Let’s start with the early years and where you come from.
So I am actually a native Californian. [chuckles] I’m from Sacramento so I didn’t go that far. My parents have lived in the same house in the suburbs since before I was born. They’re still there.
My early life wasn’t bad—it was just incredibly boring. Every day was the same. We didn’t travel, we didn’t do a lot of cultural events, we didn’t have guests, we didn’t eat out. I spent a lot of time by myself daydreaming. I knew there was something out there that was interesting – that there was an entire world of things that were interesting. My driving force was to have a life that was interesting.
How did you first get interested in tech?
One day my mom brought home a TI-99 that someone had at work. I spent hours typing in the exact code from the manual. If I got everything right, it would say, “Hello Hava.” It was just so amazing to me that it would do that. That’s probably the first time that I had an interest in technology just because it entertained me and allowed me to entertain myself. But really, my interest came about more in college. I wanted to be a heart surgeon, and then I entered college and I couldn’t really do that. I started chemistry and I was not good at chemistry. I tried very hard but I just couldn’t understand the lessons. I even recorded the lectures and played them back in the evenings. I talked to the professor. I had tutors but I just couldn’t grasp whatever it was, and my professor pulled me aside and said, “Hey, why are you doing this to yourself?” So I ended up majoring in history which is pretty big step from my path to being a heart surgeon.
Yeah, it definitely is.
I had spent so much time dreaming about my future as a heart surgeon. I didn’t know what to do with my new major so I took some internships, I did one in law and one in history, and they were just really boring. I wanted something that was more exciting, more futuristic. I was hoping for something that would be an interesting career choice.
I took a year off between my bachelor’s and my master’s. I worked at a medical billing company as a temp. My goal was to match missing checks – checks that would come in the mail – with patients. So checks that had no name or had the wrong name or had too many names. In order to do that I needed to search different databases using old style phone modems and command line interfaces. That was really cool. It was a large medical billing company, so it had maybe three different systems that they were working with. I would dial into each database and search using Unix and DOS. I would try to find the people and match them with the information that was available on the check. It sounds pretty boring but I actually loved it. I loved every minute of it. It felt like I was in – what’s the movie? – War Games, or Sneakers, where you’re [chuckles] hacking into the systems and finding information that you shouldn’t have a hold of. It was fun! Oddly fun.
Pretty quickly, when I realized how much I enjoyed that, I decided to get a master’s degree in information science, or library and information science. I even found a job that matched these new interests – I was going to be an intelligence research specialist for the FBI. [laughter]
So that is really what I wanted to do, and it’s still kind of back in the depths of my soul, what I want to do. It’s not what I’m doing. [laughter] But being an intelligence research specialist just speaks to me. And so I went to graduate school thinking that I was going to go in and learn about database research and how to find information, and then, probably one class into my degree, I found HTML.
Walk me through some of the most exciting parts of your work—what you’re proud to work on, what activates you.
I think what activates me is dreaming of the future. Well, connecting people is pretty amazing. That’s what’s kept me at Skype, the idea that people are being able to talk to each other in situations where they normally wouldn’t be able to. That people can use Skype when they’re apart. People who are in relationships actually use it to sleep together and have an arrangement where they turn it on, and they feel like they’re together even though they’re not together. That’s pretty exciting for me. Of the projects I’ve worked on, sadly, the first three years at Skype were all secret projects that never made it out. And they were amazing. [chuckles] We’re seeing some of them appear in Facebook and other places now, but they never made the light of day here just because organizational changes and people switching around. What I’ve actually done that’s been released is less exciting. [laughter]
I think the exciting thing about being in tech is that you’re a part of the future and you get to know things first. You pay attention and you find– self-driving cars, that’s just amazing. I love the idea of a home that’s connected. I don’t work on any of these things. [laughter] At the point in which self-driving cars become a reality, I can just have a car that, it knows that I go to work every day at the same time, so it can drive up and pick me up or take my kids to school. The idea that I don’t have to own a car anymore, that I don’t have to take care of something anymore, that it’s safer and more functional and it knows what radio station or what music I like when I get in. Just all of this that this smart technology is what thrills me. I mean the Nest is pretty cool, that it controls your home, but there’s so much more. The lights, everything we do could in theory be controlled through technology and make our lives easier, which excites me.
What have been some of the toughest parts about working in tech for you, some of the biggest struggles and roadblocks?
I think just being a woman in tech—there aren’t that many of us, which is a little bit of a struggle in its own. I applaud Sheryl Sandberg for empowering women but I think that Lean In fails in certain aspects, such as espousing the belief that women can have it all, which I’m sure makes some women feel like complete failures when it doesn’t work out. I’m a fairly affluent, well educated, well connected woman with extended family and a stay at home husband and it is challenging to be a parent and to work. I’m incredibly lucky and I’m still exhausted by it – every day. Just imagine all the women who are less lucky, who have less help and work longer hours for less money. How must they feel? I bet they don’t even consider their role as a woman in the work force, they’re just doing what they have to do to get through the day and keep their families running. Yes, women can have it all, but let’s be honest, women can’t have it all at the same time. At least not without the support of family or a well paid group of nannies which most women can’t afford. I think women often spread themselves too thin with the expectation that they can do everything or they should be doing everything. I see it all the time. I do it all the time.
Being a parent, especially a mother in tech is all about prioritization, if you’re on top of the things you’ve prioritized where you spend time and how you spend time becomes a choice. That’s something that I feel has been easier as I’ve gotten older. Mothers are experts at multitasking, but they also have to know when to turn that off and focus. That’s a challenge that earlier in my career I wasn’t able to figure out quite as well. Would I like a larger role? Sure, I would honestly love to do something more – and I know that I can do something more but I think that that next level in my career means that I need to spend more time away from my family. I love to travel but my kids need me and, even better, want me to be around. For now, it is important for me to be home in time for dinner and homework. When they no longer need me, I’m sure I’ll spend less time focusing on them and more time focusing on my career. But it is a challenge that – for whatever reason – I don’t think men feel quite as much.
You’ve had a particularly unique experience as a mother, having a child with a serious medical condition. You mentioned at one point in your life you were cooking everything from scratch to keep your child alive. Tell me more about that experience, of providing full-time care for a sick child while having a full-time career.
Yes, we’ve had a raw deal these past couple of years since his diagnosis and, after all the suffering and all the medications and all the hospitalizations, we discovered that the key to keeping him stable and healthy is making sure he stays on something called the Specific Carbohydrate Diet. For me this means I’m home in the evening and cook everything he consumes from scratch starting with raw ingredients. We can’t eat out. We can’t buy prepared food from the store. I spend at least an hour or two a day on weekdays cooking and much more than that on weekends. The challenge is making food so good that he wants to eat this way and doesn’t feel that he is missing out.
Learning how to cook and finding something that keeps him healthy has been empowering. The diet gave me control over this awful situation. And, as a result, cooking has become another interest and passion of mine, as well as trying to understand nutrition. I desperately want to understand why this diet works when everything else failed and I want to help other parents give it a try even though it is hard. Kids in America don’t naturally want to eat healthy foods [chuckles]. No ten-year-old says, “Oh, give me that eggplant, I’d really love to have that eggplant tonight, or some broccoli on the side.” But, there are ways to make vegetables appetizing and compelling. I spend a lot of time making vegetables and nuts compelling so that he doesn’t feel let down.
But having a sick child has also helped me gain perspective on what is and what isn’t important and the confidence to speak up when faced with the ridiculous. I’m certain that confidence has made me a better employee. My child is in the hospital being fed through his arm while getting a blood transfusion, and you’ve scheduled an emergency meeting to change a color that already went through three levels of approval so you can assert control. Really? [chuckles] Those discussions have taken on a new dynamic for me. I’ve never had a high tolerance politics but in the past I probably wouldn’t have said anything. Now it makes me a bit angry [chuckles] and more willing to fight against it. I see the bigger picture.
How has what you look for in a job now changed from when you were first getting your career started?
These days the most important element of looking for a new job is fit. I want to work with people who are excited about their work and are dedicated to what they do, but ultimately I want to work with people who are genuinely nice and fun to be with. I value authenticity much more than other things now. Our small design group in Palo Alto has that. We’re about sharing and openness and nobody is territorial. We build upon each other’s work. Some companies interview you and put you into a pool of designers and pick you out when they need you but, in that model you can’t get a sense for if you are a good fit, and I think that’s really important, even more than exact skillset. Sure, the basic skills should match the role, but if there isn’t a good fit, and it isn’t a good environment, then everyone is miserable. It is easier to teach someone how to use Sketch than it is to teach someone to play nice with others. [chuckles]
In your experience, did your life and perception in the workplace change after you had kids?
Oh sure. I had my first child when I was at a non-profit and, in a lot of ways that was wonderful. Everyone was very supportive about helping me balance being a new parent and getting my work done. It was a different experience with my second child. I had him when I was working at a large corporation and no one really cared that I had just had a baby. I had to remain competitive while pumping five times a day. I had frequent manager changes so it was hard to build enough trust to express to a new male manager what I needed without sounding like I expected special treatment.
Have you had mentors or people that you looked up to for inspiration, or even people that were pivotal in changing your career along the way?
I have had people that I admire. Not so much, a mentor. I would love to have had a mentor. When I first started at Skype, we had the best leadership team at Skype. That’s why I came here. I had worked with them at Motorola. We called them the golden triad. These three men were great designers and amazing leaders but they were also genuinely nice people and easy to work with. The head of design was famous for asking people in an interview, “Are you nice?” It was really interesting that people would get tripped up on this, thinking that he would want them to answer, “No I’m not that nice. I won’t let people push me around.” But he genuinely meant, “Are you nice? Can you work with others?” He hired the nicest people. That’s why we’ve all stayed because, even though he is gone, he created an environment that persists. We come in every day and enjoy each others company. That’s what makes work fun, and it should be fun. Even if the project isn’t fun, work can be fun.
What are your biggest motivators? What drives your work?
I want to design a product that people think is amazing, that they want to use and that they choose over other similar products because they like it so much. Or, better yet, design a product that doesn’t currently exist that changes the way people live and work for the better. That’s the ultimate goal.
How do you feel about the state of tech in 2016? What is really exciting to you? What is frustrating to you?
What’s exciting for me is to see technology come together. Car interfaces, mobile phones and tablets, TVs and smart home systems… medical technology. There’s this AI layer that’s potentially scary, yes, but, when they work together and share data, there’s so much potential to create something amazing. I feel like we’re almost there, that if we can get these things to work together smartly, technology will make another leap forward. We haven’t quite reached that yet. There are a lot of one hit wonders out there. Little tiny tech places that are doing pieces that are really valuable, but they aren’t able to integrate into a larger system because they aren’t Google or Microsoft. Medical technology feels like that’s the next big boom. Doctors need to be able to have the tools to work smarter.
What would you like to see change, either technologically or culturally?
I was in a diversity class last week at Microsoft run by this amazing company in New York. They had improvisers – actors – that would play the roles of different people in a company setting. The actors kept to a script throughout the class to show us the challenges that their character would experience in different situations. There were hundreds of people in the class from Microsoft but only two African Americans in the room, one was leading the session and the other was an actor. The leader pointed out that there was not a single African American in the audience. Not a single one. There were a handful of women. That needs to change. That’s frustrating. I think that is a big problem. I mean it’s wonderful that the women’s bathroom is always empty, but it’s a little bit sad too. It’s sad that a lot of women leave because they’re frustrated. I’ve never been a man but I would bet that being a woman or any minority in high tech is far more challenging than being a white man. So much energy is spent on trying to behave in a certain way that doesn’t feel natural. I want to fit in. I want to get ahead but it’s draining and I only have so much energy to spend.
Historically has your support network been your family or have you been able to find support networks at all in the industry or in your work?
I think my friends are my support network. By friends, I mean, the people that I have worked with. We have actually quite a bit of diversity in our little group. I have been lucky enough to work with some of the same people at multiple companies. We find each other and we work together again because we have found something that works, and I think there’s a lot of value in that. I don’t feel that you can get a better situation than when you find two people who have the same work ethic, who have the same goals, similar attitudes and they work really well together because you can build something so fast. For example, the pairing of an interaction designer and a visual designer that work really well together. I don’t have to spend time explaining what I mean to my partner because he just understands. We work so well together that we don’t need to physically be together anymore. I can send him a file and, with little explanation, he’ll know exactly what I want changed. I don’t have to write it all down, and he’ll change it and send it back to me or vice versa. And I know exactly what he hasn’t finished and what pieces he’s looking for me to fix. It’s a really great pairing when you have it, and that’s the ideal situation that companies should be looking for, honestly. It’s a pairing and not necessarily an individual.
Where do you see yourself in five or ten years? Do you think you’ll still be in the tech world?
Sure. I hope to eventually branch out to something slightly different. Just something with a little bit of newness for me – medical technology or smart homes or self driving cars – something that’s tech driven but that I would still need to learn. I aspire to have a larger role. That would good for me. I don’t feel like I’m quite ready emotionally, but I’m getting there. [laughter] As long as I’m not the person who makes executive power point decks attractive, I’ll be fine. [laughter] We’ve all been there. I think that’s the worst thing you can do to a product designer, put them in charge of powerpoint deck attractiveness.
How would you like to see tech be more accommodating to women over time in their career and retain them, especially as they start growing families?
I think companies just have to hire more women, honestly. I don’t feel like there’s one thing that a company can do to make it better, except to have more women around who understand the situation we’re in. My colleague just had a baby and she’s having struggles so she’s taking time off and working from home and everyone’s been very accommodating but I am sure she doesn’t feel as good as if say 50 percent of the people that she worked with really understood what she is going through. She shouldn’t have to feel guilty for that. I don’t feel like any policies are going to change that unless the policy is just to hire more women, period. Find them, hire them, reward them for being individuals and not for behaving like men. Promote them because they make an impact even if it isn’t the same type of impact you’ve been measuring against and, for crying out loud, find out how to keep them.
My last question for you would be, what advice would you give to folks from similar backgrounds or similar life experiences, who are hoping to get into tech or stay in tech full-time? What do you wish you had known in the beginning?
I wish that I had learned to be more assertive early on. I am learning to be more assertive and direct, because that’s what’s expected when you’re in a male dominated environment. I don’t normally talk [laughter] very much. Here I’m talking, but I’m not the talker. I sit in the meeting and I listen and synthesize the information, and then when I have something valuable to contribute I’ll contribute that, but I don’t just talk for the sake of talking. I’ve noticed that talking for the sake of talking works really well for men. [laughter] Learn how to talk, even when you have nothing valuable to say [laughter]. Speaking up when you do have something to add is absolutely necessary. Knowing how and when to interject is important. Feel empowered to say something even when you’re the lowest ranking person in the room so that somebody notices you. It seems like the number one most important thing, is just speaking up.