Let’s start from the beginning. Tell me about your early years and where you come from.
Early years, how early are we talking?
Where were you born?
I was born in the exotic land of San Jose, just 45 minutes south of here. My parents are Vietnamese, so, I’m Vietnamese-American. San Jose is supposed to be the largest population of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam, I think.
How did you end up in Texas?
My parents moved my brother and I when was 16. I like to say that I’m born and raised in the Bay Area, and then misplaced in Texas. They kind of just gave us a month’s notice before we left. Just, “Oh, and we’re moving to Texas. Pack up your things, say bye to your friends.”
The more interesting version of this story is that my mom followed a monk there. I’m not sure if that’s true, really – that’s what my aunties told me. My mom is incredibly Buddhist, she’s super religious, so it’s completely believable that she followed a monk to Texas. I think the less interesting story is that, financially, it was easier to move to Texas and sustain living there. We moved at a rough time for me and I was pretty distraught. At the time, I had just finished my sophomore year and was coming in as a junior. I was about to be an upperclassman in the food chain of high school. I had found my group of friends and was starting to become stable with my identity. We had such little notice and had to start over in Texas. For a long time, I resented my parents for it and really didn’t understand their decision.
What was it like growing up in conservative Texas after being in California?
The majority of the population in San Jose is Asian and Hispanic, and that’s really all I knew growing up. Coming to Texas, we moved to a small town northwest of Houston. If you drove for 30 minutes, you hit Confederate flags. I experienced culture shock, what I recognize as culture shock, years after. I think what I’ve come to understand, is my place and identity as a daughter of immigrants. San Jose had been full of Vietnamese, and so the culture I carried with me was more easily integrated into my day-to-day. Now, all of a sudden I was in Texas, where many of my common practices and cultural norms felt wholly out of place. It made me very self aware and, for a while, it tormented me. It added complexity to the already difficult experience of being a teenager trying to figure out my own identity. And to this day, I remain consciously aware of my heritage and feel the pressure to carry on those traditions. But I embrace it, and have been learning to balance the two. I speak fluent Vietnamese, I can read and write probably at the level of a kindergartener, and am really happy and somewhat prideful when it comes to sharing traditions.
Eventually, you came back here?
So I’m a designer now. I’m an experience designer at Airbnb. I had always been interested in graphic design. When I was a kid, I loved this virtual pet website, Neopets, and designing “Neopet banners,” which were banners for your pet’s webpage. I started to learn HTML and CSS that way, adding snippets of code to my pet page. And then it grew to designing blogs like Xangas, Myspace, and Livejournals. I was always “revamping my blog”, my angsty teen blog. And then posting about angsty teen things.
Did you have an animated cursor?
Yeah, animated cursor, some marquees, and the Friends theme song that automatically played when you got there. I remember in high school I also loved books, and I had navigated my way through the internet to find maybe five percent off books. I would buy and sell these books, not even making money off of it, probably spending more money than making any, so I could deliver my friends our favorite books with some well designed receipts.
Did you know that you would pursue tech or design as your adult thing?
I always wanted to be a graphic designer. I just loved what I was doing. I eventually started entering crowdsourced competitions. I remember finding 99designs, which is now the bane of existence for designers. But when I was around 17, I would submit logos and win once or twice. And I was like, “$50! I’m going to be rich!” I had always wanted to be a designer, but my parents never really supported arts degrees. And as immigrants they kind of frowned upon it. Now, looking back, I understand, and really respect my parents for having their American Dream, and trying to give me the shortcut to success. I recognize it now, but before it was just, “Why won’t you let me do what I love to do?” They were always pushing the suggestion of more typically successful careers, becoming a doctor, lawyer, something that requires a PhD. My parents frowned upon it so I pursued it on my own.
You pursued it on your own time, and then you ended up doing something totally different in college.
Yeah. I left home at 17. My mom and I had a really rough argument. It had been a struggle with my parents and it was a long time coming. My parents are very traditional and they’re very strict. They kind of pushed suggestions on my behavior, my identity, passions, way of living, and expectations of living. I never felt like I did anything right and I never felt like their expectations of perfection were achievable. I was rebellious, confused about who I was, what I wanted to do, and felt like my own voice didn’t exist with them.
They also had this idea of respect, that when they had their say, even if they were wrong, any sort of response, even a correction through a miscommunication, is considered talking back and disrespectful. This was their definition of respecting elders. Eventually I got tired of having to hold my tongue, and that’s when I became rebellious and defiant.
I’m the eldest. I have a younger brother, and I always say they consider him the golden child. As the oldest, you’re the guinea pig. Whatever you do is always wrong, and they’ll adjust their parenting methods and they will treat my brother better.
I remember that in my family [chuckles].
You can relate?
Totally. So you bounced?
Yeah. I left early. I forgot the question. Sorry. [laughter]
This is all leading up to college? And doing something different in college than design?
Long story short, I ended up going to school at the University of Houston. I had initially pursued Architecture and then Marketing, looking for a major that would satisfy my love for design, but still would set me off on the right foot in terms of a career. I eventually ended up in Management Information Systems. I thought that since I wasn’t going to study design, I would study something that supplemented it. And through MIS, I studied more coding languages, learned about database architectures, and practiced project management.
And then from there, how did you end up in Silicon Valley?
By that time I had left home, I was already freelancing. I had made logos, built websites, done some branding work. I was also juggling two or three jobs, like hosting and waitressing, trying to sustain myself through college. Instead of finding project management jobs through my major, I would attend the same career fairs, but pitch myself as a designer. I made connections with people who were trying to hire students for project management jobs and ended up designing their websites, or working on their brand and identity. Word of mouth spread and I kept building websites and designing identities for start-ups, corporate companies, and restaurants in Texas. That’s how I started my portfolio.
Since I had moved, all I wanted to do was come back to the Bay. Growing up in Texas, as I established friendships and found my own identity, I recognized what I wanted to do and where I could do it best was where I wanted to be – back in the Bay Area. Getting a job out here was hard. I applied to every design job I could find. I would fly back here pretty often just to attend events and network with people. I had business cards and a resume ready. I had even made a Google Voice phone number with a 650 area code so people would think I lived here, so that the idea of me living elsewhere wouldn’t keep me from getting a job. Each time before I flew out, I did research on companies to find out who was hiring. Then when I got here, I would stop by their offices, drop off my resume, and let them know I was interested in the job. A lot of times I just cold contacted people. I used LinkedIn to email recruiters, let them know that I was interested in their company, the jobs that they had open, and forwarded them my portfolio and resume. I was turned down or ignored a majority of the time, but ended up landing a job at Playstation.
Awesome. What was your first experiences like working in Silicon Valley?
I had grown up loving video games through my brother, so I was ecstatic when I received the internship offer. I worked as a Web Developer Intern for their Developer Operations. Even after working at companies in Texas, I thought Playstation was incredibly corporate, especially in comparison to today’s tech companies. It was my first introduction to working at a large company and designing for a company whose product I used and admired.
Honestly I wasn’t sure what I had expected. I think I thought it was my dream job. I was given a travel stipend, housing, and it was a paid internship. I made great connections with people in the industry who I still keep in touch with. I really couldn’t have asked for more.
Then, LinkedIn after that?
Not yet. When I had my internship at Playstation I was still in school, but I managed to connect with my professors and was really honest with them. I let them know that I was working and would be absent a lot, wouldn’t be attending a lot of classes either, but I promised that I would catch up on all the lectures, do my homework, and make it to all the exams. After most of the internships had ended at Playstation, I extended my internship for another couple of months and worked there even though school had started. When I came back to school later in the Fall, I got an internship at a design agency in Houston.
I was nearing graduation and had applied at a bunch of jobs at tech companies, with no luck. A friend of one of my co-interns at Playstation worked for LinkedIn referred me there. I remember having a whole week of finals at the time and I hadn’t told the agency I was working for then that I was interviewing. I ducked out, flew out here, and was offered an internship.
It was actually an incredible experience. This was my first time being at a full fledged tech company. I met so so many incredible people with all different kinds of backgrounds and experience. I was offered a full time job on my very last day as an intern. My manager at the time decided not to tell me that I was getting the job and made me worry and scramble for a new job until the very last minute. He decided to tell me the day of, the day that I was leaving, that I got the job.
Yeah! I stayed at LinkedIn for three years. Looking back now, the connections I’ve made, the people that I had met, and just the experience I had were irreplaceable.
And then that leads you to where you are now?
Awesome. What have been some of the highlights for you, just for your overall tech experience?
So there are two things. I think the biggest thing that I had learned even from the beginning, flying out here and networking with people, and then working with so many people is that, even though we’re all in tech, everyone has a different story about how they’ve gotten here, what they’re doing, how they’re doing it and why they’re doing it. In the same way that I think you’re interviewing people, it’s just– the people you meet– you’ll never meet the same person twice. I’m constantly blown away and often inspired.
The second thing is being able to learn from everyone and everything. I think not coming from a traditional design background, I feel at a disadvantage. But you learn from being on the job day to day and being around so many talented people. You learn through guidance but also through osmosis, I think, from being around these incredible people. I’m always open to learning and trying new things and I’m so excited that there are endless possibilities and opportunities here.
What have been some of the biggest challenges?
I wouldn’t say the challenges I’ve faced aren’t necessarily caused by tech, but that they’ve been brought into the light through it. I’ve already mentioned that my parents were incredibly traditional and strict. They were tiger parents.
They had me learn every possible skill, hobby, sport. I played tennis, I played piano, swam, Tae Kwon Do, clarinet, basketball, badminton, a million things. They threw every possible skill at my velcro wall of life to see what stuck. I had started piano when I was 4 and played for 18 years.
My parents’ style of teaching and encouragement was through discouragement with an expectation of perfection.
I think one of the things that I remember the most was when I was learning piano, my auntie – my mom’s sister – was my teacher. I was playing a song during a private lesson and I wasn’t doing too well. My family friend, who was also a student and a child prodigy, was also there. My auntie asked me to play it a second time, and this time, have the family friend count how many mistakes I made. And then they asked him to show me how it was supposed to be done and play it correctly. And it was kind of like that all of my life, always being encouraged through discouragement.
Through my upbringing I recognize that I’ve developed self-esteem and self-consciousness issues, where I have this need for reassurance or recognition, whether it be my parents, employers, or managers and I have this need to strive for the utmost perfection.
What I’m constantly learning is that I don’t need to satisfy anybody else’s criteria of whether or not I’m succeeding.
In my experience, I’ve come across personalities that are egotistical, flashing around their title, that would speak from a perspective of authority rather than a place of humility and empathy. And in my self-conscious nature, I’m always cautious, always thinking that I’ve done something wrong. If there was a negative comment I would always think, “Was it me? Was it something I did?” Rather than realizing that it may not be anyone’s fault at all. I always took the blame or I always took it personally. That’s something that I’ve been trying to overcome.
Imposter syndrome is one of the biggest things I recognize in myself. I’m always thinking, “It’s a matter of time. They’re going to find out tomorrow that I’m not exactly as good as I’ve presented myself and that I’m actually not supposed to be here.”
But what I’ve come to acknowledge is that these are things that I’ve actually achieved. I need to take a step back and celebrate my successes and where I’ve gotten, rather than counting all of my misses and what I’ve done wrong. Not only that, but considering those things as stepping stones to getting where I need to go, as points of growth rather than, “This is where I f’d up.”
In tech there is a battle of titles, compensation, experience, all kinds of things. And it’s so easy to feel beaten down by someone else’s ego and to want to compare yourself to them. But I’ve realized that it’s not about me or anyone else, it’s about how I’m doing for myself.
Was there a person or a moment or an event that switched that for you? A kind of epiphany of just like, I don’t have to count my mistakes, I don’t have to worry about these people thinking that I’m not worthy or that I’m not doing it right. Was there a moment where you’re like, “I’m doing fine?”
I don’t think that it was an epiphany really, I think it’s been a long time coming. When I was at LinkedIn, the director of design, now VP of design at LinkedIn, was a mentor to me.
I remember I had really messed up my interview at LinkedIn, I had bombed my interview so badly and I knew it. I had lost my design challenge the morning of my presentation, came late to the interview, frazzled, shirt buttoned incorrectly, like, “Oh my God, I’m so sorry. I messed this up.” I walked through my presentation, my portfolio, and spent the entire day interviewing.
At the end of the afternoon, the director came in, he could tell from my posture – he’s really good at reading body language – he knew I was defeated. He was honest and said bluntly, “I’m going to tell you the truth. I don’t know if the team thinks you’re qualified enough to be full-time on this team. If we do hire you, we’re looking at an internship. If not, I can give you advice on what you can do to improve.”
And I actually really appreciated his honesty. He was straightforward and said, “Let’s just cut the bullshit. Tell me how your day was. Tell me how you feel.” And we just kind of talked through the experience. He told me that it’s either an internship or maybe it won’t work out, but, whatever happened he would personally contact me and give me advice as to what to do next. Three weeks later he gave me a call and told me, “You have an internship. I want you to learn from the team and become better. This is your job to lose.” That’s how he became my mentor and my internship at LinkedIn started.
Through my experiences at LinkedIn, often times I felt like I wasn’t achieving enough, felt beaten down by failures that you inevitably go through. I took that personally as I normally did, and he helped me rationalize my thoughts, made me think objectively. “Did you really do this? How can you improve? These are the right emotions that you’ve gone through. There’s no one to judge you but yourself.” He helped mentor me through my self-esteem and self-consciousness to see my successes and that failures aren’t truly failures. I’m incredibly grateful for that.
What are your biggest motivators? What drives you?
For a while I think I was lost. My biggest goal since I had moved was to come back to the Bay Area. So when I worked for LinkedIn, I had achieved my biggest goal, “I’m back in the San Francisco Bay Area, now what?” And for the longest time I was trying to figure out what’s next for me, my next milestones, and figuring out what I wanted to achieve. I know that I want to leave an impression somehow but how do I do it? I think that’s why I stayed at LinkedIn for a long time, because it was stable, and safe. Familiar.
I think I had finally reached a point at my job there where I felt like it wasn’t enough for me anymore and that I wasn’t growing as much as I wanted to and eventually I moved to my job now, at Airbnb.
For me, I think motivation is, always learning, always feeling challenged and most of all fulfilling my passions, doing things that make me happy and that I’m proud of. That’s what always keeps me going.
What do you think about the state of tech now, in 2016? What excites you? What frustrates you?
I think what we lack sometimes is humility and an awareness for everything but tech. I think taking your experiences in tech and applying it as a perspective and viewpoint to learn is great, but I don’t think that it should be your only perspective. I think both the design and tech scene gets caught up with itself and we forget a world outside of it exists.
I think we foster great opportunities for anyone and everyone and that we have become more self aware of things like diversity and equal opportunity, making it a progressive industry that will only continue forward.
How do you think that your background and life experiences impact the way that you approach your work today?
Thinking through my background and life lessons I have a couple of thoughts:
First—that we’re all imposters. I think we all feel like everyone else thinks we’re a better version of ourselves. I’ve learned to embrace my imposter, celebrate the achievements that make up the identity of my imposter because they are my own achievements.
Second, I’ve decided that perfection doesn’t exist, but I will always strive towards it. Thinking you’re perfect means that you’re accepting that you’ve reached the highest level anyone could ever achieve. That means you’re no longer open to learning and lack humility. I think that striving for perfection means that you’ll always be open to learning, to becoming better.
Lastly, I like to remind myself to do what I’m passionate about and that I’m doing this for myself and not for anyone else.
My last question to you would be, what advice would you give to people from similar backgrounds to you who are hoping to get into tech?
We all have our insecurities. I always think about whether I’ll make it or worry about taking risks and whether or not this is the right time or the right step.
I think my advice is to go for it. Just because you’re taking a risk doesn’t mean you’re going to lose it all. Learning from your failures gives you a better chance the next time you take the risk.
And as an imposter I worry about not having had a background in design and that someone will find me out. I moved to San Francisco just on an internship with LinkedIn, not even a full time job. If I hadn’t done that I don’t think I would have gotten to where I am now.
My advice would be that, take the risk, acknowledge your imposter, succeed from your failures, and do what you love.