My ADHD founder toolbox

Since I last wrote about ADHD at length, I’ve had a zillion conversations with people about it and heard from over a dozen people who’d pursued diagnosis after reading some of my yammerings. Clearly this means I should keep yammering, since it seems to be helpful 🙂

More recently, I’ve been having an increasing number of conversations with other founders who have ADHD or have been struggling during the pandemic and are curious if ADHD is at fault. The uncertainty and ambiguity of being a founder can be ADHD kryptonite. For me, the experience of learning to tackle my ADHD and learning to run a company is hard to separate given that I literally got my diagnosis on the second day of my YC batch in 2018. I’ve made many mistakes (so, so many) over the last nearly 4 years, but I’ve learned a hell of a lot as well.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

After meeting the founders last summer during their YC batch, I’ve been pretty consistently using the app InFlow, which I described to a friend as “super chill easy cognitive behavioural skill-building around ADHD.” I feel like I’ve made real progress using it. I’ve done about half the content in it – lots of stuff I’d read an article on at some point and forgotten, some stuff that’s 100% new. It’s a good mix of novelty and reinforcement. The bite-size audio format and super concrete exercises seem to work really well for me. They have text for each audio segment too, so I can look and see what word I missed when I get momentarily distracted.

I’ve been noodling on is this quote from a cognitive therapy book about ADHD for about a month now, and it honestly keeps rocking my world every time I re-read it:

Regarding the long-range management of ADHD, it is important to point out that the relapse rate for ADHD is 100%. It is certain that ADHD adults, even if they are adherent treatment responders to a textbook combination of evidence-based treatments, will encounter problems resulting from executive dysfunction, motivational deficits, or for- getting to use effective coping strategies. Thus, rather than viewing such unavoidable slip- ups in all-or-nothing terms (e.g., “I guess I’m still at square one.”), CBT encourages the use of a problem-management approach (e.g., “What factors contributed to this situa- tion? What can I do to handle it and to minimize its occurrence?”). This harkens back to our notion that CBT for adult ADHD provides a framework for understanding how dif- ficulties arise as well as companion coping strategies with which to make changes.

from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Adult ADHD: An Integrative Psychosocial and Medical Approach, By J. Russell Ramsay, Anthony L. Rostain (emphasis mine)

It’s just such a poignant reminder that this is just a thing to accept and work around. That things will ebb and flow, there’ll be good days and bad days. We’ll build skills and forget them and remember them again and this time write them on a sticky note on the monitor and then the sticky note’s adhesive will wear off and we’ll forget until the next time around the sun when we’re like oh, what was that skill? I’ll try that again. And the trick is doing it with grace and self-acceptance and just trying to get a little better each time.

I haven’t read the whole book (someone quoted the line about relapsing in a Slack I’m in and I hunted down the origin) and it’s a bit more clinician-focused than I think I’ll end up needing, but I also recently picked up “Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Adult ADHD: Targeting Executive Dysfunction Paperback” (🇨🇦 link) by Mary V. Solanto after seeing it mentioned in one of Dr. Russell Barkley’s Youtube videos and it’s next on my stack after the brand new edition of Dr. Barkley’s Taking Charge of Adult ADHD (🇨🇦 link).

In his recent interview on the Ologies podcast, Dr. Barkley describes ADHD as “one of the most impairing disorders we treat in an adult outpatient basis.” [Holy crap it’s such a good conversation; heads up that they talk about a car crash Dr. B was in earlier this year at the start of the episode]. This shit is hard, yo. One of the reasons ADHD causes suffering is that you can’t get anything done; the other is the self-flagellation that comes with the consequences of ADHD. Reducing one’s suffering from ADHD needs to come from both ends: improve the functioning, but also increase the self-compassion. I wrote in my previous post about how well the non-stimulant ADHD med Intuniv/Guanfacine worked for me, as has a semi-regular meditation practice including lovingkindness meditation (shout out to the Ten Percent Happier app, which was what finally made meditation stick for me). I’ve since stopped taking Intuniv because a couple of years on it unwound some of my patterns of negative self-talk so well that when I stopped taking it… my internal monologue no longer just constantly yells at me about how much I suck. It’s nice. Highly recommend not yelling at yourself constantly.


I was on too low a dose of stimulant medication for my first 3 years post-diagnosis. My wonderful new Canadian GP identified this last year and upped my dose, and I’ve been a lot more functional. I definitely had some internalised shame/guilt/ablism/idk that had me taking as little medication as I could notice any effect on, and fundamentally it just wasn’t enough to effectively treat my ADHD.

I also went from taking nothing on weekends to taking half my weekday dose. My life on the weekend doesn’t need as much executive function, but it doesn’t not need any, and with half a dose I’m able to get more Life Stuff done on the weekends. It helps me remember to call my friends, and be able to read more than a paragraph of a book without getting distracted. I read a novel last year for the first time in… a long while. And even wrote a blog post about it!

Coworking and Pairing

Nothing gets me un-stuck like working with another human being, whether it’s working directly on something together (bless u Google Docs) or just being present while we both quietly scowl at our email inboxes together. The tool you use doesn’t matter so much as the practice of doing it – heck, call the person on a landline, that’s fine – but we’ve been really vibing with Tandem and Remotion for internal remote co-working at Tall Poppy recently. There are services like Focusmate, Flow Club,, and Caveday that will provide coworking buddies and groups with varying styles and levels of structure. Or set up a group chat/DM with your two or more closest ADHD friends and just check in with each other on what’s working. Longer post on tools for this to come… eventually 🙂

Gumption Traps

Have you read the book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?” I honestly thought it was terrible when I read it like a thousand years ago, but there’s one really awesome concept that a friend reminded me of recently and I’ve been chewing on, called a “gumption trap.” I’ve now run into a gumption trap around making this section too perfect, so instead I’m just going to point to this blog post that explains the idea and the section on them in the Wikipedia article on ZAMM which describes their types, and have faith that it’s good enough to ship.

I may end up coming back and editing or adding to this post, but I wanted to use it as an object lesson for myself in getting over my perfectionism by shipping it tonight. I hope you get something out of it regardless, and I’d love to hear from other founders with ADHD who have tactics to share, or anyone for whom what I wrote resonates. Feel free to leave a comment, email me at leigh at this domain, or DM me on Twitter. And stay gentle with your self, whatever shape your brain comes in.

Toolbox by Florian Richter, CC-BY

The Ministry for the Future of Slightly Confusing Narrators

I recently finished Kim Stanley Robinson’s near-future climate science fiction novel “Ministry for the Future” (affiliate link), and immediately bought a hardback copy of it to give to a loved one since I couldn’t share the ebook. It had been on my reading list since publication last fall, but the recent unsurvivable heatwave in Jacobabad, Pakistan and severe heatwave on the west coast of North America increased my sense of urgency to read it. Ezra Klein called it the most important book he read in 2020, in an interesting short thread (which links to an interview with KSR, as well):

It felt like an incredibly important read once I got into it, but I initially found it quite confusing. The book shifts narrators almost every chapter, and it’s not always obvious who is who until quite a bit of context emerges in a given chapter, which I found a bit frustrating. When I switched to listening to the audiobook (affiliate link), I found that they’d chosen to have different voice actors – 11 in total – read the various chapters.

Since I couldn’t find a “key” to the chapters online, I figured I’d make one. I wrote down who I think each chapter is, to the best of my reading and listening ability. I had a hard time identifying a couple of the named voice actors, but I think the chapter list will help a lot with reading comprehension on the book itself. I tried to keep the list as spoiler-free as I could, but I still don’t recommend reading the rest of this post before you get to the relevant chapter in the book.

The chapter names are the character’s name when known, with their accent, or just a description of the accent. I tried to hit the right balance of “enough to place the character” but “not so much that I spoil the chapter.” Some of the accents are very broad – if anyone can place “African woman”‘s accent more precisely, for example, please do leave a comment.

“Exposition Guy” I originally called “Climate Exposition Guy” because many of the chapters he voices are full of Climate Facts, but then he ends up being the narrator for a number of other expository chapters as well. He also voices most of the riddle chapters; I only included spoilers (behind a click) for the couple where the answer wasn’t stated explicitly in the chapter. I’ve also included a few spoiler-ful thoughts on the novel at the bottom of the post; I’ll also leave a comment that folks can nest any spoiler-y discussions under.

Chapter List

  1. Frank (American accent)
  2. Exposition Guy – Riddle
    Click for riddle answer the sun
  3. Exposition Guy (American accented man)
  4. Mary (Irish accented woman)
  5. Indian man
  6. Exposition Guy
  7. Frank’s friend, American accented man
  8. Exposition Guy
  9. Mary
  10. Older-sounding Indian man (geo-engineering pilot)
  11. Exposition Guy
  12. Exposition Guy
  13. Frank
  14. Libyan Doctor
  15. Badim’s Assistant
  16. Exposition Guy
  17. Smarmy and Gruff English-accented dialogue
  18. Frank
  19. Spanish-accented man? Fishing boat captive
  20. Exposition Guy
  21. Posh English man
  22. Exposition Guy, glaciology edition
  23. Frank
  24. Exposition Guy
  25. Mary
  26. Frank
  27. Mary
  28. Exposition Guy
  29. Glacier Pete
  30. Exposition Guy
  31. Exposition Guy
  32. Mary + Dick (Australian-accented man)
  33. Child of Kali
  34. Badim’s Assistant
  35. Refugee – Arabic accented man
  36. Exposition Guy
  37. Libyan Doctor’s Daughter (Emna or Hiba)
  38. Smarmy and Gruff English-accented dialogue
  39. Sarcastic American man
  40. Exposition Guy
  41. African woman
  42. Janus Athena
  43. Exposition Guy – Riddle
  44. Glacier Pete
  45. Mary
  46. Exposition Guy – Riddle
  47. Frank
  48. Libyan Doctor’s Wife
  49. Exposition Guy
  50. Mary
  51. Exposition Guy
  52. Indian man (different from 5 and 10)
  53. Exposition Guy – Riddle
  54. Mary
  55. French woman
  56. Mary
  57. Glacier Pete + American woman narrator (maybe voiced by the same person as Janus Athena?)
  58. Spanish woman
  59. American woman
  60. Mary
  61. Exposition Guy
  62. Swiss German woman
  63. Mary
  64. Exposition Guy
  65. African woman (different character than 41)
  66. Riddle (woman narrator)
    Click for riddle answer carbon atom
  67. Exposition Guy
  68. Mary
  69. Exposition Guy
  70. Exposition Guy
  71. Badim’s Assistant
  72. American man
  73. Exposition Guy
  74. Frank
  75. Exposition Guy
  76. American Navy servicewoman
  77. Exposition Guy – Riddle
  78. Badim, I think? not 100% sure on this one
  79. Frank
  80. Spanish farmer woman
  81. Mary
  82. American man
  83. Russian woman / Tatiana’s friend
  84. Mary
  85. Narrator Medley
  86. Mary
  87. American man
  88. Exposition Guy – Riddle
  89. Mary
  90. Smarmy and Gruff English-accented dialogue
  91. Mary
  92. Syrian refugee woman
  93. Glacier woman (same as 57, American accent)
  94. Mary
  95. Exposition Guy – Riddle
    Click for riddle answer the Earth
  96. Mary
  97. Exposition Guy
  98. Badim’s Assistant
  99. Smarmy and Gruff English-accented dialogue
  100. Mary
  101. Hong Konger narrator
  102. Mary
  103. Hawaiian narrator
  104. Mary, and Badim’s assistant (Trudi)
  105. Syrian refugee woman
  106. Mary


Here are the voice actors, plus who I think they voice, to the best of my guessing ability – several of them use fairly thick accents in their readings which make it hard to compare to the samples I found of other recordings where they speak in what is presumably their own accents.

  1. Jennifer Fitzgerald Mary
  2. Fajer Al-Kaisi ?
  3. Ramon de Ocampo Sarcastic American
  4. Gary Bennett Exposition Guy + Riddles
  5. Raphael Corkhill Smarmy English man
  6. Barrie Kreinik Unsure – her other samples also have an Irish accent but her voice is quite different from Jennifer Fitzgerald’s.
  7. Natasha Soudek Janus Athena, and Glacier woman
  8. Nikki Massoud Arabic-accented woman, probably plays both the Libyan doctor’s wife and daughter
  9. Joniece Abbott Pratt African woman
  10. Inés del Castillo Spanish woman?
  11. Vikas Adam Several of the Indian narrators, I think

If you have corrections or better descriptions for any of the chapters, please feel free to comment or email me (leigh at this domain name). I’m particularly curious if anyone is able to ID the voice actors in various chapters, though it’s more of a desire for comprehensiveness than necessary to decode the chapters 🙂

My thoughts on the book (contains some spoilers)

  • There aren’t enough frumpy middle-aged women science fiction protagonists and I really liked Mary as a character.
  • Shout out to Frank working hard on his PTSD with EMDR, and honestly being kind of a mess throughout the whole book.
  • I groaned as soon as I saw the word “blockchain” as an inveterate blockchain/cryptocurrency skeptic, but I think the “carbon coin” idea is one of the more plausible and interesting cryptocurrency ideas I’ve heard of.
  • I appreciated that Janus Athena’s non-binary identity was acknowledged but in a casual, normalized way.
  • The Hong Kong chapter broke my heart – the book went to press last October just after the pro-democracy protests there ended.
  • Poor Glacier Pete 😢.
  • I was stoked to learn that the core premise of the book – an agency specifically tasked with acting on behalf of the rights of future generations – is rooted in present-day climate litigation premised on the core idea of intergenerational equity. Fascinating stuff.

A quick and dirty post about my first year-ish with ADHD

A year and a bit ago I got diagnosed with ADHD, moderate severity, inattentive type. I’ve been meaning to write a bit about what I’ve learned since then but I keep, you know, getting distracted. It came up in a Slack conversation today which resulted in me barfing 500 words into a relative stranger’s DMs and then I was hyper and couldn’t sleep so now you get a blog post. Squirrel!


I have accepted at this point that I need to work with experts to be an effective/productive/sustainable human. I’m fortunate to have the resources to do so, and I recognize that that’s a privilege. Working with experts is a power-up that lets me be more effective in doing good in the world. Currently, this is my roster of experts, with a rough cadence of how often we work together:

  • trauma-focused psychotherapist (weekly. I’ve been through Some Shit in the past couple years and I keep wanting to go less than weekly but then reality kicks my ass and I keep going weekly)
  • ADHD coach (monthlyish)
  • psychiatrist (~2-3 months for med management)
  • personal trainer (twice weekly-ish)
  • professional organizer (couple times per year + more around moving)

I wanted to expand on the professional organizer bit and share a resource that’s helped me an absolute TON: “Organizing Solutions for People with ADHD“.* There’s an existing Twitter thread so I won’t summarize it much much except: your inventory must not exceed your space. Less inventory = easier organizing.

The pro organizer I’ve been working with in person specializes in working with folks with ADHD. If you’re in San Francisco and want to see if working with a pro can help make your space more sane, functional, and sustainable, give Debra a ping. I’ve also previously worked with Denise up in Seattle, if you’re looking for an organizer up there.


Pairing is the biggest one. I get sooooo much done when I’m working with someone else. This is a known thing with ADHD – it’s called “body doubling“. One of my poor colleagues sometimes just sits with me while I whine about emails I’m writing (as I’m writing them). I’m grateful for every minute of her time even though I know it’s kinda a boring thing to do.

Rigorous calendaring – I do a lot of magical thinking about time and how much I can get done in it, so blocking things off on my calendar a LOT, like to a point it feels silly, has helped. I block off travel time, email time, recovery time after social things, etc. Also – I put a clock on my desk. “Clocks are like glasses for the time-blind” is a thing that stuck with me from this year! Also also: I know I’m best in the mornings, so I block of time for creative/thinky things then and take calls in the afternoons. Or early mornings, FML.

Getting enough sleep (which I’m failing at right now!!) helps me with executive function (which means: which tasks to do and also starting them; it’s the main thing people with ADHD don’t have enough of), working memory, general emotional evenkeeledness.

Exercise – days when I have lifted heavy things and put them back down repeatedly in the morning are so much more productive than days I haven’t, unless I fuck up the sleep thing and then sometimes I fall asleep at my desk. That’s why sleep is before exercise on this list.

Self-compassion – my productivity isn’t smooth and that’s ok. It’s not a moral flaw that my brain doesn’t really have much of a “chill getting shit done” mode in between “fucking around” and “SUPERHUMAN INCIDENT RESPONDER ADRENAL CRISIS MODE”. It’s just how my brain works. I’m working hard on building that middle mode – it’s like a muscle! But after a couple decades of white knuckling it through the other modes, it’s gonna take some time to shed maladaptive habits and build more sustainable ones.

There’s no point being cruel to myself when I get a bit stuck in “fucking around” mode and get dribs and drabs of work done as I alternate between work email reddit twitter a cute dog video someone sent me personal email DMs work Slack personal Slack phone messages work email etc etc. Harshness doesn’t get me any closer to chill getting shit done mode.

Kristin Neff’s work and book is a good place to start if that last bit resonated with you.


I take 2mg Intunive XR (guanfacine) every night at bedtime, and 5mg Adderall XR on workdays. Intunive – originally a blood pressure drug that some genius figured out helps folks with ADHD – stops my brain from yelling “YOU’RE A FAILURE AND A DISAPPOINTMENT TO EVERYONE YOU LOVE” constantly. This is known as “rejection-sensitive dysphoria” or RSD, and it is the trauma response many people get from a lifetime of ADHD getting in the way of being able to consistently get stuff done (and then getting yelled at for being a failure, losing jobs, etc.) Adderall does what everyone knows Adderall does: lets me focus on stupid mundane shit. I find that it doesn’t help me as much with bigger creative things – it doesn’t harm, but it really shines on stuff like getting expenses filed. I take a low dose of it – too much makes me anxious.

Where I’m at

I still feel like I’m at maybe 60% of where my self-image says I should be productivity-wise, but it was like 30% before so it’s a huge improvement. ~Not living up to my potential~ is the millstone around the necks of just about everyone with ADHD (see earlier explanation of RSD), though, so I try to be gentle with myself when I stare at a wall for 4 hours in an evening because I can’t focus, and then have to stay up til 3AM to get that deliverable out. And then I’m super wired, so I write most of a blog post.

Other resources

* Disclosure: book links give me a kickback 😇

Startup: The Musical

Starting in December 2015, a colleague and I at my former employer, Slack, wrote most of a musical about startup life. The Google Doc is 44 pages long. Much of it is WAY too inside baseball about our time there to be fit to print, but with the recent public offering I wanted to at least acknowledge its existence publicly and share with you my own lyrical magnum opus: Cryin’ in the Nap Room (to the tune of the 1973 Brownsville Station classic, “Smokin’ in the Boys Room“).

Cryin’ in the Nap Room
To the tune of “Smokin’ in the Boys Room”

Did you ever seem to have one of those days
When everyone seemed to be on your case
From your CTO all the way down to your best girlfriend
Well that used to happen to me all the time
But I found a way to get out of it

Sittin’ in the open plan thinkin’ it’s a drag
Listening to the agile coach rap just ain’t my bag
When two bells ring you know it’s my cue
Gonna curl up with a blanket and do what i gotta do

Cryin’ in the nap room
Cryin’ in the nap room
Bossman don’t you fill me up with your rules
Everybody knows that cryin’ ain’t allowed in

Checkin’ out the halls makin’ sure the coast is clear
Lookin’ in the gcal, nah, there ain’t nobody here
My buddies Mike, Matt and Mark
To get caught would surely be the death of us all


Put me to work in the support queue
Tweetin’ on the corp account, and I got bored
Boss was lookin’ for me all around
Two hours later you know where I was found


Cryin’ in the nap room
Cryin’ in the nap room


One more time


There were other songs – oh boy were there others. Here’s a selection:

Learning Objective-C
To the tune of “Defying Gravity”

The Interview
Setting: Whiteboard Interview
To the tune of “Greased Lightning”

Asking for a raise
Setting: Coffeeshop, with friends trying to recruit eachother to eachothers startups, by explaining perks
To the tune of “Pure Imagination”

Hooking up the AV
About hooking up AV for a meeting
To the tune of “You give love a Bad Name”

Go your own way
I Have an Idea / Leaving the Startup
To the tune of “Go your own way”

Acquire You
To the tune of Coldplay’s “Fix You”

Blame racists, not immigrants, for the Bay Area’s housing crisis

A couple of weeks ago some jerk who used to work for ICE wrote a hideous op-ed for the SF Chronicle about how immigrants are to blame for the Bay Area’s housing crisis. I won’t give it any clicks, but if you want to read it, here it is on I wrote a letter to the editor but they didn’t publish it, so here it is instead:

As an immigrant, tech worker, and now startup founder and job creator, I felt a strong need to respond to Lou Di Leonardo’s recent op ed blaming people like me for the Bay Area’s housing crisis. Though let’s be real, he’s not blaming white Canadians in his piece, which is rife with dog-whistle references to immigrants of color.

The causes of our city’s housing crisis are complex and rooted in the United States’s history of housing-related racism – zoning laws that restrict dense multi-family housing, redlining and the resulting exclusion of Black people from benefiting from programs like the GI bill, and more recently in SF, rampant NIMBYism preventing affordable housing from being built. None of these should be blamed on immigrants. We are here creating jobs and contributing to the country’s economic well-being; the housing crisis is both a homegrown and a worldwide problem, and restricting immigration is not going to help solve it. What will help solve the crisis is upzoning neighborhoods to allow multi-family housing and then building lots of it. People need places to live, wherever they are from.

If the Bay Area housing crisis makes you angry, consider donating to CaRLA fund important pro-housing litigation.

Why I’m matching donations to Empower Work

In April 2018, I founded Tall Poppy, a company focused on fighting online harassment by working with employers to protect employees. Since then, I’ve worked to understand the web of organizations whose missions touch the work we do. I wanted to introduce you to one of the most exciting organizations I’ve gotten to know in the field: Empower Work.

When I met Empower Work founder Jaime-Alexis this spring, I wasn’t surprised by her research. Across over 200+ survey responses and more than 200 in-depth interviews, data confirmed that while workplace challenges were nearly universal — and extremely difficult — accessible resources to navigate them don’t exist. (Check out some of her research to delve into the backstory.)

Empower Work is a creative new approach to providing support at critical work moments. Anyone in the U.S. can connect with a trained peer counselor via text or web chat. When you’re questioning what you may be facing (is this normal in a workplace?), how you might want to handle it, and whether there might be other resources, Empower Work is there.

They’ve moved from research to pilot to supporting people across 42 states in under a year – pretty amazing. Their service intentionally has no barrier to entry – cost or otherwise. When you’re worried you may be fired in 15 min, or you’ve just been bullied in a meeting and aren’t sure where to turn, or you need to make a decision about an offer by end of day, they’re there.

They partner with professional and affinity groups across the country to provide support in particular for less-resourced or less-represented communities – from Year Up to Tech Ladies. Their work has been featured in TechCrunch, Quartz, Fast Company and more. We must change how we support people in workplaces, and it’s great to see them get recognition that this is the case.

I believe in their mission and their work, which is why I’m personally matching all donations between now and December 21st, up to $2,000. They’ve got a big goal to raise $25,000 by December 31st. I hope you’ll chip in what you can to help them scale up to serve tens of thousands of working people in 2019.

Donate here:

Cross-posted to the Empower Work blog.

The smoke cleared

shipping container cranes are hidden by smoke in the distance beyond the bridge's railing
The port of Oakland, seen from the Bay Bridge (cropped, original on instagram)

It’s been two weeks since the smoke from the fire finally cleared and San Francisco was drenched in rain. I’d never experienced air pollution like it – the 2017 fires were bad, but this year’s smoke settled over the city like an unwelcome houseguest.

What I didn’t expect was that even all this time later, I’m just starting to come out of the fog of the smoke myself. It hit me harder than I expected – the combination of being unable to go outside during the day right as the clocks changed left me feeling like “oh, it’s bedtime” right as soon as the sun set… at 5PM.

I did all the right things – I got an air purifier, minimized time outside and consistently wore a mask when I did, and ultimately left town for a couple days when the smoke was at its worst. I was fortunate to be able to afford to do all the “right” things – and I was still a mess, and it still hit me harder than I even realized when I was in the thick of it, and took much longer to recover from.

This probably could have just been a couple of tweets but I wanted to write it out to remind myself of how I felt if the fires (and smoke) hit again next year – both for myself as a reminder of how bad it was, and for others, too. Bay Area friends, know that if you’ve been feeling like shit this fall, you’re not alone and you’re not weird. It’s been rough, even as a generally pretty physically healthy person (albeit with mild asthma – a visit I had to the pulmonologist today reminded me to write this post). I’ve been thinking, too, of this smart twitter thread about disability, denial, and the smoke:

I am deeply lucky to only have had to deal with the smoke’s effects on my lungs and my brain. Nearly 100 people lost their lives, more are still missing, and thousands of people are now homeless – climate refugees in California, a state in perpetual housing crisis. My post-election worry that the federal government would bungle aid to natural disasters in California proved somewhat true – enough to make me feel justified about having checked off some of the Wirecutter’s disaster preparedness list a while back. Raking the leaves isn’t going to save us from climate change. But at least for now, for those currently still dealing with the aftermath, you can make tax-deductible donations to fire relief efforts via the North Valley Community Foundation here.

Fight workplace harassment by supporting BetterBrave

As part of launching my new company Tall Poppy, I’ve been getting to know other organizations who are doing anti-harassment and anti-abuse work – from Empower Work’s high-impact SMS-based counselling on tough workplace issues, to Anxiety Gaming’s work on mental health in the gamer community, to Citizen Lab’s interactive online security guide, Security Planner.

Over the past year, I’ve had the good fortune to get to know the founders of BetterBrave. I edited their Guide for Allies and have otherwise been supporting their work where I could. BetterBrave provides essential tools to people facing workplace harassment. They have produced up-to-date, plain-language legal guides – including detailed information about the sometimes very short timeframes targets have to report harassment. They also offer referrals to attorneys, therapists, and other experts to people facing workplace harassment.

BetterBrave cofounders Tammy (left) and Grace (right)

Tammy and Grace, the cofounders of BetterBrave, conducted over a hundred hours of interviews in developing the guides on the site. Their guides have even been signal-boosted by whistleblower Susan Fowler:

This August, BetterBrave is hoping to raise $25,000 to support their efforts over the next year. While I’m running pretty lean these days, this work is incredibly important to me so I am making a matching challenge: I will match up to $1,000 in donations to BetterBrave made before August 31st. You can donate at this link, or tweet your donation receipts to me!

Donations are tax deductible as BetterBrave is fiscally sponsored by the Philanthropic Ventures Foundation, EIN 94-3136771. And don’t forget to get your employer to match your donation if that’s a thing they offer – just note in the match form that the donation is designated for BetterBrave.

Some advice for survivors and those writing about them

This post no longer updated as of February 2018. I’ve put an updated and reorganized version of this post on a dedicated page accessible at – please link to that going forward.

wheatpasted street art. on the left, text in all caps stating "your heart is a weapon the size of your fist keep loving keep fighting". on the right a white drawing of a hand holding a heart on a black background.
cropped and rotated, cc-by-sa

It seems we’re about due for another round of Shitty Infosec Dude Gets Outed As A Predator. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll link to it when stories appear. In this case, I’m referring to Morgan Marquis-Boire. Having been through this myself last year, I want to stand in solidarity with other survivors, as well as to ask journalists to not be fucking assholes.

Some things I learned as a survivor coming forward:

  • Coming forward is a HUGE step towards protecting other people. If you’ve done so willingly, thank you for your profound courage. We talk a lot in infosec about whistleblowers, but you should know that you are a goddamn whistleblower too. If your story has been told without your consent, I know that that’s a wretched retraumatizing experience and I am so sorry – but please do know that it’s not without impact and WILL keep other people safe in the future.
  • Lock your online stuff down as best as you can. Here’s an extensive guide I wrote much of which covers security stuff as well as physical threats like SWATting, and here’s a short one that covers the computery essentials. The even shorter version: use a password manager to set up unique passwords on key accounts, and enable two-factor auth on your email/Facebook/Twitter.
  • Carefully vet the reporters you talk to. I have personally worked with and trust the security practices and sensitivity to survivors of Sarah Jeong, Selena LarsonKate CongerCyrus Farivar, and Jessica Guynn – journalists who are covering this, feel free to reach out and if I trust you and think it’s appropriate I will add you here. There is at least one male journalist sniffing around about this who I have personally seen mistreat women. Approach with caution. Another good tactic here is to ask if they’ve previously covered sexual assault and/or sexism in tech and ask for press clippings of previous coverage.
  • If you’re talking to the press, email interviews are a great hack. You get the time to consider what to say and make sure that it won’t open you up to litigation, you can just decline to answer some of the questions (because cripes, the questions people will ask you…). Working over email also lets you run your responses by a trusted and hopefully less-traumatized friend to make sure they’re unambiguous and don’t reveal more than you intend.
  • Some useful language re: the press. Know the difference between these terms, and get the reporter you’re talking to to agree to the one you prefer before you say anything:
    • On the record: can be published, can be attributed to you by name
    • Off the record: can’t be published, can’t be attributed to you by name
    • On background: can be quoted or paraphrased and used as a story detail without direct attribution but with a vague organizational affiliation, eg. “a person in the White House who was not authorized to speak to the press” – this is the usual “anonymous source” mode
    • On deep background, not for attribution: can be quoted or paraphrased and used as a story detail without any attribution
      • When you want to say something on either “background” and “deep background,” it’s useful to give a clear definition of what you mean, just so you’re both on the same page. The definitions given above are commonly used. If you want, copy/paste those exact sentences into the email with the reporter so you’re unmistakably clear about your boundaries.
    • You can ask for anonymity. You can ask for press time to be delayed. You can negotiate anything as long as you do it before you give the quote. If you have conditions, make sure your agreement is hashed out in advance. Journalists are not bound to conditions imposed after the fact.
    • If the reporter is working for a magazine, sometimes they will ask you for a phone number so that a fact-checker can call you. Don’t be freaked out: this is common practice and doesn’t mean you’re going to be de-anonymized. Incidentally: the fact-checker is not obligated to read back to you verbatim what’s going to be in the piece, but you will get a sense of what’s going to end up in the piece based the questions they do ask.
      • Again, if this freaks you out, negotiate a different process before you give the quote, such as doing the fact-checking over email.
    • You can do things like “anything below this line is on the record” or “anything in italics is off the record” – just get an agreement in writing with the journalist as to the shared format
    • The rules around on the record / off the record / not for attribution / anonymity and so on are built to give journalists flexibility in dealing with sources who have power, like the PR divisions of major corporations. If a journalist pushes the outer bound of ethics really far with a victim, that has entirely different consequences than doing that to a company. Keep in mind that corporations and government sources negotiate these kinds of terms with journalists all the time, and very aggressively: there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be in your toolkit too.
  • It is up to you whether this is a good time or not to be open to hearing from other victims. Last summer, I noted in my post that I wasn’t ready to listen to other survivors’ stories, and directed folks to appropriate counselling resources. Almost everyone respected this, for which I was grateful. It gave me time and space to process going public without being retraumatized by trying to help others process their own experiences. I have since spoken with many other survivors (of the same assailant and others) and it has been a very important part of my healing process, but it was important to me to take the time to just process the media drama with close and trusted friends, and my therapist, first.
  • Therapy is great and has been an essential part of being resilient in the face of garbage fires like you’re going through. If you’re employed, your work may have an EAP that will get you a therapist with minimal fuss. If it’s not covered by your insurance Captain Awkward has a guide to locating low-cost mental health services in the US and Canada, and a newer post on other free and low-cost mental health resources.
  • I was fortunate to have access to good pro bono legal advice and some familiarity of my own with the laws around defamation. You probably want to find a lawyer to talk to (it’s worth paying money for if you can’t find someone to talk to you for free). Local domestic violence shelters and rape crisis hotlines may be able to help here with referrals. Remember that lawyers tend to be conservative due to the nature of their work; “this could get you sued” is not the same as “this WILL get you sued”. Sometimes the risk is worth it. The other thing to look are the “anti-SLAPP” laws in your jurisdiction – some of them have language that specifically deals with the right to speak out about one’s own experiences with DV or sexual assault.

Now I’m not actually an expert on how reporters should treat survivors of sexual violence, so I’ll mainly link to some excellent exisiting guides. Please comment or ping me if you have resources I should add. But what I will note is a few things I learned from my experience last year:

  • If you’re sleeping with the perpetrator, don’t report on this story. The disgrace to the profession of journalism I’m subtweeting here knows who she is.
  • Don’t name victim’s employers unless it’s actually relevant to the reporting. William Turton did this to me last year. He never reached out to me for comment about my report of harassment, just went straight to naming my employer in his article. Gross.
  • I’m going to write more here soon including some of the more egregious Bad Questions I got asked but wanted to get this posted for survivors first.

Finally, some resources for horrified bystanders:

The Al Capone theory of sexual harassment

This post was co-authored by Valerie Aurora and Leigh Honeywell and cross-posted on both of our blogs.

We’re thrilled with the recent trend towards sexual harassment in the tech industry having actual consequences – for the perpetrator, not the target, for a change. We decided it was time to write a post explaining what we’ve been calling “the Al Capone Theory of Sexual Harassment.” (We can’t remember which of us came up with the name, Leigh or Valerie, so we’re taking joint credit for it.) We developed the Al Capone Theory over several years of researching and recording racism and sexism in computer security, open source software, venture capital, and other parts of the tech industry. To explain, we’ll need a brief historical detour – stick with us.

As you may already know, Al Capone was a famous Prohibition-era bootlegger who, among other things, ordered murders to expand his massively successful alcohol smuggling business. The U.S. government was having difficulty prosecuting him for either the murdering or the smuggling, so they instead convicted Capone for failing to pay taxes on the income from his illegal business. This technique is standard today – hence the importance of money-laundering for modern successful criminal enterprises – but at the time it was a novel approach.

A mural depicting Al Capone smoking a cigar in front of a bridge and a subway, used under CC-SA from Wikipedia

The U.S. government recognized a pattern in the Al Capone case: smuggling goods was a crime often paired with failing to pay taxes on the proceeds of the smuggling. We noticed a similar pattern in reports of sexual harassment and assault: often people who engage in sexually predatory behavior also faked expense reports, plagiarized writing, or stole credit for other people’s work. Just three examples: Mark Hurd, the former CEO of HP, was accused of sexual harassment by a contractor, but resigned for falsifying expense reports to cover up the contractor’s unnecessary presence on his business trips. Jacob Appelbaum, the former Tor evangelist, left the Tor Foundation after he was accused of both sexual misconduct and plagiarism. And Randy Komisar, a general partner at venture capital firm KPCB, gave a book of erotic poetry to another partner at the firm, and accepted a board seat (and the credit for a successful IPO) at RPX that would ordinarily have gone to her.

Initially, the connection eluded us: why would the same person who made unwanted sexual advances also fake expense reports, plagiarize, or take credit for other people’s work? We remembered that people who will admit to attempting or committing sexual assault also disproportionately commit other types of violence and that “criminal versatility” is a hallmark of sexual predators. And we noted that taking credit for others’ work is a highly gendered behavior.

Then we realized what the connection was: all of these behaviors are the actions of someone who feels entitled to other people’s property – regardless of whether it’s someone else’s ideas, work, money, or body. Another common factor was the desire to dominate and control other people. In venture capital, you see the same people accused of sexual harassment and assault also doing things like blacklisting founders for objecting to abuse and calling people nasty epithets on stage at conferences. This connection between dominance and sexual harassment also shows up as overt, personal racism (that’s one reason why we track both racism and sexism in venture capital).

So what is the Al Capone theory of sexual harassment? It’s simple: people who engage in sexual harassment or assault are also likely to steal, plagiarize, embezzle, engage in overt racism, or otherwise harm their business. (Of course, sexual harassment and assault harms a business – and even entire fields of endeavor – but in ways that are often discounted or ignored.) Ask around about the person who gets handsy with the receptionist, or makes sex jokes when they get drunk, and you’ll often find out that they also violated the company expense policy, or exaggerated on their résumé, or took credit for a colleague’s project. More than likely, they’ve engaged in sexual misconduct multiple times, and a little research (such as calling previous employers) will show this, as we saw in the case of former Uber and Google employee Amit Singhal.

Organizations that understand the Al Capone theory of sexual harassment have an advantage: they know that reports or rumors of sexual misconduct are a sign they need to investigate for other incidents of misconduct, sexual or otherwise. Sometimes sexual misconduct is hard to verify because a careful perpetrator will make sure there aren’t any additional witnesses or records beyond the target and the target’s memory (although with the increase in use of text messaging in the United States over the past decade, we are seeing more and more cases where victims have substantial written evidence). But one of the implications of the Al Capone theory is that even if an organization can’t prove allegations of sexual misconduct, the allegations themselves are sign to also urgently investigate a wide range of aspects of an employee’s conduct.

Some questions you might ask: Can you verify their previous employment and degrees listed on their résumé? Do their expense reports fall within normal guidelines and include original receipts? Does their previous employer refuse to comment on why they left? When they give references, are there odd patterns of omission? For example, a manager who doesn’t give a single reference from a person who reported to them can be a hint that they have mistreated people they had power over.

Another implication of the Al Capone theory is that organizations should put more energy into screening potential employees or business partners for allegations of sexual misconduct before entering into a business relationship with them, as recently advocated by LinkedIn cofounder and Greylock partner Reid Hoffman. This is where tapping into the existing whisper network of targets of sexual harassment is incredibly valuable. The more marginalized a person is, the more likely they are to be the target of this kind of behavior and to be connected with other people who have experienced this behavior. People of color, queer people, people with working class jobs, disabled people, people with less money, and women are all more likely to know who sends creepy text messages after a business meeting. Being a member of more than one of these groups makes people even more vulnerable to this kind of harassment – we don’t think it was a coincidence that many of the victims of sexual harassment who spoke out last month were women of color.

What about people whose well-intentioned actions are unfairly misinterpreted, or people who make a single mistake and immediately regret it? The Al Capone theory of sexual harassment protects these people, because when the organization investigates their overall behavior, they won’t find a pattern of sexual harassment, plagiarism, or theft. A broad-ranging investigation in this kind of case will find only minor mistakes in expense reports or an ambiguous job title in a resume, not a pervasive pattern of deliberate deception, theft, or abuse. To be perfectly clear, it is possible for someone to sexually harass someone without engaging in other types of misconduct. In the absence of clear evidence, we always recommend erring on the side of believing accusers who have less power or privilege than the people they are accusing, to counteract the common unconscious bias against believing those with less structural power and to take into account the enormous risk of retaliation against the accuser.

Some people ask whether the Al Capone theory of sexual harassment will subject men to unfair scrutiny. It’s true, the majority of sexual harassment is committed by men. However, people of all genders commit sexual harassment. We personally know of two women who have sexually touched other people without consent at tech-related events, and we personally took action to stop these women from abusing other people. At the same time, abuse more often occurs when the abuser has more power than the target – and that imbalance of power is often the result of systemic oppression such as racism, sexism, cissexism, or heterosexism. That’s at least one reason why a typical sexual harasser is more likely to be one or all of straight, white, cis, or male.

What does the Al Capone theory of sexual harassment mean if you are a venture capitalist or a limited partner in a venture fund? Your first priority should be to carefully vet potential business partners for a history of unethical behavior, whether it is sexual misconduct, lying about qualifications, plagiarism, or financial misdeeds. If you find any hint of sexual misconduct, take the allegations seriously and step up your investigation into related kinds of misconduct (plagiarism, lying on expense reports, embezzlement) as well as other incidents of sexual misconduct.

Because sexual harassers sometimes go to great lengths to hide their behavior, you almost certainly need to expand your professional network to include more people who are likely to be targets of sexual harassment by your colleagues – and gain their trust. If you aren’t already tapped into this crucial network, here are some things you can do to get more access:

These are all aspects of ally skills – concrete actions that people with more power and privilege can take to support people who have less.

Finally, we’ve seen a bunch of VCs pledging to donate the profits of their investments in funds run by accused sexual harassers to charities supporting women in tech. We will echo many other women entrepreneurs and say: don’t donate that money, invest it in women-led ventures – especially those led by women of color.