Friday 25 June 2021

Interview with Erin Dees

Monika: Today my guest is Erin Dees, an inspirational woman from Ontario, Canada. Erin is a programmer, engineer, and coach. She has written or co-written five books on programming. Erin lives with her wife, their youngest son, and their cranky Corgi mix. At one time, their household included a menagerie of kids, dogs, cats, chickens, and goats. But the older kids graduated and started their own lives, and the goats eventually ran out of grass to eat and moved on to a family with a bigger yard. Hello Erin!
Erin: Hi! Thanks for having me on your site. It's an honor to be included among so many trans people I've looked up to.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Erin: Sure! I grew up in Texas as a goofy, sensitive child. I got to try computer programming at a school day camp in grade six and was instantly hooked. It felt like magic to type words on the screen and see things happen as a result!
I also love spoken languages after taking French in high school and German at university. I took a one-semester break from engineering and studied in Berlin, which gave me enough credits to sneak a German degree into my graduation plan.
At the age of 29, I moved to Oregon for a change of scene. Shortly after, I met my wife Lynn, raised our family together, and stayed there for 17 years. Now, we live in Ontario and are starting another epic adventure.
I'm also an avid board gamer, cook, and competitive race walker.
Monika: I have done over 500 interviews and nobody could boast of having goats. :) How do you find these creatures?
Erin: They were originally my niece's! She kept them on a large plot of land in the countryside. But in 2018, she had to be on the road for a long period of time—so the goats came to live with us for a year and a half. They completely took care of the overgrown weeds and blackberries in the backyard, and they were super-fun to play chase with. 
Eventually, we ran out of lawn for them to eat, and ran out of grass on the vacant lot in our neighborhood as well. We found a new home for them with a sweet lady who has way more grazing land than we did.

"I grew up in Texas as a goofy, sensitive child. I got to
try computer programming at a school day camp in grade
six, and was instantly hooked."

Monika: Let's move smoothly from goats to your professional career. On the Internet, we can read that your favorite engineering problems to solve are big, thorny, legacy system snarls. What is a system snarl and why is it difficult to solve it?
Erin: As much as engineers like to think of each computer program as a singular work of art, it's always a part of a larger system. The system includes the hardware the program is running on, the way people are using it, the other programs it interacts with, and so on.
The most interesting kinds of failures are where there's not an obvious flaw in any one part of the system, but in the way all the parts interact. It's hard to predict these kinds of errors, hard to retrace the steps that led to the failure, and hard to find the best solution out of all the options. Every decision is a tradeoff between alternatives that don't have a single clear winner.
That's what makes it such a fun challenge!
Monika: In your profession, women are so underrepresented. Do you find it difficult to compete with men?
Erin: From my chats with other women in tech, it's not competition that holds us back. It's frustration and burnout after being denied recognition for our work and opportunities for advancement. For example, one of the most talented engineers I know was told by a man that she had only been promoted "because you're pretty." Another had a manager just give up on her, even as she was looking for the skills and practices to level up her career.
Monika: I watched a video that featured your attendance at the Stitch Fix Girl Geek dinner, an event for inspiring women from the high-tech industry. Are you active in the promotion of female representation in the industry? 
Erin: There are things that are within my power as an individual contributor to help other women see the recognition they deserve. A friend and I came up with an idea to keep a running "Dossier of Awesome" with a daily list of accomplishments for each teammate. At performance review time, I'd craft this raw material into a cohesive narrative about each person's key contributions and send it to our manager. The goal was to make it easy for the manager to write a promotion pitch, particularly for the underrepresented people on the team.

"There are things that are within my power as an
individual contributor to help other women see the
recognition they deserve."

Monika: On the other hand, it is amazing to see so many talented transgender women working for the IT business, just to mention: Lynn Conway, Kate Craig-Wood, Rebecca Heineman, Megan Wallent, or yourself...
Erin: You flatter me by mentioning me in the same sentence as those luminaries! I have definitely had the privilege of working alongside some amazing trans folks in tech. There were enough trans people at my old job to have a little club of sorts, which was super-valuable. Not only were these engineers among the best in their field, but they had also navigated many of the same social and healthcare challenges I was now coming to grips with. Their support and advice meant everything.
Monika: We all pay the highest price for the fulfillment of our dreams to be ourselves. As a result, we lose our families, friends, jobs, and social positions. Did you pay such a high price as well? What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Erin: I have had a few friends and family members drift out of my life, but the people who were closest to me are still here. The biggest loss was social status. It's one thing to understand academically that women are treated like second-class citizens. It's quite another thing to experience it every day, for that atmosphere to be inescapable. It informs every interaction with other people, every safety calculation.
Monika: Was your wife surprised by your transition? Did she accept it?
Erin: She was surprised at first, but soon she started saying things like, "When you find the one you love, *your* person, why let something like gender get in the way?"
I came out to her very early in the process of questioning my gender. I said something like, "I've been thinking a lot about gender lately, and I think I might not be all boy." Through those late-night conversations, we ended up getting to know each other all over again in a way that deepened our relationship.
We have absolutely had bumps in the road, and times where we weren't sure if we were going to make it. But in the end, we both feel like my transition saved our marriage. It forced us to communicate more deeply and more often, for us to confront any issues between us rather than letting them fester.

"I have definitely had the privilege of working
alongside some amazing trans folks in tech."

Monika: We are said to be prisoners of passing or non-passing syndrome. Although cosmetic surgeries help to overcome it, we will always be judged accordingly. How can we cope with this?
Erin: I want to show people that we don't have to look like a cisgender person to be beautiful. I want to normalize trans bodies. I want to show that there's more than just one picture of what womanhood looks like.
I have the privilege of living in a place where it's somewhat safe to be visible. So I choose to be visible. Hopefully, there will be enough of us one day to where being trans is seen by everyone as just an everyday aspect of life for some people.
That said, medical treatments that change our appearance can be absolutely life-saving because they can help us see our true selves in the mirror. A friend of mine said that her facial surgery banished dysphoria almost entirely from her life—a huge emotional health improvement. The LGBTQ communities at all my recent workplaces have been instrumental in helping get procedures like this covered by insurance.
Monika: Are there any transgender role models that you follow or followed?
Erin: I've benefited a lot from the voices of transgender writers. Hope Giselle and Janet Mock have shared their experiences as Black trans women and in doing so have highlighted just how different, how difficult, how risky coming out can be for a trans woman of color. Their work reminds us to center the needs of those who are most vulnerable.
Outside the area of personal memoir, the academic writing of Julia Serano really helped place anti-trans hostility in the context of patriarchy, misogyny, and transphobia. She also writes sharp retorts to popular falsehoods about trans folks.
In addition to literary role models, I've learned a great deal from those who transitioned at the same time as me or shortly before me. In trans communities online, women like Samantha (@suddenlysamantha on Instagram) and Paula (@nolanpaulaj) showed what was possible. Their stories gave me the courage to begin my own transition. The three of us have since become close friends, messaging basically every day and talking to one another through our lives' joys and challenges. They're the sisters I never had growing up.

"There is no liberation for trans women until we have
liberation for the most vulnerable among us."

Monika: Do you remember the first time when you saw a transgender woman on TV or met anyone transgender in person?
Erin: In my early teens, I saw a TV interview with actress Carolyn Cossey (whom I see you have interviewed here, how cool is that?). She talked about the science of hormones and the trans experience, and her story was a revelation. I was fascinated by the fact that people could transition and felt a pang of envy at those who did. It would be a few more years yet before I recognized my own feelings toward my body as dysphoria.
A friend I hung out with in high school was the first person I knew in real life who transitioned. She did so while we lived in different cities, so it was a while before we got to meet up after her transition. And when we did—her joy, her warmth, her sheer relief were radiating from her.


All the photos: courtesy of Erin Dees.
© 2021 - Monika Kowalska

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