Amy Wibowo
  • Years in Tech


  • Current Role

    Founder, Bubblesort Zines

  • Place of Origin

    Indonesia / Mississippi

  • Interview Date

    February 22, 2016

I’m Indonesian-American and moved to the US when I was 2 years old. I grew up in a small Mississippi town, always loved math and science, and went on to study computer science at MIT. I did machine learning research at Honda Research Institute, HCI research at the University of Tokyo and web development at Airbnb, before going on to start my own computer science education company. Currently, I’m writing the computer science textbook I wish I had growing up, full of drawings of cats.

Why don’t we start from the top. Tell me a bit about your early years and where you come from.

I grew up in a bunch of different places. My parents moved around a lot while I was a kid. My parents immigrated here to the U.S. from Indonesia when I was two. My dad is a civil engineer and he tried to find a job as a civil engineer. No one, no lab that he wanted to work for, would recognize his college degree because it was foreign. The only way for him to get the kind of jobs he wanted to do was to go back to school. He tried for a while—I think he was a janitor for the first couple of months that he lived here because that was the only job he could get hired for. He was like, “What am I doing here, working as a janitor, when I know I’m really good at my job as a civil engineer.” He went back to school and that’s kind of why we moved around a lot. He went to school in Chicago and then Colorado, then finally found a job as a civil engineer in Mississippi. That’s most where I did most of my growing up. He works a lot with river erosion and flooding, and so Mississippi is like a great place for that. So that’s how I ended up growing up in the South.

What was it like being an immigrant family in the deep south?

It was super interesting. I was the only Asian kid in my class. There was one other Asian girl in my school. Teachers got us confused. They couldn’t tell us apart. I was so worried when I went to college that no one would know who I was, because I went to university somewhere where students were 30% Asian. I was like, “No one’s going to even know who I am!”

Oh my goodness. I’m curious, just as someone who grew up in small-town South, were you exposed to creativity and technology in school? How did you discover it?

I guess not really. We had like a typing class at school, and that’s kind of as far as that went. I did have really amazing English and History classes, but as far as technology exposure, it was mostly going to the library, reading lots and lots of books.

What were your parents’ expectations of you? What did they want you to be when you grew up?

They mostly wanted to make sure I would be able to support myself with because they were all about making sure I would grow up to be self-sufficient with a fulfilling career.

I’m curious to hear more about your academic experience.

In school, I loved basically every single subject. And a good teacher could make me like subjects in school that I wouldn’t have liked on my own. My two biggest loves were probably science and art. I even thought about majoring in art and I actually talked with some reps from art colleges in the south. Their programs sounded amazing, but I also still really loved math and wanted to make sure I could continue pursuing that. I remember asking one of the art school reps what the highest math class was at their university. They told me college algebra, and I had like already had taken college algebra my sophomore year of high school. I really wanted to be an adult who both knew life drawing and multivariable calculus. And it was like hard to figure out how to be that kind of an adult.

So I ended up going to school in computer science and electrical engineering and I still tried to do creative stuff on the side. I was in my university’s symphony orchestra. I took creative writing classes and foreign language classes. And I would doodle in all of my notes—if you like flip through my notes about machine learning, you’d see drawings of flowers scattered amongst the neural networks.

Every time I took a class within my major it made me more confused instead of less confused about what I wanted to do with my life. I loved both my first software class and my first hardware class and wondered whether I should do software or hardware as a career. And I fell in love with so many other classes in my major: signal processing, image processing, computer graphics.

One of my friends in grad school pointed out to me that no matter like what I was doing, whether it was like science-y or math-y or art, what I really liked doing was to making stuff. No matter what class, I would be a lot more motivated to make an awesome final project than to study for for a test. I realized I was happy to go above and beyond—reading newly published academic papers, putting in extra hours every night, in order to make a final project I could be proud of. And once I had that realization about myself, I feel like I stopped fighting with myself about whether I was an artist or a technologist. I was just a person who liked to make awesome shit.

So, let’s fast forward to career time. Tell me about some of the most exciting, wonderful things that you worked on in your career, like stuff that you’re just super proud of?

After grad school I moved to Japan (that was the foreign language I had concentrated on in college), and the first year in Japan I worked at Honda Research Institute. They make humanoid robots called ASIMO. So I worked on a learning system for ASIMO based on the way babies and toddlers learn. Babies and toddlers often look up to their parents and use their parent’s expression to assess whether they’re doing the right thing or not. If they do something, and they look up, and their parent looks disappointed, the child thinks, “Uh oh. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that.” Or if they look up, and their parent looks proud of them, then they’ll conclude, “I must be doing the right thing.” ASIMO can see the person in front of him while he’s completing a task. So, he’ll look up and assess their face. We used an SDK from the MIT Media Lab that can tell whether the person supervising ASIMO is disappointed or pleased and ASIMO use that as feedback for whether to continue that direction or to try something totally different. That was super fun to work on.

So cool. Then after Japan, did you come straight to Silicon Valley?

I did. I spent a year at Honda. Then I also did one year of research at the University of Tokyo at their Media Lab. And then to San Francisco.  

What were your first impressions of Silicon Valley?

I feel like I had a really different impression of Silicon Valley than a lot of people because I had come straight from Japan. In Japan, casual clothing had meant pants and a button up shirt instead of a full on suit. But here when people say casual, they actually mean really casual.

For sure. So, you’ve worked at a combo of tiny startups here and bigger companies. Walk me through some of that.

The first startup that I worked at in San Francisco was a tiny YC startup called 1000memories and that was an interesting experience, and really different from working at a big company, because at a tiny company, everyone ends up doing everything, from on call ops through customer support. All the engineers did frontend, backend, devops. So you learn how to do everything, because you have to.

Yeah. And then from there, you were responsible of building the whole growth team, right? Airbnb?

Oh yeah, after I worked there for a year, I moved to Airbnb.

How was that?

That was pretty amazing. When I joined Airbnb, it was still pretty small. I was the third woman engineer, and the 20th engineer overall. Now I think there are over 200 engineers there. And the time I joined, there wasn’t a growth team. But when I was implementing some stuff on the site I wanted to make sure that what we were building would be easy to use. So I roped in someone on the analytics team (Topher Lin) to help me measure everything I built. The head of product at the time, Joe Zadeh, saw what the two of us were doing and said, “I’ve always wanted a Growth team, and that’s basically what the two of you were doing—building stuff, proving that users like it with analytics. So, I want you two be our first Growth team.”

So cool. What was the process like, building and managing a team, compared to startup of just executing everything, and then going into this more strategic role?

It was really great. We got to interview the first Growth team project manager, who is still there now and who is super awesome, Gustaf Alstromer. I didn’t want us to be a growth team that used slimy tactics or who put up a wall to make people sign up. We really wanted the growth to be founded on metrics, and also use the power of the community telling their stories. We wanted to help people tell their stories because happy customers is the best way to grow. When we talked to Gustav about what his ideas about growth were, they completely lined up. He was like, “I want to help our users to tell their stories. I want this to be organic. I don’t want to be slimy,” so it was a perfect match.



And then you started your own company. Tell me about that experience—what it is and what was the impetus for starting it.

Last year when I started BubbleSort I had been in the industry for seven years and it felt like a long time. I felt like it was time to switch from being a programmer to sharing with other people what I loved about programming. And I wanted to share that joy in ways that I felt the current computer science curriculum was lacking.

Strategically, did you know it would be zines? Walk me through why you decided to make it in the way that you did.

When I was 13, I was reading a really dry science textbook and I made up my mind that one day I was going to write a math and science textbook that was going to be in cartoon format with lots of drawings for the visual learner because I think that visual learners often get left out of education.

I’m curious how all of your work and life experience impacts how you are approaching your work now.

As a person who has lots of interests besides technology, I try to relate computing concepts to history, art, literature, and other subjects. As someone who often felt discouraged while studying computer science, I try to explain complex technical concepts in a clear and non-condescending way, because I want readers to leave feeling “yeah! I can totally understand this!” And above all, I wanted people reading the zines to see technology as a way to be creative.

How has the experience been connecting with people who are using your zines?

It’s been pretty amazing. I have gotten emails from moms who say that they watch their daughters reading the zines and see them squee and light up. I’ve gotten emails from college students who say they were feeling discouraged about picking computer science as a major but the zines have made them feel like they made the right choice after all. Every time I get an email like that I know I’m doing the right thing.

Ok, let’s switch to the dark side for a sec. I am curious about kind of the hardships that you’ve experienced or the roadblocks, particularly as a woman in tech, but it could just be as a person in tech.

I remember feeling discouraged about my decision to be an engineer, starting in college. I felt like my classmates were all way smarter than me. I also remember a college boyfriend telling me that the final projects I had picked for myself were way beyond my level and that I should pick easier projects. It was really jarring to have a person who was supposed to be supportive of me be the exact opposite of supportive.  But because I’m really contrary, it made me even more determined than usual to make my final project awesome. And not only did I complete the project successfully, at the end of the semester, my professor gave me an award for best project in the class.

Did this continue once you joined the workforce?

Definitely. I’ve worked at places where my manager assumed that anything wrong with the website was my bug, just because I was the only woman on the team. I would even get calls during the middle of the night, or early in the morning, or when I was on vacation, blaming me for bugs that I could prove via git-blame had nothing to do with me. I’ve also had advisors refuse to give me help because they were romantically attracted to me. They would tell me that they would only give me advice if it was over dinner. So I would do research and write papers completely unadvised, because I would refuse to go on a dinner date with them.

Yeah, you talked about in your pre-interview being underestimated by male peers and supervisors. And you mentioned being stalked and harassed as well.

So, that research advisor that I just mentioned, couldn’t take no for an answer, and so one time even tried to follow me home after work. He apologized to me the next day about doing that, but then after his apology, tried to forcibly kiss me. So, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t actually sorry.

It’s really horrible when a supervisor tries something like that because of the power dynamic of it. Knowingly using your position of power to get someone to date you is just gross.

Where have you found your support groups of your time in tech?

My friends, other women in tech. It’s really sad, but there are lots of other women in tech who have experienced similar things, and can talk to you about this, and have your back. And when you talk to them, you’re both really glad that you have someone to talk to about this, and really sad that so many other people like you have experienced something like that.

Yeah. I’m curious, based on my own experience—like when I worked in tech, I always felt like I had to act way older and more masculine than I was for people to believe I knew what I was talking about. There were a lot of things that I felt like I had to suppress in my personality to survive, and now that I’m a free agent I act ten years younger [laughter]. And I know you’re this amazing girl who is way into girly stuff and awesome fashion, and you’re so self-expressive. Did you feel like you had to suppress any of that in your previous jobs? And do you feel more like a free woman now through working for yourself?

Aww, thanks! I think that going into college I acted like one of those cool girls who thought they weren’t like other girls. Most of my friends were guys who were also interested in science and engineering. But in college, I lived in a dorm that was all women. I lived with 300 women who were all amazing at math and science. At first, it was super intimidating because I’d defined myself so long as the girl who good at math and science, suddenly I lived with 300 other women who were good at math and science. Part of me felt threatened and panicked. I went from feeling that way to doing homework with these amazing women, cooking with them, and being friends with them and realizing it was way better to have their friendship and support than getting to feel like the one special woman who was amazing at math and science. And that’s also when I started embracing feminism and became more at home with my own femininity, because I wasn’t trying to prove that i was the “cool girl” any longer.

Before my interview at Airbnb, I had put on an outfit that I thought was a sensible outfit, and I was looking at myself in the mirror and not really feeling it. I decided to put on one of my favorite sweaters, a very fuzzy sweater with rabbits on it, but looking in the mirror I thought to myself, “I really like this but I not sure if looks professional.” And the next thought I had for myself was, “Fuck it, if they won’t hire me this way, I don’t want to work there.” I do realize that that requires an amount of privilege to be able to say, because if you really need the job, you might feel like you can’t take those kinds of risks. But I had gotten to the point in my career where I felt ok doing that.

Yeah, totally. I had a thought—oh, I don’t know, it just reminds me of some other interviews I’ve done, this theme of like the more women end up working together in tech, eventually the more women engineers are in a team, suddenly that person doesn’t have to feel like the token female engineer. Like, suddenly you get to express yourself, and not just have to represent all women in your role. Like, you can suddenly you want, and just be your own individual self instead of carrying the burden of representing “all Lady ‘Devs. It’s really interesting to me.

What are your biggest motivators? What drives your work?

I think my biggest motivator is people. With Bubblesort Zines right now, it’s really important for me to be writing a resource that will make people feel like they can understand technology, that they belong here, and that it’s not too hard for them, and that no matter what their background is, they bring something valuable to the table. When I was working as a front-end designer, it was my main motivator was building websites that would be easy for people to use and to bring value to their lives.

What do you look for in your work now versus when you started?

Like, in a place to work, or…

Yeah. I mean, it’s a funny question for you because you’re an entrepreneur. But yeah, what is the most valuable thing to you in your job? Be it like what you’re doing now, and how does that compare to when you first started? What priorities have been become, or what priorities have become more important to you?

While writing BubbleSort Zines, I get to do a variety of things every day—I read books and papers for research, draw a lot of diagrams and comics, and write little stories to illustrate different algorithms or different computer science concepts. I never thought before that I would have a job where I get to be technical and artistic on a daily basis. So I guess the most important thing to me right now about a job is being allowed and encouraged to be my entire self, the analytical side of myself and also the more creative side.

How do your family and friends from home feel about how far you’ve come and the work that you’ve done?

I got really excited new the other day that my hometown high school wants to use BubbleSort Zines for their computer class next year, so that felt very cool and full circle!

We’ve obviously touched on points of this, but how do you feel about the state of tech in 2016? What really excites you? What frustrates you? What would you like to see change?

I am really excited about self-driving cars. I think it will be amazing when roads are safer; I feel like it’s a technology that’s going to  impact people and save a lot of lives.

The things that make me frustrated—I wish that tech companies would prioritize people (their employees and their users) over profit. And related to that, most people make technology for themselves, to solve the problems that they personally face, and I think that’s why tech needs to be more diverse, because in order to solve everyone’s problems we need to involve everyone.

On that note, I’m curious to know your thoughts on how tech could be more accommodating to diverse folks, both women and everybody else on the spectrum.

Being inclusive can start from job descriptions when companies are looking to hire people. There’s a lot of research that shows that if you write descriptions like, “Come work for us on super cutting-edge technology, challenge yourself and work with state-of-the-art algorithm,” versus like, “Come work with us and build tech that will impact people’s lives and make their lives better.” Research shows that a lot of women and marginalized people will react much better to copy the second.

And then once you have people working for you that are from more diverse backgrounds, make sure you treat them well so that they stay. Make sure that they’re being promoted and recognized at the same rates as the white men that you’ve hired. If they speak up about something that makes them uncomfortable, listen to them. When someone speaks up about their experience and it’s completely different from your experience, it’s really easy to treat it as if they have a bug on their computer that you haven’t noticed, like “That bug doesn’t happen for me.” But if a marginalized person complains to you about something they’ve experienced at work and your first reaction is, “well I’ve never had that experience,” that’s the wrong reaction to have.

So listen to your employees and co-workers when they tell you about stuff in the workplace that bothers them or upsets them, and believe them.

My last question would be… what advice would you give to young ladies who are really interested in tech and want to potentially get into it but just don’t even know where to start?

Reach out to a woman or marginalized person in tech you admire! That might seem intimidating, but it’s really likely that they’ll get back to you. Almost every time someone emails me to say that they want to get into tech, or that they want advice on how to get their career started, or they want to submit their first paper or talk, I see a younger version of myself and I feel honored that they’ve asked.