a little bit behind in her level and struggled with confidence issues. Ever since your talk earlier this year, I noticed a distinct change in her attitude in class. All of a sudden she started working harder, got excited about learning, wanting to do better all the time. A few months ago I noticed she kept making references to your talk and about how she wants to be a programmer like you. She even helped me do a presentation about STEM to another school district talking about how influential you were to her and how you helped her realize that she could do that as well. I think she really connected with you. You have made a difference in the lives of my students and I really appreciate that.
When I told Mary Shaw this story on the rail platform, she said, “YES!!”, complete with a fist pump. She seemed excited to hear of another female software engineer in the making. I felt whole in that moment, simultaneously looking up to Mary Shaw and realizing how I had impacted the next generation.
Becoming part of the cycle of life
Have you noticed how time seems to fly by? In writing this piece, someone told me, “how we affect the next generation makes us immortal.” What are you doing to positively impact someone in your life with the time you have?
Being a mentor requires putting your own ego aside and wanting others to succeed. Once I grew more comfortable with myself and less competitive with others, I found I had more room in my heart to cheer them on. Being a mentor means listening to what people want to do and encouraging them, while being strategic. It’s delightful and rewarding to see something positive develop from time spent together.
Make a difference.
As our careers mature, it’s important that we to contribute back to the world. Do work that matters, and you’ll make a difference every day. Or, if your job is sustainable but not as fulfilling, you could spend some of your time helping and connecting with others: volunteering with local youth groups, mentoring someone getting started in your industry, or teaching for a nonprofit. Organizations like Girl Develop It provide learning and career development opportunities to women and newcomers in technology–they often need teaching assistants and instructors. Other groups to check out: Nodeschool, Coder Dojo, or a local meetup.
There are many places in and outside of tech where you could give your time and expertise. Looking for some variety in your life? Contributions to organizations like the Humane Society or a local trail association would be just as appreciated. Find something that matters to you.
Coming from a place of privilege–like, being further along in a well-paying career–means you have something to offer those coming after you. Trend on positive, meaningful outcomes for others with the time you spend. Every little bit helps to make our world a better place. In nature terms, did you leave the trail in a better condition than you found it?
A picture is worth a thousand words
Even with the best of intentions, when writing captions, it’s easy to forget important details for people who can’t see an image.
Some of the most successful captions I’ve read recently were by my fellow graduates of Brooks Institute of Photography, where I studied photojournalism before becoming a web developer. In the photojournalism field, you are required to gather details about any subject filling your frame: first and last name, occupation or education, and any other critical details. It’s essential reporting: a photograph without a caption would be an incomplete story.
When writing a caption, how much detail is enough for an image? Well, it depends on the image. Some images are used only as space filler, contributing nothing to an article or webpage. They could be marked up in HTML with an empty
alt attribute and no one would miss anything, because for some reason people pay money to put terrible stock photography into prime online real estate.
In comparison, images can also provide important details. A tweet containing only image data could visually present a most hilarious joke or an infographic from the White House showing the current unemployment rate. Without captions, will visually impaired people be able to understand what was in the tweet? What if an image doesn't load–is there any metadata attached about what was in it? Will search engines have to rely on computer vision to caption images where humans with working eyes but out-of-practice empathy muscles didn't do it?
I will admit it takes a disciplined person to always provide detailed captions for image content. I like to think of myself as compassionate and committed to this practice, but even I mess up sometimes, or I'll selfishly tweet something vague where the important detail is in the image. I always come back to wanting to share complete information with all my friends, some of whom are blind or vision-impaired. I don't want to leave them out of jokes or visual delights.
Turns out, writing captions when the information is fresh in your mind not only benefits your friends with disabilities, it can also help you in the future by providing a written record in more detail. In your amazing travel photo, was it a good day? At what bridge did you find that important scene, and what was that local food again? Assembling more of a complete story comes easier when you do it right away, and the text can provide additional data later.
For a detailed caption, how much information is “enough”? Let’s look at a photograph I received from my dog walker, Ian, of his group on their way to the park, seen above. My dog Wally stands in the left side of the frame, surrounded by six other dogs. When I shared the photo on Facebook, I tried to write a really good caption. The thing is, an image like this one contains infinite detail: each dog is a different breed, in a certain position, making a face with their eyebrows blowing in one direction, and one is plotting to escape. Colored leashes appear in the foreground with windows in the background looking through to other vehicles and trees. Here’s the caption I wrote at the time, requiring a few edits as I noticed details I'd missed (including an entire dog):
I can't get enough of this picture of Wally and his pals riding in the van to the park Ian sent me, titled "Class Photo". Wally is on the left with his ridiculous eyebrows, beard and scruffy tuxedo, a black lab photobombing in the back, a little brown Chewbacca dog with the cutest face and black feet (stomping in the mud?), a sweet Brittany spaniel who looks like it wants to escape, an extremely photogenic pitt/lab mix (?), and two adorable little brown terriers also with amazing eyebrows—one I almost missed. I'm happy moments like this happen.
I could easily write an essay about how much I love this photograph. But do people want to read all that? Maybe. There’s a balance between writing enough information and too much information. We have to strike the right balance, taking into account our readers’ time as well as ours, as writers. You could spend all day writing the wittiest caption but will the value of the photo balance out the time spent? That better be one hilarious image.
The medium in which we write also has an impact–it's impossible to jam that much detail into a tweet without relying on 3rd party services, which have their pros and cons. For the visually impaired, services like Easy Chirp fill gaps where the interfaces we use to publish media don't give us the necessary options to share information in more equal formats.
As content creators, social media butterflies and communicators on planet Earth, we are capable of describing ourselves in more than just the visual sense. Let us use our talents to describe what's in our photographs–not only will it preserve text data, it will make our jokes and shared memories more inclusive to all.
Thanks to Matthew Bianchi for laughing with me at awkward stock photos and helping to write captions.
Being patient vs. being loud
To me, advocating for something means that you’re trying to make it better. In web accessibility, there’s a tension between pointing out things that could be better and waiting for them to get fixed. When we point out the failures, often the response is “it’s just a demo”, or “that’s coming in a later phase.” You could wait and wait, politely ask again and wait some more, and it might never be accessible, because it’s actually harder to do after designs have shipped and budgets have been spent.
If designers and developers never got feedback that their project was inaccessible and people couldn’t use it, would they have any idea they’d missed out on an opportunity to expand their user base? No feedback might reinforce the assumption that “the disabled aren’t our audience.” It could be disabled people aren’t your audience because you didn’t give them the chance.
Given the benefit of the doubt, however, maybe you didn’t know that accessibility was something you could build into your workflow. Would gaining this knowledge change how you built it next time? Would the tone with which it was messaged to you affect whether you made changes now? This tension is something I think about a lot as an accessibility advocate.
How can we make the web the most accessible place it can be? By working together. It’s corny, but I mean it. In the past, I’ve complained loudly about projects that weren’t built with accessibility in mind. But, as I've learned, all that does is bring people down. It goes from trying to make something better to making it worse, as it becomes an us vs. them situation. If the people who worked on that project hear you complaining, they might very likely be discouraged, rather than inspired to fix it. Most people don’t react well to guilt trips or negative energy–I know I don’t. I’m a lot more eager to work with someone in open source, for example, if they are compassionate and polite. Knowing there are people on the other end is important in how we discuss accessibility, and software in general.
Sadly, with accessibility so much of the conversation is about what was done wrong. Hell, even spurring change from offenders most of the time requires a big lawsuit. It's depressing if you fixate on that too much. For that reason, I always thought there was a need for good accessibility to be highlighted somewhere, to focus on the positive. That way others could see what accessible web designs looked like and feel inspired. Last year, I asked Netmag to create an accessibility category at the Net Awards, which the community seemed to support, but it didn’t happen. Still, I kept scheming ways to get the word out about accessibility.
When I started this article, I wrote down “I really wish there were more accessibility wins to showcase. Maybe I’ll just start a Tumblr.” My very next step was to register a new blog on Tumblr, find an accessible theme, redo everything in the theme because it wasn’t very accessible, and start writing about things I thought were successful on the web. The workflow was this: think of common web accessibility problems and find examples of them being addressed. Write a few paragraphs with a screenshot and a link, nicely pointing out ways it could be improved but focusing on the good parts. That is how http://a11ywins.tumblr.com was born. What happened after that blew my mind. The site was bookmarked by Smashing Magazine, CSS Tricks, SidebarIO, Web Platform Daily and more, and posted by so many awesome people on Twitter that I can’t even count them all (thank you to each and every one).
I guess you could say the community confirmed my hypothesis that highlighting successes would be a good approach. What Accessibility Wins taught me was that people are desperate for positive leadership in accessibility…less tearing people down, and more building people up. Because if we’re going to make the web the most accessible place, we’re going to have to do it together. That means giving people praise when they do something right, and being helpful and supportive when things could be better. In our pursuit to make the web more accessible we can be loud and we can be patient, but no matter what, we must be kind.
Riding a bicycle to an accessibility conference
Coming up the first week of March is the 30th Annual(!) International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference put on by the California State University Northridge Center on Disabilities. We'll refer to it as CSUN, for short. When I first heard about the conference, I was intrigued to find out it had existed for so many years–I thought it must have quite a legacy. With butterflies in my stomach, I decided to make my first trip to CSUN. Traveling solo and paying my own way, I booked a "bed & bike" on Airbnb that came with access to an older steel bicycle I could ride to the conference each day, a 10 minute ride across downtown. Like a total bike nerd, I brought my own helmet, hand pump, U-lock and lights. I had a delightful time exploring the city by myself. It was warm, as Southern California generally is in February, compared to Seattle where I live. Although I didn't ride far due to the fit and condition of the bike, San Diego was fun to ride. I felt empowered and fulfilled.
At the conference hotel, the Grand Hyatt–where I figured out one could stash a giant bike bag–I spent 4 days learning from experts about one of my passions: accessibility. I made new friends and acquaintances that week, including two blind folks I got to join on walks arm-in-arm down to the hotel coffee shop to chat about web tech: Léonie Watson and Marco Zehe. Hearing their perspectives first-hand blew me away. There were plans for a tandem bike adventure, for which I was enthusiastically ready to pilot visually-impaired people with my helmet. (It didn't happen in 2014, but we're trying again this year.) Each night after way too much fun, I biked back to my cute little house by the downtown freeway, once getting a flat tire that I pumped up just enough to make it home. I was pretty excited about biking in new cities and made a point to do it more often.
In the year since, I reflected a lot on different parts of that experience, including what I'd learned, how I presented myself, and how I'd like to contribute back to a community that's close to my heart. As it came time to book travel this year, I asked myself a tough question: is it insensitive to be excited about biking to an accessibility conference?
I started working in accessibility through my previous job as a front-end developer at POP, a digital agency. I didn't know anyone with a disability until I became acquainted with Target's accessibility team on client projects. We worked so well together; I learned a lot from them. In 2012, a blind colleague from Target, Steve Sawczyn, started following me on Twitter and after I got over the feeling of oh geeze...a client is following me, we became friends. I thought a lot about what his web browsing experience might be like. “He won't be able to read the text in those silly meme graphics," I thought. “I can't retweet that photo without having to explain the entire joke, thus killing it.” I've never stopped thinking about accessible communication since then. Meeting people with disabilities made me curious and compassionate.
@steveofmaine I had a good chuckle the other day thinking about how to make fartscroll.js accessible to the deaf: https://github.com/theonion/fartscroll.js/issues/6— Marcy Sutton (@marcysutton) May 11, 2013
I became really invested in web accessibility after I realized I could help people with code. I wanted to get past short-lived campaign websites and work on more meaningful projects. In my new job at Substantial, I took advantage of some downtime and did research on Accessibility and the Shadow DOM because I was curious about it. I initially thought it was such a non-issue that Shadow DOM was accessible that I almost didn't publish anything. But I pressed on since there was very little information about Web Components and accessibility at the time. I didn't know if anyone would listen to me, or if I was stating something obvious. But my research began to be quoted and referenced across the web (and is now in the Polymer FAQ on accessibility).
Before attending CSUN, I was nervous about being an outsider with limited connections to people with disabilities. I was starting to speak at conferences about accessibility. Was I a super-fan, or an impostor? I couldn't just leave out accessibility at work because I cared about designing and building experiences that everyone could use. I thought my heart must be in the right place. I officially learned I'd been saying the right things about accessibility when I heard them echoed by my industry heroes from WebAIM in the first 10 minutes of CSUN. I felt validated and at home. I found my people, actually, and I vowed to fight the good fight for them.
This year when I began planning my trip to CSUN, I joked publicly about biking to the conference, and once again, I felt a mixed bag of emotions. On the one hand, I was overjoyed to present my work with Angular.js accessibility and Material Design on my 31st birthday. On the other, I worried it was insensitive to boast about biking to an accessibility conference with a cake on the front rack. But, it was Pee Wee Herman in Pee Wee's Big Adventure that made me feel I was being too hard on myself about the whole thing. Oddly enough, Pee Wee's love for his bicycle and attitude towards life were a way I could gain perspective (the fun/creative art bits, not the movie theater scandal bits). This is where I sorted things out: if you're passionate about something, like biking or accessibility, you should celebrate it. Do as much of the thing that makes you happy as you can. People will respect that. They may even ride on a tandem bike with you.
The 30th Annual CSUN conference runs March 2 through March 7, 2015. http://csunconference.org