“My gym is doing online classes.” With Penny Bauder & Selena Deckelmann

I strongly recommend setting routines, having a sense of humor and lowering expectations. I used to go to a gym every morning and work out. My gym is doing online classes, so 3x a week I get up, do my class using a video the coaches recorded, and have a cup of coffee. Some days […]

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I strongly recommend setting routines, having a sense of humor and lowering expectations. I used to go to a gym every morning and work out. My gym is doing online classes, so 3x a week I get up, do my class using a video the coaches recorded, and have a cup of coffee. Some days I get through the whole class, some days I just do the stretches and call it good.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place. As a part of my series about how women leaders in tech and STEM are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Selena Deckelmann, VP of Firefox Desktop at Mozilla.

Selena oversees growing Firefox, the only independent web browser, one that puts people’s interests first and provides high levels of privacy and security by default. Previously as Director of Security and then Senior Director, Firefox Runtime, Selena led her team to some of Mozilla’s biggest successes, ranging from big infrastructure projects like Quantum Flow and Project Fission to key features like Enhanced Tracking Protection and services like Firefox Monitor. Selena is a mother of 2 under 6 and has 1 chicken that freely roams in her Portland, Oregon backyard. The first woman heading the Firefox product development team, Selena leads over one hundred people.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

In college, I started out as a Chemistry major, pursuing a music major on the side. I’d played the violin since fourth grade and I loved it. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to have a career in music, and I was afraid to get a degree without a clear path to supporting myself. So I picked a practical major! In the dorms, a friend showed me the internet for the first time. Our university had wired ethernet in every room, which made using the internet feel like just another part of the new world of college. I was hooked! I started spending most of my spare time learning about the web, and then Linux. Less than a year later, a housemate helped me get a job at the Computing Center, and since then I’ve only worked in computing and tech related jobs.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?

I was invited to speak to DCMS, a department of the British government, about the Domain Name System (DNS) and some work we were doing in Firefox to encrypt it, through a protocol called DNS-over-HTTPS (DoH). I honestly freaked out about it a little, from the presentation itself, to what I was going to wear. The meeting was intense, with questions coming in as soon as I started speaking. Fortunately, I had a team there with me, and we worked together really well. I learned a lot about how to prepare and communicate effectively with government policy teams. And it was just really cool to help represent Mozilla on an important internet change and policy issue.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Working on Firefox is pretty damn exciting. I sometimes think to myself “how is it that I get to make this decision?” The projects I find inspiring right now are the really difficult culture change work my teams are doing to implement a high velocity testing framework for new product ideas. We’re also almost done shipping the Firefox DNS encryption changes, DNS over HTTPS (DoH), in the USA. Some of the other ideas we’re working on right now will be released in a few months, so stay tuned. 🙂

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

A person who helped me incredibly is Steve VanDevender. He’s a teacher and systems administrator at the University of Oregon. He was my regular lunch buddy for bento and kim chi at a restaurant a block from the Computing Center. He recommended me for cool jobs, encouraged me to attend conferences and apply for grants, and taught me how to write sendmail macros during the very early period of spam fighting in the late 1990s. He also was an informal advisor on my thesis. The work I did on that was based on his work to find privilege escalations in running UNIX systems, before we had the kinds of tools we have today to detect these things. It’s really hard to understate how influential Steve was on my early career. He was always willing to support, teach and gossip. He sponsored me in so many ways, even when I got into trouble for playing a mean-spirited Linux practical joke on an ex-boyfriend. We don’t talk much now, but I was able to have lunch with him at a conference a few years ago and it was like I’d never left the Computing Center.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic?

Becoming a VP just before a global pandemic hit has been pretty weird. In mid-January 2020, my boss asked me to take a new job leading the Firefox Desktop. So — new job, new team, and just a few weeks later — new pandemic.

Mozilla had almost half its workforce working remotely prior to the shelter in place orders. Our work and our communication have always been centered on the internet and the web. So, for us, this is different, but also completely normal. The biggest family-related change for me has been also needing to babysit and plan for teaching our children at the same time as working from home.

My husband has been far more impacted, because he’s a high school teacher and used to big groups of people and interacting in person with all of them in a school every day. Talking to a group of 10 or 20 kids over a screen is just nowhere near as rich an experience, and the teaching is fundamentally different. Also, government officials and administrators didn’t seem to think through how teachers with small children would deal with this, because teachers aren’t considered first responders and aren’t eligible for childcare. But they are required to work. It seems as though the assumption is that most teachers have another parent who is going to not work and take care of kids. That’s not the case in our relationship.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

Well, we have a schedule we made on a piece of paper and we stick pretty close to it. I never take meetings at lunch so we can all be together, and I end my working day at 4:30 to make dinner. I lead on making and planning meals, and laundry (which… I am bad at), and my husband is lead on childcare, planning for schooling for our kids, tidying and handling communication with a contractor we’re working with on some backyard projects (appropriately physically distant).

I’ve done some automation work at home to get grocery delivery and subscriptions for produce and meat from local farms. I did the math — the subscriptions and delivery are surprisingly affordable, and because we don’t eat out anymore, it’s worked fine with our budget. And I discovered that Salt and Straw delivers ice cream! I highly recommend that people check in on favorite shops that were open before the pandemic to see if you can support them in small or big ways. We’re going to see so many businesses close because of the shutdowns, and if you can, now is a time to lend support.

Can you share the biggest work related challenges you are facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic?

The biggest challenge I face is learning a brand new job at the same time as the world is rapidly changing around us. I’m needing to learn the basics of leading my organization in my new role, and how to respond to a global recession and rapid changes in the internet advertising ecosystem.

I’ve got an incredible team for Firefox Desktop that is more than half women, unusual in tech and unusual in my professional life. But this is also true of Mozilla’s leadership, and my peers who run our browsers and the web platform. It’s a change that happened through many years of hard work on recruiting and retaining leadership.

Just yesterday, I needed to answer a question about the impact of job changes on people who are taking care of kids at home. We know from research on gender roles that despite women working outside the home more than ever before, they still shoulder the majority of housework and caretaking responsibilities. And this is true in every industry and most countries.

The challenge I see is ensuring that policies and practices at Mozilla support women in a context that is typically quite unfair in terms of home responsibilities.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

Because Mozilla’s culture is very supportive of flexible working schedules and styles of working, we’re able to make adjustments, and we mainly do that through managers. Something we know from culture surveys is that our organization is rated incredibly high in terms of work-life balance (>90% rate the organization as very good at this) and support for flexible arrangements. We also have HR-based programs for taking leave, and some people are doing that as well. When the pandemic started, I talked to my manager and explained my situation. I told him that there were going to be some times when I just wasn’t going to be available for meetings, and that my day needed to be very consistent schedule-wise, because I needed to be present for my family. He was supportive of me, and also encouraged me to take time off regularly to recharge.

Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?

I strongly recommend setting routines, having a sense of humor and lowering expectations. I used to go to a gym every morning and work out. My gym is doing online classes, so 3x a week I get up, do my class using a video the coaches recorded, and have a cup of coffee. Some days I get through the whole class, some days I just do the stretches and call it good.

My husband is mostly taking care of the schooling — which we call crisis schooling, not home schooling! We try to do formal lessons a few times a week, but we don’t sweat it if we don’t get to it. We’re focusing on life lessons like cooking, exercise and cooperation. Learning to organize and do chores consistently are life lessons worth teaching!

I said earlier I’m in charge of meals — and some days we’ve had cereal for breakfast and dinner. And that’s totally fine! I often tell my coworkers that my kids might end up making cameos in our meetings, and we just treat it like it’s normal… because now it is.

So my advice there would be to decide on a reasonable division of responsibilities, and renegotiate if it is not feeling good. My husband and I have done this three times so far, and it’s helped both of us stay sane.

Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place for long periods with your family?

My go-tos are physical activity and talking to friends on the phone, or on the street! We take long walks and bike rides, and have dance parties in the house. I’ve made so many phone calls, I’m starting to feel like I’m a teenager again! I’m hearing that some people who were dedicated texts-only people are now trying voice calls too. Getting some time with people other than whoever you’re at home with is so needed and restorative right now. I’m incredibly lucky to have amazing neighbors, and we have loud conversations across the street or from our porches every day.

My coworkers and friends are also arranging virtual happy hours, where we get together with a beverage to chat and tell stories. Some friends arranged a distributed painting get-together, and others set up trivia nights.

Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

I like to say — I’m a long-term optimist and a short-term pessimist. I feel confident that scientists and doctors will work together and find treatments and develop vaccines that will make COVID-19 much less scary and dangerous than it is today. We’ve done it before and we will do it again. I don’t believe we’re going to go back to normal soon. If it happens, I’ll be happy, but I am mentally preparing myself for many months of sheltering-in-place.

That said, my long-term optimism and calm resignation are clearly related to my privileged circumstances — I have a job, a home and a supportive family. But my life wasn’t always this way. I have experienced isolation and hopelessness that didn’t get better just because someone told me that they were optimistic about the long term.

For those people whose circumstances are far less ideal, I want to tell them that there is help out there. It’s reported in the news far less, but we are seeing unprecedented levels of giving, caring and support in society. We just saw the entire world shut down, together, to save millions of lives. This is a profound act of sacrifice and caring, even though it will be devastating to people whose businesses and jobs disappear. We are also seeing basic needs for food and shelter being made available, as well as mental health and support services being made available for free. Seek out community and government resources! Cities and states are publishing lists of help that can be found online or by calling.

In terms of a story, what gives me strength are the people I’ve known who have overcome great obstacles and are living rich, fulfilling lives. Steve VanDevender is one of them. He was born with a bone disease that meant he could never walk. He’s an avid skier and wheelchair racer and the mentor I talked about earlier, as well as teacher and advocate for higher education for systems administration. Joan Renne, a music teacher and violist, was someone who taught me to improvise, to break rules and that life can be full of good humor and beauty. She taught me that you could make a living through art, that you could be a woman, have children and live alone, joyfully.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“The only way out is through” — some say Robert Frost was the first to say this, others quote Alanis Morissette. I think this is so much the situation we’re all in right now.

How can our readers follow you online?

@selenamarie on twitter!

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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