Ditch Your Comfort Zone

I gave this talk at Hack@Brown, Brown University’s annual hackathon, on February 6, 2016.

If you prefer reading to watching, here are my annotated slides:


Ditch Your Comfort Zone title slide
I remember a conversation over dinner about 3 years ago, when my daughter Emma asked me how I decided where to apply to college. She was a junior in high school at the time. Like most high school juniors, college applications were top of mind for her.

Before I tell you how I answered, you need to understand something about me:


Picture of Karen as a young girl
That’s me in the middle.

I grew up in what was a small town back then, Westerly, Rhode Island, in same small town where my father was raised, where his father was raised.

I don’t exactly come from adventurous stock.


Map of Rhode Island
So I wanted to stay close to home for college, and I applied to the best school within a 50 mile radius of my home.

Lucky for me, Brown was only 47 miles away.

To this day, I’m grateful I was accepted to come here.

With that acceptance letter in hand, I started thinking about my major.


Money Magazine cover 1981
The year was 1981, and my dad showed me an article in Money Magazine about a young woman who had majored in Computer Science and was earning more money than I could imagine. This was important to me. We didn’t have much disposable income, and I wanted to make sure I could support myself after I graduated.

My dad told me, “Karen, you’re a maker. You’re always knitting, sewing and crafting, & you’re good at math, Maybe you’ll like making software.”

So, I decided to study Computer Science. But get this: I had never touched a computer.

It was 1981; we didn’t have computers at home, not many high schools had computers then (mine certainly didn’t). So, it’s not surprising that I didn’t have any computer experience. But to decide to major in it without even writing my first Hello World application? What was I thinking?


Picture of Karen with some classmates and Professor Andy van Dam
That Fall, I arrived at Brown and took the intro to CS class. For those of you who are from Brown, yes, Andy van Dam was teaching it back then, too.

Even though I’m smiling in this picture with my good friends Liz and Janine, this class was hard for me. There were a lot of tears. I didn’t have any experience to draw on, coding didn’t come naturally to me. I doubted whether I belonged in that class. I was so outside of my comfort zone.

But I stuck with it because my dad said I would be good at it.

And I’m proud to say I got a B in that class.

Now, the reason I got a B and not anything worse was because of the Undergraduate Teaching Assistants. The Brown CS department has always had a strong culture of UTAs. Not only did they help me learn the material, they helped me find the confidence I needed to stick with the class.

Those UTAs were amazing, and I wanted to help others just like they helped me.

So, I applied to be a TA for that intro CS class the next year.


Report card with a B
During my interview, I remember Andy asking, “Why should you be a TA? You got a lousy B in my class.”

Right. That lousy B.

I’m sure my heart started pounding and my face turned bright red. And somehow I managed to say just the right words. I said something like “Since I struggled so much in your class to get that B, I’ll know how to help students who are struggling this coming semester. You need someone like me.”


Picture of Karen and the other TA's in 1982
And I got that TA job. Here I am in the lower right, with the other TAs in 1982.

And guess what…. I became a head TA for the class the following year.


Karen at her graduation
Fast forward a few years, and I graduated with my bachelor of science degree in Computer Science.

Chalkboard drawing of a circle labeled "comfort zone" and a larger circle with "where the magic happens"
There’s a lot to be said for stepping outside of our comfort zone, like I did even deciding to study computer science. They say it’s where the magic happens. That certainly was my experience here at Brown.

This is an important theme for this weekend.

Hack@Brown is all about trying new things. Your goal is not to just build a cool new app, but to learn something new.

Maybe that means writing your first lines of code. Or learning a new framework or programming language, or a new operating system.

Get this – each time you step outside of your comfort zone, chances are you will be more likely to do it again.

This has been true throughout my career, and I have four lessons I learned along the way that I’ll share today.


Picture of Intermedia, an early hypertext system
After graduation, I stayed at Brown, and I worked on hypertext research. It was cutting edge work…before HTML & today’s web browsers existed.

We like to think those technologies were based on our research.

It was a fun time, and I met my husband Tim.


Picture of Karen and her husband in England
When I was 27, we left Rhode Island behind and moved to England. My husband had been raised there, and was curious about living there as adult. This was way outside my comfort zone! I had lived in the smallest state in the union up to that point, and I didn’t spend my junior year abroad.

But I was excited to try something new.

We sold most of our stuff, said goodbye to our friends and family, moved to the UK, and both got jobs in tech. Everything was going according to plan!

But then we developed a serious case of “Fear of missing out.” A fear of missing out of the tech advances happening back in the US. Remember, we had been doing cutting edge research back at Brown, and in our current jobs, not so much.

So, after just a year, we moved back to US.


Chalkboard with Lesson Learned #1
Lesson #1: When you step outside of your comfort zone and it doesn’t work out, it’s okay to ditch your plan.

Golden Gate Bridge
But we didn’t move back to Rhode Island. We went to California, the promised land for many software technologists at the time.

With all due respects to Governor Raimaondo, Rhode Island just didn’t have the opportunities it has today.


GO Corporation early tablet computer
In California, I joined a startup called GO Corporation, which was working on an early tablet computer, 10 years before Apple launched the iPad.

Yes, that’s an actual handset on the top of the tablet that you used to make and receive calls.

I have a confession to make that I haven’t shared before. I was so intimidated by the myth of Silicon Valley software engineers that I didn’t apply for a job on the core engineering team. Instead, I took a role writing sample code for their developer documentation. It felt safe; just like being a TA again.

That was a mistake, and I wish I had pushed myself to apply for a role writing code for the actual OS.

Since then, I’ve let my coding skills atrophy, which I regret.


Chalkboard with Lesson Learned #2
Lesson #2: Don’t be intimidated by the skills you think others have. Chances are you’re just as talented as them or can learn what you need. Step out of your comfort zone and join them.

Adobe application icons
After working at GO for a few years, I joined another startup, Macromedia, which was eventually acquired by Adobe Systems. I worked here for 17 years.

I took on roles I had never done before, leading teams doing international engineering, usability testers, product security engineering, and typeface design

Thank goodness for my husband and so many people I worked with who believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself.

They helped me ignore the voice inside my head that was telling me I didn’t know how to do that new job responsibility.

They helped me be successful, moving from an individual contributor to the vice president level working across all of these products.

I couldn’t have done it without them.


Chalkboard with Lesson Learned #3
Lesson #3: Surround yourself with people who believe in you. Stepping outside your comfort zone is going to be so much easier with their support.

Karen on a panel at the Grace Hopper Celebration
While I was at Adobe, I went to my first Grace Hopper Celebration, and I started becoming aware of the lack of diversity in tech.

This is a big problem. The bottom line is that diverse teams create more innovative solutions; we need more for women and people of all cultures, backgrounds and life experiences to help create the best solutions for people around the world.

As a woman, I’m especially interested in improving gender diversity

And I have some numbers to show you.


Bar chart showing CS degrees by gender in the US
This chart shows the number of computer science degrees awarded in US in 1985, the year I graduated, and in 2013, the latest year that the data is available for.

As you can see, gender diversity is getting worse in tech. Yup, worse.

So I decided to take action, and I stepped outside of my comfort zone once again. I left Adobe about 4 years ago….


Karen speaking to a group of women
And I’m now an advocate for women in tech.

I coach women on leadership skills, & I coach men to be better allies for the women.

I do some of public speaking.


Karen posing by a TEDx sign
In 2014, I gave a TEDx talk about how women are missing from tech, why this is a problem, what we can all do about it.

But public speaking was not always in my comfort zone, and I was pretty nervous leading up to this talk.

Fortunately I heard about power posing.


Woman in super hero cape
How many of you have heard of power posing? You can watch a fabulous TED talk by Amy Cuddy where she explains it. In a nutshell, she and her fellow researchers found that if you strike a power pose for just 2 minutes, two things happen: your body produces more testosterone (both in men and women) which makes us feel more powerful and confident. Our body also lowers the amount of cortisol in our system, which is an anxiety hormone. So, striking a power pose for just 2 minutes is the perfect thing to do before giving a talk.

I power posed in my hotel room the morning of my TEDx talk, and again backstage just beforehand. And guess what? I wasn’t nervous at all. In fact, I had a great time giving my talk.

Now, I power pose before every talk I give. I even did it this morning before this talk.


Chalkboard with Lesson Learned #4
Lesson #4: If you’re feeling nervous or anxious about stepping outside your comfort zone here at Hack@Brown as you form your team, learn something new, or present to the judges tomorrow, strike a power pose for 2 minutes. Trust me, you will feel more confident.

Book cover of Present
And now for the latest milestone on my journey: I co-authored a book on public speaking with another technical woman, Poornima Vijayashanker.

We want to see more diverse role models throughout the tech industry. We want more women and underrepresented minorities to be visible, to be presenting at hackathons, at conferences, and at all hands meetings inside of tech companies.

We hope our book will help inspire all kinds of people to speak.

And we’re pleased to announce that we’re making our ebook available for free to everyone here at Hack@Brown. Sharon and Atty will send the link to you.


Hack @ Brown logo
In closing, I hope all of you have a great time ditching your comfort zone this weekend. Have a great time at Hack@Brown, which is not only the best hackathon within a 50 mile radius of my hometown, it’s the best hackathon anywhere on the planet!

Photo credits
Photo credits