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Conversations #79: Working Moms in Tech

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Written by Natalia DaiesMay 3, 2023

Women Who Code Conversations 79     |     Spotify - iTunes - Google - YouTube - Text
Natalia Daies, Senior Director of Communications and Marketing at Women Who Code, has a conversation with Odette Nemes, Head of Growth at Onramp, Madona Wambua, Author, Keynote Speaker, Senior Android Engineer, and Google Developer Expert for Android, Valarie Regas, DevOps fanatic, accomplished speaker and Melissa Hong, CEO and Owner of OMG Code. This is a group of diverse, exceptional technologists. They discuss their different career paths and how they balance it with parenting.

Can you briefly share with us, your career journey and how motherhood has impacted it?

VR: I did five years as a stay-at-home mom. During that time, I was miserable. I loved the amount of time I spent with my children. I have a three-year-old, an eight-year-old, and a 13-year-old. It's the most challenging job I've ever had. My husband realized how miserable I was and asked if I had considered returning to school. I went to the Coding Boot Camp at Georgia Tech. It was an exciting experience. I had to do the night and weekend program for six months because I was still doing a full-time job as a stay-at-home. I wrote my first full stack application from a bathroom floor because my then toddler was potty training, My children were my testers for my homework. If my seven-year-old could figure it out, it's probably intuitive.

After I graduated, I went through that moment of panic, "I just spent $10,000 of money that my husband made," I was under the delusion that I didn't contribute to the household because I didn't get a paycheck. That was crazy pants. I was afraid that no one would want to hire a mom. I did my first tech talk at a Women Who Code International Women's Day event. I spent my entire time talking about how stay-at-home parents have a unique skill set that you can only get in that role and how that translates to make us better employees in different ways.

That accomplished a few things. I got my first role, a DevOps internship, which doesn't exist. I don't know how I manifested that, but I'm thankful it happened. Spoiler alert: Women lifting me up and helping me is how I got that. That's why I'm so passionate about helping other women. It also gave me the bug for speaking. I've lost count of how many conferences, meet-ups, and events at which I've spoken. I love the community. I'm all about people. 

I had the unique experience of going through my third pregnancy at my first company. I had never really had to do a lot of the working mom things. With my oldest, I was a single mom running a family business. My oldest girl just went to work with me. With my second, I was a stay-at-home. Having my third child, there was no maternity leave, technically. I took some short-term disability to get about a month off. Going back to work sleep-deprived as a DevOps engineer responsible for our builds was challenging. I had to figure out what a breast pump was. It was just a whole new world, very eye-opening.

I'm very passionate about parental leave, in general, as a business case, not as something to make parents feel good. I put bugs in the code because people who don't sleep shouldn't be in your code base. Children are the best blessing I've ever received, and I can't imagine my life without them. They are incredible. They are also time-intensive and a lot of work, and there's a lot of pressure to do it right because that's the future of our nation and our world. You can't just feed them and house them. You must teach them morals, values, ethics, and how to be a good citizen. That's a lot when you're also going from calling your computer the magic box that holds email to being a full-stack developer in six months. It's just a lot. 

MH: I went through a coding boot camp, Coding Dojo, with my first son. I started in medical school and decided it wasn't something I was passionate about. I went to boot camp and then was thrown into the environment. I'm a freelancer, and I started my own company. I just started remote work with my kids. I started working, nursing them while I was working. While I'm on the computer or client calls, they're on my lap. You learn that it's okay to have chaos. It's okay to have discontinuity and asynchronicity. There's no other way around it when you have kids and work from home. That's the benefit of freelancing or doing your own company. Even though you feel like you're away from your children, you're right there. 

ON: I landed a job after I had my kids to get underrepresented folks, moms, and career changers into tech. To hear the stories of juggling being moms and, completing a boot camp, then landing their first job in tech makes my heart warm. I was actually in the non-profit space. I was at Girls Inc for 12 years, working to get low-income girls of color into tech. We were teaching them HTML over 20 years ago and object-oriented programming. I was struggling with infertility and trying to start a family with my then-wife. Once I was a mom, I took some time off. I had paid leave.

When I returned to work, I was learning to juggle it all. I lasted about six months and was burnt out in the non-profit life. I decided to take some time off and have another kid. Then the pandemic hit, so that messed up my plans. I ended up getting a divorce during the pandemic. I got into tech to provide for my family. I landed a job. Now, I am fortunate enough to set up opportunities for folks like myself, moms transitioning, and other folks. It's a dream for me to give folks these opportunities. They can triple their salaries. I am still able to do mission-driven work in the tech industry. 

MW: I took a sabbatical, and that's when I got pregnant with my first kid. I decided to stay home. I don't have any family members around. I couldn't leave my kids with anybody I could trust, so I just had me and my husband. My husband was trying to finish his Ph.D. during that time. I had my second child three years later, so pretty quickly. I felt like I wasn't contributing.

I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. That was through Women Who Code. I got to ignite my passion. That is through contributing online. Women Who Code has a mobile lead track. I was able to join that track and start contributing through that. It kept me up to date with knowledge. When I went on my first interview after the pandemic,  everyone asked how I knew the latest information. Fast forward to now, I get to travel everywhere with my kids. I am happy to say that it's been an incredible journey. 

How do you balance being career-driven while also experiencing some mom guilt?

VR: I've been speaking at events for five years. That typically involves travel. There are only a few in Atlanta each year at which I reliably speak. I've got the travel aspect of my three children, my center child, the one that we all revolve around,  not the middle child, our center child. She does not do well with me being away. That's been something to deal with. I tried to give myself the gift of some mental health help a while back. There was group therapy from 06:00 to 09:00 PM, dealing with trauma and coping skills and such. I firmly believe that every adult and most children should probably have a life consultant, what I call therapists. In business, we call in a consultant if we're not subject matter experts. I was giving myself this gift, and there was a lot of mom guilt about it. I was working all day and then for an hour and a half, two hours, I'm hanging out with my kids getting a meal on the table ready to go, and then I was up on a call from 06:00 to 09:00. There were tears, and, "Why are you always on a call?" 

In February, I was speaking at a conference in the Bay Area. I took my 13-year-old with me, let her take a full week off school. We went on a cruise at the Bay for Valentine's Day. We took a week and played in San Francisco. If I'm at a speaker's dinner and my middle child calls, I step away and I answer the call. Sometimes I ask international strangers to say hello to my eight-year-old to make her feel special and loved across the ocean. When I speak in Atlanta, with very little exception, I keep the big kids out of school.

From day one, it's been integrating my kids into my life. I don't want to model not having a life, making them think that the day that their kid's born, their life ends, that's not sustainable. Finding a way to safely integrate them into my life as much as possible while still fostering their interests and talents, it's a delicate balance. It leads to a situation where the kids don't feel excluded from adult lives. They don't feel like they're losing you to work. You don't feel resentful for giving up things that they haven't asked you to give up. Children never ask us to give up opportunities, they don't ask us to go without hobbies or interests or time away with friends. We do that to ourselves, assuming it's what they want.

MW: Recently, we had an International Women's Day talk. My kids were there taking a picture of me conversing with so many people in the audience. Everybody just approached me and said, "Wow, Madonna, you brought your kids to IWD?" I think there are a lot of benefits. I've managed not ever to feel any guilt. My kids are already adapted to my workspace. They know what I do. They're very comfortable if you pull them into your work. Also, when I travel, they're always very happy to spend that time with their dad. It's boys' time.

ON: It’s important to be clear from day one with your employer. Even in the interview process, ensure they know you will put your kids number one. I have to pick up my kids before five o'clock. I can't attend meetings during that time. They understand what you're carrying as long as we're transparent with our boundaries and we're in a supportive space.

How has your career journey informed how you parent? 

MW: I saw the question more of how your career was formulated while working with your kids and how that influenced things. It started from the beginning. I founded my company, OMG Code, two years ago, while I was nursing my second child. I always had my kids while developing as a freelancer or beginning my company. They're almost inseparable in terms of what kind of impact they had on my freelancing career. Quality time is so important. If you engage and can provide that extra care when they want it or when you can give it to the max. I'm a digital nomad, I've traveled all around and my kids come everywhere. The people that work with me don't have a set location. They can work from wherever as well. I'm more about giving freedom and flexibility. Same with raising my kids, I have them home-schooled.

VR: This is family time. The pandemic didn't blur those lines, it squashed them and then erased them and then salted the earth. I felt like we had so much less quality time because my West Coast colleagues, who might have been more respectful of my working hours when I was going to an office, were suddenly cool putting a meeting on. My last role, I was remote, but I paid for a co-working space. I found a women's only co-working space. I need that separation, I need the clearly defined boundaries between work and home.

How important are vacation, travel, time away, and self-care when you're both trying to excel in your career and also be that rockstar parent?  

ON: It's critical. I get my self-care time because I have 50% custody of my kids. I make it a point that when I'm with my kids, it's 100% intentional. I have my boundaries clear. When I don't, I work longer hours and do everything necessary. I also care for myself, play basketball, watch shows, and travel. That recharge time is so important. I think, especially as women of color, as queer folks, as any under-represented people, that we're just taught to grind all the time. 

VR: Some of the best self-care I've ever given myself was early in the shutdown. I started paying someone to come into my home every two weeks and do my deep cleaning. In March 2020, my house fell apart because suddenly, five people lived there all day, every day. This is very much a DevOps mentality, "What can I automate and offload from my list of things to do?" Instacart is self-care. If I don't have the spoons to put on real pants with not an elastic waist and go to the grocery store and shop, Instacart is a life-saver. Not only is someone else doing that labor for me, but I'm also helping support my economy. I don't change the oil in my car. I pay someone to do that. If you can offload some of your responsibilities, it is a gift to yourself. Every time, I teach one of my children to do a new chore that won't be on my list anymore: self-care. 

How have you built your support system? 

MH: Most of the time, it's just me, to be honest. I choose that. I travel around, and I'm usually the only person in that specific area that I know, and then it's just my kids. Babysitters and nannies are great because you can now have your moment alone if you hire them. If you don't have any support, you have to look into maybe splurging a little and getting a hotel night for yourself while the nanny or your babysitter takes care of your children. 

With everything going on in the world, what values do you try to instill in your children so they can handle adversity? 

MW: I usually tell my kids to be kind to other people because people are going through a lot. We have this affirmation thing that we say, "Don't be a bystander, speak out if you see anybody bullying the other person, even at school." 

MH: Love others as you want to be loved. I even show that to my clients. I treat them as I would like to be treated. I think they appreciate that so much.

ON: This one's hard for me. How I've grown up, survived, and thrived in this country, I'm not sure those are the values that I want to instill in my kids. How do I raise a brown boy and a brown girl in this world and have them lead with love, empathy, and sharing their feelings when that can be dangerous? I’m trying to raise them differently without the trauma and the history that I've carried and that my family has for generations. Motherhood is so hard. I need lots of up-skilling. I wish we had more training because there's no guide to this, and there really should be. There's so much humility and learning that happens for us as moms that is really transferable. Every day, I mess up trying to work with my kids, support them, and love them. The most significant piece is letting them know that we're human as moms, that we mess up all the time. We build intimacy and deeper relationships when we do that.

VR: I've always valued empathy and trying to see the world through the perspective of other humans, imagine their lived experience, ask them about it, learn, stop speaking and listen. I encourage my kids to lead with empathy and kindness. It worked really great until my oldest came out as trans. She still wants to go to a protest and yell the loudest. She still wants to march, but now I'm afraid. I'm still teaching her to lead and be compassionate and empathetic. She's such an example to me. I've tried to model for them. We talk a lot about, "Will this matter in five years, 10 years, 15 years?" 

Will you share your 15-second pro tip for mothers in tech?

ON: Set boundaries, take care of yourself, be patient, and have grace with yourself.

MH: Believe in yourself, don't give up and follow your dreams. That's something that I've instilled in everything that I do. Specifically for mothers, it's okay to be in chaos and uncertainty, and for you to be able to thrive in that eventually and realize that you can take on anything after that. Of course, it'll be a painful process, but in the end, no pain, no gain. 

VR: In Western culture, we tell parents to be good, full-time partners, parents, employees, athletes, chauffeurs, psychiatrists, cooks, housekeepers and  resource allocation specialists. We have all these full-time jobs that people tell us to do. My 15-second advice is, every day, wake up and pick two. You can be good at two things on any given day. Let go of the guilt for the rest, no one can have multiple full-time jobs and do them all well.  

Host: Natalia Daies, Senior Director of Communications and Marketing at Women Who Code
Guest: Odette Nemes, Head of Growth at Onramp
Guest: Madona Wambua, Author, Keynote Speaker, Senior Android Engineer, and Google Developer Expert for Android
Guest: Valarie Regas, DevOps fanatic, accomplished speaker
Guest: Melissa Hong, CEO and Owner of OMG Code
Producer: JL Lewitin, Senior Producer, Women Who Code

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