Software developer, Joanna Lisowki, has successfully navigated her own path to success by choosing her steps carefully and surrounding herself with positive people. Joanna talks to us about the advice she would give her younger self and the stress, and joys of being a mother in New York.
Do you remember your first week in New York?
I do, very vividly, because I moved here on September 2nd, 2001. It was this one week of pre-9/11 New York. I had been here a lot previously because my brother and sister lived here, so I visited a tonne. I was pretty familiar with certain aspects of the city.
That first week when I moved here, I was unemployed but not particularly concerned about getting a job, I was just having fun. I remember going for a run around the Jackie Onassis Reservoir. I saw it as this moment of calm, of naivety, a New York that I knew. Then all of a sudden it ceased to exist and a whole different New York sprung up in it’s place.
When I first moved here I lived with my sister in an alcove studio, we were both crammed in there. On the morning of 9/11 I was sleeping in. My sister was out working in Chelsea and my brother was at his apartment. My sister called me and said ‘switch the news on’. At first they thought somebody had just flown a plane into the building, an accident. That was the first impression everybody had, and then obviously that turned out to be wrong. So my sister said ‘oh, some idiot’s flown a plane into the World Trade Center’. I switched the news on … and then just watched the news constantly. My brother and sister walked up to the apartment and we just sat there for what seemed like weeks.
I feel like everybody was massively depressed, but also kind. There was this very small bubble of really great kindness and empathy, and depression.
Did you have any thoughts about leaving New York at that time?
No, it never occurred to me. It’s funny that you should mention that because the reason I got a job that October, was because the guy who had the job before was from South Africa and he was like ‘fuck this, I’m going back home,’ so there was a vacancy.
What brought you to New York in the first place?
I’d been living in the Bay area, where I went to college although I didn’t like it there. My sister and brother were both living in New York. It was always a city that I was very aware of growing up. My sister has this love affair with New York, and I caught it a little bit.
My family on my Dad’s side were Jewish, and we lived in this town where there were not many Jews. We never had any interaction with the Jewish community. She moved in 1990, and had put down roots here. So I was visiting her all the time, especially when I was in California.
New York is really magical. It’s easy to get around, there are so many people here, there is so much going on. New York was a place that I already had some familiarity with, so that was appealing.
But your family grew up in the United Kingdom? How did you all end up here?
My Dad is from South Africa, and he met my mom in London. They actually moved to America in the 60s, and then again in the 70s. I was born here so I have citizenship.
When my parents got divorced (before I was born), my dad stayed in the US, and my mom took us all back to England. I was visiting the US so often, that my dad suggested I go to college here. It sounded great, an adventure. I went to UC Berkeley, and studied history and economics. So nothing to do with computer science, or what I’m doing now. It took me a long time to graduate.
Why was that?
Well, I switched majors. I wasn’t happy in college. I didn’t know what I was doing. I hadn’t figured out what I liked. That can make you very unhappy because you aren’t invested in anything that you’re doing. It wasn’t a happy time. So instead of really focusing on classes, I was skipping a lot and having to retake them.
So how did you get into software engineering?
The first real job I had was at McGraw Hill, who do educational publishing in San Francisco. They publish economics textbooks, which was in line with what I’d studied.
At that time in San Francisco it was all internet, internet, internet. So I asked if I could start making websites. I taught myself HTML. From there each job I took I would say ‘OK I don’t know how to do this, but give me the job and I’ll figure it out’. And I would. I did end up taking some proper courses. It was a good time to get into it, there was a lot of work.
What do you do now?
What I do now I really enjoy. I’m a software developer for NBC Universal. We just launched telemundo.com, and we did nbc.com.
I’m a back-end developer, so I do the underlying code that makes everything appear where it should. I really like it, it’s like problem solving. Every day there is some problem and I have to figure out how to deal with it and make it work. It’s immediate gratification of knowing that you did something and there was an immediate result. I like that it’s making order out of chaos. I mean, these are not huge problems, but it’s solving little mysteries.
And it must be constantly evolving …
Yeah! So now, moving forward I'm going to be a lead on our next project, which means I also get to decide the direction we’ll take as a group which is really fun. It’s more responsibility but I think it will be good.
Is it a massive sausage fest?
I’ve actually been thinking about this generally speaking. There are other women on our team, but it is overwhelmly men, which I think it is everywhere.
I have consciously chosen to work at places where diversity was encouraged and valued. For that very reason I didn’t want to end up working at a place where I felt like I or my contribution wasn’t being respected. I’ve really tried to dodge that whole thing.
Most of the people I work with on the younger side, I feel like to them it’s not the norm to feel or think that women are lesser. They’ve grown up with that being the norm, so it doesn’t carry through, which is not to say that it doesn’t happen.
If I talk about this I’m going to sound like I’m being dismissive of the climate for female developers. I think there are a lot of examples where it can be quite hostile. I have a talent for just not picking up on these things. It’s quite possible that I have experienced that but I haven’t paid attention to it or recognized it.
I’ve been very lucky in the places I’ve worked. I’ve specifically picked places that are family friendly. NBC for example, their whole thing is producing entertainment for families. It’s not like a startup where everybody is expected to have some dick measuring contest every night, to see who can stay the latest and who can drink the most Redbull. At NBC people leave at 5pm, you can deal with your kids and do a bit more work later. No-one’s ever made me feel bad for having to go and do something with my kid. I feel fortunate.
I’ve avoided places that aren’t conducive to wanting to have a life outside of work. You don’t have to have a kid to have to leave at a reasonable time. You should be able to leave, and live your life. Everybody should have the opportunity to have interests outside of their work.
That’s very insightful. What advice would you give to your 18 year old self looking back?
I think about this a lot. I wasted so much time worrying about the way I looked. Thinking I was fat and ugly. Of course nobody is looking at you that way, it’s all internal. I feel like I wasted a lot of time not figuring out what I liked, but always worrying about how I was being perceived. Telling myself I was too fat to do things … isn’t that terrible? I wish I could go back and say ‘a) you’re fine and b) nobody else cares. Everybody is busy worrying about themselves. I would tell myself to figure out what I wanted to do and to not be scared.
Especially now having a daughter, even thinking about it makes me emotional. I won’t let women, or myself say ‘oh I shouldn’t have that cookie’. I won’t allow any talk like that, I don’t want her to hear that. She’s going to get enough of that.
I’m 41 now, and sometimes I think I should have been at this point a decade ago. But again, 20 years from now I don’t want to wish I’d told my 41 year old self to stop worrying about this. Everything is fine. You can’t change the past.
I talk to some of the other developers about this, I get this feeling that people are going to figure out that I don’t know what I’m doing. Even though I do. You have that doubt that you don’t know everything. But then you realize, a lot of it is about being confident. If you speak with confidence about something, people will remember that.
I’m trying to approach things now like this, to not worry too much about it. If I don’t know something to say ‘I need to look into that’. To not let these insecurities show. What’s that expression? You just do you.
Let’s just all admit that we don’t know everything, and then we can just relax!
Speaking of your daughter, you are our first Bird with a child. What’s that like in New York?
It’s very stressful. I don’t want to bring up the school thing, but if you live in a nice suburban area there is the school. I know for a fact that my mother left America and specifically moved to a town where there was the school that was really good. For us right now, we’re not zoned for the school that we want. There is a lot of pressure and decision making. You do a lot of work to make very simple decisions, like which day care?
So there’s that. But the part that’s amazing is the shit she does on weekends … the average weekend for her is full of more amazing fun stuff than I would have done in a year growing up.
We don’t have a garden, we can't just open the back door and chuck her out to play. We have to do things with her like take her to museums. I really like that aspect of that. Especially now at Christmas time, New York is magical.
I want her to have as magical a childhood as possible without going overboard. This is a great place for that.
Was there ever a moment when you were thinking of having a child and that maybe you would move away from New York?
No. But we’re only having one! That’s our way of managing it. I can’t imagine moving. Imagine the resentment you could have towards your child, even if it was subconscious.
I really like being here, and I specifically like this neighbourhood.
Which is Williamsburg.
Yeah, the Italian section. I like that everything I need is within walking distance. I like that it’s close enough to work that I’m not sitting on the train for an hour. I don’t like to wait around for things, and I like things to be convenient.
I like Brooklyn. Manhattan has become a little douchey. It’s becoming more and more impossible to live there.
I was living on the Lower East Side before, and that had become very “chi-chi”. It really flipped. Williamsburg has sort of turned as well. All these luxury high rises. I hate this idea that it’s a playground for rich people.
Mostly I really like this apartment because it’s just the right size for us.
Any recommendations in this area?
This is going to be very disappointing but I’m not a foodie. I like food but again, I don’t want to go anywhere that I have to wait, even if it’s going to be amazing. There’s a great diner down the street, called Kellogg's Diner. I like it because its big and we can always get a table.
Seamless.com has all the options!
What do you think about when you think of New York?
Right now, I think of the Rockefeller christmas tree.
To me, New York has always been this really magical place. I still feel that. When I was very little I thought that there were fairies at the bottom of my garden, so I would try to find them. I feel like New York is a larger version of that.
It’s also a huge pain in the ass, but it’s really magical to me.