We talked with our co-founder and CTO Brooklyn Zelenka about her unusual career path, amazing achievements and experiences as a woman in tech. Read on to get to know one of our favorite fearless leaders.
Q. Can you tell us about your programming journey and your career in computer science/development?
A. I have a weird winding path to programming, and kind of "fell into it".
I started out as a classical music composer (this is relevant for a few reasons, as you'll see). Back in music school, I had the best Photoshop/Illustrator skills in my cohort, so I ended up making a bunch of the concert posters and programmes (back when they were paper). I was also a very interested in the technical aspects of music: What made it tick? What are the underlying structures? How many lines of polyphony can I write while keeping it coherent? Turns out that this is a lot of related theory to CS.
Many years later, I ended up at a startup doing graphic design. You end up doing a little bit of everything at startups, and they asked me I'd be willing to implement parts of the designs I was making. So I read a book that weekend, and showed up on Monday writing HTML/CSS and a tiny bit of jQuery. It turns out that I was better at that than design, and so I switched to development.
This was back before it was clear that Node would win the JS-on-the-server space. We were using a JVM-based framework that let you write in a dozen-or-so JVM-based languages, so I had to learn a bunch of languages early on to contribute to this project: Java, JS (Rhino), JRuby, Groovy, Clojure, and a couple more. I got really into Clojure, and thus into functional programming, and started reading the classic CS literature from the 70s and 80s. I quickly became a programming language nerd, which means also picking up a bunch of related CS. The rest, as they say, is history 😉
Q. Could you share an example of a hurdle or obstacle you experienced during your developer journey and how you overcame it?
A. You know, I honestly don't feel like I've have a ton of the classic blockers in my career! I'm very passionate about what I do, and work feels like play. The hardest part has been self-inflicted burnout. Burnout is the flip side of being so enthusiastic about my work: I take on a ton and work myself into the ground. I've burned out several times, and it's deeply unpleasant.
I'm learning to take better care of myself, but it's an internal struggle of short-term vs long-term. When people talk about mindfulness, you usually think of meditating and clearing your mind to focus on the here and now, but the bigger part of that for me is recognizing when I'm red-lining too much and eustress is turning into distress.
Q. You are one of the industry's most sought after keynote speakers. How did that come to be and how are you received as woman speaker in a male-dominated industry?
A. I think that I ended up keynoting conferences for a couple reasons: I was pretty engaged in tech community organizing, so I was fairly visible. I have a fair bit of public speaking experience, so I generally can generally (but not always :P) put together a coherent presentation. Finally, I like to push the boundaries of my tools, so I've done some OSS work that folks have found interesting (e.g. Witchcraft, Exceptional).
I've definitely experienced sexism in tech, though as my career has progressed and I've become more visible, there's less of that. There have been comments that the women speaking at conferences are just there to fill a quota. I've had comments on talk feedback forms that were just one word: "girl", or people assuming that I'm Boris' assistant during a workshop about a technical standard that I developed. I've at times overcompensated by trying to "look the part" with programmer joke t-shirts and hoodies. Now, I'm pretty nerdy by nature, and I do like these things, but there's also a level of defense mechanism there.
That said, on the whole, people have been incredibly nice and supportive! Part of this choice of communities -- I just don't have time for constantly fighting, so I go where the people are friendly!
Q. What advice would you give young women about a career in tech?
A. Honestly: just try it! I've spoken to a bunch of women over the years that just don't see themselves as the unfeeling, uncreative, evil-genius programmers that our culture likes to portray. I had the same bias! It turns out that programming is a very broad field. It's also extremely creative, and provides a ton of flexibility. Yes, bad programming jobs exist, but you have way more agency and power than really any other career I can think of: you can really choose your own adventure. It's not even that hard to get started, though like any skill, learning the basics is the hardest part. Just try it; it's much better than you think!
Q. What has been your biggest career and/or personal achievement?
A. Wow, that's a hard one! I feel really lucky to have done a lot of things that I find meaningful, from activism to building products to seeing the world as a digital nomad. I think my biggest success has been forging my own path: choosing interesting experiences over cash, curating where I spend my energy to support communities that I care about, and learning as much as possible.
Thanks to Brooklyn for taking the time to answer questions about her background and career. Over the next months Fission will be sharing profiles of each of our awesome team members with the community. Fission's team is one of its biggest strengths and we want to give them each a moment to shine.
Interested in learning more about the Fission community? Visit the Fission events page to sign up to get notified about new events, and join us most Thursdays for new tech talks.