Well, I realize I have a confession to make. And it’s always good to make it in a room full of nearly a thousand people, in a medium that will be streamed to the Internet.
But my confession is this: it turns out I’m a non-technical female. You may wonder wonder what that means. I wondered a great deal when I first joined Intel, and my job code said “non-technical female.”
I thought a lot about what that could mean, what it might mean, and what it ought not mean. And I thought to myself, “Well, I’m pretty certain I’m female.” We’re not talking about Romanian gymnast territory here. I was like, “Non-technical in what sense?” I thought to myself. So I realized the path that gets me from a fairly exotic, in some ways, childhood, to standing here with some of my dearest friends in the room is a complicated one. And it requires a little bit of explaining, because for me in it are the lessons that are most important to me, and I hope in some ways will be useful to you.
As you can see from my life story here, I’m the child of an anthropologist. I’m the child of a single parent. I am in many ways a whole lot of clichés embodied all in one place. But I also had a remarkable childhood because of those things. And the first kind of place that brings me here is that very childhood.
When I was about 7 years old, my mother, who was at that point a single parent having not finished high school the first time around, taking it on again a second time, working her way through university with two kids under the age of 5, has gotten herself into a graduate program and has decided she is going to study Aboriginal people in Central Australia. Because there was nowhere else to put my brother and I, we go with her. And we end up in Central Australia in the mid-1970s. My brother the little blond one, me the little redhead with the big fat freckles. And my mother, a single parent in a community of people who didn’t know her.
And it was an extraordinary experience. I got to live with people who remembered their country before Europeans came. Who remembered what their life was like before cattle and fences and white people. And who at the drop of a hat would take my brother and I and my mother onto their country and tell the stories of the place and what it was like and what was important to them. And they were always incredibly gracious and incredibly caring.
But for me as a little girl coming out of my parents’ divorce, coming out of a middle-class and in some ways working-class household, this was a very strange place indeed. And I didn’t understand any of the rules. But I remember a moment incredibly vividly. We’d been on the settlement for maybe about three months and there was a little girl slightly younger than me standing on a dirt track in the way of where my mother was trying to go, and my mother is negotiating with this small child, which was already kind of odd. My mother an adult, small child, this seemed to be a conversation almost amongst equals.
And my mother starts to ask this kid who her parents are as a way of trying to triangulate who they should be talking to. And in the creole of the community I lived in, the question for “Who are you parents?” the question in English is, “Who been boss for you?”
And so my mother says to this little girl, “Who been boss for you?”
And this little girl looked at my mother and said, “I been boss for myself.”
And I thought, “Well, hell. I think I want that. I’m not sure I know exactly what that is, but sign me right up.”
And I went about working out why it was that little Aboriginal girls could say they were boss for themselves. And what it meant to be independent and self-determining. But I also realized that to live in an Aboriginal community was to be embedded and nested in a constant set of relationships and responsibilities, and you could be boss for yourself, but only if you were also respectful of your relationships and your responsibilities and your obligations.
So path one for me was learning that to be boss for yourself meant that you were actually always going to be responsible to other people, not just to yourself. The second thread that runs through all of this is my mother’s life. Unlike many of the people who spoke here, my father, not really part of my life, although he is an engineer as were both of my grandfathers, so…there’s something running through the air here. But it was my mother’s life that has in many ways been an incredible inspiration to me. And when I was little, long after we’d left Central Australia but before I had left to come to the United States, my mother made if very clear to me both quite literally out loud, but through her own activity that if you could see a better world, you were morally obligated to go make it. You couldn’t sit on the sidelines, you couldn’t carp, you couldn’t whinge, you couldn’t complain. You were actually morally obligated to go make something better.
And I grew up thinking, and I think it to this day, and I know it sounds so shockingly naïve. I think it to this day, that if you can see a better world we should be making it. And I think it is my obligation as a researcher, as a scientist, as a technologist, as an almost-technical female, to make a better world because I think I can see one. And much like Brian I’ve been lucky. I’ve spent most of my working life at Intel and I stay there not because there are headhunters at dinner parties that I’m nice to. That wouldn’t really be my style. But much more that it is the place that I can see that is the greatest place that you could change the world from.
If the future of the world is the technology around us, I know I’m sitting in a place where I can influence all of that direction. But you might ask how an anthropologist from Central Australia who wore no shoes and knew how to kill things got to Intel. And I wanted to end with this story cuz it’s an important one to understand, I think, all of the paths and all of the journeys that all of us are on.
So at this point nearly 14 years ago, I met a man in a bar. [audience laughs] No, it didn’t end like that. Not even a little bit. I met a man in a bar in Palo Alto in 1998. I’d finished my PhD. I was teaching at Stanford. I was with a friend of mine. I was being good. I was talking to him. He asked me what I did. I said I was an anthropologist. He said, “What’s that?” Not an unreasonable question in Silicon Valley. I told him. He said, “What do you do with that?” I told him that, too; that I taught. And he said, “But you could do so much more.”
And I remember thinking, “What an extraordinary invitation that is. I don’t know what ‘more would look like.’ ”
Fortunately for me this man had a plan. Unfortunately for me, my plan involved not speaking to him again. So I left the bar.
He called me the next day, which is kind of remarkable because in 1998 there was no white box on the Internet in which you could’ve typed “redheaded Australian anthropologist” or “Intel secret-weapon-to-be” and my name would’ve popped up. Instead he did it the old-fashioned way. (Because of course also my mother told me not to give my number to strange men in bars, so I hadn’t.)
So he calls every anthropology department in the Bay Area alphabetically (which is good, cuz Stanford was last) looking for me. And the secretary of the anthropology department at Stanford went, “Oh, you mean Genevieve. Would you like her home phone number?”
And I think to myself, “Huh. I thought was getting a PhD, not a husband.”
So this man says to me, “You seem interesting.”
I’m like, “You don’t.” Blunt, not nice.
He says, then, the magic words. To those of you still in graduate school, you know those magic words. To those of you freshly out of graduate school, you know these magic words, too. The magic words are, “I’ll buy you lunch.”
And then you realize suddenly you are still cheap and easy.
And so he bought me lunch. He showed me around Silicon Valley. He started to teach me a little bit of the ropes of what people were doing, and at some point in this ongoing relationship he says to me, “I met some people like you at Intel.”
And I went, “People like me, how?”
He said, “Well they say they’re anthropologists.”
I’m like, “Really?”
He said, “Yes, would you like to meet them?”
I’m like, “No. I know lots of anthropologists and I don’t believe you.”
Turned out I was right. They were cognitive psychologists. Very different. No the same thing at all. Luckily for me, however, they were persistent. And they invited me to Intel and said, “Come give a job talk.”
Unluckily for them, they hadn’t explained to me what a job talk looks like in a technical field, cuz in the social science field you read a paper out loud. For 45 minutes. Amazingly, for those of you in the room from Intel, they stayed the entire time. An entire room of people let me read a paper out loud to them.
And years afterwards I said, “Why did you stay?”
They’re like, “We couldn’t believe you were going to keep going.”
I had no idea. They then proceeded to take me into a room. They put me in a room. Classic interview. You’ll all be familiar with this. And a series of people paraded into the room and asked me questions.
Unfortunately for me— This was a long time ago. Things are now different as evidenced by the fact that we just won an award to prove it. But in those days, we were really interested in understanding how you responded to Intel’s “robust culture of constructive confrontation.” And it is a robust culture, indeed.
So Intel Labs had discovered behavioral interviewing, and they thought that meant you should subject the candidate to the behavior you were interested in understanding their response to, not ask them how they responded when subjected. This is a critical but subtle difference because this meant people came into the room and said to me… Asked me a question, I gave them an answer, they said, “That is an incredibly stupid answer.”
And they proceeded to fight with me, and I’m like, “Uh oh.” And I’m just enough of a good girl that I’m like, “Okay, that’s a bad answer? Let me come up with a better one.” So I’m all about I’m going to make a better answer. I’m gonna make you happy here, cuz surely I know a better answer.
And after about an hour of this, I thought, “Really? you don’t actually care. In fact, you’re all a bit ghastly. In fact, expletive deleted. I’m going to step right back into you.” So I decided, “Okay, fine. You want to have a fight? Game on.”
Next man says to me, “That’s a really stupid answer.”
I said, “Oh don’t get me started about how stupid the question was.”
And he said, “Pardon?”
I said, “It was an incredibly stupid question. Here are five better questions. Here are three things that were wrong with that one. Do you have anything else you’d like to know?”
And he just blinked, and I thought, “Huh. Interesting.”
And so for five more hours, that’s how it went. At the end of five hours, I said, “Right. Must go now. I hear California calling me. I’m done with Oregon.”
And Intel was in love. Because it turned out I didn’t cry and I fought back and they went, “Right, we need to have her.”
So Intel made me an offer that it turns out I could refuse. And it turns out I could refuse it six times, which I did, throughout the summer of 1998. I said no very nicely to Intel, time and time again.
Then one morning I woke up and realized that I was crazy. That I could stay at Stanford, I could become a professor, I could get tenure, I could be a good girl, I could check all the boxes, and maybe I’d do something that was useful. But here I was with an opportunity on my plate to work in the middle of the revolution. In the middle of the place where everything was happening, that everything that was interesting was going on. Where all of it was happening.
And I could do it with people who had no idea what they wanted from me. They just wanted me. And that seemed like a pretty good deal. So I called Intel back and I said, “When can I start?” They said it’ll take two weeks. I said, “Good. I’ll be there.”
And I rocked up to Intel on September 8th, 1998. I went through a day of training where I promised not to eat things off the factory floor, and that I should be careful in the parking lot. That all seemed fine. Second day, my new boss sat me down and said, “Great. You’re here. We need help with two things.”
I’m like, “Excellent. What are they?”
My new boss said, “We need your help with women.”
And I thought, “Well yes you don’t have any.” But I thought I should ask a clarifying question. And I said, “Which women?”
And my new boss said, “All women.”
And I said, “All 3.2 billion women?”
And my new boss said, “Yes.”
And I thought, “Cool.”
So I wrote in my notebook, “women all.” And I underlined “all” a lot. And I thought to myself, sitting in this room, “What is the project I’m going to do to explain ‘women all’ to Intel? Wow, I’m going to be very busy.” And then I realized this new boss had said there was as second thing. And I think I drew a deep breath at this point and in my heart I hoped that the second thing might be men. This would round out the equation.
But no. My new boss says to me, “We need your help with ROW.”
And I write that in my notebook and I realize I don’t know what that is, either. And I say to my new boss, “What’s ROW?”
She says, “That’s Rest Of World.”
And I take a deep breath cuz I think I’m probably from Rest Of World, and I say, “So where’s ‘world’ in this formulation?”
She says, “That’s America.”
I said, “Okay, so to recap, then,” because I’d been taught you should play back the tasks at hand, I said, “to recap you’d like my help with women and everyone else.”
And she says, “Yes, that would be good.”
And I thought, “Well…either this job is really going to be the best job I’ve ever had, or you people are crazy.”
Little did I realize the answer would be both. It is the best job I’ve ever had. It has been the most remarkable experience in my life. And to echo all the other women who have stood before me over ten years and echo Anita, too, I didn’t do it by myself.
And I’m incredibly lucky to have in the room right now my very favorite boss in the whole wide world, Justin Rattner who is sitting down in front here, who was Intel CTO and who deserves a round of applause because I happen to know when Justin gave me my current job it was one of the biggest risks he ever took. And I’d like to imagine I haven’t let him down yet. It’s good to give yourself runway. I’m also incredibly lucky because I know it doesn’t only take a good boss in this world, it takes an incredible team not to be behind you but to be standing right with you every single step of the way, and they are all sitting right there. Oh, come on gentlemen. You all put on suits, you will stand up. It turns out while the expression might be behind every good man there’s a good woman, it turns out behind every good woman there are at least six good men.
So with that I wanted to end, but I wanted to say what for me are the key lessons here. One of the lessons is if you want to be boss for yourself, that turns out not to absent you from the human race. It actually nests you deeper in a whole series of relationships. It turns out if you want to do work that matters, you have to find a place to do it, and you have to make sure you know exactly what the mattering is, and you have to tell everyone and enroll everyone in it. And last but by no means least, you have to find a place that lets you be you. And I’m incredibly lucky. I’ve spent a third of my life at Intel, and I’m a better person for it. But you also never do it by yourself. You do it surrounded by people who care for you, who fight with you, who support you, who smack you around when you get out of line. And sometimes, that is the most extraordinary gift of all.
So looking around this room, my kind of task to all of you, because it’s been ten years since Anita died and I can’t imagine she wouldn’t be so proud of this moment right now. Because basically, this means none of us get to be by ourselves. We all get to have people around us, people who care for us, people who share our passions. A horde of people who are technical and not so technical, to make a better world.
And that seems like a pretty good way to end an evening, and to begin the next part of my career. So thank you.
Genevieve’s profile at the Anita Borg Institute site.