April Wensel is an international speaker and the founder of Compassionate Coding, a social enterprise that provides coaching and training to empower individuals and teams to cultivate sustainable, human-centered, emotionally intelligent software development practices. She has spent the past decade in software engineering and technical leadership roles at various Silicon Valley startups spanning education, health, bioinformatics, gaming, and smart homes. She also mentors widely and volunteers with organizations like Black Girls Code and Hackbright Academy to advance the cause of diversity and inclusion in the software industry. When not coding, she enjoys writing, running marathons, and cooking vegan food.
How did you get to where you are today?
I’ve always found myself drawn to the intersection of logic and creativity. It’s probably related to the fact that I was raised by a scientist and an artist. As a child, I enjoyed math and science as much as I did writing and music. For college, I went to a liberal arts school, but I majored in computer science. Now, I’m a software engineer, but I also enjoy interacting with people.
Last year, it hit me that these seemingly contradictory sides of myself actually put me in a great position to address some of the toxic problems I’ve witnessed in the tech industry—discrimination, unethical practices, hostility on teams, etc.
That’s why I decided to start Compassionate Coding: to teach emotional intelligence to people working in tech. My engineering experience allows me to understand the technical challenges faced by software teams, while my more human-oriented side allows me to empathize with the people involved.
I’m now fully committed to bringing my whole self to the task of creating a more ethical and humane tech industry.
What was your toughest obstacle and how did you overcome it?
No single obstacle has seemed particularly daunting other than my own self-doubt. So, the best way I can answer this is that I’m in an ongoing struggle with my inner critic. I overcome it daily—if not hourly!
The secret is a combination of self-compassion and a growth mindset. I try not to beat myself up when I make a mistake or struggle with a problem; instead, I remind myself that whatever I’m facing, I’m capable of getting better over time, so there’s no reason to feel hopeless.
What’s the key to staying focused & motivated?
The key for me has been getting in touch with my core values. When you slow down and give yourself space to figure out what really matters to you, it provides a powerful boost to your focus and motivation. Then, you’re not just doing a job because it’s expected of you; you’re instead taking actions each day that align with your values.
Whenever I find myself veering off track, I know I just need to tap back into my core values. My current values are: creativity, adventure, kindness, and excellence (they’re not ordered by importance but rather to spell out the handy mnemonic, “CAKE.”
Every Friday, I set aside time to do a “personal retrospective,” where I check in to see how I’ve done over the past week in regard to my core values. For example, if I lost my temper, that’s not aligned with my value of kindness, so I think about how to avoid that behavior in the future. If I went on all my training runs for the week (I’m currently training for an ultramarathon!), then I express gratitude for aligning with my value of “excellence.”
On a smaller scale, a quick tip for staying focused—especially on a task you’ve been avoiding—is to use the pomodoro technique, where you set a timer for 25 minutes to work on a task, and then give yourself a break. You can do anything for 25 minutes, right?
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
“Ignore everybody.” It’s the title of a book by Hugh MacLeod. It’s not about being selfish, of course, but rather about not letting critics and detractors hold you back.
The most exciting adventures and the most meaningful careers come from challenging the status quo. To do that successfully, you’re going to have to ignore a lot of noise!
People have a lot of limiting beliefs, and if you’re not careful, their limiting beliefs will rub off on you. People may think they’re helping you by saying, “It’s irresponsible to quit your job,” but really, that might be the best choice for you. So, ignore everybody, and listen to your own inner wise self instead.
What advice do you have for someone who is looking to start a new venture?
Get really clear on your motivation. Who are you trying to serve with your business or project? You’ll more easily attract the resources and people you need to make your venture successful if you are able to tie it to a higher purpose. Focus on that, and you’ll be able to handle all the details. And really, what’s the point of starting anything if it’s not trying to make people’s lives better?
How do we get more women leaders?
We get more women leaders by removing all the blocks in their way—discrimination, harassment, unconscious bias, etc. We definitely don’t need to train women to act more like men.
We’re in an interesting time where people are starting to realize that exclusively valuing traditional masculine traits like domination, aggression, and zero-sum thinking in business has created toxic company cultures. Now is the time for women to step in and lead with compassion. That’s how we get healthier company cultures and a more peaceful world.
I’m passionate about seeing more women leaders in tech, in particular. I volunteer with projects like Black Girls Code, Hackbright Academy, Technovation, and the Level Playing Field Institute to support women and especially women of color. I also mentor widely.