WiAC '12: Overcoming My Biggest Roadblock, Myself / Sabrina Farmer

Hey! I was at the USENIX Women in Advanced Computing 2012 Summit yesterday and will be blogging the talks from it. You can view more of my posts about this conference under the wiac12 category on this blog.

Invited Talk: Overcoming My Biggest Roadblock, Myself

Speaker: Sabrina Farmer, Site Reliabity Engineer, Google Inc.

Sabrina started her talk by telling us that she has had a 17 year career in IT. She has been at google since 2005 and is now responsible for the of availability of Gmail worldwide. Her IT career started with her computer science degree, but she said, “I don’t think most people would guess what my journey was like.”
She feels very passionate about advocating for women and inspiring women, which is the reason for her to decide to give the talk today.
When Carolyn and Nicole first approached her about giving a talk at WiAC, she had no idea what to talk about. Nicole encouraged her to talk about her personal journey and successes rather than technical topics. “What is my success?” Sabrina asked herself. She went to three questions she’s used throughout her career to figure out what to do:

  • What’s the problem?
  • What’s the worst thing that could happen?
  • Is what I’m feeling real, or just my perspective?

After thinking through her successes through these questions and feeling that she came up short, she suddenly realized what she should talk about – the roadblocks she put up for herself in achieving and recognizing her own personal successes.
Sabrina had no intention to go to college when in high school. She and her three sisters were raised by a single mom who was a legal secretary. Sabrina’s first goal coming out of high school was just to have her own apartment, and her plan to achieve that was to follow her in mom’s footsteps and become a legal secretary – if her mom could support their family, surely she could support herself in that role. She came to find out that it’s really hard to get a position as a legal secretary: she had to compete with people who already had a college degrees when she had only graduated from high school. Sabrina ended up working in retail, where she had several older women co-workers who told her that they had the same plan she did and it didn’t work out – they were still in retail. She quickly decided that wasn’t what she wanted to do.
Sabrina visited the University of New Orleans, and was so convinced to go to school by that visit that she spent 6 months doing all of the college preparation that she’d skipped in high school. She was accepted to Computer Science department. Why did she pick computer science? She felt competent using computers, so she felt she could do computer science and that there was a lot of opportunity – it was not a passion for her, though.
There were 60 students in Sabrina’s first course in computer science, and surprisingly there was about a 50/50 ratio of men to women. It was a hard class and a struggle to get through. By the midterms, only 40 students were left; by finals, there were just 20 students left and Sabrina was the only woman. What happened? Did she miss a memo? That situation was the beginning of the imposter syndrome for Sabrina – she felt that she didn’t belong in the class and didn’t fit in.
She started to be very conserative, never talking in class or sharing with peers – she simply didn’t talk to people. Working on her projects alone was really isolating and she felt she was all by herself. She didn’t know about the imposter syndrome at the time, but it turns out that it was documented in 1978 so she simply wasn’t aware of it. Sabrina questioned her role in technology all throughout school. A professor she encountered in her third year was the first one she felt treated her like he treated everyone else. Slowly over time, she worked up the courage and one day when he asked a question during class, she answered it – and his reply was “No, that is absolutely wrong.”
It took everything she had to stay in that classroom to make it through. As soon as class was over, she bolted out and took refuge behind the library and cried under a tree. She felt like she didnt belong. A passer-by walked up to her and asked if she was okay – it was then that she realized what she was doing to herself, all over answering the wrong question. If someone else answered a question wrong in class, she didn’t give it a second thought – she only felt grateful that it wasn’t her. Thinking this through, she gave the class one more week. Nobody ever mentioned her wrong answer that day to her. The professor probably had no idea what happened. Sabrina stuck it out and graduated – the only woman in her class to graduate that year.
“What does success look like?” she asked herself. “How do I know if I’ve made it?” She decided success to her meant making twice as much as her mom did. When Sabrina graduated, she received two job offers. She accepted one and moved to California. Her starting salary was what her mom made after 20 years of work. Sabrina pushed herself at the beginning her career to seek out new opporuntities. A year later, she got an offer to move to Silicon Valley – this move doubled her salary. The day she cried under the tree behind the library, she never would have imagined that she would have met her definition of success only one year into career: she thought it would take a lifetime.
It was the late 90’s tech heyday when she moved to Silicon Valley. If there was something she didn’t know, she moved to that company to learn about it. She lingered near research at the beginning of her career because the field was friendly to women. She worked at NASA to learn about scale, she did data warehousing at WebMD. She also did a startup. If problem seemed impossible, she wanted to do it.
Whenever the imposter syndrome feelings came up, she asked herself those three questions:

  • What’s the problem?
  • What’s the worst thing that could happen?
  • Is what I’m feeling real, or just my perspective?

She used those questions in her personal life, too. It pushed her to try a triathalon. Then two triathalons. Then a marathon. After 10 years, she moved to Google because she wanted to see if she could work at one of the top companies in the Valley. The problems were hard and she could do them; her co-workers were great. Work was the main focus in her life. Leslie said in her talk that you don’t have to choose: Sabrina didn’t know that was true. She once told her husband that he’d lose if she was forced to choose between him and her career.
While at Google, she got pregnant. She realized things were going to change, but she didn’t think she had to put her goals on the sidelines. She thought the many women telling her that she would have to were wrong. She made the decision that she would never choose work over her children. After her daugher was born, she returned to Google and had a new manager because her team was re-organized. She had all new projects to take on. She felt ill-prepared… she felt that she was not able to maintain her pre-pregnancy productivity.
Then, her boss told her that she needed to travel every two weeks to Arizona. This was brutal while her daughter was still breastfeeding. She thought she had it all figured out and realized that it’s really hard to be a mom and have a career. She realized why so many women dropped out at that point in their lives. With her new family, she realized she hadn’t been answering her three questions for the new Sabrina – the working mom. She was answering them for the old Sabrina. You have to ask those questions for where you are at now.
But you dont have to sacrifice your goals. You don’t have to give up on them. You do, however, have to be open to changing the path to getting there. Since she had her daughter and son, she’s been promoted twice at Google. If you understand how Google works, you might realize this is a pretty significant feat. Now, she seeks mentors out, and also became a mentor. She had never done that before. Things change with a baby, but you don’t have to sacrifice your goals.
Then, she received a job offer to join the Gmail team. In Gmail, if something goes wrong, it’s in the news. You’re responsible for hundreds of millions of people’s email on that team. Her first press interview for Gmail was terrifying, but amazing. The next reporter asked for her by name. Having an outage in the NY Times would be really bad – it’s a very high risk position. You can’t, however, have success without failure – you won’t grow if you don’t fail along the way. It’s how you handle that failure that matters. The worst thing that can happen when you fail is probably not as bad as you think.
Sabrina has a great support system, people who keep her in check and who remind her what is real is not always what she’s feeling. She seeks out networking opportunities as much as she can. During Google’s leadership training program, she was put together with a group of women and felt she had nothing in common with them. Over time, these women became her closest advisors and have pushed her beyond her limits and helped her grow. After 17 years, it feels like she’s learning more and growing faster. If you dont have people you can go to and talk to, people who understand the path you’re on and the role that you’re in, you’re really missing something… you need these people.
Sabrina made suggestions for the women in the audience to build such a group for themselves. Get a group of women together and just have coffee in the morning. It’s amazing and so supportive to have a group that you can turn to. It will make you stronger and better. In this field, we’ve heard it all day – it’s not uncommon to be the only woman on your team. It’s not uncommon to experience the imposter syndrome inside you. It’s not uncommon to think about giving up and doing something different. It’s also not uncommon to achieve great success.
Don’t be your biggest roadblock. You’re harder on yourself than anybody else will be on you. If you want to see change, you have to be that change. We must regularly remeber to give back. She gets so much more out of it when she mentors someone.


(1) (Clea) Work-life balance one ofthe hardest things I have to handle. Getting grocery delivered, for example. During the first 12-15 years, there’s just no way I could have had kids or thought about it. Even now, every once in a while, I have to pull a 100-hour work week. How do you manage – do you still work the hours, or do you get more productive or…?

I call it work-life management, not balance. I dont know what balance looks like. I had to learn that I could solve bigger problems by focusing my time more than I did before. No more meetings all day, work all night. If I engage with my peers, I can get bigger things done. This will move you along in your career much faster. I have to be present for my children so I’ve set some boundaries with work, but I don’t think I’ve ever had to compromise my goals.
With the exception of being on call, I never work from home. Set the expectation to the people around you, and when you’re there do the best job that you can. It’s not an easy problem and the boundaries won’t be the same for everyone. I go to work early because no one is there – 7:30 AM.

(2) (Clea) One of the things you said is that you dont want Gmail on the front of the NY Times. When I start getting problems that will appear on the front of the NY Times, it means I’ve escalated to the point where the bat signal comes out and they get me and I’m the one who can solve it. Isn’t it nice to be at that level, to have that level of responsibilkity? I work hard to get there.

I don’t want my failures to be in the NY Times, but I want my product to be. It’s exciting to be in charge of the proudct. Press interviews were terrifying but a huge milestone.

(3) When you reflect back now on your days as a young scared college student, is it inspirational?

I definitely had that imposter inside of me. I had two ways of coping. I became a go-to moment for me – I survived that day. It also gave me a reminder. I created a scholarship for women in computer science.

(4) I’ve only been working for a year. I find myself working more than I should. Later, when I want to have kids, will it be a bad thing? I’ll reply emails from home if im not doing anything else. It’s not really expected, but I like what i do. Should I not being doing that now?

I hear people warn others about not doing that, but I don’t think you should worry about it. If you do it because you like it and want to – that’s fine. When it’s time for things to change, set that new expectation.

(5) (Pamela) You hoped everyone would stand up and say what they wanted to do – their goal, and talk about what they have accomplished. What is your goal? What did you accomplish?

I want to get more comfortable speaking in front of people and I want to get a promotion. I head up a diversity program in my department. There aren’t many women in the site reliability group at Google. I didn’t want to be the person running the diversity program, but I felt that it was important that someone own it, so I went to my colleagues to find people interested in it. I recruited people so I’m not doing it alone. We now have a team that works together.

(6) Marina suggested to the audience that we should look for opportunities for women in open source and forward them on to a computer science department. Even 2x a year is enough – she’s seen this make a difference in her summer coding outreach work.


  1. Sabrina Farmer says:

    Thanks for capturing this event and summarizing the talk.

  2. Lennie says:

    There is a mistake in the article:
    “by finals, there were just 20 women left and Sabrina was the only woman.”
    I guess it should be students, not women.

    1. mairin says:

      Fixed it, thanks!

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