Sometimes it's not just devices that are broken
In this episode, we talk about Microsoft Mesh, France’s ‘repairability index,’ and Framework’s 13.5 inch modular laptop and are then joined by Kerry Sheehan, US Policy Lead at iFixit, and Kevin Purdy, technology journalist at iFixit, the gadget teardown and repair guide site, whose CEO was consulted by the French government about the repairability index. Then we talk about a damning report from The Verge about rampant sexism and racism at Mailchimp, and are then joined by Jaime-Alexis Fowler, founder and executive director of Empower Work, a non-profit that connects you to professionals to help you handle workplace challenges.
Saron Yitbarek is the founder of Disco, host of the CodeNewbie podcast, and co-host of the base.cs podcast.
Josh Puetz is Principal Software Engineer at Forem.
Kerry Maeve Sheehan is the U.S. Policy Lead at iFixit, where she advocates for Right to Repair at the state and federal levels. She’s a graduate of Boston University School of Law and comes to iFixit from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public Knowledge, where she worked extensively on issues in intellectual property law and technology policy. She’s written on legal issues in technology for EFF’s Deeplinks blog, Slate, and The Hill.
Kevin Purdy is a writer for iFixit. He previously wrote for Wirecutter, a New York Times publication, Lifehacker, and other sites.
Jaime-Alexis Fowler is the founder and executive director of Empower Work, a national nonprofit on a mission to build healthy, equitable workplaces. Empower Work provides the first free, confidential crisis text line for work issues. Her work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, NPR, TechCrunch, Slate, Fast Company, and Forbes.
[00:00:10] SY: Welcome to DevNews, the news show for developers by developers, where we cover the latest in the world of tech. I’m Saron Yitbarek, Founder of Disco.
[00:00:20] JP: And I’m Josh Puetz, Principal Engineer at Forem.
[00:00:22] SY: This week, we’re talking about Microsoft Mesh, France’s repairability index, and Framework’s 13.5-inch modular laptop, and then are joined by Kerry Sheehan, US Policy Lead, and Kevin Purdy, Technology Journalist at iFixit, the gadget teardown and repair guide site whose CEO actually was consulted by the French government about the repairability index.
[00:00:45] KP: Sorry to sound just kind of broadly roses about it, but we’re just very happy to see any kind of repairability scoring happening, whether it’s our own or France’s.
[00:00:55] JP: Then we talk about a damning report from The Verge about rampant sexism and racism at Mailchimp. And then we’re joined by Jaime-Alexis Fowler, Founder and Executive Director of Empower Work, a nonprofit that connects you to professionals to help you handle workplace challenges.
[00:01:09] JF: People often come to us because they’re at a breaking point where they’re really making a decision around, “Do I stay? Do I try to work through this? Do I leave my job altogether? Do I leave my industry?”
[00:01:21] SY: So Microsoft just announced Microsoft Mesh. It’s the next step in their mission to bring mixed reality to the masses with HoloLens. So they’ve spent years researching and developing technologies and hand tracking, eye tracking using Azure, their cloud computing platform, and creating these persistent holograms is the way that they’re describing it. So with Microsoft Mesh, you can basically create a mixed reality session with users from anywhere in the world. And then they appear in your physical space as a hologram. Very futuristic, the things that we were promised many decades ago. So right now these holograms are really, really simple. They’re basically just avatars, but the goal is to make them really photo realistic. So it feels like you’re actually in the same space. So for developers, this is really exciting, it means that we’re going to get a bunch of AI power tools so we can build our own mixed reality experiences. That includes tools to build avatars, manage sessions, deal with spatial rendering and a bunch more stuff. But what’s also really exciting is that it’s going to come with open standards. So it’s not just building for the HoloLens, but it gives us the freedom to work on other solutions for smartphones, for PCs, for tablets, even for competing VR headsets, which I think is just really just awesome. So I’m just excited to see we build with all this.
[00:02:44] JP: They said they’re going to be offering this on both VR and non-VR devices. So they talked about how people from old flat screens could join in some of these meetings.
[00:02:54] SY: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:02:55] JP: So that part is really key to me because not everybody has a VR headset or the HoloLens is still a very, very expensive business tool.
[00:03:03] SY: Absolutely. And what’s also really interesting about making it available for VR is there’s always been this debate of, “What is the future? Is it AR? Is it VR?” Apple has very famously said, “The future is augmented reality. That is the future. And we’re going to invest and think about augmented reality as our primary type of reality to work with.” And HoloLens kind of feels like they’re taking that stand, but also like bringing in the VR people with them, if that makes sense and being like, “We know you have VR headset, but we’re still going to include you and you can still hang out with us.” And it feels just like a very inclusive way to build because they could have easily said, “Well, you have to pick. Do your VR thing or do our AR thing.” But they seem to just be really open, which has been the MO for Microsoft in recent years, right? It’s them just being very open and open source and open standards and this feels right in line with that.
[00:03:58] JP: I’m really excited to see the stuff for work purposes. There’s a lot of VR and AR stuff for gaming and entertainment purposes right now. And I’m really curious to see how this will integrate into professional work.
[00:04:10] SY: So Rob, my husband and I have this ongoing debate where he’s like, “You don’t understand. Sometime in the future we’re never going to need to leave our houses and we’re going to enjoy concerts and family time and all this stuff through our headsets and we’re not even going to miss it.” And I’m just like, “That is ridiculous.” Like, “No. No. It might compliment it, it might hold us over, it might make it a little bit easier, long distance relationships, that sort of thing. But ultimately, nothing can replace the physical contact, human experience.”
[00:04:42] JP: I think this past year has taught us that. I think I agree. I think if nothing this past year has taught me that I personally definitely miss the in-person experience as well. If you would have asked me two years ago, three years ago, I might’ve answered, “Yeah. I think we’re headed towards a future where nobody ever leaves their house.” But that’s my present right now, that nobody leaves the house.
[00:05:03] SY: Yeah. So you don’t see holograms getting so good, so convincing. You have so much control over your physical environment through augmented reality that you would be like, “I’m okay,” just staying home for the next couple of months. You don’t see us getting there.
[00:05:22] JP: I mean I think I see both happening. I think with holograms and AR and VR, we’ll get there, but I think humans are social creatures and we’ll still want to leave our houses and see people in person.
[00:05:32] SY: Yeah. That’s my take on it too.
[00:05:34] JP: So this next bit of news is poised to have a huge impact in the consumer electronics market. The French government is now requiring manufacturers to give a repairability index score to their products. Manufacturers of devices like smartphones and laptops must rate their products on a scale of 1 through 10 with higher scores indicating that a product is more repairable and serviceable by the general public. Although these requirements currently in effect, manufacturers have a year buffer period before they'll be fined for not including repairability index scores in their products. Manufacturers are also self-reporting their scores, which has led to a little bit of criticism of the law. How do you feel about repairability of the consumer electronics that you buy?
[00:06:13] SY: I don’t really care.
[00:06:15] JP: That’s fair. That is fair.
[00:06:16] SY: Yeah. To be totally honest, I just want the thing to work, even if it is repairable by me, chances are I will not repair it. I’m not a tinker. I’m not the person who takes apart a toaster and puts it back together again. It’s not my MO. I’m very comfortable just getting a new thing. So I don’t know. Maybe I’m just too much of an Apple user and I’ve just kind of been in that Headspace for too long of just like, “Oh, just trade in and get something,” new versus repairing it. I totally get the merit of it. I totally see why it’s important to other people. I think overall, it’s a good, best practice. I think in general, we should get in the habit of repairing things versus just buying a new one and spending more money. But to me, just as a personal consumer, it’s not something that I value very, very much.
[00:07:02] JP: That’s fair. I think a lot of people would probably align with that. I think about people that really get into cars and there are some people that really get into repairing them and restoring them and learning the ins and outs and other people just want to get from A to B. They don’t care so much about the car itself.
[00:07:18] SY: Having a high or low repairability score, would that affect your actual purchase decision?
[00:07:26] JP: You know, it might. So I’m also an Apple user, and I think we bring that up because Apple is notoriously bad when it comes to repairability and serviceability.
[00:07:34] SY: Oh, yeah. And getting worse.
[00:07:36] JP: And getting worse.
[00:07:37] SY: They’ve gotten worse over the years. Yeah.
[00:07:38] JP: Yeah. Things are just glue together. You can’t get into them at all. I worry about the waste aspect a lot of times with those devices. With a lot of modern devices, there’s no serviceable parts. So you take them to a store. If you have a problem with them, the manufacturer just throws it away and gives you a new one, which seems incredibly wasteful. I have definitely done repairs and try to service my own devices in the past. I do take a look at what the repairability story is. So some of the things we didn’t mention, the French government recommends that manufacturers do things like have clear repair guides, have easily available repair parts that consumers can order to do their own repairs. I sometimes look at those things. I look at those more if it’s a piece of equipment I think I’m going to have for a long period of time. For example, maybe an appliance, like a washer or a dryer or an oven.
[00:08:33] SY: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:08:34] JP: It’s something I expect to have for 5 to 10 years. I’ll take a look and see like, “Are there manuals for this? Are there repair parts for this?” That might steer me one way or another.
[00:08:43] SY: Okay. That makes a lot of sense. And I think that when it comes to, my phone specifically is the main thing I’m thinking about, I expect to change it every couple of years. That’s not something that I frankly want to keep for that long because I want the newest phone and I want it to be pretty and fast and all of these things. So when I think about the consumer tech that I’m most likely to buy laptop, phone, I don’t think I see it as a long-term purchase. You know what I mean? It’s not something that I’m like, “Okay, I’m going to be investing in this next 10 years. Let’s make sure I can figure it out.” That’s not where my head is.
[00:09:18] JP: That’s fair. I mean, I have kept some of my older devices mostly to pass on to my child and that’s where repairability really becomes a big deal.
[00:09:27] SY: That’s a good point.
[00:09:29] JP: Because I’m sure with your awesome new laptop and your new phone, you are careful with those devices and children are not. And sometimes there’s a smashed screen or the battery doesn’t work.
[00:09:41] SY: Very valid point. Yeah.
[00:09:42] JP: Yeah. And that’s where I butt up against, the lack of parts and technical manuals and that’s where it really, really hurts.
[00:09:51] SY: So speaking of repairability, here’s some news that hardware people are going to totally freak out about. So the startup Framework is coming out really modular 13.5-inch laptop, and it’s supposed to be very easy to disassemble, modify, and repair. Framework also says they’re going to launch a marketplace where third parties can sell compatible components for customizing the laptop. And unlike products in the past that have tried to do something similar, this device isn’t super bulky and its specs are pretty similar to Dell’s XPS 13. The company plans to ship the Framework laptop this summer. And coming up next, to continue this conversation about both France’s repairability index and Framework’s modular laptop, we are joined by Kerry Sheehan and Kevin Purdy at iFixit.
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[00:11:46] SY: Joining us is Kerry Sheehan, US Policy Lead, and Kevin Purdy, Technology Journalist at iFixit. Thank you so much for being here.
[00:11:53] KS: Thank you.
[00:11:54] KP: Yeah. Thank you.
[00:11:54] SY: So tell us a bit about your backgrounds.
[00:11:56] KS: My background is in technology law and policy. I’m an attorney and I work primarily on right to repair policy in iFixit.
[00:12:03] KP: I’m a writer. I’ve been pretty much a writer since I graduated college. And for iFixit, I write about everything that’s happening in the repair world, everything that we do, that other companies do and things like that.
[00:12:16] JP: For people in our audience that might not know what it is, can you talk about what iFixit is?
[00:12:20] KS: So iFixit is the international free open-source repair manual for everything. And we work with a global community of fixers and tinkerers and repair technicians to make sure that people have the information that they need to fix their devices and keep them running longer. We’ve also built our business around providing access to the kind of information parts and tools that people are really scrambling to get, as manufacturers have stopped providing these to consumers and to repair techs.
[00:12:45] SY: I love that because it’s not just like, “We’ll fix your stuff for you,” it’s this whole movement and almost like a philosophy and a perspective and an opinion on how things should work, which I think is just really fascinating. And that goes into my next question, Kerry, this one’s for you. As a policy person at iFixit, what are your thoughts about France’s I want to say kind of their position, their new repairability index? I believe that iFixit helped advise the French government when writing this law. Is that right?
[00:13:16] KS: Yes, absolutely. We were involved in the consultation process and we’ve been scoring devices with our ethics repairability scores for years. When I think about the French repairability score, I think it’s a fantastic step forward. I think it helps provide consumers with more information at the point of sale, information they need about a product’s repairability, about their ability to get parts and tools, to keep a product working longer and allows them to put more pressure on companies in the market to make their products more repairable, to design them in more repairable ways, to provide more access to parts, tools, and information. And it’s a great model for what we’re doing in the US. My work on the advocacy team, I support our right to repair legislative efforts across the country, both at the state and federal levels. And we currently have 34 bills in 21 States that we’re supporting that would require manufacturers to provide parts, tools, and information to consumers, device owners, and independent repair providers in a variety of industries and capacities in order to get a better score on the French index. Manufacturers are starting to make that information, those parts available in the same way that we’re asking them to do in the US.
[00:14:26] JP: What are the differences and the benefits of having this repairability index at a government level, like in France versus the repairability index that iFixit has been publishing?
[00:14:37] KS: The enforcement angle is huge. Kevin is really our expert on the details of the scoring system on both iFixit side and the France side. So I’m going to let him answer that question.
[00:14:47] KP: On a broad level, any accountability for devices being repairable, designed well to have the parts of them that are most likely to break, being easy to fix, and even having some kind of accountability for spare parts, manuals, the basic tools of any kind of repair. Anything that is done to bring that to people’s attention. In France, they put it right next to the price, the repairability score of the thing you bought.
[00:15:14] JP: Oh, interesting.
[00:15:15] KP: Yeah. You go to the French Apple site, you go to the French Amazon and it’s right there. The two parts of your brain are looking at like, “$119 free shipping.” But then you also see, “This thing has a three…” Well, in Europe, it’s a three comma five, which is the US equivalent of 3.5. And you’re like, “Oh! Oh! I’m spending $120 on this. Very supposedly not repairable thing. That’s interesting. Hmm.” So anything to do that, anything to put that in the conversation about how much it really costs to own a device will just vary for it. Sorry to sound just kind of broadly roses about it, but we’re just very happy to see any kind of repairability scoring happening, whether it’s our own or France’s.
[00:16:01] JP: So one thing that stood out to me was the idea that the manufacturers are self-reporting these scores. Do you foresee that as a challenge for public trust in these scores? And are there any other kind of challenges you see going forward in France or in any country that [00:16:17] this with repairability calculators and scores?
[00:16:20] KP: There’s kind of like a grace period at the beginning of this where the scores are going to be reported by manufacturers, but there is a market kind of watchers looking at the scores. I think the tacit understanding is that for the first year, there’s not going to be any kind of hard government punishments for maybe missing a step in the score or whatever, but I think that there will be teeth to it eventually. We just don’t know what that looks like yet or how that plays out exactly. But to the overall question, could that be a problem? Well, certainly going to continue taking apart devices at iFixit and looking at them and I hope that when we take apart an S21 and Samsung says it takes five steps to take the battery out or LG or Toshiba or anybody says it takes five steps to take the battery out, and we say, “Well, it took us 21.” I hope that we and others can provide a kind of check on that. But the French system also has very detailed explanation in their manual, so to speak, of what counts as a step. There’s a chart in my post on ifixit.com where I show you how you’re supposed to kind of step in and what it looks like and you really feel like you’re in a third-year engineering class when you look at it. So in some ways, yes, we imagine that there’s a need to watch, but also it’s pretty codified what counts as a step and what you can’t gloss over. So it’s pretty promising. And I think that actually is not as fraught as perhaps it could be with this kind of very open to interpretation thing.
[00:17:48] KS: And that said, I think enforcement questions aside, we’re already seeing some manufacturers take steps to improve repairability of their products in light of the French index. So for example, Samsung does not make their repair manuals or first party parts or tools available in the US, but they’ve already started making their repair manuals and parts available in France. You can go online and find the French repair manual if you’re in France. That’s information we don’t have access to in the US, but we were asking for and is part of our right to repair legislation advocacy.
[00:18:20] KP: if you want, you can get a repair manual in the US from Samsung. However, you have to buy it on a website and they ship it to you as a USB drive.
[00:18:30] SY: Oh, wow!
[00:18:31] KP: I have three Samsung USB drives in my house.
[00:18:34] SY: Wow! All right.
[00:18:37] KP: So that kind of thing, like Harry saying, just by having the score in place and the potential of being scored, a lot of things are opening up over there that we just love to see in America, like freely available online repair manuals.
[00:18:49] SY: Yeah. And that’s, what’s really interesting because France is kind of like the guinea pig right now for what a repairability index might look like for the rest of the EU, the rest of the United States, the rest of the world. Do you think it’s going to be commonplace or do you think it’s mostly going to be like France, maybe an EU thing?
[00:19:09] KS: Repairability scoring, repairability issues and right to repair are inevitable. We talk to some of these big companies that operate here in the US, operate globally, and they’ll tell us the same thing. They’ll tell us that they understand that right to repair is inevitable. They’re kind of taking steps to delay its inaction in the US, but they understand and we understand that forward progress is coming around the globe on repair.
[00:19:35] JP: This is going to be a really loaded question. But with manufacturers potentially creating their own detailed repair guides and governments getting into enforcement of repairability guides, are you all worried about the future of iFixit?
[00:19:51] KP: Have you read a lot of repair guides that manufacturers put out?
[00:19:57] JP: That is fair.
[00:19:57] KP: Yeah. I mean weirdly enough, 2019, Apple put out one of its own repair guides for a single product essentially, the iMac. And so we got to see at iFixit what it looks like when Apple makes a repair manual and Apple technicians may be able to see these for years, but we very rarely get a glimpse at them. And so it’s wonderful. It’s a very, very good repair manual and it shows you perhaps with some of the kind of Apple proprietary parts and tools, it’s a little wonky that way, but it’s step-by-step how to open this thing up safely in such a way that you can put it back together again, get in there, replace the hard drive, replace the battery. I honestly think that if every company had that kind of standard of repair manual that put that much attention into fixing their products, which Apple is making so that their own employees can fix these things, they have a vested interest in making a repair service that they want to sell to you, very good. And so if that was the case, yeah, I guess maybe, I don’t know, I feel like I’ve heard my boss say before like, “Happily go out of business.” If the world was fixed and e-waste was no longer a problem, maybe we’d have that discussion then. But we still make manuals that are aimed at the average person who doesn’t have years and years of experience fixing the product in hand and doesn’t have access to all the tools they might need. We sell some of them, but also we provide human beings with a way to get inside their products, fix it and get back to their life. So I think the business model continues even if Volkswagen starts showing you how to officially repair some part of their car when we have a way that your uncle would show you if he was an experienced mechanic.
[00:21:47] SY: So I want to switch gears and talk about Framework’s modular laptop, which seems like it could be a really big shift in the space potentially because it’s sleek, it’s pretty, but it’s repairable and you can do stuff with it and swap different parts of it out. But to be honest, I’m also a little skeptical. So I’m wondering, what are your thoughts on this when you think about that laptop and this idea of modular laptops? They actually look good and are really, really appealing. Do you feel like that’s going to be a big shift in the market or is that just kind of a one-off product?
[00:22:18] KS: I mean, we’re really excited about the Framework’s laptop for a number of reasons, the upgradable storage and RAM, you can fix the screen really easily. It’s got these modular parts, ports, and then they have these robust parts in them, the information service ecosystem. So we’re really excited about it. Whether that represents an overall trend, I think Framework is kind of ahead of the curve here, literally in the groups that we’re seeing really make something that’s repairable with the exception of perhaps the Fairphone out in the Netherlands. But I do think with the French repairability scoring system and as we move towards more repair and right to repair regulations, we will see companies making devices a little bit easier to repair. And that’s our hope. Unfortunately, what we’ve observed and why we do this work is that over the last 20 years, manufacturers have made it harder and harder to repair devices through a wider variety of strategies, whether it’s proprietary screws, using glue to assemble a product and gluing batteries in rather than using screws. The Microsoft Surface Laptop is like a fantastic example of a really unrepairable, terrible product for some of these reasons and using things like proprietary diagnostic software that they don’t provide independent repairs or consumers or parts pairing software, where they pair like a camera to a logic board in an iPhone, for example, or an optical drive to the motherboard in an XBox. So we are seeing kind of overall trends towards repair hostile design practices and also overall restriction on parts and information. But we’re hopeful that as governments get more involved in regulating in this space and as there’s more market pressure on these companies to design greener more repairable products that we’ll start to see more companies going in the direction of Framework or Fairphone.
[00:24:03] KP: I am selfishly excited because I saw the teaser video of someone just like swapping it, I think it was like a display port for a HDMI port. It’s just like there’s a slot on the side where you can magnetically or just easily with your fingers just kind of trade out one of the video ports for another. And I’m so excited because being at home with my wife, both of us working, I have this mental database of every device in my house and which cables I need for it. Just eating up mental RAM, the idea of like, “All right, this is the one, the display port, and I have a mini display port cable, but it doesn’t do 60 Hertz if I hook it up.” So the idea of a laptop where you can just readapt it to whatever it needs to be, very exciting to me.
[00:24:47] JP: I think I can remember a few modular laptops in the past, but nothing as sleek and I guess competitive looking as the Framework. I can also think of a few modular cell phones that have come out over the years. Do you think going forward, there’s a big enough market for products like this? I realized that iFixit isn’t actually like marketing these products and selling them. But I guess my question is, do you think there’s a big enough market for them? And why do you think it hasn’t taken off to date?
[00:25:15] KP: I feel like over the last few years, people have learned or have seen that when they get their smartphone, the only thing that really compels them to upgrade after two years, at least the last few years has been either a sense of like splurging on themselves or something goes wrong with it, the battery starts to feel old and weak or the processor slows down, which with certain companies that’s a whole legal thing actually. But you use your device, you’re like, “Oh, this is the device that connects to the internet, makes the phone call, sends the texts.” I really don’t need a generational shift in hardware every two years. I was kind of trained to feel like I need on cell phone carriers. So I think that hopefully that kind of sense that if I had a phone where it was very easy to swap out the parts, replace the things that are broken and/or get to the battery, I could definitely hold on to a phone for four or five years. The environmental impact of doing that is just so huge. Holding onto your phone for three years, instead of two years, is a huge impact. If everyone started thinking that way, it would be a huge environmental impact. But also just on your wallet and your sense of what you need to spend money on, it would be great if people started looking at these things as longer-lasting devices.
[00:26:29] JP: Is there anything else we didn’t cover here that you’d like to mention?
[00:26:33] KS: So I’ve said this a couple of times, but we have 34 bills in 21 States in the US right now that are advancing right to repair. And if you want to learn how to get involved, how to support right to repair in your state, go to repair.org/stand-up, with a hyphen between stand and up. It’s got a nice handy map. It’ll tell you which States we’ve got bills in and how you can get involved. Calls to and letters to your legislators are always super helpful, just letting them know that you support right to repair and that you want them to support right to repair legislation.
[00:27:04] SY: Well, thank you so much to both of you for joining us.
[00:27:07] KS: Thank you.
[00:27:07] KP: Yeah. Thank you for having us.
[00:27:07] KS: This is great. Thanks so much.
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[00:28:29] SY: So let’s continue on with the theme of repairability and talk about something that is very broken. There was a really powerful piece in The Verge this week written by Zoe Schiffer. And it was titled, “Mailchimp employees have complained about inequality for years. Is anyone listening?” We’ll put a link to that article in our show notes. So the piece states that there has been a history of sexism and racism at Mailchimp, which has been corroborated by 11 current and former employees. An outpouring of conversations about different employees’ negative experiences started to happen after one of their principal engineers, Kelly Ellis, quit. And she tweeted, “Welp, I guess it’s official. I’m leaving my job. I dealt with sexism and bullying and found out that I, as the only female principal engineer, was paid less than the other male principals outside of Atlanta. I will not recommend friends work at Mailchimp, especially women.” Although Kelly Ellis didn’t respond to The Verge about her experience, Zoe Schiffer’s piece goes into detail about other former employees’ experiences. One of the former employees named Alejandra Luaces talked about receiving multiple sexual texts from a senior engineering manager, which after she declined his advances, her position was eliminated and was given the option of taking a lower level position with no eligibility of pay raise for a year or more or she could leave the company. And another former employee The Verge piece goes into detail about is Angelo Ragin, the first black employee at Mailchimp. Essentially, even though he was one of the top performers in his department, he was being paid 14% less than his colleagues. And when he found out about it and brought it up to the company, they increased his pay up to where his colleagues were. But when he advocated that he should be paid more due to his continuous high-performance, they would not entertain the idea. And they said, “Management definitely recognizes his efforts and successes, but these can be overshadowed when he displays what some might perceive as a sense of entitlement. He needs to be subtler when it comes to voicing his opinion about his compensation.” In a statement about this story, Mailchimp said, “We’ve always wanted Mailchimp to be a place where everyone feels included, respected, and empowered to do their best work, but that hasn’t been the experience for all of our employees. Over the past four years, we’ve doubled in size. And while we worked hard to foster an inclusive culture as we grew, we fell short in some important areas.” So basically this is yet another story. Not particularly surprising.
[00:31:06] JP: It’s like we’re in Groundhog Day.
[00:31:07] SY: Yeah. It’s another story about a tech company, and this one was surprising because it’s not a VC-backed tech company. You know what I mean? I kind of expected culture to be a bigger priority because they don’t have the financial pressures of other VC-backed companies, not to give the VC-backed companies an excuse, but the argument in those situations is like, “We’re so focused on growth.” That’s the defense. You know? So with Mailchimp, given all that, I’m surprised that this is happening specifically at Mailchimp, but of course I’m not surprised that this is happening in general.
[00:31:44] JP: I would agree with that. I definitely reject the idea that some people floated that it’s VC culture specifically that is causing these problems at companies. I think it’s pretty clear that it’s not. They can happen at any company, that systematic racism and sexism for you.
[00:31:59] SY: Absolutely. And I think with this story, what I appreciate is that these are people, it sounds like a lot of these former employees did try and advocate for themselves, which I think is great. I think a lot of times we hear these stories and it’s someone getting harassed and the person feels so disempowered that they’re not even given an opportunity to make that ask. So it’s really interesting to see these people made the ask. In some cases, it kind of worked out. He did get his pay increase, not as much as he may be wanted to or should have, but he did get something. But that response of why he’s not getting paid more is pretty ridiculous. It’s frustrating to see that people are doing the things that we’ve been telling them to do, where we say, like, “Make that ask. Negotiate for yourself. Advocate for yourself.” And it’s great to see that these employees did that, try that. It’s disheartening to see that advice alone didn’t get them to where they want to be. And instead, it feels like there was maybe some retaliation for that.
[00:32:58] JP: I think this might be a good argument or a good example of why we’re seeing tech workers unionize across other companies. Because when you have multiple workers calling out these pay inequalities, they have, in theory, more bargaining power than individually one by one, going to HR, going to management and saying, “I want to get paid more,” and that’s assuming they even find out. I’m sure for every Mailchimp employee that came forward and tried to call out a pay inequality, there are five, six, seven more that don’t know what their colleagues are being paid or what they’re being paid in relation.
[00:33:32] SY: Right. Right. Absolutely. And the whole conversation of salary transparency to me is very interesting because on the one hand, as an employee, I totally appreciate that it is very valuable and can really empower people. On the other hand, I’m so just personally conditioned to feel like salary is private, like, “Do I want people to know how much I’m getting paid?” You know what I mean?
[00:33:57] JP: Yeah.
[00:33:57] SY: It’s almost like, “I wonder how much you’re getting paid. Do I want you to know how much I’m getting paid?” I don’t know if it’s the US or if it’s just the world in general, but we’ve done such a good job of making people feel like they shouldn’t talk about it that even I’m like, “Should I talk about it?” But I think that overall at least employees would definitely benefit from having more open conversations. And it sounds like in this article, it was having those open conversations that led people to make those asks. So we can definitely see the power and the benefits of normalizing salary conversations.
[00:34:31] JP: Right. I agree with you that it’s a really difficult first step to take and it’s a really scary first step to take, to be the first one to say, like, “Here’s what I make,” especially if you are concerned about retaliation from your employer or you don’t have another job lined up, just for a variety of reasons here in the US. I’m so torn because I agree with the advice that everybody gives that we need more salary transparency, and yet being that first person at your job to be that transparent person about your salary is incredibly difficult.
[00:35:04] SY: That’s scary. Yeah. Yeah, for sure, for sure. Well, I hope this continues to be a warning to other tech companies that we’re not going to tolerate it. And if you do these kinds of things, you can expect to be in a major publication and you can expect to see a nice little Twitter storm about it. I think that the tolerance for this type of behavior is we’re just not going to deal with it. And I think that hopefully companies are taking note of that and are really able to see that if they’re interested in recruiting top talent, if they’re interested in retaining top talent, if they’re truly interested in diversifying their workforce and being more inclusive, hopefully stories like this will be a warning to really get their stuff together. Otherwise, it’s going to be really hard for them to be a strong company.
[00:35:57] JP: Yeah. I want to see companies be more proactive about this and not just wait for a story to break about their toxic culture or their pay inequalities. Companies need to be way more proactive about identifying, not if but how this is happening because a lot of these things happen in a lot of companies. And I think that’s one thing companies need to like is tone down the ego and be okay admitting, “We’re not perfect. We probably have some things we should fix. Let’s go find them.”
[00:36:28] SY: In Kelly Ellis’ Twitter thread about quitting Mailchimp, her last tweet, which I thought was very poignant was, “It takes a lot of privilege to be able to publicly announce that you’re leaving your job and why. I want to acknowledge that so many people who face unfair and biased situations with employment don’t have the job security to say a thing about it publicly.” Coming up next, we speak with Jaime-Alexis Fowler, Founder and Executive Director of Empower Work, a nonprofit that connects you to professionals to help you handle workplace challenges after this.
[00:37:19] SY: Here with us is Jaime-Alexis Fowler, Founder and Executive Director of Empower Work. Thank you so much for being here.
[00:37:25] JF: Thanks so much for having me.
[00:37:26] SY: So tell us about what Empower Work is.
[00:37:29] JF: Empower Work is a confidential, free text line that helps people navigate complex work situations. It’s sort of like a crisis text line for workers.
[00:37:38] JP: What was the impetus for founding Empower Work?
[00:37:41] JF: Great question. I think as many of us have probably experienced, I have had my own share of workplace challenges. And a couple of years ago, as me too was unfolding, I was increasingly doing conversations with folks at night or on the weekends or over coffee about challenges they were experiencing in their workplaces, me too, and otherwise related. And I had been talking with a young woman who was first in her family to join the tech industry, go to college. She saw tech as sort of her way to the middle-class or beyond. And she was working in this really small startup. The startup had all kinds of internal problems. And she was caught between this really awful rock and a hard place with really nowhere to turn and where she kind of ended up was like, “I think I’m going to have to leave tech altogether.” And I think if she’d had support more readily available, she would have been able to more supportively navigate what was going on in her situation. And so I started frantically digging around, googling, going like, “What exists? What’s out there?” And the answer was there wasn’t something. Companies that are well-resourced and well-situated often have some variety of HR or coaching internally. But the vast majority of working Americans don’t have access to that and I think as we see in tech too, increasingly there are companies where people don’t trust HR or they’re not comfortable raising concerns, which is totally reasonable. And so creating a separate supportive resource that’s outside of a company, outside of people’s social networks where they can really dig in and get both emotional and tactical support at their fingertips, no one’s going to overhear it since it’s over SMS or web chat has a really profound impact.
[00:39:20] SY: So earlier in this episode, we talked about a report by The Verge where former employees talked about cultural sexism and racism at Mailchimp and they talked about things that I’m sure folks who come to Empower Work are also experiencing. Can you talk about the kinds of things you’ve seen and heard from people who seek you out?
[00:39:39] JF: What we see, unfortunately, is that these sort of pervasive negative behaviors exist across so many different companies. Sometimes it’s very specific to a manager. So manager issues are one of the number one reasons people come to us. So that could be someone feels like their manager is discriminating against them or bullying them or they’re having a really toxic relationship with their manager. And oftentimes, it is tied to larger cultural issues. When people come to us about a manager, then they realize, “Oh, actually this is pretty pervasive across the company and I’m noticing that the same things that I’m experiencing directly from my manager my colleague is also experiencing,” or it seems like it’s happening in other departments and they start to make those connections. People often come to us because they’re at a breaking point where they’re really making a decision around, “Do I stay? Do I try to work through this? Do I leave my job altogether? Do I leave my industry?” And because they’ve really usually reached kind of a crisis point where they’re looking at what’s important for me, what do I value, what’s going on with my financial situation, what’s going on with my family situation. And of course, in the last year, with COVID and the economic uncertainty and really the gender and racial oppression that’s been on full display across the past year, I mean, it’s always been there, but it’s been amplified in so many ways, those decisions are becoming increasingly more complicated. We’re seeing that people are feeling the pressure to stay in jobs, even when there’s a really toxic situation, because they’re really worried about the financial situation if they leave, and that’s real, and that’s causing a lot of increase in stress and anxiety across the board.
[00:41:12] JP: What are the major things that Empower Work does to help these people?
[00:41:15] JF: One of the benefits of Empower Work is that you connect with a real person. So we have the incredible peer counselors who go through 25 hours of really robust and deep training. And the training that we provide is based in coaching practices with a combination of counseling and really a deep understanding of what’s going on in US workplaces. And so when you connect in with that person, they are immediately delving in to understanding what’s at stake for you, understanding how this is impacting you, looking at sort of all the emotional complexities of what’s going on, the stress, maybe someone’s not sleeping, maybe they’re so overwhelmed, they can’t even think about what to do next. And the peer counselor really creates space for the person rooted in their experience to understand what’s going on and how to move forward. And so the outcome of a conversation is usually after talking with a peer counselor, anywhere from 60 minutes to 2 hours, someone really leaves both feeling better that they’ve kind of tackled the emotional complexities of what’s going on and they have tactical next steps. So that might be if someone’s experiencing harassment, they may decide, “Oh! You know what? I’m going to document what’s going on. I’m going to talk to my colleague about it so that there’s documentation with my colleague. I’m going to think about whether or not I want to talk to an attorney.” They really leave with a game plan around what they feel comfortable with. And that’s different for each person. The unique part about Empower Work is that in a one-to-one service, you can really explore what’s going on for you personally without a cookie-cutter approach of like, “You have to do this, you have to do this, there’s this step and this step.” Because everyone has different things that are important to them. Some people want to go to the New York Times, there’s The Verge, like talk to an editor and make sure that the story is amplified. Some people just want to leave their job and make sure that they have financial coverage. And so being able to have a space to explore that is really, really important.
[00:43:04] SY: So when it comes to someone getting sexual advances from a superior at work and wanting sexual advances or experiencing racist behavior, what can you really do if HR doesn’t listen? They famously say that HR isn’t there to protect you, it’s there to protect the company. So if they are either afraid to go to HR or they just know that that’s not really a good option for them, what can they really do?
[00:43:29] JF: We see really the intersection of all of those quite a bit. About 78% of folks who connect with Empower Work identify as a woman and about 56% identify as a person of color. And often in conversations, we’ll hear from folks who say, “I’m the only woman of color on my team,” or, “I’m the only woman of color in the organization.” And that really impacts both the comfort level in escalating something as well as the experience of carrying that burden. And so what we see often in those situations where folks have said, “I don’t feel comfortable going to HR,” we’ll talk through what they might feel comfortable with. And so that may include for instance documentation. A lot of folks are really savvy with this already, but we’ll talk through ways in which to document. I think this came up with the Mailchimp story where I think afterwards, when she was tweeting, she said something like, “Oh, I lost access to Slack and email and I had to grab things.” And so we will talk through with folks if they’re experiencing racist or gender bullying behavior, how to really create some documentation around that so that no matter what they decide going forward, they have a record. We’ll also talk through, sometimes people’s immediate gut reaction is they don’t feel like there’s someone to go to, but in talking through what they may have access to, they may realize there is some ally in the company that they hadn’t thought about who might be a good resource. Sometimes they don’t. But having that space to talk through it and especially when you’re at an emotional peak, when you’re kind of so overwhelmed of what’s going on, it can be really hard to think about different options. And so having that space to consider kind of walk down that emotional ladder and really consider what possibilities are ahead can be really, really powerful. And I would say a lot of times what we end up seeing with Empower Work is that people realize, “This isn’t my burden to change the company. It’s not my burden to change the culture that’s going on. And as much as I may love my job and as much as I may enjoy the work that I’m doing, I don’t want to be in a culture that supports this.” And so ultimately, in a lot of situations, folks decide simply to leave. And one of the benefits that we see with Empower Work and having the space to talk through things is that folks can leave understanding that that’s not giving up. Oftentimes we’ll see people who are like, “Well, I just want to fight for change.” And ultimately, it shouldn’t be someone’s responsibility to change a company. And so having that space to make that decision to move forward and to hopefully not have it impact future employment or future job decisions can be really, really important.
[00:45:59] JP: What are some things we can do to help our colleagues that we might notice might be experiencing negative workplace conditions?
[00:46:04] JF: I love that question. Sometimes we have folks who reach out to Empower Work who say, “I just saw something happened to a colleague and I’m trying to think about what do I do. Do I say something to the colleague? Do I go to HR? How do I handle this?” And I think it’s incredible when folks do see something that’s happening. For instance, we had a situation shared, and again, this is when it was okay to be disclosed, where someone was on a Zoom call and something transpired, no one said anything on the Zoom call and afterwards the person said, “Hey, my colleague reached out to me after the Zoom call,” and asked that exact question like, “How can I be supportive? Because that didn’t look okay to me. How did it feel to you?” And she said that was one of the most powerful things for someone to reach out and say, “I saw this. I just want to check in and see how you’re doing.” One of the most powerful things that we see that folks do is to just simply check in with someone in a way that asks a really open-ended question. So asking someone, asking a colleague like, “Oh, that looks really terrible. Are you feeling really overwhelmed?” You’re kind of jumping at them with a lot, but asking, “Hey, I just saw that happen and it didn’t look like it would have felt really good to me. How did it feel to you?” And creating that space where they can share or not share, depending on what’s feeling comfortable for them, can be really, really powerful to someone else. The other two things that are really helpful is to stand up for someone when you do. If you see something in the moment, if you feel comfortable and you’re enough on your toes, you can interject and say something. The third thing I would say is you can also document or report if you feel like something is going on in your workplace. So for example, we had someone reach out who saw repeatedly a chef harassing other colleagues and she wasn’t being harassed herself, but she saw his behavior and she didn’t feel comfortable saying anything to the chef because of where she was in the restaurant. And so she had a conversation with her manager about it. She also talked to the other colleagues. All the colleagues got together and said, “Hey, we want a sexual harassment policy in the restaurant.” And they escalated that. And they were successful in both getting the chef fired as well as implementing the sexual harassment policy across the restaurant. And ultimately, she ended up getting a promotion.
[00:48:22] SY: Oh, wow!
[00:48:22] JF: And that was actually a goal of her. She was like, “Well, I’m worried if I report this, it’s not happening to me. I also want to get a promotion. I’m moving forward in my career.” And ultimately her manager was so impressed by her leadership in navigating that with her coworkers that when she asked for a promotion, the manager was like, “Absolutely. I saw you step into this leadership.” So we can see where folks can make a really powerful difference as someone who’s stepping up to be an advocate or to be a supporter for someone else.
[00:48:50] JP: What would be your major piece of advice for anyone who might be experiencing things going wrong at work?
[00:48:57] JF: I would say there are three things that are really important. One is to think about what you need personally first. These experiences take such a toll. They take a toll on our mental health. They take a toll on our physical health. They take a toll on our economic situation. When people reach out, they’re often saying, like, “I haven’t been able to eat. My partner and my relationship is strained because I’m always talking about this and it’s just feeling really complicated.” So I’d say the first thing that we really encourage is finding a support structure that you need for yourself and not feeling like you need to navigate it alone. So if relationship with partner has become strange, who else is available in your network? Whether it’s a coworker or a friend or Empower Work reaching out to a peer counselor, just thinking about what support you need. And that can be hard, but it’s really, really important because self-care is wonderful and can help, but it doesn’t address systemic challenges. And so making sure that you have that really personal support set up for yourself is important. I would say the second thing is documentation. Again, I mentioned this earlier, but documentation is something that people often do and are pretty savvy about, but really, really encouraged, making sure that you’re noting an email to yourself and a personal email, taking a Slack screen grab, whatever documentation feels right for you, just so that you have a record of what’s been going on. And should you decide on any particular action you have that information available to you. And then the third I would say is that as you’re considering what you want to do moving forward, having a checklist for yourself around what’s really important. So what do you need financially? What do you need from a health perspective? Going through sort of like an internal checklist to understand what’s most important. And the reason I say that is that we do see folks who are in complicated financial predicaments. And so they want to leave their job so much that they, for instance, like maybe they want to rage quit, but then you can’t file for unemployment, but you really need that financial protection. So thinking through what’s really important because there are ways to potentially navigate a severance agreement or figure out ways to make it through. Like if you think, “Okay, I think I can secure another job in the next three weeks. It may not be my dream job, but I have this and this connection and I think I can start moving forward on that,” figuring out a way to manage through whatever period of weeks that might be before you get a next job can be really powerful.
[00:51:21] SY: Absolutely. Well, thank you again so much for joining us.
[00:51:24] JF: Thanks so much for having me.
[00:51:36] SY: Thank you for listening to DevNews. This show is produced and mixed by Levi Sharpe. Editorial oversight is provided by Peter Frank, Ben Halpern, and Jess Lee. Our theme music is by Dan Powell. If you have any questions or comments, dial into our Google Voice at +1 (929) 500-1513 or email us at [email protected] Please rate and subscribe to this show on Apple Podcasts.