Interview with April Wensel, Founder of Compassionate Coding

I was lucky enough to get to interview April Wensel, founder of Compassionate Coding and someone who inspires me greatly.

1. First, how would you describe your work at Compassionate Coding?

If I want to be pithy and use startup jargon, I will say I’m disrupting the tech industry with compassion.

If I’m being poetic, I’ll borrow a phrase used enthusiastically by a colleague to describe the mission: I’m “giving a heart to the Tin Man!”

And if I’m being more explicit, I’ll explain that I’m a social entrepreneur teaching emotional intelligence to engineers and other technical professionals through workshops, online tools, and coaching, with the goal of helping them become happier and build more socially conscious products.

Compassion is the active desire to alleviate suffering in others, so Compassionate Coding is an approach to software development that aims to minimize the suffering of all of those involved. I view it as an optimization problem. It covers a wide range of topics, from improving communication, practicing mental agility, prioritizing UX, and even writing cleaner code, which is an act of compassion for collaborators.

I know some engineers only respect people who code. That’s unfortunate and something my company is working to fix, but while it’s still so often the case, I want to make it clear that yes, I still code. For example, I’m working on a sentiment analysis engine for a software team’s correspondence: code reviews, git commits, emails, Slack messages, etc. I also build websites and assessment tools for Compassionate Coding.

In addition, I do a lot of volunteer work teaching code to people from underrepresented groups. Dedicating time to volunteering is baked into the Compassionate Coding culture.

2. What was your career path, and what led you to becoming a founder?

I studied computer science in high school and majored in it in college. I then worked as a software engineer at a number of different startups in Silicon Valley, jumping around frequently to leave toxic environments and to look for more meaningful work. I eventually moved into leadership positions.

Over the course of ten years in tech, no matter where I worked, I saw the same “people problems” causing projects to fail and leading to stress and unhappiness on developer teams.

The biggest problem was inflated egos. Egos kept people from being honest about problems on the team or with the product. Engineers thought they were too important to waste time listening to marketing, sales, or design. Code reviews were often just occasions for engineers to prove they were better than others. I didn’t like that I felt pressure to act arrogant just to get respect in this industry. I was also tired of conducting ineffective, stressful interviews, where someone’s ability to answer difficult questions alone and under pressure was mistaken for their ability to work well on a software team. I was also really disappointed at the tech industry’s failure to include women, people of color, and all others underrepresented in tech.

The final straw came for me when I was told by an untrained, immature supervisor that the senior white male engineers on the team were “afraid” of me since I spoke up assertively, especially about diversity issues (a variation on feedback I’d gotten before about being “abrasive,” something people criticize in women far more often than men).

So I “rage quit” that final job on the spot and decided my energy would be better spent fixing the tech industry as a whole, and thus Compassionate Coding was born!

Because I’d worked at so many small startups in Silicon Valley, I’d learned a lot about the business side of things. I had read books like The Lean Startup and gained experience in marketing and A/B testing, so starting a company was a natural step.

3. What is your business model? Do you have any advice for someone wanting to start a similar business?

Tech companies hire Compassionate Coding for training workshops and for individual coaching. We also have an online course that will be released soon, which will help us reach more people. When we launch the automated sentiment analysis tools, there will be a subscription service available, à la various continuous integration tools.

Companies find us through blog posts, social media, and through my public talks at tech conferences.

If anyone wants to start a similar business, I’d recommend reading Stand Out by Dorie Clark to figure out how to find your niche and establish yourself as an expert in your field of interest. A big part of it is generating useful content, and that’s a lot easier to do when you’re passionate about the subject.

4. Where would you like to see yourself career-wise in 5 years?

I just want to keep helping people and feeling happy; the details actually don’t matter that much to me!

5. What does living happily mean to you?

Freedom! I value being free to use my time as I wish with people I like in order to serve the greater good.

Entrepreneurship works so well in this regard. When I was working for someone else, and they projected negative energy or engaged in unethical practices, I’d have such little say in the matter, unless I decided to leave. Now, I don’t have to go through a job search to get away from toxic situations. That kind of freedom is priceless.

6. What programming or research project you worked on are you most proud of?

That would be an app to detect autism in children using machine learning. I was the first full-time engineer and ended up growing and leading the engineering team. I am proud of hiring a diverse team—majority female, even! I’m proud that the code I wrote helped so many parents and children.

Unfortunately, that company eventually moved in a direction I disagreed with ethically. I felt so close to the product and our customers that I was very vocal in my ethical concerns. Sadly, rather than addressing the concerns, the company pressured me to resign.

I’m still proud of the work I did there, and the company’s various unethical practices have actually inspired many of the examples I use in Compassionate Coding work, so there is a silver lining.

7. What project are you most proud of that Compassionate Coding has done?

In one sense, I’m proud of every workshop and every piece of content, even if it only touches one person. My heart smiles every time someone comments, “This is just what I needed to hear,” or “These problems made me leave my last company. Thanks for talking about this in the open!”

In another sense, I’m proud of nothing because it’s really not about me; it’s about the message. I’m not a religious person at all, but I have become more spiritual lately, and I truly believe that something greater than me—a muse, perhaps—is leading me down this path of spreading compassion in the tech industry. So, I try to keep my ego out of it.

8. How does your passion for veganism influence your approach to your career & life?

Veganism is all about compassion, which is the desire to alleviate suffering. I’ll be honest—I used to hate vegans because they made me feel bad about my decisions. I came to realize that the anger was my ego talking. Vegans don’t want to make people feel guilty; they just want animals to stop suffering.

I felt guilty because my actions (eating animal products) weren’t aligned with my values (caring about animals).

So I brought my actions into alignment with my values, and I was so much happier!

And this is what Compassionate Coding is all about. Technology is really about making people’s lives better, but in practice, we often cause harm to our users (through poorly constructed or addictive products), to ourselves (through unsustainable practices), and to the wider community (through, for example, a lack of consideration for the homeless outside our fancy offices).

Compassionate Coding is about bringing our actions in tech into alignment with our values, so that we can reduce suffering—and yes, this means more productive teams, so it helps the bottom line!

Another note on this point: I wouldn’t feel right about hosting a Compassionate Coding event and serving food that results from suffering, so whenever we’re covering the food, it is vegan. Consistency in living by my values is important to me.

9. If someone reading this is in a toxic workplace, are there any bits of advice you can give on how they can improve their situation?

Get out of there! :)

Of course, I will qualify that. I understand that not everyone is in a position to leave right away, and I fully empathize with that. If that’s the case for you, see what small steps you can take toward making your escape, whether it’s updating your resume or reaching out to contacts.

Do not be afraid of job-hopping. There’s a lot of advice against it, but that’s primarily to protect companies. I’ve changed jobs frequently, and every time I’ve quit a job, it’s been before I’ve had something else lined up, and it’s worked out about 9 times now. While it’s true that you may project more confidence while employed, I’ve found that as long as you can establish a strong inner sense of self-worth, you will have the confidence even without the job. (Again, if you need to keep the job for financial reasons, do what you must to survive and care for those you love!)

Why am I not suggesting trying to fix the workplace? Having been in many situations that are toxic to varying degrees, I have seen that you can put a lot of time and energy into trying to make things better, but unless you’re in a position of organizational power—or you have a strong ally who is—you are unlikely to change things fast enough for it to be worth giving up so much of your short time here on Earth.

At a big company, you might consider changing teams, but honestly, do you really want to work at a company where some of the teams are toxic when there are plenty of other options out there? Believe in possibilities, believe in yourself, and eventually, you will find a better situation.

If you do want to stay for a while, I recommend asking your company to bring in an outside expert; it doesn’t have to be Compassionate Coding (this isn't an ad :P), but just an organization skilled in teaching emotional intelligence who can help “detoxify” the environment. In a toxic environment, people might just see you as a “troublemaker” for speaking out about problems, and you may face backlash for that. An outside expert is more likely to be seen as an authority and can directly call out problems without fear of backlash.

10. Any last comments you'd like to add?

I just want to express a wish. My wish is for everyone reading this to take quiet time to consider their core values, and allow those values to guide their actions. I truly believe that if everyone took the time to get in touch with their inner wise self, instead of    following the ego or the crowd or tradition, we’d have a more compassionate tech industry and a more compassionate world!

Oh and if you want to get on board with this movement, we’ve got a newsletter sign-up at compassionatecoding.com!

Update & A Little Reflection

A Candle Loses Nothing by Lighting Another Candle