Meghan McInerny is the Chief Operating Officer of Clockwork, an interactive design and technology agency based in Minneapolis, MN. When she’s not demystifying technology for non-techies, she can be found living out her motto, which she boldly professes at the top of her LinkedIn profile.
“I never give up. I either get what I want, or I change my mind.”
We recently exchanged emails with Meghan to find out how she goes after what she wants, what drives her passion for online platforms, and her thoughts on human connection in a digital world.
What’s one thing you’ve wanted most in your professional career and how did you go about getting it?
My first job in the interactive/digital industry, which at the time we just called “web development.” I was working as an account executive at a traditional marketing agency during the day and, at night, I was finishing my degree at the U of M’s School of Journalism. While at that job, I met Nancy Lyons. At the time, she was president of Bitstream Underground, an ISP and web development shop. She came to our agency to explain what Bitstream was like, how they worked, what they did, and how we could work with them if our clients wanted websites. This was 1999, so websites were a new thing for a lot of companies. One of my clients at that time didn’t even use email yet.
I distinctly remember sitting there thinking, “What am I doing here? I need to go work for her.” So I introduced myself, got her business card, and immediately started emailing her asking for a job. She tried several tactics to put me off the trail, but I persisted. Her last plea to me was, “You have to stop spamming me.” So my final move was to immediately run to a grocery store, buy a can of Spam, and send it to her via express courier. The can was in her hands within two hours, and she finally relented and gave me a job.
In retrospect, I have no idea why I did all of that or why it worked. My only explanation, since she and I have been working together in some way ever since then, is that it was fate.The lesson there for me was to follow my gut. Up until that moment I hadn’t had such a powerful gut feeling about what I should do. The job she ended up offering me was not a career advancement. It wasn’t even a lateral move. It was a step down in title and in pay. But I had such a powerful feeling that it was the right thing to do and it ended up changing the trajectory of my career.
What’s one thing you changed your mind about? Any regrets?
I used to do a lot of public speaking, but I started to realize that I didn’t love it. It was making me anxious and stressed out; my favorite part about doing it was when it was over. About a year ago, I started backing away from it, and saying no to almost every invitation to speak. There have been moments where I feel like I’m missing out, or when I feel like I want to have a bigger voice on certain subjects, but for the most part it’s made my life much better. It was what I needed to do for my mental health. The best thing about being willing to change your mind is that you can always change it again. So maybe someday I’ll decide to start speaking more again.
There were several things. First, Nancy and I attended a conference in San Francisco that year where the dearth of women and the difficulty in connecting with them was really disappointing. The other thing that happened at that conference was a panel of everyday people who were being interviewed about how they use the web and apps. Really quickly, it became apparent that the audience was laughing at them, not with them. Nancy and I looked at each other and said, “This is wrong. We are building things for the people on that stage. We can’t laugh at them; we need to understand them.” It illustrated what happens a lot in Silicon Valley, which is a bunch of white guys building stuff for each other, and not thinking much about other world views or experiences.
The other factor was seeing so many people in our lives—mainly women, but definitely men, too—holding technology at arm’s length. Both friends and clients saying things like, “Oh, I don’t get that,” or “I just leave that to my kids.”So we thought, if we start a blog, we can accomplish a bunch of things. We can be more public examples of women in positions of leadership in technology. We can create an inviting space for people to ask what they’re afraid are “dumb” questions and empower them to embrace technology. We can create a community that’s different and more welcoming.
We can make people who feel like they’ll never “get” technology feel like maybe they could. I’m really proud of what we accomplished with the Geek Girls Guide. Creating that site led to countless speaking engagements, a podcast, and two books.
Nancy and I have both been so busy over the past year that our podcasting came to a halt. But, we’re planning on firing up the mics in 2016, so stay tuned!
What influenced your passion for online platforms?
In the mid-90s, I had a very boring job. I would usually be done with all of my tasks by mid-morning, but I was an administrative assistant so I had to cover the phones and front desk. My computer also happened to have the only Internet connection in the office. So, as soon as my work was done, I would log into Yahoo! Chatrooms. I was in there so often I started making friends with other frequent chatters. At the time, the concept of meeting people online was not mainstream, and my “real” friends found this very concerning. But I just found it so thrilling that I could have a meaningful conversation with someone in the UK while I was sitting in an office in Minneapolis.
When I started my first blog in 2002, the most fun part was all the people I met — from all over the world. The web at that time felt a lot smaller, kind of like how Twitter felt for the first few years (another place where I’ve met a lot of friends). It feels a bit harder to make those connections now, but it’s still possible. The first episode of Lena Dunham’s Women of the Hour podcast includes a truly charming story about how she met and became friends with writer Ashley Ford over email. That’s the magic for me. You read something that someone writes, you reach out to them, a spark ignites. Underneath the trolling and doxxing and other horrible things that happen online, the beauty of human connection does still exist. It might feel hard to find on some days, but it’s there. And it’s magical.
All of that is to stay that, for me, it’s always been about using technology to connect with people.
I think a lot about what people refer to as “real-life” vs. online, because what happens online is real. It’s different than being in person, but it’s still real. I’ve met dear friends online—some of whom I still have never met in “real life”—people who used to read my blog and then we stayed connected via Twitter and then Facebook and then Instagram. It’s possible to get to know someone online who’s different, but no less real, than getting to know them online. The early days of blogging felt like having pen pals around the world; you got to know someone through their writing and their thoughts, largely divorced from photos of them or what their “real” life looked like.
The only book I’ve read so far that truly captures the kind of connection I’m trying to describe is Ready Player One. It beautifully illustrates how relationships can develop online without the baggage that real life can bring — of skin color or beauty or gender or body type. That difference is fascinating to me, and online platforms—in many of their forms—facilitate these connections in really interesting ways.
Of course, in other forms, an ugly flipside quickly emerges: a web that is about enhancing real-life baggage: feeling like we have to Photoshop our faces, edit ourselves, curate our lives.
But the spark for me has always been about the ability to connect with other people in an authentic way. It’s still possible, but it requires a little more bravery and a little less editing.
How does the work you do—at Clockwork or elsewhere—break down barriers to build better connected communities?
On a personal level, I think I’m just a natural connector. One of the things I enjoy most is introducing people to each other. I love throwing parties or having events where I can bring people together or simply putting two people in touch who might be of help to each other.
At Clockwork and with the various nonprofit boards I serve on (GiveMN, Bollywood Dance Scene, and Still Kickin’), I try to help move ideas forward, help people achieve their goals, and make the work better. Getting an idea from concept to reality requires a strong network, positive communication, and a willingness to collaborate. Those are skills that I intentionally cultivate in myself and try to foster in others.
I’m lucky to have opportunities to meet people—from interns to professionals changing careers—and give them access to our space and the industry. Tech has a well-documented diversity problem—in gender, in race, and in age—and there are many theories about why and what to do about it. I’m doing what I can to change that. I’m trying to invite more people in, connect them with others, and make them feel welcome.
It’s hard to be the only one, to be “other” in an unfamiliar space. I do what I can to help alleviate that. Part of creating a community is about sharing what you’re doing, inviting others into it, helping them understand it, encouraging them to persist when being “other” feels tiresome. That might mean having a coffee with a woman interested in learning to code, or hosting a youth internship program, or just being a listening ear for someone who is curious or struggling or needs help getting their foot in the door. For me, fostering connections is important and I’m always happy to be an evangelist. I love technology and I love people. Bringing them together brings me joy.
I try not to take myself too seriously, but I do take my position seriously. I worked hard to get where I am, but the whole point of getting to a leadership position—in a company, industry, or community—is to pull the next one up.
It’s not just about getting over the barriers to where I want to go, it’s also about knocking them down so they don’t get in the next person’s way.
I really hope that, in some small way, I am doing that.