Allison McMillan

BDD: Baby Driven Development

When I became a parent, I was completely unprepared for the challenges that awaited me. I reached out to hundreds of fellow parents in tech and learned there are common challenges that simply aren’t spoken about. These focus around one fact that no one wants to admit… parenting is not fun. Parenting is stressful, difficult, and oftentimes incredibly lonely. But being a parent also makes people more organized, focused, and empathetic. We’ll explore these survey results to expose common trends and issues and discuss solutions that show how supporting parents helps all team members thrive.

Portrait photo of Allison McMillan


I never expected having a child to change my identity in so many different ways. You see, I love working. I really love working, and I love being a developer, I love being an engineering manager. I love solving hard problems every day.

And I've always worn a lot of hats. I work at GitHub as the engineering manager as well for another team that is working on a secret product, re-imagining fun and collaboration in code. I'm also a Mozilla tech speaker, on the word of Ruby Together, and I run a podcast about parent-driven development.

I have stickers for all of these things. If you want to chat about any of them, please come and find me. I've been a community organiser, a mentor, a developer, an organiser, a COO, and then, all of a sudden, I was a mom. So this is Devon.

He was important in April 2015. This talk is going to have a lot of pictures of him.

Devon's a full-blown toddler now and joined by his sister, Layla who is just over a year. Today, I want to talk about the challenges people who are parents and developers face, as well as what some solutions are, and how these solutions can help a company and an entire team. So, when Devon was about five months old, I felt like I was losing my mind. I had been back at work full-time for a while - if you want to hear a separate rant, talk to me about maternity leave in the States - and after a particularly bad week of very little sleep at night, and having a really challenging workweek, I just really wasn't sure if I could do it.

How was I going to keep learning all the things I needed to be learning while being a great mom, employee, and adequate partner? How did did others do it? Was I being unrealistic? Was I being lazy. Could I even be a good mom and a developer or was this industry just truly not for me? If I've being really honest, there's been many times in the past four years where even though I loved tech and I loved code, I thought about how nice it would be just to go and do a job that I could do on autopilot. I seriously thought about leaving the industry.

You see these cute pictures of parents orchids on Facebook or Instagram, but it's not always like that, and, for me, in the early days, it definitely usually wasn't like that. It has hard, tiring, frustrating. It was also amazing, and all-encompassing. It was really, really lonely. Based on what I was experiencing, I created a survey to ask parents a few questions about this issue, and what I found out from reading hundreds of surveys, is there are some real trends and common issues.

In an industry, the values - in a industry that voles open-source contributions, parents are struggling. So let me take a second to describe a typical day from a few months ago. So Devon wakes up around seven, Layla already around 730. A lot of parents say it's closer to 5.30 or six.

I would nurse Layla while Devon has a glass of milk and by 8.15, we really need to get moving, brush teeth, make car breakfasts - you can feel free to judge. We're not morning people, car breakfast is what works very well for us. And at 8.45 or nanny comes which is already a huge privilege.

By nine I drop Devon off at preschool. By 9.25 I was home pumping breast milk while eat breakfast and starting to check emails. I would jump into the work day, do that punctuated by a few more breast-milk pumping breaks until about 5.15. Then I race out the door, grab Layla, put her in the car, from 6.15 to 7.15, we do dinner for the kids, sometimes try to cook our dinner, Bath time, bed tile, et cetera.

From .45 until around nine, we finish cooking, we eat dinner, clean up, prep food in bottles for the next day, jot down childcare notes, talk about pertinent household stuff we need to, usually relax for like 30 minutes, and then we head to bed. We have it pretty good, even with two.

Now, fortunately, this was a day from a couple of months ago. I got a lot more time back in my day as I weaned my daughter and didn't need to pump breast milk. Dropping the number of times that I had to pump in a day felt amazing. I had more time to concentrate and didn't have to go through this huge context-switch every two hours.

And I mention this tangent because pumping breast milk was mentioned in over half of surveys for mothers and their answer is about company provision or issues they faced. Now, the only time in that whole day that I would have to do any code for myself would be those last 30 minutes that I have to relax, and even if I gave up that little bit of self-care time, my brain is so tired by then, I wouldn't get anywhere fast.

And if you think about this in terms of code challenges that often need to be completed outside of your work day for new jobs, parents may have to spend the whole weekend just working on a couple of code challenges. It also means depending on our partner or spouse to do the childcare and not seeing your kids. This might not seem like a big deal, but when you're already working full-time, it really is. This is even more challenging if you're a single parent. If you're a accessible parent, then you're likely paying for weekend childcare to get these code challenges done.

Another issue mentioned was being able to stay sharp. Developers live on coffee and solve really hard problems. If you are a nursing mom, you're probably getting significantly less sleep, and you can't rely on those cups of coffee to keep you going. A recent study from baby care found that over 40 per cent of parents with babies aged zero to six months only get one to three uninterrupted hours of sleep per night.

Parents lose a total of 44 days of sleep in their child's first year, and a newer study found that parents are sleep-deprived for six years after they have a kid, and I'm like really selling this parenting thing right now! It's hard to keep a clear mind and solve hard problems when you're not getting uninterrupted sleep, and you don't get the weekend to catch up or recharge. A parent wrote, "Sometimes, the last thing I want to do or even have time to do when I get home is code or learn new code. Gone are the days of no responsibility and doing whatever I like when I get home.

Finding a couple of hours to work on a personal project or pick up something new is hard, especially when trying to help out my other half who is also tired." When I asked if having children helped or hurt their career, only a small portion of fathers said it hurt their career. They felt it either helped or had a future impact. About 60 per cent of women said that having children hurt their career, but even more than that, said it didn't hurt their career, but it changed it. Many women said it slowed their career, affecting the overall trajectory and growth potential.

Now, I don't know about you, but that description certainly sounds like hurt ing mothers clearest to me. So here's the total breakdown of parents based on if they felt that having a child helped, hurt, or had no impact, or helped and hurt their career.

Here are those same traces based on mom answers and bad answers. As you can see, when everyone is together, the portions are equal. As you break it down, it tells a much different story. This data is backed up by additional research.

This 2018 study on children and gender and equality in Denmark shows these results based on gender and earnings in Denmark, which I know at least for most Americans consider closer to the gold standard in terms of supporting parents. So while there are lots of challenges that parents face, there are also lots of solutions. Looking at these surveys, they're identifiable solutions that companies can put in place, solutions that colleagues with or without children can employ, and things that parents out there can also work on.

These solutions can actually benefit an entire team. The company- based ones: allow working from home or unconventional working options. Even when a parent is ready to come back to work, offering different options can make huge difference in their happiness level. For women who are pumping, being able to work from home makes an enormous difference. When I worked from home, I could pump in 22 minutes because I had everything set up, and ready to go, but any time that I went into an office, it took me 32 to 34 minutes each time, because I had to set up, clean up, and the travel time to get to the room, hope nobody's in the room, et cetera.

Hopefully, this isn't as much of an issue in Europe or outside of the States but I wanted to mention it again, because over half of surveys from women suggested that issues are difficulties around pumping pup if you have women at your company that are pumping in their bathroom, your company needs to seriously consider how they prioritise mothers in the workforce. Allowing working from home takes the stress of a commute out of the equation, and allows parents a little more flexibility and time in their day. Another option is to offer a part-time transition back to work, so surveys show that people took this in different ways, some working less hours, some working less days, but a gradual transition back to work for pretty much as long as the company can allow it makes an enormous difference in a parent's lifestyle. Second, companies can take a much more proactive role in creating support systems.

So a really simple example of this might be a parenting Slack channel where parents can share experiences, issues, and pictures of their kids. And a more involved option might be to connect parents returning to work with those who have taken parental leave in the past and allow for it to be a safe space pour both parties to discuss - for both parties to discuss successes, issues, and challenges. Finally, train managers on what to expect when someone on parental leave comes back to work.

This is important for moms do dads but moms? In particular. Oftentimes, managers in tech may never have had a mother go on maternity leave for their team. They have no idea what challenges she is facing, what questions might help or hurt her return back to work transition, and how best to support her. Over and over again, I felt my boss was a big part of my success when I was a new parent. Third, create realistic expectations returning to work.

If your company operates out of KPIs, or goal-setting, recognise these should be revisited when parents come back to work, and set new goals. These will likely not be as ambitious as they did in the past. If you're a manager, encourage realistic goal-setting, and, if you're an employee, recognise that your whole life has changed. Give yourself a least a quarter or two to adjust to the new normal.

As your children get older, you will become what effective goal-setting and realistic expectations look like for you. Fourth, if you have children or if you don't have children or for the majority of your team is childless, don't make parent stuff weird.

Talk about nursing, kid things, in whatever ways feel comfortable. One of the things that I did when I was back in the office after my first was create an emoji for when I was away from my computer pumping. This helped me feel open and honest about what was going on, and it did so in a way that didn't make my team feel awkward or weird about it. After my second, I just stuck my pumping times right on my calendar so folks didn't schedule meetings over them. My previous company, I did a lightning talk for the engineering team.

I did two while I was pregnant, about what that was like, and one afterwards about the science of breast milk and pumping. My team asked interesting questions and had much more empathy and understanding for me afterwards, and my hope is by exposing them to some of the terminology and experiences that there will be more understanding and empathic to women or parents they might work with in the future. But, this should not be incumbent on the pregnant individual to do so. Managers should have an understanding of these facts, and also be willing to be the one that helps their team understand these considerations.

That's realistic expectations and normalising it. When creative options, realistic expectations, support systems, and normalisation of someone's life choices are incorporated into a team or company's culture, it is positive, it has positive benefits for the entire company. The open acceptance of diversity and intentional support around the uniqueness of a team-mate's life creates that sort of in a team.

As they are trained to establish and seek out things like support systems, or create realistic expectations, anyone going through any sort of hardship or life adjustment will feel supported. Once you've created these systems and benefits, it's easier to see how similar accommodations for others enable teams to thrive. Support systems could help folks from burning out, and normalise being open about struggles and successes makes it more likely that someone who is burning out will speak up earlier. Realistic expectations encourage teams to craft better guidelines around work and promotion which often help under-represented minorities succeed.

And creative working options help companies attract the best talent regardless of where they reside. There are also things that we can do as parents.

First, get rid of your parent guilt, which is so much easier said than done. So I'm going to tell you a story about Hallowe'en. My son was a baby, six months old, I made two Hallowe'en costumes for him, and there's been so many home-made does actuals since then. The picture of both my children, those are the costumes I frantically finished sewing eight yours before I had to fly to Malaysia.

Why? Because, for me, I feel spending this time after the kids have gone to bed, making their costumes, of course, that's the reason why my kids feel like they're my top priority, right? No, that's ridiculous statement. I know it's a ridiculous statement, it's a ridiculous statement to say, but oftentimes working parents feel this way. We feel bad and like we are ordering too much take-out, or we miss a special activity, but we also need to realise that working and doing something that we love is just as important for us and for our children to see.

A mom said, "I thought I was a bad mother and developer because I didn't make everything perfect." Next schedule, it took me about a year to do this, but the first time I took a random day off, where my son was in childcare, my husband was at work, and I didn't pack my day filled with catch-up work or household chores. I felt so refreshed. We don't get the weekends to recharge, and vacations are really not vacations once you have had a child. So it's important to not put these days off, and to make sure that you're taking at least one every couple of months just to recharge. Next, optimise the time that you have available.

So as I mentioned before, a lot of surveys talk about being really aware of the finite amount of time that parents had do work, so make sure that you're making the most of these hours. Set learning goals, focus and figure out how to hack your day to create as much time as possible to add advance whatever goals you're putting forward for yourself. Next, we can only make this better if we are united. So, it wasn't until I truly felt like I was teeth ing under the stress that I reached out to other mum developers.

It wasn't until I reached out that I learned that lots of people felt the same way that I did. I found some excellent communities of moms in tech, and it's made a huge difference. Being able to speak with one another, and share challenges, solutions, and suggestions, is invaluable.

Just lying having a support group, when you have a newborn supporting one another as parents in tech makes us stronger, and better, and gives us a more united voice. Next: share that mental load. So I'm going to talk about moms for a moment, because mothers are disproportionately affected by the weight of mental load, although this happens in most partnerships. In 2015, the Pugh Research Centre interviewed 1,800 parents in households where they both work.

They asked who does the work of managing your children's schedules and activities? Who takes care of the kids when they're sick? Marie Kondo's series was a prime example of women being crushed by responsibilities. The number of moms who I talked to who told me they sat on the couch and cried while watching that show because they felt the same way was truly incredible.

The New York Times had an article in February about working mothers in Japan, and it spoke about how working mothers often work more than 49 hours a week and typically do close to 25 hours of housework a week, while their partners do an average of less than five. So let's say you have a partner, and let's say your partner's great which which I have found is a big assumption, and let's say that you feel like you've got a good split of work. You share pick-ups and drop offs, you share cooking, cleaning, et cetera. But what about the other stuff? So, who thinks about what the kids are going to eat for lunch? Who schedules doctor's appointments? Who knows what day school will be loafed? Who knows what child needs next developmentally and what is coming after that? Who buys the birthday presents? Who reviews homework? Who plans and packs for family trips? If you're already splitting this load, then I applaud you, but for many families, this isn't the case, so if you're not doing it already, share that load.

I will rink to a worksheet that can jump start this conversation. I put a checklist on the door on who needs what in order to leave the house in the morning.

I realised that I was taking on the mental burden of having to make sure that everybody was ready in the morning, even on the days that my husband was doing drop-off. With this list, we can both make sure that everyone has everything they need without me needing to be the one that bears that burden. Finally, if you need to leave your company, leave your company. Ultimately, if your company doesn't understand the lifestyle of you as a parent and doesn't allow you to be with your children when you need to be, then, if you can, try to leave. This advice came up over and over again in surveys, although admittedly, a lot has been filled out by senior-level developers.

So I that is disappear self-parent guilt, self-care days, find a community, share the mental load and leave if you have to. For your teams, remember just existing as a parent on your team makes your teams better. You're organised, you need to set boundaries, and you must have some sort of work-life balance. Being this role model helps everyone, even if they don't know that you're role-modelling it.

A little while ago, my team had an os site that I brought my family to. In order for me to be available for dinner and bedtime each evening, my day ended up at five and we didn't meet until 7.30. My team brought this about not knowing I had created that break because I needed to balance running the offsite with being present for my family.

When I told them the reason why the break existed, they saw that not only did that benefit me and my family but it also benefitted them by giving them a chance to recharge before evening activities. Finally, we're going to talk about what colleagues can do because colleagues with or without children have lots of power to make things better for team-mates and make companies better in general. First, ask about lactation rooms. If you live in a country where moms are still pumping when they return to work.

I was at a conference once in America, and I needed a place to pump, and I asked the front desk person if there was a space other than the bathroom to do so. He said, "I think we have a supply closet somewhere that you can use." Fortunately, there was a security guard standing nearby who walked over and said my wife's going through the same thing, I'm sure we can do better than a bathroom or supply closet, and let me look around for you quickly, and sure enough, they found me an empty office.

Mothers should not be alone in this fight. If you're company is moving into a new space or spending money building something out, suggest they make appropriate accommodations for mothers returning to work, and if they don't know what those are, there are plenty of women who would be happy to talk to them about it. Second, just be friendly. This one is easy, but when folks are coming back, ask what they're doing.

Coming back to work can be emotional, check in, show them that you care, and appreciated, and supported really makes a difference. Third, make your voice heard.

Someone suggests working late, or schedule late meetings, see someone criticising a parent for needing to take time because their child is sick or has a doctor's appointment, parents often feel really guilty about taking this time, or saying, "I have to go, I have to run to pick up my chilled." It's helpful for others on the team to speak up as well and say I know this meeting is running over, we want to be respectful of those with the hard stuff. Or is there any chance we can schedule this meeting earlier? I know it doesn't work for everyone's schedule. Finally, if someone uses a word or concept that you don't know, Google it. I like to think that most of us are pretty good at Google. We generally like learning new things, so if you don't know what pumping is, curious about childcare costs, never heard of a sleep progression or anything that the parent mentions on your team, Google it.

There are great resources out there to learn more. That summary is lactation rooms, be nice, speak up, and use Google. While there are specific things that colleagues can do to help parents, these actions benefit everyone and make teams stronger. These suggestions boil down to increasing empathy and curiosity, and an interest in your colleagues and their lives, as well as a desire to understand one another.

When these factors are incorporated into a team's DNA, it leads to stronger, more effective teams that can support and understand one another more effectively. You may ask about lactation rooms specifically to support parents on your team, but you're also learning to recognise difference situations where different accommodations are helpful. You're learning how to support team-mates by asking questions and figuring out how to be a better ally on your team, and teams that are strong in these areas help attract and remain more diverse talent.

There are some great resources out there. You can take a look at how your company is doing, or how companies you're looking at are doing. The number-one piece of advice that I got on surveys was that you will never get this time with your children back. So value it, prioritise it, and try to guard it as much as possible. There are some days that I still feel like I'm not sure I can be a successful mom and in tech, but there are some days that I can give 100 per cent to both areas, and others where I feel like I'm letting my family or my job down.

Oftentimes, though, I find myself calling on developer or manager strategies for effective parenting where or vice versa. I personally think this makes me a better manager and gives me more experiences and strategies I can call upon in a variety of situations. What I also learned through speaking with parents and people in the amazing parents that answered a few questions, is that the struggle that I face are not unique. It's important for all of us as a community, as developers, as colleagues, as peers, and managers to think about this.

I thought that everything that I was feeling was just me, but it's everyone. Everyone has similar concerns, and a lot of people have the same issues.

So let's think about how we can make it better, because they're solvable. Peers with or without children, managers, directors of engineering, we can make the lives of the parents in tech better which will ultimately make our teams and companies better. This research is ongoing, so feel free to check out my Twitter if you want to fill it out, and, parents, as one person wrote on their survey, just high-fives. You're awesome! Be confident! Thank you. [Applause].