So, tell me about your early years and where you come from.
I grew up in San Jose, California. My family was middle-class. My father was a software engineer, my mother taught school. It was a very conservative household, or at least California conservative. That really textured my world view.
People ask me now, how that affected me being trans, and it’s… well, the thing that you are is such an anathema to the culture you’re brought up in. It’s problematic. I think the biggest impact was that I lacked any real sense of self. I was just trying to be what everybody around me wanted.
Teachers loved me, because I was always doing what they wanted, and I was way more concerned with the adults in my life than my peers. I always did what my parents, particularly my mom, expected. I was always filling particular roles. That really drove a lot of my life in terms of what I did. It wasn’t until decades later, post-transition, where I start to develop a real sense of self. And then I’m think, “Oh, that’s weird—how did I live so much of my life having no real sense of who I was, just trying to be what everybody around me wanted?”
Were you exposed to creativity or technology, or any of those concepts early on?
That’s an awesome thing about the household I grew up in. My dad worked in the software industry. We had computers and game systems in the house my entire life. That was always something we had. We had a Commodore 128. It has the basic interpreter on there. You could write little go-to loop-type things. Actually it was my friend’s dad who had the first computer I ever saw. I was—I want to say—three and a half, maybe four years old, and I’m over at my friend’s house and he’s got this Apple II. It has this green screen. My friend’s dad shows us this vector drawing of a frying pan. You can’t even see it on one screen all at once. You have to scroll or zoom out. I see this and then he shows this little game he wrote of where these little horses race across the screen. Seeing that was the moment where I was thought, “This is the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.” That moment still stands out in my head when people ask me, “How did you get into technology?” That moment was really defining.
Walk me from that moment to working in tech. How did you get into it? What has your career experience been like?
When I first started college I wanted to do something a bit different. I wanted do music for video games. I was strongly pushed by my mother to go into computer science. “You can make all this money doing software.” And so I went into it. It was an interesting thing—I was good at it and I did enjoy it. I think I still regret not following my heart at the time. I pursued a computer science degree, and then started working in the software industry. That’s all I’ve done since. It’s an interesting field. There are times when I love it, and there are times when I hate it.
“I was presenting very gender-queer in interviews. And not getting any offers. Finally, one day, I gave up. I went to an interview without nail polish, no lip gloss. I presented as male as possible. Lo and behold: I got an offer. The thing of it is every time I’ve been brought in for an on site interview, where I was presenting male, I received an offer.”
What are some of the highlights, and proudest moments, and things that have excited you the most about your time in tech?
That’s a great question. I was really proud of my work at One Medical. Before I left there, I took a few minutes and ran a query on the git repository. I wondered, “How much of this code base did I write?” It turned out to be around 40%. During the time I was there, the software team was on average of about five people. Sometimes less, sometimes a little bit more but I was the first developer they hired. Writing that much code could potentially be embarrassing, except that I’m very particular about not writing verbose or excessive code. I write what I need.
I’m really proud of what I did there. I’m proud of the type of work that we did and the direction we were going. That was a really neat part of my career.
Your work has certainly impacted me as a One Medical member.
I look at it, and it’s this was a really big thing that I poured a huge part of my life into, and I look at a lot of other things I’m really proud of, and I feel like none of them quite stand on that same tier. I think I wrote some beautiful code when I was doing device drivers, some really elegant things. I solved some really hard problems, but they just don’t stand up in terms of the long term term impact that they have. One thing exciting about my current role is that it has the same potential for long term impact. We are building tools to fight harassment. To me, that is just as big as doing medical software.
Tell me more about that.
Being harassed online sucks. And I’m working for the biggest player in open source community platforms: Github. They made a decision at a very high level to put money and people behind actually making Github a platform that is safe and inclusive. I’m building up a team; we’ve got a really good foundation in the works. It’s going to be a while until we have real tangible results, and it’s not an easy area. There are a lot of really tricky aspects to it. But those are challenges that I’m excited to rise to. I want to build the online space that I want to have for myself. I want to build an online space that sets the tone for the future. I don’t want just to make this platform good. I want to make it the best of show: a place where voices are not suppressed and that people feel safe.
“I want to build the online space that I want to have for myself. A place where voices are not suppressed and that people feel safe.”
On the flipside, what have some of your biggest struggles been in your career?
The biggest struggle was post-transition, or probably mid-transition, when I was trying to figure things out and just living in a sort of gender-queer life, and I needed to find a different job. I was determined that I didn’t want to work any place that won’t accept me as I am. So I was presenting very gender-queer in interviews. And not getting any offers. Finally, one day, I gave up. I went to an interview without nail polish, no lip gloss. I presented as male as possible. Lo and behold: I got an offer. The thing of it is every time I’ve been brought in for an on site interview, where I was presenting male, I received an offer.
So I got that job. I worked there for a couple of years, and then there were some really negative situations there, however I did manage to transition during that time. That company ended up being a mixed bag. I had some solid support from my peers, but I could’ve had a lot better support from management. I realized, at some point, that the professional relationship had become fairly dysfunctional.
I needed to move on. I started interviewing for other positions. At this point, I was presenting female. It’s a lot different interviewing for a tech job when presenting female.
The bad interviews were not a big deal. If my skill set and approach don’t line up with a company, I expect them to pass. But the good ones… the good ones kept resulting in rejection. When a company decides to keep moving forward, especially when it’s been multiple rounds, it’s clear that they think you are suited for the job. They are spending time and money to pursue you. These companies would get to the end of all of this and then decline me on the grounds of something we discussed as a non-issue in the very early rounds of screening. For example, “We think we want somebody with more such and such experience.” and you’re like, “Wait, we talked about that exact thing during the first phone screen!” Why would you put hours of your employees’ time and mine into this interview process if that thing was an issue?
It’s clear there is a bias at work. A lot of men don’t want to work for or with a woman. On top of that, I never know who might have read me as trans and had their own transphobia come into play. But it’s pretty easy to sabotage somebody in the interview process if you want to. And I’m sure anyone with a non-privileged background faces these exact same type of things where all it takes is, “I don’t think they’re a good fit,” or, “Nah, they made me kind of uncomfortable,” or, “I really didn’t like the way they answered this one thing.” It’s much easier to sabotage somebody than it is to champion for them.
“It’s pretty easy to sabotage somebody in the interview process if you want to. And I’m sure anyone with a non-privileged background faces these exact same type of things where all it takes is, ‘I don’t think they’re a good fit,’ or, ‘Nah, they made me kind of uncomfortable,’ or, ‘I really didn’t like the way they answered this one thing.’ It’s much easier to sabotage somebody than it is to champion for them.”
Let’s dig deeper into that because I’m sure you have a lot to say. You worked in tech for 15 years before you transitioned. So you have tons of experience in the industry. How is life before and after?
I have a much different understanding of privilege. There’s a difference between knowledge and understanding. And to fully grasp the level of privilege I was afforded, it took this very painful experience of having to job search for over a year, and a lot of great interviews that my previous experience said, oh yeah, you have an interview like that you’re going to get a nice offer, you’re going to have multiple offers coming in. You’ll be in this great competitive situation!
Instead I would find that even when things went really well, when I was expecting to receive an offer. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to work at some of these places. I would have been the first woman engineer. Do I really want to be that person? I’ve got a thick skin. I can handle it. I’ll do it.
But then they make the decision for me. They decide I am not up to the challenge of being the first woman. They can’t legally turn you away for that. But they can always come up with some other reason.
These situations brought me to very deep understanding of privilege. It is a much more nuanced and deep and personal thing than I understood before that.
“I’ve had to learn a lot about this privilege thing, and how much I had, and how much I’ve lost.”
There is a huge difference between the male friend who knows, “Oh, it’s not safe for you to walk down this street at night,” They will walk you to your car, all that stuff. They know about that and they do the right thing. But it’s a very different experience when you feel mortal terror. When you have to that walk by yourself, and you have some guy on a bicycle circling up, and coming up towards you, and approaching you, and– There’s a very different feeling and if you don’t have that experience, you’ll never fully understand. You will know. But you won’t understand.
That’s a much scarier place than just not being able to get a job. I’ve had to learn a lot about this privilege thing, and how much I had, and how much I’ve lost.
All of this has impacted me in a professional capacity. I am a huge champion of mitigating and eliminating bias in hiring. We have to really work hard to do this. Fortunately, we have good economic data on why you should do this. Ultimately companies should do this because it’s ethical, but sometimes you can’t always win over a board with the ethical argument. But you can at least win them over with the profit argument.
My experiences have made me a big advocate and champion for how to we empirically cut biases out of these processes, how do we give more opportunities to people from underprivileged backgrounds, how do we make tech a more equitable place? It already has huge economic barriers to entry, for instance, if you can’t afford to have a computer in your house. If I hadn’t grown up in an upper middle class family, would I be in tech right now? Probably not. I might have eventually had access to a computer at school and maybe that would’ve been enough, but it’s very different having had access to a lot of really interesting pieces of technology very young and very early and being able to just play with these things and grow to love them.
Where do you find your support networks?
Professionally or personally?
Personally, I’ve been very fortunate in terms of the circles of friends that were around me through my transition. The nature of all those relationships changed more than I thought it would. But in pretty much all cases, it was positive – even when that meant the distance in some of those relationships increased. I had a good group of friends to begin with, and that group turned into what I needed it to be. The nature of that circle of friends has changed and who I’m close to and who I’m not, but I have some absolutely amazing people in my life that are there when I need them, and people that I can count on when I feel like I can count on no one else.
“My experiences have made me a big advocate and champion for how to we empirically cut biases out of these processes, how do we give more opportunities to people from underprivileged backgrounds, how do we make tech a more equitable place? It already has huge economic barriers to entry, for instance, if you can’t afford to have a computer in your house. If I hadn’t grown up in an upper middle class family, would I be in tech right now? Probably not. I might have eventually had access to a computer at school and maybe that would’ve been enough, but it’s very different having had access to a lot of really interesting pieces of technology very young and very early and being able to just play with these things and grow to love them.”
Professionally, I feel like I’m only just dabbing my feet in. I’ve only been functioning in the professional world in a gender-variant way and then trans way for like the last four years. I don’t think I really gained much during the genderqueer portion of that, but once I transitioned and was presenting fully female, I have been able to establish some really good professional contacts. I was able to get more involved in organizations like Lesbians Who Tech and connect with other ladies in tech. That’s been very helpful.
It was a huge thing walking into GitHub and finding that there was a built-in support network of ladies there, who are in technology. And having lady managers as peers was actually a big thing. My previous company was too small for me to have any peers, let alone peers of the same gender as mine. That’s been huge. And that’s very recent, but there’s a couple of those people I know that long after I leave this place, they will still support me. I know who to go talk to. There’s experience and depth there.
How do you feel like your life experience has shaped the way that you approach your work?
It definitely shapes how I view the projects I’m working on. I am fortunate to get to take on a project that is directly related to being part of an underprivileged group. I have friends who’ve been deeply harassed for being trans online. Being able to directly work to change that is an incredible professional opportunity.
I have a fairly quiet online profile right now. Because of that, I haven’t faced a lot of direct harassment myself. But I’ve watched this play out in some friends’ lives. It’s personal. It is a very real thing, and being able to do something very real about it is very meaningful.
Earlier we were talking a little bit about really grasping the level of privilege that exists if you are a perceived straight, white, cis male. I’m not white, but I’m “white enough,” at least in the Bay Area. That’s definitely something I’ve started to understand better recently. Maybe some place else, I wouldn’t be white enough.
“We want the a diverse spectrum of candidates. We want to ask all of them questions about diversity, inclusion, and social impact. Those answers matter just as much as the technical questions. It has an amazing way of normalizing a lot of things. On top of that, you’ve now selected for people that are going to be looking for those qualities in others around them. You can leverage the effect people intrinsically wanting to hire others like themselves in a positive way, instead of the typical homogeneous, limiting way.”
These thing impact how I think about hiring and building teams. It changes the types of questions that types of questions you use.
We want the a diverse spectrum of candidates. We want to ask all of them questions about diversity, inclusion, and social impact. Those answers matter just as much as the technical questions. It has an amazing way of normalizing a lot of things. On top of that, you’ve now selected for people that are going to be looking for those qualities in others around them. You can leverage the effect people intrinsically wanting to hire others like themselves in a positive way, instead of the typical homogeneous, limiting way. That way tends to result in teams entirely of people from privileged white male backgrounds. I want other people to care about diversity inclusion. I want other people that are different than me.
I also want other people who might be like me. If you’re the only lady on a team, you desperately want to add another lady to that team. If you find someone who is qualified, you’re going to fight for them. Similarly, like if you’re a person of color, or if you’re a trans. Occasionally will have an interview where the video chat will come up, and I will suspect that the candidate is trans. I will want to give her extra privilege. And I have to actually fight a different type of bias there. I still have to evaluate her on the same criteria I would any other candidate. Even though personally, I’m like, “I’d love to hire you just because you’re like me.” It’s the same thing. It’s an odd sensation.
It ties in a little bit to my experiences, being functionally the same candidate presenting male and presenting female. It’s not that I answered questions differently, or did less well on the technical portions. It was like, yeah I’ve dealt with a lot of identity stuff, but that didn’t change in how smart I was. That didn’t change in how well I do in technical interviews. None of that changed, and yet the responses to me changed dramatically.
Did you experience similar biases when you were employed as well?
Oh, I can talk about that little bit. In my previous position, it was a place where they all knew me through my transition (which was gradual). Having folks who are not close to you on a personal level see you in both genders is a little odd. I definitely saw ways where I was treated differently after transitioning. In the 15 years of my career prior to transitioning I was never, ever labeled as “aggressive.” Sometimes “assertive,” even “overly energetic,” “frenetic.” All sorts of labels would be applied to me, but never “aggressive.” Post-transition I got that feedback constantly. Especially when I was seeking any form of promotion – where that very behavior that almost guarantees reward of promotion in a male – it was used as criteria to claim that I was unsuited for a particular promotion.
“In the 15 years of my career prior to transitioning I was never, ever labeled as ‘aggressive.’ Sometimes ‘assertive,’ even ‘overly energetic,’ ‘frenetic.’ All sorts of labels would be applied to me, but never ‘aggressive.’ Post-transition I got that feedback constantly. Especially when I was seeking any form of promotion – where that very behavior that almost guarantees reward of promotion in a male – it was used as criteria to claim that I was unsuited for a particular promotion.”
If you get things done as a lady, you’re too aggressive.
Have you had mentors or people that you’ve looked up to along the way?
I have had people who have been mentors in very specific technical areas. I learned a lot about what good code looks like. When I was writing device drivers, I worked for this guy who was a terrible people manager, but a marvelous coder. He wrote beautiful code. That was when I really developed a sense of what beautiful code is. He was the type of person who wrote such beautiful code that almost anything you presented to him, he would not be super happy with. The highest praise was if you put something in front of him and he’d just scowl at it, but he’d have nothing to say. He would be essentially unhappy with it because it wasn’t something that he wrote, but he couldn’t actually come up with any criticism. I learned a lot from that.
I feel like I learned a lot about software management from watching a lot of people do it poorly. It’s an area where I can’t actually talk about a good mentor I have had because it’s a case where I, for the most part, just watched people fumble. I’ve also watched people who fumbled in many areas and then did one or two things right. I’ve tried to glean all these little bits. My strength as a manager is in aggregating all these lessons I’ve learned over years of watching people do things, both good and bad.
There was also a time when I had someone further up in the organization, two levels above me, at the start of my career, who saw potential in me as a leader. She started working with me to develop leadership traits and took time to meet with me one-on-one. That was actually really powerful now that I think back on it.
This was pre-transition for me. I never realized at the time what it must have taken for her to reach that level in that company as a woman. Now I can only imagine the battles she had to fight and what she had to do to get there. What an honor it was that she took time to mentor me.
More recently, I’ve been at a lot of startups and smaller firms. You often have a lot less opportunities for mentorship in those cases. You have a lot of opportunities for growth, but essentially if you’re at too small of a company, you have to look for external mentorship. This goes back to the identity thing I was talking about. If you don’t have a strong sense of self it’s hard to have really solid goals about what you wanna do with your career. Without clear goals it is easy to neglect mentorship and other career development.
It fascinates me that the shift into my actual gender was accompanied by a much clearer set of career and personal goals. Without low level psychological needs being met you can be blind to the higher level stuff. And it’s weird that you can be unaware that those needs are not being met.
How do you feel the state of tech in 2016? You’ve been here for a long time. What excites you, what frustrates you?
The thing that excites me the most, is that the conversation around diversity in tech feels like it is taking on a very vibrant life and it is very real. It’s both data-driven and personal, and we’re seeing that conversation play out, and we’re seeing the beginnings of real change. On the flipside, we’re seeing some really nasty counter-arguments, and we’re seeing a lot of people basically defend this concept of, “No. It’s a meritocracy. If you’re having issues, it’s because you are not good enough,” yet the data says that’s wrong.
“The conversation around diversity in tech feels like it is taking on a very vibrant life and it is very real. It’s both data-driven and personal, and we’re seeing that conversation play out, and we’re seeing the beginnings of real change. On the flipside, we’re seeing some really nasty counter-arguments, and we’re seeing a lot of people basically defend this concept of, “No. It’s a meritocracy. If you’re having issues, it’s because you are not good enough,” yet the data says that’s wrong.”
We’re seeing some companies are stepping up and doing things about it. And my hope is that those companies that are doing something about it don’t just play lip service to diversity and inclusion, but actually really step into that role and say, “We are going to do this really well,” and especially if they then see the rewards and they see economic benefits. That will really help as time moves forward, we’ll see a lot. We’ll see big shifts. If you look at other industries that had deal more direct with affirmative action in the 70s and 80s, you’ll see this indeed happened. Even some industries that are still known for being incredibly sexist. Take Law, which is known for having some really nasty misogyny baked into the system and yet we’re also still seeing that female lawyers are pretty big percentage.
I see tech in a position to actually do better. I want to see tech sidestep the “lean in” approach. Can tech avoid teaching everyone from diverse background to simply behave like the status quo? Can we instead bring a diversity of approaches and personalities into the workplace? The status quo is to expect underprivileged people to to go and behave like the white men in the industry. The more you can behave like these men, the better you will do.
We’re seeing in tech companies that are willing to actually move women into leadership. We do even better when we don’t just look for the women that emulate men but we look for women and people of diverse backgrounds that just are themselves. They bring a slightly different tone and perspective on things, as opposed to just the very stereotypical driven Type A masculine. Type A females are great but they are very different than their male counterparts in terms of their approach and what their goals are. And we’re seeing this type of shift, very slowly. I feel like we’re just at the beginning of this, which is a little painful, but we’re seeing that these shifts are happening and that there are more opportunities.
“The status quo is to expect underprivileged people to to go and behave like the white men in the industry. The more you can behave like these men, the better you will do.”
And we’re definitely seeing a lot more companies trying to just fix their diversity from this big number-game side of it and be like, “Well, we need to hire more women, we need to hire more people of color.” And that by itself is not good enough, because we’ll continue to maintain the reality, most women and people of color leave tech after less than 10 years. If we just hire diversity and we don’t build support networks, these people will be bullied out.
At my current company, I am part of several internal support networks. We are building sub-communities around being Latina or being a woman, etc. We are building these support networks internally in parallel with our recruiting efforts, and that’s a huge deal. And I’m seeing a couple other companies that are doing a pretty good job of that too. They understand that they can’t just hire people from diverse background, because they’ll end up leaving. You have to actually put a support system in for them. And as we see that, we’re seeing this growth and this vibrancy, and you see these just amazing things.
“Most women and people of color leave tech after less than 10 years. If we just hire diversity and we don’t build support networks, these people will be bullied out.”
What are you working on right now, either work-wise or personally, in 2016?
Professionally, I’m really working to build a solid team, to accomplish these goals that I have in terms of fighting harassment and abuse on the GitHub platform. That’s just an exciting thing to be working on, and I’m really excited to be recruiting and hiring for that, and trying to put in really solid processes around how we’re going about building the software we need. That’s exciting.
On a pseudo-professional note, I’m trying to do a lot more speaking and writing about these topics. There’s a reason I’m openly trans on the internet. I made a very conscious decision about that a year ago. I could very well be stealth on the internet. I can mostly be stealth in person, but I made a conscious decision that I have this privilege and if I’m stealth, I give up my voice. And it’s really hard to drive changes solely from the perspective of outsiders who are allies without the voice of those who are actually affected.
One of my big things for 2016 is doing a lot more speaking, and writing about this very topic, and sharing my stories. I’m an empiricist, so I want data on all this stuff. And I get frustrated. There’s not a lot of good data on many aspects of this. In some areas there’s great data. Like we know a lot about gender bias in terms of how it affects interviews. But there’s a lot less about how transphobia, or homophobia, etc come into play. So often the best we have is our stories and our anecdotes. And especially since they’re very real. We may not be able to statistically prove that this is happening, but we can appeal to people’s life experiences and hope they say, “Oh, yeah. That happened. I could totally see that happening more, and that shouldn’t be happening. What can I do about it?” I definitely am trying to use my voice to make the world a better place for anybody from a non-privileged background.
I would love to hear you speak. You’re so eloquent in everything you’ve said here.
Where do you see yourself in five or ten years? Do you think you’ll still be in tech?
Probably. I could see using some of my work, in terms of the trust and safety, could move me someplace different. But, if I do that it would still be someplace clearly related to these very issues of making sure that people have safe and inclusive spaces and that we’re building these types of places both in real life and on the internet. If I stay in tech I definitely hope to tackle some level of upper executive-style work within the tech industry. I think I have a lot to draw on in terms of that, and that’s a direction I would like to see my career go long-term.
What advice would you give to folks going through similar struggles or coming from similar backgrounds to you in tech?
That’s a hard one, because there’s a degree where I want to say,”Don’t give up.” And there’s another part of me that feels like that’s the most flippant advice in the world.
It was incredibly emotionally destructive for me to deal with the rejections of interviews I knew went well. I expected to be rejected for something that didn’t go very well, or I could tell we were just on different pages regarding management style. But the interviews where it was clear that we synced and it was clear that there was a good match and a good fit…. To get turned down for those was just unbearable. And no, not just once or twice — the first couple times you dismiss it. By the third and fourth time, it was really so incredibly emotionally destructive.
It’s hard for me in good faith to say, “Just stick it out, it’ll be fine.” We need diverse people in tech. I don’t know what the answer is there. It makes me sad that that’s the case.
“I’m an empiricist, so I want data on all this stuff. And I get frustrated. There’s not a lot of good data on many aspects of this. In some areas there’s great data. Like we know a lot about gender bias in terms of how it affects interviews. But there’s a lot less about how transphobia, or homophobia, etc come into play. So often the best we have is our stories and our anecdotes.”
We need to keep fighting to eliminate these biases and make sure people really do have a fair chance. Yet I know that not every company is trying to do that, and so I don’t know what the answer is. There’s a school of thought out there advocating that underprivileged folks should just be the entrepreneur and go that route. But then you have the problem of, yeah, you can do that, but the bias is then going to happen to you at the funding level.
The best I can do is try to leverage the privilege in my life to improve these situations. I have this privilege, I have a job, I have a position, I have authority. I can use that to try to fix these problems from that side. What do I tell someone who is young and up-and-coming? I can say, don’t even apply at the places that are shitty?
I don’t know how you make it. We’ve built a system that is so just difficult and ultimately cruel. I’m really hoping to see some of the very big players build out better programs for early engineers, early career engineers. I’m also hoping to see them build out better support systems for people in their mid-to-late career so that they can bring in women and people of color that have managed to survive and make it a good place to be. We have to see some big changes, both from start-ups and also from the big players, the big employers, the ones that employ tens of thousands and not just a few hundred here and there.