226: Incarceration and Technology with Kurt Kemple
01:49 - Kurt’s Superpower: Lifting Others Up: “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
07:00 - “Self-Taught” vs “Self-Guided” vs “Self-Motivated” Developers
11:32 - The Intersection of Incarceration and Technology
22:15 - Having Privilege Working in DevRel to Raise These Issues
26:51 - Helping and Advocating For the Formerly Incarcerated
29:32 - The Interview Process as it Relates to the Formerly Incarcerated
36:26 - Always Be Applying (ABA); Technical Interviews and Fabrication/Bending Truths
45:29 - Problematic Binary Identities
47:07 - What can companies and hiring managers do? / Problems with Hiring in Tech and Tech Interviews
01:05:19 - Contextualizing Advice
Kurt: Community is what you surround yourself with.
Laurie: Having empathy and understanding as a hiring manager for people who have perceivably negative things in their background.
Jacob: Polyglotism and not being so gatekeep-y.
John: Being reminded of how terrible our carceral state is here in the U.S.
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JACOB: Hello, everybody and welcome to Episode 226 of Greater Than Code. My name is Jacob Stoebel and I’m joined with my co-panelist, John Sawers.
JOHN: Thank you, Jacob and I’m here with Laurie Barth.
LAURIE: Thanks, John. I’m excited to introduce our guest today, Kurt Kemple.
Kurt Kemple is a technical writer, speaker, and software developer living in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He’s very passionate about the intersection of technology and incarceration. Currently, he works for Apollo GraphQL, as a Developer Relations Manager and when not working he can be found by the ocean or relaxing with his family, which sounds really incredible.
So Kurt, I'm going to have you start us off by answering the question we ask all of our guests, which is what is your developer superpower?
KURT: Well, first thank you for that awesome introduction. It's a pleasure to be here.
So diving into what is my superpower, I thought about this a lot and I'm not really someone who I feel has some innate skill or ability that really makes me stand out in any particular area. But I think one thing that I do really well is I care very much about lifting up the people around me. I work actively to generally help others more than I'm helping myself. I think the rising tide lifts all boats kind of mentality and I think that that is definitely something that sets me apart is I gauge my success by how successful folks around me are.
JACOB: That sounds fantastic. Was that something you felt like you've always done, or was it something do you consciously develop, or did it just sort of come around?
KURT: I think it evolved out of situations in my life. I've dealt with a lot of stressful situations and pretty tough upbringing and I think a lot of it is just finding opportunities to make sure people don't have to experience those things and not being so drastic that it's always in relation to something very life altering. But there's something about removing roadblocks for other folks that you have the ability to do that is very rewarding to me and I think I just started to realize that later in life that that's something I value greatly.
LAURIE: That's really interesting to hear because I think in a lot of areas of technology and in the industry, we often hear people saying like, “I had to do it, so you have to do it, too.” I've heard that with sort of the toxic interview, it's almost like hazing mentality and the tools may be abstracted, but if you don't know the super, super low-level piece of it, then you're never going to understand it the way I do sort of mentality. A lot of this gatekeeping stuff comes from that. So it's really refreshing to hear that you feel sort of the opposite of that.
KURT: Yeah. Like I remember very distinctly, many times starting out programming, like getting the response: RTFM. It's like, people, they don't want to help for whatever reason. They want you to – it's like almost like a badge of honor; forcing folks to figure things out for themselves. There's something to be said with taking on learning as your own responsibility, but part of learning is knowing how to get answers and ask for help when you aren't figuring it out and so, I definitely really cannot stand to see that kind of lift the ladder up behind me mentality, or pull yourself up by the bootstraps type mentality.
JACOB: So who are those people around you in your role with Apollo? Who are the people that you would measure the success of?
KURT: Yeah. So it's actually spread out across multiple things, but I'll start from Apollo. I'm a manager of the developer relations team so definitely my direct reports absolutely care about how well they are doing as well as the DX organization, it extends out to their world.
We're all part of developer experience and we want to make sure that things we're doing is helping lifting up the education team and DX as a whole. And then of course, that spreads out into Apollo, which is just by helping developers be successful with Apollo, we're actually helping a policy succeed.
But when we talk about developer relations, really that's just communities I'm involved with at all. So that could be anybody from the communities that I'm a part of, whether that's content creation, DevRel, things around GraphQL, or developments, it could be anything related to that. Pretty much any person that I have interaction with, I start to look at ways in which I can help them move forward.
JOHN: It's funny the phrase “bootstrap” is so embedded in our culture because it's coming from – it’s technical terminology at this point, but it's so interesting and I think important to think back to the origin of that phrase, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” was satirical because it's obviously, not possible to do that for you. You can't lift yourself by grabbing your boots and that's the whole point, but it's almost like turned over on itself and becoming oh, that's just what you do as economic policy or a social policy despite the fact that it was originally the complete opposite of that.
KURT: Yeah. It's funny. I never really thought about that, but it's very true. They took something that was meant to be like satire, like, “Oh yeah, just pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” and then turned it into something serious. I still view it as satire. To me, it's the silliest phrase ever, but a lot of folks take that very seriously.
JACOB: What else is satire or was originally satire was the word, “meritocracy”?
KURT: Oh wow.
JACOB: Yeah. It was basically like oh, the new aristocracy of people who think they're on top because of their merit; it's the meritocracy. It's something else I think about is the phrase self-taught; ex self-taught developer, self-taught engineer, or the million Medium posts of how I taught myself to code in 12 weeks. What does that mean, taught yourself? Do you have no interactions with any human?
JOHN: You didn’t think a human produced?
LAURIE: Yeah. The self-taught thing is actually really complicated and nuanced in my mind because a lot of people like to claim it and say, “Well, we're all self-taught because we all read blog posts and have to teach ourselves other things because as a developer, you're always learning new things and so, we can all claim that title.” And then there's the area of people who consider themselves self-taught, but they were working one-on-one through DMs with someone that is a working developer and they know really well.
But then there's actually a last category of people, which is what I feel the label was sort of designed for, which is they never had any formal classroom experience that taught them like, the variable goes on the left side of the expression. So they had to learn just those super fundamental syntactical things through reading and through example videos and potentially sometimes asking questions, but it was a very async process. I think that's what self-taught is designed to imply that there wasn't a curriculum laid out in front of them and that they didn't have a helping hand along the way.
I think there's something incredibly powerful about that and I hate the idea that it's been co-opted as well, everyone's self-taught, I'm like, “No, I got to sit in a computer science program and have teachers tell me what I needed to know in a certain order.” Was that necessarily the best way for me to learn? No. Did I have to go in and teach myself how to do things after that fact and for the rest of my career? Absolutely. But did I have some of those baseline foundational things conveyed to me based on someone who knew the order of operations of learning this topic? I did. So I am not self-taught in any sense of the word.
But aside from that, I had no real formal education, but I've adopted the term self-guided, which I feel is a better descriptor of that. Because it's more about guiding yourself through a curriculum to learn programming and it's like, you're pulling bits and pieces from wherever. You can find it to create your own curriculum is essentially what you're doing. But I did learn from lots of other folks along that journey, both through asynchronous communication and DMs, watching videos, reading, blog posts and stuff. So it's not like I was in a room with no outside influence and had a computer and was like, “I will code.” But I think I really like that term, self-guided, because that's a better representation, I feel like of what actually happened.
LAURIE: I love that and it reminds me of when I was in high school where you get to take independent study and it's sort of the same concept of you get to go in-depth on a topic, but you're determining what shape that takes and where you go and what you focus on.
JACOB: What successful means.
JACOB: And then no one will probably care, to be truthful. No one will actually care if you don't do it.
LAURIE: Yeah. Yeah, that's the other thing; self-motivated is a big part of that. Like, no one's grading papers or assignments. There's no papers in coding.
No one is grading assignments. You don't have deadlines that are imposed by other people. If you buy the course and you never watch a single video, the only one accountable for that is sunk cost fallacy of having wasted the money. There's nothing forcing you to power through and that's actually a great way to prepare yourself for coding on the job. Because it's like, technically, there's just this ticket and you need to be looking at it and feel the sense of oh no, I need to get this done because no one can actually force you to do it! [laughs]
KURT: Yeah. That's very accurate. [chuckles]
JOHN: Concurred. It sounds like from your bio there that the group of people that you consider yourself to be responsible for helping to lift up is beyond just the team that you're responsible for. So I’d love to hear more about the other groups that you're working with on that level.
KURT: Yeah. So, I think it's interesting when we talk about community and groups and to me, community is not like a thing with guidelines and boundaries, community is whoever you surround yourself with and so, to me, there is no React community, or GraphQL community. There's just people in my community who happened to know React, or GraphQL and I think it's an interesting way to look at community because it breaks down a lot of barriers.
But if we do talk about specific groups, I am very into the intersection of incarceration and technology and the reason why is because I myself am formerly incarcerated and getting into tech had such a drastic effect on my life. So it’s just naturally, I want to and again, a lot of this motivation for lifting others up stems from this. I feel like I am often sitting on a gold mine and I feel selfish when I know that there are people who were in a similar situation who are coming out of prison and don't have any idea that this industry exists, that they can have a future in it with some self-guided learning, some hard work, and a lot of perseverance. It's by no means easy, let's be real.
Coding is a very difficult skill, but most folks can accomplish that goal of learning it and it just feels like if I'm not actively working to help expose people, who are coming out of incarceration, find this industry and see if it's a fit for them, then I feel like I'm just like holding something that I should be freely giving away. I think a lot of where it comes with lifting others up is that feeling of, I'm holding something that other people should have access to and that's education, information.
When we talk about self-guided, it's actually one thing about picking your own curriculum that is anxiety inducing is, am I picking the right things to learn? The industry is huge and you could pick so many different things and I lucked out that I was introduced to something that was a good path into tech for me.
I would like to provide folks coming out the information that the industry exists, but also a little bit of guidance around some of the different ways that you can go and break into it. So I'd say that is definitely a community, or a group of folks in my community that I care deeply about is those who are transitioning from incarceration back into society.
LAURIE: I'm curious if – obviously, this is an experience and a community that a lot of us don't have a lot of insight into and it's great that you do and you have those connections. Can you talk to us a little bit about the kinds of things that we all can do to make that transition easier to support those groups of people, whether it's in an organization or outside of that?
KURT: Yeah. I'll say there's really two avenues where you can do a lot of good. One is in de-stigmatization. So it's sharing information about incarceration, figuring out who these people in the community are, building relationships with them, checking at your companies, and seeing if they're adhering to the laws around hiring formerly incarcerated folks.
A lot of times background checks will violate labor laws within states and companies don't check that. They say, “Give me the default. I want all the information.” It's up to the company to actually check and make sure that they have the proper configuration that they're not losing people based on laws.
A good example of this is in California, they can only look 7 years back on your record for criminal activity, barring certain types of activity. But for most things, only 7 years. However, there's companies that will do background checks and pull stuff up from way back. I had this happen with a company and I was like, “Hey, just to let you know, you're not allowed to pull up information from when you did. You showing me that you found my background is actually admitting that you're violating the state laws.”
Now here's where the problem lies. It takes people who are the ones, the vulnerable being affected by it to push this forward because our only recourse is to hire a lawyer and to fight it in court. I'm jobless, have just come out of prison; I don't have any money for a lawyer to fight some company, to do that and then do you want to go now work for a company that you had to fight for the job in court?
So it takes people who are not in that situation asking their employer, “Hey, what is our policy on hiring formerly incarcerated? What programs do we have in place to make sure we're not dropping them out of the pipeline?” That's a huge one.
And then the second one is most people don't really want to go back to prison. That's not always true. You have people who actually do want to go because it's a place where they can get more stability and safety and stuff than they can. That says a lot about the United States as a whole, but most people, they come into prison with high hopes.
I wasn't the only one in that web programming class like, I wasn't the only one learning how to train dogs, learning welding, carpentry, plumbing; taking every course that was available to me. There's a lot of other folks, too. But what people don't have and why recidivism is so high is there's no stability. So we get these skills. We get out into the world. We have no income. We have no job history for years because of this. Companies that would hire folks for the skills that we have learned are doing background checks and turning us down because of them.
So it's like yeah, we're learning skills, we're learning stuff, but none of it can actually be used until x amount of years after you get out and you're just kind of left floating there. So finding programs, local programs that are based in civil activities, providing housing, providing food, providing access to equipment and education, further education for folks coming out of incarceration. Those are the two best places that you can by far have a huge impact.
$50 worth of food can be the difference between somebody going back to prison or not. Because if they don't have it, they're going to revert to what they know and what they know is crime often, and then boom, they go back. Of course, if we look at who's the most affected by this, it's marginalized communities. So focusing on those communities is especially going to be impactful.
JOHN: Yeah. I would also imagine that the lack of a support system in the outside world is also a huge factor there. Like you were saying the $50, people that have a support system can probably make-do relying on other people that they know to help out, to get by through that part where they need that extra money for food. But if you don't have that, there aren't really any other options.
KURT: Yeah. It took me almost 3 years to land my first job coding as a software developer and I can pinpoint multiple times during that 3 years where I came very close to committing a crime again and that's wild to think about now. Now, I would never in a million years do anything, but I also have stability.
It’s just a living example, somebody directly in front of you just proving that the prison system, prison industrial complex is really just a money-making machine that is not incentivized in any way to help provide you with stability and keep you out of prison. Most of our prisons are actually owned by private businesses and private businesses need revenue and for a private prison, what do you think the revenue stream is? Prison labor, slave labor, me working for 14 cents an hour. That is how they make money. So what is the real incentivization, or real incentive, I guess, is the actual word to actually have programs to help people be stable when they get out? To provide learning and education around things they'll actually be able to get jobs for? To not have lobbyists literally fight to keep laws around hiring formerly incarcerated as strict and terrible as they are?
So the prison industrial complex literally sends people to Congress and have them lobby against improving these systems and then they pay people at the state level and it's just like all the way down. They pay judges to make sure they send non-violent offenders into the prison system. It's a nightmare of a system, but to circle back to that, that $50 makes a huge difference and can really be the differentiator.
LAURIE: For what it's worth, I appreciate you being so candid about all of this. I think it's a topic that some of us are tangentially aware of, but don't necessarily have the specifics. I remember some of this from my poly-sci degree and it was horrible then and it's worse now.
KURT: Yeah. It's not fun or pleasant, but I am privileged enough to be in a position to candidly speak about it and so, again, if we use manager speak, [chuckles] circle back to lifting up others and feeling like I'm holding onto something.
This stuff is really stressful. It's hard to talk about even with as much as I do, but I find that the DMs that I get from folks who are struggling and trying to get into tech. When they reach out to me and they're like, “I found your blog posts or this podcast or video and it gave me hope,” I'm going to keep trying that's that motivates the ever-living crap out of me and it far outweighs that pressure.
But another thing, too is not everyone is in a position to be able to speak about this. It's just, I've developed enough of a brand and identity in the industry. I have enough of a work background. The incidents have happened so far in the past now that they can't really be held against me for finding future work. So not everyone has that situation.
LAURIE: I'm curious if you feel like being in the developer relations space has impacted your ability to have those conversations and have those interactions and be more visible compared to some sort of a more IC coding role where you don't necessarily have the same kind of network effect based on the work that you're doing day-to-day.
KURT: Yeah. Oh, that's a really interesting insight. I mean, yes, the faster the audience grows that I can reach, clearly, it’s the more people I can reach with this message. So I definitely think DevRel has put me into a situation where I can reach more people faster because my network is growing faster than it was as an individual contributor. So yeah, a 100%.
I think it's also interesting to find the balance between like, we all know how tech folks feel about people being people and having lives outside of technology. So it's like finding that line of growing your audience while producing information about things or causes that you care about and stuff without causing a lot of churn in drop off is a feat in and of itself. Every time I tweet about prison or something like that, I watch my followers drop. It's just like you can set a clock to it. But it's an interesting balance to try to not overshare in that regard and just continue to lose audience because then that affects things like algorithms and how many people I reach and stuff. So it is interesting. I never really thought about that, though.
JOHN: Yeah. I mean, it's interesting that like the way you talk about the work you're doing. At this point, you have the privilege to be able to talk about those things when so many people don't and that's certainly a powerful way to use that privilege that you currently have.
What you're talking about there is losing follower count, which affects your job a little bit and trying to balance how you're talking about these things without cussing yourself too much. But it's interesting that those are the costs that you're weighing about speaking out and you know what those are and you also know that so many other people can't speak out because their consequences are going to be so much more drastic.
KURT: Yeah, absolutely. When we start to look at this through the lens of bias in the industry. I am cis white dude; I have the benefit of like failing upwards. So it's like me going to prison, I get to spin it as this redemption story and I get to be the symbol of hope for prisoners coming out and breaking into tech. But it's not the same story for a lot of folks that I talk to who don't look like me or aren't basically white men. It gets really tough the further you get from that.
So I also want to call out, too that a lot of times, the privilege to be able to speak is based on literal white privilege; I always get the benefit of the doubt. It's interesting, but yes, I get the benefit of doubt. I get to fail upwards. I'm formerly incarcerated, who's now the DevRel manager of Apollo. But I know so many other formerly incarcerated people who are way better at this stuff than I am and they still haven't found a work yet.
So those disparities exist and when you compound other issues that the tech industry faces against that. Like, the hiring rate for formerly incarcerated Black women is like 4% or something ridiculous like that according to last statistics, from what I could find, which was about 2019. That's 4% compared to white males, which is about 43 or 44%. We have to take that into account, too. That privilege is steeped in white male privilege as well.
JOHN: It's like the prison association just magnifies all of those existing inequities.
KURT: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. You're an ex-con, or a felon—I get to be formerly incarcerated, not a felon.
JOHN: Yeah, the language matters a lot.
KURT: Oh, yeah.
JACOB: So what are some of the details of how you're helping folks? It looks like you have, it’s a Twitch stream? I just pulled up your Twitter account just a minute ago, but tell me details.
KURT: Yeah. It's interesting. So when we think about helping people, I have stream, which I do a lot, a lot of blogging, involved in a lot of communities. Most of the work that I do. So if we're just talking about community in general, also the Apollo stream; I do a lot of streaming for them. My calendar is open; folks drop in there a lot.
When it comes to helping formerly incarcerated, that's a lot more scaled down and on a one-on-one basis because every single person has a different situation. Also, a lot of them can't come forward and say that they're formerly incarcerated. There's an entire network of folks. Some of them can and they have, but there's an entire network of folks who I'm working with regularly and just, nobody knows because they can't really share or express that information.
But I really focus on a couple of things, which is helping them figure out their path into tech, what it is that they'll like. So trying to get them guided on that, helping them build their network, teaching them about things like learning in public and how to do that. We work on freelance, because it's really hard for folks to get jobs, full-time employment so we focus on freelance work and how to look for red flags, clients, promote yourself, and stuff like that.
It's generally different for each person because it all depends on where they are on the scale of their education into tech, how stable is their environment at home. It's just a lot of things that go into it. I am working on starting a nonprofit to formalize this training, but it's very slow going. I just really don't have the time that I would like to dedicate to it.
Some other ways that I've been helping out is there's a really cool nonprofit project called The Marshall Project. They take a data-driven approach to exposing issues within the criminal justice system. I do a lot of stuff with that. I sponsor and support a lot of prison reform lawyers. They don't get paid a lot and stuff like that so monetary support for them, monetary support for the people who are coming out, who need that.
There's really where I spend most of my focus, but if you ask anyone, I'm available. If somebody wants or needs something from me, I try to make myself available I talk to a wide range of people from all different communities about all sorts of different things. But I don't really have a centralized way, a singular path into helping folks out. It's pretty disparate, honestly.
LAURIE: This is a slightly different topic, but it's something you touched on and what you just said. I'm wondering if we can talk about the interview process as it relates to being formerly incarcerated and revealing that information. Because I think one of the –
I had an interaction with someone a couple of years back who said, “I got all the way through the process. I didn't tell them they offered me the job and now I have to tell them because it's about to come up on a background check,” which the efficacy of that we can discuss for a long time. “But it's about to come up on a background check, what do I do? How do I have this conversation?” I think we all know that especially for entry level positions, there's thousands of applicants and the minute you give them one red flag, they're like, “Oh, well, we have 500 other people to talk to.”
So what has been your experience with talking to people going through this and how they can navigate what is already an incredibly stressful and difficult process, even not having some flags that unfortunately, don't get perceived the way that we wish they would?
KURT: Yeah, this is a really great question.
It’s the most – I won't say the most, it is an extremely stress and anxiety inducing situation. I've developed a system over the years from having dealt with this, but in the beginning, it was very chaotic. You would just get through the process; you don't say that you have a record, you don't come upfront and say it. You never do that. If they're going to do a background check, let them do it.
I've had situations where companies have made me fill out paperwork for background check and then they never, I guess, submitted it because they never came and said anything about it, or maybe at that job, they were following their state's laws and it didn't come back. I would say it's a multi-step process.
So first things first, never say that you have a background upfront. Second of all, is investigate the state laws around hiring the formerly incarcerated for that company for where they are located. Where is their business set up at? Understand those state laws?
The next thing that's going to happen is if you get through the interview process and they're going to do a background check, so what they always do—this is the most annoying thing. Oftentimes, you will sign your offer letter. You will have a start date. You will do all this and in there, it says contingent upon a background check. This puts you in this situation where, especially if you're at an existing company, you want to give them time. Do you put in your leave and throw all of your eggs into this basket only to then come on and then they do the background check and then it comes back and they fire you? It puts you in this just purely stressful situation for about two weeks.
But a couple of things that you can do to get ahead of it is I started doing things where I will message them and I get real creative and I'm like, “Look, I've had issues with discrepancies, with insurance and other things, not going through before I've signed my start date and then there were problems, disagreements. I need to know all the paperwork. I need to have that signed upfront and have everything taken care of before I will decide on a start date. I want to make sure I give ample time to leave.” So sometimes that will work and that will get you a lot closer.
When that doesn't work, the other thing that I do is anytime they're going to do a background check, you have to consent to it and part of that consent is they'll tell you the company that they're going to use. If I've made it this far, I will then pay out of pocket and go get my own background check from this company. For most of them, you can do that. Now what it is that even if a company reaches out, I will put them off until I get the background check so I can see what has come back about my record so I can better prepare my statement for how I want to discuss this with them.
If you make it through all of that and you get there, sometimes they just still are going to say no, or they'll just ghost you and I've had that happen to me, too. Just literally been ghosted and it's just hard, it's stressful. There's not a lot you can do with it. The best thing that you can do is understand the laws around the different 50 states, figure out which ones are the most forgiving towards you and your situation, apply for jobs—ideally, remotely—within that place. If you're in that position, a lot of people aren't in that position, but it's just stress-inducing nightmare.
One thing that I did do is I always had backups. I would have offers from multiple jobs and accept multiple offers, which sucks. But then if I get one, I stay in and I don't, but I would stagger the start dates.
KURT: Yeah. I learned that from my 3 years of trying to get my first job because even trying to work at Target, Walmart, all these places I check yes on that have you been convicted of a felony in the last 7 years and I'd never hear from them. So I just stopped checking it.
I would get a job at Target. I would work there for three weeks and then they would be like, “Hey, background check came through. Wish you wouldn't have lied to us. You're one of our best workers, but now we have to let you go.” It's like, “Well, cool. You wouldn't have hired me anyway. I'll take my 3-week paycheck. I've already got a job lined up at McDonald's. So I'm going to go work there for three weeks now.”
My first 2 years out of prison, I had like at least 10 W-4s, at least 10, probably closer to 20 my first year and then I got a little bit smarter about places that I was picking through the second year so I was able to stay places longer. But you just have to do whatever you have to do or you have to resort back to crime, really.
That's always, my advice to folks is rolling jobs like, ABA. Always be Applying. Always be applying for jobs and lining them up so if they come at you, “We did your background check. We're going to let you go.” You can just go to the next place and you don't have to go so long without having income.
LAURIE: That sounds like an incredibly stressful way to live.
KURT: It is a very stressful way to live. Yeah, it absolutely is. And that kind of comes back to tech can change lives. Even my first job was a really crappy paying job doing pretty boring work, but I was so happy when I actually got my first job. It changed my whole life. Literally changed my life and then after learning about the industry, finally getting my job, talking to other industry professionals, I was able to realize how drastically underpaid and overworked I was. Slowly started to work my way out of that and up to a standard developer salary for this day and age.
I make money today that I never dreamed in a world of possibility that I would ever make in my entire life ever. Never thought that this would be the life that I live today and it can really change folks' lives and that's why I'm so aggressively trying to help folks.
LAURIE: It's interesting that you talk about Always be Applying. There was some Twitter threads stuff going around a couple of weeks back about that in relation to the tech industry and talking about you should always see what's out there and see if there's better possibilities. My first reaction was interviewing is the most stressful part of working in tech, who would voluntarily do that if they're not looking to leave a job?
I suspect it is slightly less stressful in some ways, if you're applying to retail positions, but more stressful if you're dealing with something like a record. Just having to have that in the back of your mind and always trying to find a new job and that new security is – I mean, we talk about people in tech who do it every 1 to 3 years and that already seems like way too often. Every three weeks is just unfathomable to me.
KURT: Yeah. It's like you said, it's a lot of stress. By the time you figure out who everyone is, you're onto the next place. You get so tired of hearing, “You're one of our best workers, but we have to let you go.” You can only hear that so many times in a year before you just never want to hear that phrase again. It's just very aggravating for sure. I will say that that was less stressful than tech interviews in my opinion.
LAURIE: Oh, that's damning!
KURT: Yeah, that was way less stressful. The anxiety of technical interviews, especially when they're asking me questions about my background, because I have to fabricate basically 10 years of my life and that was one of the hardest parts.
So one of the hardest parts about having a record and not being able to share it, especially in an industry where everybody wants to know how you got there, it's very hard to build that lie around what you do and it starts to really weigh on you. I made me really depressed constantly having to lie. “Oh, how'd you learn how to code?” “Well, actually I was in prison and they had a course called Intermediate Web Page and I took it.” I can't say that. I can't say that.
So I have to fabricate and then I just bend the truth, which it was true. Like, “Oh, a friend of mine was going to take this course, I decided to take it with them.” That was true. I just left out that that decision was made in prison. It's like, “Oh, I got my first taste of it and then I just started buying books to continue to learn and use any opportunity I could in front of a computer to continue programming.” Also true. Just didn’t mention that for the next about year and a half, I didn't have access to a computer and I picked that back up when I got out.
Yeah. It's just about bending those truths and it's like, “Oh, well, where did you work?” Not a full lie, I'm like, “I did a lot of freelancing and consulting,” which I did. I did IT and website development and stuff, freelancing and consulting work, the little bits I could get. Doing a local plumber's website or something like that, helping somebody get all the viruses off their computer. Wonder how those got there. But it's stuff like that. So that's what I had to do. I had to fabricate this false history.
Part of me coming out and talking about this was also selfish. It was just very depressing and I was tired of lying all the time. I was finally in a position where I felt that while coming forward about this part of my life could still have negative impacts that I have enough of a time distance and enough of an identity that I could probably still have a future in tech.
That's what I did. I was at Major League Soccer and I let my team know and the people around me know and then I posted a blog post about it and that's really when everyone started to find out. This is only 2018, 2019. I got my first job in tech – or 2018. I got my first job in tech in 2013 so it was like 5 years, I went with only telling a couple people.
LAURIE: I was about to ask if you still have to lie because I feel like the minute you Google you, that's one of the first thing that comes up, this really incredible post about your experience. It's like if someone didn't check your Twitter, I'm questioning the due diligence that they did and just relying on a background check seems a little odd if they haven't even looked up your social media. Your public technical, social media, not looking to see if you have a Facebook with lots of beer cans behind you sort of thing.
KURT: Right. Yeah. No, absolutely. But you'd be amazed. I mean, people don't look at your social media first. It's interesting when we think about especially tech hiring; your resume in a pile and before you even get to that pile, you're just a resume that gets pumped through a system a lot of times. It's like until you build a network that is often yeah, you are a victim of that a lot of times. They're not going to know who you are personally before they see you on paper and that's very detrimental, but you would think they would do a little bit of research and look that up.
It's actually funny, you brought up a good point, which is if you search, you'll bring it up. I worked so hard to actually get my actual prison from North Carolina thing pushed off the first page and build a public profile and now it's right back at the top, but because I put it there. So that is really funny.
LAURIE: But that matters, right?
KURT: It matters.
LAURIE: It’s like voluntary disclosure versus something that you don't have control over, that is a huge, huge difference. I’m thinking of the Meghan Markle thing right now, where everyone's like, “She sued because they published a letter with her father, but now she's disclosing her pregnancy,” and I'm like, “Yeah, very different! One she chose to and the other one, she did not.”
KURT: Exactly. Yeah, that's a huge difference. But it's just really interesting to think about that I'm back at the top of Google now for being formerly incarcerated.
But under much better terms and I get to tell my story and explain why. Not just be like a mugshot with some records.
JACOB: If you had asked me before this episode, “Have you ever worked with an incarcerated person while you’re working in tech?” I privately would have told myself, no. I mean, I probably would have said, “I'm not sure,” but I think my implicit bias would have said no.
JACOB: And I think this is making me realize I probably have and I think probably a lot of our listeners have, too and it just either a, it didn't come up at all, or b, was handled in a way that it didn't get around to the rest of the workforce, which is probably the best thing.
KURT: Yeah, there are some companies. I have found the companies that do you actually advocate for formerly incarcerated. They do it really well and only because I'm so vocal is why my team knows. Even at Apollo, they're very careful about it. We talked about my background actually coming up and then they were like, “Well, this wasn't supposed to show up, but even regardless, we're not going to hold this against you even if it was within the timeframe.” It was very nice and this is between us, it won't matter and I'm like, “Well, I've kind of let the cat out of the bag so it's not a big deal if it's between us,” but I loved seeing the approach that they took.
You're right, you probably have worked with people who were incarcerated before. It's a large percentage of people who have been to prison in the US. A very large percentage, way more than it should be and so, it's really interesting to think about, but you're right. It hasn't come up. Most people who have been incarcerated aren't going to just leap out and be like, “Oh, that's an interesting thing. Let me tell you about the time I was locked up and how this was.” They're going to keep that to themselves because you never know how people are going to take it. You just don't know how people will react and some people, even if they are cool with it, will still look at you differently and I've had situations like that happen and it's tough to deal with, but it's a part of life.
Again, I'm not trying to make this a sob story. I did things that put me in prison and I did my time and I I've paid my dues to society. Rightfully so. Well, there's a whole thing about the sentencing and what we should be doing in the US, but according to law, I paid my dues and I was released and really, the buck should stop there, but you don't stop doing time when you're released.
You continue to do it pretty much forever because the US again, we have the stigma around prisons and why do we have that? Because the prison industrial complex is pushing this agenda that we have a lot of crime and we need a lot of cops and we need to lock people up and people who come out of prison are in prison or felons and bad people and deserve to be there. This is instilled into us from the time that we're kids and that's why I say the two most important things are providing stability for folks getting out and helping de-stigmatize having a record and helping break down the prison industrial complex. It's the only way we see a future where this is not an issue.
LAURIE: This could probably be a whole other episode, but you saying that and talking about there are felons and they're bad people in there and it's instilled in us. It's the idea of a binary identity, which exists in so many different places in our society. There's good and bad, and there's right and wrong, and there's the reason that people hate using this term, because it's incredibly racist and problematic. It's black and it's white.
All of these things are rooted in the same ideology, which is that to simplify the way that our brain experiences life, we can categorize things into one is good and one is bad. That's not the way the world works and that's not who people are. People take bad actions and they take good actions, but that doesn't make them bad people or good people. A lot of the reason we do that is because we like to tell ourselves we're good people.
And I'm sure you've heard this phrase, I'm sure all of us have heard this phrase, but the phrase, “You didn't make good choices. You had good choices” is the same as the meritocracy argument, which is like, you had the ability to get somewhere because you started on third base, you had the ability to make all the right decisions and do all the things because you had stability and resources and comfort. Without those things, would you have made the same choices as the person that you're looking down on? Probably honestly, probably and you just have no idea what that's like. So I appreciate you pointing that out because I think we've had episodes in the past about binary identities and what problems that causes.