Tell us about yourself

Heyo! I’m Cakelin, the founder of from Madison, Wisconsin. I co-run a local meetup group, Madison Women in Tech. I’m queer, nonbinary, and use they/them pronouns.

I’m originally from Northern Wisconsin. Generations of my family were factory workers and loggers. My grandparents had a sawmill. When we donated it to the local logging museum, my dad and I used it one last time to prepare the wood for the building. I’m in the first generation in my family to go to college. I’ve faced various obstacles and barriers from my identities, but I’m still coding a decade later.

Like a lot of people with disabilities, chronic illness or trauma, I’ve struggled with executive dysfunction. Managing my time, motivation, impulses, and emotions has been near impossible at times. In the past few years, I’ve gone from work/love addiction and alcohol issues to healthy relationships, habits, and hobbies. I still have a long way to go and like a lot of others, the pandemic has certainly taken me back a notch.

I did this through data: I was piecing together different ways to track my progress. I decided instead to build something that automatically collects personal data for self experiments. I’m focusing on integration and interaction with apps that someone already uses, instead of competition.

Tech companies have the data to understand us as users, but we don’t have the data to understand ourselves. It isn’t about productivity hacking or being the best version of ourselves for capitalism. It’s about learning from and helping people in a world that isn’t built for many of us.

You can find me on TwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn – @thecakelin or @nudgesio for my business.

How did you first get started in your career in tech?

My highschool coding teacher told me to become a developer, because gender would make it effortless for me to find a job. I thought coding was boring and pointless (I’m sure the language being visual basic didn’t help.. Can you say cutting. edge.). He should have told me coding and tech can be amazing pathways to help others and explore your curiosity.

Both of my parents have autoimmune diseases so I went to college thinking I’d become a doctor. I chose my major (biochemistry) because I visited exactly one college and they told me it was more likely to get you into medical school. Going into my senior year of undergraduate, I was struggling to find a lab job that paid instead of giving credit. I saw an advisor, who ended up being impressed by my passion for molecular structure and offered me a job.

It was a computational lab, so I jumped in the deep end of teaching myself to code. I started a PhD in the same lab, cross training in math and computer science. I eventually mastered out and got a job at a healthtech startup as a data analyst.

What are the most important skills in your current position? How did you develop these skills?

I’m a solo founder now, but my most recent job was as a full stack and growth engineer at a startup.

Research as a skill has been invaluable for me. One of the things that I think differentiates me from other engineers is that I’m more focused on solving problems than writing code. It’s faster, leads to less complexity in your codebase and more readable code.

Scientists usually review the literature enough to know where their research fits. The standard joke is that 90% of our job is Googling, but what we don’t talk about is what we are Googling. It’s crucial that developers learn to ask higher level questions. Instead of only asking how to build it, ask what problem a feature is solving.

Understanding why helps connect what you’re doing to other departments, your company, and your customers/users. There’s often false tradeoffs between speed and quality that disappear when you narrow down what work is important.

It can help to focus on defining metrics – company metrics if you’re a founder or individual metrics if you’re an employee. This is a fantastic thing to ask about in an interview. It’s a great sign if your personal success metrics align with theirs.

We are in a time with development where so many tools, frameworks, and packages already exist to do many of the things we want to do. It’s easy when you’re searching to get stuck on all these options. There’s so much to learn. I hear that from friends, no matter where they are in their career.

Higher level views of what’s available or possible helps with piecing it all together. This web development roadmap shows how impossible it would be for anyone to know all of these pieces. It also shows where you could focus on a new skill set.

I’m learning that lesson on fast forward as a founder. Sometimes taking a step back from one thing leads to a better solution, however you define better with your own metrics. You won’t always have that opportunity at a job. That’s why I think side projects and companies willing to give time for them are essential. Especially for marginalized people.

We need to be the leaders we want to see and I think the best way to do that is to nurture our own ideas. Part of that is translating the unique skills you already have, like I did with research.

What difficulties did you face in your career? How did you overcome them?

I struggle with things that are outside of my control, whether they affect me or others. Particularly when this is having different ethics and values from leadership. I haven’t overcome this as an employee, which is part of why I’m starting a business.

I have a handful of health issues that have impacted my tech career. Having PTSD makes working in mostly male environments beyond difficult.

The overt bias I’ve faced has been traumatic, but the daily subtle bias was worse for me. The uncertainty and anxiety from wondering if something was biased and deciding whether to confront it was exhausting. My solution was to get things in writing. Journal, take notes about your own progress, and work remote or have difficult conversations in Slack/email.

Trying to reconcile my existing limitations with all my passions will always be my most difficult challenge. I’m not sure exactly how to tease out the relationship between an individual’s performance and the environment they are in. My solution has been to try as many spaces as I can outside of work. I’ve never regretted moving towards more intentional, inclusive, and collaborative spaces.

Looking back on your career, what advice do you wish someone had given you that would have helped accelerate your career?

Find or form your own communities/spaces. That’s why I joined and then became an organizer of Madison Women in Tech. They bolstered me when sexism and ableism crashed my confidence. I once took myself out of interviewing for a job when the requirements changed and I didn’t feel qualified enough. I wouldn’t have realized how different that was from my natural character if I wouldn’t have brought it up in that space.

We learn best from people who can connect with us, from peers or people only one step past us. Teaching is an excellent way to learn. That’s what inspired me to start writing and dipping my toe into speaking.

Learn as much as you can about leaders at any organization – they will ultimately set the overall culture. You may adore your peers or have an incredible manager, but both will be stressed if leadership is inconsistent or has communication issues.

Reading code is one of the best ways to learn how to write it. I’d recommend packages or frameworks you are already using in a project.

Meet people and ask for their help. I learned git from a friend I met at a tech meetup. I asked to transfer to web development at my company not long after. Asking for help is an essential skill I’m constantly trying to level up at.

Is there something else you’d like to share with our readers?

This is a difficult time for a lot of folks, I’m no exception. It’s not tech specific, but two phrases I find helpful are “start where you are” and “the only way out is through”. I’d rather lean in became about our emotions, than absolving everyone else for tech’s diversity failures. At the end of the day, you’re worth more than what you do. So much more.

Thank you for sharing your story with us. How can we support you?

If you want to talk about any of the topics above or tech in general, you can schedule afternoon tea with me or email me at! You can also check out my writing on my personal website or on Medium.

Categorized in: