Try many things. Early on, people will give you advice. Some of it will be good advice, some of it will be not good for you. Usually, they will use you as a mirror with which to reflect their own desires or failed opportunities. Test the advice that resonates with you.
— Tatiana Mac
I interview leading women developers every week and showcase their history, opinions, and advice on the tech. In case you missed our previous interviews, check out the "She Inspires" series on Hashnode.
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Today, we will be interviewing Tatiana Mac 👩💻 .
Tatiana Mac is an independent American designer.
Currently, she works directly with organizations to build products and design systems with accessibility and inclusion in mind. She believes that design heavily influences our social landscape. When ethically-minded, she thinks designers can dismantle exclusionary systems in favor of community-focused, inclusive ones.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself. How and when did you venture into tech?
Tatiana: My journey in tech began in futzing with my MySpace as a young teen. I learned HTML and CSS through the editor. I felt comfortable enough to build a Geocities (RIP) site, then maintained a popular NSYNC site and webring.
I stepped away from my early, exploratory days tech until after I graduated from college. It was about 10 years ago, when I started my design career as an entrepreneur by opening my own studio, which focused on brand/identity design. I later worked at agencies with large companies (retail, food, etc) on digital marketing campaigns. Most recently, I work directly with tech companies to create more accessible and inclusive products with design systems.
Can you briefly tell us about your job title?
Tatiana: At my core, I consider myself a designer—but, as I am independent, I have to play many roles. I design, code, speak, do biz dev, maintain open source projects, keep my books, sort out my travel/meeting scheduling (this is the hardest part of my job).
What difficulties have you faced on your way in tech? Have you ever felt like you were not treated as equal?
Tatiana: Being brown, queer, and a gender-non-conforming woman all play into my identity. My identity isn't the default identity in tech, so within every interaction, my identity will play a factor in me receiving less power. I never feel treated like an equal to those in power, because I'm not granted that kind of power. In the day-to-day, this power differential manifests itself as fewer opportunities, working harder for less, and generally being exhausted. I also experience depression, so the self-motivation necessary to be independent can be especially difficult for me. Some days I find it nearly impossible to do anything. Getting out of those lulls requires a lot of patience, self-compassion, and motivation.x
If there’s a bias women face, why do you think it is still there, in the 21st century? What are some things people and organizations could do to change this?
Tatiana: Bias begins as something unconscious. The way to combat this is not to attempt to conduct a training to remove it, but instead to train ourselves how to recognise systemic injustice first, then when bias might result might worsen systemic injustice. Companies need to centre the needs of the most vulnerable individuals (trusting what needs and fears they have and addressing them), and in particular, place those vulnerable individuals in power. Unfortunately, those who experience the most under harm are most equipped to prevent it. It's not to say that we should put the burden of changing things on vulnerable individuals, but we do need them to be more present (representation) and to have more power (to combat systemic disadvantages).
You work directly with organisations to build products and design systems with accessibility and inclusion in mind, how long have you been doing this?
Tatiana: Honestly, it was only in the last couple of years that I even really knew what these two words meant. However, it doesn't take a tonne of time to learn—it just takes curiosity and diligence. Now that I can't unsee how badly things go wrong when we ignore these concepts, I try to centre them at the core of all my work.
You currently work as an independent American designer, how long did it take you to arrive here and what significant difficulties did you face along the way?
Tatiana: I think one of my biggest challenges is also my biggest asset: I am interested in nearly everything. As an ardent generalist, I tend to want to learn how to do nearly everything (and often, as I work independently, I'm forced to do so!). I've been learning how to run a business since I was a kid (my parents ran one). When I was on my own at 21, I just learned to figure everything out. When you learn things yourself, especially with a business, you will make errors with large consequences (messing up my taxes, navigating someone trying to sue me, etc).
We see that you work predominately in Design and Accessibility, how did you decide to focus on these paths?
Tatiana: A core aspect of design is being a user advocate. If you exclude a portion of your users, you're not being a very good advocate. I found that much of design education tends to not focus on this aspect, so I hope to help spread more knowledge in this area.
What advice do you have for a newbie or intermediate who dreams to work as a Designer?
Tatiana: Try many things. Early on, people will give you advice. Some of it will be good advice, some of it will be not good for you. Usually, they will use you as a mirror with which to reflect their own desires or failed opportunities. Test the advice that resonates with you. Try to find areas of design you haven't tried yet. Find the intersection of what you like and what you're good at. Sometimes you'll do something you only like a little but you're very good at. Other times, you'll do something you love and you're not yet good at it. Then you can learn to get better at it. It's okay to flux in and out of these depending on our needs (money is a valid reason!).
What advice do you have for a Designers who would like to build inclusive, accessible and ethical products and how should they get started?
Tatiana: First, examine your own ethics. What impact would you like to intentionally have on the world? Now, examine what impact you inadvertently have on the world through your work. Read about how ethics, bias, etc all impact our work. Commit to learning accessibility basics (colour contrast, semantic/accessible markup, etc), then commit to rigorous testing. Read about the lived experiences of people who lead completely different lives than you. I guarantee that your designs have likely omitted critical aspects of those individuals lives.
How long have you been in tech and what word will describe your experience so far?
Tatiana: Too long? Grueling.
You write a lot Tatiana, what's your super power?
Tatiana: I'm not sure I have a super power. I think my prolific writing comes from having an insatiable curiosity for why the world is the way that it is. Writing gives me catharsis and revelations.
What advice do you have for beginners or intermediates who look forward to technical writing?
Tatiana: Practice by writing something you know very well. It can be simple, such as how to make a circle in CSS or generate a pull request in Git. Write it in your voice. Edit it down to as little as possible before you lose meaning. Consider if someone who is just learning the language (human and computer!) you write it could possibly understand it. Do this repeatedly. Self-publish on your own website. I believe strongly in the concept of owning your own content. If you decide to write for other publications, great, but those should come secondary to having your own body of work first.
We see that you speak and teach at software conferences, how did you get into public speaking and how has it affected your career?
Tatiana: For teaching, I one day decided that I didn't see enough content around accessibility for designers. I self-funded teaching my own Skillshare course. For speaking, one recommendation from a friend and colleague led me to my first speaking engagement. From then on, I applied to a few calls for proposals (CFPs). One of my talks gained popularity, and I began to be invited to speak at conferences.
What advice would you give to aspiring programmers who look forward to speaking at meetups and/ or conferences?
Tatiana: My advice is to have an idea of something you want to convince the audience of. It can be simple: "Technology A will save you time." From there, you will have a clear direction to take your talk into and a way to keep it focused.
You are an open source creator and contributor. How and when did you venture into Open Source and how has it affected your career?
Tatiana: Open source is very new to me still. I mostly wanted to build my dictionary (Self-Defined) and my database (Devs of Colour). I wanted the tools I was creating to be available to everyone, and contributed to by everyone. Open source was the logical way to accomplish both of those goals.
What advice do you have for developers who will like to venture into Open Source and how should they get started?
Tatiana: My advice would be to ensure that you are picking projects that you are passionate about (causes, for example that you care about) and to set boundaries to your participation. How frequently do you want to contribute? How many hours a week are you willing to contribute? Open source is amazing, but it can be an endless pit of time. As it's generally unpaid, it's helpful to me to set those limitations.
What do you think needs to be done to encourage beginner developers to learn programming languages and continue learning?
Tatiana: More companies need to be willing to hire junior developers. No incentive exists right now for junior developers, and thus, for brand new developers to learn. A model that actively invests in the newer workforce, such as apprenticeships, is necessary as all the current developers will eventually age out of the workforce.
Imposter syndrome is one problem developers face especially newbies, what is your experience with imposter syndrome, how did you manage yours and what advice do you have for anyone facing this currently?
Tatiana: I stopped feeling imposter syndrome. I know for a fact that there are people who don't know certain things as well as I do, but are way more arrogant about their skills. I also know for a fact that there are people who know things way better than I do, but are way less confident about their skills. Success is not just pure skill. It is also dedication, practice, and also luck (where you are born, genetics, what education you have access to, your parents' education, etc). At the end of the day, I only try to be the best version of me, which is to be better than I was yesterday. I'm not trying to be anyone else, so I can't be an imposter, as I'm only trying to be me, which I am.
Rejection emails is another thing that motivates imposter syndrome and depression amongst developers especially intermediates. How did you manage this effectively during your "job-hunting" days?
Tatiana: Rejection is never fun in any avenue of our life. I think we fear and loathe rejection because it's very personal—it's easy to feel like someone rejected our entity. But I remind myself that rejection from a job has so many other facets that come into play: internal politics, systemic injustice and discrimination, unconscious bias, etc. Getting a job is honestly a numbers game at times. When I reframe it through this statistical perspective, I can see that more rejection will either mean
- I'm closer to an opportunity and I should keep trying, or that
- I am placing my energy into something that's not reciprocal and I need to shift my attention elsewhere.
What advice would you give to aspiring programmers who look forward to working for companies like Apple or Google?
Tatiana: Whenever a designer or developer aspires to work at a large company, I ask them to really reflect on why. Is it for the prestige? Is it for the fat pay check? Is it for the lush benefits? Is it for the access to high profile projects and people? All of those reasons are valid reasons to want to join a large corporation like Apple or Google! Will those incentives still be meaningful 1 year from now? 5 years? 10 years? And, it is also true that working for large corporate companies like that will mean bigger stakes for consequences and for sacrifices. Do you want to start or to grow your family soon? Does money motivate you? Are you ready for the larger expectations and potentially gruelling work hours? Does the work inspire you? Do you know what you'll do if they sign a contract with a harmful organisation (as is the case with ICE contracts)? I think that everyone gets the right to work where they want. I also just want them to understand what that means for them and for the world.
Which of your projects are you most proud of? Can you briefly introduce us to it and why you built it?
Tatiana: Self-Defined is my main open-source project—it is a dictionary that seeks to provide more inclusive, holistic, and fluid definitions to reflect the diverse perspectives of the modern world. Future plans include a full API, bots for Twitter and Slack, and custom URLs. Self-Defined came to me out of harassment. I realised that most people seeking to discuss and to question core aspects of our identity—race, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability (physical and mental), religion, age, physical expression, etc—lacked the adequate vocabulary to engage. I was often asked—with bad intent—to define key core words in conversations over and over again. Dictionaries failed me, as they were written by people who didn't need these words, who didn't want these words. And even when they tried, dictionaries didn't reflect the ever-evolving definitions. It was a way to invalidate my existence through the lack of words. Tired, I wished for a bot that I could tag in and that could self-define. Thus, Self-Defined was born. I imagined a world where a bot could define 'racism' or 'gender non-conformity' or whatever word I was asked to define repeatedly. I imagined a world where a Slack bot could inform a user they were using an ableist slur before it sent. I imagined a world where we could have URLs that preemptively told people that we identify as 'Asian American' and 'pan.' I wanted to make this imagined world a reality. I sincerely believe that words are immensely powerful. Words form policies and laws. Words give us ways to identify ourselves as individuals and to come together as communities. I hope this project allows everyone to self-define who they are and to see themselves in the dictionary, in ways I never have.
What is the best advice someone has given you that has helped you in your career?
Tatiana: Say yes more. Don't edit yourself out of opportunities out of fear of rejection or imagined outcomes. Say yes to that job you don't think you're qualified to apply for. Say yes to that interview. Saying yes to one question does not saying yes to all questions. So often—minoritised individuals especially—will be our own first no. We fear the outcome steps L-Z that we haven't even faced yet, before we've even gotten to step B. Instead, I say yes (but with boundaries). "I'm excited about this opportunity. Before committing, I'd love to hear more about it. A few questions..." Until you sign something or provide explicit verbal commitment, you are not obligated to anything.
You have visited 34 countries and counting, how did long did take you and which was your favorite trip?
Tatiana: I've been privileged enough to travel since I was 13. I went on my first trip to Spain and France alone and fell in love with immersing myself in beautiful discomfort. I studied Arabic in Cairo for part of college, which allowed me to travel throughout the Middle East—some of my fondest memories are from that time. A couple of years ago, I was very burnt out on work and decided to restart my life with a trip. I packed everything into storage and sought to match the number of years old I am to the number of countries I saw. It was one of the most difficult few months of my life, but also most rewarding. As such, it's hard to pick a favourite trip, as part of what I love about travelling is the person I grow into with each trip I take.
What are your favorite programming tools?
Tatiana: HTML, CSS, and JS. VSCode is my IDE. I design in the browser, so Firefox is really the gold standard with its DevTools. I love Codepen for working through isolated problems and sharing work. Dash is helpful for long flights when I want to code and don't have internet access to look up documentation. Netlify is excellent and makes me feel sad for former me who had to fuss so much with FTP.
What does your development environment look like? Could you please share a photo? :)
I am typically on the go, working from coffee shops, hotel rooms, and airplanes. I keep my setup simple. I also have a cord organiser bag that I keep every dongle, cord, and adapter known to humankind.
Finally, what would be your message to women trying to get into technology?
Tatiana: Find people you trust who look like you and people you trust who don't look like you (especially ones with systemic power, like white guys). The people who look like you can help to remind you that you're not alone in your struggles and in your wins—representation and camaraderie is really important. The people who don't like you can help provide you with meaningful context—my white guy friends will tell me what their salaries are, what they charge for consulting, and expend emotional energy where I cannot. Community is really everything at the end of the day.
Thanks for taking out time to read this interview. 👋
This series is all about talking to the awesome women in tech, understanding the current health of the tech industry and inspiring other women to become better. If you want to share your story, please reach out to me on Hashnode.
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See you next time and keep trailblazing 💙💙