Commentary on ‘How did you find your co-founder(s)?’

Valerie Aurora wrote How did you find your co-founder(s)?, about the very early days of the Ada Initiative containing the “moonshot email” we also referred to in our article Funding activism for women in open source last April.

It contains the following unpromising description of me (at that time):

The very first person to reply was Mary, a PhD student and primary carer for an 11-month-old baby who lived across the Pacific Ocean from me and whom I’d met in person only twice before. Our only previous joint venture had failed miserably (the great Attempted LinuxChix Coup of 2007). Less than two months later, we were sitting on her parents’ porch in Orange, writing up budgets and discussing how to keep her PhD supervisor from having a fit when he found out she’d started a business. 4 years later, we are running a growing, healthy non-profit that’s changing the world. (Mary also has a PhD and a second child.)

So how did that all work out? Other than healthy and growing and changing the world?

Why did I do it? That email was sent in December 2010. Negative/less promising reasons first: by then I had fairly firmly decided that I wouldn’t pursue an academic career. I didn’t publish enough, and particularly not prestigously enough, during my PhD to make an academic career likely without a big turnaround, and I had a child and husband whom I didn’t want to drag around the world for postdocs. My husband also had a salaried job (at the time, he worked at Canonical, in 2011 he moved to Google) and is generally uninterested in risky career choices; and in addition, at the time I earned very little income: my PhD scholarship had run out years before, and I had a few very low-hours academic support jobs only. Unless I went into debt, we had lots of room for me to make risky career choices: I didn’t even have a career to risk, and further, we were already living on one income.

Positively: at that point, I believed I had two career options that I had some background for. The one that wasn’t academia was open source software. In addition to volunteering for LinuxChix for years (although I was only coordinator for a few months in 2007), I had done a lot of volunteer work for the Sydney Linux Users Group and, and I am a programmer, so the open source/open source associated end of software development seemed like the other. While “advocacy for women in open source” (we quickly widened to “open technology and culture”) wasn’t exactly that, it wasn’t completely out of left field either. The unproven aspect was whether there was liveable money in it, and my family had a cushion to find that out.

The unknown co-founder. I think Val is underselling that a touch. It’s true that we’d only met a couple of times, and not recently. (We’d met in California in 2004 and Sydney in 2007.) In addition, we’d not been in contact between 2007 and 2009. But we had done a lot of online collaboration prior to 2007, and after the formation of the Geek Feminism project in 2009. The big risk was, probably, that we wouldn’t like each other personally for extended periods, but we actually had a fair amount of practice doing work together.

How did my PhD supervisor react? First, it’s probably worth noting that I was enrolled part-time at that point (a change I sought after my baby’s birth on the grounds of caring responsibilities, the university wouldn’t have allowed it for employment purposes), so I had considerable time in the week that notionally didn’t belong to the university. The main conflict between the company and the PhD was in early 2011, before the Ada Initiative paid me, when I only had a few days of childcare each week and used them for both purposes. Once I was being paid, I bought additional childcare days and had a better firewall between them.

My former supervisor knows where I work and what I do now — we still have lunch every month or two — but to this day I don’t know how aware he is of the timeline of when it started. But lots of stuff was going on there: we were both part-time, and both had caring responsibilities for young children. It wasn’t the stereotypical situation of the single-mindedly driven late middle-aged professor and the conflicted young woman student with work-life balance issues. (People don’t really look to me as a model of work-life balance.)

The baby thing. Yeah, well. I think starting a business, having a PhD in progress and a little kid is somewhere between one and two too many things. I think my husband would say “between two and three”; there is a reason my children have a four year age gap between them, one of them had to wait on the PhD. (I was pregnant again at my graduation.) But probably my most questionable decision was…

The finishing the PhD thing. I recently spoke to someone who had lost contact with me in 2009 and we spoke for half an hour about my business before I mentioned in passing that I’ve finished the PhD. They couldn’t hide their shock.

I don’t know that I can bring myself to say I should have made a different decision about whether to continue it, but I might advise other people to do so. To be fair, in early 2012 when I did the bulk of the work finishing it, the Ada Initiative was still a fledgling with a longer life by no means assured, and me taking unpaid study leave was helpful in a really narrow sense for its finances. Broadly though, as I said, between one and two too many things.

Conclusion. I think identifying a workable co-founder relationship is non-trivial, but then, I don’t even know how one chooses a career. Co-found your next company with me today!