Modern Engineer: Roo Harrigan

Roo Harrigan is a software engineer at Slack who found her coding calling after years of working around tech. We got together to get the scoop on her technical journey and how she stayed sane throughout it–you're not going to want to miss her wellness hacks.

Roo, what's your favorite part of what you do?

I love that I get a few hours each day to focus intensely on a puzzle. And I love that the puzzle varies constantly. Our work is highly collaborative at Slack; I am in touch with team members from a variety of disciplines daily. But in between our time in groups, after meetings or design reviews or discussion in-channel, I get to switch into a mode of focus where I am actually making something, and it feels good to make things. It feels the way I felt when I learned to play the piano, or paint, or played Ocarina of Time when I was a kid. It feels human.

In my old life, I was always 5 minutes late to everything, underslept and overcaffeinated, cramming together agendas and follow-up notes on airplanes or in rental cars, and though I’m proud of the work I did, I never carved out the time to cultivate the mental clarity required for great work.

At Slack, and in my role, I actually (sometimes!) have the time, resources, and support to do great, thoughtful work.  For me, there is a decently thin line between fulfilled and burnt out, and now I get to be, most days, firmly on the right side of that line.

We’d love to hear a bit about your story. How’d you get started?

My first job out of college was at a healthcare technology company in Wisconsin called Epic that makes a huge suite of hospital software. While at Epic, I became interested in mental and behavioral healthcare. Many of the psychiatrists and other mental health practitioners I met with through my work were frustrated with the product we were encouraging them to use. I started building relationships with these people to brainstorm how we could make the product better to accommodate them.

What do you think helped you succeed there?

I had a LOT of ideas. I compiled lists of suggestions and sketches, and spent time talking to pretty much anyone who would meet with me about why we should build a specific product for this group of users. And eventually, they let me do it. I was given a small team of people to work on developing a product with associated clinical content for inpatient behavioral healthcare workflows! For the first time, I wasn’t spending 12 hours a day talking with customers; I was interacting with an interdisciplinary group of internal people that included software developers.

Working with developers–is that when the coding bug hit?

Yes. As I got to know the software developers I worked with, I became intensely jealous of them. They were actually making the thing I had been clawing for us to make, and what was better, they had time to do it. Their schedules weren’t clouded with giant blocks of meetings or check-in’s, they weren’t answering hundreds of emails a day. They were thinking about hard problems. I wanted desperately to be among them.  I investigated making the switch internally at Epic, but they don’t accept applicants without a specific set of undergraduate credentials, so I quit, applied to a software development boot camp, and moved to California. I finished Hackbright in December 2015 and started work at Slack two months later.

We're all about information here. Can you think of a time you learned something that made you feel more powerful?

Learning to write code is the most powerful skill I have, and I encourage anyone who is even remotely interested to dip a toe in and see if they like it.  You’ve got a computer in your pocket or your purse, and you should know how it works. Software development certainly can’t solve everything, but it’s showing up in every vertical market on the planet, so no matter what you are passionate about, code might help you elevate that passion into a side-hustle or a career.

How do you stay sane? What are some of your favorite habits for wellness?

Some of my Autumn mantras are: Do less. Go analogue. Get outside. Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive. (That last one is lyrics, from the Mountain Goats). Here are a some habits I’m working on now that have helped me find moments of peace in 2017:

  • Don’t look at your phone in the morning until you’re out the door. I got this one from resident boss-lady at Slack Julie Grace. After my alarm goes off, I go through my morning routine and get out the door before I pull out my phone. This prevents me from falling into a Slackhole or setting off a Twitter cortisol spike, which can lead to me wasting 20 minutes standing in the hallway staring at this tiny computer in my hand.
  • Say nice things to yourself aloud. This is hard, because the voice in my own head can be terribly mean. I practice in my mirror at home sometimes. If I can’t think of anything to say I call up a close friend and we practice with each other. The stories we tell ourselves are the stories that come true.
  • Put your money where your anxiety is. There is an endless river of terrible things happening on the news these days. And for me, like so many others, it can be anxiety-inducing to try to stay informed while wrestling with the aching despair of feeling like there is nothing you can do. But if I can find a charity or activist group that is helping with, say, a hurricane or fire relief effort, maybe I can send them $10. I know that’s not much, it’s a micro-donation (I’m not in a financial position to be a bigger philanthropist yet) but it helps. It matters. And making a habit out of giving like this feels good; you get the relief of taking some action, and the organization gets, well, maybe $8.50 after processing fees. That’s not nothing.
  • Give up weekday TV. I’m not saying no TV ever, but for me it’s been very liberating to leave TV behind. At night I read, I write, and I listen to podcasts that lift me up, like Call Your Girlfriend. I stopped texting so much and actually call my girl friends; we talk about our lives and ideas and the things we wish could be. I cook myself lavish dinners once in awhile. I go to events that interest me around the city.  I’m in a book club. Sometimes I just walk around my neighborhood.  It seems obvious, but when I stopped watching TV I started feeling a much greater sense of presence and purpose. I stopped imagining myself somewhere else and started being here.
  • Sleep trumps all. If I don’t sleep enough, my workouts suffer, I crave food I usually find revolting, I’m a worse friend, a worse employee, a worse citizen.  I’ve tried a million different health and wellness fads, but this year I’m focusing on falling in love with sleep again and ladies and gentlemen, it is working.

What is the best piece of advice you've ever gotten? 

Find a backchannel. This was the first piece of advice Duretti Hirpa gave me at Slack. For every company you ever work at, every large group you’re ever in, find your way to a backchannel of like-minded individuals and individuals you want to be more like. And get comfortable with them, build trust and share secrets and make plans to build each other up.

As one of my mentors at work recently wrote “If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.” In my line of work, that means assembling a group of lady, femme, and nonbinary engineers who know what it’s like to come up in this industry and are interested in and incentivized to help one another shine.

How do you think about fertility information? 

I want as much information about my body as I can possibly get.  Knowing where we stand fertility-wise can help women (and potentially their partners) start thinking and talking about their family goals with some real data at their fingertips, instead of just the “wait and see” approach we’ve been taught is the only option. As a single 28-year-old woman, I’m starting to think about what I want the next decade of my life to look like, and I’m pretty sure that vision includes having children. If I can find out whether, in order to extend the amount of time to execute on that vision, I need to explore an option like freezing eggs, then heck yes sign me up for that test. Especially if it’s affordable and comes right to my door. Wink wink.

What does being a Modern woman mean to you?

Have you seen Mad Max, the most recent one? For most of the movie, the women and Max are trying to escape to the Green Place of the Many Mothers for a better life. But they get there and it’s dead. They realize out there’s no such thing as a safe space on this earth and they have to drive all the way back through the desert to the warlord’s city-state they came from and take it over. To me, the life of Furiosa (Charlize Theron’s character) is an allegory of the modern woman. She has no interest in denying her gender, no desire to be “one of the boys.” She’s focused on raising up the people around her, on doing more than surviving, on claiming what’s hers.

She does not have time for petty bullshit because she is busy building a coven of likeminded individuals or a social movement or an empire (or all three).

She never worried about “having it all”. She’s going after only the things she truly wants. That’s the dream, anyway.



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