Jan Crisostomo
  • Years in Tech


  • Current Role

    Recruiter, Dropbox

  • Place of Origin

    San Francisco

  • Interview Date

    March 5, 2016

I’m a Filipino-American woman who grew up in a lower-to-middle class family in Daly City, right outside of San Francisco. I spent my junior year of high school at an upper middle class suburb in Roseville, CA, and I firmly believe it was that year in school and a free SAT class (which would not have been available where I’m from) that almost singlehandedly got me into UC Berkeley, which opened the doors to a contract role at Google and then to my current role at Dropbox.

Okay. So let’s start from the beginning. Tell me a bit about your early years and where you come from.

Yeah. So I grew up in Daly City. So it’s a suburb right outside of San Francisco. So definitely, now, I claim to be a San Franciscan. But regardless I have seen this city sort of change both for good, for bad. It’s quite different, I’m sure that everyone can sort of speak to that.

I grew up probably middle class. My mom had a little bit more—my mom was actually the only primary breadwinner in the family. My dad didn’t make much money. He couldn’t hold a consistent job. But my mom did have a really, really good job for a while for a lot of my childhood. We were maybe middle to—for a time—upper middle class and then my mom lost her job. And from there it was just a struggle to like, “Okay, this is how people actually live in the real world. I need to go actually get a loan for college.” Totally normal stuff.

I think the biggest thing I think back on a specific instance of me moving to a primarily white upper middle class neighborhood in high school and getting a free workshop for the SATs. That I think significantly gets me to where I am. And that’s not like an imposter syndrome like, “How do I belong here”, sort of thing. I think that’s actual fact. Mostly because if I hadn’t done that I wouldn’t have even known that there are resources or workshops like that in the high school that are was supposed to go to in South San Francisco, If there were, you paid for stuff like that.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, you don’t know really—I feel like you’re so sheltered in these lower middle class areas that you really only think about surviving.

When you grow up with scarcity mentality, this idea of “finding your passion” or “following your dreams” is a luxury that is almost always incomprehensible. I can’t worry about what makes me feel most alive when I’m concerned about making enough money to stay alive. The sad thing is, we exaggerate anxieties; I’m nowhere near running out of food, and yet I still find myself struggling to relinquish ideas around wanting/needing more. More money. More recognition.

When I got my first contract job at Google, I was blown away. I totally bought into the Kool-Aid, I was just like, “I’m just going to hang out here on my rainbow-colored bike and just sip on this Kool-Aid for a second. I’ll catch you later.” My friends were impressed, my family was impressed; it was an ego boost. All my relatives wanted to come by for the free food, and asked if we really did laundry and yoga at work, and my mom was like, “Can you bring me some sandwiches home?” and I’m like, “No, that’s stealing, Mom.” [chuckles] It was a cushy job at an amazing company. But I was miserable. I wasn’t being challenged in my work, and I didn’t care much about my work, but I stayed because it was stable and sexy.

Dropbox is so much smaller and you are in the heart of San Francisco. A bunch of the engineers that I had met early on and became friends with were these dudes had the personality archetype of very funny, very witty, extremely sarcastic, does cool things on the weekends, hits up some of the music festivals when they’re in town, hangs out on a SF rooftop with a beer with some friends and watch blue angels. You know what I mean? Like, everyone kind of does—it’s the same kind of person, but it’s great. I love them, and we have very insightful conversations, but at the same time, yeah, I guess I don’t really feel like a lot of these things that they’ve experienced—though when you start talking about like people going to boarding school, I’ve never actually met anyone who actually went to boarding school. I was like, “I thought that was just a thing that was in like old British movies.” No, people have gotten to British schools here—or boarding schools. Yeah, and just—yeah, again, just people talking about growing up with horses And when you start digging into that, it’s definitely one of those things that you don’t really talk about in tech. It’s like you kind of see each other as coworkers, but then it gets kind of uncomfortable in if you start digging into, well, what was your background? So it’s interesting. It’s a very interesting type of friendship that you have when you start getting into the tech world, at least for my experience.

I don’t really see people like me. Like the other Filipinos are cooks in the kitchen, people who clean up the dishes after everyone who eats  Yeah, like the janitors, and maybe a couple other people in finance. But you don’t really see people—I don’t feel like I see people like myself there.

What is your experience as a Filipino American in tech, and how does that contribute to a feeling of otherness? I kind of want to hear that experience. Do you experience the same kind of isolation that we talked about earlier?

Yeah. How do I start with this? The first is that I feel otherness, but I’ve had to sort of dig into it. Because if I’m being absolutely honest with myself, I have felt the need to assimilate. And by that I mean I want to take on a similar lifestyle of people that I work with because it’s easier that way, right? And it’s easier to have the same sort of conversations with everyone if they are the typical ones that you would have.

Or—yeah, getting involved in SF culture; These are all things that I feel I have somehow over the years, sort of assimilated to. But when you start getting into conversations around who I’m going to hang out with people,  and I can’t because I have an aunt’s family party, they’re like,”Didn’t you just have an aunt’s family party?”,”yeah, I’ve got like 20 aunts.” There are things about the Filipino culture that definitely are still a part of my life, but I have had to dig into the other [?] and fit—have to be very starkly honest with myself around how I have modified my identity to try to fit into tech.

In terms of representation, you don’t really see other Filipinos and I feel like the thing that I’ve struggled most with is feeling lumped into the entire majority of Asians in tech, because when you ask people about people in tech, it’s white people, it’s Asians, and Indians. And it leaves me feeling like—Because there are so many other underrepresented groups, no one ever really dissects to realize that Asians comprises so much more. And I’m not just talking about being Filipino, I’m talking about being Thai, being Laotian, these Southeast Asian countries where you haven’t had the same sort of—You don’t have that same reputation of being this intellectually driven, you work really hard, tiger mom, tiger dad culture. And so they’re very very different things when you start getting down to the thick of it, right? So when people say “Well, why would you need a mentor? Why would you need these resources?” Because I haven’t had the same set of resources, or I didn’t have the same upbringing as a lot of my Asian friends who stayed home their entire childhood and lives to study. Because again, that’s not ingrained in the Filipino culture.

It’s interesting because your parents want the best for you and say “You have to be a doctor or you have to be a lawyer,” and it’s back to what I was saying about getting from point A to point B, but they don’t actually integrate or embed any sort of tactics to get you there. You’re just kind of like have these expectations, and then you’re supposed to figure it out. They don’t sit—How do I say this? You can probably ask a lot of Filipinos, and their parents were worried about so many other things, like making ends meet or caring for four other siblings, or caring for their grandparents. A lot of Filipinos take care of their grandparents. And so you don’t really have the same sort of upbringing with Filipino parents.

And on that note another thing that’s very different between Filipinos and the upbringing of some of my other friends like Vietnamese, or Chinese, or Korean is that Filipinos don’t really tried to preserve their culture. They come from a long history of colonization. A lot of Filipino Americans now, what their expense was like growing up, a lot of them would tell you that their parents actually tried to force them to assimilate, rather than preserve their culture. So a lot of Filipinos Americans don’t actually know Tagalog which is the primary Filipino language. Because the parents wanted them to learn English. It was about fitting in. It was about try to fit into this American culture. It’s interesting because a while I don’t feel like there’s much of representation fulfilled for Filipinos. I also don’t feel like Filipinos in general have much of an identity or they don’t really celebrate any sort of traditions. Because they come from sort of all over. When you think about Filipinos intact again a lot of them are going to be people in the service industry and very few professionals. There are people like me, other people I can talk to about everything I kind of just told you. It’s like, “Wasn’t it kind of crazy that our parents didn’t really look over our shoulders studying?” And like, “How did you break through that?” Well, I was hoping, because I know that actually I sort of found some sort of odd way into it.

Have you found that support network yet?

Not really, no. I met a few Filipino professionals in Tech by doing cool things and then had had a conversation with them. But there’s never been any sort of concerted effort to band together or form some sort of group. Almost because everyone’s so busy just trying to continue to make this life for themselves, and are so busy trying to keep up.

And I wonder if that kind of childhood pressure to assimilate carries through into Tech. I’m just like, what is it that I’m supposed to do.

It’s both a desire to assimilate and a desire to find stability, right? Again, I just happen to be lucky in that Tech was the stable option, but a lot of my decisions up until now have been based on, you know, is this a stable option and up until recently was based on like, “Will this make me look good?”

How do your friends and family in general feel about the work that you’ve done, and where you’ve ended up?

That’s actually a really interesting thing, because I feel like both people in our community, and also people at Berkeley have a—or a lot of people that I hung out with at Berkeley, I hung out at a lot of student organizations of color, coming out of school I was so conflicted because I felt like I had to do something to help the world, or help my community, or help those people who haven’t had these opportunities. When I moved into the tech world I sort of felt like I was selling out. Because then I was making this stable income doing something that I totally hated. My best friend, for example, is applying to law school to go be an advocate for people who—like  refugees and people who—basically the type of people who need the help. I’m over here like—She’s working crazy hours and I’m over here saying that I don’t whine as much as I’ve heard other people at work whine, but I’m like, “Oh, we had salmon again today.”

So I guess just what I’m trying to say is that it was—it’s weird because no one really gets what I do. Right? Or not that they don’t get what I do but I am working within this bubble and the work that I am doing is not—it doesn’t have the same sort of weight as my best friend trying to go to law school, truly like fight the good fight. So people are always more interested in my perks than what I actually do, which is interesting. Does that make sense? They want to know, “Oh cool do you love working at Google? Do you love working at Dropbox? Is it true that you get free meals everyday?” No one is really interested in the work that I do. Does that make sense? It’s—and I wonder why—and by that I mean like friend, family—they all know that I have this  cushy, according to them, job where I get everything that I want, so it almost makes me feel kind of guilty about it, which is a really interesting conflict and complex to have, I think.

What is it like for you being a local in tech?

Being a local and being in tech has the same kind of theme of another struggle, which is having come from a place like UC Berkeley where we were protesting every other week: tuition hikes, or protesting the lack of East-Asian studies in the school. We were highly, highly political, very progressive, definitely your Bernie Sanders types of folks. That was absolutely my values, and so when I joined tech, I felt like I had sold out. I was still seeing a lot of Facebook posts like, “Get the techies out of San Francisco, they’re ruining our city.”

It was interesting, soon after I joined Dropbox, there was this whole, “Dropboxers kick the Mission kids out of their soccer fields.” Then all of my friends from college—they weren’t giving me shit, personally, but they were posting about it. It was such a weird place to be where I could relate to both sides. Maybe not necessarily relate to both but have that empathy towards both.

Back in 2012-13, I used to tell people, “I love San Francisco. It’s such a wonderful city.” It’s crazy because everyone from all different walks of earth can co-habitate, right? The artists, the Latino families. And at the time there weren’t too many techies, but the techies and even some finance people, and they all kind of live in harmony. You can be a weirdo, you can let your freak flag fly. And it’s wonderful and everyone was in harmony. And now that image, that perception I had of the city that I was bragging about, that is not there any more. Because it is a city ridden with animosity and tension. And all these wonderful groups that used that used to kind of just respect each other, and be like, “Okay, yeah. You do you. I’m going to do me. I’ll be over here,” and hate each other now. It’s such a political thing.

How do you think your background and life experiences impact the way that you approach your work?

I think that the way that I approach my work comes from a very—maybe not stability, but a ‘am I safe’ type of mindset. I’ve gotten a lot better at being able to take more risks or be more creative, but generally speaking, I felt like I was almost like having a position where I was needing to either prove myself or that I didn’t really belong. Who am I to have these same sort of opinions or try to look at the data the same way someone at Harvard who studied finance does? I didn’t feel like I really, truly had a voice or had validity in what I was saying. Or credibility. At the same time, I think that having the background or having my mom who was just a beast, providing for four kids without my dad’s help, basically. You have that hard working mentality and you want to work hard for the sake of working hard and for the sake of proving that I’m not of less value than some of these other people. I think that aside from the way that I work, the way that I interact with people can be very different. It’s actually pretty surprising to me, but I have heard of instances of  people treating the janitorial staff and the women who clean the bathrooms, and people who pick after us are very, very , very badly. Or not looking them in the eye when you—when they see them, or they say hi hand scuffing at them. I have had that happen in the workplace. It’s so interesting because it’s not just about treating other humans with respect, but these are also people that I feel like I can relate to because they look like me. Because I can talk to them about rap songs that we hear because they listen to the same type of music.

Adding you to my list of people who will get my rap jokes. Most people I know don’t understand half the things I’m referencing. It’s sad.

No one gets my rap jokes either. They’re like the only people who like my captions when I like post something like 2 Chains or Drake oriented like, “What are you talking about? You’re so random dear, you’re so random.” No, actually. No Actually. It’s a rap song. It’s an important part of culture.