Inspirational Woman: Anat Deracine | Author & Technologist

Anat Deracine

Anat Deracine (her pen name) is the author of the novel Driving by Starlight (Macmillan, 2018), about a girl growing up in Saudi Arabia, and many short stories, including The Divine Comedy of the Tech Sisterhood about inequalities in the tech industry. Outside of writing she is a senior figure in the tech industry.

Born in India, and raised in Saudi Arabia, Anat is fascinated by cultural narratives around equality and the portrayal of women. Her parents allowed Anat to dress as a boy so that she could do sports and take part in other activities that girls were not permitted to.

She has two degrees which she studied concurrently – one in philosophy and one in computer science. This dual talent for creativity and technology has continued through her life: Anat joined one of Silicon Valley’s major tech companies after university and worked her way into a senior role. As such, she is active in driving diversity in the tech sector – both for those who work in it, and for the masses who use it. It is for this reason she chooses to write under a pen name.

In between her 15-year tech career, she has taken time out to travel through many areas of the middle east alone, including Egypt, Jordan, Iran, Israel and Lebanon . She wrote the first draft of her first novel – Driving by Starlight – in five weeks while on a retreat in Bali. She is now working on a Sci-Fi / fantasy novel about a telepathic killer in an alternate modern-day South Asia.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I’m an author and a technologist—both have been true for as long as I can remember. Even as a child I tinkered with wrenches and screwdrivers, and wrote poems and stories I never showed anyone. Today, I’m fortunate enough to be leading a global team of technologists focused on user trust, while sustaining a side-career as an author of novels and short stories about women fighting to make a difference.

My first novel, Driving by Starlight, chronicles the struggle of a young girl in Saudi Arabia to find some semblance of freedom in a country where women still have no agency without a male guardian. My novella, The Divine Comedy of the Tech Sisterhood, a satire piece on the plight of women in Silicon Valley, went viral in 2018, and I’m now at work on a webcomic, The Night Wolves, about the dangers of surveillance technology. A benevolent tech billionaire offers a free university education to all students, as long as they consent to having their biometric data tracked for medical research. What could possibly go wrong?

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

No isn’t an emphatic enough answer. I was very often the first in my group to do something, whether it was going away to college, being the first woman on the team, living on my own or attempting to combine two careers at once. I never really had role-models I could look up to and think, That’s the career I want to have. How do I get there?

Instead, I focused on two things. Having a growth mindset to setbacks and opportunities has allowed me to learn what I could even when things weren’t quite going my way, and kept me persevering despite the double-whammy of experienced discrimination in the tech industry and the many rejections that come an author’s way. And playing to my strengths, remembering that I do my best when I do what I love, has kept me from burning out trying to achieve career goals that others might be pursuing but that don’t actually mean that much to me.

A simple example: in college, I always knew I wanted to feed both halves of my brain, and doing two degrees at once, in Computer Science and Philosophy, allowed me to grow as an engineer and a writer. There were many naysayers, even among my well-wishers. Wouldn’t taking an extra year to do the second degree set me back in student loans and slow down my career growth? Wouldn’t I be stifling my earning potential if I was trying to balance two careers? Some of these questions betrayed the values of the people asking them. In a capitalist society, people mistakenly derive their self-worth from earning potential alone. I have frequently chosen to slow down progress on one front to make progress on another, and been more successful at both because my mind and heart move as one.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

Everyone faces their share of career challenges, and in The Divine Comedy of the Tech Sisterhood, I chronicled a (mostly) fictional account of the ones I experienced or knew about. Microaggressions, bullying and harassment are all too common in the tech industry, and the issues of racism in the publishing industry are widely known, with 95% of the English books from major publishers in the last fifty years having been written by white people.

At first, these issues used to grate on me, making me angry and sad in turns. But I eventually realized that giving into those feelings, burning out or quitting in protest would only make already bad statistics worse. Three things have given me the strength to keep going.

First, I grew up in Saudi Arabia, and having seen missiles fall from the sky during the Gulf War, and having experienced rather extreme versions of sexism and racism there I know that I can easily survive anything I experience here. I had to let go of the idea that the West had somehow “figured things out.” I had to accept that the battle was not yet won, and may not be won in my lifetime but that didn’t absolve me from the fight.

Second, in a war of attrition, endurance is key. I build up my resilience mindfully, from eating well and exercising, to setting clear expectations for myself and my team around vacations and managing energy. I don’t work on weekends, and never have. It might have cost me certain opportunities that went to others who were more willing, but those people have now burnt themselves out and I’m still here.

Third, having a sense of humor helps. When I wrote The Divine Comedy, I was furious about what I’d seen in the tech industry, but if I’d ranted about it in a personal essay, nobody would have paid attention. People like being entertained, and if they’re educated by accident, I’m doing something right. This was also my approach when talking about racism in the publishing industry, in my satire piece on How to build a career out of being wrong.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Getting Driving by Starlight published by Henry Holt Books, an imprint of Macmillan, was certainly a highlight. At that time, I’d already achieved a pretty senior leadership role in my tech career, so I had felt like my writing career had been starved for a while. It meant something, as a woman of color, to be published by a major publishing house and to be recognized with stars from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.

That said, the career achievement that means the most to me is probably the reputation I’ve built, for being a fixer. I’ve tried to carry the fight forward on behalf of a lot of people who don’t have even the privileges I do have. I’ve built a community of sorts, one where we no longer have to do the work of educating people that there is a problem when it comes to diversity in the tech industry, but can set all our collective energy to fixing it instead.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

I’ve had a lot of uncertainty in my life. I’ve lived in five countries, without ever being able to vote in any of them. I’ve had to question basic assumptions, from religious beliefs to what I know now is a myth of meritocracy that pervades the tech industry. Most people aren’t used to that, and when they first encounter unfairness or something that challenges their worldview, they fall apart or they dig in their heels and refuse to change.

I’m not the same person I was ten years ago, or even ten days ago. I don’t tie my identity to the past, and am comfortable with evolving as I need to. This makes me open to growth, to making mistakes and learning from them. I know no successful person who has not learned to pick themselves up from failure.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

Put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. I can’t emphasize this enough, especially for minorities in the industry. You’re in for a long climb, so take the breaks you need, and put your health first.

Keep learning. Technology changes faster than you do, and if you’re not constantly looking for new opportunities for growth, you’ll quickly become irrelevant.

Invest in people for the long term. There may be some well-meaning allies who are still early in their journeys or who screw up, but the tech industry is far too small to burn every bridge that betrays you. Find a way to forgive and teach people who might become your greatest sponsors in the future.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

Of course there are barriers, and these barriers are even higher when we take an intersectional lens. Women of color, particularly Black women, queer, trans and disabled women have far greater struggles than the rest.

It’s important to look for systemic fixes, rather than trying to fix things for an individual here or there. The pandemic gave us a great opportunity with remote work, something many women, particularly those with children, had been demanding for years. Creating more opportunities for remote work has the benefit of helping people who need it, women or otherwise.

Another area to find systemic fixes is with labor and employment law. The odds are all too often in the employer’s favor, frequently making it worthless or even harmful to report issues to HR departments. The law is a double-edged sword, and many women don’t realize that if they complain that “the men on this team are bullying me,” they might leave themselves open to being attacked or disciplined for making a gendered statement.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology?

I work remotely, and have for years, since even before the pandemic. It’s one of the perks of my role that I am trusted enough to deliver results that I could be on a beach in Bali for all the difference it would make. Having, and earning, that credibility was difficult. It would be so much easier if companies learned to trust their employees, and offered remote and part-time work more readily. So many women I know would take advantage of that.

A second key thing is sponsorship and succession planning. Current leaders in the industry need to be actively looking for proteges to succeed them. This isn’t the same as mentorship, which is often paternalistic in its assumption that women need help to meet the bar. Rather, it’s a conscious decision to hand over the reins to someone else, and to ensure that they have the same access to networks and opportunity that you do.

There are currently only 17 per cent of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

There are many practical and immediate things, but since you asked for a magic wand, I’d say that granting visas for technical women globally would probably be the greatest step to changing that statistic. Several countries, including Russia, China and India have invested a great deal more in growing young technologists of all genders, and are graduating technical women at high rates. However, there are often fewer employment opportunities for those women in the countries they are in, and greater cultural barriers to advancement. If any woman wishing to pursue a degree in Computer Science from an accredited institution were to be granted a visa to study and work in the country of her choice, those numbers would change immediately.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

I’m not going to fall into the trap of modesty that most women tend to when it comes to plugging their own work. Read my stories! Start with The Divine Comedy of the Tech Sisterhood, which walks you through what it is like to be a woman in tech, and it’s written in the style of Dante’s own book describing the circles of hell, purgatory and paradise.

Beyond that, I’d subscribe to Ben Thompson’s Stratechery to stay abreast of tech news, join Blavity or Afrotech or Grace Hopper conferences as appropriate, and go through the table of contents of leadership books to find out which ones resonate with you. Everyone’s leadership style is unique, and you’ll get much further defining your own rather than trying to follow someone else’s as if it were a checklist. It may be a while before the industry adapts to different leadership styles, but that’s not on you. Accept yourself as you are and as you grow into the leader you will be, even when the industry doesn’t accept you!