Interview With Julie Ann Horvath

"It’s easy to feel like the tech culture is just normal and how the industry is or should be. And that’s the moment of maturity - going from 'oh, this is how it is' to feeling like no, this is wrong and this isn’t how it should be."

by Julie Ann Horvath on September 15th, 2015

Our editor sat down to talk with Julie Ann Horvath, a designer and programmer at Clef. Julie is well-known for her work starting Passion Projects, a platform which features talks from women doing amazing things across the tech industry. Last year, she went public with her experiences working at GitHub, in the process changing the industry conversation on tech culture. In this interview, we talk about accountability for tech leaders, speaking out and making a difference.


Photo of Julie Ann Horvath with her dog, Pup.

MVC: Well let’s just get started. Something you’ve talked about a bit is the tech community developing accountability, and how that feels like a major change that’s happening right now in the industry.

Julie: That’s the big part about social media activism that excites me. It allows people to have a voice instead of people who are just in the boys’ club, or are “tech illuminati” or something like that. There are aspects of speaking out that are born out of privilege — I had already found a new job at the point I spoke out about GitHub, so I was able to voice my story. But I do like the idea of the community forcing our leaders to be accountable for their actions – for me, that’s the most exciting thing going on in tech.

You look at the last month or so, how many terrible people have been removed from positions of power in the industry for abusing those positions? Like, I’m sure most of those people are still very happy on their beds of money, they still have comical wealth, but they are facing some sort of accountability for their actions.

Speaking out is so important. At GitHub, they tried to get me to sign a non-disparagement, but for me the only thing I’ve ever had is my truth and my story. I live really well now because of my job, and I’m good at my job, but as far as giving up my truth, the price on that is huge for me.

They were trying to get me to sign a non-disparagement agreement and they were like, give us terms under which you would sign this. I said I wanted 15 million dollars and Tom Preston-Werner’s resignation. We had a good laugh, and obviously the lawyer could not negotiate those terms on my behalf (shocking). But I was just happy to have the founders hear that that was how much my experience was worth to me, and being able to share that experience.

MVC: The non-disparagement agreement issue is such a big deal. I don’t think people realize how many times a non-disparagement agreement is brought in right away when there is wrongdoing that’s happened and discrimination and inequality is involved.

Julie: I think a lot of marginalized people who have had really bad experiences in tech, need that non-disparagement money to survive. They end up feeling forced because of their circumstances or the circumstances of their family to sign when leaving a company, and say OK, I’m giving up my truth and my ability to tell my story.

I think a lot of those stories would have helped other people who are now coming into tech, because you have to be able to know what you’re getting into. Because otherwise you wake up one day and you’re like “Holy shit, I’ve been complicit in all these behaviors and actions,” because you didn’t realize how many people they were hurting or you just didn’t realize that it’s not normal. It’s easy to feel like the tech culture is just normal and how the industry is or should be. And that’s the moment of maturity – going from “oh, this is how it is” to feeling like no, this is wrong and this isn’t how it should be.

MVC: When you’re starting out, all you want is to do well in your career. You think, I have to be able to be “one of the boys” and be able to hang with these people in order to prove I’m good enough.

Julie: You have to reach the point of realizing that that’s not good enough, and that they will still hurt you. That one day, you’ll find out that no matter how much a part of the boys’ club you’ve become, you are not one of them. For me I reached that point at GitHub. It’s also really powerful to realize you don’t *want* to be one of them, you don’t want to live like a hamster in a really fancy hamster cage. No offense to hamsters, they’re great but I just feel like, I went to high school. We went to high school, we did that.

MVC: And it was shitty then, and it’s shitty now.

Julie: It is shitty. And they throw all these fancy perks at you to make you think that you’re winning. You think that you’re winning, you think you’re part of this club, but it’s funny because the moment you raise your hand and say I think this thing is wrong, you’re immediately ex-communicated from that group, you’re the other, you other yourself. You’re almost being paid to just be quiet and let the people who are in the really influential roles drive the company culture and drive the community and the industry, even though they shouldn’t be. That’s my biggest problem with all of these really young people who don’t have experience leading companies and that whole thing, is that I don’t think the people who are in leadership positions should be.

MVC: When we talk about management in the Valley, often managers are white men who have no qualifications.

Julie: Absolutely not, they’re good at whatever it is they do, a very small spectrum of technical skills or part of the thing or product that they own. But that doesn’t make someone a good manager. Oftentimes you get people who are very volatile, don’t have a lot of empathy for other people, or know how to talk to other people, or understand what they’re going through, their reality.

When I was going through my situation, I felt so cornered. I would have done anything for people to just be happy with me, because for me losing my job affects my family back home and I help them out a lot. That’s one thing that’s great about tech, having a high-paid salary allows me to do that, but at the same time that makes the idea of losing my job so much more threatening and scary.

MVC: And when you do speak out, you just get accused of being manipulative, or trying to profit off the situation.

Julie: I’ve had a lot of issues with the conversations that happen around people who date at work. The idea that if a man aligns himself with a woman in any way, and not even in a relationship, but if he supports a woman’s voice, she must be tricking him or manipulating him with sex. Like, there is no other way for us to be. That’s how people suggest that we come to power, or become more visible, is that we’re manipulating people or tricking them with sex. When really we’re not asking for the men in tech to project their nerd girl fantasies on us, they’re doing that all on their own. We’re just being ourselves and doing our jobs.

MVC: When your goal is to succeed in the industry for so long and you finally do good, but you’re being treated like shit, it’s still so hard to walk away because it’s like, this is what I’ve been working for.

Julie: Yeah, feeling that I deserve to be here. I started going and giving talks, I was posting a lot internally, but it’s funny because when I do that as a woman it’s construed as self promotion, it’s being cocky or having an ego. But when men around me are doing that, it’s normal or what they are supposed to do. It’s fucking ridiculous to me that I didn’t even do those things as much as men at my company, who were rewarded for it.

I thought that’s how I become a good GitHubber — that’s the idea of success. Especially if you don’t have a management team who is defining what success means in your specific roles, you’re going to build your own idea of success based on what you see around you. And if you’re a woman or a minority or you’re not in that inner circle, you’re going to be torn down for it. Punished, even.

MVC: We don’t have models of what success for us looks like because all of the bros around us who are succeeding are doing x, y, z, but if we do x, y, z, we’re fucked.

Julie: This is funny because this happened on pull requests all the time and it happens in open source too. You get responses to your work disguised as feedback that are just brutal attacks. When I matched that tone or gave it back to them, *I* was being too aggressive, or *I* was out of line. Literal quote, “out of line,” for giving them back what they’re serving or voicing any concerns, personal or otherwise.

MVC: Another thing that gets lost in this conversation about media activism is people think we’re telling these horrible salacious stories, overdramatizing them, and really they’re hearing 1% of what happens.

Julie: You almost can’t say the rest, because if you say anything more, then you’re doing it for attention or it becomes this thing, a broken record. I was talking to my friend who works at a tech company, he even knows that if you raise awareness about one issue, and you want to keep your job, you can do that like once in a year. Otherwise it becomes less credible, and that’s fucked up because we’re only allowed to share a little bit of what we’ve been through. And financially, if we do say it all, companies have hundreds of millions of dollars and whole teams of lawyers, unlimited resources to completely discredit you and ruin your career and ultimately, your life.

If they took any of us to court, that’s not only potentially a lot of money if we’re being sued for something like libel, but it’s also a lot of our time. And everything about your life would then become public record. I don’t think people understand how much we’re risking by telling our stories, and then because of that, how few women actually do.

It’s funny, women will actually shame other women for coming out with their stories because they feel like they can’t do the same or that it’s starting “drama”. The worst and arguably the most shocking behavior I encountered after coming out with my experience was from women I worked with, women I called my friends, who I both supported and advocated for internally at GitHub. Women are always the first to discredit other women, likely because they’ve personally experienced something worse and didn’t or couldn’t speak up for themselves. But to tell you the truth I don’t know what’s worse, the attempts to discredit me or the complete silence from women who had voiced similar concerns about the culture at GitHub long before I chose to leave it. When thinking seriously about whether or not to disclose conversations like these publicly, I ended up choosing not. I guess at the end of the day, I still believe in protecting other women from the abuse I’ve endured. I don’t want to punish anyone. I’m not sure the feeling is mutual, but hey, I learned something. This was by far the most eye-opening part of my experience.

MVC: Another thing I wanted to talk about is HR. Now more and more people are talking about HR, debating the roles of HR at startups. In your mind, what do you think companies should be doing about HR?

Julie: HR should be a really early hire. It should be someone with experience in HR, it should be someone who can be trusted, you should be able to tell them things in confidence and know they are being worked on. It’s funny because as minorities, we’re always told we’re the liability or the risk, but to be honest, a cofounder that is emotionally torturing one of your employees, a situation that could potentially turn into a very public and humiliating thing for your company… THAT’S the risk. That cofounder is the risk. That person needs to be removed or at the very least held accountable. Who is going to do that if there’s not someone in an HR position that has a significant amount of influence in that role, that is a representative for those risks?

MVC: Here’s the thing, if you needed an engineer to build a feature that the company really needed, you would never hear them be like “oh, we searched for a year and couldn’t find one.” It wouldn’t happen. But these companies say that all the time to explain why they don’t have HR.

Julie: Another example of negligence. A lot of these startups are just purely negligent and they’re not being held accountable for that whatsoever. HR is a good example, another example is tax law. They think they’re pushing laws to be innovative but in actuality they’re just negligent and they’re hurting lot of people around them. The game is rigged. If you don’t have access to unlimited resources, you have to play by the rules. As soon as you have access to those resources, you can just do whatever you want and call it innovation or “disruption.”

MVC: Sadly even though there is more public awareness, many of the people who are building abusive work environments will be OK while whistle blowers face serious consequences like not being able to work in the industry anymore.

Julie: They get handed the opportunity to lead another organization and make the same mistakes again because they’re not being held accountable for them. But yet, as people who speak up about it, *we’re* the bad guys. Like what. That makes absolutely no sense.

MVC: You started an awesome program for women in tech, Passion Projects. Do you want to talk a little about that and what would be your advice for people who are looking to start projects in that space?

Julie: My advice would be, find people who have a mutual interest in starting these things, and build your team out of that. One thing I felt really lucky to have was immediate support. Just putting something out there, people who care about what you’re doing gravitate towards you. Working on something with those people is so much bet- ter than trying to do it properly through organizational channels. Just say you’re going to fucking do it.

I got on stage at the GitHub employee’s summit. You had 5 minutes to give a lightning talk on something you care about. I had been working on Passion Projects kinda secretly until I was ready to ask for what I needed to make it happened. As my life was a living hell at GitHub, that was brutal, but I was like “I’m going to do this thing because I have to do this thing.”

It just so happened the only founder in the room at the time I was presenting was Tom. I was like well, if he’s going to say no to me he’s going to have to explain to 200 people in the room why he said no to this thing, which is going to largely benefit someone who was not him. And you know, he just gave the thumbs up.

My best advice is just put your foot down and just fucking do things until someone tells you you can’t, because I guarantee it if you’re doing it for a cause you believe in, and something that’s really important – like raising awareness and serving the work of awesome women and minorities in tech – no one’s gonna get in your way, because the moment they do, they become the enemy. And how different would it be for them to be on the other side of this? For them to have to be that person and walk in our shoes.

MVC: The thing is they wouldn’t be able to go through what we go through. They would lose their shit. Try running a company, doing your work everyday, with non-stop harassment every day. Good luck.

Julie: They couldn’t do it. They could not do it.


This interview was originally published in Model View Culture 2014 Quarterly #3.