Away from Keyboard – Episode #7

Suz Hinton says find your allies

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Almost eight years ago, Suz Hinton made one of the biggest decisions of her life: move away from her home in Melbourne, Australia and move to the United States. After amicably breaking up with her boyfriend, another decision lied ahead: would she stay?

Suz talks to me about culture shock, the hoops she had to jump through to get her visa, her parents, and dealing with burnout.

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[00:01:46] Almost eight years ago Suz Hinton decided to make one of the biggest decisions of her life - leave her home country of Australia. Suz is originally from Melbourne, the capital of Victoria, which was interestingly declared as the second most livable city by CNN in 2018. Suz says that some Australians really downplay the differences between our cultures, but for her, the change was huge.

I felt like I was going crazy because I just feel that every tiny little thing I was observing as different just screamed out to me, and so I feel that it’s really different in the little details, but it’s obviously quite a straightforward jump if you’re moving from an English-speaking country to another English-speaking country where you’re seeing similar brand names, you can generally get similar peanut butter and things like that from the stores… But to me, I’m a very sensitive person and I’m an incredibly observant person, so it felt like a huge jump for me, given that I’ve lived in the same city and I didn’t really travel a lot at all. This was my first big overseas trip, and it was to move to America, which was very scary.

And you said that before this you hadn’t really traveled all that much… Why is that?

I just never really had the craving. Australians are known to be nomadic; I don’t have a reference link to this, but I think I once heard that there was a stat a while ago that said that 80% of Australians will leave the country every years, whether it’s on a holiday, or whether they’re just moving somewhere overseas… But most of us leave, even though we’re quite isolated and it takes really long flights to get anywhere; all of us are really big on travel, big on discovering the world, big on just increasing your experiences and worldview and perspective and things like that, and that just wasn’t me. I’m a very routine-based person, so travel to me just seems super-disruptive… And very expensive. [laughs]

Wow, that’s very interesting. So what moved you to say yes to move from your home country, especially to one that’s so far away?

[00:03:36.04] I had an opportunity presented to me, and I remember thinking “If I didn’t do this, I would be a very silly person.” Like, “Something it’s presenting itself to me and I don’t really want to do it, but I think that it would be good for me.” I was dating someone at the time, we’d been in a long-term relationship for a few years, and he was reached out to by a company in the U.S. who wanted to hire him for a year to work on their product… And it’s always been his dream to go to America, to make it big in Silicon Valley and do all that kind of thing, and the job was actually not offered in Silicon Valley, but he saw it as a stepping stone. It’s like, “Maybe I could then go and work somewhere else, and make it to California.”

I remember him calling me, and he said “Okay, so I have this offer, and I think I’m gonna take it. I just wanted to know what you wanted to do - do you wanna come with me, do you wanna just hang out for a year and we’ll be long-distance and I’ll come back?” and things like that. That’s when I knew, I was like “I need to do this.” I obviously want to still spend time and go through that adventure with my boyfriend, but also this would be really good for me for growth, and things like that.

So I said yes, and then I hung up the phone and then I immediately burst into tears, and was like “What am I doing? I’m gonna miss Melbourne so much…!” But that’s what you do. When something like that knocks on your door, you’ve gotta take it.

I can imagine though that that must be a big deal, because I remember moving away from home and feeling so homesick, and yet home was just a three-hour plane ride away… But for you, it’s like 20 hours in a plane to see family and friends, right? How does that affect you on a day-to-day? Or doesn’t it? Do you not think about that very often?

It definitely comes in waves. I think that knowing how long the flight is away tends to actually sort of – I feel that your brain prepares you for the long game a little bit more that way. If you know that it’s a lot of effort to go home, then you tend to force yourself to be a little bit more resilient through it… But I’ve definitely over the years gone through really weird phases of homesickness.

The first year was really exciting, and it was a novelty, and four months later the paperwork was ready to present at the consulate, so I got to go home to do that. So I sort of got another fix, I got to get my Melbourne fix and come back in… But I definitely feel the second year for me – I was just angry; I was just angry at America, I was angry at everything… I was angry at not being able to have the food in the way that I wanted it to be, I was missing the culture of the people the most, and things like that… And I went through what I class as – you know, 2012 was the angry, bratty Suz year of homesickness. [laughter]

I just felt so out of control, and I had just broken up with that boyfriend I’d moved with, and so I had to make that decision - do I go home or do I stay? It took me a year to own that decision… It’s like “No, you wanted to stay, so that means you have to adapt and you have to be really grateful for being able to sort of experience this different life and not to be bratty about it…” But yeah, I definitely took it hard once I went out and tried to make it by myself, for sure.

These days it’s more just – I miss the people culture, but I also am just so lucky to have reached this point in my career and to be working in America; I cannot even tell you… So I’ve definitely come out the other side, and I have a much better financial situation now too, so I can visit home and I feel more in control of – well, I can afford a plane ticket now, and I can afford to stay for a little bit… So if I wanted to, I can go home, and that actually solves the problem a lot for me, too.

What made you stay?

[00:07:38.28] So we amicably split up; we’re still really good friends… So when we split up, it was partially relationship stuff, but it was also that I knew that he wanted to sort of go and leave the city we were in. He wanted to leave, but I loved my job so much, and I realized that we went through so much effort and hardship, and we went through so many things together just to move here, that going home after 11 months just felt like throwing in the towel, if that makes sense.

Right.

I would have had to get rid of all the furniture all over again, and come back and start it again. So part of it was just the fatigue and this sunk cost fallacy, and stubbornly digging in because of that, but the rest of it was like “I really just wanna see what’s gonna happen if I do actually stay.”

I was working at Zappos, and that place was just such a huge growth experience for me working there, that I knew (again) that I would be silly not to just try and do the hard thing instead.

Break

[00:08:47.24]

I moved away from home at 19. It was scary and exciting all at the same time, but the thing I remember the most is feeling like there were so many things I didn’t know, and many more that I didn’t know I didn’t know, if that makes sense. It quickly became pretty clear to me that I probably wasn’t adequately prepared for a move like this, and all I did was move a few states over. Suz felt that on a whole other level.

[00:11:50.16] I had moved to the States basically in debt, I didn’t have any savings… I think I had $2,000 in the bank, but that was obviously not going towards paying off the debt that I had either… Just because I wasn’t prepared to move to the States, so I wasn’t in a financial position where I could. I was working for a startup where sometimes the paychecks were a little sporadic, and so managing your day-to-day expenses becomes quite difficult, and before you know it, sometimes you end up just in debt because it’s hard to forecast when you’re gonna have to pay for things, and stuff like that.

So that was really challenging, and so I had to sort of go into further debt just to be able to live for the four months before I could actually start my job… And the reason why my paperwork took especially long was because I don’t have a university degree, which is usually required for the work visa that I’m on. So we had to do an audit of my entire career at that point…

My goodness…

Yeah, I think for every year of university you didn’t attend, you have to have three years of experience in the industry. So we had to go over my entire career thus far, find out what counted towards what would be very similar to the role that I would be fulfilling at Zappos, and things like that… And I had to contact all of my previous employers and ask them to write a letter saying that “Yes, I was here for this long, and I had these duties, and that I was effective at my job”, and things like that.

So I guess if I could go back in time, I might have taken the option of university more seriously… [laughter] Which is such a silly thing, because you’re not gonna know that when you’re 18 years old, and so that’s an impossible thing that I could really go back and fix… But just moving to America with no money, and moving to America without a degree is definitely doing things on the hard setting, and that would be something that would have made my life a lot easier.

Other than the whole visa thing, do you regret not going to college?

It’s hard to regret it, because a lot of the opportunities that I had immediately after entering the job field were a direct result of the school that I attended… So they had really good context, and a lot of companies reached out to TAFE institutions; you know, they just wanna contract somebody and they don’t wanna pay too much money. They just wanna pay somebody to do small jobs, and things like that.

I got my first two or three opportunities from that school because they called and said “Hi. We would like you to recommend your top students” and because I really excelled at that course, because it was the course of my dreams really, I was recommended every single time. I got to work in advertising as a Flash developer, and I got to work at a national gallery, creating the educational content for students who come through the gallery and wanna learn about all of the artworks… I really got my start in the industry because of that school, so it’s really hard to regret it. But it I’d known that computer science was a discipline that you could study, I just think that I would have had a really good time, because I really enjoyed filling in those gaps later on in my career when I realized what I was missing in my knowledge.

Tell me what are your parents like. How do they factor into you working in technology, as well as making such a big move?

My mom is really cool. I call her a scientist, because it’s the easiest description, because she’s done so many things. She has a full chemistry degree, and she went through that similarly to how I went through being one of the only women who went through it, and things like that… She became very battle-hardened in the jobs; she’s been everything from a lab technician in schools, to just working in labs as well in the start of her career, and then also working – her last job was in the nuclear and radiation agency that’s contracted by the Australian government.

[00:16:01.14] She was doing things like testing the UV reflection properties of clothing, for certifications and things like that. Also, testing things like tea for radiation after the Japan earthquakes a while ago, which had the nuclear spill, and things like that. She’s done a lot in her life; she’s gone to Antarctica to help calibrate some of the UV radiation measuring equipment, but at first she didn’t really understand the whole computer thing. She wasn’t sure if I could make money doing it, and you know, I was basically just like on the computer all the time, which is incredibly anti-social… And especially if you don’t understand what I’m doing, it can be hard to sort of justify it, and things like that.

So she didn’t understand at first, but she gets it now, and she’s a complete wizard on her iPad, and on the computer… It enriches her life every day, and she’s actually very clever with computers now. She puts together newsletters for clubs that she’s part of, and things like that. When she figured out that this was something that I was really good at and that it is a viable career, then she was very supportive.

My dad worked at one of the newspaper companies in Australia. He was a clerk, and he was in charge of circulation. He was managing different news agencies, making sure that they had the right stock, and smoothing over issues, and just coordinating to make sure the distribution worked really well. He was in that same job for most of his career, which is a bit more rare these days… But you know, he got the gold watch, and all of those kind of things, so I really admired that he had the resilience to stay at a company for that long, and also just build deep relationships. That really impresses me, because it’s just not how my career went at all, and it’s not something that’s very standard these days, at least with the newer generations.

Someone who I admire so much is John Resig. He’s been at the Khan Academy for six or seven years now. For me, I’m very much a brownfield programmer; I don’t always wanna be working on a new thing. I really like tending to the garden of an existing project and just hearing his stories about the transformation of the tech stack and how you actually get to be around to see that. That makes me think of my dad and my sister watching a company change and grow, and how if you don’t stay around, you don’t always get to see those lessons and really learn those sort of deep hindsight patterns of companies, and things like that.

My dad was really supportive of computers. He was the one that brought our first computer to our home; I think it was my uncle’s Commodore 64. This was in the ’90s, so the Commodore 64 had come and gone, but he was like, “No, no, no… This is gonna be great.” And any questions that I had, he was just like “Oh yeah, if you wanna use this, then here are the programming books. Let me show you a few basic commands”, and literally, Basic… You know, basic commands in Basic.

He was always really supportive, and then he joked that I took his knowledge, but then I just went and ran with it, and sort of knew more about computers than he did, eventually… But yeah, I really enjoyed holding the flashlight for him while he swapped out the RAM, and upgraded our computer. And he always didn’t think it was strange that a girl was interested in it. He was just like “Yeah, if you wanna know about it, let’s talk about it.” I really appreciate that in him encouraging me.

[00:19:33.03] Alright, so I wanna kind of make a drastic change here - I’d love to talk about some of the struggles that I think a lot of us face at one point or another. Especially on this show, I try to talk to people about burnout, about mental health… Have you had your bouts with burnout, and what have you done to deal with it and try to – I don’t think “overcome” is the right word, because some of these things don’t really go away… But at least deal with them.

I think that last thing you’ve just said was a really good point. It’s sort of like accumulating debt. If you can figure out a way to just keep paying the debt down, so that it’s not actually increasing, if you can just keep coming back to it and sort of like mowing some of it down, then that ends up being my approach to do that, for sure. So I think that’s a really good way of putting it, where sometimes you just never really fully get over it, but you find ways to actually manage that.

I’ve definitely been through several burnout cycles now. My first one wasn’t actually until I was living in the states, and the company was going through a really major, huge both technical and cultural change, and I was hitting obstacles everywhere, I wasn’t feeling supported, I was obviously going through a pretty bad bout of homesickness at the time, I was on one of those waves… And I think part of it was just like “What am I still doing here? Why am I at this place where I just feel so stressed out, and like I have too much work to do, and I’m staying back till 2 AM…?” There were times like that, where I told myself “I’m the tech lead on this project, and if work doesn’t get done at the end of the day, then it’s my job to just stay until it’s done.” Having that with homesickness was my first huge major burnout, and I did not have the support of the organization I worked for either, which just made it worse and worse.

So that was my first experience, and so I didn’t realize what was happening. I just thought that I had all of a sudden become a super-useless person, and that despite me working around the clock, things weren’t moving, I was dropping the ball on other things, and I basically just didn’t wanna get out of bed in the morning… That was really difficult, because I didn’t know what it was, because I was just blaming myself the entire time.

What was the point where you understood “This is not me, this is now my fault. This is something external that I’m feeling, and therefore it’s affecting everything else”?

Sadly, it took me way too long to realize that. I couldn’t quit my job, because when you do that, you lose your status in America; so I felt fenced in, and I think that definitely added to the burnout… Because we were working on a green card, and I was like “Well, I can’t walk away from that, and this is all my fault anyway, because I am a useless programmer” and things like that.

So it took basically somebody reaching out to me, wanting to hire me at their company and saying “I know you don’t live in New York, but we would absolutely love to at least interview you. It seems like you’re not super-happy in your current role”, just because I was friends with them, so they were seeing some sad tweets, and things like that… So they were like “We would just absolutely love for you to come and interview.”

It was one of those opportunity moments again, where I thought “I can at least give this a try. I get a free trip to New York at the worst. What’s the worst that could happen…?” So I went through that, and it wasn’t until I was thankfully hired, I was able to transfer my visa and move over there - it wasn’t until then that when I started working with a new team, when I started seeing my skills being rewarded, when I started seeing that I was fully supported in the role, and that people were just like not questioning things and were really eager to work with me… That’s when I realized that I was a product of my own environment, and that it was only gonna get worse and worse and worse. I was only going to become a crappy programmer there because I wasn’t being set up to succeed… And it took a full year for me to really recover from how stressful this scenario was and the injustice I felt about it as well, and then to build my self-esteem back up, too.

I was very timid in my new role, and I was very defensive at first with things like code reviews, and it definitely took a year to undo that and really start to flourish again.

[00:24:10.20] Yeah, and you see, that’s another thing that you don’t hear very often, that it can often not take very long for you to burn out, but the recovery from it is a lot longer. What are some lessons that you feel like you’ve learned from all of these things that we’ve talked about?

I think the biggest thing for me is to find your allies that want you to succeed, because when you’re having those moments where you’re like “This is a mistake” or “I never should have done this” or “I’m screwing this up” or “I’m not sure if this situation is because of the other person or not”, someone can always ground you and remind you and give you that more objective feedback about something.

Being able to reach out and ask for help is definitely the thing that I needed to learn the most. I’m a very stubborn person, I like to work independently, I hate asking for help… You know, in this industry a lot of people see asking for help as like admitting vulnerability, like “I don’t know this thing” or “I made a silly mistake.” I was a very defensive programmer before I moved to the States, and because I had this visa and because I was definitely dropped into the deep end in my first job, it was basically like a survival thing… So I learned the things that actually help you succeed.

Asking for help is not hindering you from succeeding at all. It’s basically saying “This is a moment for growth, and I’m gonna find someone who can actually help me grow.” Doubt is the biggest thing that has come out from both moving to a new country and just having to start your life over again; you need people to help you with that. But also burnout. Burnout is when you need help the most, and it is one of the hardest scenarios to actually acknowledge that you need that help.

Break

[00:26:08.04]

The day that I recorded this show with Suz was a crazy day for her. She explains why.

I got off my bus this morning and I realized that I’d left my phone on the bus. That phone, especially if you’re tech, it’s your one-time passwords for everything. It is basically your Google Maps, it’s everything… So of course, I immediately panicked, and I memorized the bus number, and then I came to work and basically became that person that expected everyone to drop everything for me to get this phone back.

I had one person who was calling the depot to see if we could get the phone. I’m panic-logging in to Find my iPhone to find it, and then I had another colleague, Scott, who was very patiently showing me how to create backup methods myself. Seth picks me up in his car and we go on a wild goose chase, following buses to try and find exactly where they’re parked at the depot. We went twice, because we forgot the map that I’d memorized, and then we had to go back and do it… And I just felt so bad, because the whole world stopped while we tried to find my phone, and I’ve never felt so supported and loved by my team.

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