My name is Jessica. I came into the tech world from astrophysics. I also write for a women in science blog. I have a (learning) disability and do advocacy work on issues of equity and inclusion for underrepresented people in STEM.
My name is Jessica. I came into the tech world from astrophysics. I also write for a women in science blog. I have a (learning) disability and do advocacy work on issues of equity and inclusion for underrepresented people in STEM.
Tell me a bit about your early years and where you come from.
I grew up in the Bay Area. I was born in Berkeley and lived here up until the end of high school. Growing up, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to study science or do something more artsy. I had an undiagnosed learning disability, and I struggled with some of my academic classes, but did better in theater, art, and music. Once I was diagnosed with a learning disability, and able to get accommodations, I started doing much better in my academic classes. My AP Physics teacher my senior year of high school encouraged me to pursue physics in college, and that was the first time a teacher had ever said to me: you have a talent, you should do this.
So my freshman year of college, I took an intro theater class and an intro physics class, and I said to myself, whichever one I do better at, that’s the universe telling me what I should major in. I got such a good grade in my physics that I didn’t need to take the final exam. And I got the worst grade of my college career in the theater class, which wasn’t that bad but… I thought, okay this is the universe telling me that I should study physics. I ended up majoring in physics and continued doing it all the way through my PhD.
I’m curious to know what it was like being a lady in astrophysics PhD academia.
There have been a lot of articles about being a woman in academic science in the press recently. I participated in a Twitter hashtag (#astroSH) that got press coverage. The hashtag was motivated by some of the high-profile cases of sexual harassment in academia.
It was challenging being in a male-dominated field. Physics is 85% male. There are many ways you are made to feel different. There are hard interactions with male colleagues. I tweeted about a bunch of different things that happened to me over the years that were hard. For instance a guy walking by my lab, and I was wearing dish gloves because I was washing some parts of my experiment, and he said, “That’s what women are good for, doing dishes in the kitchen.” And men repeatedly told me that I got to where I was because there was some quota that needed to be filled and they needed to have a certain number of women in a program. Men would frame interest in me as being about my research, but then once I was in a situation where I’m alone with them, it switches to being a date. It’s hard when you are constantly reminded of your gender, or made to feel really uncomfortable and sad about the fact that you thought something was professional attention but it was actually about your gender.
“Men repeatedly told me that I got to where I was because there was some quota that needed to be filled and they needed to have a certain number of women in a program.”
What was it like transitioning into tech and what was the impetus for that?
When I graduated from my PhD., I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I applied for a lot of different jobs. I applied for teaching positions, research positions, and I applied for jobs in industry. In the end of my search, I had a bunch of different opportunities. What attracted me to tech in particular that it felt like a good way to apply my technical skills but in a way that was more down to earth.
A lot of my astrophysics research work was very obscure and theoretical. It was hard for me to feel motivated when there were maybe ten people in the world who really understood what I did. Tech is also a more casual industry than finance or consulting. I felt like it would feel more culturally similar to academia. I’m from the Bay Area and there’s a lot of tech jobs here. It meant that I didn’t have to move. I did my PhD at Berkeley so I was back here again. Ultimately I thought “Well, let me try this out. It means I get to stay here, it means I get to try this new thing. If I really hate it I’ll re-apply for academic jobs again in a year.” But immediately, I enjoyed the work so much and realized this is a much better fit for me, in terms of the day-to-day, than academia.
What are the most exciting things to you about your work? What really activates you?
I’m a data scientist, and essentially what I do is work with a lot of different people within my company to help them make decisions and decide what action they should take, based on what’s going on with the data. I help my company understand how customers are behaving, where there are inefficiencies, where we’re losing people, or where we are most successful. It’s really fun, because I’m constantly working on different areas and different focuses. Sometimes I’ll be working with the marketing team. Sometimes I’ll be working with our technical team. Sometimes I’ll be working with product. I have a very broad scope.
People come to me with open-ended questions, and I get to define how we might get to an answer and ultimately help them make the decision they need to make. It’s a really creative process. I have a lot of freedom of how I’m going to approach the problems. Then it’s also very technical. There’s usually a lot of math and programming and visualizing data. Then there is also a communication piece, where I’m taking this complex set of data and trying to explain it to people who maybe aren’t as technical, and help them understand what the data means, and how they might take those insights and translate them into some action. It uses a whole bunch of different skills.
People are usually super grateful. Everyday people come to me with their problems, if can help them solve them, they’re really excited by that, and so it’s a very satisfying job. It’s not customer-facing. My clients are internal, and I like that a lot because the people who I help, are the people that I interact with every day. So I feel very valued within my company.
The work is always changing. I never do the same thing twice. One day I’ll be doing something for our CTO, then the next I’ll be working on something for our PR team. So, I’m constantly learning, constantly having to think of new ways to approach problems. It’s not boring or repetitive at all, which is really fun.
“Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the areas where I have privilege. I’m white, and so I don’t really understand what it’s like to be a person of color. How can I understand that experience more and advocate more for people of color in my community?”
When did you turn your attention to feminism and inclusion?
It’s been a long-standing interest of mine. When I was diagnosed with a learning disability in high school I became very interested in advocacy for people with disabilities, and I founded a group at Occidental College (where I went for undergrad) for students with disabilities. Our goals were to create awareness in our communities about what having a disability means, what it entails, and how everyone can be supportive in various learning environments. We also educated people with disabilities on how to advocate for themselves, and communicate their needs to others. Being part of that group was really great. It helped me think about not only my own disability, but other types of disabilities. There were people in that group that had physical disabilities, or mental health issues. It very much broadened my perspective and helped me understand the way that these disabilities impact people’s lives.
In graduate school, I ran a women’s group for physics, astronomy, and planetary science students. We focused a lot on the gender issues is those departments, most of which had less than 20% women in them. I started learning about things like unconscious bias, imposter syndrome, the wage gap, stereotype threat, and the leaky pipeline within STEM.
When I graduated from Cal, I was asked to be on the Committee for the Status of Women in Astronomy (CWSA), which is part of the American Astronomical Society, (astronomy’s big professional society). As a member of the CSWA, I started writing for their blog and and eventually became the editor-in-chief. Then I started talking about these issues and engaging with them with the entire astronomy community. When you write about things on the internet, especially feminism [chuckles], you get a lot of pushback. Having (mostly online) conversations with people who don’t necessarily believe the things that you’re talking about, or don’t think that there’s still discrimination this day and age, well it has really helped me tune my debating skills. It has also helped me to take an intersectional approach to feminism, and not just think about women’s issues but the intersection of race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, class, religion and try to understand how all these identities interplay with each other.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the areas where I have privilege. I’m white, and so I don’t really understand what it’s like to be a person of color. How can I understand that experience more and advocate more for people of color in my community?
“My disability affects my reading and writing. I have something similar to dyslexia. The way that I frame it is that the neural paths in my brain that connect and decode the words I see and assign meaning to them are really jumbled. So, for me, it takes a really long time to interpret written words or to express my thoughts in written words. I read at about the twentieth percentile in terms of speed. My intelligence is much higher than that, so there’s this mismatch in how I perform when doing timed reading tasks versus the level that my intelligence says I should be able to perform.”
What is it like being in tech with a learning disability? Does it affect you at all now? I’m also curious to know, in your work in the community, what issues you’ve seen with other folks with disabilities in Silicon Valley.
Having a learning disability hasn’t been something that has affected me as strongly in the working world, because I’m not often in scenarios where I’m being tested or asked to complete some task with a very fast timeline.
My disability affects my reading and writing. I have something similar to dyslexia. The way that I frame it is that the neural paths in my brain that connect and decode the words I see and assign meaning to them are really jumbled. So, for me, it takes a really long time to interpret written words or to express my thoughts in written words. I read at about the twentieth percentile in terms of speed. My intelligence is much higher than that, so there’s this mismatch in how I perform when doing timed reading tasks versus the level that my intelligence says I should be able to perform.
I have figured out a lot of work-arounds for that. Like if I have to read something, I always have my computer read it to me, because I can comprehend things I hear instantaneously, but reading involves me going back a few times before I can understand it as well. And similarly, when I write, usually the first draft has tons of grammatical errors and mixed up words. But if I have my computer speak it to me then I can easily fix those things. Now I just know if I have to read something or write something, it’s going to entail this extra process.
In the working world, it’s not that often that you’re handed something and have to read it in front of someone while they watch you, so people don’t really notice that it takes me longer to read and write. But it is something that I have talked to with my managers about and just said, “Hey, this is something that I struggle with. If there is ever a scenario where I’m going to need to perform something or need to read something kind of in the moment, it would be better for me to have it ahead of time. When there is a really important report that I’m going to have to get out, it would be great if you could look it over, because this is a thing I struggle with.” People have been really understanding and I think I’ve gotten better with my own work-a-rounds such that it doesn’t impact me as much as it did when I was in school.
In terms of general disability issues in the working world, there are certain accommodations that are required by the American disabilities act like having accessible bathrooms or having accommodations for people who struggle with mental heath issues.
Unfortunately, there doesn’t tend to be a lot of conversations about disabilities at a company wide level. Most people don’t even understand the scope of how disabilities affect people’s work. For instance there is somebody at my work who has fibromyalgia, and that means that sometimes he can’t physically be at work because he’s in a lot of pain.
Luckily our work is such that we can do a lot of it remotely and so he’s able to work that out with his manager. If he wakes up and he’s having a really bad day, then he’ll work from home. Yet that involves having to disclose this status to his manager, and some managers are more understanding than others. So one thing that I try to do (in conjunction with HR) at places I work is to increase understanding as a company about how disabilities affect people and the ways that they can be accommodating that aren’t going to negatively impact the performance of the company. I think there is a general concern: “Oh well, if I hire someone with a disability, that person is going to be less productive, or less valuable to the company.” Just helping people understand that is not the case, as long as you’re willing to be flexible and give accommodations which allow people to perform at their best.
“I think there is a general concern: ‘Oh well, if I hire someone with a disability, that person is going to be less productive, or less valuable to the company.’ Just helping people understand that is not the case, as long as you’re willing to be flexible and give accommodations which allow people to perform at their best.”
How have you observed the cultures of academia and tech? How are they similar, how are they different?
Both are places that have very intelligent, passionate, quirky people who are trying to do something that no one’s ever done before. People who are pushing the boundaries of what’s out there. In both places there is a lot of competition and other people attempting to you, or do the same thing.
I would say that one thing that has been very different about being in industry (versus academia) is that there are not as strong power dynamics. In academia, you have these tenured professors who are famous, and they can pretty much make or break your career. You’re very dependent, especially when you’re a student or a postdoc, on these people to write papers with you, giving you access to their grants, giving you access to their experiments, and their telescopes. If there’s some situation of abuse going on or you’re having a personality conflict with someone, it’s harder to survive that in the same way as you can in industry. In industry, especially in the tech industry, as a data scientist or a software engineer, I’m in high demand. If a company is not the right fit for you, or you clash with someone, then you can easily find something else, so there’s not as much pressure to make a situation work.
Because of these hierarchies of power in academia it’s a little bit trickier. One bad relationship with someone could mean you have to leave academia, or switch research areas entirely. I think there are also more protections in place at businesses. Ultimately HR wants to make sure that nobody sues each other, and so they try to proactively deal with any conflicts. Whereas in academia, if a student is having a problem, often the university is incentivized to just get rid of the student or hide. They aren’t incentivized to protect the student. Ultimately (right now at least) there is a lot more jobs available in tech versus academia. When I was applying for postdocs, I’d be lucky if I got one or two postdocs in the entire country. If those didn’t work out, then there wasn’t that many options for me. Whereas once you’re in the tech industry, you are constantly being approached by recruiters to join the next new hot startup, so you feel like, “Okay, I have a lot of options and I’m not stuck anywhere. I don’t have to put up with a bad situation.”
In general, has your life improved as a woman since you go into tech? It sounds like it.
For the most part it’s been night and day better. One start-up where I worked, I was the first woman on the engineering team and for about six months until we hired the second woman. They were amazing. I never felt like my gender had anything to do with why I was hired. I always felt like, “You were hired because you’re the most talented person that we interviewed, and we think you rock.” That was really, really great. But simultaneously they were very careful to make sure that I felt comfortable and not have it be this like bro-grammer environment. There were many times when they checked-in with me, saying, “Hey, was that okay? Do you feel uncomfortable?” They really were thoughtful about making sure that it was a good environment for me, and that was amazing.
In general, I’ve just always felt like being a woman on the technical teams has, if anything, helped me. The men have been extra supportive, I guess, because they recognize that I am one of a few women and they want to make sure that I feel okay and comfortable, and so I have felt that people have gone a little bit above and beyond to try to make me feel supported.
I have had some interesting experiences with companies where the general culture at the company has been a bit bro-y, and so while my direct team has been really supportive for the most part, I’ve had to deal with general company culture that was pretty hostile for women.
One company I was at we had this policy that you should lock your computer when you leave it unattended for security reasons. And as kind of a joke / punishment, if you ever came across a computer that was unlocked, then you could send a message to the all-company chat channel from that person’s account. These messages were usually funny or silly. So my first day at this job, I forgot to lock my computer because, you know, it was my first day, and I was still figuring it out… and someone not only posted on the all-company channel from my account. “It’s my first day and I’m already drunk. Oops.” which was kind of embarrassing, but then also sent a private message to a senior member of my group saying, “It’s only my first day. but I already want you.”
And he knew right away that it wasn’t me, but his response was, “Keep it in your pants, Kirkpatrick.” And ultimately, it was just a very weird, charged interaction to have with a teammate on your first day at a new job. And so my response was, “Okay, I guess this is what it’s going to be like here.”
And another thing that happened at that company was that in my first couple weeks I was being trained to interview people for the data team. My first phone interview that I was conducting by myself, I was in a conference room and facing towards a glass wall outwards to the rest of the company. One of my coworkers was trying to mess with me during the interview, to make me laugh, or whatever. At first, he walks by and he’s being a little silly, like walking funny. I was not responding because I was trying to focus on this interview. So he just kept escalating and escalating, and it got to the point where he was pretending to masturbate and ejaculate on the glass wall, and was pushing people up against the glass and humping them.
I came out of the interview, and said, “When I am interviewing someone, that’s me being a representative of our company to an outside person. What are you trying to do by making me distracted or feel weird during this interview? That’s really not okay. Not only is it unprofessional and disrespectful to this other person, it also makes our company look bad to this outside party.” He said, “Oh, lighten up. Come on.” I said, “I don’t want to see you pretend to masturbate. But this is not just about you and me, this is affecting someone else and my ability to judge this other person.” I got really mad.
“At first, he walks by and he’s being a little silly, like walking funny. I was not responding because I was trying to focus on this interview. So he just kept escalating and escalating, and it got to the point where he was pretending to masturbate and ejaculate on the glass wall, and was pushing people up against the glass and humping them.”
I’m curious to know what it’s like being a local and watching this whole ecosystem change over time. What are your feelings about being a local in the tech community?
I definitely have a lot of weird feelings about being one of those techies that a lot of local people are resentful of because of the ways that the tech industry is gentrifying San Francisco, raising the cost of everything and all of these inequities between how much tech people make and other people in the community make. I work in mid market, so I work right near the Tenderloin. And it makes me feel very uncomfortable going from Civic Centre/Bart Station where there are people living in the BART station, sleeping in puddles of their own urine. People who are incredibly sick – physically sick – and clearly need medical attention. I walk from there into this fancy building where there’s free food and alcohol, and we have all these amazing perks. The dichotomy of it is so striking.
And especially because I went into graduate school thinking I was going to be an educator, and so I never anticipated making the salaries that we make in the tech industry… It’s way more than I ever anticipated having. Way more than my family had when we were growing up. It’s uncomfortable for me to know, “I am the one percent” of the US that we’re all talking about, like I’m the people that the protesters of the Google buses are protesting.
“We’re not serving those populations. We’re just pushing them away, hiding them. That’s very uncomfortable for me. There’s a lot of decadence and extravagance in the tech industry that I don’t feel is deserved, and I feel weird taking part of.”
On the other hand, when I was growing up, you wouldn’t go to the Tenderloin. You just don’t go there, period. You wouldn’t ever go to certain areas of Oakland. And now it’s ok to walk around those neighborhoods, and you don’t have to constantly worry about safety. It’s nice to see these neighborhoods becoming less violent, but at the same time, poor people are being pushed out.
We’re not serving those populations. We’re just pushing them away, hiding them. That’s very uncomfortable for me. There’s a lot of decadence and extravagance in the tech industry that I don’t feel is deserved, and I feel weird taking part of. For instance, I once went to a holiday party, and it was like a scene out of a movie. Every hour new entertainment came out. We would have acrobats doing aerial performances, or people on stilts, or a marching band. It must have been a $200,000 party. It was open bar and there was a tattoo artist doing temporary tattoos and a photo-booth. I just kept thinking, “This is so over the top. Why are we spending ten grand on acrobats when we’re not even a profitable company.”
While I understand in order to retain talent, you need to keep your employees happy, I don’t know. I’m uncomfortable with a lot of the decadence and extravagance, especially for companies that are being funded by investor capital and are not profitable. I guess the bottom line is, I don’t know how I feel being part of it. I’m so grateful for my job and I’m so grateful that I am well-paid, but there’s something messed up about the fact that there are people who are so wealthy next to people who are so poor. We don’t have the services in SF to help the homeless people, yet we’re spending all this money on the app “Yo.”
“While I understand in order to retain talent, you need to keep your employees happy, I don’t know. I’m uncomfortable with a lot of the decadence and extravagance, especially for companies that are being funded by investor capital and are not profitable. I guess the bottom line is, I don’t know how I feel being part of it. I’m so grateful for my job and I’m so grateful that I am well-paid, but there’s something messed up about the fact that there are people who are so wealthy next to people who are so poor. We don’t have the services in SF to help the homeless people, yet we’re spending all this money on the app ‘Yo.”
My last question for you would be, as a local, as a woman, as someone with a disability, someone from your background, how would like to see tech do better, or how do you think tech can do better, in general?
In general, I would like the tech industry to focus more on things that are sustainable — not just because we have a million users and they’re going to see ads, and ad companies are going to pay for it — but actually fulfill a need where there is a clear way to monetize. I just think that there is this different set of standards for tech companies than there are for brick and mortar companies, and I don’t know why. I’ve intentionally chosen companies where it is clear how they are going to make money, and I think that they are addressing a need that is not being addressed in another way. So I would like more of a focus on that.
And then if we’re going to be bringing tech companies and putting them into poor communities, we need to to be also supporting the community, and finding a way to lift up those communities, so that we’re not just this negative impact that is causing gentrification and housing prices to go up, and increasing traffic, but also a good force within the community. I would like that to be more of the ethos of what we see ourselves trying to do in the Bay area, in San Francisco, and in Oakland, as companies are starting to move to Oakland. I don’t know the best way to do that, but I’d be happy with taking a pay decrease, or having less extravagant parties, and having more of that money go towards supporting our communities. We don’t need to have this dichotomy where everyone in the tech industry is driving Teslas but walking over homeless people on the way to work. I would like that to be more a part of our belief system as an industry.
“If we’re going to be bringing tech companies and putting them into poor communities, we need to to be also supporting the community, and finding a way to lift up those communities, so that we’re not just this negative impact that is causing gentrification and housing prices to go up, and increasing traffic, but also a good force within the community. I would like that to be more of the ethos of what we see ourselves trying to do in the Bay area, in San Francisco, and in Oakland, as companies are starting to move to Oakland. I don’t know the best way to do that, but I’d be happy with taking a pay decrease, or having less extravagant parties, and having more of that money go towards supporting our communities. We don’t need to have this dichotomy where everyone in the tech industry is driving Teslas but walking over homeless people on the way to work.”
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