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Human Readable
34 MIN

Ep. #2, Active Listening with Kedasha Kerr of GitHub

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In episode 2 of Human Readable, Lo Etheridge and Rizel Scarlett speak with Kedasha Kerr of GitHub. They discuss the skills Kedasha acquired during her time as a social worker and how she's currently utilizing those skills as a developer advocate. This talk explores various communication styles, insights on conflict resolution, the importance of community acceptance, tips for handling large career transitions, and what it means to practice active listening.

Kedasha Kerr is a developer advocate at GitHub who enjoys creating content to engage the developer community. Prior to her career transition into tech, Kedasha was a social worker.


Lauren "Lo" Etheridge: All right, everyone. Let's welcome our guest, Kedasha. Kedasha, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today. How are you doing?

Kedasha Kerr: I'm great. How are you? Thank you so much for having me.

Lo: I'm doing well. How are you doing, Rizel?

Rizel Scarlett: I'm doing awesome. I'm doing amazing.

Lo: Fantastic. All right. Let's get into it, so before you became a software engineer and a developer advocate, you were a social worker. Can you talk a little bit about your day to day for the people listening who maybe are unfamiliar with social work duties or the type of work you did?

Kedasha: Yeah. So I studied social work in college, and right out of college I worked with the Florida DCF as a Child Protective Investigator. So what did that include? That included me doing a lot of case notes, doing a lot of work with police officers, going to the court house to advocate for a kid's safety and sometimes having to remove children from their homes because of unsafe conditions.

I've also worked with a few domestic violence shelters as a victim advocate, so I ensured that clients had everything they needed when they left a very dangerous situation. Sometimes in the middle of the night we'd have women come into the safe house to stay, so we just had to make sure that they were comfortable, they had everything they need, they had counseling. We set them up with services.

After that I've also worked as a case manager, so a case manager is someone that goes out into the community and meets with clients and helps people with their basic needs, is what I would say. So housing, food, school, medical. Just connecting individuals with government services that they qualify for, and helping them to advance in their lives and become more stable humans.

Then I got tired of being client facing, so I worked in government and in the government portion of things I was on the finance side. Don't ask me how I went from being on the streets to working in the finance department. But I was doing a lot of accounting, accounts payable, receivables, grant billing, so that was the full gamut of my role as a social worker. Then I just got tired of it all.

Lo: Yeah, I feel that. Transitions happen all the time. I transitioned myself from social work and was doing syringe exchange and very much out in the community with people and working with folks, and doing a lot of community based programs, to doing full time web development and software work within the context of social work still, and community based program work. So I get it, sometimes you just need a break from those sort of very people facing work, which can be super intense and it's a lot of communication skills involved there. So I totally get that.

Kedasha: Yeah, it's absolutely intense and it's a lot of emotional work, and I think that's why I got so exhausted, just because of the emotionality of it. And just seeing the struggle every single day, it was a lot.

Rizel: Yeah, I can understand that. And just to add, it's realistic for people to have different career journeys and paths. I know especially when you're young, you're like, "Oh, this is the one thing I'm going to be doing." But then you realize, "Wait a minute, it's wavy." I went from drawing people's blood as a phlebotomist to doing help desk to doing software engineering, so I get that. I notice that it's emotionally draining, so I can imagine that there's conflicts happening.

In a perfect world there would be no conflicts in your role as a social worker, but I have a bit of a loaded question for you, I guess. The first part of the question is what did conflict resolution look like for you as a social worker? What did that communication look like? Were there any techniques that you used, or how did you adapt your communication style when speaking with different people?

Kedasha: Yeah, that is such a great question.

I think for me, conflict resolution has a lot to do with active listening and making sure that we hear exactly what the person is saying and not what we think they're saying. So active listening for me, means not thinking about anything else but what the person is saying. You know how sometimes somebody is saying something to us and we're already thinking about our response? We can't wait for them to stop so we can say what we want to say? So active listening, that is not active listening. Active listening is giving your full attention to somebody who is talking so they know that you're listening, they're there and they're important to you and their issue is of importance to you and you really want to help them.

So I tried to make sure that I was doing that as much as possible because that was a part of my training. Instead of telling a client what I think they need to know, or where I think they need to be, I try to meet them where they are. So of course different clients would be in different situations at any given moment, so that's something that I would always try to do; meet them where they are, not where I think they should be or what they should be doing.

But, for example, if somebody is facing a homeless situation and they're just like, "Hey, I'm really going to be losing my home next week. How can you help me?" Instead of me saying, "Oh, but why didn't you..." Instead of blaming them, it's just like, "Okay, let's apply for X program with X county to see if you can get some money or to see if they can give you a voucher so you can stay in your home for the next month, and then we can figure out how you can get a job." Right?

So instead of trying to tell them, "Why didn't you get a job?" It's just like, "Okay. Let's solve the problem first, and then we can figure out a longer term solution." So that's mostly how I communicated with a lot of my clients that I had. I tried to reach them where they were. It's a lot of empathy, it's a lot of listening, it's a lot of patience because sometimes I would provide all the resources... One thing about me, I'm resourceful, I'm going to find the resources, and I even do that now.

I do that now as a software engineer and a content creator, I will find the resources for you. But if I find something for you and I provide it to you and you don't do the work, I can't handle it because I can't do the work for you. That was a lot of my frustration as a social worker, a lot of times it was like, "I'm doing all this work for you, but you're not willing to sit down and complete a form in order to improve your situation." Hopefully that answers your question.

Rizel: No, it does, it does. And it brings up that same experience even though I'm not a social worker, of even in running G-Code or being a developer advocate, people will reach out to me, "Hey, can you help me get to this and do that?"Then I tell them, and it feels like they want me to do the work for them. You can bring a horse to water, but you can't make them drink it. Is that the right term?

Kedasha: Yeah.

Rizel: Wait, Lauren. I'm curious for you too. I know you were a social worker, what did conflict resolution and communication look like for you?

Lo: So very similar to what Kedasha was saying, and I will just add to that that I think what active listening really is being present, right? So very much I think in my social work situation and particularly in cases of harm reduction where you're dealing with a lot of humans who are experiencing addiction or active drug use and various other circumstances that arise from extended periods of drug use or active addiction, you have certain circumstances like homelessness or joblessness.

All kinds of these very crisis oriented situations that can pop up, but also just people being very functional drug users and having very real jobs and understanding that sort of life experience and being able to be present in a conversation with someone and not have this script in your mind. Because I think a lot of times when we have any kind of role, whether that be a social worker or community manager or DevRel, dev advocate, you have these built in scripts in your mind when you're talking to someone in that context.

But sometimes it's not relevant to what the person is actually saying to you, so that's why you have to be very much active and present in that conversation because sometimes what someone is saying is, "No, I'm not ready to go to rehab." Or, "I'm not ready to go to this program." But if you have a script in your mind that's pushing rehab, you're not actually going to provide the services that you need for that person.

In the same way that you speak to people in your tech community or in the greater community of the company that you work for, people don't all have... or approach problems in the same way, so make sure you're actually listening to the person, listening to what they have going on and being present. I think it's a big thing. But also just to comment about some other things that were said, I think sometimes we as either social workers or DevRel folks or Dev advocates, we have this idea in our mind that our resources didn't work if the person didn't follow through, and we take that very emotionally and personally.

Kedasha: True.

Rizel: That's definitely me.

Lo: Yeah. I think it's all of us, right? Because we're doing this kind of work because we want to help people, even in the tech space. We want to help people, we want to provide access, we want as many people to get in the door as possible. But I think that taking a step back and really thinking about what is my angle? My angle is to provide resources, and provide a way for this to happen. I have no control over whether or not people actually get on that path or actually use those resources.

However, that doesn't mean that just because these people did not do that, that the next people won't so you've got to keep doing it, right? I think it's sometimes really hard to stay motivated, particularly when you have situations go wrong or you've done all this work and you feel like people are not following through. But just recognizing what you do have control over is always providing those resources and being present.

Kedasha: I definitely feel like Lauren is calling me out because that is 100% me. I low-key get so upset, I don't show my community that I'm upset because that's not the environment I foster, but behind the scenes I'm just like, "Wow. Really? You asked me for this, I provided it to you and still you're here."

But I think it's also realizing that people have varied experiences and where a person is today is not where they will be tomorrow because life happens, and it's a matter of offering grace.

So thank you for that perspective, I will try to practice more patience behind the scenes.

Lo: Yeah, I'm calling myself out too because I know how it is to have that kind of passion, right? And want these things to happen, but I just always try to keep in my mind that you don't know what's going on with people. Sometimes people are just in your tech community because they want community, and even if they are approaching you for help or a solution, sometimes they just want to be seen and heard, and that is enough. So whether or not they actually take actionable items from what you're giving them, sometimes people just want to feel a part of things and that is okay.

Kedasha: That is okay.

Rizel: Yeah, that was a really good reminder. In running G-Code, the third cohort, I felt like I'd failed because I'm like, "Most of the students didn't move onto software engineering roles like the other cohorts did. I don't even think they cared. I probably didn't relay the information well, or something like that." But you're right, maybe they just weren't ready or maybe they were just looking for community or whatever was going on. So thank you for that.

Lo: Right. And that's the thing with putting yourself out there and offering these things and being vulnerable, and wanting to do all of these things. The end result may not be what you wanted, but that doesn't mean it wasn't valuable, and even if people don't do the exact thing that you were trying to help them to do, it doesn't mean that you didn't provide valuable information or that they still didn't glean nuggets of information or things to take on even if they choose a different path.

I think it's good, in terms of G-Code or any community, I think if people are staying in there, there's a reason that they're there. And so if they didn't want to be, they wouldn't. People have a lot of choices in the ways that they spend their time, right? So if there's something that is, one, keeping them there and they want to be there, then sometimes that is just like I said, literally I want to be in a space with other people. Sometimes that's, "I want to be in a space with other people who look like me." It can be all kinds of things going on. I try to keep that in mind, and I was calling myself out too just as a reminder, "Hey, remember that there's all these other things in play."

Kedasha: See, you can tell that Lauren had a lot more experience as a social worker than I did, because that knowledge just comes with years of experience in dealing with people.

Lo: Yeah. I think particularly when I became a social worker, I had a lot of really great mentors, I think, that helped instill some of that onto me beforehand and during, and after.

I think that's what I particularly take into my work now as a DevRel in the community, it's that you never know what is going to grab someone when you're talking to them. It may not be the technical thing that you said, it may just be that you were kind and you were nice and you listened, and you were there when they needed a space to say something.

Rizel: I'm curious then, what problem solving skills, in addition to the ones that y'all already brought up, did y'all learn from doing social work that can be applied to tech communities?

Kedasha: I think one of the most underrated problem solving skills is how to communicate efficiently. Instead of screaming at each other, like people often do on Twitter, it's good to come together and have an adult conversation. It's just so both sides feel like their points are getting across, and the other person is understanding their perspective.

I think a lot of times we forget that communication isn't talking at people, it's speaking with people, and showing empathy and compassion and understanding. We can all agree to disagree, that's okay. We all have different opinions and perspectives, so I think a lot of times and especially in tech and especially on Twitter, I see it a lot, people forget that people are allowed to have their opinions and you don't have to agree with everyone.

I think that's such an important point. It's something that's really valuable that I took away from my career as a social worker, it's just that people are people and everyone has different experiences that informs your decision, that informs your thinking, that informs your way of life, and there's nothing wrong with it. If it's not your cup of tea, then it's not your cup of tea. Just leave it be. I think that's definitely something I use in the tech community, just let people be.

Rizel: Yeah. Everyone on Twitter needs to learn that. I've been in jobs where they don't seem to accept that idea either. But Lauren, you were going to say something.

Lo: I was just going to say too, the power of not speaking, right? I think that is one of probably the most useful things that I use from my social work days, in my tech career now. Especially as a DevRel. The power of not speaking can also be translated. There's lots of things like the WAIT method which we'll maybe get into in another episode, but the WAIT method is an acronym and it stands for Why Am I Talking?

So really thinking about when you're having a conversation with someone or a dialog or what have you, what is my reason for speaking? Am I just speaking to be heard? What do I want to come out of what I'm saying? What is it that I want to be understood? So thinking about those things when you're talking and communicating, particularly I think as a DevRel, social worker, community manager, all of those things, is super important.

Kedasha: Yeah. I think something else to say is something that I implement is... I call it Block and Delete, so if somebody makes a really nasty, negative comment, I don't allow it to affect me and I don't allow it to affect my community. Instead, I delete the comment and I block the person so they can't interact with the space I'm building anymore because I feel like it takes so much energy to be negative and to respond to that negativity, and then it can be sometimes drawn out. I just don't have the space for that.

Something else I do is I love to clarify a lot, I love to ask a lot of clarifying questions. Instead of assuming this is what the person meant, I'm just like, "Oh, can you give me an example of whatever we're talking about?" Just so I understand where they're coming from, instead of letting my preconceived notions inform where they're coming from. I think clarification is so needed in tech communities.

Lo: Yes. And also just this thing of repeating what people say back to you, or what you heard them say. "My understanding of what you said is this, is this correct?" Just further on the clarification tip, like, "Am I hearing you or did I read correctly what you're trying to say?" Because that goes along to, I think, what Rizel and I were talking about with Demetrius in our last episode, which was intention versus impact, right?

And if you're really trying to sus out a scenario or an incident that happens in your community, figuring out the gap between intention and impact and being able to really explain that, you really have to know what went on and what's going on. So asking those clarification questions; super, super needed and it should be a skill that every DevRel or community manager who's working within a tech community should deploy.

Kedasha: Absolutely.

Rizel: I like the Block and Delete method, as long as they know the code of conduct. I do feel like sometimes communities have a code of conduct, then you have a bad actor and sometimes I don't see people hold them accountable and be like, "Hey, you're not following the rules. You're making other people feel bad." So I think it's important to, like you said, let them know like, "Hey, this is the reason why you're getting blocked, and you can't be part of this community anymore. No exceptions, these are the consequences that were laid out."

Lo: Right. And if it's a temporary, "These are the conditions in which you may come back." Because I'm a firm believer in a restorative process, and it's one of the things that I'm trying to implement in the Sanity community, which is sometimes there is a need for temporary suspension or a temporary timeout from the community.

But if you just send someone away and say, "You violated our code of conduct, here's why you violated. You're going to have a timeout for X amount of time," if you don't provide any, like, "Here are the conditions in which you can come back or attempt to come back, this is what you need to do and these are the things you need to understand," then you're just bringing someone back who maybe fully doesn't even understand what they did or why they had a timeout, and may produce the same behavior again.

So if you were in a situation where you're going to allow people to come back, and everyone just decides on what that behavior is and where that threshold is and where that line is, you need to have some restorative work happen there.

Kedasha: Ooh, hey. Can I know what conditions that people can come back on? I'm curious as to what that looks like.

Lo: It depends on what it is, right? I think it depends on level of severity, because sometimes some people just need to be gone and that's it. But when it is, and this is obviously after some clarification... So one, you have to have time to do this kind of work because you need to actually have time to invest and doing an investigation and figuring that out.

It may be that, okay, you're still going on a timeout, here's why you're going on a timeout. In order for you to come back, you need to go through some kind of education process and give some resources. But that means that on the backend, when that person is able to come back, someone needs to follow up and unpack that situation and have a, "Do you understand? Do you have any questions about the educational materials that were given to you? Is it clear to you now what is expected of you in terms of behavior and communication in this space?"

And I fully recognize and am totally realistic that that is not always feasible for every tech community, but there are still some pieces that you could take away from something like a restorative process that has a heavy enforcement backend. So that means that you have a living, working code of conduct that updates regularly. What I mean by updates regularly, it changes, the world changes, society changes.

All of your things that provide a guide for expected communication and behavior should also change within your community space. So you have that to back you up, and you have clear expectations within that of what to do and what not to do, what happens when you do a thing that you should not do in this community. So if you have those pieces in place, then you can implement some of these strategies right. But if you have a situation where you just have a code of conduct and you link to it off on your website, but you never really refer to it, it's kind of like this dead document.

Rizel: It's like a checkbox, code of conduct done.

Lo: Yeah. One of the things I think too that is really good about community base work and social work in particular, is really good about repetition of resources and repetition of education. I feel like a code of conduct needs to be [inaudible] why?

Don't show people code of conduct one time, show them in multiple ways, bits and pieces, all the time, remind people this is what we do in this space, this is how we talk to each other in this space, this is how we communicate in this space, this is how we behave to our other community members. Then we all, as DevRels, model that behavior so that then you create a positive reinforcement for engaging in the positive ways that we want to see in the community.

Rizel: I love it, super insightful.

Lo: I kind of want to ask about, but I don't know if it's a spicy take for you, about what parts of tech communities have you observed that are broken or could be improved? I don't feel like it's that spicy.

Kedasha: I love a spicy take. I am not very spicy online.

Lo: I just mean have you participate... Maybe have you participated in a tech community that was, even as a participant, that you observed was like, "Oh, this is not how things should go or could be better"?

Kedasha: I think a lot of times it's just the responses or lack of responses to questions that community members have. That gets to me the most. I don't know. I guess it's just like if you see you're going to have a community, I expect the community to be well managed, and I expect if somebody asks a question, especially a well intentioned or a well informed question, that it gets a good response. Otherwise the silence is deafening a lot of times for me, and it makes me not want to engage or be a part of the community anymore because I'm not going to be listened to. As humans, we all just want to be heard and seen, and not being seen in a community that tells me that I will be seen, it's disheartening.

Lo: Definitely. I think along those lines, I will allow this newish content management system to remain anonymous, but recently I was in a community of a sort of popular content management system or becoming popular. Their community, and this is coming from the people who were organizing the community, so the community managers and the DevRel of this community, I thought were setting a very toxic tone.

And so at the beginning of their help channel, for instance, it has some instructions about how you ask questions and the very last part of that section says, "If you ask a question in here, we assume that you've already done X, Y, Z." And I just felt like, one, the tone and the way in which it was written and having it there at all was so condescending and it didn't take in, one, all of those things that we have just talked about. Which is people's life experience, people who are in the community, and not really understanding some basic human behavior.

Most people who ask technical questions in a space like that, they are coming to you at peak frustration, which means that they have already tried on their own to solve this problem. So when they come in that space, they may seem a little bit, what to you is maybe emotional, but is just desperation because they have tried all that they know how to do and they are at peak frustration.

So if you come into a community and you're using that product, and then you see something like that, I just feel like it sets a horrible tone for the community and an example for how everyone should behave because that means that other people in the community who may want to help and do the right thing and help other community members, they are going to also adopt that tone.

So you may get a response of, if I come in and say I need help with this, the community member might ask people, "Did you try this? Did you try that? Did you look up there?" And that's not really, I think, a collaborative learning environment, welcoming environment that you'd want to set. So that was one of the things that I just saw recently that I could not believe.

Kedasha: Yeah. Language and understanding how to, again, communicate with people.

I think it's just the biggest pitfall, and I strongly believe that communication and empathy are the most important skills in tech. You can learn technical skills, you can learn all the tools and the knick-knacks that you need to do your job. But when it comes to communicating and communicating with empathy, and meeting people with respect, it takes being very intentional with the words you use and how you say those words.

It's wild. Sometimes it's wild in the wilds.

Lo: So wild. I was like, "What? Say what?" I immediately was like, "I'm leaving. I don't even want to be here."

Rizel: No, that's something I'm super passionate about. I guess I haven't built that many communities in terms of open source communities and stuff like that around the product, but I'm super passionate about how we approach people who are trying to learn or need to get help because I just hate to hear people say, "Did you Google it?" I feel like most times when someone is coming to you for help, they did Google it.

Lo: Yeah, they definitely have.

Rizel: Because people don't want to ask for help, so it's like, "All right, this is my last resort. Hey, I need help." And then you've got someone like, "Did you Google it?" That always makes me shutdown a little bit and I'm like, "All right, I'll just Google it again because that's their response." But I think I know that software engineers want to be efficient and time saving or whatever, blah, blah, blah, people in tech, so to me it's easier or better if you're like, "Hey, awesome. Happy to help you. What have you tried already? What's the end goal? And then what result did you see?"

I feel like oftentimes you're like, "Oh, I don't want to waste time helping this person and then we're going back and forth." Those three questions should answer what you need very quickly and you'll be able to help them. I don't know. I try to use that framework, especially with junior engineers because I hate, hate, hate to hear, "Did you Google it?"I'm like, "Duh, of course they did."

Lo: Yeah. And I think what you're really talking about is definitely another social work thing, right? Which is reframing. It's asking, "Did you Google it" in a different way, but it's in addition to. "What all have you done?" Which is a totally different tone and it comes across completely different. It's a much more empathetic way of, one, acknowledging that the person is actually asking you for help, and two, saying, "All right, I'm going to help you. But so we don't repeat ourselves, what have you done already?"